Room 101 may be the place for all your pet hates, but its BBC presenter, Nick Hancock, is on much happier ground when he brings the brand new play Octopus Soup to the Devonshire Park Theatre next week.
Intrigued, I’ve tracked down Nick ahead of his arrival in Eastbourne. The interview gets off to an utterly false start, and the interviewer is to blame. I happen to know that Nick Hancock is a long-standing football enthusiast and long-suffering Stoke City fan. No prospect of a City promotion, I venture? “Not this season, I’m afraid, but we do have a bright young manager in Nathan Jones (the former Albion coach) so it shouldn’t be long!”
Warming to the theme, we veer even further off track. “Actually,” recalls Mr H, “didn’t your Eastbourne Borough lot play at the Britannia Stadium – Stoke City’s ground – a few years ago?” This is remarkable. Yes indeed, I confirm, the Borough did travel up for a North-South play-off final more than ten years ago. “That’s right – against Altrincham. I’m sure I was there – I get to the Britannia as often as I can!”
Mr Hancock, you may have the freedom of Priory Lane. “We have a Saturday matinee, or else I’d have gladly popped in…. And don’t worry – nearly all of my interviews finish up not talking about what we’re supposed to be discussing.”
Swerving back on to topic: you’ll know Nick Hancock’s name, but possibly not in an acting context. Nick has enjoyed a sparkling career as a witty and engaging television presenter and panellist. He originated, and for several years fronted, the hugely successful Room 101, coaxing famous people, from Spike Milligan to Boris Johnson, into telling us what they dislike most and would gladly banish to that Orwellian half-world.
“Room 101 has always been hugely enjoyable, a bit mischievous and a nicely alternative view. It was an idea with legs, and it has always tapped into that aspect of people’s thinking. On one hand we all enjoy Desert Island Discs, which is I think the longest running radio show ever, but actually that’s very un-British. The British like to slag things off, and Room 101 gave them the opportunity!
“The producers actually did get me into the hot seat once – when after several years I was passing on the mic, I did the very first show of Paul Merton’s series when he took over. Don’t ask me what I sent to 101 – I’m not sure I still remember!”
The Octopus Soup production sees Nick acting rather than presenting. So is live theatre new territory for him? “It is a kind of new venture, this one. I have lots of success with An Evening with Gary Lineker in the the West End some years ago, and my performing career did begin with the Cambridge Footlights. but otherwise I’ve not often been on stage and in role.”
Coming to the theatre sideways, so to speak, rather than living a whole life immersed in theatre, can have its advantages. “I have done plenty of things at a theatrical tangent. I took on this production as a project – I know the writers Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson, and it sounded like a lot of fun. The play has been a little while in development, between writers and producer and director, but it’s matured nicely.
“It is set in the modern world, and in a galaxy not very far away but not unlike here. Octopus Soup is not quite a Feydeau farce but in similar tradition. Huge convoluted set-ups, massive misunderstandings, trousers coming off – all the ingredients. It makes no great portentous statement, but it’s a lovely piece of frothy entertainment!”
Now, titles can be misleading: I’m not sure there is any Soup served on set, but there is definitely an Octopus? “Oh yes, absolutely – hinted at, referred to, and then gloriously on stage, and he has a name! Terry the Octopus. Break a leg takes on a whole new meaning when you have eight.”
So Nick, is this a whole new, re-invented career? Is there a Nick Hancock Lear just waiting on a director’s phone call, or a bit of Pinter? “Ha! As it happens I did audition for the RSC, very many years ago, but I didn’t get in. And my creative life took different directions since then.
“I really enjoy the excitement of a new play. It’s full of risk and full of potential. Octopus Soup has got my own creative juices going again, too, so I’m thinking about writing something myself. But meanwhile the whole experience is great: the cast and crew are lovely, and I’m enjoying the whole teamwork aspect.
“We started from the Belgrade in Coventry, and now we are travelling round the country and I love the prospect of a new venue. The Devonshire Park has a wonderful reputation as a proper tradition theatre and a welcoming audience, so I can’t wait to meet you all!”
Octopus Soup is at the Devonshire Park Theatre until Saturday March 30. Performances Tuesday to Saturday at 7.45pm, with matinees at 2.30pm on Wednesday and Saturday. By Kevin Anderson.