TIME OUT: Acting giant is just lucky to be a Clive

Shaun Williamson (back left), Clive Mantle (back right) and Michele Dotrice  are among the stars of the touring production of The Ladykillers.
Shaun Williamson (back left), Clive Mantle (back right) and Michele Dotrice are among the stars of the touring production of The Ladykillers.
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DON’T be surprised if you see a large man with a famous face lurking in a Peak District graveyard this autumn.

The chances are it will be actor Clive Mantle, visiting the final resting place of a legendary outlaw who gave him one of his biggest TV breaks.

“I’ve often nipped up to Hathersage churchyard where one of my great heroes, Little John, is buried.

“I played him on the television all those years ago in Robin Of Sherwood and I used to go and stand by the side of his grave and apologise for how poorly I was imitating him.”

Of course, Clive is being modest as the series was a huge hit and his Little John well remembered ahead of the films and TV series that followed.

Clive also spent time in Yorkshire as part of the cast of Heartbeat, but it is a tour of West End hit and classic black comedy The Ladykillers that brings him north again, to the Lyceum on October 1.

He plays Major Courtney, hapless orchestrator of the plot.

“He’s a conman who is conning himself in life, largely,” says Clive, who we reckon looks a tad like Basil Fawlty in some of the publicity shots.

“There’s an extra twist and dimension to him in the stage version, which I won’t give away.

“I shall certainly be employing my 6ft 5 inch frame to be as ungainly and manic at times as Basil was, but Courtney is actually incredibly nervous, a conman probably not terribly good at his job.

“He’s been in prison seven times already for failed cons so he’s the world’s leading exponent.”

Legend has it writer Bill Rose woke up in the night having dreamt the plot and told his wife before going back to sleep, remembering nothing until she reminded him the next day.

Staged several times, it was later made into a film but the script has since been adapted by Graham Linehan, who worked on TV hits The IT Crowd and Father Ted.

“I had mates in the West End version so I went to see it. It’s one of those nights you come out of the theatre buzzing because it’s such a fun evening, much funnier than the film although the film is a wonderful testament to film-making then.

“The script stands the test of time but the stage version Graham has written is three or four belly laughs a minute.

The show also stars Michele Dotrice, who played Frank Spencer’s wife Betty in 1970s sitcom Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, and former EastEnders/Extras regular Shaun Williamson.

It is directed by Olivier-nominated Sean Foley, who previously worked with Clive on The Play Wot I Wrote in the West End.

“Over recent years there have been revivals of things such as Porridge and Birds Of A Feather and there’s a definite longing from the British public,” says Clive, most recently on our screens as Will Mellor’s dad in BBC3 comedy White Van Man.

“And if they are going to spend good money to go to the theatre they want to know they are in safe hands.

“It’s like choosing to go out to eat; we don’t choose to gamble very often because we go out to eat a lot less than we used to.

“It’s not that Ladykillers is safe but you know what to expect.

“What’s fantastic about this production is the extra dimension and wonderful script and direction has taken it on to another level for a modern audience.

“Knowing their need for an awful lot more comedy from an evening, it has been cleverly constructed and realised.”

And at least Clive will have more company on the road, having last year toured acclaimed Tommy Cooper play Jus’ Like That!

“It was a fantastic challenge, but daunting isn’t the word.

“Everyone remembers Tommy and everyone in Britain does an impersonation to one degree or another.

“So to stand there for two hours and do as much to get the big man up there as possible was daunting – but I enjoyed every minute.

“It was the first time I’d been on stage by myself knowing the audience is depending on every single word that comes out of your mouth – and there’s not a lot of help around to alleviate their boredom if they’re not enjoying it.

“It is a bit of a responsibility but I’m glad to say I rose to the occasion and I’ll be doing it again next year, hopefully.”

MAN MOUNTAIN MANTLE REVEALS HE HAS HAD TO ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES

BEING a big man has earned Clive Mantle plenty of slaps down the years.

A varied career has seen the former Holby City consultant appear in everything from Vicar Of Dibley and Game Of Thrones to disaster movie the Poseidon Adventure, sci-fi horror Alien 3 and West End hits Educating Rita and A Streetcar Named Desire which took him to the Crucible along with Of Mice And Men.

But numerous roles have seen him getting into scraps. Most famously he punched Clint Eastwood – and his character was allowed to live.

“It was a fantastic experience, one of those dream jobs. We were in Zimbabwe, a stable, uplifting place to be in the late 1980s, there for five weeks with Clint and a load of British character actors having the time of our life.

“It took two nights to film our fight scene and halfway through the second everyone was having a break while they set up the camera when Clint said ‘I don’t think I can ever remember a character beating me up and living to the end of the film’.

“His crew, who had worked on his last 17 at that stage, went back over all the fights and they couldn’t remember one. Maybe there’s been once since, but I was the first.

“For the first few years of my career I was punched by every other member of Equity, in Minder or Dempsey & Makepeace. That’s how I earned a very good living for the first few years.

“It was only Robin Of Sherwood where I punched a few people. But for 26 hours of TV I was also able to bring out a gentler, more sentimental side to Little John and the formidable presence he undoubtedly was.”

Thankfully being a big chap lends itself to creating laughs as well as menace, however, hence Clive’s punching of Rik Mayall in Bottom.

“A fantastic thing, I’ve been able to straddle drama and comedy; some people get so pigeonholed in one or the other. Luckily because I did a lot of comedy early on before people gave me a chance in drama on television I had such good comedy connections that they knew what I could do.”