Katie Jarvis talks to legendary Radio 4 pianist Colin Snell

PUBLISHED: 11:11 21 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:55 20 February 2013

Stroud's Red Dog theatre company have commissioned teacher, composer, and musician Colin Snell to write the music for Dombey & Son, their latest production which comes to Bristol in October

Piano accompaniment will be provided by Colin Sell. Now, we have exciting news about Colin's career. I can't say too much, but if I mention the words 'Van' and 'Morrison', you'll immediately guess... Colin's got a supermarket delivery job. Humphrey Lyttelton, late and great chairman of Im Sorry I Havent A Clue.

Does Colin Sell really exist? Hes the legendary pianist, of course, who accompanies the likes of Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer on the cult Radio 4 show Im Sorry I Havent A Clue. And who, each week, is insulted by the team so prolifically, theres a web page devoted to the art. (Actually, Colin has of late become well known for his rap music... and when I say rap, I mean rap with a capital 'C'.)

If youre the kind of person who prefers a sharp delineation between fact and fiction (or, indeed, who prefers sanity in any of its varied forms), youre probably not an ISIHAC listener. Its favourite game, Mornington Crescent, is how shall we put it clearly? a prime example of Cartesian Dualism. And its well-known stars, the dubious Samantha (so before I nip out with Samantha for a time-honoured blow on the sea front) and Sven are - how shall we also put it? - too busy scoring ever to have been seen in public.

Truth be told, we have little proof that they or Colin Sell exist. So does even he believe he exists?

Theres a great story Humph told. Hed been doing a gig with the band [Humph being an acclaimed jazz trumpeter], when a man very seriously approached him with, Mr Lyttelton, may I ask you a question in confidence? Humph thought, Oh dear. Perhaps he didnt like the music. But not at all. This man went on, Do Colin Sell and Samantha really exist? So Humph wickedly replied, Well Samantha does, and this chap went away perfectly happy.

Colin Sell reflects for a moment. Its extraordinary. Hadnt he worked out somebody had to play the piano? (Well, Colin, that hardly constitutes proof. I mean, the scoring doesnt happen by magic, either, does it.)

But Strouds Red Dog theatre company definitely thinks he exists. Because theyve commissioned him to write the music for Dombey & Son, their latest production which starts touring in September. Its a fantastic new adaptation of the Dickens classic, with the authors hallmark cast of idiosyncratic characters, set against the newly-emerging industrialism of Victorian England.

And Colin Sell? In his life outside ISIHAC, hes known as a talented musician and teacher, who has composed extensively for theatre and radio plays. Which is far from an easy task. One of the important things is that the music should help actors, he says, with characteristic modesty. Theres always something suspicious about productions when you come out and think: The acting wasnt very good but the music was terrific because the music should really be subsumed in the acting and the telling of the story.

His particular enjoyment of working with Red Dog is enhanced by the fact that the company perform their own music on stage. And besides that, his connections go way back. He was at Bristol University in the 70s with their associate director, Jude Emmet, whose new adaptation of Dombey this is. And he was also music director for Lorcas The House of Bernardo Alba, which they so powerfully staged last year.

The music in Dombey essentially divides itself into two parts, he says. Firstly, theres the more sentimental music of childhood associated with Paul Dombey, who dies very young. There was a great affinity with the innocence of children in Dickenss time, mainly because infant mortality had fallen in the middle classes; therefore, you could lavish more care and love on your children because, hopefully, they were going to be there for the rest of your life.

On the other hand, there will be much harsher music, too, reflecting the Victorians hard-nosed values in terms of industry and money-making. Instead of conventional instruments, well be using a lot of the metal in Corinne Hockleys set, to give it an inhuman edge. It was only people like Dickens who realised the inhumanity of the Industrial Revolution: the way that it was corrupting and undermining society rather than helping it.

