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the exorcist

Actor set to turn heads as he portrays Fr Merrin from The Exorcist

As Paul Nicholas plays a priest in the play of the classic horror, Richard Purden finds him keen to make his mark.

Paul Nicholas has enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a popular singer and actor on stage and screen. In the UK his pop career included the top ten hit ‘Dancing with the Captain’ while in American his song ‘Heaven on The 7th Floor’ reached No 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

On stage, he has taken on the title role of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and has played villain Gavin Sullivan in the BBC 1 soap EastEnders. Perhaps most famously he played Essex lad Vince Pinner in Just Good Friends. He has also successfully directed and produced various musical and stage productions. His current role as Fr Merrin is one of two main characters in a stage adaptation of The Exorcist which arrives in Edinburgh this month.

Based on the classic horror novel by William Peter Blatty released in 1971, and the 1973 film directed by William Friedkin, the play will stay close to those two original sources. The role of Fr Merrin depicted by Max von Sydow remains for many the most iconic and memorable portrayal of a priest in modern cinema.



Surprisingly Nicholas has never seen the film but explains what attracted him to the role. “I have never played a priest and have never been involved in a play like this. The Exorcist is an iconic film but I haven’t actually seen it. I did have a look at Max von Sydow as Fr Merrin, who I play, there’s a bit on YouTube that I looked at.

“I’m not a great fan of horror films and I didn’t want to get a preconceived idea about the part. In the story, Fr Karras visits the house and asks Fr Merrin if he wants to know what has happened up to that point and he says ‘no.’ He just needs to know that this Devil has entered the child and he’s going to get rid of it, he’s had these battles before.”

The film critic Mark Kermode describes The Exorcist as his favourite film of all time and it has a valid place in popular and cultural imagination. No doubt the stage adaptation faces a challenge in living up to expectations.

“It’s obviously a film that people know well and have a lot of affection for; I was interested to see how it would be received from an audience point of view and so far it seems to be having the desired effect,” said Nicholas.


Flourishing reputation

Kermode’s view of the film is shared by many critics and horror film fans. The film’s cultural impact is beyond measure. The positive depiction of the Catholic Church and the Faith as well as its portrayal of good and evil has allowed The Exorcist’s reputation to flourish since its release in 1973. Some of the graphic images in the film are also featured in the stage production.

Nicholas said: “I think it’s quite graphic and if you have any doubts the subject has a pre-existing life, you can look it up. All I would say is that it’s entirely your individual choice—people can make their own minds up.

“Those who have seen the film will know the story and that is, to some extent, reproduced on stage. It’s not the kind of show that you’ll jump up at a lot but it might have an effect on you.”

Perhaps the scenes that loom longest in the memory are of the actual exorcism itself, which the Catholic Church continues to take seriously.


Church commandment

The Exorcist is based on a real-life exorcism that took place in 1949 and the film has been commended by many in the clergy.

Nicholas said: “You are aware that the story is based on religion and there are a lot of people who will come to the show that have a deep faith. Therefore you want to be as accurate as you can be, there are a lot of prayers said on stage and there is also a little bit of Latin spoken so you want to get that as real and sincere as possible and as if you were really doing an exorcism.

“There are people that do exorcisms so you want it to be as factually correct as you can possibly make it. I’ve never been to one but I know how it is done. Within the context of a play you are involving the audience and so it has to be done properly, you have to convince the audience so you have to be accurate in how you perform it.”


Sir Ian McKellen

The Lord of the Rings actor Sir Ian McKellen has been cast as the voice of the Devil, recording his part for the touring production.

“You have to get used to working with a recording,” explains Nicholas. “His voice as the Devil is very, very good and his characterisation of the demon is so splendid, it sounds like he is actually there; you really get a sense of his presence.

“The timing of his lines and your lines is something that you have to get used to, you have to master the timing and response and that comes with rehearsal. With an audience he’s very believable and in terms of effects we have a clever magician come in and do things such as the spinning of the head which is also very effective and well done.

“It’s an atmospheric evening you get sucked into rather than people jumping out of cupboards and that kind of thing.”



‘Geezer from essex’

Television viewers will remember Paul Nicholas as Vince ‘a geezer from Essex’ in the popular BBC sitcom Just Good Friends. The series written by John Sullivan (Only Fools and Horses) is about the on-off relationship between Vince and “a rather posh girl” Penny Warrender played by Jan Francis.

Nicholas said: “I remember getting the script and thought ‘this is gold dust; I’ve got to get this part.’ The writing was funny and I understood the character instantly.

“I then met Jan and thought she was lovely, we did the pilot and it was well-reviewed, people liked it. I remember the first night it was shown I was in Bath and people were coming up to me and saying ‘I saw you last night,’ that always bodes well because people don’t say if they don’t like what you’re doing but if they do, they’ll tell you. It was a wonderful experience and a breakthrough role for me. They don’t come along too often; I was grateful.”

The Exorcist is at various theatres across Scotland this month. They include: King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

from Monday November 4 to Saturday November 9; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness from Monday November 11 to Saturday November 16; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen from Monday November 18, to Saturday November 23.

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