“I used to scrump apples in the grounds here here,” says Jim Dale, smiling that boyish smile as we sit for our interview in a grand medieval manor house. Now a country house hotel it used to be a school when he was a boy in the 1940s. It’s a remarkable journey.
We think of Jim Dale as the young handsome one from the Carry On films, or if you’ve followed his subsequent career, as an award winning Broadway actor notably in Barnum. But before those films he was a huge pop star in the 1950s. And before that, he was a school leaver from Rothwell in Northamptonshire who turned up for work at a rundown, dark and depressing shoe factory in Corby with a view of a brick wall and realised he couldn’t bear it.
Dale told the story on the opening night of his one man show in Corby, ahead of its current West End London run. The audience was full of people of his generation, including some who’d known him at school. Though he told the story with humour it was clear what a disheartening experience that first day in the factory must have been. Dale had a passion for comedy, and had already worked in music hall as a child so, remarkably, he quit that very day and went back on the stage.
Overnight before our interview Dale had been reflecting with modesty, on how many in the audience had been those who’d stayed. He felt maybe he shouldn’t have been so frank about how much he hated the factory. I sensed a real awareness – a humility even – in being the one who got away.
The Britain of the 1950s was changing and working class boys had new avenues in music and mass entertainment. In London on the BBC’s new show for teenagers the Six Five Special, Jim Dale got work as a warm up comic. When producers saw he could sing and write his own songs they transformed him into a popstar who got mobbed by screaming teenage girls.
In Basildon – a postwar new town – 20 years later a different band of talented hopefuls were seeking a similar escape, with Top of The Pops in the place of the Six-Five Special, but offering the same outlet for teenage dreams. When I went to Basildon to cover the General Election count (it was sitting in 2 Ukip target seats) I realised how excited I was to finally have made it to the hometown of Depeche Mode. I can still remember seeing my first picture of them posing by the town sign on the bypass in my issue of Jackie. That’s the power of popstars on teenagers for you. Now the town looks like the wreck of a future world. All those roundabouts and crumbling mosaics on the modernist concrete shopping centres. Like Dale, Dave Gahan could have had an alternative small town life. He failed to get a job as an apprentice fitter with British Gas because he was honest about his juvenile criminal record. But after art college and with his bandmates he was to achieved great fame and success. Like Dale he settled in America where, despite some serious lows in his life along the way – Gahan finds himself a man who built a career out of doing what he loves, still producing acclaimed album after album.
Two days after the General Election I found myself brooding over Basildon and Jim Dale and what had happened to that escape route when I met the former NME journalist Paul Morley, who’d covered those glorious musical years of the late 1970s and early 1980s when Depeche Mode were starting out. Morley felt that pop music had become complacent and colonized by the powerful. The idea of it as an outlet for working class dissent had gone. I don’t think that was just about David Cameron choosing The Jam’s Eton Rifles for his Desert Island Discs though. More and more I wonder if pop music was always as much a trap for its stars as a potential escape route.
Jim Dale quit pop music after 3 years, describing it with real vehemence as “a sort of hell”. Not least because he’d been forced to keep his wife and family secret and hounded by the tabloid press. You can hear him talk about it in our Front Row interview. Talented art student Cynthia Lennon was to experience that horror too, trapped and forever defined by her broken marriage to a Beatle who treated her with cruelty as his fame grew.
Perhaps I’ve really been brooding on the strange business of success. And how ill prepared we are for its consequences.
This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine. On sale from street vendors or you can get a subscriptions here.