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Comic Jason Manford on his upcoming role alongside Ross Noble in The Producers

The show, which is coming to the Sunderland Empire in Spring 2015, will see the two comedians join forces for the Mel Brooks classic

Jason Manford who will be starring in The Producers
Jason Manford who will be starring in The Producers

No sooner had I put the phone down on my interview with comedian Jason Manford than a guessing game grabbed the attention and creative efforts of the Culture desk.

You see during our chat about his upcoming role as Leo Bloom in the 2015 touring production of The Producers, the popular Mancunian told me that one of his co-stars was likely to be a funny fella from these parts.

A professional through and through, Jason would not budge when it came to offering any clues. And so it was left to myself and my colleagues to try and work out who it might be.

After a few false starts (Gavin Webster, Jason Cook, Ant and/or Dec and Chris Ramsey were all tabled) and a ridiculous - but very fun - imagining of how Bobby Thompson may have taken on the role of former Nazi musical writer, Franz Liebkind, we all pretty much settled on Mark Benton as the most likely candidate.

The Teesside actor is indeed funny and he’s got previous in the theatre having played roles in Hairspray and Hobson’s Choice alongside his acclaimed TV career.

Job done then. We all congratulated ourselves on being clever and another enjoyable interlude was concluded.

Until the actual announcement was made, that the touring show, based on the Oscar-winning 1968 Mel Brooks film, was actually going to offer the hilarious - but nevertheless utterly script-dodging - Ross Noble his theatrical debut as the aforementioned Franz Liebkind.

I would have bet on Bobby Thompson making a beyond the grave appearance before I’d have considered the Cramlington-born comic.

The element of surprise has not been lost on the 36-year-old, who recently completed a five-night residency at Newcastle City Hall. “If you’re going to branch out and do stuff a little left field, you should properly take people by surprise,” he said of his casting.

“I love The Producers. And I thought, the chance to be in that show, and especially the part I’m doing, a mad German who has written this show, Springtime For Hitler, and wears this mad helmet all the way through, is great.

“And I get to do an outrageous German accent, too.”

Ross added he was looking forward to working with Jason again.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. We worked together on the circuit, and then once you start doing your own tours, you don’t get to hang out with other comics the same way you used to.

“So it’s funny that we’re working together again, but in a completely different context.”

In an interview Jason did after the announcement, he said: “Ross is one of those rare breed of comics who simply has funny bones. It’s a genius bit of casting!”

Sadly for those who are seeing the show at the Sunderland Empire from May 11 to 16, Ross will not be starting his stint until the week after.

Which neatly allows me to draw a line under his appearance and get back to my interview with Jason, which as you’ll remember took place before we knew about the Noble addition to the cast.

On that particular day, Jason still had five dates to go on his mammoth First World Problems tour which, when it finishes on December 20 will have seen him play 280 dates to more than 300,000 people - many of whom will hail from the North East.

“I’ve played lots of dates up there - Newcastle, Durham, Stockton, Middlesbrough. I enjoy North East crowds,” he says. “It has been pretty epic. The travelling can get you down a bit but once you’re backstage waiting to go on, you get this rush of energy like it’s the first show.”

Comedian and actor Ross Noble
Comedian and actor Ross Noble

Of course he’s not just been doing his stand up all the time. A regular on TV - over the years you’ll have seen him on shows like 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Comedy Rocks and Born To Shine, where he took on opera singing, in 2012 he realised an ambition (“I always wanted to do musicals”) and put in a sterling West End turn in Sweeney Todd alongside Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. He will soon be seen in new BBC1 drama Ordinary Lies.

“Usually, no two days are the same, ever,” Jason says. “So it will be nice to know exactly what I’m doing for 20 weeks on the tour. I can have a bit of chill out time during the day and then just turn up, warm up and do the show... he says like it’s dead easy!” Jason laughs.

There’s no doubt the 33-year-old is displaying a healthy respect for the role he has taken in the show.

While official rehearsals for the tour get underway at the beginning of February, Jason has taken it upon himself to book some private tuition.

“When you look at the people who have been in it. Right from Gene Wilder in the film through to the stage show with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane and Lee Evans... Peter Kay has been in it too and all the people who have done it on Broadway. It’s actually quite daunting.

“There is no way I’m prepared to wait until February to see if I can play Leo Bloom in this show,” he laughs. “I am putting myself into rehearsals now. I’ve got myself a singing teacher and a dancing teacher and am happy to pay for it.”

As fans of the film (aka pretty much everyone who has seen it) will know, Leo Bloom is the timid accountant, recruited by impoverished New York producer Max Bialystock to help him pull off Broadway’s greatest scam.

Together they aim to produce the worst show ever and run away with millions. But they learn that showbusiness can always find a way to kick you in the teeth.

The musical, featuring songs like I Wanna Be A Producer, Where Did We Go Right? and (of course) Springtime for Hitler was adapted by Mel Brooks himself and opened on Broadway in 2001, winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards and spawning a film version in 2005.

Having cited Brooks as a hero, I wonder how it feels to have seen a quote from the man himself which says: “It’s brilliant to see ‘The Producers’ being brought to life again with this new production and I can’t wait to see what Jason Manford brings to the role of Leo.”

“Everyone was saying ‘isn’t it an amazing thing for him to say?’ but I don’t read it like that,” he says. “I read it like a threat. This is the man who has worked with the best in this show.

“For me, it’s just about not spoiling it.”

Mind you, as Jason himself says, it’s not like he hasn’t got any experience to draw upon.

“When I was at school I loved being in musicals and plays. I was an orphan boy in Oliver, I reprised the role in Annie and then I played Mr Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors. So I have played a Jewish New Yorker before... I was 13, like.”

* The Producers will play the Sunderland Empire Theatre from May 11 to 16. For tickets, visit www.theproducersmusical.co.uk


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