He would go on to become a well-loved comic actor but, back in his youth, Nigel Planer showed prowess in unexpected areas.
“At school they had a poetry prize, and there was a guy who was friends with me who did a big, flash thing about how he was the poet guy,” says Planer. “Well, I have to apologise to this guy, because he was so miffed that I won this poetry prize. I kept quiet about it – I was more into acting and being a general layabout, and being a bit of a, well, druggy, not to put too fine a point on it. I was not the sort of aesthetic person who could usually be a poet, and I won the fucking prize. So yeah, he’s never spoken to me again.”
Later in life, Planer made his name playing Neil the Hippy in The Young Ones, going on to appear in a host of popular TV shows, from Blackadder the Third and Jonathan Creek to Episodes and Inside No 9. That’s aside from a considerable career in musical theatre, and the co-creation of the archetypal luvvie actor character, Nicholas Craig. All the while, though, Planer was writing poetry, only occasionally breaking cover to share it.
Now, Flapjack Press has published Making Other Plans, a collection of Planer’s poems reaching as far back as the 1970s, presented in reverse chronological order. Suffice to say it proves that Planer is no journeyman poet, but rather a skilled, funny and often moving writer.
It opens with an eponymous haiku:
Life is what happens
When you’re making other plans
Does that sum up Planer’s feelings about his poetry, then? Was it always somewhat unplanned, even accidental?
“Well, when they came to me and said ‘do you want to do a collection?’, at first I thought ‘I’ve not got enough for a collection, surely?’ And then I looked back and discovered that actually, I’ve got poems going back to 1970.” (On revisiting his school prize-winning poem, though, he realised, having read it to his wife, that it was in fact “awful”.)
He says: “I’ve cut out quite a few of the more self-pitying rants. But it occurred to me that I must have been making other plans. People are always surprised to hear that I’ve been a poet all these years, so it does seem like Making Other Plans was an appropriate title.“
The quote ‘life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans’ is usually attributed to John Lennon – it’s a line in his 1980 song Beautiful Boy – but Planer reckons its origins date back much earlier, to cartoonist Allen Saunders in 1957. Either way, the sentiment fitted perfectly. “Life is like that, isn’t it?” Planer reflects. “Nothing works out the way you thought it would.”
Life happens when…
In particular, the collection demonstrates that the 1990s was a period when Planer’s life took one of those unexpected turns. Though riding high with a raft of TV and theatre work – he’d even had a hit single in 1984 (his cover version of Traffic’s Hole in My Shoe, in character as Neil, reached number two on the UK chart) – his personal life was in crisis. Divorcing from his first wife and feeling the wrench of separation from their son, he threw a lot of energy into writing poetry. The results make for some of the most touching work in the collection.
“That was my period of greatest productivity,” Planer says. “It’s a consolation in a separation. It is devastating if you lose contact with your son – which, luckily, I didn’t – but it’s an effort. So you sit around self pitying and writing rants, some of which came out quite affecting, working out your problems.”
Indeed, that productive poetry period led to Planer performing his work to audiences, a sharp contrast to the business of stand-up comedy that he was so accustomed to. “I’ve dedicated the book to the late Deborah Orr, who used to publish poems in The Guardian. She published quite a few of mine. Because of that, I was invited to a writers’ festival in Birmingham, where I met [writer/poet] Henry Normal, and he invited me on tour with him. It was quite a big turnaround to say I was going to actually read my poems out to people. Henry’s been a real mentor with that. He’s been really helpful. When we first did it, I’d been used to The Comedy Store, The Comic Strip, Rik [Mayall], and that whole thing is very defended. You don’t show vulnerability. Your job is to be funny as hell.”
Before he started his poetry readings, Planer ran a few performance ideas past Normal. “I said, ‘I’ve got this really funny entrance I do where I come on backwards, not realising the audience are there, and then I spin around and then I say this…’. And Henry said, ‘Don’t do any of that. Aren’t you tired of doing that? You’ll have to be that funny and do that stuff all the way through your gig. Just come on with a cup of tea and say ‘hello, I’m going to read some poems’ – almost like Rik Mayall [as Rik the Poet], except don’t take yourself that seriously.’ And he was right.”
In fact, Planer came to relish the experience of not having to perform quite so relentlessly.
“It was a wonderful release, in early 90s, to think ‘I can go on stage and still get laughs’. Because lots of the poems are really funny, and with the talk in between, you can be funny, but you’re not having to do that sort of stand-up macho aggression thing, There’s an amount of testosterone aggression that goes into the act of doing stand-up. It’s an attack. The fun thing of doing the poetry gigs was, no, I don’t have to attack. I can go out and say ‘this is the real me’. That was like a revelation to me. I’d had ten years of The Comedy Store, where you’ve got to deal with hecklers. You’ve got to win.”
Was there a point along the way, then, when Planer allowed himself to accept that yes, he was actually a poet? “There must have been, but I don’t like being one thing anyway. The minute I say ‘oh, I’m a poet’, does that mean I’m going to stop doing everything else? I try my hand at everything. I think poetry I do better than half well, and comedy acting I think I do better than half well. But on the whole I do tend to flit about a bit.”
It’s certainly true that Planer likes to try everything. During lockdown he dusted down some old songs he’d written and recorded a folk album, Five Songs Left (now available via Bandcamp). He’s since written an fantasy adventure novel, Jeremiah Bourne in Time, and talks of possible plans to write fiction in verse form. Meanwhile, with its reverse chronological structure, Making Plans is, Planer says, “like a sort of memoir”. All of which begs the question, is he not tempted to follow many of his contemporaries and write an actual memoir?
“I would be interested,” he admits. “I made a start on one, actually. When I was writing Jeremiah Bourne in Time, I sent it to agents and they would say, ‘no, you’ve got to write a memoir, about the 80s and all that stuff’. And so I did try. I started and I got some of the way, but I couldn’t find a purpose for it, other than just saying, ‘and then we did this gig and then we did this and then we did that’. Also, it’s difficult to know how much to reveal of what you really think, because you don’t want to hurt and insult people. So, in a way I’m not quite ready. I’m nearly there. I’ve written a quarter of a memoir, but it still needs a thrust. It needs a purpose, I think. So I’m getting there. I will one day, I suppose.”
In part, Planer seems struck by the experience of watching his cohorts try to do the same, not least his former comedy partner, Comic Strip founder Peter Richardson.
“I spoke with Peter at some length because he was trying to write a memoir, and every single thing we remembered was completely different. There was just not a single day we agreed on. Adrian Edmondson’s written a memoir [the recently-published Berserker]. I haven’t read it yet, but I saw a little extract and I thought ‘what are you talking about? My experience of that period is completely different’. He’s saying ‘oh, and then we all skipped lovingly down to the garden and had tea together’, sort of thing. God, all I can remember is everyone being as horrible to each other as they possibly could. So yeah, I’ve got a few things to sort out before I can write a decent memoir.”
In its own compact, lyrical way, though – fittingly enough, considering that title – Making Other Plans charts Planer’s emotional journey perfectly.
Main image and book cover image: credit Flapjack Press
Making Plans is available now from Flapjack Press here
Planer’s music on Bandcamp is available here