Steve Hackett: from Genesis to guitar legend

The multi-talented Steve Hackett (picture Tina Kohonen)

The multi-talented Steve Hackett (picture: Tina Kohonen)

The phone rings just before 9am. Former Genesis guitarist and rock legend Steve Hackett is on the line to talk about his new album and his gig at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. He sounds lively and alert despite the relatively early hour; it’s not exactly what you expect from a rock ‘n’ roller.

Steve agrees that he is the antithesis of what most people think of when you mention the phrase “rock star”.

“I’ve been up since half six,” he points out. “I’ve completely reversed my hours from those I kept in my early 20s, that’s for sure.

“I don’t think I’ve embraced the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for quite some time. It’s a young man’s game, partying all night. It’s all gone now – I like early nights if I can. I like to go to bed with a book.”

One of the reasons for that could be that Steve and his wife Jo look after his business affairs; he does not have a manager, preferring to keep it all in-house. It means he is incredibly busy.

“The days are filled with all sorts of things that have to be addressed – not just music but business things. People assume you have all that taken care of but in fact the only way to make sure that everything stays solvent is to be hands-on. Jo works very hard at doing that. We’re a kind of mutual support team for each other.

“Of course I spend a lot of time writing, recording and touring which takes up a lot of our lives, particularly this year, travelling to more places further afield than usual. There’s a lot going on.”

It’s 40 years since Steve left Genesis, just after the band released their Wind And Wuthering album. He is playing some of the tracks from that LP on his current tour.

“It was an album I felt very comfortable with and I liked very much. It had probably more social comment on it than Genesis normally addressed. But I knew that I had to work on my own so I left the band.

“I’m very proud of the material that we did together. But having a parallel solo career wasn’t on offer at that time. And rather than constantly fall foul of band politics I decided it would be more constructive to go and work with some other extraordinarily talented people, which I did.”

Steve's latest album The Night Siren

              Steve’s latest album The Night Siren

That has led to Steve releasing 25 solo studio albums including his latest, The Night Siren.

“I’m a bit of a musical migrant travelling the world and working with pals from everywhere, which is what we’ve got on the new album.”

There are 20 musicians from all over the globe – Israel, Palestine, Iceland, Hungary, Sweden, America and Azerbaijan playing together on The Night Siren.

He also has a core of musicians who go with him on tour. Their popularity seems to be spreading.

“Since I started doing Genesis stuff again,” says Steve, “I’ve found that it’s taken us to all sorts of places we wouldn’t have done before, for instance Australia, New Zealand, Jakarta, Hong Kong and Singapore.

“My wife also likes to travel. She’s very much a world traveller. We tend to look at places on the map and think ‘which places can we visit?’ and ‘which places are we likely to get our heads cut off?’ and take it from there,” he jokes.

Stephen Richard Hackett was born on 12 February 1950 in Pimlico, central London. He developed an interest in the guitar when he was 12.

His musical influences include Johann Sebastian Bach, opera singer Mario Lanza, former Fleetwood Mac blues guitarist Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and King Crimson.

Steve Hackett 2He played with four bands before putting an advert in Melody Maker looking for musicians “determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms”.

Genesis were looking for a replacement for guitarist Anthony Phillips and replied to the advert. They auditioned Steve and he was accepted into the band which also contained vocalist Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks on keyboards, bass player Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins.

Steve had little on-stage experience but he soon settled into the role. Wearing thick glasses and sitting in a hunched position over his guitar, he was a real contrast to Gabriel with his extravagant costumes and dramatic storytelling.

Steve’s first recording with the band was the album Nursery Cryme which was released in 1971. Genesis went on tour to promote the record, stopping off at the King’s Hall in Derby.

I saw that gig, with Genesis the support act. They blew Van der Graaf Generator, who had a dodgy PA, off the stage – but Steve sympathises and modestly thinks he has the answer for that.

“Equipment in those days wasn’t that reliable. It was an exciting but nerve-racking time.”

Steve was determined to get on in the business and spent many evenings in the Speakeasy Club on London’s Margaret Street. It was a late-night meeting place for anyone in the music industry.

“There was no such thing as a school of rock at that time – you had to make your own mistakes.

Guitar hero (picture Armando Gallo)

Guitar hero (picture :Armando Gallo)

“I met lots of people, some of whom I’m still friends with today and many who’ve passed on like the great John Whetton who became a big pal of mine.”

Whetton, who was born in Willington, died in January. He played with some huge bands including Family, King Crimson and Roxy Music.

In those days Genesis were playing in front of 20,000 people a night – but earned only £100 a week. However, that was because the band reinvested in the show.

“We had the biggest light show on the road at that time. It meant there was lots of money coming in – but lots of money going out. We had truck loads of stuff, armies of people on the road. I certainly don’t feel stitched up or naïve (about earning so little).”

Steve admits he used to smoke far too much but stopped many years ago. He was never a heavy drinker. He is fit enough to go on a gruelling tour that some younger musicians might find difficult to pull off.

His show Genesis Revisited With Classic Hackett is due at the Royal Concert Hall on Thursday 11 May. Anyone who buys a ticket will hear three songs from the Night Siren album which Steve feels has a different emphasis from his previous work.

“There are two songs that have a peace theme to them. The first track, Behind The Smoke, addresses the subject of refugees and the penultimate track West To East addresses the subject of potential world peace – the distant dream that it is.

“I’m more interested that the message comes across than I am in yet another album’s performance in the market place.

“If I was honest I’d say it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever done, if not THE best. I always say that because I put absolutely everything into every album I do.”

Steve with his band (picture: Rick Pauline)

Steve with his band (picture: Rick Pauline)

Steve will also play some of his older material including tracks from the Darktown, Defector and To Watch The Storms albums as well as a Genesis set.

“One of the songs that I find hard to leave out is Firth of Fifth from Selling England By The Pound. It’s a cracking song and I still love playing it live. Whenever we start it I always think ‘this is the one that people remember most of all from my time with Genesis’.”

Steve will also have a week’s tour in Hungary, Austria and Slovakia with “the number one jazz/world fusion band in Hungary” Djabe who have undertaken concerts with him for the past ten years.

“We’ve just recorded some live stuff together in Sardinia and I think it’s really quite lovely. It’s jazz; I hate to use the word chilled but it’s very ambient and very relaxing to listen to. I’m proud to have taken part in that.”

It appears that globe-trotting Steve who has made friends all over the world through his musicianship will not be hanging up his guitar soon. “The idea is to keep on until I completely fall apart.

“Playing live is the oxygen that I breathe”

“(Blues singer) B B King was still doing it when he was in a wheelchair. (Godfather of British blues) John Mayall said to me once ‘next week I’m going to be 80 and I’ll be doing a gig on my birthday’. So I’m a mere stripling compared with these guys – a young whippersnapper.

“It’s a great privilege still to be doing it, frankly, and I hope there’ll be many more years of it. I’m looking forward to it tremendously.

“Playing live is the oxygen that I breathe – but I also breathe a sigh of relief afterwards when it’s gone well.”

* This article appeared in the May 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Actor David Sterne: retaining an aura of anonymity

David Sterne 1The face is instantly memorable although you might not know the name. David Sterne has appeared in more than 90 films including a Harry Potter and a Pirates of the Caribbean as well as taking roles in numerous television shows.

Despite that the former Derbyshire actor retains an aura of anonymity – a situation he loves.

At the age of 71 David shows no signs of slowing up. When we began our chat he yawned a few times, hardly surprising as he had just finished six months’ work with the BBC’s radio rep company and also squeezed in a couple of film roles.

He is one of those actors who holds nothing back. Married four times, he talks freely about becoming an alcoholic, how he has hardly stopped working since he gave up drink 30 years ago and how he has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company despite hating the Bard.

He gets back to Derbyshire three or four times a year and makes time to visit old friends. Although he has left the county, he has never forgotten it.

“Once Derbyshire’s in you, it’s part of you. The older I got, driving from Derby down to London and back all the time was quite a big event whereas where I live now, in Hampshire, it’s only an hour and ten minutes on the train and it’s only 50 minutes to drive to Teddington (television studios).

“Now I live in a little village and it’s great. And I’ve got a girlfriend who’s years younger than me. She’s a friend of my daughter’s, she’s lovely. She doesn’t drink either so that’s wonderful. Everything’s good in my life at the moment. I have to say it’s better now than it’s been for a long time.”

He puts his success partly down to the fact that he simply loves the acting business.

David as Blind Pew in Treasure Island at the National Theatre in 2014 (picture: Alastair Muir)

David as Blind Pew in Treasure Island at the National Theatre in 2014 (picture: Alastair Muir)

“I’ve been in kids’ TV, I’ve done some good series – I’ve been very lucky being able to do what I like doing best which is going on set, doing some scenes and having a laugh rather than having to bury my head in something terribly serious.

“You can be locked in doing those things and there’s no light outside. That takes your life away. You go home, learn your lines, go to bed, get up, do the lines and then you go home and learn more lines. It’s not fun and I’ve always tried to avoid that.

