THERE’S sleuthing with a smile in a fun spin on Murder On The Orient Express this week.
As a new version of Agatha Christie’s classic opens at cinemas, Murder on the Blackpool Express is the much less serious feature-length special on Gold next Saturday.
Rather than a train trapped in the snow, it’s a coach on its way north that’s the backdrop. The big-screen epic has Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench and the UKTV comedy-drama can boast a starry cast of comic talent, including Griff Rhys Jones, Una Stubbs and Johnny Vegas.
And Johnny openly admits he was guilty as charged when it came to admiring his heroes.
“I was quite shameless with Griff in saying that working with him was like a tick off the bucket list,” Johnny told iN10.
“I didn’t want to be a creep during the production but I wrote him a card at the end.
“He was part of my comedy heritage with Not The Nine O’clock News. Without realising it, that was part of what informed me as a comic.
“I’d been fortunate enough to work with Mel Smith, who directed me in Blackball. So to work with Griff, not just bump into him at a red carpet event, was great because I got a chance to sit down and pick his brain about what it was like when I was watching him back then.”
Griff plays a murder mystery writer whose super-fans start getting bumped off on a coach tour. Johnny’s the coach driver who tries to solve the crime along with coach operator sweetheart Gemma, played by Car Share’s Sian Gibson.
Nigel Havers, Sheila Reid, Kimberley Nixon and Mark Heap also star.
Despite playing the driver, Johnny says he wasn’t allowed behind the wheel.
“I was hoping they’d send me on a course and bus driving was something I was going to be able to stick on my acting CV.
“But they politely told me what the insurance would cost to put the equivalent of comic royalty on a bus with me driving! So unfortunately it’s all done with trickery and a lookalike. It’s a shame; I’d have loved the chance to drive a coach.”
Some of the filming took place in Blackpool, naturally, and it turned out to be a double dose of shooting in the town as another of his projects, Eaten By Lions, filmed there just after.
“I didn’t perform in Blackpool when I was an up-and-coming comic as the audiences there were more mainstream,” says Lancashire-born Johnny. “So my memories are really of visits to see the Lights and those odd times my dad would fork out for fish and chips.”
Johnny insists the north is still in his blood and it’s only in more recent years – later than many people think – that he moved to London to be near working opportunities.
They have certainly come thick and fast. He’s currently filming the latest series of Still Open All Hours and has also completed another BBC sitcom series, set in the Lake District, called Home from Home, alongside Silent Witness star Emilia Fox.
It can all mean a lot of time away from Irish wife Maia and their two-year-old son Tom. He already has a son Michael, from a previous relationship.
“At the moment it’s fine as my wife’s back working in Ireland where she has family support for my son,” adds Johnny. “My oldest is 14 and he has a week with me and a week with his mum. Filming now is perfect because I’m home just before he gets home from school.
“But it can be difficult as the nature of this job is that you follow the work. The working class pragmatist in me wants to be in work, while the family man wants to be at home spending quality time.
“It’s striking a balance. When I was an impoverished barman and stand-up I always had to work Christmas so now that’s the one time I put my fingers in my ear, ignore my agent and just take it off.”
Murder On The Blackpool Express, Gold, Saturday November 11, 9.30pm.