The funny business behind Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights: ‘We had arguments, but there was no rift’
It’s 20 years since the Phoenix Club first opened its doors – with the ribbon cut by TV’s own Roy Walker, no less – for Peter Kay’s Bolton-set sitcom, Phoenix Nights. The working men’s club still occupies a special place in the heart of British comedy. As the series’ psychic entertainer Clinton Baptiste (well, actor Alex Lowe) told me in a recent interview, Phoenix Nights has “god-like” status in the north west. The fans who love it really love it.
Only last year, Dave Spikey – who played seasoned club compere Jerry ‘The Saint’ St. Clair – was accosted by a fan who literally couldn’t leave Phoenix Nights behind. “I was at Manchester Airport, going on holiday,” Spikey says. “This guy came up to me and said, ‘Will you sign me DVDs?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not coming round your house.’ He said, ‘I’ve got them here! I take them on holiday!’ It’s mad.”
Even Spikey, who also co-wrote the series with Peter Kay and Neil Fitzmaurice, can’t resist it. “I watch it occasionally,” Spikey tells me over the phone. “I still laugh out loud. It’s wrong isn’t it? But I do.”
Over 20 years, Phoenix Nights has weirdly mythologised itself. It’s rarely seen on television – apparently at Peter Kay’s insistence – and isn't available on streaming services (“It’s all part of the mysticism,” laughs director Jonny Campbell). There's also Peter Kay’s elusive, prickly reputation. Indeed, the legacy of Phoenix Nights has been tainted by rumoured friction and fall-outs – despite the series feeling very much like a bunch of mates having a laugh – which has complicated the ever-present question: will Phoenix Nights ever return for a third series?
The Phoenix Nights characters first appeared in That Peter Kay Thing, a mockumentary series which broadcast on Channel 4 in January 2000. An episode titled ‘In the Club’ served as a Phoenix Nights pilot, with Kay playing the wheelchair-bound Brian Potter, secretary of the Neptune Club, and Spikey playing Jerry St. Clair, bricklayer-by-day, compere-by-night. Dim-witted bouncers Max and Paddy (Kay and real-life pal Paddy McGuinness) worked on the door. In typically tragic form, the Neptune Club would burn down in the final minutes.
At the time, Spikey was a biomedical scientist, as well as a jobbing stand-up on the club circuit. Kay, Spikey, and Neil Fitzmaurice co-wrote That Peter Kay Thing almost remotely. “For Phoenix Nights we thought, ‘This is a proper series’, so we got an office in Bolton,” says Spikey. “We’d just sit there with a computer in front of us, just staring at it, not being able to put anything down. It didn’t work for us. We’d spend an hour arguing over things like, 'What’s a funnier pie? Cheese and onion? Or chicken and mushroom?' We said, ‘Let’s go back to the way we wrote That Peter Kay Thing’. We did exactly the same thing.”
Jonny Campbell, who directed the first series of Phoenix Nights, first met Peter Kay when the comedian was still at college, and cast him in an early short film. Campbell recalls that the Phoenix Nights scripts were already written by the time he came onboard. “They were absolutely watertight,” says Campbell. “It was unusual to be that organised. I remember they were so honed, so perfect.”
Spikey says the appeal of the club setting was its comedic scope. “Anybody could walk through the club door on any day,” he says. “We could have any theme night on.” And they did: the Phoenix would host a wild west night; singles night; free and easy night; talent contests; quizzes; alternative comedy; and even Robot Wars – all destined to end in calamity.
To get the authentic feel, Spikey and Kay took a "clubland" tour. “The working men’s club is part of our heritage, part of the northern social scene,” says Spikey. “We decided to go round a few and remind ourselves. We went in and sat in on committee meetings and went to theme nights, just talking to club secretaries and club members to get ideas, to get the feel of it, and the right mix of characters. I went to a Chorley club and they told me their most popular night was a ladies’ night with male strippers. They put me in touch with this girl but she wouldn’t let me go. My wife and daughter infiltrated it. We got some classic material out of that.”
Debuting on January 14, 2001, the series begins with Brian Potter opening the all-new Phoenix Club. Filmed at St. Gregory’s Social Club in Farnworth, Bolton, the club is a character itself, with its entertainment room, the “Pennine Suite” – giving a stage to a parade of terrible entertainers – and games room, the “Jocky Wilson Suite”, kitted out with a wonky snooker table and Nazi fruit machine. As Potter would say later the series, “It’s our Caesar’s Palace.”
Club members were brought in as audience for the various entertainments. With no idea what they were about to see, the reactions were absolutely real.
While Kay is the star attraction as Brian Potter – and the plots driven by his schemes to draw in punters while cutting corners (“I don’t know how I think them up, Jerry,” Potter says about his tight-fisted ploys. “I frighten myself”) – the heart of the series is its cast of inept club staff, mostly played by stand-up comics.
Among them are Ray Von (Neil Fitzmaurice) a mullet-haired DJ; Les Alanos – AKA Les and Alan (Toby Foster and Steve Edge) – the in-house backing band; Young Kenny (Justin Moorhouse), a childlike handyman; Holy Mary (Janice Connolly), a religious barmaid who does a cracking Lulu impression; and Kenny Senior (Archie Kelly), a habitual liar who claims to have slept with Bonnie Langford, played swingball with Robert De Niro, and sold Jackie Chan some paint. (Spikey knew a similar chap in his local pub, who claimed he’d had a heart attack during Loose Women but got his ticker restarted with wires from the iron.) There’s also Den Perry (Ted Robbins), recurring villain and owner of the rival club, the Banana Grove.
“There’s a bit of a Dad’s Army quality to it – a hapless bunch,” says Jonny Campbell. “Brian Potter is a bit like Captain Mainwaring. In a way, you can take him back further to Molière, or a Shakespearean comic character – someone to be ridiculed but who’s kind of a despicable soul.”
Jonny Campbell also credits Dave Spikey’s performance as Jerry St. Clair. “Dave Spikey is weirdly underrated in it,” says Campbell. “He’s sort of playing himself, to a large degree, but an inept version. His ability to sing to an amateurish level just slightly – out of tune here and there – is a bit like Les Dawson playing the piano. It’s easy to underestimate how brilliant that is, to basically be a s––– emcee.”
Eternally put upon by Brian Potter, Jerry’s best-remembered scenes are farcical – dressed liked a giant berry for a fund-raising day, or singing “Come get your black bin bags” (to the tune of “Here come the Men in Black”) in Asda – but, like the rest of the show, the best stuff is in the details: the strut on stage, the sparkle of his club singer charm.
For Spikey, Jerry the Saint was familiar from clubland. “I know Jerry,” laughs Spikey. “I’ve met so many Jerrys. It sounds pretentious but you sort of become that character. He’s Mr. Congeniality when he comes into the club. That’s his world. He’s a star.”
As Campbell explains, the jump from mockumentary to drama “expanded the rules” of what we might now call the Peter Kay-verse. Campbell wanted to carry over the fly-on-the-wall aspect. “For me, it was about how to retain the brilliance of That Peter Kay Thing with it now being written as a drama,” he says. “I was keen to retain as much of the authenticity, and have a cinematic quality to where possible, rather than it becoming a sitcom.”
Indeed, Phoenix Nights came at a fascinating time for the great British sitcom, which was quickly transforming with the likes of I’m Alan Partridge, The Royle Family, and The Office (which came shortly after and began a sort-of rivalry between Kay and Ricky Gervais as their respective stars grew). Phoenix Nights was the most filmic of them all: a cinematic lens on the decidedly low-glam setting, accompanied by the incessant sound of naff club-style organ.
“I had dreams, Jerry,” complains Brian Potter, summing up the show's inherent disconnect. “I wanted Frank Sinatra. I wanted Showaddywaddy. What have I got? Robot Wars and alternative friggin’ comedy.”
There’s another nice irony about the series: a forward-thinking comedy that’s ultimately rooted in its appreciation for old-school entertainment. “To be a comedian you’ve got to keep abreast,” says Dave Spikey. “You can’t stand still with comedy. It moves on subtly, with social change and political change and whatever. You’ve got an instinct to move with it. Phoenix Nights has got a traditional setting but it was, at the time, a modern take. It wasn’t something we strived for. We were all on the ball, and just knew what was happening in the comedy world and the way to present it… that sounds a bit hifalutin!”
Beneath the schemes and disastrous theme nights, Phoenix Nights is like the best of Peter Kay’s stand-up: a sharply-observed portrait of working class sensibilities – the nuances, the characters, the unintentional comedy gold. For Jonny Campbell, the first series was a tough production, shooting one episode per week on a low budget – “Watching it back I’m slightly exhausted by how much went into each episode,” he laughs – and keeping the cast of comics on schedule.
“The actors would egg each other on and always want to do something a bit different, like a stand-up would,” he says. “You haven’t got time to sit and enjoy laughing at yourself while you’re doing it. It was sometimes tricky trying to wrangle them, like a bunch of school kids.”
There was also creative friction with Peter Kay. “He had a very clear vision of what it needed to be,” says Campbell. “It was evident, even when I met him at college, he was a one-off – a uniquely intriguing and brilliant talent. There was a lot of modesty around the other guys. Maybe not so much around Peter, to put it diplomatically. Peter was very much the driving force and the one that Channel 4 saw as the star of the show. Because he was being courted and there was a lot of smoke being blown. It was quite a delicate and tricky dynamic when you’re trying to shoot that. I had a really tough schedule to get through. I’m a bit of a control freak as a director – you have to be – and he is too.”
Kay directed the second series, which broadcast in 2002. Across the 12 episodes, classic moments include a wild west night, which ends with a Yorkshire vs. Lancashire cowboy fight, and a drunken, sexed-up horse storming the Jocky Wilson Suite (“You try getting a horse to mount a bucking bronco,” laughs Jonny Campbell. “It’s easy to put it on paper…”); the terrible psychic Clinton Baptiste (“Spirits strong tonight, very strong”); and Jerry St. Clair losing his mind on a cocktail of herbal drugs during bingo (“You don’t own me, you lot,” he growls at the old dears, as they criticise his bingo calling).
The show accrued a strong following, particularly on DVD – the first series sold a reported 500,000 copies – though the success wasn’t immediately obvious to Dave Spikey.
“I worked at the Royal Bolton Hospital for 32 years, which is five or 10 minutes away from St. Gregory’s Social Club,” he says. “I was chief biomedical scientist in hematology. I finished work on Friday 13th in the year 2000, turned my microscope off, and not long after I was down the road, dressed as a giant berry, singing Walking on Sunshine with a 10-foot inflatable c––– and balls, wondering if this was a good career move.”
There has been some controversy over the show. In January 2001, Channel 4 paid £100,000 compensation to a bushy-moustached Bolton fire safety officer named Keith Laird, who complained about a character named Keith Lard (played by Kay), a bushy-moustached Bolton fire safety officer who enjoys relations with dogs. Channel 4 included a disclaimer at the end of the episode, which – for this viewer and his mates – only seemed to make the character more real.
There was bad blood with stand-up Daniel Kitson, who played gormless barman Spencer. In 2003, Kitson criticised the show and its portrayal of two Chinese characters – ‘Ant and Dec’ – by branding the show “racist and lazy”. Peter Kay responded on the Series 2 DVD commentary by calling Kitson “the b–––––d” every time he appeared.
Kitson apparently resented being associated with the series. “I suppose it’s just a bit galling,” he said in 2003, “both artistically and to my own ego, when I do a two-hour show on what I think and feel about the world, only to have someone come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Phoenix Nights was so amazing!’” When outtakes were broadcast on Channel 4 in 2006, Kitson’s face was pixelated out.
Kay revived Max and Paddy in 2004 for the middling Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere, co-written by Kay and Paddy McGuinness. Davey Spikey and Neil Fitzmaurice were noticeably absent from the team. There were reports of a falling out between Peter Kay and Dave Spikey over Phoenix Nights writing credits following awards nominations.
Speaking in 2010, Spikey recalled Kay calling him and Fitzmaurice to tell them they’d been nominated for a Writers’ Guild Of Great Britain Award. “We thought it was fantastic, only for it to go away and for us to discover that actually we hadn’t been nominated, it was only Peter,” Spikey told the Manchester Evening News. “And you think, ‘Well, he’s probably not going to accept that because of all the work we did’. There were three writers… I think credit where credit’s due really.”
Now, Spikey says stories of their falling out “over exaggerated”. “Working in any creative sphere, you’re bound to disagree, you’re bound to have arguments. It was Peter’s vehicle, he was the star of it, and he made the final decisions. We had arguments, but we only argued over scripts or production. They weren’t anything to fall out about, or create this big rift that people imply happened. I never fell out with Peter.”
The Phoenix Nights team reunited in 2015, for a series of Comic Relief stage shows at the Manchester Arena – Spikey recalls the excitement of waiting to come onstage and sing Brimful of Asha to 15,000 people. Most recently, Spikey has reunited with Holy Mary AKA Janice Connolly for YouTube series Rex and Sandra, about a brother and sister on video chat during lockdown.
There have been multiple reports over the years about a potential third series of Phoenix Nights. Peter Kay even claimed to have a third series already written. Jonny Campbell wonders if it could follow The Inbetweeners’ success. “It feels like there might be an appetite,” he says. “I can imagine it would be a big hit if they did a film.” But as Brian Potter says himself about the past: “Can’t go back.”
“To revisit it now might be a mistake,” says Dave Spikey. “It would be easy to do and look back – it’s been 20 years. I would love to have done a Christmas special. But I think the time has gone. Leave it. It’s a classic.”