BBC Four is about to add to its considerable catalogue of biopics about dead comedians, with a new 90-minute drama about Kenny Everett.
Best Possible Taste, as the programme is inevitably called, showcases his groundbreaking comedy, but also focuses on Everett’s long-term relationship with his wife Lee Middleton – before he came out as gay.
In the film, which will air early next month, Everett is played by Oliver Lansley, who has limited acting credits to his name – but co-wrote the Alan Davies sitcom Whites. Lee is played by Katherine Kelly, best known as Coronation Street’s Becky McDonald.
Lansley is modest about his portrayal of the zany comic. ‘I wouldn't say I was a natural impressionist,’ he insists. ‘For me, the key to getting those characters right was firstly to understand what it is Kenny sees in the character that he wants to grab on to. He has a real passion for language which, as a writer, is something I share.
‘That was a real way in for me… I found the key to him through his characters; they're incredible but they're still always him. A perfect example is Cupid Stunt when he dresses as this wonderfully glamorous woman but has still got the beard. For me that sums up the characters; underneath the make up and façade you can always see Kenny Everett.
‘The other real moment that helped was when I was preparing for the audition. I was trying to mimic what I'd been watching on the internet. There was a moment when I stopped trying to do what he did and started to use the characters to make my friends and girlfriend laugh and suddenly it came alive. For me it was about finding what he found in the characters, rather than simply copying him.
‘What was also hard was finding the version of him I was going to play; every interview I listened to he sounded different. You could listen to hours of him talking and you wouldn't know he was from Liverpool and then listen to some where he had a thick Scouse accent. I think it depended on how comfortable he was. I had to find the right balance because he had a great mastery of language and used all the tools at his disposal.’
Lansley added that Everett ‘was definitely looking down on me when I got the job’ – which he wasn’t particularly seeking.
‘I'm a writer as well and I happened to have a meeting with production company Mammoth to discuss writing something for them,’ he said. ‘We got to discussing other projects and they mentioned the Kenny biopic they were working on - my eyes lit up and immediately.
‘I actually started to suggest other actors for it! The thought of myself honestly didn't cross my mind as I assumed they'd be looking for a big name. Anyway, unbeknownst to me they'd been searching far and wide for their Kenny and it was fairly late in the day. I happened to have a beard at the time as I'd just got back from holiday and so bore a passing resemblance to Ev, so out of the blue I got a phone call the next day asking me to audition.
‘I turned up on the Monday, the last day of auditions, the last person of the day. Terrifying! I'd never worked so hard at an audition in my life, I even brought my own wig.’
Associate producer Luke Franklin recalls: ‘By the time Oliver Lansley auditioned, the production team had been casting for some considerable time, and was acutely aware of how much hinged on finding our Kenny. Within moments of Oli walking in the room, there was a sense that he was our man. The brash swagger of his Sid Snot bore an uncanny closeness to the original. His readings from the most emotionally delicate moments of the script were a stark contrast, and equally compelling.’
Oliver admits he mostly remembers Kenny Everett because ‘my dad looked exactly like him when I was little’.
He explains: ‘I was a bit young to be watching his TV show but he is so iconic, he stuck in my head, and as soon as I heard about the biopic I knew his would be an incredible story to tell.
‘When I started watching footage for the audition I began to realise how groundbreaking he was in the medium of broadcast; what he did for radio is extraordinary. And then he did the same for TV.
‘Watching his show now, it still holds up. It's a cliché but he really was ahead of his time. He had a real desire to push things forward.
‘We talk about the golden age of comedy and classic comedy but Kenny Everett is more like this generation. He is rebellious without ever attempting to rebel. He is so original, so anarchic and chaotic and full of this electric energy.’
And Oliver needed plenty of that energy to tackle the costumes changes on the biopic. ‘The last two days of filming were crazy. I was Verity Treacle, Angry of Mayfair, Sid Snot, all three Bee Gees, Quentin Pose, Marcel Wave…it was hilarious, there would be someone taking off my wig and a person pulling off each leg of my tights because each costume change had to be so quick. I was like a kid in a dressing up box.
‘We filmed one scene at Camber Sands so there was me wandering along a beach in high heels and fishnets, all manner of different undergarments, a beard and a pair of giant fake boobs. That was a first, but then I had a lot of firsts on this job.
‘My favourite character was probably Cupid Stunt because she's such fun to play, but the giant hands of Brother Lee Love were tremendous. Everyone on the crew had their photo taken wearing them and I desperately wanted to take them home!’
‘I've never played a real person before so it has been an interesting challenge for me. All the other people in the script are still around and spending time with them made me realise this is about a real person who means a hell of a lot to people and that elevates it beyond an acting job. I feel a responsibility, which does add pressure, but on the flip side it focuses you and stops you from being a self-indulgent actor.
‘When I was researching the role I asked everyone involved, “what is the one thing I should keep hold of?”, and they all said Ev's childlike quality. He was a life force who affected everyone he was around but he had a sort of innocence to him. He never thought he was going to get hurt and you can see that he always got into trouble because he never quite thought it would end the way it did. He was incredibly naughty, always pushing the boundaries.
‘And he had such a love for the BBC, right from when he was young and listened to the World Service. He had a passion for it and was frustrated it wasn't as good as he wanted it to be. The way he always pushed them came from him wanting the BBC to be more groundbreaking - it was a paternal relationship and he was a wayward child trying to please them, which is why it feels so right doing this film for the Beeb now.
‘What I love about the script is that it has real warmth to it. It touches on harder times in his life but it is very joyous and celebratory of Ev and his work and at the centre is this unique and wonderful love story between him and Lee. It's about a connection between two people; such a bittersweet story. And it was a similar love story with his work, the other constant in his life, and the love-hate relationship he had with himself. Kenny was such a bundle of contradictions, and this is about him trying to find acceptance of himself.
‘Writer Tim Whitnall did an extraordinary job with the script. There is so much in it and to be able to weave that into a cohesive story is unbelievable. It blisters with affection and knowledge of its subject. Fundamentally he cares about Ev and that's what made it easier for me: it was all there and I never had to question it.’ Associate producer Luke Franklin agrees: ‘The task of distilling the multiple, often chaotic strands of Kenny Everett’s remarkable and eventful life into 90 minutes of drama felt like an ambitious one, right from the off. It soon became clear that the script was likely to focus upon Kenny’s relationship with Lee Middleton, to whom Kenny was married for almost a decade and a half. It was through the prism of this defining relationship that Tim Whitnall felt Kenny’s story could best be told.
‘The period of Kenny and Lee’s relationship encompassed Kenny’s rise to fame in the UK, his coming to terms with his sexuality – but also worked as an unconventional love story in its own right.
‘Together with her husband, John Alkin, Lee was the first consultant to come on board the project, to which she gave invaluable support and access to her archives – as well as notes on the accuracy of the script at each draft stage.
‘Kenny’s long-time manager and friend Jo Gurnett was the other major consultant, especially on those elements which dealt with Kenny’s professional life. Barry Cryer - Kenny’s colleague and co-writer owas also a script consultant, as was journalist David Lister, the author of Kenny’s biography In The Best Possible Taste.’
Guest stars include Adam Garcia, James Wilby, Jonathan Kerrigan, James Floyd as Freddie Mercury and Simon Callow as Dickie Attenborough.
Richard Klein, controller of BBC Four, says: ‘Kenny Everett was a genuine original: wild and un-focused maybe, but also deliciously anarchic and always entertaining. In many ways Kenny was a very modern celebrity, wearing his heart on his sleeve while coping with a complex life. Re-evaluating this talented and exuberant personality, enabling audiences to re-consider Kenny’s undoubted impact and legacy, makes this a very BBC Four drama.'