Known for his many roles on stage and screen – including Jerry Hopkins in Coronation Street and Bob Saunders in the Pet Shop Boys’ musical, Closer to Heaven, Ken was most recently seen as Jamie’s Dad in the multi award-winning West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. His time in the musical also saw him cover the role of Hugo/Loco Chanelle. We caught up with Ken to find out about his experience in the hit musical and what it’s like always being the villain.
What did you enjoy most about playing Jamie’s Dad in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie?
Gosh, that’s a tough one! It’s hard to enjoy being someone so unpleasant. Although I did genuinely enjoy the boos from the crowd! We all love to hate the bad guy! The rousing finale of ETAJ is such a cathartic experience and really joyous – and people wanted to boo and hiss such a horrible man – so that made me smile every day.
What initially drew you to the role?
I auditioned for the part of Hugo/Loco, during the early workshops back in Sheffield, but I was not a part of its first, short run. It wasn’t until the show then transferred to the West End that cover roles also had to be considered – so casting me as Dad and Hugo cover made perfect sense.
Had you watched Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 before being cast and if you have seen it, what are your thoughts on the documentary?
I hadn’t watched it before we began rehearsals, but I did soon after. And I loved it! I just felt so bad that Jamie’s real dad wanted no part of it all. It was tough viewing – but the grit and love from Jamie’s mum, Margaret – and Jamie’s pride and determination were so inspiring.
The musical is about a sixteen-year-old boy who wants to attend prom in a dress, how difficult was it playing a character with the frame of mind who felt ‘disgusted’ about his son?
Yes, Jamie’s Dad is a brute, but sadly these men do exist, and I’ve come across his type of bigotry before. He’s lacking understanding and obviously has his own issues. Plus, his anger comes from ignorance. You have to try and understand these people if you want to portray them authentically. Jamie reminds him of all his personal failings.
What was it like covering Hugo and Loco Chanelle?
I had an amazing time. Hugo is an incredible, lovable role – and I was thrilled every time I stepped out in those heels. Plus, I got the chance to sing those fabulous songs! And to enjoy the coarse Northern humour in Jamie, which was such a blast. Becoming Loco was my first experience of doing drag, so there has been a steep learning curve – wearing false eyelashes is a fine art in itself! I’d also never covered a role before so that was all new ground for me.
Why do you think the musical became such a hit?
Many magic ingredients have made Jamie a success. Brilliant songs, and a brilliant, funny book. Ultimately its message is one of hope, determination and self-love – and that’s something we all want to be a part of.
Have you performed in a show like Jamie previously?
There is no other show quite like Jamie, so no! Although a couple of years ago I played another unsavoury character, Bob Saunders, in Jonathan Harvey’s brilliant musical, Closer to Heaven. It had songs written by the Pet Shop Boys, who were great fun to work with, and the show had a similar pop vibe to it – though the themes were somewhat more adult, let’s say.
📷 : Darren Bell
How did you get started in the industry and what role came first?
I trained at a very ‘serious’ drama school, called Drama Centre, London – which focused on the European Classical Tradition. Musical theatre was barely part of the training, but we had a couple of inspired teachers, who were enormous Sondheim fans. They pushed me to sing all his big songs and consolidated my love for the art form. My first ever job, however, was with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was part of the 1992/3 season. Back then contracts were often up to two years long. My first physical appearance on stage was actually as a dead body in a new Peter Whelan play! I was dragged on in a hessian bag and my head was pulled out. I was very convincing. It wasn’t until over twenty years later that I performed in my first musical, as the Reciter in Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, so that felt like a full circle moment.
You’ve had roles in a number of long-running TV shows, what are these like to appear in?
Most actors love long gigs on TV, for the security and the exposure. I’m no different. In one series I worked on the scripts were written as we were filming them – and the characters and storylines were adapted to suit us which was really exciting, whereas in a soap opera the storylines are planned up to six months in advance.
How different do you find stage roles to screen?
I have found theatre work to be much more demanding than film and TV work – it can feel like a 24 hour job, physically. You may have to work harder, being mindful of your voice, body, energy levels – keeping it all in good condition. Also, in theatre you also have the controls. Your work is what you choose to present. Screen work is more about conservation and concentration, extreme focus for short bursts – and hopefully hitting all the marks all at the same time. It’s equally difficult to master.
What’s it like doing voiceover work?
Great fun. Like all mediums it brings its own challenges, depending on the job. There’s often a lot of blood-curdling screams and shrieking involved when voicing video games – ‘effort’ sessions where you are mostly making battle cries and fighting effects, and these can be quite bizarre – but I also enjoy more traditional narration work, such as I voice a lot of the artefacts in the Permanent Collection at the British Museum, which is much more serious.
📷 : Elly Clarke
How did you find your final night in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie?
It was emotional, but in a good way. For sixteen months we had all been aboard the Jamie juggernaut and we were all very proud of how successful it had been, and still is. So saying goodbye to a wonderful group of people and such an amazing show was tinged with sadness. The audiences were so loyal and supportive and the goodbyes lasted for hours – it was a very special night.
Do you have a message for the Jamie fans?
Yes. They are the BEST! They really are. Many of my treasured memories from Jamie will be of meeting all the beautiful fans, laughing with them after the show – and getting to know them. Knowing how much the show resonated with people and the stories they told us elevated the whole experience for me. They are the best. No contest!
What are your plans now your time in Jamie has come to an end?
As I am still quite new to the Musical Theatre world, I would love to be in another big show. I’m working on some new non-musical scripts and developing a couple of projects with writers. I’ve worked as a director and dramaturg ever since I was in my twenties, so that’s keeping me stimulated. One thing I love about this profession is you never know what’s around the corner. It keeps it exciting and fresh.
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