musical stages: 1999
Barbara Dickson had been quietly following a successful career in folk music until she came into the broader public eye in 1974 with the advent of Willy Russell's 'John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert'. While the actors playing the various roles told the story, Barbara sat at a piano at the side of the stage and filled the auditorium with her beautiful voice. Although The Beatles' songbook was pop, she moved it into a different genre with her gentle, truthful interpretations.
"George Costigan was Bert", Barbara reminds me as we sit in the Palm Court of the Meridian Waldorf in Aldwych. "Bert was the narrator - I wasn't anybody really, I just sang the songs."
In the sixties, folk music was extremely popular and Barbara, born in Fife, was very much part of that. Her music teacher at school, a dynamic character called Sandy Sadler, used to play them folk music and sparked her interest.
"People used to go to folk clubs once a week - there would be a local gathering in a pub, put together by local people and occasionally they would save up the door money and get someone famous on the folk scene to come in with different material. Then everyone in the club would steal the material and sing it for the next six weeks!"
Barbara learned an enormous amount from these sessions, she says, and gives most of the credit to John Watt who, she explains, was a particularly interesting man, scholarly and knowing a lot of the traditional singers of the time whom he would invite to their clubs.
"It was like having another really good teacher and I learned a huge amount about British, Irish and American music. In all the time I was involved in folk music - from 1964 to 1974 - I never did lose my tentacles that went out into different worlds of acoustic music sung by people like James Taylor. I was a huge fan of his when he made his album for Apple in around 1968. I loved The Beach Boys - 'Good Vibrations' for example - I liked The Beatles' music, I liked Cream and Jimmy Hendrix which, although it wasn't folk music, was extremely interesting."
Barbara is a joy to listen to. Quite apart from the soft Scots accent, there are very few ums and aahs in her statements. She knows her subject and her history and of course, has become a practised interviewee over the years. Studying her across the table, it is hard to believe she is now in her early fifties. Her skin is clear and soft, with very few lines around her eyes. Blonde hair waves casually to her shoulders and that elegant-featured beauty seems unchanged from our first glimpse of her.
"I really did love folk music," she is saying. "I have a wealth of knowledge in me that comes from those days. When I was in it, I soaked it up like a sponge. I know fragments of songs. If someone in the West of Ireland says "I'm going to sing a song about a wedding party going to an island and a sheep put its foot through the bottom of the boat and everyone is drowned," I know that song! I know the song about a drunken man singing to a yellow bittern on a marsh. I've heard it and I know how it goes. People say "Oh, she can't possibly remember" but I do.
"The writers of our show, Steven Brown and Justin Greene - I can't believe that I haven't met them before somewhere. Steve also sang in folk clubs, and this is where he found a song from the North-East called 'Blackleg Miner' and mentioned he used to sing it. I immediately sang it back to him."
The first act of 'Spend, Spend, Spend' has a great deal of folk influence, Barbara explains, although the second is more contemporary, displaying Steven's versatility. To have had that acess to folk music - as did Willy Russell, another folk club habitue - has, she feels, given Steven a great grounding.
"I knew Willy Russell before 'John, Paul, George, Ringo...and Bert' and I used to go and stay at his house in Liverpool. He gave me the script to read - not then with the idea that I should do it - then later, he and Bernard Theobald, my manager, worked on me to do it. I wasn't sure I could play the piano and sing songs for two and a half hours, but I did. My approach was radical, but born out of innocence. Because I was the sort of singer I was, the tune was everything. And I also don't believe in mucking around with the tunes in 'Spend, Spend, Spend'. I sing them as exactly as Steve wrote them because that's the way they should be done. If a song is a wonderful song, you don't have to do much to it. If you sing, for example, 'The Very Thought Of You', you can sing it unaccompanied and it will break peoples' hearts. You don't have to rearrange it. It's a fantastic song by anybody's standards.
By this time, I'm rivetted, just listening to Barbara, all thoughts of a typical list of questions completely gone from my mind. I'm enthralled, just nodding from time to time as she develops this theme for me, fleshing out the bones with feelings and reactions, theories and convictions.
"With The Beatles' songs it was much the same," she continues, singing me a few bars of 'Penny Lane', "I just played the chords on the piano, I didn't do any strange arrangements, I just sang them simply.
We only had three musicians, Bobby Ash on guitar and a bit of bass, Terry on drums and also a bit of bass and I played a bit of acoustic guitar."
Barbara was, as she admits, unknown in London when she arrived. Everyone wondered where she had come from - folk music was and still is a separate world, to which Barbara is fiercely loyal. There are, she says, people singing in Lincolnshire where she now lives, as good as any giving major concerts in London, but they are singing on the folk circuit. She mentions a duo called Chris While and Julie Matthews, two women who are "great together, but Chris While is possibly the best I've ever heard singing in Britain and nobody knows who she is. She works in the acoustic music field and is a heart-breaking singer."
After her success in 'John Paul George Ringo...& Bert', Barbara moved into pop music and became a major recording artist but gave it up as she reached her forties, not wanting to be a middle-aged pop singer. After another huge success with 'Blood Brothers' in 1983, Barbara was not too keen about doing any more live theatre during the 1980's because this was the time her children came along - in 1986, 1988 and 1990. Instead, she concentrated on recordings, including the original 'Chess' album, and concerts.
