I meet the great Matthew Kelly at Birmingham Rep, just before he is due to open as Lennie, the poignantly simple-minded giant, in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. He has shaved for the role. He has shaved his head. He has shaved his chin. I'm not sure you'd know which way to put him if it weren't for the little navy knitted hat he arrives in. He looks quite spooky. Naked. Brutish. Perhaps a bit like Ainsley Harriott gone horribly white. I'm not sure I like it. O where is the blissfully camp Matthew Kelly of Game for a Laugh, of You Bet, of umpteen appearances on Blankety Blank and Celebrity Squares (or so I'd guess) and, of course, of the utterly magnificent Stars in Their Eyes, which must, surely, use up much of the world's dry-ice resources.
Have you ever had any real stinkers on the show, Matthew? "This is going to sound really sad, this," he says, "but no, never. All the acts are fantastic. Fantastic!" Ah, that's more like it. Matthew all brutally bald is one thing, but Matthew with irony would be quite another. Matthew wouldn't be Matthew with irony. Stars wouldn't be Stars with irony. And the bloke who won as Chris de Burgh would have, surely, topped himself by now. I mean, wouldn't you, if you discovered you could pass for Chris de Burgh? Wouldn't you, Matthew? "Um, no, ha, I don't think so. He was fantastic, actually. Fantastic."
Matthew is huge, six-foot-six, adorably friendly, very tactile, like a big, happy, exclamatory dog. "How smashing to meet you! Fantastic!" He absolutely adores Stars. "I've made the decision to stay with it until it dies. It is the Rolls-Royce of the genre." It's filmed in Manchester, too, which is good, because he's from Manchester and can move back in with his mum and dad, Olive and Ron, for three months of every year. "It's amazing, at my age, 51, to live with my parents. Cups of tea in the morning, dippy eggs on the weekend, my mum debobbling my sweaters and asking: 'Got any laundry, dear?'"
Trouble is, it's a fiercely non-smoking house, and he used to be a smoker. "So I'd have a puff out the bedroom window, after mum and dad had gone to bed, with the curtains pulled round my neck so the smell didn't get in. Then, one morning, I heard my mum say: 'Ron, we've had tramps in the garden. There's a pile of fag-butts out there.' So I said it was me, smoking out the window, and she said: 'What you doing that for? You're 46!'"
Will people come and see him in Of Mice and Men because of Stars? "It's a double-edged sword. People will go: 'Ohh, look, Matthew Kelly is on at the theatre. What's he in? Of Mice and Men? Nah, I won't bother with that.' Or they'll go: 'Ohh, Of Mice and Men is on at the theatre. Who's in it? Matthew Kelly off the telly. Nah, I'll not bother with that.' It can go either way."
He used, actually, to be a serious actor – was one for 14 years before he got his first TV-presenting job on Game for a Laugh. Now, what was that catchphrase? Watching us watching you watching you watching us? "It was something like that," he says. "Watching us watching you watching you watching... oh, bollocks. Jeremy [Beadle] always shouted at me for getting the inflection wrong. I could never get it right. I don't think I ever understood it. Watching us watching us watching you watching you... oh, bollocks." He didn't mean to become a presenter. He was doing a sitcom with Peter Davison when he was initially asked. And? "Peter said, 'If you do this job, you'll never work as an actor again.' But it was a job, and I needed the work. I went to Humphrey Barclay, who was head of ITV comedy at that time, and said: 'Shall I do it?' He said I should understand that I'm coach-party trade, which doesn't mean I'll never play Hamlet, but then when I do, it'll be coach parties of old ladies who come to see it."
"Ouch. Do you want to play Hamlet?"
"Ha, no. Well, I dunno. If someone offered me the part, I'd go: 'Oh, all right.'"
"Are you a Steinbeck fan?"
"I'm not a great Steinbeck reader. That descriptive kind of narrative doesn't really grab me, doesn't really interest me. So, if I'm reading Grapes of Wrath, then I'll only read the story chapters and skip the descriptive ones."
That's outrageous, I say. That's just such a lowbrow thing to do, I add. Actually, I don't. Instead, I tell him that while I put it about that I've read War and Peace, I've actually read only the peace bits. I've read Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Although, that said, my partner has read only the war bits, so when we're together, we are sort of a whole book. Matthew says he hasn't read War yet. Or Peace. His favourite authors are Willy Russell and Stephen Fry, and he's just read Sandi Toksvig's latest, "which is fantastic. Fantastic!" His favourite film of all time, by the way, is Monty Python's Life of Brian.
