I can still remember the shock with which certain black-jumper-wearing school friends of mine greeted the news in the NME that Russ Abbot had released a record entitled "Atmosphere". Russ Abbot, creator of Barratt Holmes and C U Jimmy, the man whose name never appeared in a tabloid without the phrase "Top TV Funnyman" in deferent attendance, doing a cover version of a Joy Division number? Importing his Light Entertainment star-quality to the words, "Don't walk away in silence/ Your confusion/ My illusion/ Worn like a mask of self-hate"?
That night's Top of the Pops revealed the truth of the matter: a totally different song; a cheerfully tuxed Abbot jigging his hips at a windswept poolside barbecue, crooning about how pleasantly energised he felt at such social situations.
Russ has never heard of Joy Division. He's sitting in a battered armchair in his dressing-room at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, where he's in rehearsal for a play – the premiere of Ray Cooney's new farce – and looking blank. He knows nothing of the band that took its name from the retinue of prostitutes kept for the entertainment of the SS; whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself and became a poster boy for the disaffected teenagers of early-Eighties Britain. And why should he? In the early Eighties, with the help of Bella Emberg and some dancers dressed as Teddy girls, he was doing his ITV prime-time schtick in his kilt and his braces and his Basildon Bond balaclava, and he'd never had it so good.
"The glare of stardom can be very exciting," he explains. "I want a yacht! I want this! I want that! But you've got to keep something for a rainy day. I just made myself comfortable. I was never afraid of the bottom falling out."
Russ's bottom is still very much attached, which is more than you can say for some of his peers. In the pitiless rout of the club comics carried out by TV commissioning-editors in the early 1990s, only Michael Barrymore was spared – before stage-managing his spectacular self-destruction. The others, the fag end of a tradition for which the Ben Elton-Rik Mayall axis succeeded in nurturing a widespread distaste, have retreated to the holiday camps and piers whence they came, or undergone more peculiar transformations. Tommy Cannon, Bobby Ball and Syd Little have all – after crises powered by booze, drugs, or the tragic deaths of loved ones – embraced the Lord God Jesus and joined the Evangelical comedy circuit; Stu "I could crush a grape" Francis was last spotted sharing a bill in Blackpool with the Grumbleweeds; Jimmy "Come back, there's more" Cricket has returned to Butlin's, and is currently writing a play about the Pope, as yet unperformed.
And when did you last see the glossy perms of Lennie Bennett or Stan "Them German Fokkers bombed our chip shop" Boardman? They have joined the legions of the Disappeared.
But Russ, successfully repositioned as a straight actor and West End musical lead, still gets work, still gets recognised, and still lives comfortably on the luxurious private estate in Surrey that was briefly home to General Augusto Pinochet.
When Fergie lived there, he used to clock her in the gym. He's always bumping into Brucie at the local supermarket. Nanette Newman is also one of his neighbours. As for the visit of the Generalissimo, well, Russ says: "It was a fiasco. A nuisance. One of my friends lived next door to him, and he said it was a nightmare, with the 24-hour floodlights and police helicopters and the cordon.
"A news crew stopped me on the golf course and asked me about it. What do you say? I said that I felt sorry for the victims of these circumstances; that justice would prevail and the powers that be would sort things out – without going down the road of saying, he's a dictator, he was cruel. I wasn't going to stamp my feet and raise the freedom flag."
It sounds like Stella Street with bigger conifers.
I've never seen the place on Through the Keyhole, but it must be nicely appointed, because his children are steadfastly refusing to move out and leave him and Trisha, his wife of 35 years, in peace. Three generations of the family are now leaving the lights switched on, using up all the milk, and spending too much time on the phone. The children, Gary, Richard, Christopher and Erika - whose ages range from 34 to 20 – were joined last year by Gary's six-year-old son Laine, who was the subject of an acrimonious custody battle in which groundless allegations of drug abuse were hurled at Gary Roberts by a former partner. Fortunately, there are plenty of bedrooms going spare.
"It's not a permanent arrangement," reflects the head of this household. "But it feels permanent. It feels as if they've been there long enough. They come when they're in between things. They go off, have an adventure and come back and say, 'that didn't work. Can I come home for a while?'. You can't say no. But they were all out last night and there was only my wife and I there. And it was bliss."
Russ Abbot was born Russell Roberts in Chester, the fifth of a brood of six boys. His father Don was a tanker driver for Pratt's Oil. By the time of his death in 1972, had been promoted to area manager. His mother Elizabeth, a choirmaster's daughter from Falkirk, was in service to the Duke of Westminster, at whose Cheshire home, Saighton Grange, she polished the silver. Which meant that dinner times in the Russell household were conducted with comparable formality. When the family stopped for a picnic on their way up to visit their Scottish relatives, the collapsible table was laid properly with knives, forks, spoons, and a flower-arrangement harvested from a convenient field.