Now lets pause a second here. Because, in truth, its taking me a few moments to adjust. It feels slightly strange to hear Colin Sell talking with such genuine gravitas after the good-natured ribbing of the Im Sorry crew. Just because youre doing Dickens doesnt mean you cant have a good laugh! he points out. But he accepts that the two sides to his life are strange bedfellows: years of serious composing and a weekly dose of mania. What is it that attracted me to comedy? he muses. Do you know: thats something Ive never properly analysed.

But he does now. And its an apposite analysis. He has, he says, been an avid listener of radio comedy since childhood - Hancocks Half Hour, Take It From Here. And though not a natural comedian himself, it gradually began to dawn on him the role music can play in underpinning humour. One of the key moments came in my teens when I saw the film, Those Magnificent Men. Theres a particular sequence thats an old-fashioned silent film take-off, where everybodys chasing everybody else, and its brilliantly orchestrated. I remember the whole cinema bursting out laughing and I thought: Im not a witty person; but Id love to be involved in comedy as a musician.

His chance came during his time at Bristol, where his involvement with revues got him to Edinburgh Fringe. It was here that he was spotted by the young Simon Brett, who offered him the pianist position on Im Sorry. I couldnt believe it; it was terrifying. I turned up and there was Humphrey Lyttelton, one of my jazz idols. And with him, of course, there were all these comedy icons Id been watching on television for years. Two of the Goodies were in it; there was Willie Rushton and Barry Cryer. I just thought: What am I doing here? I come from Croydon! These things dont happen to someone from Croydon.

It was a clever choice by Brett. Colin segued straight into the mix and has provided among other musical complements One Song to the Tune of Another ever since. So what about those icons? Particularly the much-loved, much-missed greats hes worked with, such as Willie Rushton who died as hard to believe as it is back in 1996.

Oh, how long have you got? Colin asks, with obvious sadness. I miss Willie still. If you listen to the old recordings, the wit he had wasnt necessarily better than anyone elses, but his timing and the angle he took on things was just delightful. When he died, Ned Sherrin said he was a man who didnt suffer fools. It wasnt true, actually; he didnt mind if you were a fool, as long as you knew you were a fool. What he didnt like was pomp.

There was one occasion when we were doing Two Old Farts in the Night [a stage show starring Sell, Rushton and Cryer] at Andover. When we arrived, a piano-tuner was there doing his stuff. He was blind, as often piano-tuners are, and he had his dog with him. The trouble was, once hed finished the tuning, he sort of invaded our dressing room. We put up very politely with this man for a long time, but we all breathed a sigh of relief when, near to curtain-time, he finally stood up to go. As he went out of the door with his dog, Willie simply said, How cruel of them to give you a cat.

Of course, the piano-tuner roared with laughter: Im sure hes still dining out on it. Willie couldnt help himself but he was really very kind and big hearted.

Its clear that comedy is an intrinsic part of Colin Sells soul. But does he ever feel in his deepest, darkest moments - that his composing and teaching, no matter how brilliant, will always be eclipsed by the funny bit? That any musical heights run the risk of competing with the news that Colin was spotted back in 1969 playing with the Stones in Hyde Park: The keeper said if he caught him throwing them at the ducks again, he'd call the police. (Humph again.)

I think if I was going to be a serious orchestral composer, it probably would be a bit of a hindrance because youre in a world that can be a little bit sniffy.

But one of the things Im most pleased about is that the show does have an altered demographic nowadays. When I teach at East 15 [the Essex acting school], I dont broadcast what I do outside. I get on and teach, which I really enjoy. In recent years, though, Radio 4 seems to have picked up a younger audience and a lot of my students do know I play on this silly radio show. Which is fine. Heaven knows, he jokes, they dont show me any respect anyway.

Which is clearly not true. Colin Sell is well respected - as a teacher, a composer, a musician and a man with a gloriously self-deprecating sense of humour. Regardless of whether he exists or not.

Dombey And Son: Red Dog Theatre Company will be at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol on Monday, October 29 and Tuesday, October 30; www.tobaccofactorytheatre.com

  • For more on Red Dog, visit www.reddog.org.uk

Latest from the Somerset Life