By Graham Chalmers
“It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Robert. I’m a big fan of Great Movie Mistakes.”
After a slightly awkward silence, the penny drops and the conversation continues.
It’s been a long time since comic actor Robert Webb was in Harrogate, nearly as long since PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster first became synonymous with Fry and Laurie/
In a few months’ time, the laconic BAFTA-winning Cambridge graduate will be back at Harrogate Theatre, reprising his hit West End role as Bertie Wooster in the Olivier Award-winning production of Wodehouse’s Perfect Nonsense.
It’s a humdinger of a role but also a bit of a challenge, he admits, not simply because in Hugh Laurie’s performance as the hilariously scatter-brained, upper class twit he’s had big shoes to fill.
“I’m on stage for two hours, talking almost the whole time. There’s no chance for a break. I only get about eight seconds offstage!
“But it’s even tougher for my co-stars. They’re playing six characters each and have to do all the changes.”
Known by some as simply that man in the leotard who was freakily good at dancing to Flashdance in Comic Relief a couple of years ago, the foundations of Webb’s fame lie in his long-term comedy partnership with David Mitchell.
This chalk-and-cheese duo first met at Footlights at university when they both auditioned for a production of Cinderella and have rarely put a foot wrong since.
In fact, he and Mitchell nearly ended up as Jeeves and Wooster at one point.
“The Fry and Laurie version on TV was very good. It’s been offered to David and myself a few times over the years but Stephen and Hugh were so perfectly cast we were never really interested.”
As directed by Sean Foley, it helps that Webb is part of a small but perfectly formed cast for this touring show.
Audiences at Harrogate Theatre in February will be treated to just himself and Jeeves, aka Jason Thorpe, who appeared in The Armstong and Miller Show, a programme Webb and Mitchell themselves wrote sketches for early on - plus Christopher Ryan of The Young Ones fame.
Playing aristocratic fool Bertie Wooster gives Webb the chance to move away from the cynical, lazy character of Jeremy he portrays so well in Channel 4’s hit show Peep Show.
But it’s not the first time he’s branched out from his partnership with Mitchell.
Currently performing in the West End in the critically-acclaimed production of Neville’s Island at the Duke of York’s Theatre, a quick glance as Webb’s CV reveals plenty of solo action in stage, screen and radio, from Miss Marple and The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff to presenting Great Movie Mistakes!
He was even sacked once as a columnist by the Daily Telegraph. It can’t have helped that he liked to write it after a drink - or that he was a Labour supporter!
“I more or less wrote my own resignation letter and my editor more or less accepted it.”
I tell him I was proud to have paid to see the movie Confetti. He replies “you were about the only one.”
I ask him if he’s been to Harrogate before. “I came here with Footlights when I was at Cambridge,” he tells me, “I remember Bettys tea rooms.”
I tell him every comedian who comes here mentions that. “It’s such a cliche.” He asks me where he should go for a drink when he comes to Harrogate. If you want somewhere interesting, I suggest, try The Hales Bar.
Having starred together in BBC 2’s award-winning That Mitchell and Webb Look, Ambassadors and Peep Show too many times to attempt to tot up, Webb remains good friends with Mitchell in real life.
David was even Robert’s best man at his wedding. But it turns out they’re not quite as different as their popular personas might suggest.
“We’re more similar than you might think as personalities. We exaggerate our differences quite a lot to create a partnership. We’re very similar in our comic sensibilities.”
The good news for fans of Peep Show and the shenanigans of flatmates Mark and Jeremy is that it is coming back for a ninth series. The bad news is that it will be the final one.
Robert said: “They’re writing it now.We’’ll be recording it next July and August. It will probably be on TV this time next year.”
Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Harrogate Theatre from February 23-28. Tickets from 01423 502116 or www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk