David Essex's fairground attraction
Rachel BullerFor thousands of women, he will always be their teenage idol, the pop icon who adorned their bedroom walls, but, as David Essex told Rachel Buller, he is enjoying a new-found anonymity and finally seems a little more comfortable with his fame.Rachel Buller
David Essex might have reached 61, but he has no plans to slow down. The star, loved by women everywhere for his distinct voice and famous dark curls, has a back catalogue of work many performers today would be lucky to achieve even a quarter of, and he is as in demand now as he was in his heyday. His career has spanned four decades and has brought him huge success, from sell-out tours, number one singles and albums to performances in some of the most famous stage musicals.
But despite his success, his new project, he admits, is making him nervous.
Not only did he come up with the idea of the new musical All the Fun of the Fair, he wrote it with Boogie Nights creator Jon Conway, stars in it and it is a subject close to his heart.
The show, which comes to Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday, February 23, is an ambitious production, and a bit of a departure for David.
Telling the tale of funfair owner Levi Lee it promises to be a dark affair - and as David himself puts it with a smile, 'there are no big dance routines or jazz hands thank goodness'.
Reviews so far have been positive and he is confident that it will appeal to not only his famous legion of fans, but also some new ones along the way.
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'It is extremely personal to me, and I was apprehensive, but I think that is a positive thing because if you are not a little apprehensive then I believe you become too complacent.
'It is good to get the adrenaline going and with the reaction to the show we have had, with standing ovations, I'm just so proud of it.
'I spent time on the fairs first when I was a little boy and then worked on them as a teenager. That feeling of absolute magic and the fascination about the lifestyle, the underbelly of the fair, has always stayed with me.'
He decided to call the show All the Fun of the Fair after his third album of the same name.
'That album was a big success. So I started thinking about that as a starting point. It is really a show about the relationship between a father and son, unrequited love and it is very moving and something many people will identify with. At the end of the shows we have had audiences sobbing and it seems to push lots of buttons.'
He is keen to emphasise that the musical isn't simply a vehicle to play out his hits, including Winter's Tale and Rock On and that each of the songs is integral to the storyline.
'It might feature three number ones but they are all relevant to the plot,' he says.
Choosing which songs to use was a lengthy and cathartic experience and one he enjoyed.
'I think I've written about two whole days and two whole nights worth of music,' he says. 'So me and John [Conway] went through the entire catalogue to really look at what might work with the show and to get ideas.
'It is a life's history of music I have written - in the show we use material from the '70s through to 2007. Listening to my work made me realise it is quite a spectrum of different styles.'
Bringing the fairground to life on the stage has proved a challenge but they have come up with some inventive ways to create that unique atmosphere.
'We couldn't have a big wheel and big dipper on stage so we created a surround-sound system to take the atmosphere of the fair around the theatre so the audience sits enveloped by what is happening.
'You will hear a dog barking over your right shoulder, and the sound of a rollercoaster over your left. You are totally immersed in this strange world.'
So what does he think his usual audience will think of this new show?
'I think my shows attract different types of people anyway. I was last here for Aspects of Love, so you get people who are coming to see the musical itself, then when I do my concerts, just me performing, I get another audience.'
His career started in 1971 when, aged just 23, he was cast as a complete newcomer in the original West End production of Godspell, playing Jesus.
He never looked back, and for someone who has worked alongside some of the biggest names in entertainment, he remains almost strangely low key about that side of it all, like a man who just wants to get on with the job.
After so many years in the limelight how does he keep himself so driven and enthused?
'I think switching from one medium to another helps me stay passionate about what I do, and my fans don't get too fed up with me doing the same old thing over and over as well,' he says.
The publicity shots for the show feature his real son Billy, pretending to be his on-stage son.
And he's clearly taking after his father, a real chip off the old block - winning an army of fans, despite not actually being in the show, much to David's amusement.
'I made him do it,' says David, laughing. 'now he has all these fans.
'We hadn't cast an actor and I just thought Billy, who's 20, would be perfect for the promo shots. I think a few people were disappointed when they discovered he wasn't actually in the show.'
So was he not tempted to cast Billy in the role?
'No,' he laughs heartily. 'He would never cope with doing eight shows a week, it would be far too difficult to get him out of bed. He's a typical 20-year-old lad.'
He doesn't like to talk about his family and is notoriously private, but he is clearly proud of his children, adding that his sons are involved in the business, both as musicians and on the production side.
When it comes to his famous army of fans, who are fiercely loyal and as dedicated now as they were as teenagers with posters of their idol on their walls, he still seems a little bewildered by it all.
'I never considered myself an icon. When I was younger I was always rather bemused by all that. I was a bit uncomfortable being stuck on girls' walls.
'The attention was a bit of a surprise, both here and in the States, sometimes I wish I had enjoyed it all a bit more at the time,' he adds with a hint of nostalgia.
'I never took it for granted though and still don't, if I bump into people and they want an autograph and a chat, I always treat them with dignity and respect, they are the people who support me.'
The natural ageing process has granted him greater freedom to move around unnoticed, something which clearly amuses him.
'I can go out a lot in public now with a grey beard and grey hair which is getting a bald spot, and people don't recognise me when I'm buying my shopping in Sainsbury's. It's not a disguise, it's just old age.
'I think some of my fans expect me to look like I did in the '70s on the posters on their walls - I wish,' he laughs.
He says wearily that in today's climate of celebrity, perhaps things may have been different if he were starting out, more difficult to find privacy. But, he adds, he never wanted to be famous anyway.
'I wanted to be a jazz drummer, I wanted fulfilment really and to write and perform. The fame and the fortune were always secondary.
'And for the losses of some personal freedoms, the fame I did get, has allowed me a lot of creative freedom and I am incredibly grateful for that.
'If you surround yourself with an entourage you are not really in touch with reality. I come from the West End and was knocking about in blues bands for years - I still am that person. I don't ever think, and never have thought, that what I do is any better than what anyone else does.'
Time off is clearly at a premium and he confesses he doesn't get too much.
'I am still following the football, because I played for West Ham as a boy, and like to go and watch them when I can.
'But I'm ashamed to say I don't really listen to music. Sometimes I think I like a bit of peace and quiet at home. Is that bad?'
He has been committed to various charitable causes throughout his career, including the Gypsy Council, (he is a proud descendant of Irish travellers), Aids charities and Comic Relief to name but a few.
He is currently closely involved with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), and in 1999 he was made an OBE for his charity work.
'It is a brilliant outfit, and it doesn't throw money at a problem. It really helps in a grass-roots way, passing on skills,' he says. 'I was asked to be their ambassador some years ago now and I did a teaching placement in Uganda.
'It was really fulfilling and I loved it, it really was very special. I directed a performance of Godspell for the national theatre there as well. The country and people were amazing.
'Time after time, volunteers have said to me that they went to teach or to pass on their skills and learned so much back.'
His other great love is travelling and he evidently still has itchy feet.
'I love travelling, I like spending time anywhere different. That's why I love touring and that is why I can't wait to come to Norwich - I think it is a brilliant city. If you are in a place for a week you really get to know it.
'I usually like to go down to the coast and have a wander around the Broads when I'm in Norfolk.
'When I was here last time the ice rink was up near the theatre and I thought, 'Wow, this is a great place'.'
t For more information about tickets for All the Fun of the Fair at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday February 23 to Saturday February 28, tickets and further details from the box office on 01603 630000 and website at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk