If you think the face slipping into through the stage door in London’s Theatreland looks familiar, you’d be right. Jim Dale is stepping back onto the boards, exactly 50 years after he made his West End debut.
It’s a rare conversation that leaps from stories about Dame Sybil Thorndike to Harry Potter, via Kenneth Williams and Derek Jacobi, but Jim Dale has done it all, and now he’s sharing it in his one-man show that he’s bringing home from New York. He got rave reviews over there, but there was one massive omission from his repertoire of gags and anecdotes that he’ll have ready for his British audiences – and that’s tales from his days of Carry On.
“I didn’t try mentioning the Carry On films in New York, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about,” he explains when I sit down with him in London. “But I do think those films were British humour at its best – double entendres, puns, some of the best comic timing I’ve ever seen.”
Jim, already a huge pop star when he was recruited for the series, remains modest about his own contribution in nine of the films.
“They needed a young idiot to play Barbara Windsor’s boyfriend,” he says humbly. “With all that going on – Charles Hawtrey wearing glasses whatever the era, Kenneth Williams and his sideways glances – they needed that sort of contemporary innocence, and I was a natural fit.”
Despite family life meaning Jim never properly socialised with his Carry On stars, his enduring admiration for his closest friend on set, Kenneth Williams, is clear.
“There was the Kenneth Williams that you got to see, and the other one,” he remembers.
“My background was very shallow as far as education was concerned, because I always had a passion for theatre, and I had no interest in higher education because it wasn’t going to help me, and I have no regrets.
“But Kenneth taught himself, read the right books, and enlarged his vocabulary so that he could be at the centre of intellectuals, and I was very lucky to have him as a friend because he taught me so much, and I learned a lot about the world.
“A lot of actors are scared to trust people because they’re so scared it’ll end up in print, so if you have a friend you can trust not to gossip, that’s a great thing.”
Despite his slapstick success, Jim - by then already a veteran of theatre, stage and dance after making his music-hall debut at nine years old – was ready to move on, and state success beckoned, both at London’s National Theatre and Broadway.
He was recruited for the National Theatre by its founding chief, Laurence Olivier. Although Jim admits he was completely intimidated by the great Knight of British stage, he remembers fondly, “Larry loved comedy and he was very kind. I bet him a bottle of champagne I could get a laugh out of a joke about a canoe, and the next night there was a bottle waiting in my dressing room.”
Meanwhile, Jim took time off between Carry On films, did 'Barnum' on stage in New York and got rave reviews. His fate was sealed. But why Broadway, and why stay so long? His answer is a practical one.
“It’s always wise to work where your wife is,” he smiles, having been married to Julia since 1980. “She had a gallery there for 43 years. And you also go where the work is.”
While his face remains ever familiar in Britain, it is his voice that is known all over America, following his vocal duties on the ‘Harry Potter’ audiobooks over there - winning him two Grammy Awards, and an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the most voices, estimated at 200+. But he is adamant that, whenever big money beckoned him either east or west, he always preferred to stick to his enduring passion – the stage.
“I stayed in theatre so it’s not big money,” he explains. “If I win the Tony Award tomorrow (and he already has five nominations, one win to his name, so it’s not unlikely), the next day I’m auditioning for another role on Broadway, and earning a couple of hundred dollars a performance.
“There’s not the financial reward. I’ve been able to earn money doing other things and that can all subsidise the theatre, and that suits me down to the ground.”
It’s hard to believe that this chatty, laidback fellow sharing a cup of tea with me used to be one of the big pop stars of his day, recording with Beatles producer George Martin and having to navigate the same kind of attention meted out to the likes of One Direction and Justin Bieber. He remembers his time in the spotlight with a shudder
“Please don’t think I’m being egotistical,” he starts… I couldn’t possibly… “but back in the day, I could stop a car at the traffic light and people were reaching in. It was madness and I hated it.
“To this day when I go out for a meal, I always face the wall, I never face out.”
So, if it’s not the stardust, what has kept him in the business for all these years?
“I haven’t lowered my standards. I have to hit it 100% every night, or it’s not going to be me.
“I don’t have an agent, I don’t have a manager, I don’t have a publicist, because they wouldn’t know what I’m after in terms of challenge.
“They say, ‘But you’ve never played a role like that,’ and I say, ‘Exactly, that’s why I want it. Let me fail. Don’t turn down anything.’
“There’s no machine, I’ve been in New York so long, if you want me for a part, just phone me, come round to my apartment for a meal.”
This kind of openness is proper old school, utterly unheard of in this day and age from a star of Jim’s calibre. How has he stayed so completely in work, utterly charming but… normal?
“It’s easy,” he says. “Sensible friends. Treating it as a career, not as a gimmick to get money and trinkets.
“I just want to get better and keep people entertained for a couple of hours, nothing more than that.”
There’s no doubt, if the New York reviews are anything to go by, that Jim will pull that off in front of his native crowd. His show also marks his career coming full circle, with him returning to London’s West End where, half a century ago, his theatrical career nearly came to an abrupt stop when Winston Churchill died in 1965, and audiences stayed away out of respect, and the ticket money dried up.
“My cast said they’d work for nothing, but Equity wouldn’t let that happen,” remembers Jim, as though it were yesterday. “So I paid them the money, and then they paid me straight back. I wasn’t daunted for long.”
The same groundswell of affection Jim evidently enjoyed then has followed him here today, although he sounds genuinely amazed by the interest in his show.
“I’m a bit taken aback by the enthusiasm, which is great." He rubs his hands, the gesture of a man who, in his 80th year, still loves a challenge. "Now I’ve got to deliver the goods.”
Jim Dale presents 'Just Jim Dale' at London's Vaudeville Theatre from 26 May to 20 June. Click here for ticket info.