Although probably best known as The Cat from BBC 2’s long-running sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf, Danny John-Jules is no stranger to the stage.
After training at Anna Scher Children's Theatre, John-Jules had parts in Night and Day, Destiny Rides Again, Lonely Hearts and Labelled with Love. He also performed in the UK premiere of Carmen Jones at Sheffield Crucible and went on to play Dink in the first West End production of the show, directed by Simon Callow at the Old Vic.
John-Jules’ other West End musical theatre credits include Barnum, Cats, Soul Train and Time. He also created the role of Rocky 1 in Starlight Express.
His ‘straight’ acting credits include The Piano Lesson, the original touring production of Playboy of the West Indies, The Rover, Beef, No Chicken, Vurt, Our Country’s Good and the part of Jimmi Hendrix in The Devil’s Interval.
Aside from Red Dwarf, John-Jules’ small screen credits include Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, Runaway Bay, Spatz, The Tomorrow People, The Demon Headmaster and the recent BBC comedy series The Crouches. Amongst his film appearances are The Great Muppet Caper, Rag Time, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Blade 2 and Hanif Kureishi’s London Kills Me.
John-Jules has now returned to Playboy of the West Indies, once again directed by Nicolas Kent, to play Mac, the Playboy’s father. The new production begins performances this week at north London’s Tricycle Theatre =before transferring to Nottingham Playhouse in the new year.
Date & place of birth
Born in west London on 16 September 1960.
Lives now in...
I live in Kensal Rise (north-west London).
I went to Anna Scher and a place called Omnibus Theatre Company in Notting Hill.
First big break
On stage, joining the Second Generation dance troupe, and on TV, Lena Zavaroni’s TV series.
I think that probably happened the first time I went on stage. I’d done the building site and the warehouse and the hospital and the hair salon, but on stage at the Isle of Wight Pavilion was it for me really. That was with the Second Generation, as seen on The Jimmy Tarbuck Show.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Oh dear, that’s very hard. I think my role in Blade 2 was pretty much a big achievement because I was given a bigger part than I auditioned for! And considering I didn’t even have to leave London to get the job, that was pretty amazing. I sat in the bath thinking, “this is wild”. Theatre is my first love, though. My first really big part was in Time: The Musical, but the one I got most out of was Soul Train I think. That was at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and I got to sing, dance, a bit of comedy. It was like a revue show so I got to do everything I liked in one show. I was in Time when I got the part in Red Dwarf. Starlight Express was fun too. I used to go to roller discos so roller skating was second nature to me.
That’s hard, too. I suppose it depends on how you define favourite. I’ve worked with so many good and nice people. I worked with Cliff Richard on Time, we sang a duet. People take the mickey out of Cliff, but if you look past the hoopla, he’s just a guy that comes to work and gets the job done. He was always pleasant to me and I like the guy. Wesley Snipes was a gentleman, Sheila Ferguson and I always had a great laugh on Soul Train. I was in a play with Dougray Scott, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig all at the same time - that was The Rover in 1994 - so I’ve bumped into loads of people who have gone on to be massive. In Time, I shared a dressing room with David Ian. We were both understudies - and now he’s gone on to be a big producer (managing director of Clear Channel, See The Producers, Features, 15 Nov 2004). If you interview him again, tell him to give me a call - he’d fall over!
Simon Callow was good, I liked him. Also Jim Henson from The Muppets, he was great. Ed Bye who did Red Dwarf, Nicolas Kent - I have to say that! A good director has to have vision. When I did Playboy with Nick ten years ago, he gave me the part of an old man even though I was the same age as the guy playing my son. That’s vision. And now here I am doing it again as the Christmas show at my local theatre.
I like Courttia Newland. He’s very young, a novelist as well as a playwright. I met him on an estate in west London, where he told me he was going to be a writer, and he’s done it – he just gave me his book, The Scholar, to read! He writes from a street perspective, he’s very vivid and very clever and true to the game, as they say. Which is not going to get you immediate invites to the Booker Prize dinner, but you need all sorts in any medium.
I think there could be a lot more done on that level anyway, so young people don’t think reading is a twatty thing to do. I was surprised how many young people hadn’t read The Scholar so I’m doing an audio version of it. It’s taken a while because I’m having to fit it in between jobs. But it’s great to see Courttia’s progression, from this little guy with a rucksack to this work and then going and reading it. And he’s done it from that estate, without having the benefit of being in the industry or anything like that.
What roles would you most like to play still?
It’d have to be something I could relate to in terms of race and genre. There was a great story on that BBC programme where people trace their family history - Who Do You Think You Are? - about Moira Stewart’s great grandfather. That would be an interesting part to play. You see, there are lots of parallels: he was from Dominica and my mum and dad are both from there, he studied at Edinburgh University and became a barrister, and my brother’s a barrister as well. He was also involved in lots of politics to do with racial equality. I can speak Dominican, too. It’s like broken French, hence my surname John-Jules. Someone would have to write that man’s story. It’d be a bit of an epic, but what a luxury and a great part to play. But they don’t write them like that, love.
You've worked extensively in theatre, TV & film. Which do you prefer?
I enjoy them all. I just enjoy performing really. If it’s as easy as that – but it isn’t usually because, outside, gremlins enter the workplace. I try and make the best of my surroundings, whether it be a two bob theatre or a Hollywood film set and I’ve done both. The skills required are very different. Every time you do a film, there’s a certain flow to it. I tend to watch everyone else and see what they’re doing and take my lead from that – do nothing more, nothing less than you need to on film. Less is more on film, but on stage a bit more is the best, you’ve got to project much more. I look around on the first day, see who looks good. There’s always someone who knows more than you and I tend to want to find that guy or girl and hang on to their tailcoat!
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I saw a show called Dream Girls on Broadway years ago and that was phenomenal. I was in a West End show at the time and I thought “oh shit I thought I’d made it”. It was that horrible realisation of the distance you still have to travel. It was my eye-opener, that’s why it sticks with me. That show has the ballad of the century in it, called “And I Am Telling You”. That’s a song the divas won’t even sing, because if you aren’t truly one, you won’t get away with it.
What would you advise the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Oh, my days, you don’t wanna ask me that! The West End is too exclusive, so they’re missing a whole section of the market. Young footballers have money, but they wouldn’t go to a show. Audiences like that aren’t drawn to the West End because of the elitism. Now you’ve got some things happening on the fringes of the West End, which go to show there is a market, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have new blood you’re going to die. And for the fresh blood, it’s a catch-22 situation: you need experience to get in, but you can only gain experience once you’re in.
Lately, it seems to be a case of let’s grab any famous person and stick a show on with them and get a good comedy writer and then we’ve all got to listen to that person trying to make it credible in the interviews. But you can’t have it both ways, you can’t have a commercial show and credibility, not since West Side Story, so let’s not kid ourselves that it’s ‘real’ theatre. It’s like Soul Train. I knew what that was, a revue show. It was there to get people with their knees up in the air. We need some variety to survive in this day and age, okay. But ask any 16- to 25-year-old and I bet they couldn’t name two musicals. Musicals are not in their psyche, so you have to figure out how you going to get them there. When Andrew Lloyd Webber cast Jason Donovan in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, that was colossal. That’s the last smart thing the West End did. It was an established musical and it was the right time and the right star - who turned up for every show - and you couldn’t get a ticket. That’s what they need to do today.
But we also need smaller shows with more talent and less money. I’ve seen shows where they’ve thrown a £200,000 part of the set in the bin because they’ve cut that scene! Lots of regional stuff could be backed with a small percentage of that money. It’s easier for the lower end of the market where people are used to doing shows on a shoestring. I’ve gone to plays by Jamaican theatre companies in the leisure centre and you can’t get a seat, people are bringing in more chairs in the interval, and they are hand-flyer jobs, you know? A company called Blue Mountain do about 20 plays a year, they just reel them out.
How would you rate the current state of musical theatre?
Musical theatre is in big trouble. People love to go to a show and dance in the aisles, but it’s got to be entertaining and the standard is waning. I used to know many West End theatre dancer/singers who spent their whole career trying to get a job, but now they can’t fill a stage with talent. People used to laugh at Bonnie Langford, but who’s laughing now? Where’s the new Bonnie? Or Michael Ball or Frances Ruffelle? There’s no one they can put there. Michael Ball could front a show whatever you say about him. I’m sorry, but getting celebrities to star in West End shows, when they only show up once a week, and then giving them awards for it is just a joke. There was two months where I was filming Red Dwarf in the day then running over to the theatre to do Soul Train in the evening, so when people don’t show up for their performances they have no ally in me.
