Phill Jupitus: ‘Playing two parts is good fun, it keeps you on your toes’

Michelle Collins and Phill Jupitus in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. PIcture by Alastair Muir
Michelle Collins and Phill Jupitus in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. PIcture by Alastair Muir
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The producers of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are certainly making sure they get good value for money from Phill Jupitus.

Since 2009, when he took the role of Edna in Hairspray, the stand-up comic, actor and radio DJ has also been a regular in musicals.

But for this latest adaptation of the classic Ian Fleming book and 1968 film, Jupitus is playing both Lord Scrumptious and Baron Bomburst. And he’s part of a top-notch cast that also includes Jason Manford as Caractacus Potts, Michelle Collins as Baroness Bomburst and Martin Kemp as the Childcatcher.

But Phill admits he has never seen the film or read the book.

‘I knew a couple of the songs, I knew that Ian Fleming had written the source material and that Roald Dahl was involved in the film, I knew all of the sort of trivia points of it, but that was all with never having actually seen it.

‘Sometimes when you get a part like this, you think ‘‘I must have a look’’, but I thought ‘‘hang on, I’ve got the opportunity here with something that’s very well-known of coming to it quite fresh’’, so I deliberately didn’t watch it, and I still haven’t. Maybe I’ll treat myself to it when I finish the tour – then I’ll get the DVD out.’

I worked with Manford on The Producers last year. And obviously I knew him from the world of stand-up. Michelle – television legend, and Martin straddles lots of different worlds – I’ve got a real empathy with him, my life has been a bit of mash-up

Phill Jupitus

He does, however feel a sense of responsibility to those who know and love the source material.

‘I think it’s one of those ones where the parents and the grandparents have a clearer sense of it than the kids – this is a film that came out in the ’60s, so this is something that people have grown up with.

‘The longer people have had something in their lives, the stronger the connection they have to it. It’s weird, when you’re on Facebook and Twitter and you say I’m doing this, the response of people, they have a real affection and tie to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – it’s part of their growing up and that’s something you have to be careful with, so then the only thing you have is to be true to the story.’

He’s also looking forward to tackling two roles at once.

‘I’m trying to remember if I’ve done two roles before – I’ve done Hairspray where I was playing a woman so there’s a certain duality to that – you’re a woman by night and a man by day.

‘And then you’re playing a king (in Spamalot), and that’s a character I have no understanding of either, they’re always a long way from what I know – you know, crazed Nazi playwrights (in The Producers), oligarch corporate leader of a dying world (in Urinetown) – that’s where they get their money out of me.

‘Playing two parts is good fun though, it keeps you on your toes. In terms of the actual stage time it’s not as busy for me in act one as it is in act two, the fact that I’ve got to switch from the baron to Scrumptious and back to the baron. It stops you having a nap in the dressing room.’

He’s also enjoying working with this cast: ‘I worked with Manford on The Producers last year. And obviously I knew him from the world of stand-up. Michelle – television legend, and Martin straddles lots of different worlds – I’ve got a real empathy with him, my life has been a bit of mash-up.’

Yes, that’s one way of putting it. Since first getting on stage as a performance poet in the mid-80s, Jupitus’s career has followed a less-than conventional path.

‘What I like is quite often you don’t stop doing one thing, you just drift in to the new one. When I started doing radio (Phill’s was the first ever voice heard on 6Music), there was never a conscious decision to stop doing stand-up, but I was doing a breakfast show five days a week, so it sort of precluded doing stand up.

‘I drifted out of stand-up in 2002, and then drifted into acting. For your first job in a musical to be Edna in Hairspray, you’re hitting the ground running, so I’m always very grateful to the team at Hairspray for helping me through that.’

Phill also enjoys being part of a larger company, rather than the somewhat solitary life of the stand-up.

‘As a stand-up, as a performer on stage, you pick up bad habits, you’re your own director and scriptwriter, there’s no-one to argue with except yourself which explains I think a lot of the problems of stand-ups and their personalities we’ve seen over the years.

‘Then you go into theatre and there are dozens of you on tour. In the touring party of Chitty, there are about 50 people, plus the 20-30-40 people at each theatre, plus a dozen kids and the people looking after them, so you’re meeting 60 or so new people every two weeks, new people to get to know, and the ones you’re on tour with, it’s a very different world. Me and Manford like it.’

