The co-creator of Early Doors with his lifelong friend Phil Mealey, he admits to being apprehensive about touring for the first time with a live stage version of the hugely loved comedy about the regulars who congregate in the same Stockport pub every night.
Craig, who has also helped to create such popular sitcoms as The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and Mrs Merton and Malcolm, confesses: “I’ve never done theatre before. I’ve only performed live once, when I did a five-minute Royle Family charity sketch with Sue Johnston at the Old Vic. So the live tour of Early Doors is a whole new experience for me.”
Phil has just as many butterflies. “I’m nervous about it,” he acknowledges. “The last time I was on stage was when I played the Third Shepherd in the Nativity Play!
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“Craig and I have never performed to an audience before. It will be daunting. If a bit we think is funny doesn’t get a laugh, we’ll think, ‘What have we done wrong?’ So Craig and I are relying on the cast to drag us through it.”
However, Craig reveals that in the run-up to the tour, they received encouragement from one of the nation’s favourite live performers. “A while ago when we first started writing Early Doors Live, I was talking about it to Peter Kay, I was a little apprehensive not having done live stuff before. He was always very supportive of the TV show, back when we did it, sending lovely messages when it aired. He actually came in when we were first putting the set up. We were writing graffiti on the toilet walls and he wrote in the gents above the urinals – ‘Susan, if you are reading this - it’s over.’ It’s still there.
“He was really pleased to hear we were doing the live show. I said, ‘But I’m really nervous about going on stage.’ ‘You’ll love it,’ he replied, ‘Once you walk out there and feel the love from the audience, you won’t want to do anything else.’
The tour is now at the end of a three-week sold out run at Salford’s Lowry Theatre, to be followed by a 12 date UK tour, beginning in Glasgow on Monday.
The show generated enormously favourable reviews when it ran for two series on BBC2 between 2003 and 2004. The Mail on Sunday said that Early Doors was: “As faultless a piece of situation comedy as you will ever find”.
The show remains widely adored. It paints a laugh-out-loud-funny, and yet often affecting picture of the misfits who gather in The Grapes with very predictable regularity. You can set your watch by the time they pitch up every evening.
In the live show, the action revolves round Ken (played by the marvellous John Henshaw), the long-suffering and warm- hearted landlord who has long carried a torch for his barmaid, Tanya (Susan Cookson).
Ken’s regulars include: the sardonic Joe (Craig) and his philandering friend Duffy (Phil); the miserable Old Tommy (Nick Birkinshaw), who suffers from a bad case of IBS (Irritable Bugger’s Syndrome); Tanya’s friend Debbie (Lisa Millett), who leaves her kids in the car outside while she pops in for a quick half of cider; and the pub’s cleaner, Winnie (Joan Kempson).
They are joined by Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wight), a couple of extremely lazy coppers who always have some dubious scam on the go. As they settle in for the first of a succession of free pints at The Grapes, they tut that, “Crime won’t crack itself.”
Craig, now 57, outlines the plot of the live show, “It’s as if it’s a continuation of the TV series. All the regulars are still in The Grapes and their lives are going on.
“There are a few surprises, but obviously I can’t tell you about them or they wouldn’t be surprises anymore! All I can tell you is that it centres on a romance and a bromance. Ultimately, as Cilla would have put it, it’s going to be a lorra, lorra laughs.”
Phil almost whistles in astonishment as he says: “We booked in for three weeks at the Lowry, and it sold out immediately. We were amazed.”
“It shows there is still a great affection and a great demand for Early Doors,” adds Phil. “A lot of people feel it’s like their little secret. It’s like when you think, ‘I love the fact I know this band and no one else does.’ It seems as if the show has only got more popular as time has gone on.
“I have people coming up to me all the time talking about it. It’s one of those programmes people buy on DVD and watch again and again. They keep watching it because when they’re laughing at one thing, they miss something else. There seems to be a groundswell of love for it.”
Craig and Phil are clearly tapping into a reservoir of affection for Early Doors, which gains added comic intensity from the fact that it never leaves the pub premises. “It felt like a good time to do it,” Craig observes. “After years of wading through TV treacle, waiting around for months on end for answers, we thought we’d try something different.
“I’m really excited about it because we are finally meeting our audience. There will be a real connection and an immediate reaction to the live show, which you don’t get on TV. When the tour started to sell out so quickly, we thought, ‘Wow, they remember us!’ We’re all thrilled about doing this show.”
The pair, lifelong friends who first met as 15-year-old schoolboys, have certainly had a terrific time preparing for this show.
