Monday, 30 November -0001

CARRY ON JIM

His career almost ended when Winston Churchill died, but Jim Dale has wowed us in everything from Shakespearean drama to the Carry On films. And he’s still going strong.

Written by Richard Barber
By a neat coincidence, the evergreen Jim Dale will be performing his upcoming one-man show at the Vaudeville, the theatre where he made his West End debut in a musical, The Wayward Way, 50 years ago. ‘As a matter of fact, it was a flop,’ he says. ‘More or less the day we opened, Sir Winston Churchill died and London’s theatres all but emptied overnight.’

Meet the trim and lithe Jim today and marvel. He’ll be 80 in August but could easily pass for a man 20 years younger. ‘I suppose that’s the legacy of all the dancing. Also, I have a Dobermann who takes me for a walk every day in Central Park.’ Nor does he dread his impending birthday. ‘Think of the millions of people,’ he points out, ‘who never reach that age.’

His has been an extraordinary odyssey. He comes from the most modest of backgrounds, born plain James Smith and raised by his parents, William and Miriam, in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, alongside his younger brother, Mick. But they were visionary, he says.

‘I remember them telling me when I was still a lad that the most important thing was to find a passion in life and then pursue it.’

JimDale-May01-02-590Dr James Nookey (Jim Dale) examines Barbara Windsor while Hattie Jacques looks on in Carry On Again Doctor

Aged nine, and with a natural aptitude, he was enrolled for dancing lessons, the only boy in his ballet class. ‘I was the Billy Elliot of my generation.’

In school, he was the class clown. ‘I wanted people to like me. You’re not bullied so much if you can make the bully laugh. But it did mean I was beaten quite often by the teachers.’

By his early teens, he was touring the working men’s clubs on Saturdays and Sundays doing his Burlington Bertie routine with a dicky bow and a folding top hat. ‘Dad gave me a beautiful silver-topped cane to use in the act. I’ve still got it. Inscribed on it is: “D Cooper. White’s Club, 1877” and a coat of arms. If you flip the top, it’s a snuff box.’

He started putting together his one-man show four years ago. ‘I think a lot of people imagine it’s going to be Carry On Jim Dale. Yes, I did 11 Carry On films and they’ve been a career milestone. I’m sure, when I’m gone, people will remember me first and foremost as Dr James Nookey. But, in totality, they represent only about one-sixth of my career.’

Sadly, most of that company – Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Bernard Bresslaw, Joan Sims, the list goes on – are no longer with us. ‘But Barbara [Windsor] is very much alive and kicking and she’s coming to see my show. She’s a fabulous character. I haven’t seen her in 30 years. I’m so looking forward to it.’

During the relentless Carry On schedule, Jim was also busy elsewhere. ‘I’d go from filming in the day to the National Theatre at night where Sir Laurence Olivier had invited me to join the company of Peter Nichols’s The National Health. Quite a compliment!’

But, asked to pick the most important turning point in his professional life, he doesn’t hesitate. ‘Director Frank Dunlop and Judi Dench came to see me as a stand-up in music hall in Nottingham in the early 1960s. Frank told me later that he thought I had the makings of a Shakespearean actor and, two years later, he asked me to play Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale at the Edinburgh Festival.

JimDale-May01-04-590

‘I’d been earning good money as, first, a pop singer’ [he also wrote the lyrics for Georgy Girl, chart-topping hit for The Seekers] ‘and then as a comic actor so it was a tremendous gamble. The money was rubbish: suddenly, I was earning only £25 a week. But something told me it was the right move. I’ve done seven productions since, with Frank directing. He’s been my life’s guiding light. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.’

He first appeared on Broadway in 1973 in a Young Vic production of Scapino. He was then invited by Disney to appear in a string of films. But Jim’s career underwent a major gearchange at the end of the 1970s when composer/producer Cy Coleman recalled his eponymous performance in Scapino and cast him as Barnum, alongside Glenn Close, in an acclaimed musical that won him a Tony Award from the Broadway critics.

He didn’t know it at the time but New York was to become his home. Does he like living in America? ‘It’s wise to live where your wife lives,’ he says, and he’s only half-joking. ‘Constant touring is never good for a marriage. I’ve learnt that from experience.

‘In my first marriage, my wife and I lived in a large house in Notting Hill, we had a cottage in the country and our children went to private schools. I toured as a pop singer and then there were the long hours making the Carry On films by day and appearing at the National Theatre by night. Finally, when the work dried up in the UK, I had little choice but to go to America to afford our lifestyle. So that solved one problem but it created another.’

He divorced his first wife, Patricia, in 1977 after 20 years of marriage. They had four children: two sons, Murray and Toby, who became actors, a third, Adam, who’s made a living as a cinematic aerial photographer, and a daughter, Belinda, who sadly succumbed to leukaemia in 1995.

In 1980, he married his second wife, Manhattan-based gallery owner Julia Schafler. ‘I always like to say that I went in for a picture and came out with the owner.’ His five grandchildren are frequent visitors to the home he shares with Julie (as he calls her) in New York.

JimDale-May01-05-590

In 2009, he became a naturalised American. ‘I’ve lived there for 35 years and it just makes life easier. But I’m still British in my heart. And I’ve never lost my accent.’ It’s just as well, as it turned out, because he was asked to read the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series for the American market.

Those recordings have garnered him a couple of Grammys and sold over five million copies. It’s some undertaking. In one Potter book, he had to create a staggering 147 different voices. ‘I recorded each one in advance on my iPhone so that I didn’t forget what individual voices sounded like.’ His success with these tapes resulted in his being awarded the MBE in 2003 and being presented to the Queen.

He’s been performing his one-man show on and off around New York for a number of years. ‘But it lacked shape and motivation,’ he says. Then along came Tony Award-winning director Richard Maltby Jr, who quite quickly realised that music hall in its loosest sense was the thread that ran through Jim’s multifaceted career.

And the prospect of performing it now for a British audience? ‘Terrifyingly exciting,’ he says, emphasising both words.

So he’s a happy man? ‘Oh yes, what other life could I have had that would have made me this happy?’ 

Just Jim Dale is at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, London WC2, from 26 May until 20 June: 0844-482 9675, www.justjimdale.com


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