Russ Abbot isn’t often speechless – he’s talked down hecklers in working men’s clubs in mining towns, held a primetime light entertainment show together and played two of the West End’s biggest showstoppers in Fagin and Alfred Doolittle. You don’t get to do that if you’re frequently tongue-tied. But right now he literally can’t find any words to say.
I’ve just mentioned Nick Helm, a fast-rising young stand-up who delivers a chaotic explosion of noise and mess and has been nominated for almost every comedy award going.
Describing his own show, Helm told a journalist, ‘It’s a light entertainment show, only modernised. It’s Russ Abbot with a gun and a bottle of pills.’
Abbot is stunned and clearly deeply touched. ‘I mean, I’m delighted to be remembered,’ he says finally. ‘The idea that I’ve played just the smallest part in inspiring the young…’ and he trails off. ‘Did he really say that?’
Russ Abbot's Madhouse
For most of the nation the answer is obvious – yes, of course he did, Russ, and why wouldn’t he? Russ was a giant of Eighties primetime TV, Russ Abbot’s Madhouse and The Russ Abbot Show drew chortling viewers in their millions.
With characters from the brawling, Glaswegian nutter CU Jimmy to the suave bumbling of Basildon Bond, a pastiche of James Bond, he’s clearly inspired considerably more comics than just Helm – Rab C Nesbitt and Johnny English, anyone? But this self-effacing, all-round nice guy doesn’t give himself that much credit for any of the extraordinary achievements of his 50 years in showbusiness.
His career in comedy? Accident. ‘In the Sixties I was in a pop band, The Black Abbots, which wasn’t having any hits. We could earn a living in working men’s clubs but they wanted a bit of comedy with the cover versions and I was the front man, so I had to be funny.’
The legendary CU Jimmy? Luck. ‘I was in make-up in the kilt and braces while the impressionist Dustin Gee was doing David Bowie. News came through that Bowie had changed his image again, so suddenly there’s a spare orange wig in the room. I put it on and it fitted the character completely. It’s actually still got Dustin’s name on the inside.’
His chart-topping Eighties pop career? He has no idea. ‘Someone asked me to sing Atmosphere – suddenly I’ve got a mega album.’
He’s back on primetime TV, starring in the BBC’s Boomers, a new sitcom about three retired couples who ‘met on holiday years ago and now find they can’t get rid of each other,’ Abbot explains.
Despite the laughs, it’s a serious role. Russ’s character John is a retired Jack-the-Lad plumber who’s married to Maureen, played by Stephanie Beacham. The duo are joined by Alison Steadman, June Whitfield, Paula Wilcox, Philip Jackson and James Smith in a touching script about the reverberating shock waves when one of the couples splits up.
Russ has some big laugh scenes. When I visited the set he was corpsing like crazy with Philip and James as they pushed a wheelchair around on a big day out. But he also has intense dramatic moments. His performance is impressive, especially as he has had no formal acting training.
‘The others make it easy for me. Stephanie’s a very good actress – and she’s a glamorous lady, very attractive,’ he grins wickedly.
‘I mean, I think I’m quite handsome as well, so we suit each other. And June… June is remarkable. Her brainpower, her wit and style of acting; she’s had so much experience, and is so gifted. I’d think myself lucky if I could get to 88, be that good and still be working.’
Last of the Summer Wine
He’s worked with June before – during his three years in Last of the Summer Wine playing Luther ‘Hobbo’ Hobdyke, alongside Burt Kwouk’s Entwistle and Brian Murphy’s Alvin. ‘It was a great show. Peter Sallis used to say it was like National Service: everyone had to serve some time in it. It was very sad when the BBC cancelled it. The ratings were good. They even went up when I joined.’ He flashes a quick grin.
‘They wanted younger viewers or some such. I don’t understand that decision. Look at the figures. After 9pm, TVs biggest audience is the over-50s. I mean, that’s why this show’s going to work. In a way, you could see the way the three lads play together as being the new Summer Wine.’
Which is why this isn’t really a comeback. Russ Abbot hasn’t been so long away. However, Boomers marks his return to mainstream comedy. ‘I never wanted to leave. It’s just that the right vehicle never came along,’ he explains. ‘I’m not mad keen on Daleks or bad singers crooning. I am thrilled to be back, playing my age in a role I can relate to.’
Russ Abbot is 67. ‘I actually feel a lot younger,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Do you think I could pass myself off as 60? At least knock two or three years off?’ I tell him 60 easily, possibly even late-fifties in a good light. He snorts. ‘It’s breeding, dear boy, breeding and upbringing.
