Mr Flibble Talks To... Flibble's Friend
A planet beset by war. Waxdroid facing waxdroid in the ultimate battle to the mechanical death. But who's going to provide the serious scientific background - and shut Pythagoras up about his smegging triangles? The celebrity penguin dives into the thick of it with Meltdown's Albert Einstein - Martin Friend.
15 March, 2002
Martin Friend
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble began his interview by whispering the inevitable question into Andrew's ear to pass on to Martin - "Will you be my 'Friend'?" - and giggling behind his flipper. Andrew thought Martin might have heard this joke before, so led with: how did you START ACTING?

As a schoolboy, I had a friend who was... inventive about ways of earning money. We found that paper rounds were a little to early for us. He discovered that the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage was hiring ticket checkers. We got those jobs - he tore the tickets in the stalls, and I tore them in the dress circle. It was at the Embassy that I saw my first play. I never saw the beginnings, of course, because we had to put the tickets into numeric order. (Laughs)

I became rather hooked. I saw Michael Redgrave in The Father, and I was so impressed that I stayed and watched every performance. I had this notion that I would like to act, but no idea how to go about it. In 1947 - I'd left school by then and was working as a photographer - a play came to the Embassy called Caligula by Albert Camus. It required a number of young men in a scene where the poets, called before Caligula, are forced to write a poem on the subject of death in exactly one minute. They were short of a man and asked me if, having taken the tickets, I would nip backstage and play one of these poets... the one that didn't speak.

I didn't pursue that until - after being a photographer, a soldier and a sheriff's officer - I heard the news in 1953 that they had climbed Everest. I thought, 'If people can climb Everest, I can become an actor.' I gave in my notice and became an actor. My first play was called Spring Song, with Warren Mitchell - and at the age of 23, I was playing a very old man! I've played very old men ever since, and now I don't need make-up. (Laughs)

How did you get involved with RED DWARF?

That was interesting because... I knew nothing about it! My agent phoned to say that somebody had been taken ill on Red Dwarf, and they needed someone urgently to play Einstein. I went to meet someone and they booked me instantly. I got the wig sorted and my very first rehearsal was the producer's run! I had the script that meant nothing to me, I was learning it as I went. (Laughs)

The second day, we were out in the fields being blown up. So it was only the day of the actual recording that I felt I'd started to rehearse. It was rather a rushed job. One of my students criticised me for not doing my research properly. (Laughs) I pointed out that you don't always get the chance to research in film and television.

Mr Flibble would like to add, for the record, that he puts literally seconds of research into ever part that he plays. Sometimes he even reads the entire script through. How was the atmosphere on set?

It was very friendly - but I was a little bewildered, because of the extraordinary nature of the beast. I hadn't, to my shame, seen any episodes before and wasn't a great television watcher anyway. The idea that somewhere, outside the prison cell, they were hanging Winnie the Pooh... ! Quite a shock to my system, I think. (Laughs)

And the speed at which you work is tremendous. So the only fear an actor has, under those conditions, is 'will I remember my lines?' And if you do, you feel rather pleased with yourself. It feels like improvisation. Once you know your lines, you just have to dive in. It's every man for himself. (Laughs)

You did bear quite a resemblance to EINSTEIN...

I think if one sees a small elderly gentleman with a huge white fuzzy wig and a bushy moustache, you instantly think Einstein. Most of the other people I was working with on that - except for the main team - were look-alikes. Most of them earned their living being Queen Victoria or Marilyn Monroe.

You also put on the accent...

I did an accent - whether it was Einstein's accent I don't know! (Laughs) But he wasn't, of course, actually Einstein - he was a waxdroid of Einstein who'd evolved. So my excuse for not researching was that there was no need. He was technically a new creation! (Laughs) Only physically was he Einstein. Presumably he did know something about relativity, but his only complaint in this programme was that dreadful fellow Pythagoras, who seemed to be totally hooked on triangles! And I had learned Pythagoras' Theorem at school...

Tell me about the FILMING, the live audience...

I hadn't done that on television before, and that was a bit of a shock. You have the dilemma - do you play intimately to the camera, as you do in a real situation, or do you include them? Clearly, this is such a broad programme that you have to include the audience. I'm not sure if I could see them. I don't think they were in my vision, so presumably they were watching on a large monitor.

Mr Flibble had hoped his own episode would be filmed in the Antarctic, giving him a free trip to visit his relatives. But they stuck to a large building in Surrey instead. How did you find the location filming for Meltdown?

It was out in the country, and we had lots of lovely explosions - which I enjoyed enormously - [and] a little bit of marching, which I enjoyed less. Having been a soldier, it wasn't the happiest time in my life. But it was fairly jokey marching! Running through the field with the shells [being fired] was great. Queen Victoria actually exploded, I seem to remember.

There are masses of out-takes showing the quantity of background noise the crew had to cope with...

That's to be expected. This always happens on location in England; there's always something that you didn't expect. I did a live history programme for radio, and we went down to a stone circle. There we were as early settlers, building a stone circle... and trying to hide the sound of tractors going past, and aeroplanes, and motorbikes. (Laughs)

Did you watch Meltdown when it was broadcast?

I did watch that episode, yes. Very often if I'm doing something, I get my wife to watch it for me first and tell me if it's safe. I have to say, she's never said it wasn't okay, so I do eventually see the things I do. But it can be can be a little stressful - you see all the things you didn't mean to do, that nobody else ever sees. One becomes over-sensitive.

I do watch [myself in] Night and Day, and that is rehearsed rather quickly - learn the text and improvise. But that's what real acting is, in its best form. In the moment. There's always that quality of it never having happened before.

Are you proud of the style of NIGHT AND DAY?

It's certainly fresh. It's different to all the other soaps. It has a naturalism and an expressionism, and surrealism, all mixed in. It's delightful that we have flashbacks, and in a programme as 'domestic' as this, I think the appearance of a Rabbi is such a strange thing. [Although] we did once get a vicar in Eastenders.

They usually ends up being seduced by someone...

The sadness is that I haven't yet been seduced by anybody. Oh, I mustn't tell you that just in case! (Laughs)

Mr Flibble tried to convince Andrew and Martin to become 'Penguinians', the first members of his very own penguin-worshipping religion. Andrew held his beak shut to ask Martin about the new Only Fools and Horses episode...

I've just done a special, playing probably the smallest role I've ever played. But it was in France! (Laughs) I did it two weeks ago, and now they'll be in the studio. On [location] filming you do get the chance to socialise, because there is an immense amount of hanging about; it's a totally different system from [studio-based] television.

I was filming, often, at seven in the morning, finishing at six in the evening, then the evening is your own. Well, when you're in France, what do you do? You simply have to go to a bar and find a nice restaurant. Not that difficult, I have to say!

How did you find working with on your two films with Ken Russell?

I loved it, because he's exciting, interesting, abrasive, funny. An immensely rich personality. I thought I'd be scared of him, but found I wasn't. Although he can be very fierce, but his fierceness - for me - didn't have depth. It's like when your uncle's a bit cross with you. We had a wonderful time.

In both films, for some reason, I happened to drive very old motor cars. In Prisoners of Honour, I drove an Italian car from about 1894. The scariest car I've ever driven! It was like a motorised cart, on very thin wheels. Everything had to be [operated] by hand - five levers, only two hands. (Laughs) I had to drive into a crowd and hit a particular spot!

The other one [The Mystery of Doctor Martinu] was one of those very large, lovely American cars. Lot's of honey colours. You have to turn the wheel 360 degrees in order to move the car in any direction whatsoever.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Martin Friend, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble is very cross.