A haunting idea in jungle

Top comedian Joe Pasquale is taking his career in a new direction, writing and co-producing a musical based on the cult children's TV classic, Rentaghost, which is coming to Norwich and Lowestoft.

You can't mistake the squeaky, Essex tones of comedian Joe Pasquale. The comedian whose voice has been described as “a demented helium balloon”, talks in rapid-fire sentences, testing your shorthand to the limit.

He's friendly, but the twice-married father-of-five is surprisingly guarded about his private life. “My family's my business. I never talk about them,” he tells me firmly. “They're entitled to their privacy. I want to spare them as much embarrassment as possible.”

In fact, it's pretty hard to get him to talk about anything except Rentaghost, the much-loved kids' show from the '70s and '80s, which he hopes to introduce to a new generation of children by reviving it as a stage show, Rentaghost: The Musical. Joe's written and co-produced the show, which is currently touring and comes to Norwich on March 25 and Lowestoft on June 18.

“It was one of my obsessions as a kid,” he enthuses. “I think a whole generation of kids my age in the '70s were obsessed too. There was no other show like it - it was the predecessor of Harry Potter and the ghostly stories that are around these days, and I used to love magic and ghostly stuff when I was a kid. So it seems natural for me to write a show around it.”

Rentaghost - voted 12th in a Channel 4 poll of the 100 Greatest Kids' TV Shows - featured an agency of pretty hapless ghosts trying to make amends for past failings by using their supernatural powers to help their living clients. During its 11 years on BBC, it spawned no less than 80 characters, and became a cult classic. Ghosts from the original series who appear in Joe's musical include Fred Mumford, who fell to his death from a cross-Channel ferry, fussy Victorian Hugo Davenport, mischievous jester Timothy Claypole and nutty Hazel McWitch. Joe himself doesn't appear in the show, but the squeaky one's disembodied voice does feature as possessed marble bust, Ed the Head.

“I was tempted to play Claypole the jester, but I made a conscious decision not to appear in the show myself. I just have too many irons in the fire at the moment,” says Joe. “Edward is the grandfather of Lord Edward Maudlin, the guy who runs Maudlin Manor, where the show is set. His grandfather, Edward Maudlin Senior Senior, died due to a freak accident involving a brown fluffy slipper and a leaping schnauzer, and he now possesses the bust of himself. He's so bored, he's there to create mayhem with constant heckling, sarcastic comments, stupid rhymes - just the kind of thing you might expect from me!”

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The show has the blessing of original Rentaghost creator Bob Block, now 85.

Joe reckons that parents who, like him, were big fans of the show all those years ago will persuade their children to come along. “There's lots of spectacle and special effects - ghosts walking through walls and tea stirring all by itself,” he says. “There will be an enchanted head, flying handkerchiefs, people coming out of suitcases - all normal events for a company of ghosts! We've got magic consultants to help us.”

Rentaghost: The Musical is the first theatrical production Joe has scripted and co-produced himself, and you can sense he's pretty chuffed about it. “It reflects my personality completely. It's my kind of madcap humour, but it also remains true to the original characters from the TV series,” he says. “It's the first time I've started something from scratch, honed and tweaked it into shape.”

He's insisted ticket prices for the musical are under a tenner, so families aren't put off by high prices. “We haven't done Rentaghost to make a massive profit. What we want to do is put on a great family show that's value for money and is as accessible as possible. This is a proper show, with magic, original songs - everything. It would be brilliant if coming to see it turned loads of kids on to the magic of live theatre.”

Ever since Joe won TV's I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! in December 2004, his career has been on the up and up. Since emerging from the Australian rainforest as King of the Jungle, he has reportedly signed a £1m contract with ITV. His Audience With Joe Pasquale on ITV last year attracted nine million viewers, and he is rumoured to have been chosen to host a revived version of the '80s game show The Price Is Right, which will go head to head with C4's Richard and Judy at 5pm.

Joe is tight-lipped when I ask him about his new show. “I can't tell you anything about it at the moment,” he says. “It's still secret.” But he does confirm it is due to be broadcast in May. ITV is also said to be looking for a prime-time show for Joe to present.

Before I'm A Celebrity…, a £1m contract would have seemed like an impossible dream to the Essex boy who used to be a meat porter at Smithfield market. He hadn't worked for three months before he was transported out to the Australian jungle. Now, he is rated Britain's top comic and one of the hottest properties on TV.

Joseph Ellis Pasquale was born in August, 1961, the third of four children born to Joe and Ethel. It was a typical Italian family, with dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins. His dad worked in a margarine factory in Purfleet. His grandfather was an Italian immigrant who came to Britain soon after the war. “He couldn't speak English, so he filled the immigration form out wrong,” says Joe. “His Christian name was 'Pasquale', but he wrote it where his surname should have been. His actual surname was 'Trascini'.”

Joe doesn't know which part of Italy his grandfather came from, or why he emigrated. “Knowing my granddad, he was probably on the run from the Mafia!” he jokes.

