Paul Nicholas: an actor in demand
Thirty minutes before Paul Nicholas is due on stage, the amiable actor and singer is still chatting about what drives him on. This is not the arrogant attitude of a man who’s been performing in the same play for nine months but a consummate professional who throws everything into whatever he’s doing.
We’ve been talking for half an hour about Paul being a pop singer, a television sitcom star, producer, director and performer. We’ve looked ahead to his debut at Derby Theatre in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And we’ve chatted about Paul returning to the small screen in EastEnders. The conversation is often punctuated with laughter.
He’s had a busy year with a punishing schedule. He had to film his first scenes for the BBC soap while And Then There Were None was playing in Cardiff. So he drove to London and had to be back in Wales for the evening show.
Paul’s Derby Theatre appearance will be his last with the tour – he’s heading to Blackpool to play Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Not bad for a man who turns 70 next month.
He takes it in his stride because he says he doesn’t have any hobbies.
“I direct shows now, I produce the odd show, I perform. I don’t play golf, I don’t make things, I’m not interested in cars or anything like that. So other than my family and my grandchildren and what I do for a living I don’t really have any outside interests.”
It’s four years since he was last in Derby when he played King Rat in the Assembly Rooms panto Dick Whittington And His Cat. His role with the Agatha Christie Theatre Company could hardly be different: he plays a judge, Sir Lawrence Wargrave.
“I’d never done an Agatha Christie, a true thriller, a murder mystery, so I thought it would be nice to do.”
“I thought it would be a bit of a challenge for me because I’ve never played an establishment figure like a judge.
“My old man was a lawyer so I grew up around courts. I’d never done an Agatha Christie, a true thriller, a murder mystery, so I thought it would be nice to do.”
Sitting in the Old Bailey with his father was one of the reasons Paul didn’t have to do any research for the role of Sir Lawrence.
“It’s like anything you do – if it’s well written it should all come to life off the page and give you a clue as to who the character is. You don’t necessarily have to go off and watch a judge. If the character’s well drawn and well written, you should get a flavour for it by just reading the script.
“Agatha Christie was the master. Obviously I’ve seen quite a few of the Miss Marples and Poirot on TV, and the Charles Laughton film Witness For The Prosecution. What she did still has great appeal for audiences.
“It’s expensive to go to the theatre. People have been coming to see And Then There Were None which is very nice.”
The Agatha Christie Theatre Company is celebrating its tenth year. The cast coming to Derby includes Colin Buchanan who was Peter Pascoe in the television series Dalziel And Pascoe; Deborah Grant; former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry; and another former pop singer, Mark Wynter whose musical theatre credits include playing the lead in The Phantom Of The Opera in the West End.
Paul Nicholas had no reservations about signing up for a tour which has been on the road since January.
“I hadn’t toured for some time. I’ve done a lot of musicals over the years so it’s interesting to do a play. Although it seems a long tour, what keeps you fresh is changing venues. Audiences change and theatres are very different. The acoustics change, the number of people that come to see us changes, so it keeps it fresh.
“I’ve had a pretty rigorous workload this year which every actor or performer should appreciate really – that they’re wanted enough to be busy.”
Paul Oscar Beuselinck was born in Peterborough on 3rd December 1944. His pop career began in 1960. It was while he was the front man for Paul Dean and the Dreamers that he was spotted by Screaming Lord Sutch. Paul soon became a vocalist and pianist for Sutch’s backing band The Savages.
After changing his name to Paul Nicholas, he had great success in musicals: he took the lead in Hair; secured the title role in the original London production of Jesus Christ Superstar; and he and Elaine Paige became the first British couple to play Danny and Sandy in Grease.
“You can’t pretend to be a heavy rock guy when you’re singing Dancing With The Captain or Grandma’s Party.”
On film he had parts in David Essex’s Stardust, played cousin Kevin in Ken Russell’s Tommy and worked again for Russell on Lisztomania in which he played the classical composer Richard Wagner.
He turned into a pop star with three Top 20 hits in the UK including Reggae Like It Used To Be while Heaven On The Seventh Floor earned him a gold disc in the US.
“I was playing a character that I felt fitted the songs which were light and bubbly, so I presented myself as light and bubbly,” says Paul. “You can’t pretend to be a heavy rock guy when you’re singing Dancing With The Captain or Grandma’s Party.
“I came up with this bowler-hatted fun guy which worked – the songs were hits. I’m still playing a character to some extent. But I enjoyed it very much. I loved being on Top Of The Pops, seeing my name in the charts – it was great.
“But I didn’t write the songs and I think the writers eventually got bored writing them. To be honest there are only so many times you can put on a bowler hat and jump around.”
A few years later Paul went back into musical theatre to create the role of Rum Tum Tugger in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats.
But he was to become a household name when he was cast as Vince Pinner in the BBC TV sitcom Just Good Friends, written by Only Fools And Horses creator John Sullivan. The Christmas special in 1986 was watched by an incredible 20-million viewers. Do people still remember him from that series?
“Older people do.” There’s a pause until his infectious laugh dies down.
“We only did three series. John Sullivan thought that was all he wanted to write about an on-off romance – there’s only so many permutations that you can do. And so it ended after about 21 episodes in total. It didn’t go on too long so that people became bored and we didn’t become bored playing it, so it still has a freshness, it holds up pretty well when it’s shown now and then. It did a lot for me and I’m very pleased to have been part of it.”
Paul singles out Just Good Friends, for which he also sang the theme tune and was nominated for a BAFTA, as one of the highlights of his career, although he says he tries to look forward rather than back.
“I like to think that to some extent the best is yet to come. You’ve got to try to look forward if you can and remember what you’ve done. Hopefully it’s helped me improve as a performer.”
After And Then There Were None and A Christmas Carol, Paul has more work to do on EastEnders. He has been brought in as Gavin Sullivan, the former husband of Kathy Beale, played by Gillian Taylforth. Then Paul reckons he will put his feet up for a while and see what comes in.
“To me it isn’t work; this is fun and it makes me happy, even at my age.”
He says the BBC soap brings out the best in actors: “It’s a brilliantly run show. It’s very well organised. What is impressive is that when you get offered a part you don’t just get a script through the door – you go and meet (executive producer) Dominic (Treadwell-Collins), several of the writers, you spend a couple of hours with them talking about the character and where they see it heading and all that sort of stuff.
“The actors, particularly the regular ones, are very good; they know their characters inside out and know what they’re doing, so you have to be on the ball.”
Slowing down a little should mean that Paul can spend more time with his family. He has been married twice, has six children and 11 grandchildren. But no doubt before long he’ll be taking on even more challenges.
“To me it isn’t work; this is fun and it makes me happy, even at my age. That’s what I like to do. If it’s in your blood and you’ve got the energy to do it and you like to do it, then you do it.”
* This article appeared in the November 2015 edition of Country Images magazine