Edinburgh Festival '99: The outward bounder

With his Fringe debut, Leslie Phillips, our Greatest Living Smoothie, is extending his acting range yet again

Hello. It is the simplest of words, but people just can't get enough of Leslie Phillips saying it. They come up to him on the Tube and ask him to say it, and he gets numerous requests to record it on answerphone messages. "I did it for one chap I know who ran an antiques shop," Phillips recalls. "Apparently, it revolutionised his business. I could actually make a living out of it."

The lascivious way Phillips says "Hello" epitomises the actor's enduring appeal. He is our Greatest Living Smoothie, the embodiment of all we hold dear about the charming cad. Thanks to all those endlessly repeated Doctor and Carry On films, he has been saddled with the image of the mischievous rake. Try as he might, he can't escape being pigeonholed as the ultimate moustache-twirling playboy - all cravat and convertible sports car - who is never more than a nudge or a wink away from the next double entendre. No one has ever injected such apparently harmless phrases as "ding-dong" or "left hand down a bit" with more unwarranted innuendo.

In his shady west London garden, we chat over the coffee which he has spent fifteen minutes lovingly preparing - "French Roast. Good, isn't it?" Sweeping back his still luxuriant, sandy hair, he ponders why the louche image has stuck. He thinks it has something to do with his naturally suggestive voice.

"That cad figure was a loveable bastard, wasn't he? I still get admiration from both sexes. Just yesterday, a woman with a pushchair stopped me outside my house and said, "My mum and I have always watched everything you do. We think you've got the most beautiful voice. It's something we love to listen to." I don't know where my voice came from - I was born in Cockneyland (Tottenham, to be precise) - but it is my most useful asset. If I ring a bank or an insurance company, I don't have to say who I am; they always recognise me instantly. I can get that special quality into any word. It doesn't have to be `hello'. I can do it with `goodbye' too."

Now aged 75, Phillips still looks the part of the roue - the moustache is beautifully manicured, the buckles on the suede shoes are polished to a high sheen, and three buttons of the snazzy striped shirt are undone, revealing two glinting gold necklaces nestling in lush chest hair. But he is tired of playing the role of the nation's favourite Lothario, cultivated in such deathless works as Not Now Darling, Don't Just Lie There, Say Something! and Casanova 73.

For the past quarter of the century, he has been desperately trying to shed the tag of a lightweight lecher not safe beside a woman on a sofa. "That MG-driving image has stuck because it's been exploited around the world - I've made more movies than anyone else in Britain, you know. If I hadn't been able to bridge that gap, it would have concerned me. It did worry me 25 years ago when I was longing to play serious roles and the cad roles still dominated. After I'd made the switch - the first positive decision of my life - there was a lean period to begin with. Directors only wanted me to do the old stuff, and my bank manager got worried. But when I finally broke through into more serious drama, it was electric. Everyone said to me, `I didn't know you could do all that'."

He has now well and truly proved that he can. Over the past two decades, Phillips has notched up roles in such substantial films as Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun and Anthony Hopkins' August. He has also appeared in meaty theatre productions such as The Cherry Orchard, Passion Play, Camino Real and Love for Love. Two years ago, he gave an acclaimed Falstaff in the RSC's Merry Wives of Windsor.

Now he can add to that list On the Whole It's Been Jolly Good. Peter Tinniswood, who won a Fringe First last year with The Last Obit, has penned this touching one-man play about Sir Plympton Makepeace, an MP unceremoniously booted out of the House of Commons after 60 years of undistinguished service. In a bravura solo performance, Sir Plympton surveys the futile decades he has passed on the back benches, most of which now seem a bit hazy. "That woman with the loud voice," he muses. "I think she was Prime Minister, but to me she looked like a power-mad swimming baths attendant."

Phillips says he warmed to Sir Plympton's attitude towards his job. "This is a man who became a politician almost by accident. He never really wanted to be one. Although he's been in politics for 60 years, he's avoided it very cleverly. If he'd been as clever doing it as not doing it, he could have been Prime Minister." The actor clearly relishes the role: "All I've got to do is remember the bloody thing." Not only is Phillips undertaking the memory test of an hour-long, one-man show when he is ten years past collecting his bus pass, but he is doing so under the unforgiving critical microscope of the Edinburgh Fringe. As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, it's his Fringe debut, too.

"It's demanding and daunting," Phillips says with a laugh which betrays fear as much as humour. "I'm not exactly 25 anymore. Recently I've been saying to myself, `Why the hell did I agree to do this?' At the same time, I think, `If I can do this, I can do anything.' As one gets older, one thinks one should go easy, but I still can't resist these challenges. We're not talking about contributing to the pension fund here, but contributing artistically by doing something daring."

Phillips makes for engaging company. He may suffer from a severe dose of anecdote-itis and he is barely on first-name terms with modesty, but he simply enthuses all those he meets with his sheer lust for life.

He chortles wickedly when informed that many see him as a national institution. Then, more sombrely, he reflects: "Every few days someone I know dies, and that affects me. I see their obituaries and often think, `What will they write about me?' I bet they'll concentrate on the early Carry Ons. I've broken away from that sphere, butthey're always on bloody TV. Somewhere in the world, I'm on every night."

For all that, Phillips has no intention of stopping. Indeed, he has recently been working opposite Brenda Blethyn on a film called Saving Grace, and is hoping Anthony Hopkins will fulfil a promise to direct him as King Lear. Meanwhile he is restoring a 200-year-old farmhouse in Spain.

"I've kept working for an inordinate length," he smiles. "I don't think there's anyone else of my age still going who's got their marbles. But retirement is not a word that comes into one's vocabulary. Old actors are like soldiers: they die in action."

So he won't be practising saying "goodbye" for a while yet.

"On the Whole It's Been Jolly Good" is at The Pleasance (0131 556 6550) until 30 Aug

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible