Lyn Paul: acting in perfect harmony
There’s an old saying that’s often quoted in showbusiness as well as life: never go back. It’s a saying that former New Seeker Lyn Paul totally agrees with – except when it comes to appearing in the hugely successful musical Blood Brothers.
The year 2016 marks two decades since Lyn first played Mrs Johnstone in what became the third longest-running musical production in West End history. She has often gone back to the part she describes as her “favourite role”. She will again play the lead in Blood Brothers when it goes on a four-month tour which takes in Nottingham and Buxton.
So why is she doing it again? Because producer Bill Kenwright asked her to.
She told me from her home in Berkshire that the pair of them go back a long way. Lyn wanted to play the part of Mrs Johnstone and wrote a letter to Kenwright. She didn’t think “in a million years” that he would answer – but she received a reply by return of post saying he would like to see her.
“Three weeks later I was on stage at the Phoenix Theatre (in the West End) waiting to start rehearsals. I’d never acted in my life. I just stood there and I thought ‘oh my God, what have I done?’
“It’s a hell of a compliment and a lot to live up to”
“Bill took a huge gamble with me. There are so few roles for people of my age. It’s written unbelievably well by Willy Russell and I think everybody can get something out of it. Everybody can relate to Mrs J at some point in their life. It’s just a very strong female role.”
Barbara Dickson, Stephanie Lawrence, Kiki Dee and four of the Nolan sisters have all played the role – but Lyn Paul is “the undisputed Mrs J of all time”, according to fans of the show.
“It’s a hell of a compliment and a lot to live up to,” says Lyn. “It was a wonderful accolade and I’m very grateful. The fans have been incredibly loyal. I still hear from so many of them through my website. Since it’s been announced that I’m going back in to the show, I’ve been inundated with messages – it’s been tremendous.”
Lyn was chosen to lead the cast in 2007 when Blood Brothers was staged as part of Liverpool’s year of being European Capital of Culture. Since then she has played Mrs J only once – for the final two weeks before the West End show closed in 2012.
Blood Brothers is the captivating tale of twin boys who are separated at birth. Mrs Johnstone’s husband deserts her and she is left to provide for her large family. When she discovers she is pregnant with twins, she has to give one of the boys away.
The twins become friends but their different backgrounds take them to opposite ends of the social spectrum; one becomes a councillor while the other is unemployed and goes to prison. They both fall in love with the same girl, causing a rift in their friendship which leads to a shattering climax.
I’ve seen Blood Brothers several times. Some of the actresses have shed real tears at the highly emotional ending. Lyn who is married to Alan Young and has a son has found herself in a similar situation.
“I did 17 years of it more or less back to back and I didn’t find it at all difficult to shed tears because the end just kills you. My son was six going on seven when I did my first stint in Blood Brothers. So for me it’s very easy – you just look down on the floor, you see two boys there, I picture my son and it kills me, absolutely kills me. The song (Tell Me It’s Not True) pulls at your heart strings.”
So how does she cope with that experience?
“Buxton’s got fantastic memories for me”
“I could be very deep and say it takes me ages to get over it. But it’s work. When you get on stage you’re in that zone, you’re in that moment, but when I come off I’m just Lyn Young, a mum and a wife. While I’m on stage I’m Mrs J but the minute you walk off you just become you.”
Lyn has appeared at both Nottingham Theatre Royal and Buxton Opera House on previous Blood Brothers tours. She has fond memories.
“We had a fantastic time in Buxton. We stayed a few miles out at a farmhouse which was actually three cottages. All the girls stayed in the cottages and the boys camped in tents in the field at the back. Buxton’s got fantastic memories for me and the theatre is so nice.
“I’ve played Nottingham many times. I’m very much looking forward to going to both of them.”
Lynda Susan Belcher was born in Wythenshawe, Manchester on 16th February 1949. Her singing career started when ‘60s heartthrob Mark Wynter wrote in a magazine that there were no female singers apart from Diana Ross and the Supremes, urging other girls to “get yourselves together”.
Lyn formed a group with two friends and her dad drove them to weekend gigs at working men‘s clubs. She then joined a group called The Nocturnes which featured Eve Graham. Eve went on to join the New Seekers; Lyn followed early in 1970.
They had a couple of hits before a tune which started life as a Coca-Cola commercial, I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony), went to number one around the world.
The New Seekers then came second in the Eurovision Song Contest with Beg, Steal Or Borrow. “We were mobbed everywhere we went, which was unusual for a band with two girls in,” said Lyn.
“We were very much controlled – we just did as we were told and got on with the job. We all felt we were very lucky. I came from a council estate in Manchester, and to be doing the things we did was like a dream – it wasn’t happening to me, it was happening to somebody else. You’ve got to be very grateful for something like that.
“Plenty of ups but loads of downs”
“I don’t think any of us realised at the time just how massive the group was, especially in America. I wish I could go back and enjoy it a little bit more than I did. I was homesick all the time and a bit of a wimp.”
Fame took its toll and the band split up. Lyn went solo, appearing regularly in concert and cabaret. But there were bad times too: her first marriage to a nightclub owner didn’t last, she had a cancer scare and was later forced to declare herself bankrupt.
She says there’ve been “plenty of ups but loads of downs. But that’s what life’s about. You just crack on and get on with it.”
Since the turn of the century Lyn has appeared in the TV soap Emmerdale, toured in Footloose the Musical and played alongside Will Young in a production of Cabaret.
She has performed on cruise ships and just over a year ago appeared in variety in the Cromer Pier Christmas Show.
So which branch of showbusiness does she prefer? “Live audiences would probably top the list because you know they’ve enjoyed it when you hear the applause. And to see them standing up – if you’re not crying at that point, you are then, that’s for sure. It’s rather touching to think that these people have stood up and are giving you this respect. It’s a fantastic feeling.
“Then again it’s wonderful to work in television on things like Emmerdale. It was a great experience. But you don’t realise what you’re doing until you actually see it back on the television. So you don’t get quite the same buzz that you do in a live theatre. But it’s still incredibly rewarding to do, so they all have their pros and cons.”
What about recording? It’s nearly ten years since Lyn last released an album. In her typically honest, open, self-deprecating way she says she would love to go back into a studio “but who wants to listen to a pensioner singing? Not very many people.” Try telling that to Tom Jones, Mick Jagger, Cliff Richard and Rod Stewart!
Lyn has one more ambition she wants to fulfil: “I’d like to do a film, even if it’s only a walk-on part. I’ve actually done just about everything else. I’d like to say on my CV that I’ve done a film. Even if I only walk on and say ‘hello, can I help you?’ in a shop. You just never know what’s going to be offered to you.”
Bill Kenwright’s company also makes films and television programmes, so the man who gave Lyn Paul her big break in musical theatre may just be the one to come calling again.
* Blood Brothers visits the Theatre Royal, Nottingham from 15th until 20th February and Buxton Opera House from 7th until 12th March.
* This article appeared in the January 2016 edition of Country Images magazine