The career of Cheryl Baker has been nothing if not varied. Starting as a session singer, Baker found fame as one quarter of British 80s popsters Bucks Fizz, who collected Eurovision glory on behalf of the UK in 1981. Since then she has gone on to present numerous television shows and become a panto queen. It is only now, though, that she is making her musical debut in Footloose The Musical (Novello), the stage adaptation of the iconic 80s film. Matthew Amer caught up with the singer, and hopes you are Making Your Mind Up (ouch!!) to read on…
It is a sure sign that a show must have a young cast when the oldest member of the company and crew is the perennially youthful Cheryl Baker. It’s just possible that a couple of the younger Footloose cast members were still a sequined sparkle in their parents’ eyes when Baker won Eurovision with Bucks Fizz, but it is hard to believe. The strange paradox of this is that, though in the minds of many she is still the skirt-losing pop starlet, Baker is actually a family-orientated 52-year-old mother of twins. At one of the final rehearsals before the West End opening of Footloose, where we meet while she takes a break, one of her daughters, Natalie, has come along to spend the day with Mum. She – Natalie, not Mum – has some outrageous trainer-roller skate hybrids that make me very jealous.
“I have to be home in the morning, so that as far as my kids are concerned, I’m there; I get them off to school and life is normal,” Baker explains. This is possibly the only moment during the time I spend with Baker that her excitement level drops and the sparkling smile slips from her face. Touring, a facet of her career that Baker wouldn’t have given a second thought to earlier in her life, now makes her exceptionally uncomfortable as it keeps her away from her children. “I flay myself. I just think I’m being a bad mother, and I am, because I should be with them; so I can’t tour any more unless I take them with me, which is very unlikely.” Though Footloose toured before transferring into the West End, every venue was within commuting distance of Baker’s Kent home; even the trip down to Southampton was made on a daily basis.
"I just think I’m being a bad mother."
It is not long before Baker is back to her recognisably chirpy self; the vivacious blonde we know from the television. “Everyone’s always called me ‘bubbly’ Cheryl Baker”, she says, in an effervescent manner. “I am like that. I love having a good laugh and I love being jolly. My husband tells me in the morning, to cheer down instead of cheer up.”
Vi Moore, the character Baker plays in Footloose, is not as happy, but you can understand why. Her husband, the reverend Moore (played by Stephen McGann), has banned dancing in the town of Bomont following the death of their son and three friends when returning from a club. Her daughter rebels against her father at every opportunity, but is crying out to be listened to rather than spoken at. And a new boy has arrived in town with, seemingly, the sole purpose of bringing back dancing at any cost. Vi is caught in the middle.
Understandably, Baker doesn’t get the upbeat, high energy tunes to perform: “my songs are not the kind of songs that I would choose to sing, although I love singing them,” Baker explains. They are the songs that ground the story and plot, expressing the sadness of the situation and giving the ensemble numbers the basis to be even more spectacular. This is also how Baker sees her role in the production. Neither she, nor co-star McGann, are given top billing on any of Footloose’s promotional material, and Baker is effusive in her belief that this is entirely correct. “The show belongs to Ren and Ariel and all the other kids that make this show their own,” she begins, before launching into an exaltation of the young cast’s virtuosity. “The guy who plays Willard, Giovanni Spano, he’s superb and he will be a big star. He will be. The guy who plays Ren, Derek Hough, he’s fantastic; he’s a phenomenal dancer. Lorna Want [who plays Ariel], she’s got the voice of an angel. She’s another one that will go on and on. She’ll always be up there. There’s Stevie Tate-Bauer, Natasha McDonald and Lisa [Gorgin], they play Rusty, Urleen and Wendy-Jo; it’s a wonderful trio, they’re so good. I’d like to name all the cast for you, because they’re brilliant.”
"You can’t get it wrong in the West End."
Their brilliance, which is generally considered a good thing, does occasionally prove a minor problem for Baker, as she has to quell her natural urges for the sake of performance. “If something funny happens on stage or if something is particularly good; if the dancers are great I want to look at the audience and say ‘aren’t they fantastic?’ and you can’t do that!” Years of pantomime, television presenting and her own nature have had to be drummed out of Baker’s system so that she can perform to the audience rather than trying to make them part of the show. But then, Baker is entirely honest and probably over-critical about her own talents: “I’m not a show singer,” she says. “I haven’t got a big voice and I’m not an actress.” She’s clearly learned during the tour then, as she does not look out of place on stage and has filled her songs with heartfelt emotion. “Actually I’ve had some nice little reviews as we’ve gone round the country,” she admits. “No-one has said ‘Why is Cheryl Baker playing this part?’ so that’s a plus!” Self-deprecating though she may be, there is still a smile on her face and that twinkle still resides in the corner of her eye.
It is surprising to hear, what with the happy-go-lucky persona and decades of experience in the business, that Baker suffers horribly from nerves, and always has done. The butterflies were working their wicked way during the skirt-removing performance at Eurovision, the 11 years presenting Record Breakers, and are still present each night she performs in Footloose. Performing in the theatre capital of the world is not an easy proposition: “Being in the West End is probably gonna just multiply that tenfold – If you go to Plymouth then everyone from Plymouth goes to see you. If you’re in London then you’ve got Americans, Canadians, Australians, French, Dutch, English, and you’ve got people from other shows; you’ve got your peers. You can’t get it wrong in the West End – but you do it, or you get out,” she says.
Getting out was never an option for Baker, who has a resilience hidden beneath the smiles. Though Footloose is her first musical, there have been others she has auditioned for. Chicago, We Will Rock You and Taboo have all seen her for possible parts, but chose not to take their interest any further, yet Baker got back up and tried again. She admits that “Sometimes I think it would be a lot easier to be sitting at a till in Sainsbury’s asking people for their reward card, and other times I think ‘I can’t live without this; this is my drug.’”
"I can’t live without this; this is my drug."
The steely resilience was apparent earlier in her career and resulted in the moment that is most iconic in her life, winning Eurovision with Bucks Fizz. Many people are unaware that Baker had previously entered Eurovision three years earlier with the group Coco. They didn’t do well, finishing 11th with their song The Bad Old Days, the UK’s lowest ever position at that time. This is where Baker’s guts came to the fore as she didn’t let that disappointment keep her down and continued to chase the ambition she had held since seeing Sandy Shaw sing Puppet On A String. “Apart from winning an Olympic Gold, which I would have liked to have done,” she says, she thought “that must be the most exciting thing to happen in your entire life, to represent your country in a competition and to win.”
It is interesting that someone whose long career proves that ‘dedication’s what you need’ should go on to spend over a decade presenting a show about the dedication of others, Record Breakers. Working alongside Roy Castle – “he was exactly how everyone imagined him; everyone’s favourite uncle” – it is a period of her life she looks back on fondly. “With records being broken, you are working with people who want to be better than everyone else at whatever it is that they’re doing, whether it is something ridiculous like cowpat throwing or wanting to be the only person to have walked to the North and the South Pole. I loved meeting people that were that dedicated,” she says.
As we sit in the café area of a rehearsal space – the cast of We Will Rock You practising next door, Baker’s daughter Natalie skating round the room – Baker sits and smiles. She may have won a competition for her country, she may have seen amazing feats achieved around the world, she may be one of our most popular personalities, but she is first and foremost a family woman from the East End of London. She’s not even Cheryl Baker, really; to her friends and colleagues she’s “Rita [Crudginton] who’s an ordinary girl.” After my short time with her, I’m not sure what the difference is.