There was a time in the Seventies when 20 million people regularly sat down to dinner with Brian Murphy in Man about the House. They then moved to his sofa in the Eighties as his legendary cohort Yootha Joyce threatened him with see-through nighties in George and Mildred.
Few remember Brian Murphy, the stage actor, who joined Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in 1955 and created roles in productions like Oh What a Lovely War and Stephen Lewis's Sparrers Can't Sing. "I had 20 years of theatre experience before George Roper," says Murphy. As if to prove this strange notion that George Roper could possibly have been anything else, Jonathan Kent has cast Murphy in John Byrne's new version of Gogol's 1836 masterpiece, The Government Inspector, at London's Almeida theatre.
Murphy plays Ossip, the crusty retainer to a surly young clerk who is mistaken for a government tax inspector and duly bankrolled by the corrupt occupants of a nasty provincial town. You can see instantly why it's beloved in Britain. Perhaps not for much longer. Byrne, the writer who gave us The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti, puts a Glaswegian spin on Gogol's tale that resonates noisily with Scotland's recent "independence" and the traditional parochialism with which Londoners regard anyone north of Watford.
Ossip and his opportunistic master Khlestakov (Tom Hollander) are Londoners. "It adds a `them and us' richness to the piece to have all the characters speaking broad Scots except me and Tom speaking cockney," says Murphy.
You don't have to look far to see why Murphy's wiry, grizzled frame is still sought after by comedy producers and farceurs like Ray Cooney. His is a dying breed. Despite his 63 years, rheumy blue eyes and mottled complexion, Murphy is still clearly enthused by his craft. What's also clear is Murphy's liking for Gogol's satire. This is his third tilt at The Government Inspector in exactly the same role. His first Ossip was with his Man about the House stablemate Richard O'Sullivan at the Oxford Playhouse in the Seventies. "Richard asked me to do it to hold his hand. He hadn't been on stage since he was a child."
Ten years later, Anthony Quail's company, Compass, asked Murphy to do it again. "Then, out of the blue, Jonathan Kent asked me if I wanted to do the part with Tom Hollander here," concludes Murphy.
Murphy was never destined to land the role of "inspector" himself. Despite a career that spans 40 years, it's hard to imagine that this comedic institution ever had a youth. Most people think he was born middle-aged. "It's true," concedes Murphy. "When I joined Joan in 1955 she kept on casting me to play these funny old men. I was young and not obviously good-looking so it fell to my lot to impersonate old codgers," says Murphy.
"It was always an ambition to be an actor," continues Murphy. "After the war my parents took me to variety every week without fail. I loved the Will Hayes sketches, Morris and Cowley, and Arthur Lucan.
"When it's discovered that you can do comedy it's treated like gold," says Murphy. However the problem is when you've planted an image of yourself in the minds of 20 million people it's impossible to lose that celebrity. Perhaps the most telling indictment was Murphy's short film career. The film spin-offs from Man about the House and George and Mildred were execrable.
"I don't think they did us any favours," admits Murphy. "But it is a two-edged thing. If you're too closely associated with one character people won't consider you for anything else. We didn't know any better."
"Yet we continually underrate the craft of the comedian," says Murphy. "Farce is meticulous and you tread a very fine edge. It's a bit like running a mile. You've got to be very fit." Do you think farce is an endangered species? "Yes, sadly," says Murphy. "Believe it or not the good old traditional English farce is being kept alive in Germany. You wouldn't think of Germany and English farce as natural bedfellows would you?" laughs Murphy.
"If it does fall out of favour even for a short while there won't be anyone left to do it," proclaims Murphy. "We ain't going to be around forever. "
`The Government Inspector' is at the Almeida Theatre, London N1. Booking: 0171-359 4404.