“My daughter is a production executive with Hartswood Films who make Sherlock (the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). When she was 18 she said ‘what’s it like being out of work, dad, because it goes with the business?’ Luckily she’s never been out of work more than me.

“You can’t just give up and go into depression until the phone rings – it’s just ridiculous. It’s a hard game, a survivor’s game, it really is. But I’ve been blessed.”

He was born David Stone but when his career started to take off his agents at the time changed his surname to Sterne – without even asking him. That was to avoid confusion with an American actor of the same name.

After coming out of the army David trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.

“It was all meant to be very polite but I was feral. I was having a laugh and getting drunk down the local pub. After three months I went to America thinking I was going to be John Wayne and ended up in Topeka, Kansas.

David as Canon Dobbs in the TV series Midwinter of the Spirit in 2015

David as Canon Dobbs in the TV series Midwinter of the Spirit in 2015

“I didn’t know I was going to the middle of nowhere. I could have stayed there but I came back to England and for my third job back I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

His career blossomed after that and he has worked with some of the greatest actors this country has ever produced.

He reveals he was always an anxious person with a lot of energy and his mother might have put pressure on him by urging him to be the best at everything he did.

That might have been one of the reasons he turned to drink. He was also brought up in a culture in which everyone used to go to the pub all the time. Actors he worked with did the same.

“It doesn’t really matter what turned me into an alcoholic. The fact is I was one and I dealt with it.

“I thought to myself: I’ve got a problem here – I don’t want to be doing this. You under-achieve in everything you do and you become a liability to those you wish to be an asset to. So it’s a terrible kind of spiral down really. But if you spiral up by not drinking, then the reverse is true. It sounds very simple. But when you’re in the middle of that complex world it’s a long time to recognise it.”

When David was married to his third wife – they were wed at Derby Register Office – she kept going on at him to stop. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous and says at the time he was “good and ready and willing” to stop drinking.

But there were distractions: David turned down the chance to perform in a play with legendary actor Sir Robert Stephens and his wife Patricia Quinn at the Old Vic because he wanted to quit drinking. Instead he accepted a part in a play in Leicester, to which Sir Robert replied: “You’re so boring!” He too was an alcoholic and died after liver and kidney transplants.

“You always like to play second banana, don’t you?” – Matthew Kelly

David’s first job when sober was at Sheffield Crucible in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, performing alongside Matthew Kelly. The pair are still mates.

Matthew recognises that David prefers anonymity to stardom. “You always like to play second banana, don’t you?” and David agrees.

So what does he regard as the highlights of his career? He cites Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest as a favourite as it was filmed on the ship that was originally used in the film Mutiny on the Bounty.

He also recalls with fondness his role in a television mini-series, The Choir, with James Fox in 1995 because it was filmed on the roof of Gloucester Cathedral. “No member of the public is allowed on the roof but we were up there filming – it’s just a blessing.”

David as Larry Bishop in the TV series Detectorists in 2014

David as Larry Bishop in the TV series Detectorists in 2014

In more recent times he played Larry Bishop in Detectorists, a series featuring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones – “it was beautifully written and conceived,” says David. “It was properly cast – I don’t say that with any kind of boasting. The way it happens sometimes is just perfect.”

He also played a ministry wizard in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But he is most proud of a play he did with a friend, Steve Bennett from Exeter. At the time David was playing Detective Chief Inspector Frank Uttley in the ITV series Thief Takers.

“I said to Steve we’ll have to do a play together. I’ll buy a van and we’ll go round Devon together. We did (Rudyard Kipling’s) The Man Who Would Be King. It’s the best thing we ever did.”

David says it is a “miracle” that he returned to every theatre where he originally performed when he was drinking, the second time “doing it the right way”. That includes the RSC where five years ago he played Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor despite hating Shakespeare.

That led to his appearing as a rat in the RSC’s 2012 Christmas show The Mouse and His Child. “The irony of me playing a rat and running around all over the place was quite amazing. It was just brilliant. It was wonderful to be able to go and do that.”

David’s busy schedule has continued with working in radio as well as accepting film roles.

“My ambition is to be happy, to keep going, to do a good job, to be honest and to have integrity”

“To think it’s the first time in my life I’ve done radio is extraordinary. It’s fascinating – you never know from one week to the next what you’re going to do. At least you don’t have to learn the scripts, which is a great joy.”

During breaks in the radio sessions David was back in Derbyshire to record scenes for a film, Madness in the Method, which is due to be released in September. David plays a judge. He also had a small part in another film, ironically playing a father whose son is dying from alcoholism.

He says he still has the energy for all the projects he works on although he feels more tired at the end of them. And retirement is not an issue.

“My ambition is to be happy, to keep going, to do a good job, to be honest and to have integrity.

David Sterne black and white“So many people say ‘you should do a show about your life.’ I say one day if the feeling’s right I might do it in a village hall here in Hampshire to raise money for the church. Not a show, just a talk.

“It might be nice to write a book – not that anybody would read it. You’ve always got to be wanting to do something new.

“It would be nice for my granddaughter to remember granddad in a panto before I die. If there’s any kids’ TV going I’d like to do that for the same reason.

“I’ve always said the thing that people don’t understand unless they’re actors is that when you’ve finished a job you almost believe it’s your last. And everyone laughs. You just have to take one day at a time.”

As for the future, he says he has all sorts of possible jobs bubbling away that he cannot talk about until they actually happen. It appears as though it may be a long time before in-demand actor David Sterne completes his last job.

* This article appeared in the April 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Author Wendy Holden: how writing is “fun”

IMG_0004AIn a wooden summer house above a north Derbyshire village Wendy Holden taps out her latest work on an ageing computer. There is no internet connection and the only heat comes from an old, plug-in radiator. Not the ideal setting, you might think, for a top-selling author to write – but this is where Wendy has penned many of her best sellers.

It’s an incredibly busy time for the comic novelist who has had ten consecutive books in the Sunday Times Top Ten. This month her 15th book, Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings, is published in hardback while she is also promoting the paperback version of her last novel Honeymoon Suite which hit the bookshops in January.

The former national newspaper journalist interrupted her hectic schedule to chat about how the Derbyshire countryside inspires her, where she gets her work ethic from and how people would not believe her when she said she used to write a weekly column for socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.

Over tea and cake the bubbly, amiable Wendy expresses several times how fortunate she is to be writing for a living. She uses the word “fun” on no fewer than 11 occasions: writing is fun, promoting her books is fun and she wants to introduce a bit of fun into people’s lives through her work.

Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings marks the start of a new chapter in Wendy’s career. After nearly 20 years she has left her publishers Headline to go with a relatively new company, Head of Zeus.

“I felt it was time for a change. The person I first went to work for at Headline is the boss at the new publisher and she was such a great inspiration to work with. So when she said ‘would you like to come and work with us?’ I said ‘absolutely’.

“She wants me to write comedies, which was the original brief I had at Headline, so that’s great. It was perfect timing.”

“It’s a crazy, funny romp through the different ways you can get married these days”

Wendy is expecting to write seven books, one a year, in the Laura Lake series. Obviously her new publishers have exceptional faith in her. So too has her heroine Jilly Cooper who has read an advanced copy of Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings which she describes as “marvellous”.

The book enables Wendy to return to her earliest stamping ground as a writer – the world of glossy magazines.

“As the novel begins Laura desperately wants to be a glossy magazine journalist and she ends up getting a job as an intern, one of those jobs where you’re not paid. She lives in a cupboard at the office and she survives on canapés.

“Then she gets her big break, a brief to cover three society weddings. It’s a crazy, funny romp through the different ways you can get married these days.

Laura Lake cover“I suppose the idea for that began partly because my new publishers wanted me to write a comedy about glossy magazines but I wanted to write about weddings. When I was doing my research for Honeymoon Suite I realised that the world of weddings had really moved on. There’s an awful lot of comic potential there because guests are roped into these massive productions and I just thought it was a great subject.”

Wendy Holden was born on 12 June 1965 in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire. She always wanted to be a writer but never thought it would happen.

She was the first in her family to go to university, studying English at Cambridge. She thought she might be an academic but then she landed her first job – in journalism, on a monthly magazine for foreign diplomats.

“I used to go and interview every single foreign diplomat who came to London. It was the most amazing job because I knew nothing about anything really. And so I’d find myself going off to interview the Israeli ambassador and I’d be sitting in a room with these Mossad agents and saying to the Israeli ambassador ‘what’s your favourite colour?’

“I’m sure people thought I was a spy and it was all fantastically interesting. There were parties every single night and the gin and tonics were of an unbelievable stiffness. How anyone keeps state secrets I just don’t know.

“That was the beginning of a career in which I’ve been able to see behind the scenes of very glamorous lives, write about them and inject a comic element.”

Wendy then went to work for Harpers & Queen (later to become Harper’s Bazaar), the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times, Tatler and the Mail on Sunday.

“I’ve been very lucky and the timing’s always been fantastically fortunate. But I think I’ve also been able to spot when I can make something work.”

“I had an epiphany and realised that it was the novel plot that I’d always been looking for and off I went.”

It was while Wendy was deputy editor of the Style section of the Sunday Times that she edited a column for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. “I used to write this column for her every week, which was great training because I had to make it all up.

“That was the inspiration for my first book, Simply Divine. It was about a glossy magazine journalist who has to write a column for a celebrity socialite who gets all the credit.”

When Wendy was at a party and was asked what she did, she said she wrote Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s column. “People said ‘no you don’t, she does that’. In those days it was thought that famous people actually wrote their own columns.

“That turned out to be a great opportunity for me. I had an epiphany and realised that it was the novel plot that I’d always been looking for and off I went.”

IMG_0012AWendy thought that Simply Divine might be turned into a Hollywood film when Warner Brothers took an option on it. But it never materialised.

“It was incredibly exciting. They used to renew the option annually. It was loads of money and it was great. We used to live in a village and I got the whole cottage roof replaced by Warner Brothers!”

Wendy’s first book deal was for two novels. It was when she landed a second contract that she decided to become a full-time writer.

She was living in a flat in King’s Cross and visiting Derbyshire at weekends. After her son Andrew, now 14, was born, she and husband Jon, a political consultant, moved up here permanently. They also have a 12-year-old daughter, Isabella.

“Living in Derbyshire has been a great inspiration. I realised there was a lot to write about, there was a lot of material in swopping the city for the country, particularly as suddenly as I did.

“I actually found that living in the country was a lot more interesting because when you live in the city you go to work, you come back, you’re in your flat, you do the hamster-wheel thing, whereas here there’s so much going on all the time and there are lots of great characters.

“Honeymoon Suite is partly inspired by the country, by living here, and Laura Lake’s next adventure will take place in a village, so I get endless inspiration from living here.”

IMG_0009AWendy writes every day, either working on her next novel or writing articles. She reviews popular fiction for the Daily Mail, giving her views on three new novels each month, and she has been a judge for the Costa Book Awards. But she doesn’t intend to return to journalism.

“It’s really interesting to review for the Mail because you see what kind of books are being published and what people are writing. I think it’s important as a writer of contemporary fiction to keep your eye on what’s coming out, to see if anyone else is doing the same thing – which thankfully they’re not.

“I don’t think I’d really want to go back to journalism but I keep writing features to keep my hand in because I see it as my trade. That was one of the things the late, great Adrian Gill (food and travel writer A A Gill) said to me as I was leaving the Sunday Times: he said don’t forget that journalism is your trade.”

Many writers say they have a lonely existence because they are on their own when they write. Wendy agrees and shares her way of working.

“I’m lucky because I enjoy writing my books and they’re fun to write. Some people can write with radios on and people in the background. There are people who write in coffee shops. But I don’t do that. I’ve got to be on my own, sometimes even with earplugs in.”

Wendy stresses that she likes to have lots of things going on and puts her “massive” work ethic down to her Yorkshire roots. “I think if you’re a writer it’s such a fantastic privilege – I still can’t get over the fact that people pay me to write for a living. It’s just amazing – not something I ever thought would happen realistically. I think I’m really fortunate so I do as much as I can. I very rarely turn a commission down, whatever it is.”

Wendy, described in some publications as one of the founders of the chick lit movement, sees herself more as a satirist writing glamorous comedies.

IMG_0006AHer next book will be called Laura Lake and the Celebrity Meltdown. Wendy is hoping readers will take to Laura.

“That’s my ambition – to make her somebody that people want to read about who will cheer people up.”

So who is Laura Lake? “She’s not a drip – she’s quite feisty, she’s not put off by adversity. She’s a woman of today but she’s a little bit different.

“She’s half-French and she’s got this granny who gives her lots of life advice, like always have a glass of champagne before you read the papers because the news is a lot better that way – useful advice that we could all do with.”

Laura Lake may mean that Wendy Holden returns to the top of the Sunday Times best sellers – her book Fame Fatale was the number one in 2002. Whatever happens, she is contracted to produce another six Laura Lakes and you can be sure that comedy will be a crucial element.

“I think, particularly now, people need something uplifting and fun to read. I hope that I’m going to be able to give them that because there’s not really much else out there. I want to give people a reason to smile in 2017.”

* This article appeared in the March 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

Sam Bailey: “this time around I’m in control”

Sam Bailey 4Almost three years since becoming one of the oldest contestants to win The X Factor, former prison officer Sam Bailey is going back on the road – and she promises it will be completely different from her last tour.

That’s because she has left X Factor boss Simon Cowell’s record company after feeling “like a puppet” and is now taking control not only of her career but also her life.

“At the end of the day I’ve got three children and record labels work to a time frame. I wanted to be able to say when I wanted to work, when I wanted to take my kids to a park or take them out for dinner. I love the fact that I’ve now got that freedom.”

On her Sing My Heart Out tour she will be accompanied by three backing vocalists who she has known for several years. She will also be spending as much time as possible with her family. And she is running a competition to give artists the chance to support her at one of the venues.

In a frank interview she said she was not concerned about anyone upstaging her – she simply wanted to give something back after being given a “wonderful opportunity” to pursue her own career. Can you imagine Simon Cowell agreeing to that?

Winning the television talent show and a £1million recording contract led to her single Skyscraper hitting the top of the Christmas charts while her debut album The Power of Love – named after the Jennifer Rush song which Sam covered – went to number one in the album charts. It sold more than 72,000 copies in its first week.

But despite her first tour being a sell-out, Sam had no say in the direction her career was going.

“I was like a deer in headlights. All these people came along with clipboards and said ‘right, we’re gonna get these guys to do this and this is what we think you should wear’. I was pretty much like a puppet.

“I’m really looking forward to having that freedom on stage and letting go a little bit”

“It was fantastic working with those people but this time it’s going to be a little bit more comfortable. I’m going to be doing stuff that I want to do rather than stuff that people suggest. I’d just go ‘yeah, okay, we’ll do that because you know better than I do’.

“This time around I’m in a bit more control so I’m really looking forward to having that freedom on stage and letting go a little bit. And because I’ve had a bit more experience in the last couple of years it’s a lot easier for me now whereas before I was a little bit nervous. Now I’m itching to get on stage.”

Sam will be choosing the songs that she’ll sing on her new tour as well as having her own backing singers and musicians. She’ll be promoting her album Sing My Heart Out – she co-wrote most of the songs and it was released on her own label towards the end of last year.

Despite a stratospheric rise through winning The X Factor, Sam maintains the down-to-earth persona that endears her to millions of people. She says she doesn’t have the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – “I like to be in bed by half ten with a cup of Horlicks”, although being with the backing singers who she’s known for years might change that.

Sam Bailey 1“We might go for a meal at one o’clock in the morning,” she jests. “I wanted them with me to showcase them because they’re amazing performers. It’s important to have people around me that I trust.”

Samantha Florence Bailey was born on 29 June 1977 in Bexley, south east London. Her grandfather was a singer in a group called The Four Vinos and her father was also in a band.

Although she won a Search For A Star talent contest in Crayford when she was 16, her first love was football. She played professionally for a number of clubs including Millwall, West Ham and Crystal Palace.

After that she became a prison officer, working at Gartree in Market Harborough, Leicestershire. But she was also singing, performing on cruise ships, in clubs and at music festivals.

She first auditioned for The X Factor in 2007 but didn’t get past the first round. However, in 2013 she raced to victory, with Gary Barlow describing her voice as “incredible”.

So what happened in the intervening six years? Sam who still speaks with a southern accent says her win was probably because she had more experience.

“I’ve learned so much in the last year, especially vocally. Six years is a long time to better yourself. I might not have been ready (in 2007) – they might have seen that in me.

“My dad was really poorly at the time – he was terminally ill. I never mentioned that to anyone because I didn’t want it to be a factor. Maybe they saw something in me that was just not ready. They saw the desperation the second time that I did it.”

“The show has the ability to make controversial decisions but that’s what people watch it for.”

The show has been criticised over the past few years for a drop in quality and a staid format. Simon Cowell’s flagship programme has been regularly trounced by the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in the ratings battle. But despite that Sam is a great believer in the saying “never bite the hand that feeds you”.

“I’ll never slate the show,” she says. “But I always say to people who watch the show or if they audition for it, just remember this: it’s a TV show before a talent competition.

“The show has the ability to make controversial decisions but that’s what people watch it for. No one watches EastEnders to see people doing normal things – they watch it to see people getting battered black and blue, for the adultery, all sorts of things. Then they talk about it.

“It’s exactly the same with The X Factor. It’s there for controversy. It’s happened before and it will always happen in that show. But people can’t stop watching it. I’m really proud to say that I was a part of it.”

