For the past 20 years, actor Graham Bickley has performed regularly in West End musicals including They’re Playing Our Song, The Pirates of Penzance, Jukebox, Which Witch?, Maddie, The Pajama Game, Les Miserables, Metropolis, Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard.
Bickley has also appeared in: major regional productions of Sleuth, No Trams to Lime Street, the UK premiere of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the world premiere of Black Goes with Everything; seasons of Anything Goes and Wonderful Town for Grange Park Opera; revues Jacques Brel Is Alive and Living in Paris and It’s Better with a Band; and on television, three series of Bread.
Bickley has performed concerts with orchestras throughout the UK, Europe and South America, including the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the City of London Sinfonia, the National Symphony, the Royal Scottish National, the Hallé, the City of Birmingham Symphony, the RTC Concert, the Gothenburg Symphony, the Iceland Symphony, the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway and the Sao Paulo Symphony.
Also on the concert platform, Bickley has appeared regularly with the BBC Concert Orchestra, starring in concert versions of Guys and Dolls, On the Town and Peter Pan, staged at the Royal Festival Hall and recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio. Other concert highlights include Kurt Weill’s Street Scenes and a Stephen Sondheim 70th birthday tribute at the Royal Albert Hall, and a summer gala in Leeds alongside Lesley Garrett.
In 2002, Bickley returned to the West End stage to star in the London premiere of Broadway musical Ragtime. For his performance as single father Tateh, he was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical honours in both the Laurence Olivier and the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards.
He’s now joined the cast of Cole Porter musical High Society, which was revived last summer at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. The recast production, in which Bickley plays the debonair CK Dexter Haven, launches a nine-month nationwide tour this month.
Date & place of birth
Born 18 May 1958 in Liverpool.
Lives now in…
Sydenham in south London.
I trained in theatre generally in Liverpool, at a local theatre school. I went in as an actor and came out, strangely, as a dancer. I’m not quite sure how that happened. I’m rather an appalling dancer at that. But, when you’re 18 and you’re keen, you’ll audition for anything as you should do.
First big break
It was with this television dance team called Dougie Squires’ Second Generation. Dougie was a huge influence very early on, because a) he employed me and then b) he promoted me. After a couple of years, I started singing for Dougie and then I did pantomime for him - so he allowed me to make the step out. I was 17 or 18 when I started that, and to this day, I often get a first night card or birthday card from Dougie. I have tremendous affection for him.
Career highlights to date
Being nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Award – absolutely! Also my Olivier nomination. Ragtime in general, probably. There are loads of others, too. Sunset Boulevard was great to do because it was a fab role and I got to play opposite Petula Clark. Doing the concert with Lesley Garrett last year – Maria Friedman and I performed in front of 50,000 people and it was televised. Doing the TV series Bread. It didn’t really come to much for me, but at the time, it was huge, front-page tabloid news.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I wasn’t in the first cast of Les Miserables, but I did join many members of the original company a few months after the show first opened at the Palace. At that point, it was still a momentous show, less than a year old, so it was incredibly exciting to be a part of that. People in musical theatre often say that Les Mis is like your final year in college because you learn so much. It was a great grounding. I went in as a cover, finished as a principal and was able to grow from there really.
Unless you’re in the original company, when you go into a show, you rarely get to work with the original director. Instead, you get the resident director. A lot of resident directors are good, but many are very bad. You know, their idea of directing is “you stand there for that burst, then move there for that burst, then the helicopter comes down and you move out of the way”. That’s not directing. Ken Caswell, who was the resident director on Les Mis at the time I was there, was a huge influence and support. Stafford Arima was a joy to work with on Ragtime, such an adorable, gentle man - everything about Ragtime was just joyous. But a lot of my shows where I’ve started have failed, so it has been rare that I’ve worked with a really good original director in a show that’s turned into a commercial success. Let’s do a separate interview about the frustration of that!
Favourite musical writers
A lot of Stephen Sondheim stuff is fantastic. One has to admire not just the output but the quality of the output. I’ve done very little Sondheim myself, but I would love to do more. Really, though, I don’t have particular favourites. I’m just as likely to love a musical by unknowns as big names, if the end product is as good.
Any who are kind to me! Gentle choreographers like Gillian Gregory, who’s doing High Society. Referring back to the Dougie Squires thing, I’ll tell you why he remains such an influence. When Gillian came up to me at the beginning of rehearsals, she asked whether I’d danced before. I said, “Well many years ago, I danced with Dougie Squires” and she said, “oh fine, fine”. To this day, it’s stood me in good stead, because people say instantly “we know what he can do”. Craig Revel Horwood choreographed me on Anything Goes for Grange Park Opera, and that was frightening because I was very rusty, as I am now. Dance is a muscle you have to re-train. It’s as much a mental muscle as it is about getting your legs together - picking up the steps, understanding what’s required and remembering it all. It’s a joy when you get it right, frustrating when you don’t.
What roles would you most like to play still?
The Music Man. Pal Joey. I’m moving into an older category of roles now, and I think that will gradually open doors. I’m a little bit in a hole at the moment professionally, because I’m too old to play romantic juvenile leads obviously, but not old enough for the character roles yet. Unless it’s something of a gift like Tateh was in Ragtime.
Would you like to tackle more non-musical roles?
