Gareth Hale talks comedy, Christmas and cats with Caroline Bishop
Gareth Hale appears the antitheses of Scrooge. His flushed cheeks, rounded frame and mild-mannered, jovial demeanour make him a better fit for Father Christmas than the festive season’s most famous grump. And he is more used to making people laugh than making small children cry, although he did once pretend to microwave a cat.
The cat incident was one of the sketches that made Hale and his long-time comedy partner Norman Pace famous during the late 1980s and 90s. Watching some of those sketches before going to meet Hale in a north London rehearsal room, it becomes clear why director/writer Susie McKenna chose to call upon the comedian to play the lead in her new family musical production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. As one of the regular characters The Two Rons he showed he can be comically gruff; with a succession of musical pastiches he revealed his aptitude for holding a tune; and over 10 series of Hale And Pace he became a master of comic timing.
Hale was on tour with Pace in Australia when he got the call from McKenna to join her latest project. His West End debut should be safe in her hands. The writer/director and her composer Steve Edis usually spend their Christmases at the Hackney Empire, where their pantomimes lap up acclaim every year. As if creating one hot ticket wasn’t enough, this year the duo took on the task of producing two seasonal offerings, simultaneously devising Aladdin for Hackney and A Christmas Carol for the Arts theatre.
But A Christmas Carol is not a pantomime, stresses Hale. Rather, it is a musical – Edis’s score features everything from reggae to vaudeville – which fashions the familiar story into a play-within-a-play framework. Hale plays Sidney, a man who hates Christmas but ends up learning a lesson about life when forced to take on the role of Scrooge after finding himself locked in a theatre.
"Audiences tell you yes, no and mark your homework immediately"
Coming at the end of a year of recession, this particular festive period is a pertinent time to “retell a story that has lasted the test of time and puts people in a good and positive mood again,” feels Hale.
McKenna’s creation is certainly aiming to be a light-hearted affair, not least because Hale and the rest of the human cast star alongside several puppets, including a mouse and a cat voiced by Matthew White and Sharon D Clarke. Rehearsing with puppets and recorded voices has made the process “technically quite complicated”, says Hale. “You have to stop yourself being fascinated by how good they are,” he says of the puppets, which are operated by several of the cast, including Simon Lipkin who was in the original London cast of puppet musical Avenue Q.
The show also demands that Hale sing, and despite years of musical sketches – including a calypso about Northerners and a song about people with ginger hair – this is, he says, “a bit more formalised”. However this isn’t the first time Hale has sung on a professional stage; in 2006 he played Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady on tour. “That was a real education. At the time it was a bit of a baptism of fire but I went to see a singing teacher for three or four months or so before I got in, and all the music people there were brilliant as well. So they coached me through it. As with here, they spend a lot of time just helping you through it and getting the best out of you, whatever that is.”
While Hale is starring in A Christmas Carol, Pace is appearing in a comedy stage adaptation of Our Man In Havana. It is has been over a decade since the 10th and final series of Hale And Pace aired on television and in that time they have “gently eased away” from each other in terms of work. They still live “weirdly close to each other” and resumed their double act for that tour of Australia earlier this year, but Hale says they have also enjoyed doing separate projects in the last few years. “After a huge period, a quarter of a century together or whatever, it was nice to just get out and find different challenges and still come back and do stuff. But it is a different feeling, a different sensation. Obviously working together and having written material, it’s not a safety net but you know that between the two of you one of you is going to catch whenever the other throws, hopefully,” says Hale. “This is a totally different thing where you are being asked for a different set of skills… but that’s the excitement, the challenge of trying to do something to a standard that you’d be happy with.”
The move into drama – both on stage and on television where he has appeared in The Royal, Family Affairs and, alongside Pace, Dalziel And Pascoe – was a natural progression from comedy, he feels. “The offers were organic, but if I’d thought I shouldn’t be here then I wouldn’t have done it I don’t think. Hopefully you put yourself in somewhere where you’re going to succeed, rather than go, ‘God, he’s out of his depth’. It’s been a very fortunate graduation I think.”
