In yesterday’s blog, actor, dancer, singer and songwriter Colin Copperfield talked about his time performing in London’s West End in Jesus Christ Superstar.
He started in showbiz aged 14 and, as well as multiple stage appearances, appeared in over 900 TV shows in 26 countries. His autobiography It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Zing! was recently published.
Colin was born in Forest Gate in the East End of London.
He told me: “I had a bit of a tough upbringing…”
JOHN: You did 25 years performing with Wall Street Crash but you’ve worked solidly all over the place as an actor, dancer, singer and songwriter because you’re a hyphenate. You can turn your voice and your feet to everything.
COLIN: I could do it all well enough. I was never the best singer; I was never the best dancer; I was never the best actor. But I could do it all pretty well – not bad.
JOHN: More than not bad, I think, given your career…
COLIN: You’re very kind.
JOHN: You started in a band at 14.
COLIN: Well, we did a lot more rehearsing than we did gigs. It was a good little band, though. A couple of the others went on to be session musicians.
JOHN: At 14, you wanted to be a rock star?
COLIN: I wanted to get out of school, basically. I was so bad at school academically.
JOHN: So was Churchill.
COLIN: That makes me feel better. I only found out about ten years ago I was dyscalculic (difficulty understanding or learning maths).
I can remember very long Shakespeare speeches but I can’t add anything up. Numbers are a complete blur.
COLIN: Before I was in Jesus Christ Superstar. I had done my bands and a solo cabaret act. I’d done the ships and then I was doing the clubs. I went and worked on the cruise ships and round the Mediterranean for three years. And I did the Superstar cast album before I went to Australia.
The ships were fantastic. We did one-hour versions of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! As an actor, it was the equivalent of doing Rep. It was a different show every night.
The guy who directed the shows – Jeff Ferris – also worked for Cameron Mackintosh.
JOHN: Your family background was theatrical?
COLIN: My dad Wally worked at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (London) as a ‘stooge’. He was a dustman during the day and a stooge at night. When visiting comedians – all the top comedians – people like Max Miller in those days – used to come in… he worked with a lot of the top comedians just by being a straight-man – a ‘stooge’.
JOHN: The comedians didn’t have their own straight men touring with them?
COLIN: No. Especially the American comics who’d come over. He’d give them the local references to make.
JOHN: So your dad was a dustman who really wanted to be a showbiz star but he had to support a wife and two children…
COLIN: Yeah. My dad was REALLY frustrated. My two uncles were very famous buskers.
By day, they were crane drivers around Silvertown Docks, Canning Town Docks, that area.
But they were also the most amazing banjo players and they played all the local pubs at night – often outside the pubs.
If they were playing inside, my dad would sometimes go along and play the piano with them… which would have been fabulous if he could have played the piano. (LAUGHS) He used to do this technique called ‘vamping’.
His fingers could land anywhere. There was no technique to it at all, but it seemed to work.
JOHN: So he wasn’t off-key, but he…
COLIN: He wasn’t OFF-key, but he wasn’t IN-key. It was his own way of doing it. I think my uncles (LAUGHS) played even louder just to drown him out.
JOHN: To play ‘badly’ but entertainingly is really difficult – You have to be a very good piano player, like Les Dawson.
COLIN: Yes. He was a lovely guy. I worked with him. I used to dance with this group called The Young Generation. We worked with Rolf Harris a lot – on The Rolf Harris Show. After us, with Dougie Squires, they turned into The Second Generation.
I was rehearsing the Les Dawson television showwhen he was massive. We were doing this dance routine and I was waiting for my cue to enter; the door opened and it was Les Dawson.
He went: “You a’right?”
I said: “Yeah. You awright?”
He went: “Naw. I got terrible diarrhoea.”
That was my introduction to Les Dawson. He was a really lovely bloke.
JOHN: He didn’t seem to have a big ego.
COLIN: I was so lucky to work with all the people I did, because I got to work with the end of ‘showbisiness’, really.
The most miserable git we ever worked with was Dean Martin. Miserable sod. We were supporting him at the Victoria Apollo Theatre in London. We were there for ten nights with him. He never used the theatre at all. He would come up to not even the stage door; he would come up to a pass door in his limo and walk straight onto the stage. Afterwards – straight off the stage into his limo and off. He had a little bar made by the side of the stage with curtains round it with all the optics in it and everything.
JOHN: So he did drink a lot? I thought it was just his schtick.
COLIN: Well, no, I don’t think he did drink. Or, if he did, not the nights we were with him. We’d be waiting to go on first. We’d do 15 minutes, then it’d be Dean Martin. He went on straight after us and he never once went into this little bar.
Straight onto the stage. Sing. Mock drunk. And walk straight past this bar to his car.
JOHN: Your mother… Was she in showbiz?
COLIN: No. My brother THOUGHT he could sing and he REALLY wanted to be in show business but he was completely tone deaf.
JOHN: So, when you were 14, you were a music person. In the rock bands, you were the singer?
COLIN: Yes. I could play the guitar but didn’t: I just purely sang.
JOHN: But then you got into dance…
COLIN: Only because my mum – she was a real Cockney – said: “‘Ere. You gotta lose yer accent,” she said, “and you gotta ‘ave more than one string to yer bow if you’re gonna go into showbusiness.”
So the dancing is down to my mum.
I played with some show bands and dance bands. I did a bit of everything coming up. Then my singing teacher said: “It’s all very well doing all this but you need to get some theatre stuff… They’re auditioning tomorrow at the Prince of Wales Theatre (in London) for the Harry Worth stage show in Great Yarmouth.”
Summer seasons were big business then. They would last three or four months. You could almost go from Summer Season into (Christmas) Panto. I was singing with a show band at the time.
It was an open casting. Number One in the Hit Parade was Tom Jones: Love Me Tonight. I went along and didn’t really know anything and all these hundreds of guys before me in the audition, they were all singing (COLIN SINGS) “My boy, Bill! He’ll be tall and tough as a tree, will Bill. Like a tree he’ll grow…” (a song from Carousel).
At the audition, I gave my Love Me Tonight music to the pianist who was doing the accompaniment and he said: “Are you really gonna sing this?” and I said “Yeah…??”
So I started singing (COLIN SINGS) “I know that it’s late and I really must leave you alone…”
Immediately they said: “Thankyou, Thanks very much, Colin…”
The pianist told me: “Wrong type of song.”
I rang my singing teacher and told him: “One line and they said Thankyou very much…”
“What did you sing?”
“Love Me Tonight.”
“You prat; come round here now…”
And he told me: “Learn this… (COLIN SINGS) On a wonderful day like today, I defy any cloud to appear in the sky… Go back tomorrow. They won’t remember you.”
So I went back the next day. Same rehearsal pianist. “Thank God, mate,” he said. “You got more of a chance with this one…”
I sang: (COLIN SINGS) “On a wonderful day like today, I defy any cloud to appear in the sky…” and they said: “Do you want to do three or four months with Harry Worth at The Britannia Theatre in Great Yarmouth?”
JOHN: They didn’t recognise you from the day before?
COLIN: No. And that was my start in proper showbiz.
JOHN: Were you called Colin Copperfield at this point?
COLIN: Yes. Back in the rock bands I was still Colin Satchell but then I started doing my own cabaret act and, for that, I turned into Colin Copperfield. Everybody at the time was called something like that.
JOHN: You did 900 TV shows in 26 countries, 5 albums, 11 singles, 3 Royal Command Performances.
COLIN: Yes. I was almost as busy as my dad. I was so lucky. A lot of times I was just in the right place at the right time.
JOHN: Well, it’s talent AND luck, isn’t it? You can get just so far with luck. There has to be some talent to last. You have multiple talents and you’re still working. Your mother gave you good advice.
COLIN: Luck is so important in everything in life. Like after I finished on Tommy…
JOHN: This was the musical based on the Who album…
COLIN: Yes. Tommy at the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. I played the Pinball Wizard.
JOHN: Tell me more…
with The Who’s “Tommy” and a brand new musical