"If you'd asked me three years ago whether I would like to do another West End show, I would have said "absolutely not, not remotely interested" and this is the strength and the power of 'Spend, Spend, Spend'. There is a good story about this role. I was in bed, ill, missing a rehearsal of a show that I was due to be in until Christmas called 'A Slice Of Saturday Night''. I was rehearsing in Bournemouth and when I got home at the weekend, found I couldn't even get up. I had a very bad, real influenza virus, which kept me in bed for seven days. During the time I was recovering, the script and tape of 'Spend, Spend, Spend' was sent to me. This was just after Easter and I thought "what a bummer!" because when I read it and listened to the tapes of the West Yorkshire Playhouse production, it was chalk and cheese compared to what I was doing. It was the best thing I had read since 'Blood Brothers', no doubt about it. It was bawdy, funny, and sad; it had everything that I would want in a musical. You see, I'm not really a musical theatre singer - I'm much more Brecht than Broadway. I could be in 'Mother Courage' and be perfectly happy, more so than a Rogers and Hammerstein show unless it was a wacky version at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre - with Robert Lindsay in it - I could maybe do that! I don't see myself in that light - I see myself as a folk singer who's done well. Therefore, this area of theatre appeals to me. I said to Bernard, who still looks after my career all these years on, "This is a fantastic show - I'm really gutted that I can't do it." I went back to my tour and three weeks into it, they posted the notice - in Lincoln - and Bernard sprung into action and told Pola Jones, the producer of 'Spend, Spend, Spend', that I was available. Then the other management rescinded the notice on 'A Slice Of Saturday Night', but Bernard managed to extricate me, with their agreement, so I left the show at the end of June, had two weeks' holiday with my family and here I am."
"The story of Viv Nicholson, the central character of the show, is well known and Barbara expresses great admiration for her in the way Viv has chosen to make her story so public.
"If I had a story like that, I'm not sure I would be as involved, I would be in the background I think. But Viv has been up for it and has stood up and said "This is me, this is my life, warts and all," and she is still extremely glamorous and sexy. I'm sure she regrets a great deal but she is still able to be philosophical. Perhaps her faith helps her. She says she was good at scripture even as a child and I think she perhaps feels she has a guardian angel looking after her."
"Viv's experience is a sort of mille-feuille of morality tales. It is something along the lines of reaping what you sow - or if it isn't Biblical, it's getting back what you give out, or money doesn't buy happiness. In the early part, she is loud-mouthed and cruel and you don't like her. But then Keith dies - and she didn't deserve that - and you begin to sympathise with her.
"It reminds me of 'Easy Terms' from 'Blood Brothers', another song I didn't muck about with. That song was not about the credit men, it was about the time coming when you had to own up, pay up, give back. It was about her relationship with the child but could also have been about a relationship between a man and a woman. It was the first song I heard from 'Blood Brothers' and I thought it was beautiful because it was like a contemporary folk song. That to me is heaven. I get good words from folk music and often sad, heart-breaking melodies - which I also have in 'Scars Of Love' in this show.
'Every night you appear in my mind's eye
Not one memory will ever die
Love holds on when the flesh has gone'
"When I sing 'Scars Of Love', it's like singing a Jacques Brel song, it has the same quality of 'If I Go Away'. It has the sort of simplicity that belies the sophistication of how it is put together. 'Scars Of Love' is beautiful to sing and hugely meaningful. People say to me "I love the way you sing that song" but I only sing it the way it is written."
Her voice becomes even softer. "It has such a wonderful quality, apart from the knowledge that the character has, looking back, knowing what it all felt like, remembering with the benefit of hindsight."
I asked Barbara whether she felt at all haunted by Mrs Johnstone, the character she originated in 'Blood Brothers' at the Liverpool Playhouse and transferred to London in 1983 with Andrew C Wadsworth and George Costigan as the twins.
"'Blood Brothers' was my first big success as an actress and I thought I would get lots of wonderful parts in television and film as a result. Ha bloody ha! Nothing like that happened for about eleven years. But that show could never haunt you. It it were something that was naff, that you'd done just for the money, prostituted yourself to do, then things do haunt you. But my connection with 'Blood Brothers' is absolutely sacrosanct. I'm proud to have been the first Mrs Johnstone (for which she won an Olivier Award) and I was very, very well treated by the theatre community here in London. But since then, I have never really been associated with a musical."
Barbara is committed to the show until next July but finds she is living a somewhat strange existence. Her children are in boarding school in Lincolnshire, coming home for weekends. Her husband works for the BBC in Elstree, so currently she is living on her own just near the Strand with a view of a light well - contrasting strongly with the beautiful rural view she has at home in Lincolnshire.
"It's very nice when Tim Rice turns up and takes me to The Ivy! That sort of thing is lovely, but being on my own is difficult sometimes. I go back on a Saturday night, the boys go back to school on Sunday, and I come back to London on Monday. I wouldn't have left Lincolnshire and my family to be in any other show. I hope 'Spend, Spend, Spend' brings Steve and Justin into the public eye much more; they are such fantastic writers. It's a challenging musical because it is different and tough, and we want to be here for a long, long time."