An Interview with Anita Dobson

An Interview with Anita Dobson

Actress Anita Dobson is one of the stars of Hull New Theatre’s version of Cinderella. She talks to Roger Crow about a lifetime in showbusiness, the joy of panto, EastEnders, and what it’s like being married to Queen’s Brian May.

What can we look forward to when you play Hull?

Well at the moment it’s a very jolly company and we’re having a lot of fun putting putting it together. It’s starting to come together, which is really exciting. And I think it’s going to be such a lovely show.

We’ve got some fantastic dancers. They’re amazing. And It’s a lovely cast of principals, so fingers crossed it’s going to be all right.

And presumably your co-star Bernie Clifton will have his ostrich with him?

He certainly will. He is fabulous. I’m loving working with him. He’s just divine.

Where do you get the energy from?

It’s funny, I was talking to Bernie about that, because we are both of an age. I think it’s just about being positive. And actually wanting to be part of it; you still want to be a part of everything. And to feel that you’re having fun and it’s full of joy, so that’s why we’re here. And that’s were still doing it, and as long as my legs don’t give away, I will be here.

Is this your first panto in Hull?

It is my first. I’ve been here once before. I did a tour of Hello Dolly many years ago, and I came here for a week then. But I’ve never done a pantomime here so it’s my first time.

And we can expect to see more of you in 2019 is well?

Yes, I’m going to be in Annie in the New Year. The management that I’m working for are also the management that are doing this pantomime.

When they had an opening, because sadly one of the Chuckle Brothers died, and they needed another headliner, they rang me up, so I thought I’d come back out of the cupboard and do another pantomime. I couldn’t resist it, and I’ve never done Cinderella.

So it’s a case of going from Wicked to the Wicked Stepmother?

Yeah, I tend to play the baddie. It’s not a role that’s strange to me. I’m used to playing villains and The Snow Queen, and I’ll be playing Miss Hannigan in Annie, so I’m quite enjoying this part.

We never forget our first panto, so which was yours?

It was Aladdin, and it was at the Hackney Empire. I was about four years old. And I think I did most of the show in the aisle with the performers. It must’ve been wonderful for them. My grandad said to my mum, “I think she’s got sawdust in her blood”. Which is the reason I fell in love with performing. I just love the whole ideology of telling stories in such a fun way. And that’s what actors are. We’re all storytellers. Fairy stories are such wonderful stories.

The great thing about panto is the stories are going to stay with kids for the rest of their life.

Well I think so. That one stayed with me, and it’s a reason I’ve done so many pantomimes in my career – they are really, really important. Because children learn to love stories and learn to love fairytales and the characters, and find that they have a love of reading and a love theatre, then all to the good. It’s passing the baton on isn’t it?

There have been so many highlights in your career. What’s been a favourite?

I couldn’t just list one, there’s been loads. I’ve been very lucky because I kind of had my feet in both camps. I’ve done musicals and pantomimes and I’ve also done the Royal Shakespeare Company at the National, and quite heavy stuff. I’m a bit of a Jack of all trades really I suppose, but I wouldn’t like to list one over another. Doing Frozen at the National was one. Obviously EastEnders. My very first Aladdin. That was wonderful. Doing Charlie’s Aunt. The list is endless.

Have you had a chance to see any of the repeats of EastEnders on TV lately?

Do you know, I did catch a couple of them. It was a really strange feeling. I’m inordinately proud of them. Playing Angie was a huge highlight in my career. She was wonderful to play. But it was weird looking at her then, because obviously I’m a different animal now. I’m a lot older, my hair is a different colour. It was a bit like looking at a favourite cousin really. But I’m very proud of it. It’s lovely seeing it. And knowing that people are still watching, and wanting to see her again. People used to say to me, “Oh why don’t you go back (to the show)?”, and now, having her back on the screen, it’s solved that problem if you like.

How is it being married to the genius that is Brian May?

He is indeed a genius. It’s not easy because he’s got a brain the size of the world. He’s inordinately clever. His mum said to me actually when we got married, “Don’t think you’re marrying a rock star. You’re marrying an absent-minded professor”. And that’s what he is really. He could lecture you endlessly on Halley‘s Comet; on splitting the atom, dark matter, all sorts of things. On animal rights campaigning. On 3-D stereo cards. But he probably can’t remember where his car keys are. He is a bit like my dad was. ’The house is dead when mum’s not there’ kind of thing.

Gwilym Lee, who played Brian in the film Bohemian Rhapsody was quite amazing.

It was quite uncanny wasn’t it? A very, very good portrayal.

So who would you play you in the film of your life?

Oh my God, I have no idea. But it would be great fun finding her.

:: Anita Dobson can be seen in Cinderella at Hull New Theatre from December 6 to December 30, 2018. She returns in Annie at the same venue, April 1-6, 2019.


