BWW Interview: Ian Bartholomew Talks HALF A SIXPENCE
Actor Ian Bartholomew's work ranges from Mrs Henderson Presents and Shakespeare in Love to Radio Times and Into the Woods. He's currently starring as eccentric playwright Chitterlow in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre.
What was the first play you saw?
It was a double bill of The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard and After Liverpool, by James Saunders. I was about 14 or 15.
Did you do much acting at school?
I did lots, yes, I started singing in my local church choir from the age of eight and I started doing school plays from primary school right through to secondary, and joined amateur dramatics when I was a teenager.
When did you realise it might be a career, and were your family supportive?
I'm not sure I have accepted it is a career! However, I wanted to do it from around the age of around 14, when I was doing productions in school, operas and all sorts of things. I realised that yes, I wanted to pursue a career in theatre when I was quite young and my family were very supportive.
Where did you train?
Guildford School of Acting, many years ago!
What was your first paid acting job?
My first paid acting job was in the chorus of Aladdin at the Devonshire Park Theatre Eastbourne. I did a season there, then I played Troppo in Salad Days. That was Christmas 1974 and over New Year 1975, that's when I got my Equity card.
Do you consciously choose a range of work?
I've never really consciously planned, but I did a musical theatre course at Guildford because I thought if I could sing, dance and act at the same time it might be easier to get work! That's the basis I've always worked on - I like to do what comes along as I think I would get bored doing the same thing over and over again. I'm lucky, going between straight plays, comedies, musicals, TV, film and radio - I've done a bit of everything.
Do you sometimes have to fight for a role, if someone knows you from another genre of work?
It's a tricky question, I prefer to call it auditioning for a role rather than fighting! I meet with people and I do the best I can. If the producer or director don't want me it's game over. You put yourself up for the job - if you get it, great, if not, move on.
Lots of people were surprised when Mrs Henderson Presents wasn't extended. Do you think the show has a future life?
Well, it's going to Toronto and they're rehearsing even as we speak. It's starting a run in February I think, but after that I don't know. It would be a shame if it didn't have a future life as I really like that show and was really proud it.
How challenging is it to compete with an original British musical vs. the American imports or jukebox ones?
Ah well, you'd have to ask somebody like Cameron Mackintosh that question! Producers have to make those sorts of decisions all the time.
If a show is good people will come, if it isn't, they won't. It's that simple! If it captures an audience's imagination and is marketed to the right demographic, then you'll get the right audiences. A new musical can't compete with a massive juggernaut that has been going for years, but you hope that if build it, they will come, as the saying goes.
Is it nice being reunited with Emma Williams, and back at the Noel Coward together?
Well, it's like my second home! I've done three shows here now and Emma and I both look at each other occasionally and say "Well, we've moved in, haven't we?!" The wonderful front of house team presented me with a plaque for my door on the first night of Half a Sixpence, as I've done three shows in three years at the Noel Coward.
Did you know the Tommy Steele version of Half a Sixpence beforehand, or much about the Wells story?
I knew the Wells story as I read a lot of HG Wells when I was younger, but also Tommy Steele was a very big pop star when I was a child, so yes I remember the movie, him and "Flash, Bang Wallop!" - which was a big hit for him in the pop charts, would you believe?!
Tell us about your approach to Chitterlow. Did you base him on anyone in particular, or could you identify with him?
I based him vaguely on Ken Campbell. I wanted to make him somebody who was passionate, eccentric and theatrical but not too plummy or actor-laddy, if you know what I mean? Ken just fitted the bill, and when I mentioned that to Rachel, the director, she said yes, that's a great place to start. Ken was a true one-off and was capable of doing all the stuff Chitterlow claims to be able to do. It's not an impression of him at all - I've tried to take his spirit and use that in the way Chitterlow is.
How do you make sure a show like this is accessible and engaging for a modern audience?
Do it properly and do it well! It goes back to that question earlier about competing with the big long-running musicals - you don't. You try and put on a good show.
Certainly, with something like this, it's a very traditional type of show. Half a Sixpence is a traditional English musical done with a modern finish and gloss on it with the projection, stage mechanics and all the revolves. It gives it a contemporary feel although it is a period piece. If you get that juxtaposition right then the show comes across as something very new and fresh but actually is a classic musical. With the new numbers and new book, Half a Sixpence finds a balance between nostalgia and a modern approach and staging, which is what works.
Any future dream roles or collaborators?
Loads, but I'm not going to tell you because I'll jinx them! I've never really planned anything so I'll see what comes along next, and if I'm lucky something I really want to do will come along!.
Finally, any advice for budding performers?
Turn up to the audition and do the best that you can - if you get the job then approach it with humour and patience, and don't take yourself too seriously.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan