FAME BECKONS A RELUCTANT STAR
She may be starring in a stage version of the show in Edinburgh, but Barbara Dickson has never had much time for celebrity herself, writes Mark Fisher.
Preconceptions are made to be shattered. Whether you know her as the star of a song and dance spectacular, or remember her from the Fife folk scene in the 1970s, Barbara Dickson is just the kind of person you might expect to stick up for the good old songs. But here, sitting at her ease in an Edinburgh hotel, the singer is plainly as hip as she is eloquent. What she treasures, Dickson emphasises, are great lyrics and while she admits to a liking for Randy Newman, James Taylor and Elvis Costello, she also has a place in her heart for Eminem.
"He's a young guy who writes interesting words," she says thoughtfully. "They make me smile and shock me and make me laugh. I feel involved in what he writes."
It might be asking too much to expect a Dido-style collaboration with Eminem, but Dickson is not to be underestimated. In March, she will go into the studio to record her first album in eight years, a collection of covers selected by one criterion: perfection. "I'm going to do Faithless Love, a couple of folk songs, an American spiritual song called Wayfarin' Stranger and possibly a bit of jazz but every song has to be perfect."
Her level-headed view that songs are more important than celebrity makes her intriguing casting for the stage version of Fame: The Musical all the more so, given she's sharing top billing with Hear'say's Noel Sullivan, on this exclusive Edinburgh run.
These days we're all too aware of Pop Idols and Fame Academies, the living soap operas of Posh, Becks, Jade and Jordan, fuelled by the insatiable curiosity of Hello! and Heat in a
self-sustaining spiral of fame for fame's sake. It's easy to forget that in its 1980s heyday, Fame the movie and spin-off TV series was just as compulsive and nauseating. "I'm gonna last for ever," sang the self-obsessed kids from La Guardia School of Performing Arts, epitomising the horrible narcissism of US culture. Twenty years later we discover that the British talent for narcissism is just as great.
None of this has ever appealed to Dickson. She's rarely been far from the public eye, whether it's playing 1960s pools winner Viv Nicholson in Spend Spend Spend in the West End or hard-bitten prostitute, Anita Braithwaite, in ITV's Band of Gold, but she has never been motivated by stardom. That's what makes her such easy company: an interview with her is more like a chat to your next-door neighbour than an audience with an Olivier Award-winning celebrity with an OBE.
She is probably best known for middle-ground material such as the Lloyd Webber hit I Know Him So Well.
Dickson learned her trade in the folk clubs around her home town of Dunfermline, graduating to the English circuit with the encouragement of the late Hamish Imlach. Her path to fame has nothing to do with her lust for the limelight and everything to do with meeting playwright Willy Russell, who cast her in the Beatles tribute show John, Paul, George, Ringo . . . & Bert in 1974.
"I didn't do it to become famous, I did it because I wanted to do that job," says Dickson, 56, also cast by Russell in 1983's Blood Brothers. "I'd never been in a theatre, but I thought, 'This is fantastic: fantastic actors doing a really good, incisive, interesting play about The Beatles.' You'd have to be nuts not to want to do that, but I didn't do it to get to the West End and become a pop star, which is what happened.
These days, she says she finds the drive for fame terrifying. "People write to me and say: 'My daughter's brilliant, please give me advice about how she could take this forward she's 11,'" says Dickson. "Do you want my advice? Just forget about it until she's 18. See then if she wants to do it. Children deserve to have a childhood and a life and make decisions for themselves."
She adds: "I don't think it's parents, I think it's that these programmes are aimed at children. It's fair game now to be a totally clueless member of the public and be on television. I don't despise people for doing that, but where do you go from there? What do you do? I didn't sing because I wanted to become famous. I sang because I wanted to sing. So when I went to a Dunfermline folk club when I was 17, I wasn't going to get on Opportunity Knocks. To me it was an education. I learned a huge repertoire of songs and I got better and better."
When fame finally arrived, it wasn't to her taste. "I didn't really like it. I've always taken myself quite seriously and I didn't like not being in control. People think if you sing pop music on their own television you must be a complete cretin. Perhaps I was a complete cretin by being there I didn't think I was. I didn't have much of a sense of humour when I was a pop star. I was constantly trying to defend myself against all sorts of things and I was quite relieved when those days were over."
She says she is too insecure ever to have believed in her own publicity and not needy enough, unlike some of her peers, to lust after fame. "Madonna is completely driven and it's obviously very successful, but God, you have to work hard at it. You have to be entirely self- obsessed and I'm not. I haven't got the energy or the inclination to be self-obsessed."
But fortune has treated her well and these days she has control over the work she does and doesn't do. "I don't want to do Wot! No Pyjamas! in Carlisle for six months," she says. Instead, she fancies the prospect of a few weeks in Edinburgh over Christmas and New Year where she'll be joined by her husband and children, Colin, 17, Gabriel, 15, and Archie, 13. In truth, she'd like to have a permanent home in the Scottish capital, having sold her 12-acre Lincolnshire house earlier this year. Her husband is less keen, however, and they plan to stay in Lincolnshire. Perhaps, then, there is no significance in the Edinburgh property guide lying open on an armchair in the hotel room where we meet.
Either way, it is certain that when she was growing up in working-class Fife, she never saw herself sitting in a nice hotel room talking about her big house in the country. "It wasn't that I didn't dream of course I did," she says. "But my dad was someone who wanted to keep his head down and my mum was someone who wanted to stick her head over the parapet and shout, but wasn't quite confident enough. Me and my brother, Alastair (now a sculptor and animation filmmaker), wanted to do something special, but we weren't terribly confident. So of course I didn't expect any of that would happen, but once you get older, you can handle it. I wouldn't have liked to be Madonna I know it sounds mealy-mouthed, but I really wouldn't have liked the responsibility of that kind of mega-fame. It hasn't sat very happily with me. I just want to do my work, get paid for it and enjoy a good lifestyle. But I don't want it to get out of hand."
"Sunday Times", December 7, 2003. Interview by Mark Fisher.