From Curly Watts to Fat Friends: Kevin Kennedy on his love of performing
- Credit: Nicholas Dawkes
Kevin Kennedy will forever be best known as Coronation Street's loveable loser Curly Watts, but he is also a stage star. His latest role is an all-star musical version of Kay Mellor's Fat Friends, which allows him to rekindle his love of this region.
Soap characters come and go. Some are soon forgotten. Others, like Ena Sharples, Hilda Ogden and Bet Lynch become legends, imprinted on hearts and minds. Rubbing shoulders with them in the soap hall of fame is Coronation Street's loveable loser Norman 'Curly' Watts.
Kevin Kennedy is the man who made Curly a national treasure and has gone on to outlive the shadow of his soap alter ego to become a highly sought-after stage star.
The Mancunian actor was not long out of drama school when he got his break into primetime TV. He signed up to play Curly for a couple of episodes, and ended up residing in Weatherfield for two decades.
'When Corrie came round the attraction for me was that I would be at home with mum and dad and wouldn't have to pay for digs and would get my washing done,' he laughs.
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'I didn't realise what I was getting into. It didn't occur to me that fame was an option and took a bit of getting used to. I was 22 or 23 and it was a bit scary - but I thoroughly enjoyed every perk they could throw at me, as you would. I had a brilliant time.'
Curly was originally a paperboy for Rita Fairclough, before working as a binman with Chalky Whiteley and Eddie Yeats, whilst lodging with Jack and Vera Duckworth, and later Emily Bishop. He became assistant manager at Bettabuy's supermarket, where he became a protégé of manager Reg Holdsworth, and after a prolonged on-off relationship married Raquel, played by Sarah Lancashire.
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'The experience was a wonderful time with 20 odd years of incredible storylines. I had funny storylines, tragic storylines, and the normal storylines that make the show what it is. The best episodes are when nothing happens. It was a joy to be a part of it.'
Along with many fans of the show, it was Kevin's scenes opposite Liz Dawn and Bill Tarmey, aka Vera and Jack, that are most memorable.
'It was the favourite place I lived. It was always very loud and fast and I worked with two very wonderful people. They were two actors who didn't know just how good they were. I have very fond memories of that. It was a learning curve to learn from people who had been in television for a long time. Liz and Bill, or the Duckworths, will always have a special place in my heart.'
Since bidding farewell to Weatherfield – Curly and new wife Emma left to start a new life near Newcastle - Kevin has carved out a career in musical theatre, and has starred in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Rocky Horror Show, Chicago, Rock of Ages and The Commitments.
He has is also no stranger to East Anglia having starred in the Norwich Theatre Royal panto Peter Pan as Captain Hook in 2014. He also filmed Corrie in Lowestoft when Curly set out on a mission to find Reg Holdsworth who had relocated to the town.
Now he is back in the region with a host of other star names in Fat Friends, a new musical version of Kay Mellor's TV show, which features music by Nick Lloyd Webber, whose composer father is Andrew.
It sees a group of loveable characters put through their paces at their regular Super Slimmers sessions as they hope to change their lives at the same time while also shedding the pounds.
Packed with comedy and fun, plus a sprinkling of romance, the cast includes Natalie Anderson who portrayed Alicia in Emmerdale, X Factor winner Sam Bailey, and former Atomic Kitten favourite Natasha Hamilton.
Kevin plays long-suffering husband and dad Fergus whose daughter Kelly, played by Jodie Prenger, is desperate to stop piling on the pounds.
He says it is a fantastic role to play. 'Fergus takes the mickey out of his kids which is a very British thing and runs a fish-and-chip shop which is his world even though it is having a tough time because of competition from different fast-food outlets. There are a number of different stories running through the piece.'
Kevin admits a big attraction was the great writing of Kay Mellor.
'Fat Friends has moved across magically to the stage and it certainly transfers itself beautifully to the medium of musicals. The songs are all very catchy and you find yourself whistling them after 10 minutes of listening to them. I think that it is going to be a winner.
'It is also a very strong company. They are very talented and it is a joy to work with them. I have been very lucky in that sense.'
However he came to the musical completely new to Fat Friends having never watched the original TV show. 'That was a choice really,' he explains. 'When I was in The Commitments, we lived and breathed the film for quite a while and I didn't really want to approach this job with any pre-conceived ideas.'
For Kevin, who has a strong theatrical pedigree, being part of a stage show is a joy. He has appeared in a host of theatrical smashes — 'I did my first West End show when I was 19 or 20 and I played Hamlet at Sheffield Crucible while doing Corrie' — and says he loves to perform in front of a live audience.
'The stage is something I really enjoy,' he says. 'You get better and better the more you do, and stagecraft is important. You get to play all sorts of different roles.
'I enjoy theatre and I am always learning. I am learning from the people that are coming through and from the professionals that have been around. Everyone who tells you they know it all about theatre probably knows nothing. I enjoy gleaning new skills.'
He partly puts his love of live performing down a 'rock n roll pedigree'. He was in a band called Paris Valentinos with Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke [who later found fame with The Smiths] when he was 14, and later had a band called Kevin Kennedy and the Band of Thieves. He even released a solo album after being signed by Simon Cowell to BMG.
His wilder days were chronicled in his autobiography, The Street to Recovery, which documented his behind-the-scenes struggles with alcohol and drugs at the height of his TV fame.
These days he is a family man. His wife, Clare, and their children Katy-May, then 10, and Grace, eight, re-located from their home in Brighton to spend Christmas with him in Norfolk when he appeared in the Norwich pantomime.
He describes it as one of his favourite jobs and he got to know and love the region. 'I love coming to Norwich. I really miss it. I am trying to get back there to do panto because I had such a great time. I want to go and work with Richard Gauntlett again.
'With the family, we have had some Christmases in some very exotic places and some not-so-exotic holidays. I said to the girls 'what is the favourite place you have been?' and they said 'Norwich.' When you are up against Barbados and the Caribbean, that isn't bad.'
• Fat Friends The Musical is at Norwich Theatre Royal from March 12-17, 7.30pm, 2.30pm March 14/17, £35.50-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.ukFat Friends and Gavin & Stacey
Fat Friends which ran on ITV for four series from 2000 to 2005. Created by Kay Mellor, it was set around a slimming club in Leeds run by the formidable Carol (Janet Dibley), who fruitlessly tries to persuade the members of the group to follow the 'Super Slimmers' diet. As well as being hige popular, the series its notable as being where four of the cast — Ruth Jones, James Corden, Sheridan Smith and Alison Steadman — first met, before going on appear in Gavin & Stacey.