Not a description of a sugar junkie’s reaction to a confectionary drought but in fact a play by Stephen Poliakoff, Sweet Panic is currently playing at the Duke Of York’s Theatre. The show is packed with enough stars of stage and screen to put the Milky Way to shame. One such star is John Gordon Sinclair. He talked to Matthew Amer about buses, beer and – quite appropriately – chocolate peanut cakes.
Stephen Poliakoff’s Sweet Panic is a cautionary tale about the ways of an ever changing world. When child psychologist Clare does not react to the over anxious machinations of an overprotective middle-class mother, Mrs Trevel, the mother in question, takes proving her point to extreme levels. She lets nothing get in the way of her obsession, not even Clare’s partner Martin, played by John Gordon Sinclair. The nature of childhood, the passing of time, professional responsibility, accountability of the press and even London transport are brought into question during the play. This is one of the reasons that Sinclair wanted to be part of the production. “There’s loads of issues in the play. When I first read it I thought ‘this is really interesting and someone’s actually addressing it in an interesting way’. I think it’s a play that needs to be seen a couple of times really; I’ve sort of got the hang of it now, but I’ve been working on it for weeks!”
"I’m hoping to see a few drunken evenings."
As well as his interest in the play’s issues and the fact that it is written and directed by the Godfather-like Stephen Poliakoff – “It would be hard to say no to Stephen Poliakoff, wouldn’t it” – the show’s casting also proved a draw for Sinclair. In addition to Jane Horrocks, who Sinclair has known for ten years, Sweet Panic also stars regular stage siren Victoria Hamilton, ex-Eastender Daniela Denby Ashe, Philip Bird and Rupert Evans. Having been through the rehearsal period and spent a fair few weeks on stage with them he has a high opinion of his fellow ‘Panickers’. “Everyone’s getting on. We all seem to be a very professional cast, but I’m hoping to see a few drunken evenings. A few shameful episodes would go down well at this point.” The other big draw for Sinclair was the fact that at a later date Sweet Panic will be filmed for television, an event which is the first of its kind in the theatre world. “It was one of those jobs where you think ‘I’d really love to be doing this’. I think it will take a while [to film]. I’d be amazed if it happened before the summer next year, but if anyone from the BBC reads this, go as quickly as you can!”
Sweet Panic was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre in 1996. Back then many of its themes had a prophetic air about them. They looked towards a bleak future where children needed a great deal of protection and everyone was in danger of legal action from any disgruntled other. Seven years on and the prophecy has taken on a more sinister quality as much that was mentioned has come to fruition. Poliakoff himself has said that many of the themes the show incorporated back in 1996 have become more pertinent in today’s world. Sinclair agrees “They had to slightly alter [a line]. I think it was ‘no doubt we’re going the way of the Americans’. I think we’ve gone the way of the Americans in the last seven years. I think it’s getting to the point where if you crash your car into a wall you’d be perfectly within your rights to sue the builder who built it. Some lawyer somewhere could put a case for it. It’s getting that f***ing crazy.”
Sinclair’s character Martin is a particularly interesting fellow: a world expert on London buses he is ever so slightly obsessed with them and has a penchant for planning everything he does to the very last detail. He’s quite a unique individual, as Sinclair himself points out; “there aren’t many people who you meet that are world experts on the London Metrobus; not many people you would want to meet either.” Thankfully for Sinclair he does not have a lot in common with Martin; he is a much more impulsive individual, taking pleasure in living a life where “you never know what’s coming at you. I would just get into a car and start driving and see where we end up rather than sit down and study a map to make sure I’m going in the right direction.” But playing Martin has had a slightly unnerving effect on him; an effect confusing to most of the population of London; an effect that he should be paid compensation for: he has developed a new-found love… of buses: “I am a bit of a fan of the bus actually, the Routemaster, not the other ones, the Metrobus and the bendy bus and the Leyland Titan. I got the bus for a pound from Islington down to Oxford Circus and it was brilliant. It’s a great way to get around. I’m going to start a campaign not to get rid of them. I’m gonna get a T-shirt!”
"If I’d met myself I’d have punched me right on the nose!"
For the many viewers of television, film and theatre, the area of performance which most appeals to John Gordon Sinclair won’t come as any great surprise. Neither will it surprise anyone who has ever met the amiable Scot. What interests him more than anything when performing is getting a giggle and teasing a titter out of the audience. “I’m obsessed with laughs and timing: I stand backstage listening to people, thinking ‘you could get a laugh on that line’. It matters to me. I’m kind of obsessed.” Although making people laugh is right at the very top of his ‘to do’ list, Sinclair is certainly no one trick pony in the dramatic department. He has starred across every realm of entertainment in serious roles, comedies and even a musical – She Loves Me – for which he won an Olivier Award in 1995. But his theatrical talent does not stop with acting. He has written an 18th century comedy drama with Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrisey which was bought by Yorkshire Television but was never made ‘because it was too expensive’. He also has plans to write a film with his close friend and film maker Bill Forsyth, with whom he got his first big break in Gregory’s Girl. This passion to write is fed by one particular pet hate – for ‘pet’ read more angry Rottweiler than ‘cuddowey ikkle’ Guinea Pig. “There’s not that much really great drama around: things that are supposed to be thrilling aren’t that thrilling and things that are meant to be dramatic aren’t that dramatic.” In particular he often finds himself watching something and considering how, with a few tweaks here and there, he could make it just that much more effective. “I remember going to see Martin Guerre and thinking – this is really arrogant – ‘I know how I could make this work!’ I was almost on the point of phoning Cameron Mackintosh. I thought some of the music in it was fantastic and some of the ideas were great, but they really missed out some key points. So I was sitting watching Martin Guerre with a smug little grin. If I’d met myself I’d have punched me right on the nose!”
Sinclair first came to fame as a ‘wee bairn’ playing the eponymous football-loving hero in Bill Forsyth’s legendary 1981 film Gregory’s Girl. The film, a story of teenage love in a Scottish school, became a huge hit when it was first released and won Sinclair a BAFTA nomination and a Scot’s Star Award. Over 20 years on and the enduring film is still loved by many today. Although landing such a big hit so early in his career thrust Sinclair into the limelight, Gregory’s Girl’s success did come with a downside. “There was something in the Daily Mail recently, for instance, about my girlfriend saying ‘Gregory’s Girl’ and I just think ‘surely after 20 years you can come up with something else.’ I’m very grateful and glad that I did it and it’s amazing that people still talk about it and remember it fondly, but I just get bored with that being the headline all the time.”
Since getting his big break, Sinclair has been in the line of journalistic fire for two full decades and must have been asked almost everything there is to be asked – favourite film, favourite colour, favourite breed of fungi – but he still has no problem sitting down to chat about the same old things. It is clearly a talent he has learned with time as it was not a skill he had at an early age. “I did a publicity tour in America twenty years ago – I never thought I’d hear myself say that! – to sell the film. The one question you’d get asked all the time was ‘What’s the one question you get asked all the time?’ So I got a wee card printed. It had on it ‘what’s the one question you get asked all the time,” making him possibly the only actor ever to combine interviews with a mind reading display.
"I don’t like ‘actory’ actors."
Sinclair is a grounded performer with very down to earth views on the world. He doesn’t see himself as a star or expect to be treated any differently because of his job. In fact this lifestyle turns up another of his pet hates. “I don’t like ‘actory’ actors; I really can’t stand them. But I do like acting. It’s a weird thing to come to terms with really. People who take it all too seriously and think that they’re very important because of it, full of self-importance and self-aggrandisement; I can’t be doing with that really.” Nothing shows off this grounded attitude better than his personal choice of first night gifts. No case of champagne for him to share around an entourage of hangers on and flunkeys, but instead some of the best chocolate peanut cakes known to the human race – which are liberally offered to lucky interviewers, possibly out of politeness but most likely as a bribe – and a crate of beer. “My pals know I don’t like champagne so they sent me a case of beer, because I love beer. Scottish champagne I call it.”
Sinclair has worked with his Sweet Panic co-star Jane Horrocks before. The pair have been seen on screen for some time now, along with Prunella Scales, playing the husband and wife advertising Tescos. But they had also worked with each other ten years before and have remained firm friends ever since. “We hang out quite a lot in the show and we’ve become the moaners because we’re the oldest in the company, which I never thought would ever happen. There’s a bit in the show when we’re both off and we sit in here and have a good old moan.”
A moaning old man who prefers beer to champagne, John Gordon Sinclair does not take himself too seriously and takes pleasure just from enjoying life. Does he agree with co-star Horrocks that there is something wrong if you are still acting in the later years of your life, or will he be around for years to come? “I want to do everything, you know? I want to get to the end of my life and have tried everything there is to try. I’d hate to think that I’d be waiting on the end of the telephone for an acting job when I’m 65.”