Paul Nicholas: ‘Sometimes you look in the mirror and think: ‘you’re a bit over the hill’’

The nation’s favourite ice-cream seller has come a very long way

A heartthrob to a generation of women, Paul Nicholas has in the last few years taken to the other side of the stage- producing and directing theatre. The most recent success for the actor was with Keeler, a production based on the Profumo affair that became a media storm in the sixties- a time when Nicholas was a young lad forging himself a pop career. His new project is topical: A musical version of Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, for which he is firmly off the stage.

His experience means he can sympathise with the actors, he says. He can understand their problems, because as near as a few years ago he had them himself. “Actors have a battle to learn words, for example, so you have to run through the show as often as possible. You have to make the actors feel as secure as possible. There’s also no point in doing any of this unless you can have a laugh. You’ve got to have a sense of humour. When you work with a director that doesn’t have a sense of humour it is difficult. Some directors bully actors and pressure them, I’ve seen that and I don’t like it.”

A musical version of Dickens’ story was Nicholas’ own idea. He commissioned the songs and script from a writing team that included an American hitmaker David Pomeranz (who has written for Barry Manilow, among others) Emmy winner Stephen David Horwich and British writer David Soames in 1997. Originally Nicholas himself took the main role, but realised his idea soon became a stranger to him in the hands of others. “I lost control of it in that I didn’t make any decisions in it and it was a bit overblown- there was a nine piece band.” he says. The new version is “a pared down musical with 16 actors and two baby grand pianos. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work in a rehearsal hall without anything, it’s not going to work anywhere. Sometimes it is good to do something smaller.”

Nicholas is where he feels comfortable now, in the director’s chair where he has the “last word”. He’s relaxed about the control he has over the work, but knows how important it is to have it after past experience.“It’s good in a way now because the writers are away and I can get rid of the stuff that I don’t think works. The trouble with some writers is that they have a tendency to think if they write something new it is better than what they had written before. That’s not neccesarily true.”

He’s certainly come a long way since his days as a poster-boy pop singer with four top ten hits who then became an award-winning ice-cream selling jilter in sitcom Just Good Friends. But some things don’t change. For one, he’s lived in the same Highgate home since the 70s- then a step up from the one room he shared with his wife in Muswell Hill helped by the “little bit of money from my pop career” which became the home where they raised their family. He likes the fact that Highgate hasn’t changed so much and loves access to the Heath, where he learns his lines. “I find it easier to learn lines when I’m walking than when I’m standing still. I rarely bump into anyone, but if I do it’s another actor- doing the same thing.”

He shys away from the heart-throb label when I ask what it is like to have been one, but now to be on the other side of it. “No, no, no. I wouldn’t say I was a hearthrob or enjoyed anything like that anyway. I liked being successful, but I wouldn’t say I liked the attention. Some people love it, but I was always someone who shyed away from it really. My ambition was to have a pop hit- not to be a heartthrob.” Luckily for him both happened.

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It seems he took it all in his stride, and still does now- even fending off critcism from the sometimes one-man theatre show he has been in the past. “Critics get a bit funny when you produce direct and act in something, they think it’s a little bit indulgent.” he says. “I felt I could play the part of Stephen Ward in Keeler, but sometimes you look in the mirror and you think you’re a little bit over the hill love. That’s what happened this time.”

A Tale of Two Cities runs at the Charing Cross Theatre from April 5 to May 12