Sam Bailey 2Last year her career moved in a different direction when she was cast as Mamma Morton in the UK tour of the musical Chicago alongside ex-EastEnders actor John Partridge and former soap actress Hayley Tamaddon.

“Playing a prison officer – where did they get that from?” she jokes.  “I loved doing musical theatre. It’s something I would definitely consider in the future. There are loads of shows that I would love to get my teeth into. The other cast members in Chicago taught me a lot and I’m very grateful.”

Back to the tour which will be more than 30 dates over three months. Sam who lives in Leicester is hoping she will be able to spend time with husband Craig and their children Tommy, Brooke and Miley. She has decided to take Easter off so that she can spend a couple of weeks with her family.

“I’m doing Sheffield and Nottingham which are not far from me – Sheffield is just over an hour and Nottingham is just over half an hour, so I’ll be going home on those dates.

“Being away on tour is tough but there’ll be dates when the kids can come along and watch the show or sit and ransack my dressing room and eat all my sweets and chocolates.

“The last time I toured Miley was only a baby. This time it’ll be a little bit easier, so we’re going to arrange to visit theme parks or farms that are close by. It’s going to be a real family kind of thing.”

Sam Bailey 7Sam says she will never forget her roots and empathises with many struggling artists who are looking for their big break. That’s why she’s giving performers a chance to share the stage with her.

“I’ve had that step up the ladder so I want to find people who are just like I was who don’t deserve to be singing in a corner of a pub where no one’s listening or in a social club where everyone’s waiting for the bingo.

“It doesn’t bother me if someone upstages me. It’s about giving someone an opportunity they deserve and that’s what I want to do. I would have loved someone to have done that to me 20-odd years ago.”

Artists who believe they are good enough for a support spot should upload a YouTube clip of themselves to Twitter and use the tag @SamBaileyREAL.

“It’s going to be hard but I’m going to enjoy it,” she says of the tour. “I’m going to soak it up and have a wonderful time.”

After the tour Sam, who doesn’t drink, will have a big bash to celebrate her 40th birthday before going on holiday to Florida.

Sam Bailey is proof that if you possess talent, work hard and have an engaging personality you can achieve great success with or without Simon Cowell.

* This article appeared in the February 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

John Shuttleworth’s last will and tasty mint!

John Shuttleworth 1Bad news for fans of eccentric, nerdy singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth, the man responsible for such tunes as One Foot In The Gravy and I Can’t Go Back To Savoury: his upcoming tour will probably be his last.

The good news: although his creator Graham Fellows is taking a complete break from the character, he reckons Shuttleworth will still pop up occasionally.

My half-hour chat with Graham turned into quite a surreal experience: some of the time he was interviewing me about my musical tastes and occasionally he suddenly became his fictional character Shuttleworth, bursting into song to illustrate his unique lyrics.

Graham, a comedy actor and musician, was trying to be a professional songwriter back in the 1980s when he came up with the idea of John Shuttleworth. Graham was signed to Chappell Music in London and heard a number of demo tapes which he says were “awful”.

“That inspired me to create my own demo tape which was deliberately bad but had some pathos. A lot of those tapes were like that. People were pouring their heart and soul out.

“Sometimes they’d be quite good and the people could be incredibly confident. The bits linking the songs were better than the songs themselves. That inspired me to have the same kind of confident, deluded delivery because John Shuttleworth is deluded.”

Graham thinks the first “really dreadful song” he wrote was Mary, Mary, when I met you I was wary, you said my arms were hairy, now that was unnecessary.

He admits he could not do that kind of song all the time, “so then I started writing songs which had more depth and better tunes, things like I Can’t Go Back to Savoury.

Graham Fellows“I can’t believe 30 years on from when I started doing those demo tapes I’m still knocking it out in theatres. I’m very lucky. It’s great.”

Graham Fellows was a drama student at Manchester Polytechnic when he came to prominence in 1978 as Jilted John, singer of the novelty record of the same name. The punk anthem features the often chanted line “Gordon is a moron”.

His acting career involved roles as Paul McCartney in a play called Lennon at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield; an appearance in Coronation Street as Les Charlton, a biker chasing a young Gail Tilsley; and as Eric Sykes in the BBC4 drama Hattie in 2010.

He created John Shuttleworth in 1986. Shuttleworth has fronted several radio and television series and has usually been supported by other characters – also voiced by Graham – including his agent/manager Ken Worthington.

Shuttleworth’s current tour is called My Last Will And Tasty Mint. So what can anyone who goes to one of the tour venues expect to see?

“I usually say the same old rubbish – and I say it proudly because that’s what it will be,” says Graham candidly from his home at Louth, Lincolnshire.