Film review: Widows


Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson

Directed by Steve McQueen

Certificate 15

I’m a good judge of character when it comes to movie directors. I’m not too surprised when Tim Burton chooses a gothic drama or Disney-themed project as his next movie, or if Zack Snyder opts for a superhero or comic-book themed CG-riddled fantasy.

But if you’d said two years ago that Steve McQueen, maker of acclaimed dramas Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave was going to adapt Lynda La Plante’s 1980s ITV drama Widows, I’d have thought you’d lost your mind.

But the concept of gangsters’ molls carrying out a job after their partners die is a great spin on the heist genre. And on the big screen, it seems pretty fresh. I can’t remember a movie like it.

Viola Davis is superb as Veronica Rawlings, the widow of Liam Neeson’s gruff criminal mastermind Harry. She lives in a luxury penthouse with her dog, and thanks to flashbacks, we’re reminded of the life she once had. But there’s a debt to be paid, and it’s clear the bad guys mean business.

The ever brilliant Daniel Kaluuya is chilling as Jatemme Manning, one of the year’s most terrifying henchmen. I’ll not reveal too much, but safe to say shocks are in store, and one attack left me on the verge of walking out.

Then there’s Robert Duvall, doing his shouty thing as Tom Mulligan, father of Colin Farrell’s Jack.

The latter is good not great as a politician trying to improve the area a short drive from his base. (A clever one-take shot from the projects to his HQ shows the difference between neighbourhoods).

While McQueen opts for shocking violence in some scenes, thankfully he doesn’t push things so far that he alienates the audience. Though he comes close. Yes, we need to know what the bad guys are capable of to realise what’s at stake, but revel in that like a stomach-churning episode of The Walking Dead, and there’s a danger of pushing things too far.

(Had I watched this on TV, I would have turned off at a bowling alley scene).

Elizabeth Debicki adds glamour as Alice, the physically abused spouse of a late crim, while Michelle Rodriguez, aka Linda, adds her usual streetwise-yet-vulnerable charm.

McQueen and Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn make a good fist of the screenplay. The characters are believable, and there are some good shocks here and there.

A week after watching on a dreary Monday, what remains? Well, aside from a strong female cast and some disturbing violence, not much.

It’s a well made nuts-and-bolts thriller, and while there are a lot of peripheral characters worthy of a mini series (like its source material), I’d not have the urge to see it again, like A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody.

Great films get under the skin like a tattoo. Good films are like those lick-on transfers that wash off fast. Sadly for all its triumphs, this falls into the latter camp.

Oscar for Viola? Absolutely, but at the risk of weaving in former McQueen triumphs, a ’shame’ I have no ’hunger’ to see it again.


Theatre review – Calendar Girls: The Musical

Calendar Girls: The Musical
Hull New Theatre

As I’m married to the world’s biggest Take That fan, anything Gary Barlow does is usually flagged up within seconds of it being a thing. So I feel like I’ve been living with Calendar Girls: The Musical for years now. Which is no bad thing. Hearing the soundtrack well in advance of seeing a show only enhances the experience, and CGTM boasts some of Barlow’s best work. Not only is ’Dare’ one of his finest tracks, but ’Yorkshire’ may as well be adopted as the region’s anthem. It’s a glorious slice of life that sets the scene for Tim Firth’s fact-based movie-turned stage show. 

I’m a huge fan of Barlow and Firth, as you may have gathered in my glowing review of The Band, and chat with the latter earlier in 2018. 
During the Press launch for this show in spring, one of the highlights of this or any other year, it was extraordinary to see and chat with the talent, but it was always ‘that show on the horizon; the one to look out for’.  

How would it stand up as a paying punter? Would it be everything that Gary, Tim and the rest of the team promised on that sun-kissed day in Burnsall?
Well the answer is yes, and so much more. 
In some ways it’s the yin to The Full Monty’s yang; a tale of women bound by circumstance who decide to get their kit off for a good cause. 
Naturally they face embarrassment, but the ends justify the means. 
As anyone who’s seen the hit film will know, the ladies of the WI just want to raise enough cash for a new hospital sofa, so loved ones will have a more comfortable time while patients are treated. 

Like millions of others over the past few months, I’ve had that experience of waiting and hoping in hospitals as a family member is bombarded with chemo in the hope it makes a difference. That’s the thing about Calendar Girls. It touches a chord with so many of us. Little wonder on a freezing, wet November night, Hull New Theatre is heaving. And it’s not even opening night. 
The Dales-themed set works beautifully: a landscape, a dry stone wall and a gate is gloriously simple, but it also works on assorted levels. Crossing boundaries; facing the wall of authority, passing from one ’region’ to another. Or maybe it’s just a wall. You decide. 

As the show opens and ’Yorkshire’ is belted out, it sets the scene. For me it feels like donning a comfy pair of slippers. We’re in safe hands, and for the duration, as tragedy strikes and Chris (Rebecca Storm) hatches the plan of a nude WI Calendar to raise money for that hospital sofa, there’s plenty of laughter and tears. 
There are so many stars in this show, but Rebecca is one of the brightest. Her Chris is a powerhouse character, and not just the rebellious protagonist and catalyst who gets the idea off the ground. 

Anna-Jane Casey also helps carry the load as Annie, her best friend and widow to John, whose loss is almost palpable. 
That fine comic thespian Sara Crowe (Carry On Columbus, Four Weddings) adds light relief and heartbreak in all the right places, especially during the beautifully poignant ’My Russian Friend’ scene. One of those songs I’d heard months ago which didn’t make much sense until I see it on stage. 
And then there’s Ruth Madoc, who gets the lion’s share of applause when that inevitable kit-off scene arrives. All great stage shows need THAT movement where there’s a sense of wonder, shock, or jaw-dropping amazement, and this has 12 months’ worth in the space of 12 minutes (a guesstimate). 

Fern Britton is terrific as Marie, the by-the-book WI member, while the solid ensemble includes Karen Dunbar as Cora and Denise Welch as Celia. 
I get choked up many times during the show. Just the mention of ’Scarborough’ encapsulates the odd days out which come to define us as we get older. Those fleeting moments of joy at the seaside we look back on; the currency earned by nine-to-five existences. 

There are times when some of the dialogue gets lost, either through the chorus of coughs and sneezes from the audience (it’s that time of year), but it doesn’t get in the way of an extraordinary experience. 
As with The Band, there are blokes in the show, but again, they’re essentially peripheral characters. They help prop up the proceedings, either as gob-smacked spouses or awkward sons. 
Phil Corbitt’s John will tug at the heart strings, but there’s much needed levity too with a rib-tickling tug of war. (There’s plenty of subtle gags which I’m guessing flew over the heads of many, so listen out for some gems). 

Once more Tim and Gary have played a blinder, and kudos also to producer David Pugh, one of the nicest men in showbusiness who continues to back some terrific shows (his take on Brief Encounter was a West End triumph earlier this year). 
If you can get one of the few remaining tickets for this Hull leg of CGTM, I heartily recommend it. 
Like the sunflowers at the heart of the drama, it’s blooming marvellous. 

An Evening Shared with Jasper Carrott and Alistair McGowan Bonus Arena, Hull

An Evening Shared with Jasper Carrott and Alistair McGowan
Bonus Arena, Hull

I waited 40 years to see the man who made me breathless with laughter in the late seventies on TV. 
Jasper Carrott, like Billy Connolly, was one of those stand-ups who earned their stripes with a lot of hard graft before TV made them a household name. 
In those pre-VHS/DVD days, one of my best mates at school used to lend me audio tapes of his live gigs. I played them on a loop, and his tales of Biffer the loopy Labrador, and problems with a mole brightened many a dark day. His accident insurance claims forms were also pure comic gold. 
Little wonder the Beeb gave him his own TV series, but as good as Carrott’s Lib and Carrott Confidential were, he eventually seemed a bit bored with it all. Then one day, he dropped off the TV radar. 
And that was it. Or so it seemed. 
While younger comics like Alistair McGowan basked in the media spotlight with terrific impressions, and Jasper’s daughter Lucy Davis became a star via The Office and Shaun of the Dead, Carrott enjoyed a well-earned retirement, tinkering behind the scenes as one of the brains behind Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the show which aptly made him a tycoon.  
So on a freezing night, having juggled work shifts, and walking a couple of miles to and from train stations for the gig, I’m hoping the show which unites Carrott and McGowan is worthy of the effort. 

In the summer of 2017, Jasper announced that he needed major heart surgery, and to see him on stage it looks like the op has given him a new lease of life. 
Having endured tighter security than Heathrow Airport, I settle into my first gig at Hull’s Bonus Arena. 
McGowan is a terrific warm-up, whipping through a series of engaging impressions. As usual he spends too long on sport (not my thing), but it’s worth it for the comedy gold he also creates from sending up Gogglebox, Dara O Briain, Brian Cox, Parky and other quickfire routines. His material is spot on. 
Structurally the show is perfect. Alistair does his set, then Jasper comes on to rapturous applause, not least from this obvious fan. 
Even the best comics struggle to entertain for a solid 90-plus minute set, so sharing the load ensures there’s no danger of comedy fatigue setting in. 
And this is ’The Carrott’ I recall from those early days. He’s a little cautious at first, testing the water before diving in. Inevitably there’s gags about getting older, but as the second half unfolds, and Alistair delivers some breathtaking, multi-lingual schtick and a brilliant Dad’s Army routine, Jasper returns for the final set with a powerhouse performance. 
His car insurance claim forms come out of a back pocket, and fans like me are way ahead of him, applauding before he says a word. A few of the old ones set the scene for newcomers, and then a collection of new forms have me in hysterics like the first time I saw him on TV. 
By the time he’s on one of his final anecdotes, about sharing a dinner do with Lady Di, he’s possessed by the spirit of a man from four decades ago. It’s beyond a joy. 
I’d hoped for the old Carrott magic, and he delivered on that unspoken promise and then some. 
Sadly there’s no mention of the mole or Biffer, but it hardly matters. Having seen some of the world’s best comedians do their thing on stage, from Seinfeld, Izzard, O Briain, Mack and Connolly, it’s a delight to see the granddaddy of them all still delivering the goods. 
An unforgettable night and well worth the wait. 

An Interview with Jay Osmond

An Interview with Jay Osmond

Musician Jay Osmond has been performing since the early 1960s. He talks to Roger Crow about performing with The Osmonds; his UK tour with brother Merrill, playing with Led Zeppelin, and a lifetime in show business.

How did you cope with Osmonds fever in the UK?

It’s been a whirlwind. I remember when we got here in the 1970s and I couldn’t believe the reception we got. People over here are amazing. So wonderful.

How did you guys stay sane amid all the madness of the fandom?

Well, we have great parents and I think it has a lot to to do with our faith and the way we were raised I guess. My parents made sure we were never caught up in all the craziness of show business. I remember when we had success one time, and mom said, “Well that’s wonderful, but don’t forget your chores”.

My parents made sure we stay grounded through the crazy time.

Tell us about the current tour.

Well, we had our first Christmas show last night in Blackpool and my brother Merrill, who’s really fun to perform with, and we’ve got singers and a fantastic band. And we’re trying out new things that we haven’t tried before and the reception was just amazing.

What I love about this show is that it’s got Christmas and all the elements that make a good show. It’s got ebb and flow. It’s got quiet parts. It’s not just a rock show. Even though our Christmas album is called Very Merry Rockin’ Good Christmas, and we have a lot of rock and roll Christmas songs in it; it’s back and forth, up and down, and we get into the audience.

And it’s really fun to see the guys in the audience sing our songs. Because back in the seventies they were mostly girls. I didn’t realise there were a lot of guys that learned our songs. And I thought ’How cool is this?’, because our audiences now are totally different.

This lady said to me, “These may be your songs, but they’re my songs too. We grew up together”.

I was going through passport control one day and the guy on control looked and me, looked at my passport, then started singing Crazy Horses. He said “I’m a quiet fan” (laughs).

Crazy Horses is one of my favourite songs and a reminder of how rocky The Osmonds are. Was it liberating recording that after the softer pop numbers?

I like the way that you put it. It was liberating, because The Osmonds have always been in the rock era. When the record company wanted Donny to do Puppy Love, we were his background; we played all the instruments but the band have always been in the rock vein. So yes, when we did Crazy Horses it was liberating, because that was really us.

What’s exciting now is when Merrill and I are on stage, we do some rock numbers. We do The Plan, which is one of my favourite albums, and that went off so well last night. We do a whole rock medley of The Plan.

What happened to your solo album released in the 1970s, and any chance it could be re-released?

It’s called It’s About Time Again. We released it and distributed it mainly to the fans, and we’re thinking about putting it out again. It was fun.

You’ve been rated as one of the best drummers in the business. How do you rate yourself?

Thank you. It’s hard to say because I’ve been around some wonderful drummers. I’ll never forget being in Earl’s Court in ’73, and Led Zeppelin were going in the day before. We had the same sound people and they invited us backstage and we became friends with (John) Bonham and Robert Plant, and Robert said “Why don’t you join us at the end of the show when we do Stairway to Heaven.

So I got right up there with Bonham with the congas and I was playing next to him, Stairway to Heaven. And I thought this is so surreal. That was put it in my mind forever, playing next to him.

Of course my mentor, Ronnie Tutt, who was Elvis’s drummer, and he was our drummer too. He was my first teacher. He went on the road with us, and about six months ago I came over to England and I was invited to play with TCB, that’s Elvis’s band. They invited me to come up and play with them. That was a surreal moment as well, playing with those guys. That was just amazing. Ronnie was out because he had broken his hip, and they invited me to fill in. What an honour.

Do you think The Osmonds are now recognised for their skills as musicians compared to the early days when the fame overshadowed that ability?

Well we did play most of the instruments on our songs. In fact that’s how we wrote most of our songs. We would always start with the drumbeat, so the brothers would say “Give us a ’feel’”. So I would start with the drums, then Merrill would give it a bass ’feel’. Then usually Wayne would go and Alan would take it after that. And we would write songs like that.

How did The Osmonds break into showbusiness?

Well Walt Disney actually discovered us. He had us singing at Disneyland and he put us on four of of his television shows. I was six years old. And that’s where Andy Williams’ spotters discovered us, and we were on his show for about nine years.

It started with the four brothers, then Donny joined us. What was interesting, every week we had to do something different on Andy’s show in front of 40 million people, so we brought our brothers Virl and Tom on, and then Marie joined us, so we changed it to The Osmonds. and then Jimmy would join on and off, once in a while. But it mainly started with the four brothers, then five when Donny joined us.

What are you looking forward to when you come back to Yorkshire?

Well, first of all that is one of the most beautiful areas of England. My wife and I almost moved to York.

When we come to do the show, we just look forward to seeing the people, and celebrating Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas. It’s a whole gamut of celebration. It’s going to be a wonderful time. Wonderful time of year and we loved doing the Christmas shows. It’s just a fun show.

Finally, how surreal was it seeing yourself as a cartoon character in the 1970s TV series?

Well it’s so funny you say that. When I was dating my wife, she said, “You know what. You remind me of a cartoon.” So I went and played her a cartoon of me, and she just about died (laughs). Because she had no idea that we had cartoons of ourselves.

:: Jay and Merrill Osmond bring their Rockin’ Christmas musical spectacular to Doncaster’s The Dome on December 12, 2018. The album Very Merry Rockin’ Good Christmas is out now.

DVD review – Are You Being Served?  

DVD review – Are You Being Served?  
“Before we go any further Captain Peacock,” remarks Mollie Sugden’s Mrs Slocombe. “Ms Brahms and I must complain about the state of our drawers.”
Off the back of that innocent double entendre, writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft managed to wring about five gags in quick succession. 

Are You Being Served?, their sitcom about a department store and its eclectic staff and customers, was of course a BBC goldmine. The format was rock solid; its cast were superb, and even at a time when the show seemed to have run its course in Blighty, the series took off across the Pond, eventually paving the way for short lived, so-so spin off, Grace and Favour. 

AYBS arrived without much fanfare in 1972. The massacre at the Munich Olympics meant BBC TV coverage was suspended, so the pilot slotted into the gap, and provided welcome light relief at a dark time. 
Though originally broadcast in colour, only a black and white version of the pilot ep  survives, and that’s what you’ll find on the excellent complete box set. 

As someone who’s been watching the repeats on TV recently, the annoying five-minute ad breaks are about as welcome as a stubbed toe, so it’s a pleasure to see them uninterrupted. 
And the video quality is pretty good for 40-plus year old material. Pun intended. 
The scripts are obviously great, but it’s the cast which make the series shine. Mollie Sugden never puts a foot wrong as the feline-obsessed Mrs Slocombe, while former pop star Wendy Richard adds glamour in the years before dowdy EastEnders’ Pauline Fowler defined the later years of her career. 

Art: Roger Crow

And then there’s John Inman as the much imitated Mr Humphries, a fabulous creation whose comic timing was second to none. As was Trevor Bannister as his early sidekick, Mr Lucas, eternally chasing after the alluring Ms Brahms, forever late, and perpetually incurring the wrath of his seniors. 

Back in the days when this stuff was turned out like a stage play, it’s amazing to see the odd fluffed line or shadow of the boom operative on an actor. What is amazing is how funny this stuff still is, including the props (light-up bras and an illuminated stuffed cat being two examples), and the ’reveal’ – usually Mr Humphries decked out in a garish creation, before descending the stairs to rapturous applause. 

It’s also a delight to see the odd cameo, such as Joanna Lumley (inevitable as she and co-writer Jeremy Lloyd were an item around that time). 
The dynamic between the beloved characters is a joy, and while Arthur Brough’s Mr Grainger might struggle with the script at times, his performance is often touching regardless. 

Larry Martyn is good not great as the grumbling lackey Mr Mash, who features in the first three series, but it’s terrific to see his replacement, Arthur English’s Mr Harman, adding a more genial air. The latter was one of those TV regulars who deserves more acclaim than he gets. 

In an age when Great British sitcoms are few and far between, like the Grace Bros’ lift, this works on many levels: as a comedy about class; as an entertainment time capsule, and most of all as a tribute to some of the best comic actors of their generation, including Nicholas Smith’s Mr Rumbold. 

It finally fizzled out in 1985, and though the Beeb tried to reboot it a few years ago, the doors of Grace Bros soon closed again. 
You’d never get away with the original scripts these days, at least not pre-watershed like they used to be, but as someone who happily binge-watched countless episodes and laughed out loud repeatedly at most of them, I’d recommend it for anyone’s Christmas list. 
Oh, and that theme tune, which was once remixed as a dance track, is still wonderfully infectious. 
To paraphrase adorable Harold Bennett’s doddery tycoon Young Mr Grace, “They’ve all done very well.”  

An Interview with Calendar Girls: The Musical’s Rebecca Storm

An Interview with Calendar Girls: The Musical’s Rebecca Storm
By Roger Crow

Calendar Girls cast and writers; (l-r) Anna-Jane Casey, Ruth Madoc, Tim Firth, Denise Welch, Gary Barlow, Fern Britton & Rebecca Storm
image: Matt Crockett

Tell us about your background
I was born in Shipley in Yorkshire. From college I started singing in the social clubs around Yorkshire. I just built up a bit of a career, travelling and supporting people like Bob Monkhouse. I adored him; he was very helpful.
Photo: Roger Crow

Then I auditioned in 1984 for Blood Brothers, for David Pugh, who is the producer of Calendar Girls. He offered me the part of Mrs Johnstone in ‘84. That led onto Evita and Les Mis and Hello Dolly.

video: Roger Crow. The firm of Firth and Barlow handle another winning case.
And you sang the theme tune to Stephanie Beacham’s ITV series Connie as well?
Yes. Willy Russell wrote the theme tune and they asked me to sing it. So I was on Top of the Pops with the theme from Connie in 1985. It was a great time for me.
Video: Roger Crow. The Press launch for Calendar Girls: The Musical.
How did you feel when you heard about Calendar Girls: The Musical?
I was delighted when they said they were going to make musical of it. ’
Gary Barlow is going to write the music?’ I mean, hello!
I feel like one of the luckiest women alive. I live in Ireland now. I’ve been there for about 20 years, but to play a Yorkshire woman in a Yorkshire piece and the impact it (the story) had on the world, and the fantastic film, playing Dame Helen Mirren‘s role and singing it. There is absolutely nothing to complain about. I’ve just had a massive beaming smile on my face.
video: Roger Crow. Mr Barlow breaks in his box-fresh trainers with a little light piano-moving while the two other nicest blokes in showbusiness lend a hand.

Working with the likes of Ruth Madoc, Denise Welch and Fern Britton must be a lot of fun too?

Yes, I’m working with some fantastic women, and you don’t always get the opportunity to do that. Over the past few years I’ve just been doing my own concerts. Working with, whether it’s orchestras or the band, that will be mainly men. Backing singers as well. But it’s not eight shows a week like this. Then actually working with AJ (Anna-Jane Casey) and Fern. I’m so looking forward to it. ’The craic’ as they say in Ireland. I’m so looking forward to having fun.

‘Calendar Girls: The Musical’ can be seen at Hull New Theatre Nov 20-24, 2018.

An Interview with Françoise Pascal

Actress Françoise Pascal rose to fame in 1970s sitcom Mind Your Language. She talks to Roger Crow about that series; critically acclaimed film The Iron Rose; working on Coronation Street, and her current projects, including Radio Scarborough and her pending movie.

I love your film The Iron Rose – a haunting piece of work.

It is actually. It’s a strange film. There is great depth in it, and that’s what I loved about it. It’s quite sinister in a way, but it’s something I really wanted to do.

Is it true you turned down Kirk Douglas, because he wanted you to be in a film around the same time?

I did! Absolutely. I was at The White Elephant Club in Curzon Street, one of the most elite restaurant clubs in London in those days, in the 1970s, and I was with my then-partner Richard Johnson. This woman came up to me and she said “My husband thinks you’re the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.” I never thought as myself as beautiful. I thought of myself as being pretty, but never beautiful. So I turned round and I was completely flabbergasted and it was Kirk Douglas. He raised his glass to me.

I had already signed up to The Iron Rose. And there was no way I was going to get out of that one. I would have loved to have worked with Kirk Douglas. Oh my gosh. What a wonderful opportunity to work with someone like that; put my name up in lights. Fantastic. Instead I chose a little film, with very little money and no fame with it. I’m so happy I did it. I really am.

Working with French horror master Jean Rollin on The Iron Rose must have been interesting.

The thing is when it opened in France, and Richard and I both went to see the premiere in Paris, next door Last Tango in Paris opened, the film with Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. Fans of Jean Rollin, they came in and they booed it because they didn’t like the fact that Jean had changed his genre, because he used to film a lot of vampire films with a lot of breasts, and things like that. They didn’t like that he’d changed his way of filming. He’d spent a lot of his money on the film. He’d mortgaged his house to actually do the film. So it was very sad for me to see this and sad for him. And yet years later what happens? It becomes a cult film. And America started it. TCM started it, and now it’s just taken off. It’s unbelievable.

How cold was it shooting the nude scene on the beach?

(Laughs). It was incredibly cold. It was October, because I spent my birthday there. It was very cold on that beach, and also I was on pebbles. And it was not easy to walk on those pebbles. And I had to sit on them, and believe me, one got stuck between my cheeks.

There were some scenes where you were thrown about. Were you bruised by the end of the shoot?

I was actually. The top of my legs and I did something to my ribs. They hurt a lot. My arm was bruised also, but I loved it. It was one those films that was mine. I was going to make it mine. I did make it mine. I thought that’s the way I wanted it.

How was it making Mind Your Language after The Iron Rose?

Well, I actually welcomed Mind Your Language. I welcomed the fact my name was going to be something. I knew I was a good actress, so I wasn’t worried at all.

I wish I could be known as someone who did some great films. But I wasn’t given that opportunity, because the English are very strange that way. They love you or they hate you. If you’re too successful, they love you then they hate you afterwards.

What are your memories of working on Coronation Street?

(Laughs) My memories of Ena Sharples? My God, she was dreadful to me.

I had an accident in February 1971, there was a fire, I jumped out of a third or fourth storey window and I landed on some railings. I had an enormous amount of publicity, so much so that they couldn’t get in to operate on my arm. I just passed out and I remember waking up in Saint George’s hospital, and I said “Oh my God, my arm. I can’t stand it”. They said “We can’t get you on the operating table because of all the Press around”.

Were you ever offered a James Bond film?

No, I never did a Bond film and I never did a Hammer film. And I was really cross about that.

Tell us about your radio show.

I’m on Radio Scarborough every Sunday, between four and six. I’m doing an eighties show at the moment. Last year I did the seventies show. I play a lot of disco. A lot of eighties music. I just love it.

And you’re making a movie?

Yes, I’m producing a film called Hide and Seek. I already have Ian Ogilvy to do the film. He’s playing quite an upper class Englishman. He’s like M in James Bond.

Also Gabriella Wright, who is a lovely actress. She is French-American. I want Michael Caine in a cameo role and Ray Winstone in the main role, as an assassin.

It’s about an assassin with a heart, and two girls who are against the assassin. That’s going into production next year.

:: Thanks to Françoise Pascal for her help with this article.

The Iron Rose can be seen at BFI Southbank, London.

Friday 16th November 2018 at 20.40 – NFT2

An Interview with Calendar Girls: The Musical’s co-writer Tim Firth

An Interview with Calendar Girls: The Musical’s co-writer Tim Firth

Tim Firth has worked on some of the most acclaimed films and stage shows of recent years. He talks to Roger Crow about working with Gary Barlow on Calendar Girls: The Musical and The Band musical; the art of writing a hit show, and how to convert Star Wars for the stage. 

photo: Rachel Crow

Your work on The Band was incredibly moving. When you’re writing any project, do you know when you’ve got that sucker punch moment? 

Not really. You hope when you are writing that people feel the same way about it that you do, but of course you don’t really know until you’re in there, in the theatre. 

The thrilling and equally terrifying thing about writing for the theatre is you never quite know where you are in terms of where the audience are. Sometimes they are way ahead of you. And you realise that you’ve over-written. And it’s usually over-written. It’s very rarely under-written. So you then have to go back, and that’s what the re-writing process is for.

The truth is with these shows that when music is in the room, music is a very unpredictable atom, with the structure. It can tell a story within a few notes. You use music as a character. It isn’t just there to make moments work. It’s there as a fundamental component that will take the place of words.

I love your film Kinky Boots. You weren’t tempted to adapt that for the theatre?

Kinky Boots was my film, but when I was asking for the rights to Calendar Girls from Disney, who own both of the pictures, they were also doing Kinky Boots, so I would never have thought about it at the same time. To be honest, I’ve never seen Kinky Boots (the musical).

photo: Rachel Crow

Wouldn’t it be nice to do a musical for guys? 

Yes. In a way that would be the ideal next choice. The truth is however that you’re not in control of what ideas come because you want to write something about that. If you haven’t got a concrete piece of kryptonite at the heart of the story that makes it want to be musical, no matter how much you might wanna write one for the guys, you will sit in that theatre and think ’Something is wrong here. I can’t put my finger on what it is’. And it’ll be that you’ve written it about the wrong thing, no matter how good the songs are. Which is why very often you’ll hear famous songs, and will then be surprised to find that they come from a musical, and you’ve never heard of the musical.

video: Roger Crow

There’s something wonderfully northern about Calendar Girls and The Band. When you were adapting Calendar Girls, were you tempted to make it more Yorkshire?

I don’t think you need to make it anodyne geographically to make universal. When you look at some of the stories that have had the greatest longevity in terms of musical theatre from this country and indeed on film, there can be no coincidence that a lot of them, an equal number are very provincial if you like, from Blood Brothers to Billy Elliot to Calendar Girls. They have a very strong sense of local identity. And the danger is that you try make to everywhere sort of this nowhere land. And I haven’t any desire to do that. 

