It takes a special kind of guy to invent sweets that play tunes, raise two children, be at ease dancing with a bamboo cane and fly a car with a mind of its own all in one evening, but in former pop star and Nineties heart-throb Jason Donovan, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang have found a man up to the task. Matthew Amer caught up with the all-singing, all-dancing sensation in his palatial Palladium dressing room…
Most dressing rooms in the West End are fairly minimal affairs: a couple of chairs, a mirror or two, maybe a kettle if the actor is very lucky or a bit of a prima donna. Jason Donovan’s dressing room at the London Palladium has to be seen to be believed.
For starters, it is actually two rooms: an outer, courtyard-type area – complete with comfy sofa, microwave, kettle, a cheeky set of dumbbells, guitar stand and guitar – where we conduct the interview, and an inner sanctum, the door to which is tantalisingly ajar, hinting at the exciting secrets within that can only be imagined. Possibly it holds a jacuzzi for relaxing after a heavy week's performances, a massage table to help with limbering up or small zoo filled with exotic and wonderful animals. Even the entrance to the dressing room is awe inspiring, marked as it is by a wall-mounted guitar signed by legendary head-wobbling frog-duettist Sir Paul McCartney. His pad is so luxurious that Donovan himself refers to it as “my London flat.”
"Eight shows a week just takes it out of you."
Although Donovan appeared in Chitty for a short time earlier this year, this stint marks his first long-term London engagement since donning his coat of many colours for the last time at the Palladium back in January 1994. Although work has not dried up for the London-based Aussie since then, the return to the West End stage has proved a little daunting. “Theatre is tough; it’s unpredictable, and emotions don’t always run on time.” That said, it seems the former heartthrob is having the time of his life gallivanting around the Palladium stage. “I get to sing, I get to dance, I get to play with bamboo, I get to fly a car, I even climb mountains. It’s just fun. It’s an ‘up’ show. I don’t come in depressed, thinking I’ve got to dig into my psychology to find something. It’s a great show, a great company and I come to work smiling.”
Donovan’s casual look – he lounges on his sofa wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt – belies a very serious approach to life and work. Although on stage he may epitomise the light-hearted happy-go-lucky free-spirit of a man with a penchant for ridiculous ideas, he is not sitting back and letting the role take him where it will. There is a danger in being complacent. “You think you know things, but if you start to rest on them… it’s like riding a bike: you think ‘I’ll just zip in here’ and then suddenly a car comes along and hits you.” In Donovan’s case, the car might be flying, but his point is made.
Since Jason Donovan was last performing in the West End, his life has changed considerably. He is no longer the fresh faced youth, coming directly to a theatre near you from a whirlwind tour of soap and pop stardom. He is now in his late thirties and settled down with two children, Zac and Gemma. His position as a father gives him an added insight into the extraordinary popularity of the Sherman brothers’ hit show. “It’s very rare that one gets the chance to be in a show which is so powerful to children. Chitty, as a show, with that car and the way that it flies, will probably never, ever really be seen again in the West End.” His own children have seen the show eight or nine times already and were lucky enough to have been used as props and actors while Donovan was learning lines and songs at his West London home.
"I felt suffocated. I needed to get away."
Donovan’s last Palladium engagement also involved hydraulic fun on the stage, as the finale of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat saw him hoisted high above the audience. Donovan was a phenomenon in the West End at the time, making Joseph one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most successful musicals. Behind the scenes, however, the feeling was less technicolor, more drab blue. “I’d been in a soap for four years. I’d then moved to England. I’d managed to land myself as a pop star and I’d had two solid years of travelling through Europe. I went on tour in 1990 through Asia; through the whole of the world. Then my manager said to me, ‘this part of Joseph has come along at the Palladium’. So my dreams were just coming true every five seconds. I don’t think I really had time to breathe and take it all on board. The problem with Joseph was, unlike the pop career and even unlike television, eight shows a week is f***ing demanding and it just takes it out of you. Every night I walked outside and there were literally 200 people at the stage door, and I was it. There was no other band that could share the responsibility. I felt suffocated. I needed to get away.”
It is becoming a cliché to suggest that those who find fame very quickly and at a young age may have got ‘too much too soon’ and not known how to react. It is possible that this could have been the case with Donovan, though he is reluctant to admit it, but timing also played its part. “Joseph wasn’t cool in my mind. To everyone else it was a packed house at the Palladium; you can’t get cooler than that. But at the age of 23 I wanted to be out smoking cigarettes, playing in a rock band, not sitting on stage in a loin cloth looking like a deposed innocent character from the Bible.”
After Joseph, life took a downward turn for the Aussie pin-up. The record deals dried up and the press, as they have a habit of doing, turned. Donovan, as is his way, is very open about this period of turmoil. “I sort of went out for about seven years and didn’t come home; but I crashed the car very successfully for a long time.” Looking back on a period where he was heavily into drugs and unrecognisable as the perky pop strummer the nation knew and loved, Donovan has a philosophical attitude. “I had a great time. I enjoyed myself. A lot of my friends and a lot of people I know didn’t go out and enjoy themselves. They played the game. Then they get to their thirties and rebelled. Well I did. I’m 36 and I’m happy. I don’t need to do that again.”
Donovan is a man of strong principles and beliefs; he is definite about what he says and thinks. It was these principles and his ability to stand behind them that most famously courted trouble at the hands of the press. In 1992, whilst starring in Joseph, The Face published an article outing Donovan as homosexual. Their claim was false, and Donovan successfully sued them for libel. In the process, though, he ruffled many a feather in the gay community through misinterpretation of his reasoning. “My intentions were fuzzed by tabloid interpretation, which was the depressing thing. If you really look at the case and the reason I was doing it, it was almost incrimination against people who want to stay straight, gay or whatever. They have a right to their own privacy; that was what I was arguing. It didn’t help my career, but I stood up to someone. Everyone said you can’t do that, but I did.”
"I crashed the car very successfully for a long time."
Following Joseph, the court case and a highly publicised drug problem, Donovan slipped off the UK radar. He cropped up in the 25th anniversary tour of The Rocky Horror Show, where he met his partner, but was largely anonymous to the UK public. Recently he has found fame and acclaim again, not on British soil, where he has lived for fifteen years now, but back in Australia on award-winning medical/law firm drama MDA. In his own words, “it’s not a ‘big show’; it doesn’t have car chases. It’s you and me sitting across a table going ‘What about the leg you put on his arm? You should have put it on his head!’” After two hit series already, a third instalment is in the offing, but this one will not star Donovan as Plaintiff’s advocate Richard Savage. He will be flying fantastical cars and hiding from long-nosed ice-cream-wielding villains while they are filming in courtrooms, discussing inopportune limb surgery.
The tempestuous tide seems to have turned for one of the most high profile ‘wayward entertainers’ of recent years. With the scandal behind him, a young family to focus him, a highly-acclaimed, award-winning drama series to his name and a starring role in the West End, his star is heading towards its ascendancy once more. “Are there scripts landing on my door left, right and centre? No. But am I managing to consistently work with some good stuff? Yeah.” The consistent stream of ‘good stuff’ has ensured that, unlike certain other Australian singers, Donovan has not buckled under the pressure of celebrity’s newest fad, the reality TV show. “I’ve been asked, but I don’t need to. I love to work, but I’m not desperate to be famous. I’ve had people camping at my door. It doesn’t really grab me any more. I hope it becomes fashionable for those that don’t [appear on reality TV shows] to have longer careers.”
Donovan never seems bitter about anything that happened in the past and is more than happy to talk about events that may not rekindle the best of memories. Lounging on the sofa of his ‘London flat’, acoustic guitar sitting in the corner, pictures of his children adorning the mirror, he is the image of casualness, though very serious about all he does.
He still has ambitions – a turn in a successful film, a starring role in a non-musical play – but he has no regrets. Everything he has done has made him who he is today. Whether they were right or wrong at the time, he was true to himself and he would not change anything. He seems pretty at ease with the world and happy in himself. “When am I most happy? I’d say when I’m in water. When I’m swimming, that’s when I’m most happy. I wish I could fly. Sometimes I have, but I’ve been on the ground. It’s the old adage, ‘sometimes when you jump, you fly. You’ve got to take those chances. I tend to jump into water and swim away.”