Comedian Russ Abbot on switching to the madhouse, the workhouse and Wentworth
Back on stage playing Fagin in the West End production of Oliver!, comedy legend Russ Abbot has been thrust firmly into the spotlight again. Here, the Wentworth resident chats to Sarah Peters about everything from the lure of live theatre to his great love of golf and his favourite local restaurants
Backstage at London’s Theatre Royal, in the light of the stark, white bulbs around a dressing room mirror, Russ Abbot undergoes the transformation. With carefully painted brush strokes, a swathe of ash-coloured rouge and a droopy, fake beard with matching lanky hair, he gradually becomes one of Dickens’ most famous characters: Fagin.
Perhaps rather better known for his TV comedy, such as Russ Abbot’s Madhouse back in the Eighties, he is no stranger to the stage, however, having previously starred in musicals including My Fair Lady; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; Doctor Dolittle; and The Producers. And now, following his recent TV stint in Last Of The Summer Wine, he’s back on stage again in Oliver!, and loving every moment.
Picking a pocket
“Fagin is such a great character, and I’m enjoying it immensely!” says the 62-year-old, who has previously played the role of Fagin at the Palladium Theatre Royal and on tour. “I stood in for Rowan Atkinson when he was ill last year and it’s great to be back! Live theatre is very special. You can’t beat it!”
And, of course, the other great thing is that it’s only a short journey from his Surrey home, just down the road in Wentworth. Russ has lived in the county, with his wife Trish and their four children, since 1985. Chester born and bred, he moved down here to be closer to the studios of the BBC, London Weekend Television and the theatres of the West End.
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“Moving to Surrey was the only way to get a proper family life back,” he says in his gentle Chester tones. “I was filming so much down here but wanted to see more of the family. We weighed up the pros and cons and decided to move within striking distance of London. We ended up in Wentworth and it has been ideal. We have loved living in this area.”
Russ insists, with a twinkle in his eye, that choosing Wentworth had nothing to do with the house’s proximity to the nearby golf course. “Well, just a bit,” he adds with a wry smile.
Both Russ and his wife play golf a few times a week and he admits that she can, and does, beat him. “It depends if the wind’s in the right direction and how forward the ladies’ tees are. She is very good, actually, and it’s great that we can play together... except when she is playing too well.”
Celebrity golf pals
His pro-celebrity golf tournament, the Russ Abbot Classic, takes place every May at Kingswood Golf Club in aid of the Royal Variety Club of Great Britain. The event has been running for some 15 years and raises thousands of pounds to buy special Sunshine Coaches for sick, disabled and disadvantaged children.
“I can’t believe it’s been going so long and even in this current economic climate we still manage to raise so much money. We raised enough to buy four coaches this year. It’s an amazing achievement for a one-day golf event. When you see the look on the children’s faces, it’s just wonderful.”
Russ usually calls on a few golfing pals to make up the celebrity element of the teams. He reels off a list of comedy legends as reliable friends he can recruit. “Tarby, Brucie, little Ronnie... even Eric Sykes comes. He has practically lost his sight now but he still turns up for breakfast to show his support.”
Although comedy is his business, Russ takes his work incredibly seriously. Before each performance of Oliver!, he does a vocal warm-up with the company and a series of stretches to avoid any damage. He is dedicated to the point that even his beloved golf may suffer over the next six months.
“I’ll be playing less golf because when I commit to a show, I like to reserve all my energies for it. I pace myself through the day so by 7.30pm I am raring to go; geared up physically and psyched up to go on stage.”
Sunday is now his golfing day and he heads to Wentworth whenever he can.
“It’s a magnificent course to play and the Club House is second to none. The Dining Room is headed by Richard Caring so we have a ‘Le Caprice’ menu. It is exceptional.”
Russ enjoys all sorts of cuisine: Indian, Italian, Chinese and traditional English. Apparently, he’s a dab hand at concocting creations at home and enjoys putting all sorts of dishes together. A perfect day off would feature a round of golf, some pottering in the garden and perhaps a steak au poivre and a glass of good red wine to finish.
“I like all sorts of food and will try anything. In Virginia Water, there is Casa Nova, a great Italian; The Jade Fountain, a superb Chinese; and my local curry house, The Viceroy of India, is excellent, too. There is a dish on the menu that has my initials next to it because I created it! Chicken Tikka Pathia was my suggestion: it’s sweet, sour and spicy. Although now whenever I go in, I feel I always have to have it.”
Having once been the king of Saturday night viewing himself, Russ is rather less enthusiastic about current weekend programmes. “Weekend TV today is a mixed bag,” he says diplomatically. “I’m not interested in watching programmes like Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor until the final, because then you get to see the talent. I couldn’t watch the whole series. I can’t bear the idea of watching Daleks marching or bad singers crooning.”
Come winter, Russ usually heads off to Barbados to escape the cold. Not surprising, really, as he is guaranteed perfect weather and ideal golfing conditions.
“Barbados is a golfer’s paradise,” he says. “The Royal Westmoreland is out of this world. The Apes Hill Club, only opened last year, is sensational: perfect greens overlooking the sea.”
It’s lucky that his wife, Trish, plays golf, because the two of them travel all over to play: Barbados, Portugal and Florida are all favourite destinations. They do have their grievances occasionally: “Mostly on the golf course, but that’s only natural”.
The couple got married in 1967 and they have four children: Erika, Richard, Gary and Christopher. His two grandchildren are Laine, aged 15, and six-year-old Charlotte.
During his run as Fagin, he will be able to commute home most days, but when he does stay up in London he will be at The Garrick Club, the famous actors’ club.
“It’s easier to stay overnight in London the day before a matinee as it means I don’t have to rush from Surrey in the morning,” he explains. “Although Surrey is close, that’s why we moved there, I am much happier being just a walk away from the theatre. I don’t like taking risks and always arrive early for a performance.”
Bit of a worryguts
Russ is a self-confessed “worryguts” and finds himself stressing about the smallest things.
“Even after all these years, I worry: about the child standing too close to the edge of the railway platform or what I have said to someone and whether they will take it the wrong way. I can’t help it.”
He doesn’t know what’s next career-wise, but he’s certainly not worrying about that. One thing is sure, judging by his brilliant performance as Fagin (his light-footed dancing, tuneful singing voice and classic comic-timing for which he is so famous), Russ Abbot is set to carry on for a long time yet... both on stage and on the golf course. Bravo!
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurant: The Dining Room in The Club House at Wentworth Golf Club.
Shop: The shops just over the border at Windsor are nice. I love the town of Windsor; it’s a lovely place to visit.
View: Virginia Water at Windsor Great Park. Lovely for a relaxed stroll in the afternoon.
Place to chill: In my garden, watering my pots at the end of the day with a glass of wine ready for when I have finished deadheading all the flowers.
Place to visit: Wentworth Golf Course for a round and lunch in The Grill afterwards.