Saturday, 11 April 2015

Big Interview: Jim Dale – “I wouldn’t change anything!”

Following a successful off-Broadway run, Jim Dale is bringing his one man show Just Jim Dale to the West End next month.

The production will open at the Vaudeville Theatre (where Jim made his West End musical debut in 1965 in The Wayward Way) on 28th May (previews from 26th May) for a limited season until 20th June 2015.

The Tony Award winner, two-time Grammy Award winner and two-time Academy Award nominee is best known in the UK for starring in eleven Carry On films and in the US for narrating the Harry Potter audiobook series and starring in the ABC series Pushing Daisies. 

From starting out as the youngest professional comedian on the British Music Hall stage, Jim’s career has been remarkably varied; he is a singer, dancer, comedian, Shakespearean actor, musical theatre star and raconteur. In Just Jim Dale, Jim takes audiences on a journey through an unequalled career in the theatre with a myriad of irresistible showbiz tales, songs and performances. 

In 1970 Sir Laurence Olivier invited Jim to join the National Theatre as a leading actor. As well as originating the title role in Barnum opposite Glenn Close, Jim’s Broadway credits include Scapino, Joe Egg, Me And My Girl, Candide and The Threepenny Opera. He also played Fagin in Oliver at the London Palladium in 1995.

I recently sat down with Jim to discuss how he knew the time was right to write Just Jim Dale and why he thinks the show will surprise people. We also talked about his incredible career, how he created Barnum's big entrance and why he doesn't have an agent... plus Miss Saigon's Richard Maltby Jr (director of Just Jim Dale) popped in for a chat...

Is a one man show something you had been thinking about doing for a while? I read somewhere that you first had the idea in 1973!
That’s true! I’ll tell you what, in 1973 I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been doing this since 1955 so that’s twenty years of experience I could put into a one man show.’ But now I realise I wouldn’t have had much to put in it! I think it would have been nice to do this maybe ten years ago, I was probably more agile and could have done it for much longer… once I get that ramp leading up to the stage for a wheelchair in ten years we’ll do it [laughs]. Anyway, the fact is after all these years there are obviously so many more memories and so many more things that have happened. In 1975 I was not who I am now; I thought I knew it all – that’s what we all think in the early days, but then you realise that you’re still learning.

How did you eventually know the time was right to do it?
It started when I said to my grandchildren “you don’t know who I am” because they’ve lived over here most of their lives (Jim now lives and works in America). So I decided to write my memoirs and wrote 80,000 words but then my computer blew up and I lost 60,000 words, I only had 20,000 left. Luckily before that accident happened I had counted the words in every section which meant I had the headings to all the stories. I wrote it up again because it’s easy to retell the truth – I wasn’t making anything up. It was purely for the grandchildren to have this book, I didn’t want it published. I wasn’t telling stories in my book about my private, married life because that’s not what my grandchildren would want to hear – they want to know what my life was like. From doing that I realised there was a possibility of a one man show, to show the progression of an artist. 

Jim performing in Just Jim Dale

It’s interesting because different people know you for doing very different things.
Exactly, a lot of the audience over here will purely know me from the Carry On films and that’s fair enough, but they mustn’t expect me to do two hours of Carry On Jim Dale. I’ll be doing some of Carry On, but they’re also going to see another Jim Dale up there, one they didn’t know existed. I’ve done different things, over sixty years if an opportunity comes along it doesn’t matter whether you’re successful or a failure – try it, you never know until you do it! I’ve made a point of every time a challenge comes along, I take it. This one man show hasn’t necessarily been about putting together memories, but things that have made me who I am today.

You premiered the show in America, did you have any idea how people would respond?
Well the first time we did it I had no idea that there would be an audience! I honestly had no idea! We were in the theatre and I was told there were 150 students out there, I said “Oh Christ, they don’t know me from Adam!” I was told they were there because the faculty made them go to every show at the theatre and most of them will have walked out by the intermission. Anyway, it was the first time I ever did it and there was a standing ovation, then after the show I went into the café to get a coffee and they were all there and applauded. Then they asked if I could sit and talk to them because there was so much in the show that they didn’t know about and they wanted more. So if I can do more than just make people laugh and make them go “wow, I didn’t know that” I will be happy. 

Jim in Carry On Doctor Again (1969)
Have you made changes for London?
Yes, don’t forget in America there is no such thing as the Carry On films! I couldn’t even mention the Carry On films in America because I would have been wasting my time, but of course over here I will be talking about them and I’m more than thrilled to be talking about them because I’ve never talked about them before… so we’re trying that out! We’ll have to see if it works.

How do you feel about returning to the Vaudeville Theatre where you made your West End musical debut fifty years ago in The Wayward Way?
That’s a long time ago… fifty years… wow! That was the year Churchill died and as a mark of respect people stayed away from the theatres so they stayed away from the Vaudeville and we had to come off. It killed a lot of shows! So he didn’t just die, he took a few shows with him [laughs].

With a one man show the actor/audience relationship is so important; do you enjoy having to bounce off different audiences night after night?
Most young actors do all the lessons but the last thing they can do is actually stand up, on their own, face the audience and perform a Shakespeare play while breaking that fourth wall and communicating. There aren’t many plays which allow a young actor to talk to the audience directly. However, if you’ve been a stand-up comedian in music hall every week you have to be able to perform to a different type of audience, sometimes to families and the manager would tell you all your material had to be clean. I think to be able to get an audience to roar with laughter is much harder when you’re performing clean material rather than dirty material. Anyone can walk on stage and say “mother f****r” this “mother f****r” that and the audience will laugh, but they’re not laughing at the comedic content. As a young comic I learnt a hell of a lot about making people laugh. Physical and visual comedy makes people laugh, for my entrance I used to be thrown on… or later on there would be a flight of stairs and I would make my entrance by doing a couple of somersaults down the steps. Then I’d get up and say, “What do you want, blood?” and I could feel the blood coming down my elbow because I had knocked it on something. It was hard! Every bone in my body was broken because I mistreated myself to get a laugh! They’re called the good old days [laughs].

The variety of your career is absolutely incredible. A lot of actors want to do different things but become pigeonholed very easily.
You’re right! I don’t have an agent because they don’t know what to do with me. There are certain actors in this world who go through life only playing certain parts but I was a different kettle of fish. What they say is ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ – people want to think you can only be good at one thing. I’ve lost a dozen agents so I don’t have an agent and I don’t have a manager, nobody will look after me because I turn down all the crap they keep offering me. 

"I have never been in a bad show because they were all carefully selected, I wouldn't change anything!"

A lot of people are too scared to turn things down.
It’s because the agents are there to earn money from you! I don’t want to go for the $20,000 job, I want to do the $100 a week job because it’s a better part! I don’t need agents anymore, I mean if you’re an American producer and we’ve been working together for thirty-five years you can just ring me if you’ve got a great role and want to send me a script and I’ll say yes or no.

So if a young actor came up to you now and said “I don’t want to become pigeonholed, what should I do?” what advice would you give?
[pause] Well first of all you’ve got to have the passion to be willing to reject things that come along, rejecting is more important than accepting. You need to know what crap not to do. I guess there are people who have to take certain roles to earn money, but in my career I could earn money as a songwriter. That would subsidise my acting and then I would use the money I made from doing a film to subsidise the six months I had to wait for a play to be ready. It’s not about going through your career thinking ‘how much money can I make?’ Nobody does it for the money… except certain people who we won’t name [laughs]. 

Everybody who has worked with you says you are a master of storytelling which is perhaps why Just Jim Dale has been such a huge success. How have you cracked the secret? It’s not something everybody can do.
With storytelling I think it’s all in the timing and, of course, I’ve studied comedy. When somebody tells me a joke I’ve probably heard it before, but I’m listening to what they’re adding to that joke and what is now making it boring instead of funny. If I can guess the ending of a joke before that person has finished telling it then they haven’t told it right. You need to cut out everything and stick to the basics. Certain jokes are just brilliant short stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. 

Jim in Barnum on Broadway (1980)
You’ve starred in some huge musicals – the likes of Barnum and Me and My Girl. What is it like to look back at those experiences now? People think it’s very glamorous but in reality it’s tough!
Don’t forget, we sort of set the standard I suppose. I wanted Barnum to be one of the most physical musicals ever. Reading the script I loved it and said I would do it – it said ‘he runs across and climbs up to his wife in the balcony’. I looked at that and said “Let’s get a little trampoline, put it at the bottom, put up a nail and I’ll show you something.” So eventually I ran at the trampoline, leaped up to the box and landed on that big nail, holding onto the edge of the box with Glenn Close and she gave me a kiss. That was Barnum’s entrance and it showed you how physical the show was going to be. Obviously you had to keep that up throughout the whole show eight shows a week… I was down to about 135 pounds, it was terrible – I was just skin and bones. Then the problem was it was difficult for anyone to copy, the understudy said “I can’t do it!”

And then I guess you must be asked all the time about Laurence Olivier inviting you to join the National Theatre as a leading actor. How do you even respond?
I mean can you imagine..?

No I can’t!
It is fascinating because the whole show is talking about a young boy who’s seven and had a dream and gradually things were happening to him… and as they happened I realised how lucky I was not to be in the same position as the other kids were in my small town who went on to work in factories or in the mines. I was so lucky to have got this big break… and then later on there was a bigger break and then an even bigger and bigger and it didn’t stop! There were no flops; I haven’t been in a play which has flopped, I think Candide was maybe the only flop but that wasn’t anybody’s own personal fault. I have never been in a bad show because they were all carefully selected, I wouldn’t change anything! It has all taken sixty years but it has been a lovely journey.

At this point in the interview Jim and I were joined by Richard Maltby Jr who is the director of Just Jim Dale. Richard won the Tony Award for Best Music in 1978 for Ain't Misbehavin' and for Fosse in 1999. He is the co-lyricist of Miss Saigon and also conceived and directed Ring Of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show.

Richard Maltby Jr / Credit: Joan Marcus
Richard, you obviously watched the show many times in America. How do audiences respond?

Richard Maltby: In New York people came in expecting to have a good time, but not in any way were they prepared for the banquet that it was! I went out of my way to grab anybody who was remotely British and ask them what they thought British people would make of it [laughs]. After Nica (Burns, West End producer) watched it she said “Oh my god it’s going to be better there! I got things that nobody else in the audience got”. So we’ll find out if that’s true..! It’s a masterclass in a way of performing that young actors don’t even know about.

What is the atmosphere like when the two of you are working in the rehearsal room?

RM: Well the premise of this all began because I was asked by a friend if I would come in and help organise the show. I thought there were worse things than spending an hour or two with Jim Dale… and that’s what happened!

Jim Dale: We were at my apartment…

RM: …and you just told me stories. There are worse jobs in the world than sitting down with Jim Dale for a few hours every day and listening to Jim Dale [laughs]!

How did you find the process of turning these stories into a show?

RM: The only impediment was that everything was delicious and wonderful – I wanted to use all of it. For this show there’s at least an extra hour of material we could have put in.

JD: There was a whole section on pantomime that had to come out.

RM: That was a funny routine! After I had heard all these stories the issue was ‘how does this become a show with an overall story?’ It’s what I have a name for doing and I noticed that at the basis of every story was music hall or music hall comedy. Jim, do you realise that every single story you told me had music hall or music hall comedy at its basis? Your career and your life is the history of British music hall comedy and how it went into pop songs, into the Carry On films, how it went into playwriting. When all is said and done the show isn’t just this funny anecdote followed by that funny anecdote, it actually tells a story. People who live their lives don’t always realise that their life is telling a story [laughs], but Jim’s life does – he just needed someone from the outside to tell him that.

JD: It would have been impossible to do this without Richard telling me what the hell was coming across to the audience.

Jim performing in Just Jim Dale

But were you ok with him coming in and taking things out and structuring it for you?

JD: Well yes, we all need somebody in our lives to do that for us. Sometimes we need a little bit of a push, and if you can get the right person in your life or in your career then you’re a very lucky man. It has happened two or three times in my life, and Richard is the latest who has enabled me to come up with something. I could not have done it on my own. A one man show takes teamwork – think about that, it’s an oxymoron [laughs].

RM: [laughs] It takes a lot of people to do a one man show!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Just Jim Dale opens at the Vaudeville Theatre on 28th May (previews from 26th May) for a limited season until 20th June 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.

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