According to Craig: “It has been a very enjoyable experience. We have worked long and hard on it. Some of the best nights I’ve ever had have been at the theatre. I remember coming out of a production of The Producers and going home buzzing – ‘Wow, that was a great night out. It was such a laugh’.
“I hope that people feel the same after spending the evening with us. The good thing about going to the theatre is that, unlike watching TV, you don’t have any other distractions. I think that Early Doors will be a great night out.”
Phil adds: “We are delighted because we’ve done something we always wanted to do but couldn’t be bothered to do because we’re procrastinators. If you looked up the word ‘procrastinators’ in the dictionary, it would say, ‘Phil and Craig!”
The live show will appeal to a very wide range of people because it’s a stand-alone story that doesn’t require prior knowledge of Early Doors.
Craig explains: “There’s something in it for everyone. People who have seen it before will love it and won’t be disappointed at all. And people who haven’t seen before will also really enjoy it. There is lot to latch onto. It’s pitched for everyone, young and old. Our jokes are certainly old!”
Phil weighs in with another reason why audiences will have a rattling good night out at Early Doors. “The whole story is brand-new. You see a lot of other TV comedy shows transfer to the stage and they just cobble together their best bits from the series. This is something completely new. We are dead pleased with this show. Doing a play is a whole new chapter. This is how Shakespeare started. Of course, we’re just like Shakespeare!”
So, 14 years after it last appeared on our screens, why does Early Doors remain so popular? “People love the characters.”
Craig asserts. “They can identify with them all. There is a miserable old sod like Tommy in every pub.
“People think it’s them we’re showing in Early Doors. They come up to me and say, ‘Did you know such and such a person?’ ‘No, we made it up!’ But it’s really good that audiences feel they know these characters and can identify with them and appreciate them. It means we’ve hit on something. That’s lovely.”
In addition, a pub is an excellent setting for comedy – all human life passes through its doors. Craig says: “A pub is what they call on TV a good ‘precinct’. It’s a great place to set a comedy or drama. It’s no surprise that The Rovers Return and The Queen Vic are so central to the soaps.”
All the same, Craig carries on. “Early Doors is about much more than just a pub. I would hate people to think that it’s just about a gritty northern spit-and-sawdust pub. It’s aboutfriendship, romance and bromance.”
People also warm to the old-fashioned charm and simplicity of The Grapes. “There’s a huge nostalgic element to Early Doors because pubs like The Grapes are a dying breed,” muses Craig, who has also directed such sitcoms as The Cafe, Rovers and After Hours.
“They are a great centre of conversation and community, but they are being replaced by more modern pubs. People still love those pubs where the regulars just sit around chatting. There are no mobiles, and they just have each other for company. There is a hankering after those days. So if you can’t find a pub like The Grapes near you, come and see it on stage instead.”
Craig and Phil are among those who yearn for those simpler times.
Phil, who with Craig co-wrote Sunshine, the successful Steve Coogan drama, sighs that, “These days you have to spend five minutes in a pub just reading the list of different crisps on offer. Plain, cheese and onion and salt and vinegar – that’s all anyone needs. No one needs pizza and jelly flavoured crisps. Gary Lineker has a lot to answer for. He should have stuck to playing football.”
Craig enthusiastically takes up the theme. “I don’t like food being served in pubs – that’s not what pubs are for, is it? I also hate the fact that there is so much choice in pubs nowadays.
“You go up to the bar and ask for a pint of lager and they say, ‘Which one?’ There is a choice of six. I only need one. “Young people will watch Early Doors and think it’s a history lesson.
‘What’s all this? Why is there only one lager?’”
Much of the brilliance of Early Doors derives from the really strong relationship between Craig and Phil. Why do they think it works so well?
Phil reckons: “It’s because we were friends first – although that sounds like we’re married!
“We have both had the same experiences in life. We had the same grounding. We live five minutes from each other. We’re mates because we make each other laugh and have similar values. Being with Craig is like being able to look in the mirror and see someone with slightly thinner hair than me. I’ll keep doing that until I lose my hair. Then I’ll say, ‘You’re all right mate I’m off!’.”
Our chat closes with them inviting me to come backstage for a drink after a show. Craig says: “We’ll give a choice of three drinks: mild, bitter or lager.”
But, Phil chips in, “I have to warn you that if you order a packet of roadkill crisps with your drink, we’ll have to chuck you out of the bar!”
- Early Doors, Blackpool Opera House, October 3, tickets from www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk