scotland on sunday: 2003
Last night, Barbara Dickson was doing her impersonation of a pressure cooker, a bit of business usually reserved for immediate family and close friends. Near-hysterical, she was about to blow her top, prostrate herself in the drawing-room of her country house and drum her heels on the floor like a thwarted toddler. Then in waltzed her American friend, Wendy, who's into touchy-feely stuff and generally known as a purveyor of placidity.
"Lie down!" ordered Wendy. "Now breathe in, breathe out. Be nothing for ten minutes. Personally, I would meditate, but you should just lie there and say your prayers."
Well, says Dickson, she did and it worked - ten minutes later she was completely chilled out. End of hissy fit. But, adds the angelic-voiced singing star and double Olivier Award-winning actress, she had earned the right to get into a tizz. "You see, even as we speak, Pickfords' men are in our house packing up all our possessions," she says, calmly sipping an early-morning coffee. "I've been waking screaming in the night just thinking about it," she adds, surveying her painfully hip Edinburgh hotel room in which there is no furniture at all, apart from a huge bed and a neo-brutalist black leather sofa that makes rude complaining noises as we both keep sliding off it. Soon she might relish such minimalism, for she'about to begin living out of tea chests. Another suitcase, another hall? "Exactly!"
It's the end of an era for Dunfermline-born Dickson, fondly remembered for her hit single "Another Suitcase, Another Hall" from Evita and her powerful performance in the compulsive 1995 ITV drama series, Band of Gold.
She and her husband, Oliver Cookson, have sold the five-bedroom mansion they've owned for a dozen years in a north Lincolnshire village, near the market town of Louth, where Dickson's 85-year-old widowed mother has a flat. The Old Vicarage has been the heart of family life. Indeed, 13-year-old Archie, the youngest of their three boys, was a babe on Dickson's hip when they moved there from London.
They have not bought another house yet, so they're about to move into rented accommodation. Dickson's prize possession, her Bechstein grand piano, has been sold at auction, along with other precious pieces from the house they had carefully restored to its original Gothic glory. As for the house they're renting, her 15-year-old, Gabriel, remarked: "Mummy, this is just like a hotel." And it is, sighs Dickson: soulless and totally devoid of personality - hence her nightmares. But with the boys at boarding school, she and her husband were rattling about in their grand Grade II-listed house, designed by renowned Victorian architect S.S. Teulon. And then there was the land - 12 acres to manage - and the self-contained two-bedroom cottage, not to mention various outbuildings.
"Teenage boys aren't into rural pursuits. They want concrete. They want to skateboard. They want town life. So it was time to move on." She shrugs her shoulders and gazes around the hotel room. Dickson is on a flying visit to Edinburgh to publicise Fame, a musical based on the 1980s film and TV series, which comes to the Playhouse in December as "an alternative panto". In the show, the 56-year-old plays Miss Sherman, the teacher who sternly warns students on their first day at the New York School of the Performing Arts: "If you've come here expecting to live forever or dance on the roofs of cars, you're humming the wrong tune." Dickson will strut her stuff like the trouper she is, then she would like to go round the capital's estate agents.
"I've had a brilliant idea," she told her husband. "Why don't we buy a Georgian flat in Edinburgh and a country cottage in Yorkshire to be near the boys?" (Their elder sons, 17-year-old Colm and Gabriel, are at school there, while Archie boards in Lincolnshire and comes home every weekend, much to his parents' delight.) The idea wasn't a goer, sighs Dickson. Her husband, who is 11 years her junior and a first assistant director in television ("the chap who shouts, 'Action!'"), is a creature of habit. When he's not working on shows such as Merseybeat and Judge John Deed, he's with his friends in the "farty, old-English pub" in the village or at the golf club. "Really boring! It's sad. I'm married to a man whose main priority in life is the local. But then I suppose he puts up with living with me - and I am fairly flaky."
"Well, like everybody else, I've had my moments," replies Dickson, with a throaty laugh. "I've tried to compete with the band by drinking too much, but I always have to turn in the worse for wear at 2am. I was 27 when I started to become famous, so I had lived a life already and wasn't a weak personality; I had self-control."
Nevertheless, the endless questions about her love life infuriated her. Always described as "the lonely Barbara Dickson", she was adamant that she wasn't going public about her private life. Then she met her husband, fell passionately in love and married. "Suddenly, the word was out: 'Oh, Barbara's heterosexual again, isn't it marvellous? She's gone straight and she's even having children.'"
ALL conversation with Dickson eventually reverts to her sons. She is besotted with them and admits she's spending a lot of money on their education. She likens it to taking out a second mortgage. "I'm a product of the Scottish state education system myself, but things have changed, especially if you live in England," she explains. Her youngest and eldest sons are dyslexic. When Colm's problem was diagnosed, she took him out of the local school and sent him to an independent boarding school near their home. "He went from a class of 30 to a class of six," she says. "He's just passed nine GCSEs and will be taking three A-levels. I'm so proud of him."
Dyslexic children, she adds, are often very bright, but have problems with organisation and concentration. "And it's like being an alcoholic - they'll never get over the problem. But I just want my kids to be happy. I don't expect them to become rocket scientists, although I feel privileged to have been able to send them to good schools. If I'd been living in a council flat, it wouldn't have been so easy."
So how would she feel about her sons choosing a career on the stage? She's been giving the matter a lot of thought lately, since she is about to star in a show that deals with hormonally fuelled kids, attired in leg-warmers and leotards, in pursuit of the second most famous four-letter word in the English language - fame.
"I'm really fogeyish about this," she replies. "I don't consider showbusiness a proper job. My theatrical life came as an offshoot of my singing, so I've never been through auditions and stuff, but I know people who have. My husband comes from a family of actors, and I don't want my boys to suffer all that rejection."
But Colm wants to study music and acting. "Isn't it hilarious? He'll probably go to Fame school, perhaps ending up at LIPA [the Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts sponsored by Sir Paul McCartney], of which I'm a Companion. In fact, I'm going to be teaching there. Life mirrors art - I will be Miss Sherman in real life. But if this is what Colm wants to do, I won't stop him. It'll be his decision. I'm puritanical about pushy parents. On my deathbed, my sons won't be saying, 'You made me do that.' But I do think fame has become an addiction for a lot of people in this country."
In the course of her career, Dickson has had a unique opportunity to observe the tragic toll of celebrity, from the Bay City Rollers to Michael Barrymore, with whom she worked and who loved her singing so much he wanted her to do summer seasons with him at the height of his fame. "Fame is a terrible Faustian pact, which rather appeals to my black, Fife sense of humour," she confides. "You wanna be famous? You're gonna be famous, but only if you jump over everybody and scratch their eyes out. Then what do you get? You get people going through your dustbins, emotionally and literally." She shudders, pulls down the sleeves of her toffee-coloured sweater and hugs herself.
The daughter of a Rosyth dockyard worker and a spirited Jewish mother from Liverpool, Dickson and her younger brother grew up on a modest council estate, a world away from showbusiness glitz. Gifted with a gorgeous mellifluous voice, she sang almost before she could walk. She learned piano, then acoustic guitar. At 17, she left home to work in the Registrar General's office in Edinburgh, where she spent her days logging causes of death ("depressingly, much the same as now - lung cancer and heart disease") and her evenings soulfully playing the burgeoning folk club circuit when folk music, in Billy Connolly's immortal phrase, was not just about "four men in Aran jumpers singing about dead sailors".
Her career took off when the ethereal-voiced, bubble-permed Dickson was given a six-week engagement in Denmark. After moving to England, she was offered the singing, piano-playing commentary role in Willy Russell's John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert in 1974. A run of chart hits in the 1970s earned her a first gold disc for The Barbara Dickson Album. In the 1980s her album All for a Song stayed in the charts for 36 weeks, selling more than 600,000 copies in Britain alone.
Blood Brothers followed. "I Know Him So Well", her mega-hit with Elaine Paige (still one of her dearest friends), was in the charts for months and remains an anthem for girls' boozy nights out. Within weeks, her album, Gold, went platinum; then, without missing a beat, Dickson reinvented herself as a brilliant actress - she was awarded an OBE for services to drama and music last year.