Even today, Russ Abbot will never eat peas from his knife, and only moves his soup spoon in one direction. (Away from the body, in case you're wondering, with a gentle swooping movement.) He speaks nostalgically about these childhood trips, recalling how, once arrived in Falkirk, hordes of relatives crushed into his grandparents' house, and would – in that ominous phrase of the days when there was only Barbara Kelly and Gilbert Harding on the telly – make their own entertainment. A Hylda Baker impression, in Russ's case. And he launches into it. Which pleases me, because it gives me a chance to tell him my favourite Hylda Baker gag. It's the one where she goes into the greengrocers and asks for 20lb of onions. "Are you pickling?" asks the shopkeeper. "No, it's just me umbrella." "Terrible," mutters Russ.
Elizabeth Roberts died in 1992, from Alzheimer's. "She became like a child in the end," her son recalls. "We'd spoon-feed her like a little sparrow. But it was upsetting at times. My wife took a small party from my mum's nursing- home to see a show I was doing in Blackpool. After the show, she came round to my dressing-room and I asked her if she'd enjoyed it. And she said, 'I thoroughly enjoyed that. It was lovely. But I must go now because my family's waiting for me'. And I said, 'But I'm your family', and she said, 'thank you, it's been lovely meeting you'. And that hurt."
Russ doesn't believe in being cagey about such matters. He'll even discuss his hair transplant – carried out in the alarmingly distant year of 1970 – with equanimity. "I was one of the pioneers. But Frank Sinatra was the first, I think. I had hair, and it was just going thin. But there was no way I was wearing a wig, so somebody – a salesman – talked me into it." After the surgery, he returned home wearing a trilby and dark glasses, his head swathed in bandages. "I did it on the spur of the moment. You don't realise that it's going to recede even more." It left him with gaps like the public footpaths that bisect the Sussex Downs. So, about a decade or so, he began to depilate, rediscovering his natural hairline.
This unself-consciousness also has its negative side. Russ Abbot says things like, "I've always felt I've got a lot of talent to be tapped"; and "It was good stuff, even though I say so myself"; and "the accolades I received in the Eighties", when he must know that, written down, such remarks will sound a bit gruesome.
But he also knows when not to push it too far. When I mention a diary story in the Telegraph that suggested he has aspirations to play King Lear, he bats off the idea with a bashful grin. (Maybe Macbeth, in the wig and braces, and with Bella Emberg doing the "out damned spot" bit, would make a bit more sense.)
And he splutters and rolls his eyes when I quote a story from The Sun claiming that he was badgered in a LA restaurant by John Travolta ("Wow, man, I can't believe it's you. I love your stuff!" was the verbal garland that the jowly megastar was reported to have laid at the comedian's toes). "Actually," says Russ, "I saw him in the lobby of the Four Seasons, and asked him to autograph my handkerchief for my daughter." A clean one, you'll be pleased to hear.
He will admit to having other celebrity fans, however: Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, he says, swear blind that they always arranged to have a TV in their dressing-rooms at the National Theatre in order to catch Russ Abbot's Madhouse. "They always admired the fact that I was actually acting those characters all the time. Playing the part. So there's always been a sense of admiration and respect there." They were picking up tips, no doubt, should either of them ever be required to do a Pavarotti sketch in a blimp-sized carapace of foam rubber.
Perhaps they'll be there on the first night of his new play. Caught in the Net is the sequel to that summer-season standby, Run for Your Wife, which will be a must-see for those dying to know what happens to farce characters after they've all pulled their spotty boxer shorts back up and admitted that typists, bosses, ex-husbands and au-pair girls are salted away all over the house. Attempting to attune the genre to the digital age, its complications are facilitated less by wardrobe doors and en-suite bathrooms, than mobile phones and the internet. "That's the genius of Ray Cooney," asserts Russ.
We begin to discuss the internet, but don't get very far. Unlike the protagonists of the play, Russ doesn't actually own a computer, and is therefore unlikely to be very impressed by the company that is currently holding www.russabbot.co.uk to ransom for 200 quid. Which is a shame, because at www.jimmycricket.co.uk, you can listen to an electronic rendition of an Irish jig tune, and www.nicholasparsons.co.uk has an interactive game called Parsons Knows. At the very least, Russ could have a page from which you could download a recording of "Atmosphere".
But perhaps nobody really needs reminding of it. While the lyrics of Ian Curtis's synonymous track have all but faded from my mind, the words of Russ's version remain permanently lodged in my brain, persistent as one of the more unspeakable sorts of virus. Russ can remember them, too. So we sing the song together, making the dressing-room mirror reverberate with the combined power of our voices, and doing as much of the dancing as we can manage without getting out of our chairs. "So let me take you there/ And you and I'll be dancing in the cool – night! – air!" Russ even does the Meg Ryanish "Oh! Oh! Oh!" that bridged the chorus and the verses.
But does he still love a party with a happy atmosphere? "No, not really," he breathes. "Been there, done that."
'Caught in the Net' previews at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London, from Monday 20 August.Reuse content