Not since La Machine has the city’s cultural community, including the Press, bought into a performance lock, stock and barrel, and Ghost Stories (with its warning that under 15s, pregnant women and those of a nervous disposition might want to think twice before showing up) has been the talk of the town.
Casting of his character Mike Priddle was taking longer than writers Jeremy Dyson (League of Gentlemen) and Andy Nyman (Dead Set, Derren Brown) had hoped, and fate played a hand when the latter’s wife remembered Burns’ performance in rotate-a-celeb West End hit Fat Pig. He was soon on board.
“We were pretty sure Ghost Stories was a good play, but it is so reliant on an audience,” he says. “But from the first night, the reaction has been fantastic – the audience really screamed when we wanted them to, laughed when we wanted them to laugh, and since then word of mouth got around and it’s full houses every night. It seems to have really struck a chord,” says Burns.
Nicholas Burns’ TV career began with the requisite appearances on The Bill and A Touch of Frost and went from there. His first series as a regular cast member was in Absolute Power with Stephen Fry, but from there things become more intriguingly incestuous, with the degrees of separation between some roles sure to make a pretty diagram if I had the time, inclination, whiteboard and some nice felt pens.
He says: “I did think when I left drama school that I wanted to do all the big Shakespeare plays and that’s how I saw my career going. It’s totally not by design, I fell into the world of comedy, but it’s been good for me. But I’m very pleased, it’s been great fun and I’m very lucky.”
IMDB.com lists the first of these as The Mighty Boosh, which is technically correct when he thinks about it, but came about in the middle of workshops for 2005’s Nathan Barley, which, at the time he was cast, actually had no script and was perfected for a year before it even got to that stage. The misadventures of a clueless, over-fashionable try hard, it was an almost prophetic swipe at celebrity and drug culture and the values of pampered youth with it’s own (very quoteable) nonsensical slang. Burns recalls: “I became friends with (co-star) Julian Barratt in that time, and that was how the Mighty Boosh came about, purely as a mate. A lot of small things like that happen in this business.
“Things do take a while to germinate, usually because of channels wanting to make sure all the boxes are ticked, that the finances are there, that sort of thing. The writers of Nathan Barley, Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker, were incredibly painstaking about getting that world and trying to portray it right. It’s not the way it usually works, it was an unusual way of doing it, where it meant they were writing for the actors. In terms of ratings, it didn’t do well, but those who did see it seemed to have an absolute love for it. It had that cult status, it was quite a niche show. But it was something I was really proud of.”
Nathan Barley stands the test of time quite well, although at the time it seemed a bit of a departure and easy target for satirist Morris. Now Charlie Brooker is a much better known writer too, you can see how their strengths merged to create the world of Barley. Set in a fictional trendy suburb of London, one criticism at the time was a supposed insular nature to it. Watching it now, it just seems like the rest of the country caught up in the end.
“It was Chris Morris who said ‘these people don’t exist just in Hoxton, these people are in every city across the land, in every country there’s Nathan Barleys’. He anticipated people outside London didn’t feel it related to them, but I think if they showed it again it would really chime with a lot more people.”
I’m not sure if it’s the law when interviewing Nicholas Burns to ask the poor man if Nathan Barley will ever return, as it was once strongly likely to do. It’d be fair enough to recognise the time has passed, but in the name of not very challenging investigative journalism, dear reader, yes, I went there: “It probably won’t happen,” he says. “I’ve always said it would be interesting to see what Nathan’s been up to, stuck in middle age perhaps, with less hair like me. Would he be down on his luck? There’s so many possibilities where he’d end up. But if I was a betting man, I’d bet against it.”
(Diagram time: Julian Barratt’s partner Julia Davies had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Nathan Barley. Burns went on to appear with her in Fanny Craddock biog, Fear of Fanny.)
Another role it’s easy to get overexcited asking Burns about is his small but enjoyable 2007 part in what is possibly THE definitive episode of The IT Crowd – series 2, episode 1, where the main cast find themselves in the audience of Gay! A Gay Musical. Burns played theatre director Jerome.
“I feel really lucky to have been in that episode, it really was one of the best ones,” he says. “There was s
ome brilliant writing from Graham Linehan, who has just mastered sitcom writing – and this was a really great example. It was just a little part but it was lovely to be part of such a great show.”
That same year, Man Stroke Woman was a foray into sketch comedy with a cast including Spaced and Sean of the Dead actor Nick Frost. “I had an absolutely lovely time and I’d love to do another one, but like Nathan it’s just a question of getting everyone back in the room at the same time.
“Sketch comedy is interesting as the payoff is really good. It’s not like when you shoot a series – you usually have bits you shoot that aren’t really funny and with that, everything we shot was funny.”
He was part of the sitcom-tastic cast of ITV2’s No Heroics in 2008, in which he played an attention-seeking superhero called The Hotness alongside actors from The Office, The Book Group, Pulling and Nathan Barley, and “that was great fun to do because I’d worked with pretty much everyone in it before, so there was a real buzz to it, like coming home.”
A steady job for the last few years has been mainstream ITV hit Benidorm, where he met close friend Steve Pemberton (up until Ghost Stories, Jeremy Dyson was the only member of the League of Gentlemen Burns didn’t know).
“There are certainly worse jobs than that, but whether it comes back is up in the air at the moment” he says. “It’s always been a bit weird because my character is quite different, a fish out of water, so it’s difficult to keep him coming back.”
The next time we see him on screen, he’ll have ditched the comedy for now, as he appears in Alan Bleasdale’s WW2 drama The Sinking of the Laconia, recently filmed in South Africa for BBC2. We love our tenuous links, and honorary Scouse status may yet await. As Nathan Barley might put it, well futile.