When he’s down this way Phill is also hoping to get back to one of his favourite shops, Pie and Vinyl in Southsea.

‘I absolutely love them,’ Phill enthuses.

‘There’s an app I’ve got on my phone called the Vinyl District, it’s basically the GPS in your phone, either the shops are registered with it, or there’s an algorithm, and it shows you all the record shops in relation to where you are.

‘I was on my way back from Bestival one year with Richard Sandling, I’d come over on the ferry and I wanted to avoid the early rush hour on the M25, so I thought I need to stooge around here for a couple of hours, and I thought: “Ah, record shops”.

‘I did a search, Pie and Vinyl came up and that ticked two big boxes in my life. It’s unique and different, the staff are lovely, the food’s great and they’ve got a good selection of music. What’s not to love?

‘Being down for two weeks means I’m going to head over from Southampton. I did say to them when I’m free I would come and do Record Store Day with them, but when am I free? It’s about five years since I made that offer now. I think this year, I’ll be in Southend or something.’

Phill has often been seen wearing his Pie and Vinyl T-shirt, most notably on the recently finished TV music quiz Nevermind The Buzzcocks, where he was the only team captain to feature in all 18 years of its run.

However, should it all come to an end in showbiz, Phill reckons he could always turn his hand to working in a record shop.

‘It’s like when I’m tour, gigging and I’m in Cardiff, I always go to Spillers, I drop them an email and ask if I can work there for the day. I did it initially just so I could say I’d worked in a record store.

‘It’s sort of still the dream.

‘The brutal thing about showbiz, it’s this incredibly intense life that stops. It doesn’t just peter out, it’s just no-one wants you anymore. You’re not young, you don’t fit, you’re not what they want any more, And that’s why there’s always time for me to work in a record shop.

‘As long as people remember it’s not just about buying records, it’s about buying them from shops and standing there next to someone with questionable personal hygiene, flicking through the racks. That’s the joy of buying vinyl.’

Unsurprisingly given his passion for music, singing is another of Phill’s loves – he has performed with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and with The Blockheads.

‘Singing’s good for the soul. Like any outward art form, it’s why they used to make kids sing hymns at school in the morning. It would seem boring, but it’s like doing a warm up for the day.

‘When you all sing together, it’s actually good for you. I used to like singing at school. And what’s wrong with that? Take All Things Bright And Beautiful. Much as I’m a colossal atheist, it’s a good tune, and the idea behind it, forget no-one made them and that they just came about through a massive accident of chemistry – it’s a great song.’

From there Jupitus is off on a tangent about the relationship between showbusiness and religion, a subject he admits to finding fascinating.

‘Religion is showbusiness - great songs, amazing sets. Have you been in Canterbury Cathedral? And stained glass windows, terrific lighting. And we’re all in a musical when we’re in church – you’re all in the chorus, and that’s how it works.

‘There was this American stand-up – I can’t remember his name and it’s going to drive me nuts – he said there’s that thing that you have to respect someone’s religious beliefs. And he went: “But you don’t you have to acknowledge them”, and that’s a very different thing. I acknowledge that people have different beliefs.’

While he says his mum ‘isn’t a Dawkins or anything’, it was her questioning of religion that led him to his own conclusions – he was six.

‘You understand the brilliant thing about humanity, about people, is imagination. It’s boundless, it’s literally without limit, and the result of that imagination has been both magnificent and horrifying in equal measure.’

And bringing it nicely back to musicals, he adds: ‘But at the end of Spamalot, it’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life – people are great and funny and intelligent and talented, and people are doing musicals and having a laugh and being kind to people, that’s the key.’

He’s hoping his mum and step-dad will be able to come and see him in Chitty. But even now they still expect him to get a ‘proper’ job.

‘They find it quite extraordinary. There was no indication that I would pursue this as a job.

‘My mum still has this thing after they’ve seen me on stage: “When are you going to get a proper job?’’

‘No matter what I’ve done, it’s: “That was very good dear, but think about your future.”

‘I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and she’s still like that.

‘I was in the civil service – a job for life. But at my last job assessment, the guy said: “This isn’t really you is it?”

‘Never a truer word has been said by a civil servant.’

n Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is at Mayflower Theatre in Southampton from now until Sunday, February 21. Tickets cost £15-£49.

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