Best known for presenting television sports quiz They Think It’s All Over and long-running comedy show Room 101, Midlands-born Nick Hancock next month makes a return to the limelight at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, starring in brand new comedy Octopus Soup!. What’s On recently caught up with Nick to find out more...

When TV presenter and stand-up comedian Nick Hancock took a 2005 sabbatical from showbusiness to work as a mortgage broker, little did he know that the experience would prove to be the ideal preparation for a starring role in Octopus Soup!, a new comedy which shows at the Coventry Belgrade Theatre next month.

“My character in the play is a slightly down-on-his-luck insurance broker,” explains Nick, who’s best remembered as the 1990s host of TV shows They Think It’s All Over and Room 101. “The fact that I’ve actually done some work in insurance is one of the interesting things about playing the role.”

The Stoke-born actor has been treading the boards since joining the Cambridge University Footlights more than 30 years ago, and is certainly looking forward to getting back on stage with Octopus Soup!: “The thing that really struck me was the play’s farcical element. It’s very difficult with a new play to have any real idea what it’s going to be like until you start rehearsal, so it’s quite nice to take that risk every now and again.” 

The recent Coventry Belgrade success of Nigel Planer’s The Game Of Love And Chai is testament to the popularity of farce in modern theatre, and Nick is confident that this resurgence is not about to stop:

“Maybe with farce, its time has come again. The classic Whitehall farces and the Georges Feydeau plays were pretty much one person going out of rooms as one person was coming in, so I think the sh0w will be stage-direction-heavy.

“Quite often what happens in farce is that ridiculous events are forced upon an unready stooge, which I think is going to be me, to tell you the truth!” 

The plot of Octopus Soup! revolves around Nick’s character of Seymour, who, as one might expect from a man who makes risk assessments for a living, personifies the phrase ‘belt and braces’. Seymour is preparing for a life-changing conference call when bungling burglar Marvin (played by Paul Bradley of EastEnders and Holby City fame) enters the stage and puts a spanner in the works. 

Nick is looking forward to working with an ensemble cast: “I’ve seen them all before, they’ve all done lots of stage work, they’re all far more experienced than me, and it’s completely terrifying for me to work with them. All of their biographies are about 17 pages long, whereas mine’s two paragraphs -  but hopefully I’ll learn something off them.” 

While 56-year-old Nick’s experience of the insurance industry provided him with an insight into the world of underwriting, there are other traits of Seymour’s character that also appeal to him: “Seymour is very straight-laced and probably quite sheltered in his outlook, so it’s a case of ‘the innocent in the middle of the madness’. The more important thing about the character is that he’s a man of a certain age, who feels he may be in the last-chance saloon to make any sort of impact in his field of expertise. So that’s very easy for me to understand and very fitting to my age.

“The show’s central idea is of being swept up into some sort of white-collar criminal enterprise without really knowing how it happened. I liked the fact that it was quite complex; all to do with algorithms and stuff that I would never be able to understand in a million years. But, of course, that’s exactly what insurance is all about - odds and critical mass.” 

As for the title of the play, Nick is careful to offer an explanation without giving away any spoilers: “The octopus soup is part of the sub-plot and is to do with cookery and animal husbandry.” 

So what can audiences expect when they see the show?

“It’s not Bertolt Brecht, put it that way, but I’m hoping that it’s going to be a slick, funny farce and an enjoyable evening of nonsense and fun. There are four brilliant actors, and me, in it, so that’ll be quite good. And do you know what? If I’m terrible, that’ll make it even more entertaining, and if I’m any good, then I think it should be good.

“Octopus Soup! can be an escape from whatever ails you, to tell you the honest truth. Well, unless your biggest problem is looking after your octopus, in which case I’m afraid it’s going to be a little bit of a busman’s holiday!”

Nick Hancock stars in Octopus Soup! at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from Sat 2 to Sat 16 February