Stars and their cunning plans for dealing with famous catchphrases

How do actors cope with having their defining line shouted at them in the streets – for decades? Richard Wilson, Maureen Lipman and Tony Robinson tell all

When it happens to Richard Wilson, he gives a wave and keeps walking. Maureen Lipman, on the other hand, tends to assume an expression of weary resignation, which she calls her "dead sea bass" look. Tony Robinson is a bit more forgiving: he might even play along. "You don't want to be a dick about it," he says.

What each of these actors has in common is a catchphrase that has dogged them for decades.

Wilson played the curmudgeonly Victor Meldrew in the BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave from 1990 to 2000, and it's rare now for a week to pass without someone calling out his character's incredulous catchphrase – "I don't believe it!" – or pleading with him to repeat it. "Most of them think they're the only one who's ever asked," explains the 83-year-old. "Taxi drivers I get it from a lot. I suppose they've got me trapped. I feel a bit bad not saying it to kids, but I've got to have my freedom. If it's someone's birthday I may say it."

He remembers the show's creator, David Renwick, rationing its appearances in the script once he realised it had caught on. "David would allow it in one episode, then have the next one without it. Or he would just put in half the line: 'I! Don't!' And that would be enough."

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Lipman, now 73 and a Coronation Street regular, has been living with her catchphrase for even longer. It's more than 30 years since she played the fussbudget Beattie in a series of commercials for British Telecom. Calling her grandson in anticipation of his outstanding exam results, Beattie is downhearted to learn that he flunked them all, only to perk up when he mentions a pass in sociology. "An 'ology'?" she exclaims. "He gets an 'ology' and he says he failed. You get an 'ology', you're a scientist!"

When she was filming the ad, written by Richard Phillips, she couldn't quite see the joke. "I didn't think it was all that funny, which is probably why it was good. Like most hits, it took us by surprise."

Besides, there were other catchphrase contenders from the BT campaign. One ad even featured Wilson as a harried shop assistant fielding telephone queries from Beattie. His exasperated response to her questions about the outfits in stock – “All the colours in all sizes!” – gave him an early taste of the echo-chamber experience. “I used to hear that line occasionally when I was out,” he says, sounding wistful for a time when the air was filled with something other than the cries of a million Meldrews.

But it was the “ology” ad that stuck. And, like Wilson, Lipman has to deal with her catchphrase on a weekly basis. “‘Eh! Eh! ’Ave you got an ‘ology’, then?’ Oh, people wet themselves over it. It used to be that I couldn’t go into a restaurant without someone making phone noises at me. I’m sure when I die it’ll be the headline – ‘Lipman Cut Off!’ or ‘Receiver Is Finally Put Down On Jewish Comedienne’.”

Nigel Farage did his bit to revive it in 2014 by blaming Lipman and the "ology" for what he regarded as a rise in "soft-option" degrees tempting school-leavers toward university when they should be learning carpentry instead. She responded by calling him "the first senior politician . . . to regard education as a bad thing".

I have a cunning plan

It was during the third series of the period sitcom Blackadder that Robinson, who played the dim and unhygienic Baldrick, first uttered the line that was to become his catchphrase. “The words ‘plan’ and ‘cunning plan’ had cropped up a few times before I took ownership of them,” recalls the actor, now 72. “In the script, Baldrick’s line was simply, ‘I have a plan.’ I asked if I could add ‘cunning’ because that worked better rhythmically. Also ‘cunning’ is slightly archaic and ‘plan’ you can stretch out. The first time I said it, I thought, ‘this could turn into a catchphrase’.”

And it did. “The more I said it, the more people laughed and the more we wanted to include it, which is ironic because we’d been very snobby on that show about the whole idea of catchphrases.” By the fourth and final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, Robinson needed only to say “I” to reduce the audience to hysterics. “It’s not that you’ve said anything funny. It’s just out of recognition of all those times they’ve laughed in the past.”

He refers to it now as a kind of spell. “It makes people go into a place they weren’t in before. And to use that spell overmuch is to weaken it. That’s why I don’t usually say it when people ask me to. If they’re absolutely dying for me to do it, I will. But not out of choice.”

However, just as Wilson has revived his catchphrase for a fake BBC Radio 4 memoir, Believe It!, and a comedy sketch campaigning for a second EU referendum in the UK, so Robinson has borrowed his for an autobiography, No Cunning Plan, and a live show, Tony Robinson’s Cunning Night Out.

“There’s a limit to the amount of times I’m prepared to prostitute my catchphrase,” Robinson laughs, “and I think I’ve reached it.”

It isn't so funny for everyone. Cuba Gooding Jr admitted to this paper last year that he hadn't gone more than two days since the release of Jerry Maguire in 1996 without someone shouting the best-known line from his Oscar-winning performance in that film: "Show me the money!" The late Barry Norman expressed bewilderment that the phrase "And why not?" proved so unshakable when he had never said it in the first place. Instead, it was the linchpin of Rory Bremner's impression of him.

But few performers have been more imprisoned by a single line and its associations than Gary Coleman, who starred in the US sitcom Diff'rent Strokes from the age of 10. He died at 42 having never outrun his sassy catchphrase – "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" – from the show. "He was a sweet guy, but he hated being asked to repeat [it]," said his friend, the porn star Ron Jeremy, shortly after his death. "He didn't want to live in the past."

There are some performers for whom familiar lines are like medals testifying to battles won: Arnold Schwarzenegger was little more than a glorified bodybuilder prior to the Terminator movies, so it's no wonder he will repeat excerpts from those scripts ("I'll be back", "Hasta la vista, baby") at the drop of a barbell, and on the most spurious pretext.

Catchphrases can also serve as helium rather than ballast, lifting an actor higher in the public's affections across a wide-reaching career, as in the case of Michael Caine. His greatest hits encompass movie dialogue ("You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"); asides elevated to the level of verbal signatures ("Not a lot of people know that"); and even a needless introduction ("My name is Michael Caine," as he can be heard saying on the Madness song named after him).

Calm down, dear

Catchphrases never work as hand-me-downs, however, as former UK prime minister David Cameron has twice discovered, first when he launched the National Citizen Service with Caine standing nearby in 2010 ("As a project, I hope it does more than just blow the bloody doors off") and again a year later, when his use of Michael Winner's ad line "Calm down, dear" in the House of Commons in response to Angela Eagle revealed him to be a patronising sexist rather than a wit.

Sending yourself up is one way an actor can try to neutralise a troublesome catchphrase, though it can inflame the situation. Wilson did a delicious job playing himself, apoplectic with rage, in an episode of Father Ted, though he concedes it may only have increased his visibility. “People who’d never seen One Foot in the Grave saw and enjoyed that,” he says. And revisiting a catchphrase can backfire in other ways: there are few sights less edifying in cinema than Robert De Niro delivering his confrontational Taxi Driver dialogue (“You talkin’ to me?”) while hamming it up in a monocle as the villain in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Best to make your peace with a catchphrase, as Robinson has done. He claims not to wince when someone asks, yet again, if he has a cunning plan. “For me it’s a reminder of the fact that my life was transformed by that series. It makes me feel great. My whole working life I had been a jobbing actor and then suddenly I was put in this powerful position. That phrase brings it all back to me.”

Lipman would be overjoyed if she never heard the word "ology" again but it hasn't made her blind to the appeal of catchphrases. "There's nothing intrinsically amusing about somebody calling a younger man 'stupid boy' and yet we long for [Arthur Lowe as] Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army to say it. Once you've laughed at it, you can't wait to laugh at it again. As humans we need to bond and we need ritual – and that's what catchphrases represent." – Guardian