What a way to make a living! Brian Conley talks to Pulse’s Sammy Jones about working 9-5 with the Queen of Country and his return to Milton Keynes Theatre.  

Posted 8th September 2019

He is a nightmare to work with; sexist, egotistical and a lying, hypocritical bigot.

Unsavoury traits that you wouldn’t usually associate with the deep-voiced, twinkly-eyed Brian Conley. But for the past few months, Brian hasn’t quite been himself; he has been putting bums on seats in London’s West End, starring as Franklin Hart in the smash-hit musical 9 to 5.

In theatre-land where ‘must-see’ shows with glowing reviews tempt you on every other street corner, 9 to 5 has proven the real hot ticket.

A show created by Dolly Parton that utilises the talents of Brian is a heady mix for musical fans.

“We’ve been extended now because it is just selling so well,” Brian tells Pulse’s Sammy Jones, “It is like pantomime or a book, you can put a poster up, but it is word of mouth that carries it. You are always far more influenced by someone going ‘Oh, that’s good,’ about a Netflix series, or when people say ‘We couldn’t stop watching it.’ My family are guided by that.

“It lives and breathes through the audience going away and telling their friends and obviously that’s what they are doing. It is a really fun night out.

“They’ve had to move the band and the pit, and trimmed a bit off so they can get another row of seats in!”

The Queen of Country has been hands on with this new delivery of the show, which first took to the stage more than a decade ago.

“Dolly wanted to revisit it and invest a lot more time and effort into it. It was the essence of a very good show, but now we’ve tuned it up, she’s written some more songs, they’ve cut bits, they’ve added bits, there is a lot more comedy… Everyone was adamant – let’s make it the best we can. I think we’ve got a cracking show and the box office speaks for itself.”

Dolly didn’t just cast an eye on things from Dollywood – the Nashville Queen was more hands on than you might imagine: “She is such a lovely lady. We met her the first day, and the principles had their photo taken with her, and her entourage came to see the show.

“On the second day, after she’d heard how fantastic it was, she wanted her picture taken with everyone in the show – so we all traipsed off to The Savoy where she had a whole floor designated to her and her people.

“We all had photos with her – the crew, the band, the company…and of course she was there on the opening night…”

Which must have been quite something.

“Oh, without a doubt,” Brian agrees, “There are certain things in your life you’ll never forget, and she is quite an incredible woman. She doesn’t do this because she has to. You have only got to write the song I Will Always Love You, and it’s ‘thanks very much, I’ll sit on the sofa now,’ but she is a perfectionist and she wanted to get this right. It’s lovely to be a part of that.”

And even though she has left the show to tick over now, she sprinkles her magic at regular intervals.

“Very often they’ll tell her ‘Dolly, Brian needs a new jacket,’ or ‘Amber is worried about her wig’ and so-and-so needs some new shoes, and she lays down little tapes, so when we have the half hour call through the tannoy it will be her going ‘I know you are worried about that new jacket Brian, and we are gonna get that sorted for yaa,’ and ‘Don’t worry about the wig…’ Brian says, laying on that Dolly accent surprisingly well.

“She does that for everyone in the show, which she knows is a little morale boost. It’s really nice, because she doesn’t have to do any of it.”

The film which the show was based on was made in 1979, but it has been buffed up nicely for today’s audiences.

The brown-flared look and the period haircuts are out. Love Island winner Amber Davies is in.

She is better than good, and that comes from Brian, who was sceptical about a reality star coming into the fold initially, weren’t you?

“Well yeah, because I didn’t know her, and I thought ‘here we go,’ but she trained in musical theatre, she was just about to go into Hairspray the Musical, but Love Island took over, and she won it. You don’t win it because you are a nasty person, you win it because the British public go ‘She’s a lovely lady,’ and she is hugely talented. To have that young vibe as well, has really energised the whole thing.”

And speaking of young talents making their mark, Brian’s daughter is currently feeling her way in the industry: “My daughter loves musical theatre and acting, and that’s what she wants to do. We have got her an agent and she has got her little parts, and she is going to a Uni that specialises in film acting…”

And if she wants advice, she won’t have to look far.

“I don’t know about that I’m just good at pantomimes,” Brian says modestly, “I’m good on stage…”

Brian lives near to Windsor and often takes the train to work (“Parking is easier in Milton Keynes” he quips), but he says he’s at home more now than he has been in years.

“And we always stay up on a Friday night and my wife and I make that date night when we go for a meal.”

At home he might be the romantic, but on stage in 9 to 5, he’s the guy you love to hate.

“It’s a tough part because I am the chauvinistic, sadistic one,” he admits.

“It does send out a great message of equality. What’s lovely is that it’s a wonderful benchmark of how we have moved on, because maybe even five years ago there are things I would do that an audience would have laughed at. But they don’t now, because they realise what it is.

“The audience know that I am being evil and that I am the nasty one, and I have to be, so that when the girls get their revenge, it all makes sense.”

Milton Keynes is a familiar base for Brian who has brought plenty of shows to town, and starred in arguably the best panto we’ve ever seen, when he and Gok Wan delivered Cinderella in 2017.

“I’m excited about going there for a week, Milton Keynes is a great crowd anyway, and it’s a lovely auditorium. There’s not enough roundabouts though…”

Looking ahead, he’s signed up for 9 to 5 for a good while yet, although he’ll step away for panto in Plymouth (this year sans Gok Wan), and he has been asked to go to Australia with 9 to 5 in 2020. “I am considering that – I can take my family over there and then we can enjoy it together,” he says. “Although it will be their winter, so I’m a bit disappointed.”

Generally though, Brian doesn’t like to plan too far ahead these days, which means that shortly attentions will turn to Milton Keynes.

“I like to take the audiences somewhere,” he says, considering the show, “We haven’t had one night when the audience hasn’t all stood at the end. Escapism is very important, and especially where we are in the world at the moment. I think that’s one of the reasons we are doing very well, because people go ‘tonight, I want some nice songs, and a real good laugh.’”

See 9 to 5 the Musical at Milton Keynes Theatre, September 24-28. 

To book tickets visit: atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes