There I was, on the Palace stage, in a show, with my daughter!
I was born on 10th May 1961 in Malden Hospital, but when I was about two we moved to Shoebury. We lived there until I was five, when we moved to Victoria Road, Southend. I had only spent a week in school in Shoebury, before moving to Thorpe Juniors [now Greenways Primary School], and then to Southchurch Hall High School for Boys [now Southend Adult Community College] which was very rough at that time. I then went to Southend Technical College, which had a theatre, dressing rooms and all the facilities, doing a two year full-time drama course.
At the College, I started doing Saturday morning drama, which was originally run by Hilary Clulow, and taken over by Ken Caswell (who went on to direct Les Miserables in the West End – and directed me in it!) and his wife Linda. They moved to the Focus Youth Theatre, where it was run by Dulcie Moore until that theatre closed some years ago [and has since been demolished]. She kept it going at Crowstone Church, Leigh, but it wasn’t the same – there weren’t the facilities – and it only lasted about two years.
I had originally got interested in drama while at junior school. A company came in and did a play, and I can still remember feeling like, wow! something had hit me. I also remember a boy in my year who was a child actor and used to do films and the like, and I was really jealous! So that was when I asked my mother whether I could go and do some drama lessons, and that’s when I started at the College. This was when I was 10, so my acting really started then.
I well remember my first visit to the Palace theatre, which was in 1972 to see Doctor in the House, the first professional show I ever saw.
It was my friend Simon’s birthday and he took me, and that was really the beginning of my love for the Palace. It was a shame that my parents had no interest in it, and at first they couldn’t understand why I was so captivated. But I have to say that, once I got going, they were very supportive.
After a couple of years at the Technical College I got into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, which was really the beginning of my career.
But before then, while I was at the College, I had already been more closely involved with the Palace. This was through a production of Witness for the Prosecution, in November 1977, for which some of us students were asked to play jurors. I can well remember being in seventh heaven: I’m at the Palace – I’m a professional actor now!
And I was back in March 1979, just before I went off to the Guildhall, for the Southend Drama Festival, in which I appeared in something like six productions, including Deathcant and The Private Ear. Having been nominated for Best Actor in every play I was in, I got the Bofors Award for Best Actor for The Lovers, the highlight of my amateur career [directed by another Palace Theatre Club contributor, Charles Sharman-Cox]. And I was presented with the award by none other than Chris Dunham, artistic director at the Palace, making it especially magical. (Mind you, I got a right telling off from the head of the College, for appearing in shows for other drama groups!) A couple of years later, the Drama Festival moved to the Focus Theatre, but it was never quite the same.
Later that year, while I was still at the Guildhall, but during the Christmas holidays, I got a temporary job at the Palace, where I worked with Charles Sharman-Cox, who was Deputy Stage Manager (and who might have mentioned the job to me). My main jobs were in the flies – and also helping out with the ponies brought in for Cinderella! [Charles also remembers these ponies in his Contribution, so they obviously made quite an impression!] I remember having to go in on Christmas Day to look after them, and my father being really angry and claiming that I had ruined their Christmas!
And I had more trouble one weekend, when I couldn’t get back to take the ponies for a walk. Well, Charles and everybody else went mad – and Chris Dunham called me into his office and said “You’ve let us down! You’re never going to work here again!” – but then he was OK the next day, and I was still helping out when Pierce Brosnan, then just starting out, appeared in Whose Life is it Anyway? in the February!
Anyway, I was at the Guildhall for three years. After I left, in 1981, my first job was in weekly rep in Sidmouth. I remember we did the change-over on the Thursday, so the holidaymakers down for a week could see two productions. We had just five days rehearsal, and, by the end of the season, I had 14 plays in my head! Also, we repeated a couple of them at the end of each season, so I had to remember those from the beginning of the season! But it was a really wonderful experience.
I then went to the Theatre Royal at York and many other venues, before going back to the Palace for the infamous Coming Clean in January 1984. Charles had recommended me for this. I knew nothing about the play, and it was only when I had my interview with Chris Dunham that he mentioned there was a scene where I would have to be naked! My initial reaction was “Oh no!” and I was very nervous – after all, it was my home town audience, and my agent wasn’t sure it was a good move – but I accepted it and we started rehearsing. I didn’t take my clothes off completely during the rehearsals, until the dress rehearsal (or the undress rehearsal!) but, once I got over the initial nervousness it didn’t bother me at all – it was actually quite liberating. Naturally, it got a lot of publicity and it was incredibly successful – the run was extended and I got one of the best reviews I had ever had, up to that point, in The Stage.
Not only that, but I met my future wife! She was Elke Tullett, a journalist for the Evening Echo, and she came along with their critic, Roger Diss. Later, he rang me and said she would like me to take her to dinner, so I rang her from the payphone near the stage door – and we are still together all these years later! It was strange, really, because she knew a lot of people I knew, but we’d never met, so that show brought us together. Even more oddly, I had appeared as Elvis (not at the Palace) and she had interviewed me over the phone! (Interestingly, before Coming Clean, Chris Dunham had wanted me to play a young Elvis in a show he was putting together, but in the end he couldn’t get the rights to it.)
So Coming Clean was a massive change in my life. I continued to live in London, but eventually Elke and I got married. I was working in the West End – I played the lead, Bill Snibson, in Me and My Girl for about four months, then went to Dublin and Cork with the show, and also, later on, took it to Zimbabwe. Then I did Les Miserables, playing innkeeper Thenardier, quite a lot of high profile stuff.
However, in 1992, when our daughter, Lily, was born, we decided to move back to Southend. I thought it would be lovely to work at the Palace again, so I went along and saw Chris Dunham in the bar, and asked him whether there was any chance of a part in a play. He said he would see what he could do, and quite quickly rang me up and asked me if I could do a season for him.
My first show was Alice in Wonderland in December 1995, in which I played a number of parts – and in which Roger Diss also appeared.
Chris then asked me to play the lead in Me and My Girl [in September 1996]. I really wanted to do that, but I couldn’t because, ironically, I was playing it in Zimbabwe! The shows clashed by five days, which was such a shame, but I did help him cast it; it was basically the cast from London. It was an amazing production, and the actor who played my part, Jon Emmanuel, won the Palace Theatre Club Stella award for Best Actor. So that could have been me! But I was back at the Palace with Cinderella in December 1996 and Noises Off in the January.
In January 1998 I was in Dead Funny, a wonderful production, and then I played Smee in Peter Pan that December.
I was, of course, in other shows, and, in October 1998, I directed a double-bill of Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober and Dead Man Talking in the Dixon Studio. That was for the Cornucopia Theatre Company. Both plays were written by my very dear friend Don Hill.
I obviously did lots of work away from the Palace, on stage and in television and films, but what was particularly great about the Palace was that I was close to home, so I could pick Lily up from school. Although this did lead to a problem when we were rehearsing Twelve Angry Men [March 1998]. The rehearsal over-ran one day, and I said to Chris, I have to pick Lily up. He let me go, but he wasn’t very happy and he was cross with me for the next couple of days!
But this was a magical period, and then, unfortunately, the theatre closed [in March 1999].
It re-opened later that year under Green & Lenagan, but then closed again, then re-opened ‘twinned’ with the Cliffs Pavilion. But its future was very uncertain, and Elke got very involved, as the journalist, in the Palace Theatre Guild, which was set up in 2005 to help save the theatre. I obviously gave my support as well.
With in-house productions ceasing, I haven’t been so involved in recent years, although I have made occasional appearances, such as with comedian Russell Kane (who I’ve worked with quite a bit) in January 2009 in an improvised series of sketches, and with Be-Jou Productions, with Blue Remembered Hills, in December 2013, for which I also designed the set, a recreation of the Forest of Dean – with real trees and foliage – that is still reckoned to be the best set they’ve ever had in the Dixon Studio, and Betrayal, in February 2016.
One of my fondest memories is of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in December 2009 – because I played opposite my daughter Lily! That was a really magical moment: I’m at the Palace theatre, in a show, with my daughter!
I must say I also especially remember Just Between Ourselves [November 1998] – but not for such a magical time! I seemed to have to do quite a bit of standing about and, after rehearsals and then several performances, I found I had a really bad back – which I found out was due to the extreme rake on the stage: I had been standing still for ages with one foot higher than the other!!
But I do love the place – and I was honoured to compere the Palace Theatre Variety Gala during the 2012 Centenary celebrations, a really special occasion.
And my involvement continues, with me coming full circle in October 2018 when I appeared with Charles Sharman-Cox in his production of The Picture of Dorian Gray.