BIG SPENDER : BARBARA DICKSON

She has carved out a unique niche in British musical theatre. On paper, her contribution looks modest enough: an early introduction singing Lennon and McCartney songs for Willy Russell's 1974 piece about the Beatles (John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert); two starring roles in the West End separated by some 16 years; associations with a couple of concept musical albums; and the occasional provincial tour.

For Barbara Dickson, it's hardly an overcrowded resume. Rather, it's a useful sideline to a long and successful career as a recording and concert artist, and some well-received appearances in television drama.

But consider this: those two concept albums happened to be Evita and Chess, both released well ahead of their first stage productions to a public hungry for new work by some the world's finest writing talent. And the two starring roles were Mrs. Johnstone in Russell's searing 1983 musical Blood Brothers, and now her Olivier Award-winning turn as Viv Nicholson in Spend, Spend, Spend, which opened to critical acclaim last fall and has already received an Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

If Britain really does have its own homegrown tradition in the musical genre, these two shows surely represent its pinnacle. Morality tales rooted in folk history, their edgy, often heartbreaking scores and books that deal unflinchingly with the deeds and dilemmas of the protagonists, have proved an important alternative to some of the more overwhelming elements of standard modem musical fare for London audiences. And in both cases, Barbara Dickson has been a key element in their success.
"I feel so proud to have been in Blood Brothers, because it was written in Britain and it's so specifically about a British subject," she says. "I feel the same way about Spend, Spend, Spend, which is also specifically British and about a British subject.

"I always say that I'm more Brecht than Broadway. Although I've never been in Brecht, I do feel that my ability, which is slightly gloomy, has got more to offer in this kind of show than in a big song and dance piece. I couldn't do that at all. I don't think 1 could offer that sort of show much, and I don't think it could offer me much. I'd love to be in something like Sweeney Todd, because it's so gothic and weird, but I'm not a 'musicals' artist in the true sense of the word. I love women in aprons and pinnies, slightly vulgar things, sex and laughs and big stories. That's what I'm into, really. I just feel that kind of material speaks
to me."

This aptitude for such a specific kind of role could have its roots in her upbringing. Dickson was bom in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1947, into a very respectable working class family that always encouraged her to pursue her musical talents. "Because I was always involved in folk music, which is very earthy, very interesting and tells real stories about birth, life and death, my natural inclination is toward stories that have really important issues: morality tales, that kind of tiling," she says.

The description certainly suits Blood Brothers, which has become an enduring success and, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its particular British-ness, even managed to negotiate a tricky Broadway start to become a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It remains to be seen whether a similar future awaits Spend, Spend, Spend, written by Justin Greene and Steve Brown.

Spend, Spend, Spend is the story of Viv Nicholson, a woman who captured Britain's popular imagination in 1961 when she won a fortune on the football pools. Asked what she would do with the money, she uttered the legendary quote that forms the tide of the show. She proceeded to do just that in a life that has since endured almost every conceivable tragedy, including  widowhood, bankruptcy and alcoholism. A woman who has been a British tabloid fodder for years, the real Viv Nicholson occupies a twin role as an example of the wages of sin and extravagance, yet is also considered a kind of folk heroine. It's a potent tale.

In the show, Dickson plays the older Viv, looking back on her life and coming to terms with herself as a survivor. The gritty, fibrous material and songs that have been hailed as the first "standards" to emerge from a British musical in years, gripped her from I the moment she first read it.

"I felt it was the best thing I'd come across since Blood Brothers," she says. "It really speaks to me, which is important for an artist. I always feel that if you're not moved when you read something, there isn't much point in doing it. She is a fascinating character, and I think it's because of the subject matter. She was a poor woman who won money that they spent like water, and then her husband died. They just went
headlong at it.

"And there is the wages of sin aspect. Everybody said, 'Well, if you behave like that, what would you expect to happen in the end?' And she was deeply disliked, not only in her own community after she'd won, but also in the middle class area where she went to live. A lot of Americans reading this might ask how that could be. After all, she'd suddenly become successful. But we British have this marvellous way of treating success almost like a terminal illness, and we think there's something dishonest about winning money. 'Why did they win, and not us?' we ask. In fact, the opening song in Spend, Spend, Spend says, 'If only, if only, if only I could win, everything would be all right.' Well, it's not as simple as that. It might be all right. But then again, look what happened to Vivien."

Barbara Dickson is noted for the insight she brings to her roles, which makes her so convincing as these everywoman characters she so enjoys playing. She says she isn't anything like Viv Nicholson, although she understands the woman behind the story.

"To some extent, the same was true of Mrs. Johnstone. I would not give my children away, but I can understand what made her do what she did. And the strangest thing is that in spite of this terrible act, the audience loves her because they understand what she's about. They never judge her at all harshly. And at the end of the day, although the young Viv in Spend, Spend, Spend is a brash, stupid character hurtling towards disaster, the audience doesn't judge her harshly, either. That's clever writing."

Dickson applauds the decision to have the character played by both a younger and an older actress. "I've tried to play her in a way which gives her the benefit of the doubt, as I think the writers want," she says. "And I suppose I was cast because they think I have a certain humanity and vulnerability, based on the work that I've done in the past, that they want from the older Viv."

According to Dickson, the songs are among the most beautiful she's encountered, particularly "The Scars of Love." "When I was learning it, it took me ages to get through it without really having to hang on to control myself. I just found the writing was so wonderful," she remembers. "The director, Jeremy Sams, said to me: 'Hang on to your consonants by the skin of your teeth if you're going to cry, and you'll be all right!'

"The big song in Act II is "Who's Going to Love Me?" I asked Steve Brown how he thought of the idea of a woman looking for an eyelash on a pillow after somebody's died, or a hair just to remember them. He said, 'I didn't dream that up, Barbara. Vivien told me that herself.' So the source material was very good, but the way it's used is marvellous. It has great heart and soul."

To hear what she means, anyone unable to make the trip to London must wait for the forthcoming cast album, still in the very early stages of preparation at the time of writing. Playing a role based on someone who is still very much alive can be a delicate matter. Nicholson herself has been closely involved as an advisor to the writers of Spend, Spend, Spend and famously took a bow with the cast on opening night, flashing her knickers to the audience almost as a salute to her devil-may-care younger self.

"I'm never tactless or thoughtless about Vivien's position because she is a live person and she has her own sensibilities," says Dickson. "I also take into account that, for her, it might be quite difficult watching two actresses mucking about on stage, being her.I think it must be quite harrowing. She did say that at one point, and I'm sure she's been very brave and not said it as often as she's felt it. I admire her very much and I salute her for being alive and well after the life she led in the early part, having got to her late 30s and massively abused herself. She's OK now, fine and surviving, and everybody admires that, I'm sure."

The astonishing thing about Barbara Dickson is that she has never had any formal training as an actor. In fact, she had to be cajoled into taking on the role of Mrs. Johnstone in Blood Brothers and confesses that at the time, her own reserves of self-confidence were hardly up to the task.

"There wasn't a theatre in the town where I grew up, only a concert hall and folk clubs," she recalls. "Actually, I first met actors in 1974 when I went to the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool to take part in John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert. I was a completely unknown folk singer, but Willy Russell was a friend of mine who loved my voice and knew my work. The company took a bit of convincing to begin with, but when I started singing, they were fine."

So while a cast of actors, which included notable British talents like Anthony Sher and Bernard Hill, acted and narrated the story of the Beatles, Barbara performed the songs on the piano at the side of the stage. The show was a hit and transferred to the West End. But while she made solid friendships with actors in the show, she never really thought of herself as one of them. Meanwhile, thanks to John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert, she had embarked on an increasingly successful pop career. Her first top 10 hit was a 1976 cover of the Sigman/Winkler/Rauch standard "Answer Me," which led to a busy period as one of Britain's foremost recording and concert artists of the late 70s and early '80s.

Only when she saw Blood Brothers in its original incarnation as a touring non-musical play for schools, and later heard one of the first songs ("Easy Terms") did she briefly entertain thoughts about playing the lead role.

"That was, indeed, a wonderful, wonderful song and I did think, I would love to do that. I would love to be Mrs. Johnstone," she says. "But it wasn't as simple as that, because I was so riddled with self-doubt about whether I could actually do it, never having acted in my life. I don't know if everybody would agree, but I think it's much more of an acting than a singing part and it worried me that I would not be up to doing it."

As the musical was written, slowly, Willy Russell and director Chris Bond did their best to persuade Dickson to take on the role in the show's Liverpool tryout. She turned them down several times, concerned about the risk and her lack of any reputation as an actress. In the end though, they got her to read the part and found their faith in her justified. She came to the West End with the show, won a Laurence Olivier award for best actress in a musical, and although she was only with it for six months - Blood Brothers was not an overnight success, but a slow burner which closed just as word of mouth was building business, before producer Bill Kenwright picked it up and revived it as a global hit - Dickson has become indelibly associated with Mrs. Johnstone. She returned for a short season when the show celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1993.

