To anyone over 30, Wayne Sleep is the British dancer of the recent times. Almost anyone else will know him as the skinny one who wore the waffle-hat on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. However, all that is about to change: after tonight, when he debuts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium, Wayne Sleep will be known simply as The Child Catcher. Tom Bowtell caught up with him to discuss prosthetic noses, pirouettes and John Fashanu’s dubious sense of direction.
Although Wayne Sleep is 54, he still has the sprightliest of gaits and despite the odd rogue wrinkle, his face remains utterly boyish. Perhaps surprisingly, this will be Sleep’s first role in an actual West End musical since he played Emcee in Gillian Lynne’s 1986 production of Cabaret in London (he has made regular West End sorties with one off concerts and charity galas) – so is he glad to be back? “Yes, yes I’m thrilled. The Palladium’s a theatre I know well – I’ve done royal variety shows here, I’ve had my own shows here twice – Dash and The Hot Shoe Show and I also did 14 weeks with Dani la Rue…” At this point I look up very sharply, spluttering into my mineral water before he adds, a wicked glint in his eye, “in pantomime – though I was half naked – I played the Genie. In fact, it gave me Bronchitis! I was wearing next to nothing and it was a freezing winter and we were doing it for fourteen weeks non-stop, 12 shows a week. Pantomimes these days don’t go on that long. But back, to the Palladium! It really is wonderful to play in because, even though it’s vast, the audience are all very near. In other theatres they go back and back and back, but here it’s more in the round, so everyone is closer which is great.”
"My auntie used to threaten her kids by saying that the Child Catcher would get them if they didn’t go up to bed."
The Palladium may be Wayne’s home from home, but is he also a paid up member of the Chitty fan club? “Well, when the movie came out I was already quite old” [he snorts] “so I wasn’t scared by it, but my god-children are huge fans of it and when they heard that I was going to play the Child Catcher they all went ‘ooo I was so scared of him when I was a kid’ and apparently my auntie used to threaten her kids by saying that the Child Catcher would get them if they didn’t go up to bed.”
Despite costing £6.5 Million, making it the most expensive musical ever, Chitty is on target to have covered its costs by September after running for a mere 18 months. Wayne thinks that there is a clear reason for the show’s continuing success: “there are surprisingly few family shows on in the West End at the moment where the parents can bring the kids along and everyone can have a great time. Lots of parents will also remember seeing the show when they were young, and it will be a nostalgic trip for them – being able to see it live on stage. And it is an amazing show – I mean the car, the effects all the props are just stunning.” He stops short of saying phantasmagorical, but only just.
Wayne Sleep’s real nose is a fairly inoffensive organ, so he has to undergo a full scale prosthetic transformation in order to produce the rapier-like honk of hell that allows the Child Catcher to sniff out tasty Kiddy Viddy Vinkies. “Yes that’s all been done, and the fake ears fitted too so I don’t have to go over to Croydon have a special session with the guy who makes rubber ears, which is always a bonus!” Wayne is no stranger to noses, having previously played Pinocchio in the Birmingham Hippodrome, and is a big fan of the transformative powers of a bit of slap: “makeup is great – especially in this role, as it helps you so much with the character, it actually gives you a new face, it’s like a mask and changes you totally – although obviously your own personality has to come through.”
"Makeup is great!"
Sleep will be the fifth Child Catcher to be seen on stage in Chitty, following Richard O’Brien, Paul O’Grady, Peter Polycarpou and Derek Griffith so how is he planning to make the part his own? “As the first dancer in the role, Gillian [Lynne] is going to be able to move my body more than she had been able to with the others (not that they weren’t all brilliant). There isn’t any actual dancing in the role but there is a lot of character movement – sinister walks and all that sort of thing – but there isn’t go to be a big tap number or anything, and I promise not to slip in any spinning steps either!”
