Jim Dale interview: The Carry On... actor on British humour and what Olivier saw in him

'Just Jim Dale' is currently running at the Vaudeville Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Online

No other country has British humour
If I was to say “bullocks” to you, you’d laugh.  An American wouldn’t know what  I was talking about. The Carry On… films were all about word play and double entendres. I did 10 of them over six years, but it didn’t feel important. I didn’t realise back then that they would be taken in by the British Museum archives as a great example of 20th-century humour!

You can’t teach someone  to be funny
You have to be born with the comedic streak. I’ve had some people ask [following a joke], “Is that funny?” They’ll look at you very blankly until you say yes and they go, “Oh… ha, ha, ha.” If people don’t latch on immediately then they don’t have a comedic sense – and  I feel very sorry for those people.

I miss the UK countryside 
I’d not been to England in 40 years [Dale now lives with his wife in New York],  but when I looked at it from the air on the  flight back over [for the UK leg of his one- man show Just Jim Dale], I almost cried with delight at the beautiful fields and walls and hedges. But then, when I went to Rothwell  in Northamptonshire to see the beautiful stream I used to fish in as a boy, it had been  buried in great big pipes under the ground  to make way for a motorway.

I will go anywhere to work
It doesn’t have to be Broadway [where Dale has starred in award-winning productions including Scapino and Barnum]. One of the first places we turned up to do Just Jim Dale was supposed to be this small theatre in the middle of New Jersey, but it was an old folk’s home. In the intermission, two ladies who were both about 90 were walking out and one turned to the attendant and said, “Tell Jim Dale he was  very funny but we couldn’t stay awake.”

The audience feels more involved when you break down the fourth wall
Shakespeare’s clowns did it. And  when Laurence Olivier asked me to join the National Theatre in 1970, it was because he’d seen me in Scapino, where I broke that fourth wall and spoke directly to the audience by running over the backs of their seats while they were sitting there.

Find somebody out there  who can give you a push
That’s summed up for me by this Christopher Logue poem: “Come to the edge/We might fall/Come to the edge/It’s too high!/COME TO THE EDGE!/And they came/And we pushed/And they flew.” It can be anyone who has the enthusiasm  to support you in doing what you want to do with your life.

I like the way I’ve carefully handled this frame of mine through the years
I don’t eat junk food or white bread so I’ve still got the same faithful 32-inch waist.  It wasn’t through work-outs, though: I don’t have a muscle in my upper body and I’ve got flabby arms. But  I walk up and down stairs to keep the calf muscles strong and I take the dog for a four-mile walk every day.

I have the politeness to put up with boring people
I can do it for just a little longer than most folk. And then comes the moment  I will politely tell them that I can’t stand their breath and they embarrassingly apologise. Actually, it was Sid James who said that to somebody once, on the set of one of the Carry On… films.

I love talking to strangers
I don’t have that British reserve, so if I see someone on their own in a park in Manhattan, I’ll sit and talk to them. They think I’m a nut, but before you know it you’ve learnt something about another person. And when I walk away, both  of us will be smiling, and I love that.

Jim Dale, 79, is an actor of stage and screen. 'Just Jim Dale’ is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2, to 20 June (justjimdale.com)