I'M ALWAYS AFTER NEW CHALLENGES BUT NEVER AT THE EXPENSE OF MY ROLE AS MOTHER
Singer Barbara Dickson reveals how she balances family and work.
By her own admission, there are two sides to Barbara Dickson. One, an ambitious stage and screen performer still hungry for success after a quarter of a century in showbusiness. The other, a contented mother-of-three, who this month celebrates 15 years of marriage to a man 11 years her junior.
"I am a massive contrast, on one side a whinging egomaniac with a massive desire to break new ground, on the other a little voice which says 'Ooh but you can't you've only got three O Grades, you're 51, you've got three children and your stomach sticks out'. In October, the Dunfermline-born singer, who found first fame in the Seventies with songs such as January, February and Caravans, then reinvented herself as an actress in gritty dramas such as Band of Gold, has yet another opportunity to prove her defeatist side wrong when she returns to the West End to play infamous Sixties pools winner Viv Nicholson, in the musical Spend, Spend, Spend.
In doing so, she will break the promise she made to herself after hugely successful but lengthy stage roles, in Blood Brothers and Chess in the Eighties, to never commit to a big show. Barbara, whose once distinctive curls have been replaced by a sleeker blonder bob, glows as she describes why. Though keen to challenge herself professionally, she is unwilling to upset the 'proper' life she has forged with husband, TV director Oliver Cookson, and their three sons Colm, 12, Gabriel ten and eight-year-old Archie in a rambling Victorian vicarage set in 11 lush acres of Lincolnshire.
"In the past 15 years my life has changed because I've become a family person. In having my children Oliver said to me he thought that what I had done was get a lot of things in perspective, which weren't in perspective before. Now instead of me it's us. I still have a terrifically big ego but I am also very much in love with my children."
Retaining a credible career of recording and stage work has led to a 'complicated' existence and whatever she is doing, Barbara says, it is 'imperative' she gets home on Saturday nights to spend all of Sunday and Monday morning with her sons, weekly boarders at a local independent school. The school was chosen because of its reputation in teaching children with dyslexia. Maternal intuition first helped her spot the problem in her eldest son.
"I just knew. There are things dyslexic children do because the wiring in their brains is different. They are very bright but have problems
with organisation and concentration." Assured Colm would be given the attention he required, Barbara sent him to a state day school but is bitter at the experience. "They told me he would be cared for and they did nothing, so I took him out of there like a shot." When Gabriel later asked to be sent to boarding school with his brother, it seemed obvious Archie 'the little one' would follow too, particularly after it was discovered, he too, was dyslexic.
She is pragmatic and optimistic about her sons' future and says she does not regret the 'huge financial commitment' she has taken on to give them 'the best start'. "They will always be dyslexic. It's like being an alcoholic, you never get over the problem, but if you are encouraged you will find ways round it. I just want them to be happy. It is a very odd world now and I wouldn't want any of the boys to expect too much because that is not a good idea. I think the most important thing any human being can have is striving for some sort of contentment regardless.
"All I hope is that my kids don't turn round when they are 18 and say ''you left me when I was three''. I haven't done that to anybody. I am glad I can look back and say 'Well, I've done all sorts of things which perhaps are not perfect but I haven't wilfully done anything to the children I thought would damage them.'
Unmushy yet unstinting in her devotion to her children, Barbara recently walked out on a performance of a stage show with which she was touring when middle son Gabriel developed appendicitis and peritonitis. "There was no contest," she says. "When I got the phone call saying he was ill I left the show saying 'deal with it'." With her husband away on business and her 80-year-old mother sleeping soundly downstairs, Barbara explains how she bundled her son into the car and drove to the nearest hospital. "I slept in his room for six nights but I wasn't terrified. I knew he was in good hands. I wasn't frightened, more moved by his little blond head going away from me on the trolley going into theatre. He seemed to be attached to tubes everywhere but I didn't think for a minute he wasn't going to pull through because I'm not like that."
With the benefit of hindsight, she says, she always she felt 'in control' because he was in hospital surrounded by doctors. Only once, she says, has she ever felt that she was in danger of losing any of her children. It was a warm, sunny day about five years ago, and Barbara and her husband had decided to take her mother and the children to visit a nearby craft fair.
"We were trying to cross the road as a family. We had all joined hands and we were looking round a van that was parked. To this day I don't know what happened but Colm just ran out and was hit by a car. He went right up into the air in front of me." She closes her eyes as she pauses. "I was horrified. I went into shock. The thing was, the chap driving the car had very quick reactions and he stopped the car. He hit him but he didn't run him over. If he'd run him over he would have died." While her husband took her mother and the other children home, Barbara went in the ambulance to hospital where Colm was X-rayed before being allowed home.
"I put him to bed and once he and the other children were asleep my mother, my husband and I all sat down with a glass of wine and we just kind of stared at each other. That was a terrific trauma. I am not making light of Gabriel, but it was different." Barbara believes it is the rough and tumble of family life, good and bad, which has helped her reach what she now regards as a healthy balance.
It is, she says, a welcome change from her 20s and early 30s when, though, hugely successful, she was 'self-contained', agonised about her looks, convinced she was plain and was, ultimately, lonely. "I'm not saying I replaced my private life with work then, but, by God, I had a focus. What I have now is a proper house in the middle of nowhere with proper children and a proper husband. I've had my share of ups and downs but I am still here and doing what I enjoy doing - which is having a life with proper people in it. You don't get to middle age and not have things you love which are nothing to do with your work unless you are a fool."
As for the future, Barbara's aspirations appear as uncomplicated and tinged with humour as she herself does. In all of them, her present sense of wellbeing and contentment shine through.
"Ultimately I'd just like to see my children grow up to form good relationships, to laugh at my husband's jokes and smile at his foibles for the next 30 years and to see my mother live to be 125."
"Daily Mail", August 1999. Interview by Janette Harkess.