Instantly recognisable to millions of TV viewers as dentist Roger Bailey from BBC One’s My Family, there’s much to Keiron Self. Originally from Newport, Keiron has carved out a successful career as a TV and stage actor, as well as a prolific writing career.
With writing partner Giles New, Keiron has written scripts for Shaun the Sheep, and contributed sketches for That Mitchell and Webb Look for BBC2. They have worked extensively with BBC Wales, writing for all four series of of the cult Welsh comedy sketch show Lucky Bag, and several radio comedies for BBC Radio Wales.
The Welsh Menu met up with Keiron at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff to talk about his life, career and food.
How did you become an actor?
I’d always been interested in drama and was involved in shows in school. I was also interested in English, and had the opportunity to go for an Oxford University entrance exam, so I did that thinking it would never come to anything, but I got in and had a place in New College. I did a three year English degree there, and took the opportunity to do lots of drama while I was there, including plays and acting as compere to comedy shows, which allowed me to meet a few people I still know today.
From there I went to Welsh College (of Music & Drama) for a year to do a post grad course and since then I’ve been lucky enough to keep my head above water. I’ve been very lucky to get to do something I love doing, so I feel charmed. I also write, so that’s become a supplementary income and it’s something positive to focus on when I’m not acting, and stops me going mad!
You’re probably best known to most people as Roger Bailey from My Family, and you have played a number of loveable fools. How similar are you to these characters?
I don’t know really, there’s something about these fools, naïve fools a lot of them are. I think it’s because I’ve got a round face, and that’s why people seem to cast me in these roles – I have an open face.
It’s been great, but with Mappa Mundi Theatre Company, I’ve also had the chance to play other roles – we did Dangerous Liaisons a couple of years ago and I played Valmont which was great, getting the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t normally do.
I had great fun doing My Family, and you can’t not do something that’s so popular, working with the likes of Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker – I was very lucky to get the job. The final series has now been shown, but we finished filming a couple of years ago. Eleven series is a good run.
You mention Dangerous Liaisons and it must be good to get the opportunity to play some darker characters – you don’t get much more bad boy that Valmont. What’s your preference, good guy or bad guy?
It’s great to be able to mix it up, and nice to have the opportunity to do different things. So many actors don’t have that opportunity, so just to have a crack at them, and hopefully not totally embarrass myself in the process is great. I think any actor would relish as much variation as possible, because that’s what keeps you ticking over creatively and manage yourself – if you keep on repeating the same thing, you can become a bit dull. Variety is the spice of life.
Did you adapt the play?
The director, Lloyd, adapted the play, based on the original letters rather than Christopher Hampton’s play, so we went back to the source story, a diary and letter based novel, used that as the backbone and then played about with it and changed certain aspects. This is something the company has always done, with Shakespeare as well, we don’t subscribe to necessarily keeping things as they are.
I adapted Moll Flanders a few years ago, and changed the end of that to make it much darker, even though it’s a bit of a romp, just because it didn’t make sense to us as a company and felt it would be more interesting for that to happen. Also because they’re out of copyright we can – Shakespeare may turn in his grave over some of the things we’ve done! It’s something we really like to do.
The last play the company performed is Much Ado about Nothing, and along with Dangerous Liaisons and The Rivals, all deal in some respect with the ideas of infidelity and deception. Why do you think these issues lend themselves so well to theatre?
I think everyone’s interested in them aren’t they? Everybody can identify with a lot of stuff to a greater or lesser degree – everyone knows what it’s like to be wronged, everyone knows what it’s like to fall in love and perhaps have your heart broken. They are universal themes. There’s a darkness to Dangerous Liaisons which may be missing in the others, but I think they’re universal themes and the same has been the same across the centuries.
Sheridan wrote The Rivals back in 1774, and it’s still getting laughs today, and the audience still get the characters falling in love and the issues of class, status, couples not seeming right, people being in love with the idea of being in love, and people just being genuine about it.
Human nature hasn’t really changed, fortunately and unfortunately to a certain extent, and so I think these works have stood out as they’re well crafted pieces of work.
The Rivals was your first foray into the West End, what was the experience of working with Sir Peter Hall and that company like?
It was very intimidating. We were away on holiday in Europe and I had to come back early to start rehearsals and it was a bit of a major culture change. And it’s him! Sir Peter Hall! He’s been responsible for so much of the theatre people see, and involved in setting up The National Theatre, so it was very intimidating. But he was lovely!
He’s eighty, but he was so sharp with direction, and because he carries all this weight and gravitas with him, anything he gives you as a note you take on board, accept and appreciate. It was great.
Also working with people like Tony Gardner and Tam Williams was great – I made some good friends.
How do you fit your work life around your family life?
With The Rivals, the job came up and it was just a great opportunity. We didn’t know it was going to go into the West End initially, so you commit to the tour, which was due to end in November, which would have made it a three month job, but then it got extended into the West End because it went down so well and people came to see it, we had Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles on board which attracted a lot of people.
We didn’t know until the end of September that it was going to London, and as an actor to have that much time in work is just fantastic with security. But it meant I needed to be away from home for longer, juggling and worrying about the family, so it’s always a balancing act, and I went with the job for the opportunities it presented me.
I’d never been in the West End before, and you can’t turn down the opportunity to work with Sir Peter Hall – it would be rather churlish to do so!
You’re also a writer. You’ve adapted stage works but you’ve also written original work for people like Mitchell and Webb, and Shaun the Sheep
Yes! I write with a guy I was at Welsh College with, Giles New – he arrested Johnny Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film!
