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rainbow network: 1999

I met up with Barbara Dickson in her dressing room at London's Piccadilly Theatre, on a rainy April afternoon, to discuss her starring role in the smash hit musical 'Spend Spend Spend', her career to date and her status as a top gay icon. I was waiting for Barbara when she arrived juggling her hat, umbrella, shopping and bag. "You may need to give me a hand with the door, the key sticks sometimes." The first thing that strikes you upon meeting Barbara is how normal she is; she is totally un-luvvie.


You are obviously a genuine all-round performer. Barbara Dickson the musical actress, Barbara Dickson the serious actress, Barbara Dickson the folk singer. How do you classify yourself with regards to your work?


"I see myself primarily as a singer. My career was based on singing. When I emerged from the folk clubs of the 1960's I felt that I had learnt so much that I see myself as a singer. I didn't become an actress until I was in my thirties, therefore I see myself as a singer who has broadened out. A lot of young people now say Barbara Dickson the actress, because they know me from 'Band Of Gold'. Now I do both and combine the two by working in musical theatre.


Do you prefer working in front of a live audience?


No, I really prefer a variety of projects and once I've done something I like to move on. I wouldn't like to be in the theatre all of the time. I don't live in London, I live 200 miles away from here, and I have three young boys who are all at school. It is very difficult for me as at the moment I am only with them on a Sunday.


The best thing is for me to do something that allows me to get home as much as possible, then I get to see my children and everybody is happy. The thing about living in London, which I have to do for a show like 'Spend', is that I have to live on my own for the entire time, and it is not entirely a happy experience.

With regards to your part in 'Spend', did you find it difficult playing a real person who is still alive?

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It is difficult but it's not as daunting as it should have been - because I don't look anything like her! I decided that the best thing to do was not to impersonate her; maybe it's because I have done too much television where people tend to be cast for their likeness. I knew that I was nothing like Viv, I'm much taller and totally different.


The only thing that we did pay lip service to the way she looks is make me wear these big glasses. So while she looks nothing like me, she does have blonde hair and she does wear great big specs!


I understand that you were really unwell at one point doing a show?


We have had a terrible run. I was ill at Christmas and Rachel was already off sick. I had been soldiering on with a terrible string of viruses. It went on for about eight weeks, until I did one half of the show on a Monday night, just before Christmas. The company manager was waiting for me in the wings when I went off for the interval, and he said, "Barbara, go home, you cannot do this anymore!" I had to go home and the second half was done by Susie Fay, my understudy, because I could barely put one foot in front of another.


I know it is very disappointing, but there comes a time when there is nothing you can do. I twisted my ankle in February. I had to go home because I had my leg in a splint. But these things happen, because when you are doing something every day like this, this happens to you, and you also need a break. And eight performances a week is a killer. I think the Thursday show is more killing because basically you are really worried about keeping going for the rest of the week, and Saturday evening is not so bad because you know you are done at the end of the night. I go home to Lincolnshire, straight after the show, so never come to see me on a Saturday night, because you may get killed by me tearing into the car. I never stop for autographs or anything, I run straight into the car!

You were obviously honoured to recently win the Olivier Award for Best Actress In A Musical, but how did it feel to be presented with the award on stage at the end of a performance, rather than at the awards ceremony?


I was completely astonished, I did not think it would happen. I was up against very good people. I felt really happy to get the award because it's another one for the show - another indication of its quality. In London I have only ever done 'John Paul George Ringo...& Bert", "Blood Brothers" and "Spend", spanning 26 years, and I have two OlivierAwards. That only makes me think how well I have chosen what I have done. If you are in a brilliant show then you are likely to do well.


It was a shame that both Rachel and I were nominated in the same category. She definitely has got a lot of ability, and is very, very fresh. She is a very focused performer, it is lovely to work with her, and she has great qualities!

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Do you find that if you are performing with Rachel's understudy, that the chemistry which is so obvious between you and Rachel is lacking?


It is much more difficult to define, because Rachel's understudy, Mary Stockley, has got something different she brings to the part. The sadness for me when Rachel is not here is all to do with Rachel, it is the fact that she is adorable, and I miss her, and I would like her to be here. I find that I also really miss Jeff Shankley when he is not here. Like Rachel, Jeff has a completely distinctive quality, and I miss him as if he is my father.


In "Trouble At The Top", it showed a conversation on opening night in Plymouth, between you and the producer Andre Ptaszynski in your dressing room, and you said, "That Jeremy [Sams - Director] keeps on changing things".


I said at one point that it was a nightmare because things kept on changing, but they focused on it and made it look like I don't get on with Jeremy when I get on perfectly well with him. He had a job to do and change the show as required. Very often it was not Jeremy's idea when things were changed. Steve Brown was resident in Plymouth a lot of the time, rewriting and rewriting. He came up later with "Pieces of Me", which is my big song in Act Two. That did not exist before.

How did you feel having the camera from the BBC for "Trouble At The Top" following you during the rehearsals?


When I did "Trouble At The Top", and I contributed to it, I thought that it was something very different to what it was to become. I did not realise that it was a programme about how difficult it is to raise money to put on a West End show, and neither did Andre Ptaszynski think that either. It was horrid the way they totally focused in on the money. There was no footage of us rehearsing and getting it right.


I also found it very strange that the first time I met Viv was on camera, and I did not really agree to that, as nobody had really asked me if that would be OK. I felt that they should have let me meet her, then film us. She was very overwrought; I did not know quite what to say, it was very difficult for us both.


Viv is very extraordinary - she is very open, she says what she thinks and she is able to be very honest, which I think is where some of her problems have come from, but I do think that she behaved very well, and that bit worked fine. She said something like, you must disapprove, and I said why would I disapprove, there is absolutely nothing that I would disapprove of, these things happened to her. There is no point in us being judgmental.


You are playing Viv in "Spend", you played Mrs Johnstone in "Blood Brothers", Anita in "Band Of Gold", and you were in the original radio play of "Dinnerladies". Why northern working class women?


I do not know. I have not been asked to be a Scottish working class woman yet have I? Anita was the nearest thing to that and she was a different kettle of fish. I do not really know is the answer to that one. Everything I have been asked to do has been funny and interesting.


When I first read the script to "Spend" and heard the tape of the West Yorkshire Playhouse production, I was captivated by it. It really is a great show. The music and the lyrics are the best I have come across for years. It is a morality tale like "Blood Brothers". Personally I am not a fan of musicals - I am not a "Cats" person!


I am a folk singer who has done well. Musical theatre in general is not my kind of genre. I would be happy being in "Mother Courage" or something, that is my kind of show, some gloomy German piece where everybody is slashing their wrists. I am rather a serious individual.


I have a perversity in doing dark things in musical theatre, subverting what is considered to be the norm in musical theatre. Kind of tunnelling under it to find something that is there. My favourite musical apart from "Blood Brothers" and "Spend" is "Sweeney Todd", so that gives you an idea of the sort of things I like.  I sang "The Worst Pies In London" when I did my one-woman show - "The 7 Ages of Woman.


How do you feel being a gay icon?


I'm used to being a gay icon now. It is absolutely marvellous, all my gay friends are marvellous to me. If I am sitting waiting for the phone to ring, one of them invariably rings me up, some of them must be telepathic!


I like being a gay icon because I do feel that they are discerning when it comes to actresses and musicians. So I think it is a great compliment in a way, but I also think it is rather funny, because I am a survivor - I have been around for hundreds of years. Gay men love this. I have come out and I have managed to have a career and juggle with the other things and I am still around. Also I play these rather camp parts. I love it and I love being appreciated by any section of the community - therefore may I thank the gay community and say it is absolutely fantastic. I think that Lily Savage managed to seal that for me when I sang "I Know Him So Well" with him. He is so great.


Paul came recently to see the show with Cilla Black. They have become a bit of an item recently. What a laugh - Lily and Cilla.


What next after "Spend"?


"Spend" will be on for the majority of the year, but I am only contracted until July. If I stay what will happen is that I will go off to Canada for three weeks and spend the rest of the summer with my children. It is important to me that these holidays are not interfered with. I will come back all being well at the end of September and do another stint.


Will they get a 'Guest' lead in to cover for you like they did in "Sunset Boulevard"?


They will put someone nice in to hold the fort for me, and then they will buzz off and I will come back, but I do not know who they are approaching. But I will need to rehearse it all again, because after eight weeks I will have forgotten it all!"

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