All-round entertainer Paul Nicholas has enjoyed success in the pop charts, on TV and in musical theatre. He looks back at working with David Bowie, and playing Jesus
I was born during the Second World War in 1944 and I remember having a lot of powdered eggs because of rationing. I also remember our three-bedroom council house in North London being pretty crowded because my parents, myself, my father’s sisters and my grandmother all lived there.
Listening to the radio was a big pastime. When I was around age six, we’d go see Hollywood movies at the cinema, films like Easter Parade which brought a splash of colour to what was otherwise a rather black-and-white existence. I was told that when I came home I’d practise tap dancing on the lino.
My mother worked for the board of trade and my father was studying to be a lawyer. He’d go across to the local park with his books to study in peace and eventually he qualified as an entertainment and showbusiness solicitor. Prior to that, during the war, he told me he worked for MI6. He spoke Flemish, a bit of French and a bit of German so he must have been quite useful to them.
I was relieved when my parents divorced. I was 12 when it happened and they’d had a rather tempestuous marriage. When you grow up in that environment, particularly as an only child, it has a real impact so I was happy when they decided to call it a day. I lived with my mum until I was about 16, then I went to live with my grandma.
My father nicknamed her Fighting Wyn because she was quite domineering. He had nicknames for everybody. He called my mother The Ogre.
With Jan Francis
I wasn't very academic but I loved singing. I gave my first performance in a school dance when I was 15 and sang “Good Luck Charm” by Elvis Presley. The girls seemed to find me more attractive, which, when you’re that age, is a real plus. Changing my surname from Beuselinck to Dean, I formed a band called Paul Dean & The Dreamers. We supported Screaming Lord Sutch’s band The Savages and he recruited me as their singer and pianist.
David Bowie wrote one of my early singles. After going solo in the mid-1960s and changing my name again to Paul Oscar, I met with Bowie and he wrote this song called “Over The Wall We Go” about people breaking out of prison, which was both topical and funny—it was banned by the BBC. I found Bowie to be quite a serious young man and very talented.
I didn't get naked in the musical Hair. Getting into musical theatre in 1968 and finally settling on the name Paul Nicholas, I played Claude and nudity wasn’t required as I was stood in the middle as everyone else took their clothes off.
Nothing had really happened for me in terms of a pop career and I worked in a music publisher’s but I missed performing. I went in to audition for Hair, got the part and realised musical theatre was what I really wanted to do.
Linzi Jennings and I met on the tour of Hair. We were staying in the same apartment block in Manchester, I went downstairs to borrow some glue after I broke a lamp. That was in 1971 and we’ve been together ever since, except for a short time apart in the late-1970s. As I joke in my book, I think I’m only now beginning to get on her nerves!
With the cast of the Marigold Hotel in India
Playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar was so exciting because it was a new form of theatre, namely a rock opera. Dying on the cross each night was very moving the first few times because of the audience reaction and the beautiful piece of music that accompanied it, but I got used to it. It also led to other great gigs, like Grease opposite Elaine Paige.
...The director Ken Russell was a pretty intense man. I worked for him in Tommy and Lisztomania. He had a terrific imagination, good energy and he knew what he wanted. But he was probably better at interpreting other people’s work, like Tommy, than on Lisztomania, which he wrote himself and probably pushed it further than it needed to go.
I returned to pop music in 1976 to fulfil an ambition I hadn’t fulfilled previously. I’d gone to America but couldn’t get a work permit because I wasn’t famous enough, so I thought a pop career might make me famous. I found a song called “Reggae Like It Used To Be” and thought, That sounds like a hit. I recorded it and it was a hit. I then did “Dancing with the Captain” and “Grandma’s Party” and the plan worked because they were hits too.
"Playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar was so exciting because it was a new form of theatre, namely a rock opera"
The death of my ex-wife in a car accident was the worst period of my life. Although Susan [Gee] and myself were no longer together when it happened in 1979, it was a great shock. I was very depressed about it for years and it was really because of Linzi that I got through it. She was a wonderful help to me and my two young children, who were eight and ten at the time. We weren’t together at the time but being the wonderful woman that she is, she came back to me.
Linzi and I went on to have two kids together, bringing my total to six because I had two children out of wedlock in my misspent youth. We’re all friendly and they all come and stay with us. I’ve also got 13 lovely grandchildren. Being an only child, I felt lonely and always wanted a brother or sister. I’ve certainly made up for it since and I did get a brother much later when my father remarried.
Playing the Rum Tum Tugger in Cats was great fun. It was brilliantly staged and of course it reunited me with Elaine again. Unfortunately Judi Dench, who was due to sing “Memory” in the show, snapped her Achilles tendon and couldn’t do it so they brought Elaine in. As for the dancing, I was never up to the standard of the trained dancers but I managed to get by and when it came to the really tricky stuff I’d go into the audience and sit on their laps.
Nicholas in the 1970s, upon being announced as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar
When I first got the script for Just Good Friends in 1983, I read it and thought, This is gold dust. This is clever. It’s romantic and it’s real and I really want to get the job. I auditioned with Jan [Francis], we did a pilot show and it caught on with the public very quickly. Jan was fabulous to work with, with a great sense of humour, and we had such fun filming it.
Metting Cyd Charisse was a dream come true. We did Charlie Girl in the mid-1980s and having grown up with those old Hollywood movies, then suddenly dancing and singing with this wonderful, gracious woman was magic. I also met another Hollywood icon, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, when as a friend of the producer he came along to help promote The Pirates of Penzance. There’s a great photo of us doing
a mock sword fight together.
Michael Aspel surprised me with his big red book when I was doing Barnum at Bristol Hippodrome. That was in 1991 and doing This is Your Life was a lovely experience because you don’t have to do anything. People come on and say nice things about you, then you have a little drink afterwards. You also get to keep the big red book, which I still have of course.
I enjoyed playing a villain on Eastenders. I was Gavin Sullivan on the show for a year from 2015 and it was a tough job. I have a lot of admiration for people in soaps because they’re on an incredibly tight schedule, with no time to do anything else. But I was glad I did it and I had my own catchphrase: “Hello Princess”.
Getting to see so many exotic places when I did The Real Marigold Hotel in 2017 was such a pleasure. Being in your seventies, and in some cases in your eighties, it’s so nice to be invited to take part in a primetime show, visiting amazing places and experiencing the fun that entails. I especially liked going to India and learning to tango in Argentina.
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