A big family
‘I was from a big family. I had five brothers, so there were six boys in the house. seven with my dad – the toilet seat was never down,’ he laughs. Back then he was plain old Russell Roberts, Abbot being his stage name.
Life in the Roberts household, up in Chester, was sometimes tough. ‘My mum had to cope with all that and scrimp and scrape. It was just after rationing, so you grew up more responsible, I think. It definitely made me a responsible parent…’ he tails off.
‘Saying that, I’ve spoilt my children rotten. You think, “Okay, I want them to have everything I didn’t have”, instead of shared clothes and shared bicycles.’
He’s very close to his four kids. ‘They have an umbilical cord to the wallet,’ he laughs. ‘And I have the joy of grandchildren, but at least you can give them back.’ He was taking them off to see the band Coldplay the following week.
He’s clearly a proud father, although, being old school, he won’t sing his kids’ praises too effusively. ‘Yes, they mainly stayed out of trouble. At least they’ve never broken the law. Although,’ he says darkly, ‘there have been a few things we’ve had to sort out.’
Does that mean he still worries? ‘Of course!’ he throws his hands up. ‘About everything. I worry about everything all the time. Even after all these years, I worry about the child standing too close to the edge of the railway platform. I can’t help it.’
Age, however, has taken the edge off his worry, he admits. ‘You slow down, in the sense that you think, “Just a minute…”,’ he says thoughtfully.
‘I got up and had a nice breakfast this morning. I had a comfortable drive, so I’m relaxed to talk to you. I don’t feel any stress. I holiday at the right times, play golf when I want. So, it’s the pace of life really, and then you think to yourself at the end of the day, “Right, I’ve earned a glass of wine now”.’
He’s clearly loving his current life stage and you can see why – the roles are getting better and better. The phone’s ringing quite often and, although he has no plans to retire, he relishes the freedom of being able to say no. Perhaps he’s luxuriating in all of this because he saw his parents miss out.
‘Sadly, my father didn’t get past 60,’ he says quietly. ‘My mum did, but she wasn’t well, really. I’d left home and I married Trish young, at 19, so I’d started my own life. I do sometimes think it’s sad they never got to enjoy the time when you can relax and properly have some fun.’
Playing the drums
As a result, he’s tried to live so that he doesn’t have many regrets. But as a kid he dreamed of being a drummer and he does wish The Black Abbots had been more successful.
‘I still enjoy drumming now, and I wouldn’t give that up for the world,’ he says. ‘I’ve got an electric kit at home that I practise on. I’ve still got two of my old kits in storage and I’m even tempted to put a nice blues band together, because I love blues. I love laying it down.
‘I’m big pals with John Lodge from The Moody Blues and we always keep saying that we’re going to maybe put a variety club band together and then try to do some charity gigs.’
The last time he drummed was at The Russ Abbot Golf Classic, the charity tournament he hosts every May – with great friend Bruce Forsyth, Jimmy Tarbuck, Ronnie Corbett and co out on the fairway raising money for the Variety Club Sunshine Coach Appeal.
Bruce had been on the phone earlier, joshing with him about our photo-shoot and asking what he was going to do (Bruce’s ‘prop’ had been a top hat and cane, and he’d danced his way through the photo-shoot he did with Saga Magazine). In turn, we’d asked for CU Jimmy’s wig to come out once more and Russ had obligingly retrieved it from a trunk in the garage, where it had lain untouched for years.
Content with life
Though he didn’t want to ‘go back there’ and wear it for his portrait, he popped it on for fun, and turned instantly into the virtually unintelligible, ranting Scotsman, reducing our photographer to helpless hysterics.
Is not being more successful with The Black Abbots his only regret? He picks up the orange wig and twirls it around. ‘I regret I’ve kept this in the garage all these years,’ he muses. ‘I’m going to put it in one of my cabinets when I get home.’
Seriously, Russ – no professional regrets? He shakes his head. ‘I’ve always looked at everything from a common-sense angle, so there’s never been any jealousy,’ he explains.
‘Some people have made it huge. Like, I’ve never been in the movies, but I’ve got no grief over that. I mean – look at my life! I came out of all that and now I’ve got all this!’ He waves his hands around, indicating the lights, the studio, the suits, the wig, the career and the comfort, and a driver waiting outside.
‘I mean, look at it all! Everything is a bonus.’
Keep up with what Russ is doing on his official fan site
This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month