Katherine MacAlister finally talks to TV star turned thespian Matthew Kelly

"Do you know what I love most about Oxford?” Matthew Kelly asks me in that soft purring voice so reminiscent of Saturday night TV.

“I love that you can just wander into The Ashmolean and see Guy Fawkes’ lantern and Lawrence Of Arabia’s cape.

“It’s so thrilling.”

What will also be thrilling is his latest turn with old pal and fellow thespian Philip Franks in Alan Bennett’s The Habit Of Art.

Oxfordcentric through and through, it tells the tale of a fictitious meeting between two equally brilliant men – the poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in Christ Church Gallery.

It’s set 25 years after they actually fell out in real life.

However erudite this may sound, throw in Britten’s music, Auden’s poetry, Bennett’s wit and Kelly and Franks’ immense acting capabilities and it is a winning combination of stellar talent.

Matthew Kelly has long been on my radar, constantly visiting Oxford in his various incarnations, most recently in Toast and Educating Rita.

Huddled in an upper room of Oxford Playhouse, swathed in scarves and jumpers and squeezed in amongst the cast and production team of the upcoming play, he is utterly charming, and a pleasure to meet, even if rather diversionary, going off on tangents and quoting poetry verbatim rather than answering specific questions.

I enquire about the wisdom of such an ongoing and heavy workload, and am rewarded with a marvellously luvvie response.

“Auden says: If I do not work, what am I. Am I dead? But Hardy said it better when he talked about age being like an old tree. It may have dead branches and become hollowed but come spring, the twigs start sprouting leaves,” he pronounces, before adding: “What can I tell you? I just like to work.”

That we know, his fame reaching such heady heights when he was one of the country’s most famous presenter’s of ITV’s light entertainment shows such as Game for a Laugh, You Bet! and Stars in Their Eyes.

And yet now it’s the stage he prefers according to his extensive biog, returning now and again to TV to keep his hand in.

“I like touring and the theatre,” he shrugs. “I like being in the provinces and bringing people together in the theatres.”

So what was it about The Habit Of Art that attracted him? “Alan Bennett of course. And because it’s funny and moving and it has a point,” he says.

“Alan Bennett gives a voice to the unregarded. But this is more about the joyous celebration of friendship.”

And how is it to play? “Exhausting and exhilarating. I love it,” he says. “ It’s good to challenge yourself and take on something you didn’t know of you could do, because in real life of course Auden and Britten had fallen out, which is why this is fictitious. Their reunion never happened.

Ah yes. according to folklore, Auden wrote to Britten offering him advice and Britten took great offence to it and they never spoke again.

“But if this meeting had happened, it would have happened at Christ Church because this is where Auden was living. He was a Professor of Poetry there.

And both were extremely witty so it’s not a case of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear which takes the pressure off,” he grins. “It descends into a lot of fun and having a play within a play provides a great excuse for jokes. They both let off steam, despite questioning things.

“I met Alan Bennett once actually, Kelly adds: “He came up to me and my son at Heathrow and apologised for interrupting before telling me he had heard I was marvellous in a revival of his play Kafka’s Dick, so he must be alright,” he chuckles.

So it was an excellent day when I got the call about The Habit Of Art. The only thing is I’ve got to do it now and really get a handle on Auden for the audiences. I always worry this is the play that will finally get me.

Does he still get stage fright? “I do get nerves but I love rehearsals, it’s like playing in the dressing up box.

“But if you are asking if I have enough energy, I can assure you I will not short-change the audience. It’s not so much imposing yourself on something as creating something worthwhile. I will just do my best.

But in this instance it;s a but like taking tea and telling anecdotes, which I’m good at anyway,” he laughs, his blue eyes twinkling.

For Philip Franks, the Oxford leg is even more prescient, having been at Mansfield which he describes as something like the History Boys where he just spent a lot of time at Oxford Playhouse. “It’s where it all started.”

“I was at Manchester Poly,” Kelly interrupts and yet Oxford Playhouse is probably where I have spent the most time. I love it here," and with that the press junket is over and he’s off, silk scarf intact, probably heading to the safety and sanctity of The Ashmolean. Who can blame him?