Here’s a recent interview I did with the very lovely actor and singer Paul Nicholas, who was in Bath last month performing at the Theatre Royal in the Agatha Christie play And Then There Were None. A little while back I had interviewed Paul via email for another project, but I wanted to do a fuller interview with him about his career in general and he was very happy to oblige when he was in town. I met him at the theatre stage door and he took me to the Society Cafe in Kingsmead Square for a coffee and a chat. Very nice it was too.
Aside from the fact that Paul is just really casual and easy to chat with, what I enjoyed most about this interview was the fact that he was refreshingly honest about what he enjoys about his career, which is doing things that people enjoy and that he feels he can do well. He’s had a long and varied career and shows no sign of slowing down now he’s getting older (he’ll be 70 later this year), but then why would he? He’s doing projects he enjoys right now – and lots of them too.
Just before the interview I had been given a copy of a French TV show Dim Dam Dom, featuring a behind the scenes report on the film Cannabis (dir Pierre Koralnik, 1970), which Paul had appeared in with Hero Culte favourites Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. I thought Paul might like to see the show, so I gave him a copy of it before starting the interview:
Hero Culte (HC): You’re playing double bass with Serge [Gainsbourg].
Paul Nicholas (PN): Really? I don’t remember any of that
HC: Yeah, it’s quite funny because he’s talking to the interviewer in French and you’re saying, “What are you saying? What are you saying?” and he says something like “I’m saying you’re my friend but you are a bad boy”
PN: He was very nice
HC: It’s just you two messing about together…
PN: Oh, great, well that will be nice to see – thank you
HC: It’s in black and white
PN: Yeah, well, aren’t we all? At least there’s sound!
HC: Yeah but you don’t say a lot, you’re being quiet
PN: I was quite shy…
HC: Also, they were just all talking in French
PN: Yeah, I didn’t… You know, the funny thing about that film was, I was supposed to learn French and I didn’t speak French. So we tried it and I didn’t know what the hell I was saying and my pronunciation was probably really bad. So we ended up [with Serge] speaking in French and me speaking in English. So we never quite knew when the other one had finished. Cos he didn’t speak very good English.
HC: (laughs) Anyway, I wanted to ask you how’s the play, And Then There Were None, going?
PN: It’s going very well actually. It’s sold out [in Bath], I think, pretty much. It sold out last week in Guildford. So we’re very happy with it. It’s probably [Agatha Christie’s] most famous novel, but it’s a real potboiler. You know, it’s good entertainment for the audience and they’re enjoying it. It’s good, solid entertainment and they kind of know what they’re going to get. They’re gonna get Agatha Christie, they’re hopefully gonna get actors who can do it, produced by a guy called Bill Kenwright [Hero Culte Note: Bill Kenwright was in the musical comedy Passion Flower Hotel with Jane Birkin] who has done loads of stuff over the years, so it’s a pretty bankable evening. Particularly when the prices of tickets are pretty expensive.
HC: It’s like a fulfilment thing, isn’t it? It’s that thing that you know there will be a resolution at the end of it and working your way through that.
HC: You might guess it, you might not.
PN: Exactly. So I think it ticks all the boxes for the audience. And for us, as performers, it’s great to go out and play to full houses, particularly with a play because we’ve all done plays where you’ve had only a few people in so to be involved in something that works is good.
HC: Do you prefer theatrical work to film?
PN: The thing about filming is it’s so bitty. You know, you might do two minutes a day or whatever. So it’s not very satisfying whilst you’re doing it.
HC: And it’s not always shot in chronological order, is it?
PN: No, so it’s not very satisfying. You know, when I was young I did a few bits and pieces film wise and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Now, of course, you’d give your left arm to be in a film and nobody wants you!
HC: You could be like Ian McShane and have a renaissance!
PN: Yeah, but the thing about Ian McShane is, he always had a career in America. Cos he went over quite young when he started to do well, and then he had a bit of a dip… In fact, I did a film with him called Yesterday’s Hero…
HC: I’ve seen it!
PN: Yeah, dreadful, isn’t it?
HC: It’s really enjoyable though.
PN: Is it? I’ve never seen it.
HC: I didn’t know if it was a vehicle for you and the lady singer, I can’t remember her name…
PN: It was Suzanne Somers, she was a big star in America with this show called… Three’s Company, which was a spin-off of Robin’s Nest that was here. So she was quite a big star… No, I don’t know what it was really, I think it was at the time when Elton John was involved in the Watford football club and so there was a kind of pop/football tie-up and that’s what the film was about, wasn’t it, basically?
HC: You know who I thought was terrible in it, and it’s a shame as I usually like him, Adam Faith. I thought he was just awful in it.
PN: He was playing a coach, wasn’t he?
HC: Yeah, and he was really vindictive. He had the sheepskin coat and everything.
Adam Faith – apparently he had cheek implants for the film to make him look like a cross between Joe Shishido and Tim Burgess, maybe…
PN: He was a very nice man. He was also in Stardust…
HC: Which you were in…
PN: …Which I was in, and he was better in that probably because it was about pop singers and he knew about that. I think, you know, with pop singers who don’t really have a lot of acting experience unless they’re real naturals you have to be careful about what you do as that kind of performer. Now, I started off as a rock ‘n’ roll piano player but I’d done quite a lot over the years and learned quite a lot, probably… I’m not sure that Adam did that much…
HC: He did Budgie!
PN: Yeah, he did Budgie and he was dead right for that, wasn’t he?
HC: Yes, he was.
PN: I mean, some things you’re right for and some things you’re not. But if you’ve not really done it a lot or if you’ve not been to Drama School, then it’s quite daunting to become an actor
HC: Did you go to drama school?
HC: When did you start? Quite young?
PN: I started playing piano for Screaming Lord Sutch – do you know who he is?
HC: I LOVE Screaming Lord Sutch! O my god!
PN: I was a Savage.
HC: Were you?!! [very excited]
PN: Yeah, Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. If you go on YouTube, in 1903, well, actually, it was 1962, the BBC when they first started they did a documentary on him called Sutch is Life, or something like that.
Hero Culte Note: It seems to be called Screamin’ Lord Sutch and it was, apparently, from 1965. You can watch about half an hour of it here
PN: And it was a one hour show but if you go on YouTube you can see bits of it and you can see me as a 17-year-old playing the piano for him. So he used to do this thing called Jack the Ripper, it was a terrible act…
HC: Did he have his Tarzan outfit on?
PN: No, we used to wear those…
Back of Joe Meek’s head – recording in the studio
HC: I’ve got a French TV show with Screaming Lord Sutch and he’s wearing his Tarzan outfit and he looks *really* nice…
Hero Culte Note: You can see photos from it here
PN: Well, we used to wear those. The funny thing about him was, he used to have really long hair in 1962, before anyone had long hair, so his whole act was based on being a wild man. And if you look on YouTube you’ll see the opening number that we do, he couldn’t sing, but you’ll see he fires a gun at the audience and we all pretend to be frightened. It’s all a bit of an act, so from my point of view I then learnt that I enjoyed the fooling around and the dressing up much more than just playing the piano and singing. And so it wasn’t then until I managed to get into Hair, the musical, that I got to do a combination of drama and music…
HC: Were you wearing anything?
PN: I did! Yes, I was the only one who did wear something, cos I sang a song called Where Do I Go? and they all stood up around me and took their clothes off. But I didn’t have to cos I was singing. So for me, that was a real breakthrough, because that was that combination of music and drama which I’ve sort of been doing ever since. And it was while I was in that show that I got Cannabis.
HC: Yeah, I read that. But you were in Season of the Witch as well, weren’t you?
PN: I was, yeah, with Julie Driscoll.
HC: What’s she like?
PN: Well, she was a pop singer and she had a hit called Wheels on Fire and this guy, this BBC producer, wanted to do this show about two guys in Brighton who fall in love with the same girl. She was the girl, I was one of the guys and the other guy was Robert Powell. So we worked together, in fact I saw him the other day he came to see [the play] and he said to the director, “I haven’t seen this guy for 30 or 40 years” or whatever it was, but it’s not true I had seen him, erm… (laughs)
HC: He just forgot.