I think, possibly, Matthew Kelly was born camp. Or, if not, then born for panto, at least. (Oh no he wasn't. Oh yes he was.) Panto was what got him into acting. "I went to my first panto at six. I can't remember which one it was now, but I can remember who was in it. Billy Tusker. It completely enthralled me. I thought it was fantastic. Fantastic. I'd been to the circus the year before and hated it. I thought it was cold, embarrassing, frightening. But the theatre was warm, magical, exciting."
A year later, his uncle Norman, a Congregational minister, cast him in the annual church play. "I was Happy the dwarf, and it set the tone for my spiritual life, really. I made the wrong entrance, though. I was meant to come through a bookcase and I tried to get through some French windows. I still have that magic thing about it. I love it. I love my job. But I also do see a lot of it as a job. When you go to something like the National Television Awards... I don't like stuff like that. I can do it rather well, but it's a job, unless you win, which is fantastic. Fantastic! And going to the party afterwards... I don't get it. I'd rather be at home, watching rubbish on telly."
"Such as the National Television Awards."
Does he mind the blissfully camp image? A bit, I think. He says he was watching Blankety Blank one day when he suddenly realised that the place where he always sat was the camp comedian's box. "I knew, if it wasn't me, it would be Chris Biggins or John Inman or Larry Grayson." He stopped doing Blankety Blank after that. "I thought, right, right, I'm becoming a parody of myself. I'm being what other people think I am." What do you think people mean by camp? "Camp? They mean 'big jessie', don't they?" Are you a big jessie, Matthew? "It's something I don't like talking about. It's private. It's of no interest to anyone unless you're trying to negotiate a shag. It's part of my mystique."
His private life is rather intriguing. He is married, with two grown-up children. He married his wife, Sarah, 32 years ago, when he was 19, although for much of the marriage they have lived apart – Sarah in Cheshire, where she works for a charity, and Matthew in London, now in a two-bed flat in Chiswick. I'd read that before he married Sarah, he'd already been engaged three times – three times before he was 19! – so does he fall in love easily? "Yes, I do. One of the engagements was a joke. One was to a Scottish ice-skater. The other to a Welsh ballet dancer. I fall in love very, very easily. Yeah. Although I haven't done for a long time. I think your relationship with yourself is the most important one. I'm an actor. I'm self-obsessed. What can I tell you? I've lived alone for a long time now, and it's going rather well. I'm not that keen on someone coming in and buggering it all up. I don't think I could ever live with anyone again. But I do enjoy my family tremendously."
"Do you think of yourself as your wife's husband?"
"Yeah, I do. And it's very important to her as well. And the children. Whenever I wanted to split up, she didn't, and whenever she wanted to split up, I didn't, and the children never, ever, wanted us to split up. They're very happy about our domestic relationship. I think our lives are the same as everybody else's, in that they are different from everybody else's."
"Do you both have relationships outside the marriage?"
"No. No. Not at all... Look, she hates me talking about this stuff. It always gets misconstrued... Stop!"
Fair enough. Does he ever get lonely, though? Never, he says, "Although I have done in the past. When you're coming to terms with fame, you do get lonely. Fame, at first, is very exciting. You're being acknowledged in a way you've never been acknowledged. You are being fêted. You are being given stuff. The one time in your life you can afford stuff, you don't have to pay for anything. And you have status. You have power. You start seeing what people will let you get away with. No one tells you that you're being an arse. And you become separated from your family because you're having such a fantastic time... My mid-thirties were a bit rubbish, actually. That's when I was lonely. You've got fame and don't want to lose it. I tried therapy because everyone then was doing therapy. I thought it was a bit of a con. And when my son found out, he was absolutely furious. He said: 'Listen, if you pay me £40 an hour, I'll listen to you dribbling on about your miserable life.'"
"And I'd do it for £39.99," I say.
"And do you know what? I'd go with you because I think you're fantastic. Fantastic."
We have a pleasant lunch in the theatre restaurant. He does a bit of Lennie for me. He sounds jolly good. Then we go and watch some of the technical rehearsal. Here, Matthew points out the director ("He's Fantastic"), the lighting director ("He's Fantastic!") and the props man, who is absolute crap. Only joking. He's fantastic, too. He hopes I will try to come and see the play, which I will.
Lastly? Well, rather adorably, he cries sometimes during Stars. "Especially in the final, when the winner wins. It's just such a great moment." As I've already said, Matthew Kelly with irony just wouldn't work.
'Of Mice and Men' is at Birmingham Rep until 24 Nov. Box office: 0121-236 4455Reuse content