I would love to do comedy, love to, but it’s the devil’s own job to get anyone to give you a chance. But I’m sure many people you’ve interviewed have been pigeonholed. I certainly have. I’ve tried and tried and I will continue to try not to be. I actually stopped doing musicals for a year, turned roles down, in order to get back into television or straight theatre. I’m never going to be at the RSC, I’m never going to be doing the classics, I don’t mean that at all. But I’d love to do some Alan Ayckbourn, for example. I’d love to have a crack at Noises Off or something like that. But it’s hard convincing people that musical theatre is not a level below acting. The number of times I’ve been seen for things and they say: “Oh, you’ve done a lot of musical theatre. When was the last time you acted?”
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Shining City at the Royal Court. I loved it and jumped at the ending, though my wife, Peggy Riley, saw it coming about half an hour beforehand. But then, she’s a playwright so she ought to.
What would you advise the government – or the industry – to secure the future of theatre?
I would be great for someone to knock on the head the extortionate prices you have to pay, not just for the tickets, but for the add-ons. It drives me round the bend when I go to a venue, the actual venue itself, and buy tickets and they say “there’s a £2.50 charge on that”. I’m standing there at the box office window and I’m going to walk away with the tickets so there’s no post involved. What’s the £2.50 for? Reducing VAT would be a huge help, too.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I was watching a Frank Sinatra thing last night. I don’t want to be Sinatra, but I’d love to have been around that at the time and found out the truths about the man. Actually, one of my own pet projects is to do with Nelson Riddle. He was a music arranger, and was responsible for re-launching Sinatra’s career. All those classic Sinatra songs – “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Chicago”, the ones you play and go “oh, I know this one backwards” – Riddle orchestrated those. He also orchestrated Nat King Cole, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald. With the BBC, I produced a concert of Nelson Riddle music and I managed to get all this amazing material from his archive. So I’m going to say I’d like to swap with Nelson Riddle. He was in the midst of it all, a witness and a very powerful man.
I don’t read enough. We have about three million books at home, because my wife is an avid reader, and she’s always plonking something in front of me saying “read that!”. Now that I’m touring, I’m planning to catch up on my reading.
Favourite holiday destinations
Loads. We had a lovely fortnight in St Lucia. Just lying on a beach doing nothing – a real slobs’ holiday. Barcelona, or Spain generally. We often nip over to Spain. I’d love to discover Canada more, too; get to Vancouver. I worked in Ontario, and I loved that. We’d also like to discover a lot of America that my wife doesn’t know. She’s American but has been over here for nine years.
I do check Whatsonstage.com all the time, but I don’t have any others I couldn’t live without.
If you hadn’t become a performer, what would you have done professionally?
I have absolutely no idea. From the age of diddly squat, that’s all I ever wanted to be. Both my parents were teachers, but my father used to run the local amateur dramatics society and I was in the choir, so I was always singing and performing. I have a vivid memory of being about ten or eleven, doing the nativity play in primary school. I narrated as I recall, so I was in my school uniform rather than a costume. At the end of the performance, we were meant to go back to the classroom to get picked up by our parents. But because I had my school uniform on, I thought I could go through the curtains, back on stage and find my parents myself that way. It’s been downhill from then on.
What did you want to accept the part of CK Dexter Haven in this production of High Society?
I haven’t toured before, certainly not for nine months, so it was a tough decision. Earlier this year, I’d been through a lot of very depressing auditions in a short space of time. Not just because I didn’t get the job - getting told “no, thank you” is just part of what actors do - but soul-destroying stuff where they messed you around and made you question what you were doing. This one came at the end of the bunch. I’d never worked with Ian Talbot, but I’d met him and heard a lot about him. I remember saying to my wife that, though I didn’t really want the job, I was going to go meet Ian because I needed a shot in the arm, to have a nice audition and have someone be courteous. Which was precisely how it was. Then Ian offered me the job. Originally, I turned it down, but after I read the script, I realised how good the book was, how much text there is, a lot of which was taken directly from the play, The Philadelphia Story. So it wasn’t just light and frothy, song, song, song. Then I was hooked really. The combination of the script, finally working with Ian, who I’d always wanted to work with, getting out on the road to a new audience. And they’re such good songs! Really good. So my arm was very happily twisted.
What are you looking forward to most & least about touring?
I’m dreading the inevitable late night runs on the motorway, but we’re all sharing the car duties. It’s a Monday to Saturday schedule, with the day off a travelling day. You have to get your brain around that pretty quickly, or you could feel down straight away, sunk before you’re started. I’m looking forward to visiting all these cities I’ve never been to. And all these theatres I’ve never been to. I can walk into a theatre anywhere and already I’m excited.
What’s your favourite number from High Society?
I’m still getting to know the songs better, but at the moment one of my favourites is “You’re Sensational”. It’s not even my song, though I’d chop Paul Robinson’s legs off to sing it. Of course, I’ve got “I Love You, Samantha” and a couple more that aren’t from the film, so I’m very happy with my lot.
What are your plans for the future?
After nine months on tour, I think I’ll need a very long holiday and a lie down in a darkened room. Beyond that, I’ll carry on selling concerts to orchestras. I have a couple of projects I’m working on. I think the only real way forward for actors is to try and create your own projects. I’m fed up with waiting for someone to say “here’s a job” and relying solely on other people and what they think is right for me. Like we all do, I want a little bit more stability and control.
Launched on 9 September 2004 at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre, the High Society tour continues, until 11 December, to Oxford, Woking, Brighton, Southampton, Richmond, Milton Keynes, Dartford, Bradford and Wolverhampton, with further dates scheduled for 2005.