The universal element of the story is the emotional element, and what we should be doing is going full throttle for that sense of place. That’s what gives it its core and its seeding ground, and actually what makes it universal is the fact it’s a musical about defeating grief through comedy and hope and optimism. All of these things are universal themes and the fact that it’s set in Yorkshire gives it its colour. And its honesty, but it doesn’t give it its heart. The heart of it is the common heart, which is about hope. 

photo: Rachel Crow

You and Gary Barlow have been friends for so long. Is there a telepathic quality so you know what the other one is thinking?

No, what makes the writing partnership work between us is you need a very strong work ethic. Because you’ve got to write. A lot. You’ve got to keep writing. And he and I both work a lot. We’ve never been lazy in our careers. That’s one of the big coincidences in the sense that not only did we come from the same village and then onto the same television programme and get to know each other, but we also have the same mindset when it comes to work. And also that we are very lucky.

Gary Barlow and myself are big fans of a certain sci-fi saga. Would you like to work on a Star Wars musical together?

It’s funny, I was just saying to Gary, that a friend of mine, a director worked on the musical version of Lord of the Rings. And equally it’s an untellable story in that amount of time. But what you could do with things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings is actually make people feel they have seen the whole thing by doing it as a 90 minute or 100 minute Vegas-style version. So all the elements are there, so it’s like a Cirque du Soleil version of the heart of these shows. Then I can sort of see it. 

Narratively they’re too big and it might look a bit cheesy. Actually I can sort of see a spectacular version that somehow you come out of it and feel like you’ve seen the whole story.

Calendar Girls: The Musical can be seen at Hull New Theatre from 20-24 November, 2018.

Gig review – Debra Stephenson – Night of 100 Voices, Hull City Hall

Debra Stephenson – Night of 100 Voices

Hull City Hall

I’ve long been a fan of Debra Stephenson, the multi-talented actress, singer and mimic.

You’ll either know her from Coronation Street, Bad Girls or more recently The Imitation Game.

So when she returns to home turf to do a new one-woman show in Hull, I’m fascinated to see how it plays out.

It’s around 7.30pm when the gig kicks off, and the fact there’s no warm-up act is brave.

The premise is simple: a two-act show with a mix of impressions and music. With a terrific band behind her, Debra starts ticking off the old favourites, and with no props, it’s uncanny how at times her face morphs into Cilla, Lulu or Celine Dion. That’s obviously the point, but to see it without the aid of TV lighting or special effects is remarkable. And the hit rate is incredible. I’m won over by anyone who can do an accurate Kate Bush, while her Shakira and Tina Turner are rib-tickling.

When she asks if anyone likes Cher, there’s an over the top “YES!” from a drunken reveller. There always seems to be at least one at City Hall sadly. Ninety nine per cent of the time they just show themselves up, but the randomness just leaves me in hysterics. It’s been one of those days where I wished I’d stayed in bed until arriving at the gig, but this booze-fuelled ad-lib from the audience obliterates all those Friday office blues.

However, it is of course Ms Stephenson who does all of the heavy lifting. She pops down into the audience a few times, and at one point even I get to offer my dulcet tones to Carpenters classic Close to You. Sadly there’s little chance of me becoming an overnight star based on that performance, but that star-audience interaction works a treat with the masses.

A game of Blankety Blank (with ’Jo Brand’) is also a hoot, as are a few James Bond impressions from the crowd. The latter in the second half of course a perfect segue into a 007 medley. Inevitably we get the legend that is Shirley Bassey and a wondrous Adele take-off.

Her Alex Jones and Stacey Solomon are achingly funny, while Lorraine Kelly may as well have possessed the star of the show for the brief time ’she’ was on stage.

There’s no doubt that Debra has a phenomenal voice. She proves it towards the end of the gig when she belts out a spine-tingling rendition of The Greatest Showman’s Never Enough in her own voice.

As the whole of the second half is movie-themed, I’m in my element, though in a stunning sparkly dress, she missed a trick not giving her take on Jessica Rabbit.

Some impressions shows can fall flat if the material isn’t up to scratch and many of the gags are wonderfully on point. Some are so good they fly over the heads of the audience, but I’d rather see a performer deliver material that says “Keep up” rather than spoon-feed the crowd.

Great female impressionists are few and far between these days, and one that can pull off a show on this scale and for a couple of hours deserves to be applauded.

I don’t think Debra Stephenson realises just how good she is, and it doesn’t hurt that she looks like a million pounds. She has a captivating presence that ensures she dominates the stage for every second she’s on it.

As laughter is the best medicine, I’d recommend any future shows for those feeling fed up or under the weather.

She’s currently hard at work filming my favourite BBC daytime soap, and when those episodes air in the new year, I’m guessing like this show and at least one punter in need of cheering up at the darkest time of year, she’s just what the Doctors ordered.