PN: Yeah, he forgot, I didn’t forget! Erm, yeah, so I did that and again I got that whilst I was in Hair – I think they were looking for a hippie type person…
HC: Buy you’ve played lots of bad boys – you’re a gangster in Cannabis, you were sadistic in Tommy, weren’t you?
PN: A little bit, yeah
HC: And then you were a psychotic killer in See No Evil and a granny killer in What Became of Jack and Jill?
See No Evil – Paul Nicholas trying to strangle Mia Farrow whilst she’s in the bath and getting his face squished!
Butter wouldn’t melt in What Happened to Jack & Jill? but the atmosphere was dead at Grandma’s party…
HC: Did you like playing bad boys?
PN: Yeah, well I have to say it’s easier to play a bad boy than it is to make people laugh. It’s much easier. But, erm, yeah I did get a lot of bad boy roles but they were all slightly, I mean Cousin Kevin was slightly tongue in cheek. In fact, I’m directing that this year, Tommy.
HC: On the stage?
PN: Yeah, at the Blackpool Opera House with Joe McElderry playing Tommy. Do you know Joe McElderry
HC: Erm, was he in X Factor?
PN: Yeah, he’s a very good singer. Yeah, so I did play quite a few bad boys but what can I say?
HC: It’s a bit at odds with your pop star image in the 1970s though…
PN: Yeah, the reason I did that was when I started off as a rock ‘n’ roll piano player, and being in groups since I was about 16, the one thing you want to have is a hit record. And I never had a hit record and then I got into Hair and that career. But when I got a bit further down the road, in my late 20s, I thought I’d like to have a hit record. So I went out and looked for some songs and I eventually met these guys, who played all these songs, and they said they had this song Reggae Like It Used To Be, and I said, “Well, let’s hear it” and I said, I thought that sounded like a hit; a bubblegum sort of light song. And I went with Chris Neil, this bloke I’d been in Hair with, and he was becoming a producer, and we stuck my voice on their backing track, put a couple of strings on it, some vocal backing. I found a very good plugger who did plugging at the BBC, cos you need to get it played, and he then became my manager. And we had a hit. And then we had a few more because we came up with some sort of style, bubblegum sort of songs, because I couldn’t go on and be a heavy sort of rocker, could I?
Paul Nicholas – not a heavy rocker
HC: But what about Stranded in the Jungle? How did you get to that one? Were you a fan of the New York Dolls or P J Proby?
PN: I got a little pop show on ITV and I had to do things and that was a number I found, Stranded in the Jungle. When did the New York Dolls do that?
HC: Very early 70s…
PN: No, it’s an older song than that…
HC: The fifties… the Cadets?
PN: Something like that. I don’t know, but I knew of the song and I had a friend who used to sing it to me. So I looked it up and did it on that little show that I had.
HC: It’s great!
PN: Yeah! (laughs)
HC: I have to tell you, I bet everyone says this to you… when I told my friends I was interviewing you they were all really jealous, you know why?
PN: Yeah, but that was fifty years ago and I’m not like that anymore! Well, that was a good show for me.
HC: Do you mind that people mainly remember you for Just Good Friends?
PN: No, no, no. Not at all, I mean, you’re glad that anyone remembers you for anything. Basically, the great thing about this business is that you don’t quite know what’s coming around the corner. What happened was, I made a bit of money as a pop singer and I went to live in America for a year and when I came back I didn’t really have any work, but I got one TV show. It was a play with Judy Cornwell called A Little Rococo and I played an antique dealer on the telly who had an antique shop and this older lady came in, she had children and everything, I was this younger guy and we had a sort of love affair. And, er, blah blah blah. And that was the only thing I did but also Andrew Lloyd Webber called me about doing a show called Cats. But the good thing about the TV show was that John Sullivan, who wrote Only Fools and Horses and lots of other shows, saw me in it. And he got me in to audition with Jan [Francis] for Just Good Friends, which was very brave of him but interestingly because when you establish yourself as a pop singer, which was sort of the freshest thing in people’s minds, they’re not going to think of you as an actor in a sitcom. Not really, not in the 70s they weren’t. But he did, which was great. But, mind you, he had seen me act in A Little Rococo. So I went along and I met him, I met Jan Francis and I met Ray Butt, who’s the director. And we both spoke to them, we both read a bit. And they thought it would be a good idea to do the pilot. So we did the pilot and then it was shown to John Howard Davies. John Howard Davis was the original Oliver Twist in the original movie, he’s the one who goes up and says “Can I have more?”, in the black and white movie. The one that I think Carol Reed did.
