From Alan Partridge to Toast, Simon Greenall returns to Norfolk

Simon Greenall in Toast, his first stage role in 26 years. Photo: Ben Broomfield

Simon Greenall in Toast, his first stage role in 26 years. Photo: Ben Broomfield - Credit: Archant

Best known as Michael in Alan Partridge, and for providing the voices for the Meerkat adverts, Simon Greenall returns to Norwich as part of the ensemble cast of Toast, set in a 1970s bread factory. SIMON PARKIN spoke to him.

The ensemble cast of Richard Bean's Toast, set in a Hull bread factory. Photo: Ben Broomfield

The ensemble cast of Richard Bean's Toast, set in a Hull bread factory. Photo: Ben Broomfield - Credit: Archant

Simon Greenall is on the phone and nailing the rising inflection of the Norfolk accent with uncanny accuracy.

The actor and comedy writer is no stranger to accents having delivered thickly impenetrable Geordie in his best known role as Michael in Alan Partridge and having provided the Russian voices for the Meerkats in the Compare the Market adverts since they first hit the screens.

However he has plenty of opportunity to perfect his Norfolk dialect. 'My wife is from Norwich and we come up quite regularly,' he says. 'I can do the accent a little bit. When we do the North Norfolk Digital [the fictional radio station Alan Partridge broadcasts on] I play some of the people who phone in. I play Roy from Caister St Edmunds. What I love is the rising inflection of the accent and the use of certain phrases. A friend of ours was going up town and she said 'are you going to be long [again delivered perfectly]. I thought that was brilliant.'

He knows the county well then, but there is one place he is yet to experience. 'They won't let me go to Great Yarmouth!' he laughs. 'I always want to go and they always say 'no, you don't want to go there'. I do, I've never been!

Simon Greenall and Matthew Kelly as Cecil and Nellie in Toast. Photo: Ben Broomfield

Simon Greenall and Matthew Kelly as Cecil and Nellie in Toast. Photo: Ben Broomfield - Credit: Archant

'I do know Wroxham and Holkham, we go up there. I'm originally from there Scottish borders and there is not a single flat bit there, so I do love the Norfolk countryside. It's actually not flat; it is what I always think of as the Ladybird book of England. But when I'm up there this time I'm going to go to Great Yarmouth on my own and have whale of a time!'

He will be back next week as part of the cast of Toast, Richard Bean's brilliantly observed drama set in a Hull bakery in the 1970s. The play, which balances comedy, drama and pathos, was the breakthrough play for the One Man, Two Guvnors writer and was based on his own experiences working in a bakery as a student.

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Simon revives a role he first performed in 2014 in an ensemble cast that also includes Matthew Kelly, with whom he has a long standing friendship that began in unlikely circumstances.

'It's a bit weird but when Matthew was a student at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre in 1969 they did a production at the Edinburgh Festival and I was in it as a child actor, because my sister made the costumes,' he explains. 'So that's when I first met him. I was 11 and he'd be 18 or 19.

Simon Greenall and Matthew Kelly, appearing together on stage for the first time. Photo: Ben Broomfi

Simon Greenall and Matthew Kelly, appearing together on stage for the first time. Photo: Ben Broomfield - Credit: Archant

'Then later I ended up being a writer on You Bet [game show which Matthew Kelly hosted from 1991-95], writing all his links. Now we're back together again but this is the first time we've actually been in a play together.

'He is very dedicated to theatre. I've often been to see him in stuff, because he is brilliant, whereas I don't really do theatre. This is the first theatre job I've done in 26 years.'

The production sees him playing a character called Cecil. 'He is very randy,' he explains by way of characterisation. 'He is not having a particularly fulfilling time with his wife, so he talks about sex an awful lot and he is eternally jolly. He is ex-Navy and he is from Leeds. I tried to do a Hull accent, but then I thought, no my character comes from Leeds instead. Hull was too hard!

'It is based on Richard Bean's experiences as a young student working in this bread factory. All the characters are fictional but loosely based on people who he worked with. And I worked in factories in the 1970s and I remember what the blokes were like — and they are exactly like this. Those good old fashioned 70s working men's attitudes. However what they don't know is that the working world is about to change, and they just don't realise that is all about to just get swept away. Bread is going to be made pretty much in one place for the entire country in future. It is not going to be made in little bakeries in town anymore.'

The majority of the action takes place in the works canteen. 'Because there are no women, it is unbelievably scruffy. It is just men who sit there all day, so you can image what it looks like,' says Simon.

'We've had a lot of older chaps come up to us afterwards and say 'I remember our works canteen and it was exactly like that'. There is a waste paper basket that is completely overflowing with used teabags.'

Matthew Kelly plays Nellie who has worked at this bakery for 40 years. 'He is very put upon and is the dogsbody. He is a real character and just the type of person you really did meet in those days, who had been working in that same place for so long. And like the factory, he is worn out.

'There is also a character called Peter who realises he is trapped in this factory job, and who is really angry but very funny. There is a young student who comes to work in the factory and we don't know if he really is a student or from the local mental hospital. There is an ex-trawler man too, who is literally a fish out of water because this is the first job he has ever had onshore. And like every factory in those days, there is also a bloody minded union man.

'They are all really desperate characters who rub along together. It is very funny. It is quite rude, there is a bit of swearing, but it is also very funny.'

Simon's last time working in Norwich, of course, was one the Alan Partridge film.

'We had such a great time when we came to do the film in Norwich because we weren't sure how it was going to go, because Alan hasn't always been a Norwich hero,' he says. 'But I think there has been reconciliation and Norfolk did look wonderful in the film, the stuff on Cromer pier looked so dramatic. The people up there couldn't have been nicer. We had a days filming in Sheringham and they were fantastic. Everyone came out as extras and we had a great time.'

And with Alan currently back on the small screen in Mid-Morning Matters, don't rule out more Partridge in cinemas. 'I think there will be another film, but I don't know when Steve will get round to it, or when they'll all get together to write it. There is an appetite for it though, so I think they will. I love it.

'I still get a certain generation of blokes coming up and calling me Michael and asking for the catchphrases, saying they watched me when they were doing their GCSEs. That cheers me up no end!'

Simon's role proving the Meerkat voices in numerous increasingly big budget adverts has also seen him rubbing shoulders with film stars.

'I went over the America to work with Arnie [Arnold Schwarzenegger] and with Nicole Kidman,' he says, explaining that contrary to the assumption that the voices are dubbed on later, he was on set with the Hollywood stars, all be it hidden from view.

'I had to hide with Arnie down the back of the car seat and with Nicole I had to be under her chair. It is so that we get a good reaction. I can always throw snap pieces in to ad lib. They have a cut-out in front of them but, of course, they get bored of hearing the same thing over a lot of takes, so it mixes it up for them. I have to then charm them as well, which sometimes doesn't work!'

t Toast, Norwich Theatre Royal, February 29-March 5, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Mar 2/5, £25-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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