“Those who know Shuttleworth won’t be disappointed and I’m hoping it’ll be a nice mix of the old songs that they know and some cracking new ones.

“It’ll include a song called the A1111 which is a real road in Lincolnshire.” He puts on Shuttleworth’s voice as he sings “Like the A1 but four times as good is the A1111”.

“It’s a sort of folky song which John is embarrassed about – he doesn’t like folk.

“Audiences love it when I mess up. They don’t worry when things go wrong and a keyboard falls off a stand.”

“When I do a 30- or 40-date tour, which this is, it’s great to mix it up a bit. Almost every night I try to accept a challenge – I’ll put one song in or not do one – you keep yourself on your toes.”

John Shuttleworth has a reputation for being clumsy and his gigs do not always go to plan, something which Graham cultivates.

“Audiences love it when I mess up. Even when I’m supposed to know the song I’ll forget the tune, forget the lyrics and stop the song. I get people coming up afterwards and they say ‘that was deliberate, wasn’t it, when you completely fell apart there?’ and I’ll say ‘No it wasn’t.’ They don’t worry when things go wrong and a keyboard falls off a stand.”

Talking of his keyboard, Graham says his Yamaha is an “integral” part of his act. “I’ve always used the same organ since 1993 because it’s got animal sounds. I don’t experiment very much with new organs because everyone knows the songs on that keyboard. It’s available on eBay for about 30 quid. They still pop up second hand.

“Every now and again I buy one. I’ve had about three. Occasionally they do pack up. They have small keys because they’re meant for kids.”

John Shuttleworth at Gloom AidEven Graham finds it difficult to put into words what characterises a typical John Shuttleworth song: “Hopefully a catchy tune and a lyric that’s about something fairly mundane like eating your tea or the lack of cardboard in a Bounty bar.

”Sometimes the scansion won’t be that good so John will try to cram in a few too many words, some unlikely rhymes. My favourite’s probably Mary had a little lamb, green beans and new potatoes. And the middle bit goes We had a carafe of sweet white wine and Ken had a gin and tonic. There was a giraffe for children to climb though no children were on it.”

John Shuttleworth has been in the business for a long time, so does he still think he’s going to make the big time? Yes, according to Graham.

“But making it big is a relative term. One of my stories is John thinks he’s going to get a gig with Billy Joel but his agent Ken reveals he actually meant a gig in the village hall.

“John’s initial disappointment turns to excitement as he realises a village hall will have a tea urn which he can have all to himself and a designated parking space. He’s eternally optimistic and he’ll turn really boring events like cleaning his wheelie bin into something exciting.”

On the last date of the My Last Will And Tasty Mint tour John Shuttleworth will somehow be joined by Jilted John who is experiencing a bit of a revival. A couple of music festivals are lined up for Jilted John in the summer and then there will be a tour in 2018 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the record’s success.

“There’s a lot of things to surmount before I pop my clogs.”

“It wasn’t an amazing act,” says Graham, “but that song was very memorable and there still seems to be an appetite for it. It’s just a bit of fun really. It’s very different to John Shuttleworth. I get up and posture a bit.”

Without being prompted Graham talks about his musical influences. “When I wrote Jilted John I was into Lindisfarne and things like that. I really like John Otway. I was quite eclectic – I used to like Tavares. I can remember being in discos hopelessly falling in love with some girl dancing to Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel. That song’s on my jukebox. Like Barry White it’s got some sort of primeval schmaltzy thing going on.”

He stops to admire the phrase he has come up with: “I’m going to write primeval schmaltz down – before you do!”

So what does the future hold for Graham Fellows? He says he may not do much more acting because he is afraid that he cannot remember all the words. He wants to concentrate on various musical projects and is converting a church in Orkney, Scotland into a recording studio. He also has a boat there but in typical Shuttleworth fashion he does not know how to sail.

John Shuttleworth pingpong“There’s a lot of things to surmount before I pop my clogs,” says Graham.

That triggers a memory of one of John Shuttleworth’s songs, Mingling With Mourners. “It’s silly and funny but there’s a serious message, I think.”

It is about a man called Thomas who lived to the age of 89 and was fondly remembered, judging by the hordes who went to his wake.

Graham ends our conversation as he sings: “Mingling with mourners, some sat down in corners. Others by the table eyeing up the quiche. I’ve had days more jolly but never lived more fully than when mingling with mourners remembering the deceased.”

There is just no way you can follow that.

This article appeared in the January 2017 edition of Country Images magazine