mail on sunday: 2016
She is in the Guinness Book of Records as Scotland’s most successful female recording artist ever, as well as being an an award-winning actress. But inside Barbara Dickson’s smart home in Edinburgh’s New Town there is, quite deliberately, little evidence of her showbusiness career.
Laughingly, she says: ‘I’ve never been a fur coats and Rolls-Royce woman. My late mother, who didn’t think I proclaimed my greatness, would be absolutely horrified. She used to want me to put my gold albums above the fireplace, and I said: “I’d rather pull my own head off than do that!”
‘My work makes me interesting, but I’ve always loved being a citizen like everybody else.’
For many music fans, their lasting image of Barbara Dickson is of big hair and shoulder pads in the video for I Know Him So Well, her 1985 chart-topping duet with Elaine Paige.
Now sporting a much sleeker, sophisticated style, the Dunfermline-born singer who has just confirmed a UK tour for 2017 and dates in the USA and Ireland later this year is hoping to dispel that image once and for all.
‘Old ladies rock!’ she says, as she prepares to mark her 69th birthday later this month. ‘I might be the age I am, but I know from listening to my own voice that I’ve got a lot to offer still.
‘In my brain, I’m still the same person as I was when I was 21. I don’t want people to say one day: “Oh, she’s so good for 95...” That would be awful. I want them to say: “Isn’t she good? That’s a good artist at work!”
‘That’s the thing I’d like to be remembered for – not for one record. I move on. I choose new songs. I’m interested in new things. I think the most important thing is not living in the past.’
She is also happily embracing the ageing process and reveals she never would have, nor has she ever had, any cosmetic surgery, despite the increasing pressures on celebrities in showbusiness to have a nip and tuck. ‘I would never have surgery on my face,’ she adds. ‘I am proud to be almost 69. I owe it to the sisterhood not to betray them by lying about my appearance. I want old ladies to be valued and so, although I’m able to afford facials and good products, I have never had Botox or fillers either.’
With a Scottish father and Liverpudlian mother, Dickson began studying piano at the age of five and guitar from 12. She developed an interest in folk music whilst at Woodmill High School in Dunfermline, which led to floor spots at her local folk club. Initially maintaining a day job in the civil service, Dickson steadily built a reputation, singing with Gerry Rafferty, who died from liver failure in 2011, aged 63, and Billy Connolly, who at 73 has Parkinson’s Disease but keeps going: ‘He’s got to be the greatest living Scotsman, and the funniest man in the world.’ A break came in 1974 with the stage show John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert, the first of several Beatles-related projects that meant meeting Paul McCartney several times: ‘He was lovely to my Mum and my boys – it was old school how-to-behave.’
But it was a stint on the Two Ronnies show, watched each week by around 15 million viewers, that projected her into the big time and Robert Stigwood signed her to RSO Records. Her first hit single, Answer Me, made the Top 10 in 1976. Ask Dickson if she has ever regretted turning down a job and she laughs: ‘Yes, The Basil Brush Show! I was being a trifle grand, thinking “I’m not going on that show!”, but actually I’d love to have sung a duet with Basil!’
During the 1990s, she had memorable roles in the TV dramas Band of Gold, The Missing Postman, and Taggart. She earned the second of her two Olivier Awards playing Pools winner Viv Nicholson in the London production of Spend Spend Spend.
Having spent most of her career living in rural Lincolnshire with her TV director husband, Oliver Cookson, 58, and their sons Colm, Gabriel and Archie, she admits to having a new ‘zest for life’ since returning to Scotland. She says: ‘In terms of spiritual welfare, it has benefited me 100 per cent because everywhere around me is beauty. The air is good, and I tap into culture and the countryside for comfort. I wanted to move to Edinburgh because it has loads of culture. Now we are in a Georgian square mile of great big Grade A Listed buildings.
Aside from being one half of the all-time biggest-selling female duet, she also had a string of hit records, from Answer Me to January February, and has starred in stage shows such as Blood Brothers and Spend Spend Spend, plus top TV dramas including Band Of Gold and Taggart.
Such is the demand for her archived material that on September 30 she is releasing a CD and DVD of two of her best-selling 1970s concerts.
Of I Know Him So Well, she says: ‘It’s been re-recorded by countless people, it’s a karaoke classic .... If people love it so much, then great, I’m really happy.’
For her it brings back memories of Tim Rice, who wrote it with Bjorn and Benny from Abba for the musical Chess: ‘Tim has always been extremely nice to me. He’s been upset sometimes that Andrew [Lloyd Webber] has got much more publicity than him, but the man who writes the music always does.’
Dickson’s career may have peaked back then but she declares herself ‘more than contented’ with the way it is now. ‘I think it’s true to say I’ve never felt better. I’m doing what I want. I don’t have to do anything I don’t like. My tour in February and March will be wonderful – to play so many dates the length of the British Isles. I can’t improve on it... apart from singing a duet with James Taylor, that would be nice!’
‘We have two floors of one of those buildings, right in the centre of town, with a garden at the front and back and access to a park. It’s beautiful and quiet and you can walk everywhere. If I need to take a bus, I can, or a tram to the airport.’
But Dickson says she has her doubts about Scottish independence: ‘My mother was English and my Dad was a Scot, and I’m a very proud Scotswoman, but actually I am a Unionist.
‘I can’t ever imagine myself voting SNP but I do like Nicola Sturgeon – she’s excellent, she sticks up for her own people and she is what you see.’
Dickson was proud to receive an OBE in the 2002 Queen’s New Year Honours for services to music and drama, but admits her knees were knocking as she waited to meet the Queen: ‘Someone said to me, “When you see the corgis coming, you stand up straight because that means she’s close behind”.’
What makes her excited now is the prospect of going on tour. She confides: ‘I am a musician in my bones. If I didn’t make a living at it, I’d still be singing and playing in my own front room. That’s my motivation. I’m not motivated by money or fame or attention.’
With a mischievous smile, she adds: ‘I only want the people who like me to continue to come and see me, so I have an audience to play to.’