Her singing career continued to thrive. But curiously, for most of the intervening decade and despite her obvious talent, Barbara Dickson waited in vain for her acting career to evolve. It wasn't until 1994 that television producers started to cast her in dramatic roles that, again, tended to reflect her fascination with the grittier side of life. A major breakthrough finally came in 1995 when she started alongside Geraldine James in Band of Gold, a hard-hitting series about the lives and times of a group of prostitutes surviving from day to day in a north England town.

Since then, she has toured in straight plays and starred in the hit show about youth in the 1960s, A Slice of Saturday Night (playing yet another Mother Courage-like character, the ex-dancer and club manager Erica Devine, who dishes out hard-earned wisdom to her young customers), as well as her own show, The Seven Ages of Woman. Finally, in 1999,16 years after Blood Brothers, along came Spend, Spend, Spend and the chance to create a new character in a West End musical. Critics hailed her performance as "full of pathos."

"I actually consolidated my reputation over a very long period of time as someone who could act as well as sing," she says. "And that's been quite important to me, because I don't think there are a lot of people in this country who can do that. I think Americans have a more natural relationship with musicals. They are often to the manner bom. We just don't feel so easy with it." Not that Dickson has completely avoided the more commercial aspects of musical theatre. In 1976, after all, she contributed the first version of the mistress' song "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," to the original concept album of Evita. Many people still consider this to be the definitive reading. At a distance of nearly a quarter of a century, she's warmed to it herself.

"Now, I think it's very nice indeed. There's a great innocence to my singing, which I remember Andrew Lloyd Webber insisting on at the time," she says. "I didn't really like singing that way, because I didn't think it sounded like me, particularly. I felt it was slightly twee. But, in fact, he's been proved right, because it was absolutely right for that character. She would have sounded like that. Not worldly at all."

She was asked to sing the song because Tim Rice and Lloyd Webber had seen her in John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert. Rice remembered her in 1984, when he was working on Chess with Benny Andersson and Bjom Ulvaeus, and they invited her to join Elaine Paige on "1 Know Him So Well," the highly charged, emotional duet between Florence and Svetlana that became an enormous stand-alone hit for the two women around the world. She wasn't a member of the original London cast, but did eventually play Svetlana in an ill-fated Melbourne production in 1997.

"Chess is a very strange show. I'm sure Tim won't mind my saying that it's never quite been what everybody involved with it to begin with wanted it to be," she says. "It has great shortcomings in its book, and all sorts of people, sometimes more qualified than others, are forever rejigging it, turning it inside out, taking the sleeves up and letting the hem down, and it never quite works. Also, when I got to Australia, I think they'd had a run of blockbuster musicals and they weren't in the mood for Chess. The production was very minimalist, and I think the critics resented that. But I enjoyed being in it, because it was a lovely sing and I made a lot of friends there."

Future projects depend very much on the long-term success of Spend, Spend, Spend; Dickson hopes to be with the show for some time. But she is also working on a new album with her great friend Elaine Paige that includes songs written specially for them by Andersson and LTvaeus. The pair are snatching time between Paige's preparations for the London revival of The King and I and Dickson's performances in Spend, Spend, Spend. And she'd like to revive her one-woman show, The Seven Ages of Woman, which toured in Britain with some success through 1997 and 1998. The story of a woman's passage through life, the project was devised by Barbara herself, together with her Blood Brothers director Chris Bond (writer of the play which inspired Sondheim's Sweeney Todd), and uses songs that reflect her musical versatility, from Sondheim, Willy Russell and Weill, to Lieber and Stoller and Kander and Ebb. She hopes that, in due course, they will be able to take it to a wider audience.

More than anything else, the key to the many strands of Dickson's career, each so successful in its own right, is her voice, ft has many guises: here, reflecting the melancholy, wistful elements of her folk singing roots; there, the smooth, well-produced pop sound, the result of many years' experience in the recording studio; and, of course, the rawer, more life-stained quality demanded by roles like Mrs. Johnstone and Viv Nicholson. Strong, true and equally capable of ethereal beauty, or hard, dramatic interpretation, her voice is now at its peak. Married with three young sons, Dickson has worked hard to achieve her status across so many disciplines. "I have my family life, which is most important to me," she says.

"And what I love about my working life is that ifs all so very different. I can do concerts, which I love, because I know I'm at a stage when I can sing anything I want, from folk music to James Taylor, Randy Newman, Rice, Lloyd Webber, Sondheim, whoever I fancy. I do whatever I like, and an audience that likes my voice seems to be captivated by my choice of material. I'm very lucky, because I don't have to do anything that isn't very good. I can record. I'm doing this project with Elaine. There will be a cast album of Spend, Spend, Spend. And I hope I'll be with the show for some time. It's a good life."


"Show Music" magazine, Spring 2000. Interview by Piers Ford.
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