Hero Culte Note: It was actually David Lean who directed it
PN: But he [John Howard Davies] then became the head of comedy and he wasn’t sure about me, he thought I was a pop singer and he wasn’t sure I’d be able to sustain it. So, Ray Butt who was the director, ran a very scientific test to see if people liked me. He showed it to 5 secretaries (laughs) and they came up and they said, “We think he’s right”. And we did the show and it became pretty much an instant success. And that was it really.
HC: There weren’t as many episodes as I thought there were…
PN: No, there was only 21, I think, and a couple of specials.
HC: Anyway, we all loved it – women of a certain age (myself included) in particular remember it with fondness! But what about music, cos you were in lots of musicals but also musical films too? It obviously means a lot to you, music? Do you enjoy doing that type of work more?
PN: Not particularly.
HC: No? (surprised)
PN: To be honest with you, the only thing I’m interested in terms of what I enjoy – for me the thing is, can I do it? can I do it okay? and does anyone like it? So I don’t care if it’s being in Tommy or if it’s doing teenybopper hit singles that people like. It doesn’t matter to me. The problem is, for me as a performer, if people aren’t quite sure what you are then they don’t take you seriously. Because they can’t quite work it out or because they think, “He’s not serious in that”. Which is true because I’m not really serious about anything.
HC: Which is a good way to be!
PN: Well, I am in that I take my work seriously but I can’t get locked into one thing. There’s nothing wrong with having a good bubblegum hit record if people like it. There’s nothing wrong with being a killer in an Agatha Christie if people like it. And it’s, of its kind, good. I mean, those records that I made weren’t musically groundbreaking or anything but they had an appeal and they were something that people liked to listen to. For a limited amount of time. And the public are never wrong. To be honest with you, I do think there’s a bit too much snobbery with music. Why can’t you love everything?
HC: A bit of everything, yeah? But not everything.
PN: Yeah, well, you don’t have to love everything but what I’m saying is you should be open-minded enough to listen. I mean, I’m not crazy about classical music to be honest with you, there are bits that I like. But a lot of classical music is like an arrangement in search of a tune if you ask me.
HC; Too many notes!
PN: Too much orchestration, where’s the tune? They have to embroider it cos the tune’s not very good.
HC: Were you in any other bands?
PN: Yeah, I had my own band but we were basically a covers band. So what was ever working at the time…
HC: And that ties in with you wanting to do things that people like…
PN: Yeah, but you know it was boring because all you were doing is replicating what was out there and it wasn’t particularly interesting. In those early days most of the really great bands were in the North, like the Beatles, the Hollies, most of them. Down in the South, there was…
HC: The Troggs!
PN: Yeah, but they were later, weren’t they? Are they from down here?
HC: Yeah, Andover
PN: Yeah, but they were later. I’m talking about 1961, 1962. So the only really decent band that I can think of, other than people like Chris Farlowe, John Mayall, people like that, there was this band that I really liked called Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers. They were a great band, they had a saxophone, they were really good, but again they were a covers band. But they were doing rhythm & blues. A lot of bands in the South in the early 60s were doing covers of Cliff Richard or Presley, but the guys in the North like the Beatles and the Merseybeats were writing their own stuff, which Southern bands didn’t tend to do. And then later came bands like the Who – I worked with the Who when I was on a package tour. You had these package tours where you had the Who, and I played piano for Del Shannon, my band backed Del Shannon. You know that song Runaway?
PN: So you know the song I mean (hums the keyboard line), well, I used to do that and I used to screw it up every night and poor old Del used to turn around and look at me (laughs). So I knew the Who, and Keith Moon, for example – when I had my band in North London, he used to come and see my band. And then I saw his band, which was the Who, playing at a place called the Railway Tavern in Harrow, and they were just very special. They wrote their own songs, visually they were very interesting, they were very of the time. And Townsend was great, and Daltrey was great. And they were really a great antidote to those Northern bands. So I sort of went through all that but we were not good enough, basically, we weren’t interesting enough. So when Sutch came along, for me, that was an interesting thing because, well, you’ll see it [in the documentary]. I mean, it’s not great but you have to remember that I’m only 17 at the time, so it was great fun.
HC: Can I ask you about Stardust? Did you enjoy working on that?
PN: Yeah, that was produced by David Puttnam who then, I think, produced this film called Lisztomania after Tommy. Have you seen Lisztomania?
HC: Yeah, it’s mad!
Paul Nicholas as Wagner (Hitler!) in Lisztomania – Mad Max Fury Road eat your heart out!
PN: I think Ken Russell gave up on it half way through (laughs) but Stardust I don’t remember much about it, except I wasn’t in it for very long cos I was the flash lead singer or I wanted to be the lead singer but pissed the rest of the band off. And I suppose that was quite true to life. It was directed by Michael Apted, who did quite a lot of stuff thereafter. But I knew David [Essex] prior to that film and I knew Keith [Moon] prior to that film. I remember one very funny incident on that film was because Keith was always meant to have a slightly bigger part in the film; I don’t know, but he and the writer who was called Ray Connolly, a pop writer, a nice guy. We were filming at the Belle Vue in Manchester where Jimmy Savile started, I think…
PN: Yeah! And Keith and Ray had not really got on very well and I think it was something to do perhaps, I don’t know, I’m surmising, that Keith wasn’t exactly happy with his part. So it was bubbling and bubbling and they began to have a row. And they began to, you know… [gestures fisticuffs] and the makeup guy is standing up and going [adopting camp voice], “Don’t hit his face! Don’t hit his face!”, cos he was worried about the continuity. It was just so funny, “Don’t hit his face! Punch him in the stomach but not his face!” So, other than that I don’t really remember much about it. I had known David for years and for David that was really the height of his fame, because the film he did prior to that, which was called That’ll Be The Day, when he was doing that film he got to number one with Rock On in America, which was a great record. So it was all great for him. But I got thrown out very early by Adam Faith! He said to me, his line for getting rid of the band members was “Do you fancy a cup of tea?”, which was the line he said and so I got a cup of tea quite early on in the movie.
HC: What about Three for All?
PN: Well, don’t even talk about that!
HC: (laughs) You don’t like it?
PN: I’ve never seen it. Don’t we put paint on our faces or something? Is it alright?
HC: Yeah, I mean it’s kitschy, you know…
PN: Daft! Adrienne Posta’s in it.
HC: Yeah, she was lovely.
PN: She’s good, very good.
HC: Oh, Richard Beckinsale, I had such a crush on him!
PN: Yeah, he was in it. Wasn’t he the manager or something?
HC: No, wasn’t he Jet Bone or something?
PN: [laughs] Robert Lindsay was in it.
HC: Was Arthur Mullard in it? Or am I making that up?
PN: I think he might have been in it. Yeah, I think he was in it. I did something once with Diana Dors playing my mother, was it that film? I think she was my mother in it, which was a bit of a coup for me because she was a bit of an icon for me, growing up, Diana Dors.
HC: Yeah, but I think she was going through that phase of doing anything – you know, “Have you got any films for me?”
PN: Yeah, but she was a nice woman, I remember.
HC: Everyone says that. What about working with Ken Russell? What was he like?
PN: I think Ken Russell started life as a cameraman as a stills photographer, I think, so he did all those early films for BBC on those composers, all of which were very visual and very interesting. I think the great thing about Ken Russell was that he… I watched Tommy the other day and I suppose I don’t want to slag him off because he was a good director in a way but he was very good at the visual, he knew what he wanted visually, but I’m not sure how good he was at the beginning, the middle and the end bit.
HC: That doesn’t matter in film! But I know what you’re saying, it makes it easier for the viewer if there is a beginning, a middle and an end!
PN: If you can follow the story (laughs), sometimes people want that.
HC: I sometimes like films where you don’t know what’s going off!
PN: Yeah, well that’s good too. So he was very good in that sense and I think the film did quite well, but then we went on to Lisztomania and he’d done many, many more [films about composers] prior to that, a little less off the wall, you know, a little more arty than Lisztomania, but he was on a roll with Roger [Daltrey], I think, and I’d done alright as Cousin Kevin. But truthfully I think, and I don’t really know, but I think he was better at the visuals than telling the story. And if he wrote it himself, probably his imagination took over a little bit too much. Cos for some people you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end.
HC: Yeah, that’s not going to appeal to everybody.
PN: No, if it’s just a series of images, exactly. So, the version of Tommy that I’m doing is a version that was done in conjunction with Pete Townshend and a guy called Des McAnuff, and he has given it a beginning, a middle and an end so it makes a little bit more sense to an audience. It was done on Broadway, and it was done at the Shaftesbury in the 90s.
HC: And when is that starting?
PN: That starts in September. It’s a three week run in Blackpool at the Opera House, which is a very big venue, and the producer wants to see if anyone comes, cos you never know.
HC: What happened with your glam rock musical Blockbuster? We never got to see it cos I don’t think it made it over here…
PN: I did it, it wasn’t too badly received but nobody came. Well, I wanted to try it out in three venues, but it wasn’t very fair on the musical because we did it just after the kids went back [to school] and that’s a difficult time in the theatre. We went to Dartford and we went to Birmingham and we went to Croydon. We needn’t have bothered about Croydon. And, to be honest with you, they didn’t come enough so you’d be worried about putting it on for 25 weeks or whatever. The thing is, in this day and age there are so many great would-be West End shows out on the road that in order to compete, it’s quite difficult. I mean, I think they just did Saturday Night Fever here, didn’t they, a few weeks ago? And I produced that with Robert Stigwood and David Ian in 2000. Even shows like that with a bigger name might find it a bit difficult. And with a brand new show… but it wasn’t a bad show, we had all those songs from the seventies. Great songs, great songs written by Chinn and Chapman.
HC: That would have been excellent. Can I ask you about something, you might not remember this – there was a German film you were in, or supposedly in…
PN: Was that Alice and the thingummybob?
HC: No, it was called Feminine Carnivores
PN: It was called what?
HC: Feminine Carnivores
PN: It wasn’t me
HC: Die Weibchen? It was filmed in Czechoslovakia. You’re credited on IMDb but I couldn’t actually see you in the film…
PN: You didn’t see me in it then?
PN: Well, I’m not in it, that’s why!
HC: It says you are on IMDb…
PN: Maybe it’s another Paul Nicholas?
HC: Well, that explains why I couldn’t see you in it but it’s a shame as it was a very stylish film. But was it you who did the music for Adventures of a Private Eye?
PN: Yes. I did it with Chris Neil, I think. We wrote the theme song
HC: It was very good, a bit glammy. I want to ask you about something else as well – did you work with Michel Polnareff on The Three Musketeers soundtrack? [I show him this from the CD Le Cinéma De Michel Polnareff ]
PN: Oh yes, Annie Fargue, my darling Annie Fargue.
Hero Culte Note: Annie Fargue was Michel Polnareff’s manager and at one point also his girlfriend
HC: She died a couple of years ago, didn’t she?
PN: Yes, she did. She was a lovely woman. Are there any pictures of her in there?
HC: No, I don’t think so, but it says this about you working on The Three Musketeers. Was it you?
PN: No, a different Paul Nicholas.
HC: But it sounds just like you. It does really sound like you.
PN: Hang on, let me have a look at that… I know Patrick Wachsberger… Patrick Wachsberger was the son of the guy who produced Cannabis…
HC: Is his name Nat Wachsberger? [total geek, I know…]
PN: Something like that, yeah… [reading the booklet] Well, maybe I have done it and forgotten. But I have no memory of that, but I know Patrick Wachsberger, I remember him, he was a young guy.
HC: But did you know Polnareff?
HC: You’ve never met him?
HC: Because I think he used to go out with Annie Fargue…
PN: Yeah, he did, didn’t he? But that was later though, I knew Annie quite well…
HC: Cos she took Hair over to France, didn’t she?
PN: Yeah, that was when I first met her but then I later met her because she was a very good friend of Robert Stigwood. And I went on holiday with her and things like that, so I knew her really well and I had dinner many times with her and Robert. And the last time I saw Annie I think was when I was doing Saturday Night Fever at the Palladium. Something like 15 years ago. And then I read she died; I sent her some flowers. That probably is me, then. Because the time makes sense, maybe they got me to do it and I can’t remember. What is it, one song?
HC: No, I think it’s throughout the film, but there’s a really great song which I think is on this CD – yeah, it is – it’s called Wake Up, It’s A Lovely Day.
PN: I don’t remember it at all.
HC: It’s so catchy. It does sound like you.
PN: It probably is then. No, it must be because of Patrick Wachsberger. He produced it and he probably said, “Why don’t you sing that?” and I’ve done it.
HC: Just gone in, done it and forgotten about it…
PN: Yeah, exactly.
HC: That’s excellent cos I’m a really big fan of Polnareff. But going back to Cannabis, which you just mentioned, how did you end up being cast in a French film?
PN: Cos my old man was a showbusiness lawyer and his name was Oscar Beuselinck and he was a friend of Nat Wachsberger – and I guess they must have been talking and he must have said, “My son’s in this, blah blah blah…” and I just went over there [to France].
HC: On the DVD there’s an extra, an interview with Jane Birkin and the director Pierre Koralnik. In the interview Jane says that Serge thought you were really handsome.
PN: Well, apparently, it’s funny you should say that cos some guy who was a musicologist – if there’s such a word – a French guy, came to visit me at some point two or three years ago because he was kind of doing a roundup of all Serge’s songs and he said he wrote a song called Paul and he said, “Was that based on you?”
HC: Is that an unreleased track from the soundtrack to Cannabis maybe? But he has a son called Paul…
PN: Well, I said I didn’t think Serge would write a song about me, but he was trying to track down the reason…
HC: Okay, well, that’s interesting… But the thing about Serge was because he always thought he was ugly…
PN: Did he?
HC: Yeah, because of his ears and his nose and he wasn’t what people thought of as conventionally handsome but, you know, I think he was… but because of that he did have ideals of male beauty, like Robert Taylor and Alain Delon and so on… And he obviously thought you were handsome…
PN: Yeah, yeah… I was very light on my feet, I noticed. Carmen, my daughter, said, “Look at you, skipping down there…”, it was funny because I had a look the other day at the opening shots of Cannabis and we come out and there all these dead bodies and all these women lying there with no clothes on. And we couldn’t keep a straight face cos if we looked down we could see all these women, you know…
HC: There are some really stylish scenes in Cannabis, but for me it’s a little disappointing after seeing Anna – which is a musical comedy film Serge did with Koralnik – and that was pure style, pop art, great music, the beautiful Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy. And then there’s Cannabis, which is just not as stylish and accomplished as Anna…
PN: I think they were going for a commercial American style gangster crossover thing…
HC: And it was made to order as well…
PN: It was a bit sort of… it didn’t feel that good.
HC: No. But it had its moments.
PN: But for me, you see I’d never done a film before so it was a learning process for me.
HC: Was there a lot of hanging around? It looks like it from that behind-the-scenes thing… you know, with all the ballet dancers, where you’ve gone off to that place that’s a bit like the Albert Hall…
PN: I don’t remember it…
HC: You’ll see it on the DVD, but you were mad in that film – you went up onto the top of the roof and you were running across the roof…
PN: Oh, I remember that, that was on the top of the Paris Opéra. Wasn’t there a fight or someone was chasing me?
HC: I think you killed the ballet director, maybe, cos he was one of the guys behind the drugs gang?
PN: I don’t know what it’s about even…
HC: It was a very strange film in that you’re trying to work out what it’s supposed to be – if it was re-edited maybe…
PN: It could be better. Yeah.
HC: There was some strange thing going off which I couldn’t really work out, they kept going on about the blind people, I think there was a gang of blind people somehow involved in all of the drugs smuggling, I don’t know…
PN: I think some of it got lost in the translation…
HC: I think it might have done! It was very surreal. Talking of which, do you remember that you had to go around barking like a dog?!
PN: No, in that film?
HC: Yeah, you just got down on all fours in the middle of the night because you were jealous of Serge and Jane when they were off together…
HC: Yeah, and you’re in the other room, fed up because you think he should be paying you attention instead of Jane. So you just start barking like a dog!
PN: That was probably Pierre Koralnik’s nod towards art
HC: No, that was you being crazy!
We start chit chatting about other stuff, about where the Agatha Christie play is going next – And Then There Were None is currently touring, then Paul leaves in July to go and do Tommy in Blackpool before returning to do And Then There Were None for another 7 weeks. At the end of the year he will be appearing as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. We round off the interview with this:
PN: So I met David Ian (who’s just produced Gypsy, which just opened last night or the night before) on a show called Pirates of Penzance. And we formed a company and the first thing we produced was Jesus Christ Superstar cos I did that in 1972, so we did a 25th anniversary concert with me in it and this was about 20 or 30 years ago when we did this now. And then we went on and did things like Saturday Night Fever… The film you didn’t mention was Sergeant Pepper[‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band]
HC: I haven’t seen that one, is it good?
PN: It was produced by Robert Stigwood, it had the Bee Gees, and the music was done by George Martin who worked with the Beatles, and it was pretty much hailed as a disaster. (laughs) I haven’t seen it either.
HC: I’m going to watch it now!
PN: But that was great cos I was working with people like George Burns, and working with George Martin, the Bee Gees I knew anyway, cos years ago I did a record that they sing on, one of their songs called Holiday. And they sing backing vocals to my crappy lead vocal. So, anyway, we did the Saturday Night Fever thing, we put that together.
HC; You obviously have a strong connection to Robert Stigwood?
PN: Yeah, cos when I started off quite young I did a few early records with him – one of which was written by David Bowie called Over the Wall We Go. And I was called Oscar. You can look that one up, it was banned by the BBC cos it was taking the piss; at that time there were a lot of prison breaks so Bowie wrote this song (and in those days he wasn’t called David Bowie, he was called David Jones). He was doing the mime, I remember, he was learning all the mime stuff. But he was quite a serious guy; he and I were quite different in that sense but he wrote that song, I recorded it and he’s on it as well. He says something in the middle of it; it’s a comedy song. I think we did the Ken Dodd Show on TV, as Oscar.
I also did a song by Pete Townshend at that time, called Join My Gang, which is very, very rare. It wasn’t a hit but I think it scraped into the bottom of the Radio London Top 40 or something. They never recorded it either. So I had a little association with the Who at that point but prior to that I’d already done that tour with them, with my band doing the backing for Del Shannon. And Herman’s Hermits and all those people.
HC: I’m going to look these songs up – but I really want to see that Sutch documentary!
PN: Well, you’ll see me as a 17-year-old dressed in a leopard skin!
Well, I’m not sure how old he was, but I definitely saw him dressed in a leopard skin – look at this lovely photo shamelessly stolen from Ronnie Harwood’s website, which you can find here
I had spent a lovely hour chatting with Paul Nicholas, learnt a lot of surprising stuff about his musical career (although afterwards all my friends claimed to have known he was in The Savages, I’m pretty sure they didn’t as not one person mentioned it to me when I said I was interviewing him!) and I finished off by taking a few photographs:
I did one “arty farty” one as Paul called it – I took a double exposure and also shot using the bulb mode, but the result just looks a bit odd, look:
Also, notice in the shot of Paul outside the theatre that everything is in focus except his face (a bit like Robin Williams when he was out of focus in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry!) – how did I even manage that?! Unlike Ken Russell, I can’t get me visuals right!
And Paul took this one of us together as well – a few of my friends were very jealous…
Later that evening I went to see And Then There Were None. It was very entertaining, Paul was excellent in it as were the rest of the cast (including Susan Penhaligon, Frazer Hines and Mark Curry) but the one who I was very pleasantly surprised by was Emmerdale‘s Verity Rushworth, who was just fabulous. If you get a chance to catch And Then There Were None whilst it’s on tour, definitely do as it makes for a very enjoyable evening. It’s next in Richmond from 26 May 2015 but the rest of the tour dates can be found here.
Thanks very much to Paul Nicholas for taking the time out to do this interview with me.