Joe went to a Catholic primary school and then the pretty rough Torells comprehensive in Grays. He did not exactly shine academically. “I came out with two O-levels, in biology and metalwork. So I know how to weld a cat.”

Leaving school at 15, he fell into a number of dead-end jobs. He worked for a time with his dad in the margarine factory, before getting a job as teaboy and general dog'sbody in the Civil Service.

He became a porter at Smithfield meat market in London but the long hours were too much. He went on to work at Fords of Dagenham, man a garage forecourt, work on a building site and as a pool attendant - despite not being able to swim. “I didn't want to do anything which meant I had to get out of bed early,” he says.

Eventually, he got a job as a Greencoat at Warner's Holiday Camp near Lowestoft. “I thought I wouldn't have to get up early, but I ended up working an 18-hour day,” he says. “I started off doing the bingo and refereeing wrestling matches.”

As he started to ad lib with the campers, he discovered he had a talent for comedy.

He moved on to become entertainments manager at Warner's Holiday Camp in Torquay.

Gradually, it dawned on him he could make it as a professional comedian. So he embarked on a round of talent shows. He was following in his dad's footsteps: his father had a fine Italian tenor voice, and entered a Carroll Levis radio talent show in the '50s. Joe senior never made it into showbiz, but his son had greater luck. In 1987, Joe came second in the ITV's New Faces.

He kept working at the holiday camp, but launched himself into a gruelling round of gigs in pubs and clubs. His humour was always zany, quick-fire, but never blue. His is a peculiarly gentle, inoffensive, rather old-fashioned brand of humour. His heroes are mostly old-style comics: Tommy Cooper, Norman Wisdom, Eric Sykes and Bob Monkhouse - plus American Steve Martin. His brand of comedy is strictly family-friendly; even today, he tries out his gags on his kids to see if he can get a laugh.

Gradually, he started to attract a loyal following to his stand-up gigs. “I ad-lib constantly,” he says.

His fame spread largely by word of mouth. By the mid-90s, his tours were selling out. The video of his 1996 tour, Live and Squeaky, grossed more than £1m.

He gained fans in high places. He performed in his fifth Royal Variety Performance last year. “I had a bacon sandwich with the Queen not long ago,” says Joe. “She invited me to a royal garden party.” So you're a favourite of Her Majesty? “Well, yes, but I'm not exactly picking the palace curtains yet!”

But despite several successful national tours, by 2004 many people had still never heard of Joe Pasquale, largely because he'd never featured prominently on TV. All that changed with I'm A Celebrity… at the end of 2004.

When approached by ITV, he was reluctant to join the show. “I didn't want to do it, but then I couldn't think of any good reason why not to,” he says. “My family finally persuaded me to give it a go. They said I'd be mental not to try it.”

From the start, Joe was favourite to win. He managed to stay on good terms with everyone, befriending two baby emus and endlessly making schoolboyish references to his “jacobs”. He beat Paul Burrell by just 2pc of the vote, in the show's closest-ever finish. But he endeared himself to the nation and made himself a household name. And he conquered some of his inner demons.

One of the reasons he was reluctant to enter the jungle was his natural shyness and he's particularly pleased the show forced him to conquer his lifelong fear of flying. Being thrown out of an aeroplane on his first day was something of a baptism of fire. Later, in a Bushtucker Trial, he climbed down a rope ladder suspended from a helicopter 200 metres over the sea. “It completely cured me of my phobia, and in fact I've been learning to fly ever since,” he says proudly.

But despite the exhilaration he felt from succeeding in the Bushtucker Trials, his overriding memory of his 16 days in the jungle is one of boredom. To relieve the tedium, Joe started to develop his ideas for Rentaghost: The Musical. He and the show's co-producer, Shaun Cornell, (an old holiday camp mucker and Joe's former tour manager) had had the idea of reviving the old TV show for the stage but had never got down to writing anything.

While in the jungle, Joe started to jot down his thoughts about the show. “I started to scratch out my ideas on pieces of wood,” he says.

After his triumphant departure from the jungle, he took the pieces of wood with him. The result is Rentaghost: The Musical. If it's a success, he reveals he has plans to resurrect another '70s hit children's TV show for the stage - but he's not giving away any details yet.

The stage shows, the writing, the acting (in 1999 he starred in Larry Shue's The Nerd), and now the big TV deals are all part of his strategy to broaden his career away from just stand-up. After all, he says, he's 44 now, and you can't go on doing stand-up for ever.

“I was thinking, 'do I want to be at the end of the pier when I'm 70?' You can't really do stand-up in a Zimmer frame.” Thanks to the enormous boost to his career given to him by Ant and Dec, it looks as if he'll never have to.

t Rentaghost: The Musical comes to Norwich Theatre Royal on March 25 (telephone 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk) and Lowestoft's Marina Theatre on June 18 (telephone 01502 533200 or visit www.marinatheatre.co.uk)

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