Despite her innate warmth - you could toast your hands on her cosy personality - she played her absolute opposite, a raddled 1960s pop singer, in a three-part Taggart in 1993. Just a couple of years later, she won the plum part of the vulnerable Anita in Band of Gold. A role in BBC Scotland's The Missing Postman (in which she took her kit off for the first and last time in her career, although she claims she wouldn't have said no to Calendar Girls) opposite James Bolam, brought further acclaim.
Since then she's notched up another Olivier for her portrayal of 1960s pools winner Viv Nicholson in the musical Spend, Spend, Spend. But, unbelievably, there have been no further offers of gritty TV dramas or - her dream - even a small, meaty, film role.
Yet Dickson remains proud of the fact that she's created her own "strange rocky path" to stardom. She never made it in the States because she wasn't that interested. "I didn't want to be Madonna. I believe my Scottish personality, my inability to swallow the big idea, stood in my way. So I made all my own choices." She even took on the mighty Robert Stigwood Organisation in the courts when she thought she wasn't getting her fair share of royalties, and has since controlled her career through her own management agency.
"I know this will be hard to believe, but I don't have a lot of drive. However, I am very, very good at what I do. I know I can sing really well, so I've always had huge belief in my voice. But I've never believed in myself, although I'm better now that I'm older. Nobody could ever say to me, 'You can't sing!' But if they'd said, 'You're fat, boring, ugly, illiterate and not funny,' for years I would have replied, 'Yeah, you're right,' because I was so deeply insecure."
Elegantly crossing her denim-clad legs, Dickson remarks that it's terrible to be in the public eye and feel you don't look right. "I've never thought of myself as good-looking, even when I became 'glamorous'. The turning point came in 1975. I went in a door, with long, dank, wavy hair, funny glasses and a frumpy frock, and I emerged from the same door in a vintage dress, my hair cut and coloured and my face made up. It was a shoot for an album cover, and the record company had given me a stylist who transformed me. Talk about metamorphosis! I was the ugly duckling who emerged a beautiful swan. I couldn't believe my eyes."
On tour around Britain next February (including, provisionally, Motherwell and Dunfermline), Dickson plans to record a new album, Faithless Love, in March. She will not be indulging in either Botox or a facelift for the cover photo shoot. She believes that a fellow Scotswoman and singer (whom, she pleads, must remain nameless) has not done women of a certain age any favours by having it all done, then keeping quiet about it and simpering on TV, while everyone says, "Don't you look marvellous for 55?"
"Actually, she doesn't! Why would you want to look like Britney Spears at 55 when real beauty comes from the spark within? In fact, my son's friends think I'm dead cool anyway because I know Eric Clapton and am still capable of performing at this great age without the aid of a Zimmer frame.
"Botox? Forget it! All I really want is to become one of those crazy, bicycling old ladies who refuses to be silenced - just like my own mother, in fact!"
Interview by Jackie McGlone
For all her joking about her man being set in his ways, theirs is that showbusiness rarity: an enduring marriage. They celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary in August, having met in Liverpool in 1982 where Cookson was stage managing Blood Brothers, for which Dickson won her first Olivier Award when Willy Russell's great musical transferred to the West End. Marriage and children changed everything in her life for the better, says Dickson, flicking back her caramel and vanilla-coloured hair. "Instead of me, it's us."
Her marriage also put paid to the gay rumours that had dogged her ever since she hit the big time in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the hummable singles "Caravan Song" (of which Eminem is reportedly a fan, claiming he'll sample it on his next album) and "January, February".
"I was a folk singer, then I became an actress by accident and ended up in the West End. I was a household name because I was never off the telly. But the big thing was that I must be a lesbian because I didn't have a husband. I was in my late 20s; then I got into my early 30s and I still wasn't married. Obviously, I was gay!"
Every time she was interviewed, the singer would be asked if she had a boyfriend - to which she always responded with an emphatic "No!". Her private life, she reasoned, was nobody's business but her own.
"I had a boyfriend and we lived together, but I had no intention of revealing his name. I had a male companion who was my lover; there was nothing weird going on. He wasn't in the business so, happily, I never had anyone on the doorstep taking pictures. I didn't suffer any traumatic stuff. It wasn't like I was in rehab or anything."
But surely sex, drugs and rock'n'roll come with the territory?