“To scared to go to Sleep?” quip the posters of Child-Catcher Wayne (fully made up with slickly-lacquered hair and that whopping conk) which currently adorn the London Underground. Wayne, who has previously tended to play mischievous rather than downright evil characters such as Ariel in the Tempest, Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pinocchio in, um, Pinocchio, seems to be relishing the prospect of being so spectacularly wicked on stage: “I did once play Satan in the ballet, but other than that I’ve usually done comic, cheeky roles. But I like it, ooo I love it, I’ve always wanted to play evil – it brings out that side of me, lets me think about all those people I don’t like and get it all out. It’s just wonderful to play”.
"I did once play Satan in a ballet."
While he wants the children to be shivering in their seats and trying to hide their giveaway scents with garlic spray throughout the performances, Wayne is confident that he won’t have vigilante toddlers accosting him in the street: “I’m not intending to go out in full makeup too often, so hopefully I’ll be alright!” Getting noticed in the street is something Wayne is having to get used to all over again after his recent stint on jungle-based reality TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! – (of which more, inevitably, later): “since the show it’s amazing how many kids know who I am again. I stayed away from a lot of media stuff over the years and went back to the opera house, choreographing Carousel and all that, and that was where I wanted to be. But in a way I missed out because there was a whole generation who didn’t know who I was. But now in my workshops and charity sessions all the kids, as well as their parents, recognise me. Last Sunday I had five hundred kids [in a dance class!] and most of them knew me – it’s nice to have them on your side from the start of things.”
While The Child Catcher is an acting and singing role, devoid of jigs and twirls, Wayne will always be known as a dancer first and foremost, so it comes as something of a surprise when he reveals that he virtually fell into dancing by accident: “I’ve always wanted to act. When I was a boy I always wanted to be a song and dance man, a sort of Gene Kelly figure, but I won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet where you only learn ballet – they don’t even let you tap ‘cos of your ankles – and from there I just went into the Royal Ballet, it’s what you do. It was thrilling to suddenly find myself on stage at the Royal Opera House, but there was always this yearning to get on the stage and do musical theatre”. After over a decade of unadulterated ballet antics, Wayne finally got his musical break in 1981 when he starred alongside Brian Blessed and Elaine Paige in the original production of Cats. More Lloyd Webber followed the next year when he starred in the prosaically-titled Song And Dance at the Palace and with his own dance show (Dash) following soon after he suddenly realised that his Royal Ballet tenure had ended: “I didn’t leave the Royal Ballet, I just never went back!”
"I didn't leave the Royal Ballet – I just never went back…"
Wayne has since returned to the Royal Ballet on numerous occasions, but has managed to pack in a great swathe of other experiences in between. Perhaps the most un-Royal Ballet thing he has done is appear on ITV’s prime time reality ratings-guzzler I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! Has he just about recovered from what was, by all accounts a rather harrowing fortnight? “Well, I still have a few dreams, but my fractured foot has healed – which is a relief as the crack looked like the Grand Canyon on the ex-rays.” The full extent of the injury – which is no laughing matter for a dancer – wasn’t revealed until Wayne had return to the UK: “They didn’t think it was fractured out there, they put a tuning fork on it and asked if it was hot and when I said ‘no’, they said ‘well, it isn’t fractured then’ which was a little bizarre… But when I got off the plane it had swollen up so much that I thought ‘if this isn’t broken then I’ve been bitten by something!' So I rushed to hospital and I was actually pleased when it was a fracture!”
The tabloids were full of stories about inflatable crocodiles and fumigated living areas, but Wayne maintains that the celebrities weren’t entirely mollycoddled during the show, “oh you had to be careful, oh yes, you wouldn’t look under stones unnecessarily, things crawl away, but they come back… We even saw funnel web spiders in our camp. Then there were the bush rats, they scuttled back at night and nibbled away at things, so we had to burn any excess food, not that there was much!” Donning my cap of clichéd questions I then ask Wayne what he learned from his jungle jaunt: “Well, I think I learned to keep my mouth shut! I taught myself not to have confrontations with people that I would have done previously, and to be more gracious towards people and realise that we are all different, and it’s not that anyone is better than anyone else.”
