The actor is known for starring in the hit Brit show but now he avoids being the ‘dumb Cockney in a comedy’ at all costs. As his new play opens in London, he talks to Isobel Lewis about whether Neil and co have aged well and how he’s moved on with the help of MMA fighters
秒ince Blake Harrison bounced into mainstream television playing hapless Neil in The Inbetweeners, he’s worked harder than most to break type. This is after all the character who has lengthy YouTube compilations dedicated to his dumbest moments, from urinating on himself to asking his mates just how many pieces of Lego they can fit up their bums. And so, there’s the sergeant he played in World on Fire, the hitman in A Very English Scandal, the Russian colonel in The Great. Anything, he says, to get away from being a “dumb Cockney in a comedy”.
Oh, and he hosts a fan podcast dedicated to mixed martial arts, 也. “It’s something I’ve always been interested in,” the 36-year-old muses, slouching comfortably on a sofa. “I suppose, in a weird way, I’ve been aware of violence ever since I was quite young. That makes it sound like there’s been some big family traumas – that’s not the case. But I’ve just been kind of aware of it, whether it be things that I’ve just seen within that community… growing up in Peckham in the Nineties and stuff, even when you think back to the cartoons that were targeted at boys” – he lists off Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ThunderCats 和 He-Man – “it doesn’t matter how tame it is, it’s violence. So from a very early age, I suppose there’s something about me that gravitated towards it, because it was so in your face.”
In person, dressed in a faded grey jumper and jeans, his hair long and swept behind his ears, Harrison is thoughtful and measured, an unlikely thesp preparing to tread the boards again this week. We meet at the Park Theatre, north London, where he’s starring in A Place for We, a new play from Archie Maddocks. Directed by Michael Buffong from the critically adored Talawa Theatre company, the show is an exploration of gentrification and immigration in Brixton set across the past 50 年. Harrison plays George, a pub landlord in the 1970s dealing with a family tragedy and problems in his relationship – all of which he sees as being exacerbated by the changing social climate.
Growing up on a council estate in south London, Harrison wasn’t hugely conscious of gentrification – but then, as he points out: “At the age of 19 I wasn’t aware of much in general outside of what was in front of my face.” It “rapidly” crept up on him as an adult, when friends he’d met at drama school began talking about moving to the now uber-hip area. “我像, '真的?’” he recalls. “‘I grew up on a council estate in Peckham. Why would you, a person with money that’s come from some lovely suburban area, move to Peckham?’ I didn’t understand it.”
From a young age, 尽管, he had ambitions beyond his circumstances. He began studying at the Brit School (which cites Amy Winehouse, FKA twigs and Adele among its alumni) when he was 14 and it was the first time he felt that it was OK to be creative. 在那之前, “the thought of being a young lad that wasn’t particularly good at football but wanted to sing and dance and act didn’t get you many friends and it didn’t always go down too well”, he says. “All of a sudden I found myself surrounded by people that were of a similar mindset to my own [和] were a bit more open-minded about life and human beings in general… Even back then it felt far more open and an environment that people had a bit more freedom to blossom in.” He pauses, 添加: “For want of words that were less pretentious.”
Drama school followed, with Harrison having only had a small (unpaid) role in a play when an audition for a Channel 4 show called Baggy Trousers came up. He didn’t have an agent or think much of it, as “at least 10 other lads” from his year were also going up for it. A pilot, about four awkward teenage boys at a UK secondary school, had already been filmed, but producers were looking across the country for young male actors to recast in the roles that would end up being The Inbetweeners. Harrison auditioned around 10 times before he convinced the producers that Neil was his part.
To say The Inbetweeners was popular fails to do it justice. Loved by critics and audiences alike, it influenced a generation’s language and won Baftas for its puerile, laugh-out-loud sense of humour. 它是, in Harrison’s words, a “silly comedy” and the cast were constantly surprised by its success. “Nowadays we’re getting comedies that are sacrificing sometimes – and in a good way – humour for social commentary,“ 他说, listing 亚特兰大, Master of None, Fleabag 和 Black-ish as some of his favourites. “I think it’s great… if you have to sacrifice a few laughs to do it, I’m all for it, I’ll still watch it. But our show was not that… We start the scene with a joke, we end the scene with a joke, every single time.”
