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Billy Elliot special

Published 17 April 2008

Christmas is a time to bring families together, to bring different generations into the same room and to spread good cheer. With that in mind Matthew Amer headed to the Victoria Palace to talk to two members at either end of the Billy Elliot family, original cast member Ann Emery (who plays the oldest Elliot, Grandma) and newest recruit Josh Fedrick (who plays the youngest, Billy).

Ann Emery is like a never-ending bottle of champagne; she opens with a bang, bubbles delightfully forever and always lifts the spirits. Everyone she meets backstage at the Victoria Palace greets her with a smile or leaves her with a grin spreading across their face. The septuagenarian performer is the epitome of an old vaudevillian pro; convivial, bright-eyed and with more stories to tell than Santa has presents in his sack.

“I like to think I remind him of his grandma,” she says of Elton John, the multi-millionaire pop star behind Billy Elliot’s music. Emery can’t say enough good things about the musician with a reputation for being temperamental. Her descriptions of the man are almost the polar opposite of his media representation. She tells of bottles of champagne bought for the entire company – “Laurent Perrier, only the best” – and a man who makes time to pop in and see his show.

On one particular occasion, she shares gleefully, she was sitting behind him in the audience, when she decided to pop over to him and say: “Hello Elton, darling, it’s Grandma, I recognise you from the back.” His response: “‘A lot of people say that to me!’ Bit naughty,” she laughs.

Emery is just as effusive about her newest Billy, 13-year-old Josh Fedrick. “He’s just wonderful,” she says, “He’s like the best of all the Billys rolled into one. He’s sparky, lovely with his acting, he can be aggressive; it’s all there.”

If Fedrick had been in the room with us at this point, he might have been embarrassed by the compliments being lavished upon him. However, he is instead flying round the Victoria Palace stage, rehearsing the Billy Elliot dream sequence. When he does arrive, he is equally complimentary about his co-star: “It’s absolutely wonderful [to work with Emery],” he says, the soft twang of his voice betraying his Cornwallian roots, “She is brilliant.”

“I get this rapport right from the word go,” Emery continues. “It is very tricky to sit there with this old girl singing and look interested after about the 14th time.” I imagine it is slightly easier when the “old girl” in question is Emery, as it is highly likely that she will be going out of her way to make it as comfortable and easy as possible. Even during the interview she is worrying about other people; offering drinks, apologising for only having water – she likes a drop of red wine, but only after a performance – and stopping people from sitting on the camp bed she has set up in her dressing room. From the description she gives of this particular piece of furniture, sitting on it in the wrong fashion could lead to all manner of grissly injuries.

The bed, for Emery, is a bit of a necessity. It is not easy performing eight shows a week when you are nearing 80 years old, over 60 of which have been spent high-kicking and dancing your way through chorus lines. She admits to using the bed on matinee days, having a lie down between shows, but actually doesn’t have too much trouble during each performance. Grandma spends a lot of time off stage and doesn’t fly, pirouette or back flip as much as Billy. This is reportedly one of the reasons Anne Rogers, who was originally scheduled to play Grandma, left the production while it was still rehearsing; Grandma’s stage time was cut to reduce the length of the show. When Emery was cast, Rogers’s leaving letter was still pinned up at the stage door.

"I went to physio to get the knees pummelled into action again"

It was an awkward situation, but the company rallied round Emery and she quickly relaxed as she fell in love with the part. Yet before she took the role in Billy Elliot, Emery had injured herself and been unwell for a couple of years. “I went to physio to get the knees pummelled into action again,” she says as matter-of-factly as a professional sportsman at the peak of their game, not a performer in their late 70s.

The legs which were pummelled are the same legs which, when Emery was less of an “old hoofer” – as she refers to herself now – were so good at tap dancing that she coached Wayne Sleep in the discipline. “I used to work anywhere he wanted me to work,” she exclaims with joy, “because I was so in awe of him.” The pair worked together in Cats, when Sleep was playing Mr Mistoffelees and Emery was the Gumbi Cat. This itself led to trouble when they were practising on the New London’s beautifully painted stage and were caught by the show’s creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was less than impressed with their stage-scuffing antics.

While dancing is central to Emery’s career, Fedrick found his way into the art form by accident. The former gymnast – “It’s sort of like dancing” – only tried dancing to appease a family member. “I didn’t really want to dance,” he explains, “but my cousin wanted to do it, so I went with her and I really liked it so I carried on.” It is lucky he did, as his natural talent saw him take to dance very quickly, and when news of Billy Elliot auditions ciruclated, his teacher put him forward.

"I didn’t want to do ballet because I didn’t want to wear tights"

He describes himself as a “street dance Billy”; his choreography is different to that of the ballet Billys, with more flips and spins thrown in for acrobatic effect. Fedrick says it is not that he doesn’t like the more classical form of dance, “it’s just I’m better at street than ballet”. It is a different attitude to when he first started: “I didn’t want to do ballet because I didn’t want to wear tights,” he laughs.

While Fedrick talks with Emery and me, his chaperone is ever present in the room. This is, of course, only right and in the best interest of all child performers, but it was not the case when Emery started out 60 years ago. “Isn’t it a shame,” she says regretfully, mourning a lost age, “it’s not innocent anymore?” And though Emery still loves the industry she works in, and happily points out the areas it has improved, there is a sense of loss hiding behind some of what she says.

“Dear old rambling old England,” she reminisces, “and the radio, Round The Horn and funny comedians. Dick [Emery her half-brother] was one of the funniest men. That’s old fashioned now. Styles have changed. You get the Jack Dees; very good, but it’s a different sense of fun. Bound to happen, darling; 50, 60 years and, you know, times change, tastes change. It is, I think, a changing world. As I say about the Spice Girls and pop groups and people like that, they spring up, all they’ve got to do is have the most gorgeous faces and figures…”

Though I haven’t had the pleasure of perusing the collected CVs of the founders of Girl Power, I am more than willing to bet that, unlike Emery’s, none of them include proficiency with the castanets. “I bought them for a pound in Spain, God knows how many years ago” she says, explaining how she came to be an expert and performing the requisite flamboyant actions to go with such musical instruments, “and they sound wonderful. Somebody made me little covers because you’re meant to keep them warm. If the wood is warm they sound better.” And though she doesn’t have her pair with her today, I am promised a performance if I give her advanced warning in the future.

Sharing a room with performers who are two, maybe three, generations apart, I wonder whether Fedrick, inspired by Emery and his time in Billy Elliot, will go on to have a long and fruitful performing career. Will he be able to say of co-workers, as Emery does of Billy Elliot choreographer Peter Darling: “I worked with his father, Ted Darling, who was a lovely singer.” Will he have friends on the other side of the world enquiring as to whether he will open a new production in Australia or on Broadway, as Emery does? Will he have 60 years of stories about a changing industry to tell? If Emery’s faith in him is founded, it is entirely possible he will. Only time will tell. em>MA

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