Did you know Judi Dench was originally going to star in Cats as Grizabella? And Roger Moore was going to be in Aspects of Love? These guys get through three weeks of rehearsal and realise musical theatre is not easy. Especially in the West End, where the pressure’s intense. So they run. And you can only cast so far out of the circle. If you start dumbing down, you end up with reality West End. Well, they’re doing that now with that reality TV show Musicality. That’s desperation, baby.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It would probably be Sammy Davis Jr because I think if you were around him for the right reasons, soaking up that entertainment energy, it would be incredible. I’d also be interested to see what he thought of the level of performances in town now. You know he did a musical here in the 1960s called Golden Boy, which I really wanted to do. It has a baritone lead and that’s pretty rare. Unless you sing like Aled Jones pre-voice break, you can usually forget it. People write roles in the same range all the time (John-Jules impersonates, as he describes it, “a warbling eunuch”). There are no manly baritone parts. Howard Keel would go hungry out there today. Everyone wants to sound like the female lead nowadays. I’ve had to sing up there many a time.
I love autobiographies: Miles Davies, Bob Fosse, Jesse Owens, Sammy Davis Jnr, Josephine Baker. I’m particularly interested in black people in the industry who have gone through vaudeville, because I came up through the variety route. I like making comparisons with how it was then and how they got to where they wanted to be. I try and incorporate it, to learn from everybody else’s mistakes. But, at the end of the day, you have to make your own mistakes to gain proper experience. Obviously I also get to read a lot of scripts. That’s the dramatic side of my reading.
Favourite after-show haunt
Joe Allen’s was where everybody used to end up when I was in the West End. That was the hob-nobbing place. You could even go there if you were crap on stage that night.
Favourite holiday destination
Dominica, it’s got to be Dominica. I met loads of family and friends there and I stayed with my uncle.
Why did you want to accept your role in Playboy of the West Indies?
It was to do something different again really. I tend to do a lot of character stuff. To me, this is like a workout. You can do a TV series and it’s kind of like a walk in the park, but to go out and portray an old Trinidadian geezer with a serious head wound is much more exciting. As I said, the Tricycle is my local theatre. Because of the timing, it’s a bit like doing a Christmas show really. I could do panto but I’m in Playboy instead and I’d much rather be doing this. The community here don’t usually get to see me do live stuff because they don’t go to the West End, but they will go to the Tricycle. The guy that’s playing Playboy and I did a workshop on Twelfth Night for a young director through the Young Vic, so I’m playing Feste one minute and an old Trinidadian man the next. To me, it’s about keeping a flow going.
You performed in the premiere production of Playboy of the West Indies in 1994, also directed by Kent. How difficult is it to come back to a part after ten years?
That time it was a big question, “am I going to pull this off?” Having done it once, I wanted to bring it a step further. I have a bit more experience and can understand what it’s like to not be the Playboy anymore. It’s that thing of having to move aside because there’s another generation coming up. And I will be playing those old parts properly soon. Hopefully, the next guys will be writing black characters across the spectrum. I play younger characters all the time and older parts too. I very rarely play my own age “’cause they don’t write them like that, love”. But it’s all good.
Why do you think JM Synge’s original Irish play, The Playboy of the Western World, is open to relocation in Trinidad?
You’ve got to imagine a small town in Ireland and the whole gossip thing – it’s Clint Eastwood in The Man with No Name. All of a sudden, this guy comes in and he tells this story and, to quote the script, there are “men in fear and women in wonder”. Synge’s play nearly caused a riot when it was first performed in Ireland. It’s all about how people can be suckered in and become blood thirsty. The main thing is that it’s a good story, and I think most good stories work because good stories are not colour-specific.
What's your favourite line from Playboy of the West Indies?
“It’s a straight rope and trapdoor job for you”
What's the funniest thing that’s happened during rehearsals of Playboy of the West Indies?
Me eating peanuts during the read-through. I ate them all the way through the first act because I don’t appear till Act Two. Two pages before the end of the act someone told me to be quiet. That’s as exciting as it gets!
What are your plans for the future?
Just to keep working. They are talking about a Red Dwarf film. We’ve just finished filming a second series of The Crouches, so now I can chill out and do a nice play at the Tricycle. I wrote a drama for Radio 7 called Night Talker that was on recently, and I’m still working on the audiobook I mentioned, The Scholar, so I’m keeping busy.
- Danny John-Jules was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Playboy of the West Indies runs at north London’s Tricycle Theatre from 6 December 2004 to 22 January 2005 (previews from 2 December) and then transfers to Nottingham Playhouse from 28 January to 12 February 2005.