He remembers filming one particular scene in which Neil learns that he might have got a girl pregnant. As an actor, Harrison read the script and considered what the teenager must be feeling, on the potential precipice of his whole world changing for good. “The first time we filmed that scene in the car and I performed the lines, I think it was [writer] Iain Morris… came up to me and was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Well, you know, it’s such a big moment for him, 是不是? His whole life could be turned upside down,’ and he’s like, '不, he’s Neil, just say it like Neil.’” Harrison laughs. “If I had my way, that would have been this powerful moment for Neil to have and I wasn’t allowed that at all and probably rightly because that wasn’t what the show was.”
最近几年, the show has been one of many to be reconsidered through the lens of toxic masculinity. That the teenage boys at the centre of The Inbetweeners viewed women as objects and sex as a challenge was part of the show’s language, and I ask Harrison if he thinks it did a disservice to teenage boys in reducing them to these stereotypes. He bristles for the first time. “I think the whole movement that we’re having at the moment is that we’re realising that for decades, if not more, the majority of stories that we’ve seen are a variety of white male stories, for men, by men,“ 他说. “I don’t think that there’s any danger that the only option people have of seeing young white men is The Inbetweeners.”
What does still shock (and maybe concern) him, as a father of two young children, is that the show is still being watched today. “You’d be amazed at how young some kids are when they do watch it,” Harrison tells me. Really? He nods. “I’ve seen it. People come up to me, ‘He loves the show.’ I’m like, ‘How old is he?’ ‘He’s nine.’ I’m like, what are you doing, you’re not being a good parent. But I’m surprised it’s still being watched now, if I’m honest. We filmed it in 2007 with series one, and the fact that 14 多年后, it’s still being shown and there are still teenagers now watching it and enjoying it… that to me is really surprising.”
Part of that surprise, he says, is the difficulty in guessing what’s going to be a hit. “There’s definitely moments where I’ve read a script and gone either ‘This is brilliant’ or ‘This isn’t that great’ and the reverse has happened,“ 他说. His best bet was on A Very English Scandal, the Emmy- and Bafta-winning series in which he appeared opposite Ben Whishaw. “That was one of the ones where I just read it and I went, ‘This is amazing,’” he says. “I read all of [the scripts] incredibly quickly and then I was just desperate to get the part.”
A Place for We marks Harrison’s return to the stage for the first time since 2019, when he appeared in the West End production of Waitress, Sara Bareilles’s Tony- and Olivier-nominated musical. Harrison played tax auditor and amateur magician Ogie, with one reviewer calling him a “scene stealer”. The role was originated in the West End by 30 岩石 star Jack McBrayer and Harrison says there was a “minor conflict” between himself and the producers who wanted the show to be “like a McDonald’s”, where every production was the same. “They’ve got their thing that they want to do and you want to do something slightly different and you just have to come to a compromise with that,“ 他说.
In the West End, the role of Ogie has become something of a playground for actors with minimal musical theatre experience to give the stage a go. After McBrayer and Harrison came YouTuber-turned-Strictly-finalist Joe Sugg, raising eyebrows among those who suggested celebrities with large fanbases were being chosen over trained actors to get audiences in. Harrison says he understands the practice – particularly post-Covid – but is fairly sceptical of it.
“Rightly or wrongly, I think we will see a lot more of what people call stunt casting,“ 他说. “I don’t include Joe in this, I’m sure Joe did a fabulous job, but I do think that we will see more of it and I’m not a huge fan of it. Lots of people have lost lots and lots of money… and they need bums on seats, [所以] if they got a YouTuber in to be in it, I would understand it. But there’s some other places where you know that they’re minted and they don’t have to do it, but they do it just because they want to get even more minted and I’m not a huge fan of that.”
Returning to the stage after such a long break would be a nerve-racking experience for most, but Harrison is heading back with some sage advice from the 综合格斗 fighters he has interviewed. “A lot of them do say, sometimes you’re not that nervous because you’ve done the work and you know you’ve done [它],“ 他说. “It’s when you haven’t done the work that you’re nervous, so if I knew I didn’t know my lines, I’d probably be bricking myself right about now. Once you get a laugh, boom! You feel your stomach go back to its rightful place and you settle.”
‘A Place for We’ runs at the Park Theatre until 6 十一月