One person who was just about as different from Wayne as it’s possible to get was John Fashanu, the former footballer and TV presenter who became famous on the show for his elaborate psyching-up routine and for undertaking twice as many stomach-churning bush-tucker-challenges than anyone else. One anecdote Wayne recounts confirms how different he was from the mighty Fash: “we all went along to see the first night of Toyah in Calamity Jane, except for Fashanu who went to The Mousetrap and sat there waiting for Toyah to come on! Then he realised and finally slunk into the second half of Calamity! But isn’t that funny? It makes you realise how untheatrical these people are, which is what Daniella and I in particular found in the jungle, we felt we really weren’t the same as the others, we didn’t have the same humour or anything. As presenters they may be actors but they weren’t theatrical. I can just about understand that he went to The Mousetrap – Just!” Despite the theatrical gulf, Wayne says he got on pretty well with Fashanu: “Oh Fash was alright, he was clearly playing a game at the start with all those sit-ups, but it was so obvious, you just had to laugh really, so we all had a laugh and eventually he joined in and it was fine. Some of the others were more sinister in their actions, but I’m not going to say who!” And despite my gentle prying, his lips remained resolutely shut.
"Daniella and I felt that we weren't the same as the others."
One thing that stands out about Wayne Sleep is that he is constantly upbeat and has nimbly dodged the juggernaut of cynicism which is currently mashing its way through the 21st century – he even extols the lack of supplies in I’m A Celebrity: “it was like meditation – I felt high all the time!” He is also generally positive about the state of dance in the UK: “Well, this is my fortieth year in professional dance, and it’s much better than it used to be – the stages used to have holes in my day, we used to warm up in the Crush Bar at the Opera House and we were forever slogging to and fro between Baron’s Court and Covent Garden. I mean we just did it, but it’s really wonderful these days. The West End is thriving, but not as much as it should be, and not as much as it used to be in the early 80s. There doesn’t seem to be any room for experimentation anymore, if something isn’t an instant hit it’s given no time to thrive. The big shows have taken over.”
Wayne also has some reservations about the long-term future of dance, “apart from Riverdance, there has been no real dance on television since I had my shows over a decade ago”. It seems that while dance now has first class facilities and training structures in place, it is letting its audience slip away. To arrest this decline, Wayne thinks that dance, and the arts in general should be given more prominence in the curriculum: “education’s the key, I mean kids love dancing, I teach about 500 every Sunday and they’re thronging to come but once they reach 12 they stop because other academic matters take over. They’re trying to bring music back, but it’s harder for dance, I mean let’s face it, do you think they’d ever allow ballet to get onto the curriculum at Eton?”
"Do you think they'd ever allow ballet to get onto the curriculum at Eton?"
Wayne is doing his bit to keep kids interested in dance through his Sunday morning workshops which are attended by hundreds of kids every week. He also recently set up his own charity The Wayne Sleep Dance Scholarship which aimed to help aspiring dancers with their tuition and fees: “five years ago, on the first anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, press people kept phoning me up and asking me about her, and our friendship. It even got to the stage when they were offering to pay me, but I refused, I think that’s vulgar, but then I came up with the idea of using that money to help kids, so I give grants of £2,000 or £3,000 to kids to help them stay in ballet school when they might otherwise have to leave. Diana was a great lover of dance and it seems fitting that I started this charity in her memory.”
Having conducted a fairly serious interview up to this point, I then proceed to spoil all my hard work by asking Wayne Sleep if he has ever suffered the irony of insomnia: “Yes. I can’t sleep! Isn’t that awful? And I’m afraid of the dark too! I always look under my bed before I turn out the light…” Who’d have thought it? Wayne Sleep, survivor of forty years in the jungle of showbiz, still afraid of the bogey man – still, as long as he leaves his nose at work and keeps away from mirrors, at least he knows he’s safe from the Child Catcher…