Sarah Crompton: 'Michael Crawford has one of the most extraordinary stories in British showbiz'

As he prepares to make a return to the West End, our critic takes a look at what makes the star of ”The Go-Between” so special

Michael Crawford
Michael Crawford
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Years ago, I used to work for a weekly magazine where the editor had an obsession with Michael Crawford. This was at the height of his fame in the late 1980s, when he had taken his award-winning performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera to Broadway – and become a major international star.

I used to spend weeks on the phone chasing an interview, trying to persuade ‘his people’ that this essentially private man really wanted to talk. And every now and then, I’d succeed – and we’d dispatch a writer to do an interview. These were always the same: very funny, but essentially unrevealing. For a musical megastar, Crawford was a modest and unassuming man.

I thought of those interviews when I heard Crawford on the Today programme on Radio 4 the other morning, talking about his return to the West End stage as the narrator in The Go-Between – a major undertaking for someone who is now 74. He was exactly the same as I remembered: humorous (an imitation of Michael Jackson popping around to his dressing room) and courteous. But not exactly revelatory.

Yet if Crawford really gets talking he has one of the most extraordinary stories in British showbiz. He had a tough upbringing, learning to clown to protect himself from bullying; as a chorister he sang for Benjamin Britten, just missing out on the part of Miles in Turn of the Screw to David Hemmings. He got his big break in the 1960s, starring in Richard Lester’s film The Knack, and making How I Won the War opposite John Lennon, with whom he shared a flat.

He made his Broadway debut at the age of 19, using his physical comedy abilities to great effect in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy. Then Gene Kelly spotted him and gave him a leading role in the Hollywood movie Hello, Dolly! Crawford was a star. And then, when stardom turned sour and he ended up stuffing cushions for his then wife’s upholstery business, he started his career again – finding fame and affection as the hapless, helpless Frank in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, a sitcom which seems to have run continuously since its 1973 debut.

In Barnum he combined his physical dexterity and singing; he landed the lead in Phantom thanks to sharing a singing teacher with Sarah Brightman – whose then husband Lloyd Webber overheard the end of a lesson and decided Crawford was the man for the job. He’s never looked back, though his international success has been punctuated by numerous accidents and bouts of ill health. A long struggle with ME saw him move to New Zealand where, in another rare interview he said he spent his evenings talking about cows with a dairy farming friend.

Restored to health and ready to take on eight shows a week, his reappearance in The Go-Between is an opportunity to celebrate and appreciate a very rare thing in British theatrical culture – an authentic star of the musical stage. America is full of singing giants, but I can only think of Michael Ball as a rival to Crawford – and he never shared a flat with John Lennon. Quite a man.