Kevin Bishop interview: A Few Best Men, Grange Hill, The Muppets

Kevin Bishop talks to us about A Few Best Men, getting sacked from Grange Hill, and working on Muppet Treasure Island...

Kevin Bishop may be best known on these shores for Star Stories and The Kevin Bishop Show, but he has a wide body of work to his name. At a young age, for instance, he was cast in – and subsequently sacked from – Grange Hill, before landing a major role in Muppet Treasure Island.

When we caught up with him, he was promoting his latest movie, A Few Best Men. So it made sense to start right there…

Director Stephan Elliott has talked about how A Few Best Men came to him. He was looking for something funny to do, just to make people laugh. Was it by design that you went outside of Britain to do something like this, or was this just an opportunity that came to you?

It was an opportunity really that just came to me. I wanted to do some more film. I’d done six years of telly, and more so sketch-based comedy in the UK. I started in this business as an actor, and I knew if I didn’t get back to doing film work or some kind of acting, or comedy drama, then I was always going to be stuck doing sketch comedies, or even worse, impressions of people. It was never really what I set out to do.

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I was just looking for a funny script that was different to what I’d been doing in England, and this one came up, and it was funny. On the page, I loved the banter between the boys, and that’s what really inspired me to get in there, and get this job. 

I met Stephan and luckily I must have convinced him that I was right for the part.

So did you come to it through Kris Marshall? I know Stephan’s talked about Kris being his doppelganger!

Stephan has this weird thing in his head that he and Kris look alike. I can’t see it myself!

Try squinting!

I think Stephan’s got this thing that he thinks he casts people who look like him in his films! But Kris and Stephan had worked together on Easy Virtue, and were friends anyway. I’ve been friends with Kris for about 12 years. We worked together on My Family. I didn’t even know that Kris was involved until they offered me the part. When I found out Kris was involved, I thought, this is great, the chemistry will definitely be there.

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Working with Stephan is brilliant as well. He’s quite a character, on and off set. He’s good fun to be around.

In what way?

Stephan says what he thinks, you know? And sometimes he tends to exaggerate the truth, which is quite interesting. When he tells you an anecdote… The first few weeks we were, “Wow, and the horse died? That’s incredible…”

Stephan told me a story once about being caught in a hailstorm with a girl he was dating in his straight days. “And it was a hailstone storm, I hid under a car, and I turned around and looked down, and she was dead.” 

All Stephan’s stories ended up with “I turned around, and everybody was dead”. And then you find out from someone else the truth of the story. No one died. But Stephen is a natural storyteller. He’s got that ability to twist and turn, and make stuff interesting. He was always going to be a director, he’s very talented.

He says of you and Kris Marshall that you “sabotage each other, on and off the camera”. Is that fair? 

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Yeah, I’d say it was fair. Kris and I, we are quite a lethal combination together. We are very good mates, and we do like to enjoy ourselves. And also, the characters we were playing really embodied that. My character is a bit of a loser, Kris’ character is very acerbic, and we began to live them when we weren’t working. It was brilliant fun.

Kris is a bit older than me, he’s 40, I’m 32 this year. But we were behaving like we were at university… 

Was the film shot digitally? I’d assume so.

It was shot on a Redcam…

So did that give Stephan the scope to let you have a couple of extra takes at the end?

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That is the beauty of digital. The schedules on these films anyway are always so gruelling, and they tend to be a huge ask. But what Stephan was very good at was casting actors, and actors who could improvise if they wanted to, or who were robust enough to take new ideas, or new direction. I think most of the work is done in the casting process. That’s where the precision of the job comes into play.

It must have been for you, though, a bit more of a relaxed schedule, considering the number of sketches you used to have to film in a given day?

Yeah, I mean I walk onto all sorts of jobs now. People come up to me and say, “We have to warn you, this is a very gruelling schedule”. And I see what they’re doing, and think, this is nothing! On my show we used to do ten pages of dialogue a day, or eight to ten sketches. It was a phenomenal amount of work. We did ten turnarounds. And then I walk onto film sets and they say, “It’s going to be a big day today, we’re going to do two and a half pages of dialogue. It’s a really big ask, we want everyone to dig deep”. I just think, fucking hell! This is a walk in the park! 

Apparently, Brett Ratner sets are amongst the most gruelling. He’s the one who tends to go 17-18 hours a day I think. 

Yeah. I’ve heard! At least the money’s good!

I have heard horror stories of people working 18 hour days on films, and all the crew have been broken. But I think it’s an American thing. I’ve been on set, and despite the workload on my show, we always finished on time. That’s brilliant production teams, they never overran. But I’ve been on jobs where literally the lights have gone out, and the sparkies have pulled the plugs and gone home.

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On this set, of course, you have Olivia Newton-John, who hasn’t been on the set of too many movies in the past decade or two…

I’m not sure what Olivia has been up to before A Few Best Men. But I know she’s incredibly famous, and she’s almost a regal figure in Australia. So popular. You know when you work with someone, they’re a big name, especially a woman of a certain age with a huge amount of experience? I thought this could be a real nightmare, she could be a total diva, we could be spending a lot of time twiddling our thumbs on set waiting for her to come out of her trailer. But she just blew all of that away completely. She’s one of the most down to earth actresses I’ve ever worked with. A wicked sense of humour, so lovely, and we got on really well. She looked after us, she mothered us!

Can she still belt out Xanadu?

Oh yeah, she will! I would quite often break into songs from Grease, and she would just sing along most of the time. She never told me to be quiet! She’s just so used to being ribbed, and she’s up for a laugh.

I have to ask you about your Muppet days, and your starring role in Muppet Treasure Island.

That was my biggest gig – it’s been downhill ever since. I’m trying to get back there, I peaked too soon! 

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It came from Grange Hill for you, didn’t it?

It worked in my favour actually. I worked on Grange Hill for two years, and I was so unruly that they expelled me from a fictional school. They sacked me from Grange Hill, and I remember my parents were really embarrassed that I’d been sacked from this school. It was Borehamwood, Elstree, really. I remember all the kids saying that was it, my career was over, you’ve been sacked.

Within a couple of months I was in Muppet Treasure Island! It was an incredible experience: working with Tim Curry, Jennifer Saunders, Billy Connolly, Kermit The Frog and Miss Piggy. It was brilliant. I’ll never forget those days.

I do have to ask: what was your official reason for being sacked from Grange Hill?

There was a string of events, really. We had a green room. We didn’t have a playground, because the playground was actually being used as the EastEnders set. So we were given a room with a TV in it that didn’t work, with a pool table in the middle. And that was the room for 100 kids. So a lot of people were sitting on each other’s laps, and reading books, and basically bored.

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So I realised that one of the pool balls on the table made a very perfect, precise dent in the wall if you threw it really hard. So I did it about a thousand times, as a bit of a creative art. When the producer saw it, she went absolutely nuts. Docked my wages, called my parents, and sacked me.

Just like that? 

Yeah, just like that. I remember, I had a really big storyline. And I was in every episode. Then one day, the kids were talking and they said, “Where’s Sam today?”, and another said, “He’s gone to live with his mum in Spain”. That’s how they ousted me from the series!

So going back to Muppet Treasure Island, then. From an outsider’s point of view, it strikes me as a very tricky acting role, technically, particularly given the age you were at the time.

It’s interesting you said that actually. I don’t think people realise that what you see with The Muppets isn’t necessarily how it’s done. You’ve got five-foot trenches everywhere, across the whole of the stage, with Muppet performers in them, with their microphones on. And it’s quite treacherous.

Obviously, you’ve can’t look at your feet all the time and look where you’re going, because that’s not good acting. I remember one scene, the choreographer fell completely down a hole, and landed on a monitor on her backside. She was really injured, it was very dangerous.And also, energy-wise, one slight movement of a puppeteer’s hand, and a puppet becomes very animated. Energy levels have to be up the whole time, else you just look like you’ve got no energy. I think it was Tim Curry who struggled with it. I think he found it quite difficult, because it was such a high-energy show, and he didn’t feel particularly energetic. I think he struggled a bit with it.

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You had to sing at the same time, too. And you didn’t redub your songs afterwards? 

What happened was they used my singing that I did for the audition. I did it in the recording studio when I was auditioning for the part. And they wanted to redo the song, but my voice had broken. It started to break half way through, so they couldn’t do it.

Do you miss singing?

I was talking to someone recently, because occasionally when I did a character like R Kelly or George Michael on the TV shows, I’d throw in a tiny bit of singing. I was thinking recently that I would like to play a singer, or do a biopic of a singer or something. I do like, and I do enjoy singing, but I don’t get the chance much in my career. I would like to give it a go again.

If you could choose any biopic to do, then, what would it be?

I don’t know, I’m not sure. In a biopic, I’ve always wanted to play Oliver Reed, but I don’t think he’s much of a singer! How about Jason Donovan! 

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Is that a serious ambition to do an Oliver Reed biopic? He’s got quite a story. 

Yeah, it really is. One of the reasons I wanted to become an actor is that I loved the intensity, and I loved the madness of him. And I would love to play him, I’ve always wanted to do that. I’m talking to people about writing that, actually.

Is film where your immediate ambitions are now?

Yeah. What I love about sketch comedy is that you can get in and get out, it doesn’t have to have a thread, and you can make fun about anything. Do whatever comes into your mind. What I love about film, from an acting perspective, is that it’s an art. A journey from the start to the end. All the actors I’ve played, I’ve really enjoyed the research, and the journey. That’s something I really miss when doing sketch comedy, because nothing seems to have any arc or depth to it. That’s what I love about film.

And are you still planning the TV show with Rebel Wilson?

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The pilot is up in the air. It got dropped by CBS, then it got picked up by ABC. So I’m still on hold for that. But Rebel and I are working on development for a film at the moment anyway. I’ve also got development going on with the BBC for a new TV show, too.

Kevin Bishop, thank you very much. A Few Best Men is out in UK cinemas now.

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