We’ve written together for years and we’ve had a number of pilots made, and have written for different sketch shows – there was a Welsh show called Lucky Bag, and we’ve done a lot of things for radio, including Radio Wales and Radio Four, Mitchell and Webb initially on radio and then for the television show, and various bits and bobs for other comedy sketch shows, but we’ve also done a Disney animated show which we’ve written a number of episodes for, and we’ve got two film projects in development.
How do you get your creative juices flowing when you’re preparing to write?
Lots of chatting really. He lives in Brighton and I’m in Cardiff, so it’s mainly done via Skype, so it’s a different way of working. When we get together, it’s much better and we can get things moving a lot quicker, but we both have families and it’s quite tricky. It’s all go!
What’s the difference in approach for you when adapting something or writing something original?
We’ve recently been working on an adaptation of The Canterville Ghost, a short story by Oscar Wilde that’s forty pages long. A lot of what happens in the book is unseen, and there’s a false ending to it concerning a supernatural event that the reader never gets to know about, so we’ve had to flesh things like that out and add our own words to it, while keeping true to the original.
It’s the same with other things I’ve adapted, like The Canterbury Tales for Mappa Mundi, so we’d take a tale and put a spin on it – one was in the style of Under Milkwood, one became a big song and dance number referencing everything from Goldie Lookin’ Chain to Amy Winehouse, so really it’s whatever clicks with you and makes it fun, especially with Mappa Mundi, as everyone is involved in the process – it’s an ensemble approach to it. We have the bare bones and the script is there but ideas come out in rehearsal.
As an actor, do you have any particular regime with food when preparing for a role?
Apart from hoping that I look really toned, no!
Last year I did a show in the West End (The Rivals), and there were often two show a day, I was living away from home and staying in a friend’s house so I could cook there but it wasn’t close to any shops so I would grab things where I could. I ended up losing quite a bit of weight, as I’d have a soup and salad, and something to nibble on before the evening show, but it would just depend.
It was a very long time for me to be away from home, and being in London, trying not to spend too much money, so unfortunately there were quite a lot of supermarket meal deals, as there really wasn’t time to prepare much as by the time I got back to digs it was practically midnight and there was no opportunity to cook in the theatre, so I just had to grab what I could. It was a long process, but that’s part of the job – if I’d been in Cardiff it wouldn’t have been an issue, but you have to go where the jobs take you, and it was great as it was the first time I’d been in the West End. It was good fun, but I got the point where I couldn’t face another Pret a Manger salad.
Are there any memories of food that stick in your mind from childhood?
It has to be big Sunday dinners – I remember having a massive Sunday dinner at my Granny’s, who had a big house in Newbridge and a family of twelve. It was a great dinner and I can still taste the gravy – I don’t know what she put in it, but I’ve never tasted anything like it since.
I remember lots of big family get togethers for meals and Sunday roasts, but I also remember all the rubbish food of the 1970s too like crispy pancakes and “God-knows-where-this-meat-has-come-from” beefburgers.
My mum experimented now and again but she worked nights, and my dad worked days so we’d tend to struggle through with bits and bobs.
Essentially my memory of childhood food is Sunday roasts. My Gran died when I was four, but she was a great cook and as she’d been so used to slow cooking en masse as she had to cater for twelve sons and daughters, then I can remember it very clearly, probably my first memory of food, but it just tasted fantastic and not like anything before or since. Obviously there was an art to it, and things change but that’s remained a constant memory. It was funny because we’d have this huge Sunday lunch and then we’d go to visit a relative in the afternoon and have a massive tea, every Sunday.
My mum would occasionally do a Stroganoff or something – it all seems a bit Mike Leigh now, but it was all prawn cocktails and Berni Inns!
Are you a good cook?
No! I’d say that I can do some things very confidently – my Spaghetti Bolognese is great, and I’ve branched out into a Caribbean prawn curry, but it’s gauging what the kids will eat as well. During the winter we like to slow cook lamb tagine and things like that.
My wife is a fantastic cook, but when she’s busy the kids have to make do with whatever I can come up with!
We don’t currently grow our own vegetables – we wanted an allotment and looked into it, but with the nature of our work it was too difficult, as you never really know when you’re going to be around to do stuff with it, and we haven’t got a garden unfortunately, only a patio area.
How important is local food to you?
It’s very important, I always go to the Riverside Food Market and grab a few things there, and I think local produce is the way to go really, and just supporting a local producer or market rather than an anomalous corporate thing is the right thing to do – it’s better to give back to your local community. We use local butchers when we can, but sometimes you can’t, but obviously if you can it’s better and it just tastes so much better. They know their stuff too.
When you’re at home are there any food shops or restaurants that you like?
Yes – Vegetarian Food Studio, Bankok Café, Cinammon Tree, the kids love Wagamama. We can’t go too experimental, it’s really about where we can go with the kids. All the places that we’d like to try out are a bit out of bounds at the moment.
What does Welsh food mean to you?
I think it’s quite hard to place as it’s not as clear cut as say French or Italian, it’s almost an amorphous blend and a fusion of different things and different cultures now. People are now taking on board other cultures cuisine and doing what they want with it.
We go to places we like and try to educate the kids to develop their palates and eat stuff you enjoy as well, while hopefully challenging them a little bit.
My mum always used to make Welshcakes on the traditional bakestone, and still does, and it’s that sort of thing that you think of as Welsh food, certainly for me, as everything now seems to be such a blend. Specifically Welsh dishes like cawl, or dishes with a Welsh influence don’t appear on many restaurant menus.