Panto dwarf Brian going off to work at Alban Arena
- Credit: Archant
Not many people can say that they are shorter than Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond.
And when showbiz little person Brian Wheeler appeared on the cult motoring programme, he was supposed to be shorter than notoriously tiny Hammond.
However, when he got in the car next to Hammond, he was actually six inches taller than him (“because I’ve got a long body”). So they had to take the car seat out for the shoot to work.
It’s just one of several wonderful anecdotes that the talented 53-year old entertainer laughs about.
Brian was recently confirmed as appearing in the next St Albans panto at the Arena, alongside EastEnders’ Rita Simons (Roxy Mitchell) and legendary funnyman Bob Golding.
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He began his career as an Ewok and Jawa in Star Wars Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) and Brian sees his height as a blessing.
He said: “My first acting job was in Return of the Jedi. They wanted people under four foot six, so I started out acting because I was small but I carried on doing it because I am an entertainer.
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“When I say to people I was in Harry Potter and on Top Gear and in Star Wars they say ‘You’re really lucky’. And I am really lucky. I love my work and enjoy what I do. I just happen to be a dwarf.
“I think it’s a bonus. I personally haven’t got a chip on my shoulder. I think it made me more entertaining because I walk in a room and people notice me straight away, so I can’t hide in the corner. I had to learn to be comfortable to talk to people and be sociable. I’m happy to be small.”
He fondly describes himself as Rita’s buddy and chauffeur, having regularly driven her to and from the theatre, when he starred alongside her in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Cambridge last Christmas.
Evolution’s 2016/17 production of Snow White, which opens on December 8 at the Civic Centre venue, will feature Brian, who giggled as he told the Herts Ad: “I’m actually playing Brian the dwarf. It’s my real name. I am the equivalent of Grumpy but I am not grumpy, I am always happy in real life. I am acting but I play Brian the dwarf.
“I am good friends with the producer Paul [Hendy]. One night we were having a drink and I said to him wouldn’t it be funny, if one of the dwarfs had their real name as their character name. So that’s what we did.
“It’s a doddle for me now to do. I am a dwarf and I meet up with my mates every year. Generally, I know them all. People want to come and see real dwarfs not children or cardboard cut-outs. And some of the film credits that they’ve got… There are decent parts out there for decent actors who happen to be small.”
He still gets regular work off the back of his Star Wars roles and attends conventions and signings. When we spoke to him he had just done one in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire and the previous week, he spent two days in Vienna, Austria.
Brian has worked in panto for 33 years and year round as an entertainer. He said: “I’ve done panto every year. Sometimes I say I won’t do it but then something comes along and I do. I always enjoy panto.
“I just love St Albans because it’s an amazing historical town. I like Verulamium and the Roman ruins. And the people are very nice – very responsive and they follow the story well and enjoy what we do.
“Snow White is a bit different. Usually in panto the story goes boy meets girl but in Snow White, boy meets girl and the dwarfs turn up! The audiences love to be able to sing along and to feel sorry for us when Snow White dies. I mean, that’s not a spoiler – she doesn’t really die”.
Brian worked as an entertainments manager overseas and travelled all round the Mediterranean with different companies. And he played the scribe with the Scottish Theatre Company, taking over the role from a “guy who was five foot eight”.
He grew up in Hemel Hempstead, attending Grove Hill Grammar School, which is now The Astley Cooper School. He remembers St Albans well, having once walked from Hemel to St Albans with the Scouts.
Brian added: “I’m looking forward to coming back to St Albans to entertain the jolly crowds. I am looking forward to seeing the children smiling and hearing the men cheer for me and the women boo me - and you will have to wait to find out why.”
For tickets contact the Arena box office on 01727 844488 or see the website.