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Saturday, 30 August 2014

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Longtown actor is man behind TV's most famous meerkat

He’s cute, furry, funny and sophisticated in his silk dressing gown. And he’s captured the funnybone of the nation with his “Simples!” catchphrase and trademark squeak.

But the next time you watch a certain TV Meerkat advert, think of Cumbria. More especially, think of Longtown.

Aleksandr Orlov, the Meerkat star of the ads, is voiced by local lad Simon Greenall.

But it wasn’t the Russian voice of Aleksandr or the rounded tones of an actor that crackled over the phone when we called him for a chat.

“Y’allreet? How’s tha’ doin’?”

He’s not lost his accent then? There’s a switch to posh upper class English and he adds: “No, oh, no, good Lord no.”

Then he changes gear again, this time to his normal, accent-free ‘actor’s voice’.

“Nah, I don’t talk like that – but whenever I get asked for a character, I always try and slip in a Cumbrian accent.

“But they always say ‘what on earth is that?’ so I have to use another.”

Voiceovers weren’t a career choice at Simon’s secondary school in Longtown.

He didn’t do too well at Lochinvar but he went on an acting course, then made a name and several voices for himself in London.

He’s now a highly-regarded specialist working on TV programmes, computer games, radio shows and that meerkat ad.

We chat as Simon walks from one recording studio to another in Soho – London’s ad-land. He’s just finished dubbing a new Comfort fabric conditioner advert and is on his way to provide a voice for the new Pirates of
the Caribbean video game.

“I’m a 1,000-year-old pirate – no, a 1,000-year-old Arab pirate,” he corrects himself.

He provides a husky, growly sample and admits “It kills the throat”.

One of Soho’s most sought-after voices discovered his talent by mimicking the accents of the people who called into his dad’s garage in Longtown.

“People used to come through from Newcastle, Scotland, west Cumbria, all with different accents and I would copy them, I had a good voice for them.”

And although he didn’t impersonate teachers, his funny voices would land him in trouble.

“I now make a living from what I used to get told off for at school,” he laughs.

“I didn’t do particularly well at school, I wanted to do other things. When it was maths I wanted to do geography and when it was history I wanted to do maths.”

He left Lochinvar at 16 without an O-level and with no real idea of what to do. Jobs in a builders merchant and a DIY centre were short-lived.

“I had never seen a play but I wanted to go into drama and Cumbria education authority gave me a grant to study at Manchester Polytechnic.”

He was in his third year at Manchester when Steve Coogan started at the Poly.

“I used to boss him around, well... a little bit.

“But he’s remembered me since – mainly because I’m cheap!”

Simon played Michael in the classic I’m Alan Partridge series and later appeared opposite Coogan in episodes of Saxondale.

He has also been a familiar support actor for comedy heavyweights Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, as well as appearing in episodes of Doc Martin, The Bill, Holby City and a regular on The Charlotte Church
Show.

But getting there has been hard work.

After completing his drama course, his acting dream crumbled. “I moved to London, but disappeared into obscurity, I couldn’t get arrested as an actor.”

He started writing jokes and comedy scripts as a way of earning money, making contacts and getting himself known.

He reels off his customers: “Mel and Griff (Smith and Rhys-Jones), Hale and Pace, Jack Dee and some radio stuff, slowly I got a bit of acting work,” he explains.

“I tried to get a part on the drama series The Lakes. I said I was a Cumbrian, but the casting people would not even see me!”

He only returns to Cumbria once a year now, to visit his mum’s grave at Longtown.

“I like to come back, but the thing with London is, I like the anonymity.

“In Cumbria people say hello to you all the time and that drives me nuts!

“But I miss the views, at home there are always the views and you can see the weather rolling in.”

A slip of the tongue, but ‘home’ is still in the north, despite 30 years living away.

He lives in West Kensington now, with wife Suzanne.

His children Buster, 21, and Rosie, 18, are both at university and are unlikely to follow Dad into showbiz.

“After seeing what the business is like, they would not go into it. It can be heartbreaking and there is a lot of rejection.

“If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t do it.”

Most of the 51-year-old’s work now involves voiceovers for ads and videogames, though he does ‘star’ as the grim Caretaker in the CBBC gameshow Trapped!

“I spend two and a half hours in make-up for an 8am start, we finish at 7pm, then it is another hour to take the make-up off,” he says wearily.

“We shoot all my scenes in a whole week for an entire series of 28 episodes.

“I read from an autocue, but there’s a lot of me in there, they try and stop me from ad- libbing too much.”

He’s also landed a key role in a new Channel 4 sitcom pilot Peter versus Life.

“It’s about a young would-be sports journalist who imagines two football commentators commenting on his life.

“So when he is having sex, they are sat in the corner, making running comments on him.”

He’s also in the new BBC1 Saturday night comedy series The Impressions Show – and has actually managed to squeeze in a Cumbrian character!

“I play a Cumbrian farmer who breeds celebrities, I’ve got a barn full of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls,” he says proudly.

The voice of Aleksandr the Russian meerkat is Simon’s biggest job to date. The advert, for comparethemarket.com has become a massive cult hit.

Aleksandr has his own Facebook and Twitter page, there are T-shirts and limited-edition cuddly toys.

An ‘official compare the Meerkat bloopers’ video on YouTube has so far notched up more than 80,000 hits.

And Simon says he has growing up in Longtown to thank for landing him the role.

“I was not the first one – they tried lots of people, including genuine Russians!

“They wanted Aleksandr to come from Russia, I think the advertising company thought all meerkats come from Russia.

“I do a lot of Eastern European voices, I started when I was younger by copying all the Poles who lived in Longtown.

“I think what clinched it for me was the noise he makes at the end.”

There’s an unmistakeable squeak in the phone, instantly recognisable as Aleksandr’s call sign.

“I said we needed a mnemonic hook at the end – a noise that the kids will remember.

“We spent hours on the voice doing it again and again, it took about five hours hammering away until we got it right.”

Simon is stunned and delighted at the popularity of the character among adults as well as children.

“It is amazing how it has taken off, people just like meerkats and it is a well-written, funny character.

“Ant and Dec were doing it the other night, saying ‘Simples!’ it’s great.”

The company behind the ad are reluctant to reveal anything at all about the next campaign and Simon refuses to be drawn.

“The ones for next year are really good! I have done two and a couple more are planned.

“It will be epic. I can’t say what they involve, I’ll get shot!”

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