In his latest West End appearance, he is co-starring in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium, where he met us recently.
You've taken over the role of Baron Bomburst from Brian Blessed. You certainly have a very different physique! “Yes! He's a very big chap, a mountaineer and all that.
Whereas you're very slim. “It's nice of you to say that, but I think you're thinking of me on film — which is me as I used to be. There's rather more round the waist now, though as I'm tall, I suppose it doesn't show as much as it might! But I know that when I mentioned I was going into Chitty some people assumed I'd be the child catcher — who is traditionally skinny — rather than the Baron. In fact, quite a few people seem to think I was the child catcher, in the film version. But of course that was Sir Robert Helpmann. I think we must have a similar nose or something!”
Obviously you'll be playing the role in your own style, but are there any physical changes you'll make as well? “The main difference is the facial hair! Brian has quite a bushy beard. My Baron will have more of a Kaiser-style pointed moustache and goatee beard. The result, in terms of appearance, is that the Baron now looks rather more loony. Less genial, or bluff, than Brian was. Slightly harder, I suppose, and therefore a bit more threatening. After all, this is a man whose realm employs a child catcher, so he's not a nice person.” It must be great fun being in a blockbuster musical like this? “It is. I've been in a number of musicals in my career, and I love being at the Palladium again — it's a lovely theatre. I've been here before, in a Royal Variety performance, and also in panto: Dick Whittington. After the Royal Variety performance, they present you with a brass plaque with your name on it, saying you performed at the Palladium, which is a lovely souvenir to have.”
There's a famous showbiz saying about never working with children or animals. Yet you have to work with a lot of children in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “Well, I do and I don't. In the past (like when I played Fagin in Oliver!, where I was the last person to play Fagin on the famous Sean Kenny set) I've found the easiest way to get on with child actors is to do my Texas Pete voice from the Super Ted cartoons. As for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I only really get to meet them on stage towards the end, when there's a sort of revolution and the Baroness and I get strung up. Which presents some problems for me.”
What sort of problems? “I suffer from vertigo, so the idea of dangling from a lamppost is even less attractive than for most actors. We get over that by having a couple of people stand next to me, and I can place my fingers on their heads, so I have less of a sensation of being actually up and off the ground.”
Given that you've worked in the West End over a long period of time, do you find that London has changed for the worse — especially bearing in mind all the newspaper and other media attention given to the supposed state of the West End, earlier this year? “I think London definitely has changed. It's a lot noisier, for a start. But then that's not just London. I've toured a lot, and I can tell you that most provincial city centers are pretty unpleasant places to be on a Saturday night. I was in Guildford on one occasion and was surrounded by a group of youths who said they'd let me pass but that “the next old man we pass we'll beat up!” I didn't know whether to be more upset by the threat of violence or by being described as an old man! And at least I've never run into anything like that in the West End.”
Victor Spinetti can be seen as Baron Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium.