Steve Nallon, best known for impersonating Margaret Thatcher in Spitting Image, is touring in the comic play Cissie & Ada: A Hysterical Rectomy, based on the northern housewives played by Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough in the 1970s and 80s. Nallon appears as Ada/Roy alongside Eric Potts, who plays Cissie/Les. Steven Arnold, best known as Ashley Peacock in Coronation Street, plays the scriptwriter, with Natasha Magigi as the dresser. In this first part of our interview, Steve talks to John-Paul Stephenson about the show by original scriptwriter Terry Ravenscroft, and comic icon Les Dawson.
JPS: Hello Steve! Could you tell us about the play?
SN: It’s a character study of Les Dawson.
At first, I was worried that we were just going to recreate the Cissie and Ada sketches, which I thought would be OK for two or three sketches, but it couldn’t be sustained for the entire evening. The other thing I was worried about was I thought that the play, like many other plays you see doing hatchet jobs of comedians, like Frankie Howerd on the TV and other well-known comedians from the 1970s. I was worried that it would do that about Les. But it’s the opposite.
We recreate Cissie and Ada sketches, but we also show what Les thought of them and the background of them. It’s partly about Les, but mainly about how Cissie and Ada got made and how much of it relies upon Les’ own background. It’s not a heavy piece but it gives you an insight into Les through the way he approached Cissie and Ada because he knew those people; he lived with them.
JPS: Because they were strong northern women…
SN: Exactly. And the same with Roy Barraclough. Roy and Les were very different people, and that comes across in the play as well, but they had a shared background. When we did the show in Blackpool, the entire stalls were full of Cissie and Adas. There were a lot of young people as well, but you could see them all coming together and gossiping.
JPS: And ‘mee-mawing’ [s style of speech which Cissie used when discussing sensitive topics]?
SN: My grandmother did that, often when talking about something delicate. They [northern women] would never use the word ‘vasectomy’ or anything like that, she’d say, “They’ve had it all taken away”. And the women knew what was being talked about; I thought the bailiffs have come in and stolen the piano, but later in life I worked it out. Women like that spoke in code.
JPS: That’s interesting because Cissie and Ada were created in the 1970s, coming out of an era when Polari was often used in broadcast comedy.
SN: Cissie and Ada is the more comic side of Polari. Cissie is posher and better educated than Ada, and she’d use a phrase. “On your wedding night, were you virgo intacta?” And she’d say, “No, we just had bed and breakfast.” Cissie, being slightly posher, would use a coded language because she wouldn’t say the word ‘virgin’.
JPS: That works brilliantly for comedy because it gives audiences satisfaction…
SN: Yes, you know what it means, but you know poor Ada doesn’t.
In some ways it’s a complete nostalgia-fest. When we did it in London, we had 13/14-year old girls who loved the Cissie and Ada stuff because they’d never come across anything like that before.
Mrs Brown’s Boys is great – I love Mrs Brown – but it’s a different tradition because it’s on late at night and there’s a lot of swearing in it and it’s a more adult side of that world.
With Cissie and Ada, that’s the whole point – every time that Cissie says something that’s slightly clever, or uses a Latin phrase, Ada takes the wrong end of the stick and assumes it’s something rude.
JPS: It’s interesting to hear that the play is as much about Les as it is about Cissie and Ada?
SN: It’s ultimately a celebration of Les. I worked with him, and talking to the writer of the play [Terry Ravenscroft, who wrote some of the original Cissie and Ada sketches], there’s no doubt that Les could be slightly awkward.
For example, he didn’t like rehearsals or retakes. That’s why they had to keep in the corpsing because Les refused to do it again. That would really anger a producer, because if they got a line wrong he’d just say “leave it in”.
Famously, when he was doing Dame, his idea of preparing to go on stage was to be in the pub until 7:26pm, walk into the theatre, put on the dress and wig that waiting for him on the floor, put on a bit of lippy, and straight onto the stage. He didn’t like lots of preparation; he wasn’t a method actor, and he would improvise.
From some people’s point of view, that’s not the best way of working.
JPS: And that’s fine so long as you have familiar people around you who will tolerate your idiosyncrasies.
SN: He could be a bit funny with the writers. The play covers all of that – you need a bit of conflict in a play — but ultimately it’s a celebration of Les and that whole tradition. But it doesn’t delve into, what they did with Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams, the dark recesses of their backgrounds and turn them into depressives.
This play doesn’t do any of that because I don’t think that was true with Les Dawson. There was tragedy in his life; his wife died of cancer. I’ve met his second wife, Tracy, who was been very supportive of the play.
JPS: So there’s much more emphasis upon broadcasting and the process of creating than the personal life.
SN: It’s a fun show; you get lots of Cissie and Ada sketches that are recreated in different ways. One of the best is when Steven Arnold, who plays the writer, does Cissie and Ada with the dresser [played by Natasha Magigi].
So you get a recreated Cissie and Ada with Eric [Potts] and myself as Les and Roy, you get to see the rehearsing Cissie and Ada, and you also get to see Steven Arnold and Tash do their version.
JPS: It sounds similar to [Frayn’s] Noises Off?
SN: It’s a bit of Noises Off in the sense that it’s backstage and onstage. It’s a backstage story of Cissie and Ada with the onstage as well. The play opens with them doing a Cissie and Ada sketch in full costume, makeup and all of the rest of it. You then see Les discussing the sketch with the director of the television series.
JPS: And how is the tour going?
SN: It’s an intimate piece; it’s a four hander. It was slightly strange playing a lovely comedy chamber piece in Carlisle in the same venue as where McFly were going to be playing. With comedy it’s nice to have an intimate theatre – but the audience leave with a big smile on their face. It’s warm-hearted nostalgia.
In part two of our interview, Steve talks about Spitting Image, Thatcherism, and what’s missing in modern comedy.
Cissie and Ada: A Hysterical Rectomy is currently touring the UK, with 29 dates including Stockport (13 September), South Shields (30 September), Darlington (1-2 October), Wakefield (14-16 October) and Salford (5 November) amongst others.