"After a quarter of a century together, it was nice to just get out and find different challenges"
Branching out into other work is also some recompense for the realisation that, at 56, his days of touring live comedy may be numbered. “It was great to go back and write for two or three months, take it to Australia and see if it still works, and fortunately we did alright. It was a great kick. Sometimes you think this might be the last one because we came back and I think within seven weeks we had flown 50,000 miles and you think hmm, that’s kind of wearing now. But it was worth it.”
It has been 35 years since Hale and Pace first met, aged 18, at a teacher training college in South London. Hale was studying to teach English and rugby, Pace drama and PE, but the pair of roommates discovered a shared love of comedy, which Hale aptly describes as the “conversational lubrication” through which they became friends. “By the end of the year we had initiated this little group, started with musical comedy. It was always comedy, from the start. And it was a hobby that sort of got out of control. And by the time we were teaching we were getting semi-professional work.”
They continued to perform on the side until, four years into their careers as teachers, they decided to take a year out from the profession and dedicate themselves to comedy full-time. “We thought if we don’t take a year out and give it a chance then we’ll never know, and at that time there was a pretty good chance that you could go back and do what you had been doing before, so that was how we left it.”
The risk paid off. After a couple of appearances in sitcoms including The Young Ones, Hale and Pace were given their own, self-titled television show which first aired in 1988, running for a decade. The only ups and downs in their relationship, says Hale, have come when writing, which he feels is “more stressful than performing”. But they have developed a healthy way of dealing with any disagreements. “Sometimes you see that as the only road that comically can work, and when somebody is saying ‘well actually no it isn’t’, you have to set a rule so that after 15 minutes of arguing about it, you go ‘right, we’ll do the I Told You So rule’, which is, it’s your turn so we’ll write what you – wrongly – think and then when it fails I’ll say ‘I told you so’. It sort of gets us out of jail and stops wasting time. Because sometimes you just get to this impasse and you think this is really counter productive.”
The pair’s sketches have generated their share of controversy over the years – not least the microwaved cat sketch – so I am curious to know what Hale thinks of the current climate of comedy compliance, in which comedians including Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr have been heavily criticised for their boundary-pushing jokes. “There have always been, since Lenny Bruce, people who have gone for outrage comedy. But, you know, it scores and it works and there’s going to be an audience for it. I watched Mock The Week [the TV show on which Boyle made his controversial comment about Rebecca Adlington] and I look at those guys and think they are very funny.”
"You know that between the two of you one of you is going to catch whenever the other throws"
Nevertheless Hale admits he has his own “comic conscience” which once led the pair to pull a sketch about ambulance chasers, even after it had been filmed at some cost, because they thought it could be misconstrued. The cat sketch, however – in which they had a live cat on stage but actually microwaved a fake one – was a different matter. “When they made the first prop we said, ‘God no, it’s too realistic, you’ve got to make it look like a cartoon version’. We just saw it as far more light hearted than most other people did, which maybe is Frankie Boyle’s argument or Jimmy Carr’s about the Paralympic gag that he made, but those things do come and bite you. I think all you can do is say ‘actually yeah I was wrong, it was wrong, and you want to push things to the boundary a bit but actually no it was just too far and we are doing it for the sake of it’.”
“Audiences,” he says later, “tell you yes, no and mark your homework immediately.” It is that live experience that he loves about live comedy, and he gets the same buzz from theatre. “It isn’t always about laughter but you can see how an audience is relating to what you are doing.”
But audiences at the Arts theatre can rest assured there is plenty of comedy in A Christmas Carol. “Scrooge is good because he’s got get-outs all over the place,” says Hale. “There’s comic elements in that he’s so horrible and there’s a kind of nice light feeling whenever he does turn into his alter-ego.”
Which is a good thing, because I can’t imagine this smiling, light-hearted family man being a true humbug about Christmas. He plans to spend his Christmas Day surrounded by family and friends, eating a large lunch and having an afternoon kip on the sofa, not sat on his own counting his pennies.