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Nigel Planer: ‘I was a gravedigger before I was in The Young Ones, but I was useless at it’

The Young Ones
Nigel Planer is best known for playing peace-loving hippy Neil in the landmark 1980s BBC sitcom The Young Ones - BBC

Actor, writer and musician Nigel Planer is best known for playing peace-loving hippy Neil in the landmark 1980s BBC sitcom The Young Ones.

The 70-year-old, who has also had leading roles in TV dramas such as Shine on Harvey Moon, went on to star in a string of hit West End shows including the 1997 revival of Chicago, as well as the Queen musical We Will Rock You and Hairspray.

Father-of-two Planer, who is married to Roberta, a former psychotherapist, recently revealed that his late father George, who moved to Britain in 1933 aged 13, only disclosed his Jewish ancestry in his 80s.

“My dad’s family, who were originally from Eastern Europe, fled Germany in 1933 after Hitler came to power and ended up in England,” he says.

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“But having been forced to ‘hide’ his ‘Jewishness’ in pre-war Germany, I think he decided it was safest to keep it under wraps.

“The Nazis would have undoubtedly considered my father’s family Jewish – and had they stayed in Germany, they would have almost certainly perished in the Holocaust.”

How did your start in life affect your attitude to money?

I was one of three boys and grew up in Mortlake, southwest London. My dad, who did secretive War Office work during the Second World War, started his own company after the war, patenting products he’d either invented or developed with others.

Nigel Planer attends the UK Premiere of "Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War"
Nigel Planer says he was ‘incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time’ as his career took off - David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage

We were comfortably off, but being self-employed he would occasionally have bad months, so some years we didn’t have a summer holiday.

I was aware of the constant strain on my dad of trying to ensure that we enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle; that probably explains why he was quite snappy at times.

Did you receive pocket money?

Yes. I can’t remember exactly how much, but you could buy four farthing chews for a penny when I was a kid.

On special occasions my grandparents gave me two shillings and sixpence which I’d put towards buying plastic assembly kits of historical figures like the Black Prince.

What was your first proper job?

Working as a gravedigger for a few months in a local cemetery when I was 18. It was incredibly boring and I was useless at it, so I quit after a couple of months.

What did you get paid for your first standup gig?

I was paid nothing for my first gig at London’s Comedy Store with fellow stand-up Peter Richardson – but we did get a free drink each.

However, when we took our Outer Limits double act the following week we got paid £15. It was a “gong show” – if the audience didn’t like you, they’d shout “gong, gong, gong” and then compere Alexei Sayle would bang the gong and your time would be up. But Peter and I never got gonged off.

What was your breakthrough moment in comedy?

Getting to play the Comedy Store in the early 1980s at the same time as Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Alexei Sayle. The world of comedy was changing and I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

How did you end up in The Young Ones?

The BBC was desperate for the edgy, hot new stand-ups at the Comedy Store like Rik, Ade, Alexei and myself to appear in a TV comedy show.

One evening Rik, Ben Elton (a friend and fellow stand-up), and the writer Lise Mayer, who was in a relationship with Rik at the time, came up with the idea for The Young Ones, and it snowballed from there.

Castmembers Hannah Jane Fox, Tony Vincent, and Nigel Planer take a curtain call at the opening night for the new musical 'We Will Rock You'
Nigel Planer’s (right) acting has spanned both TV dramas and stage performances including a turn in the We Will Rock You on the West End - Dave Benett/Getty Images

How did being on The Young Ones change your life?

We were all surprised by the speed with which the show made us household names – testament to the power of television. I was once recognised purely by my voice, by someone walking behind me in Shaftesbury Avenue.

They caught up and said: “I thought it was you.” I never realised I had such a recognisable voice!

Did the programme make you a millionaire?

Sadly not. We only made 12 episodes of The Young Ones which equates to about 14 weeks’ work. Yes, we got paid a decent enough weekly fee, but any additional royalties you make are based on a percentage of that fee, so none of us got rich on the back of the show.

I’ve made roughly the same amount in residuals from appearing in one episode of Black Adder in the 1990s than I’ve made in residuals from The Young Ones.

What about your version of ‘Hole in My Shoe’?

It was a Top Two hit in 1984, but as soon as I was in the hit parade friends would joke: “You’re buying the drinks!” It wasn’t massive money though. It was the generation after us – the likes of Baddiel and Newman – who really made serious money, playing venues the Hammersmith Apollo and Wembley Arena.

That’s when comedy came of age. However, I made a few quid out of touring as Neil in the UK and Australia, as well as from other spin-offs, like appearing as Neil in a train advert in Holland.

Have you experienced lean times since The Young Ones?

Yes, in the early 1990s – in part because of my divorces. Anyone who’s had a divorce will know that it cleans you out, and I’ve had two. So it took me a bit of time to get back on my feet after some ups and downs in my private life.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory west end show
Nigel Planer’s appearances on stage have included roles in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as Wicked, Chicago, and Evita - Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

You’ve appeared in a lot of West End shows, do they pay well?

I was lucky to appear in the original West End productions of Chicago, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, We Will Rock You, Wicked and Evita.

If you’re the star of a West End show you get very well paid, but it’s unbelievably hard work – your whole life (when you eat, when you sleep) revolves around the show. However, the money isn’t nearly so good for those in the ensemble [the chorus or in understudy parts], as I know from experience.

Do you own a property?

My third wife Roberta and I live in a three bedroom flat in a listed former tin factory near London Bridge which we bought for a six-figure sum in 2012. It’s spacious for central London although anyone who lives in the country would look upon it as a shoebox [laughs].

What’s been your best investment excluding your house?

Strangely enough, a converted Second World War barge, with three bedrooms, on the Chelsea Embankment which I bought for a low six-figure sum in 1992. To the surprise of my friends, family and myself, I sold it five years later for nearly double what I paid for it.

NIGEL PLANER AT HIS HOME "SHAMROCK" ON EEL PIE ISLAND IN TWICKENHAM
Planer struggled to sell his home, ‘Shamrock’, on Eel Pie Island on the River Thames - Andrew Crowley

Are you a spender or a saver?

By nature, a spender, because I’m not good at delayed gratification.

What is your greatest indulgence?

Travel. I’ve been everywhere from India to Japan, and California to Costa Rica – and have been known to blow up to £7,000 of my savings on a long haul trip.

What was your worst financial decision?

Buying a house on an island west of Richmond Bridge on the River Thames in the late 1990s. Unfortunately the island was prone to flooding, it took me a long time to sell the property and in the end I had to sell it at a small loss.

Do you donate to charity?

Yes, the local branches of St Mungo’s, the homeless charity, and the Trussell Trust, which has a network of foodbanks. Both are thoroughly deserving charities.

Do you expect your new fantasy novel to make you rich?

Very funny!  Actually, I doubt it, but here’s hoping [laughs]!

Jeremiah Bourne In Time, by Nigel Planer, is published by Unbound at £16.99