Artisteer

Women's Weekly

~ (23/11/ 2004) ~


When my dad, Tony was young. he wanted to be an actor, but his father owned the family motor business, so acting was out of the question. But he got all his three children-I have an elder brother Kevin, and a younger sister Katherine-involved in amateur dramatics.
At three-and-a-half, I was in a local panto where I upstaged everybody horribly. In the middle of a rendition of My Favourite Things, from The Sound of Music, I walked to the front of the stage and started to play a pretend saxophone.

In time, we were taken to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare plays. My mother, Ruth, is welsh, a good pianist but not really a great singer, whatever she may believe! Her brother Tom, though, is a beautiful lyric tenor.

When I was eight or nine, the family moved to South Africa because of Dad's work. We were there three years, living in Cape Town. It was stunning but the country was in the grip of apartheid, there was no television, so we had to provide our own entertainment. Mum played the piano and we all sang along. It was a rented house and I discovered a record collection of songs from the shows. I immediately identified with the notion of telling a story and building a character through son.

I was sent to boarding school in Plymouth, aged 11, while Mum and Dad stayed in South Africa. Its an experience you survive and it does toughen you up. But its a ghastly thing. I'm told I was keen to go, but then I wanted to do the same as my big brother and the truth is you shouldn't ask an 11 year old what he wants, because he doesn't know. Looking back, I would much rather have been at home and if I had children of my own, I would never send them away to school,

My parents divorced six years ago. I think we'd seen it coming for some time but it was tough. A part of me thought they'd soldier on. Its their lives, though and they're both now terrifically happy. But, from my point of view, if this was the way it was going to happen, let it do so as peacefully, and as maturely, as possible. I was at pains not to take sides. Its an obvious thing to say, but your parents parting doesn't stop them being your mum and dad. I was already a grown man, so it didn't affect my own attitude towards relationships.
I first got interested in acting at school. I played the fool in King Lear, for example. But it was when the family lived in Surrey and I was at sixth-form college that I got involved in youth theatre. I quickly realised that nothing else excited me to this degree. I was studying English, sociology and economics. I did a multiple-choice exam in economics. When I was handed back the paper I was told,"Michael in multiple-choice tests monkeys get eight per cent, you got seven"

I didn't care. The woman who ran the youth theatre told me that she thought I had a future as an actor. Well, that was enough for me. She used her influence to get me a late audition at the Guildford School of Drama. I got a place. I got a grant. I didn't tell Mum and Dad until it was a fait accompli, because I was slightly worried about their reaction, but they were absolutely delighted.

I knew I had a voice but I opted for the three-year acting course. By the time of my final show at a London theatre-the time when agents and casting directors come and have a look at all the new talent-I realised I'd only get two three-minute slots to do a couple of speeches; it would be hard to pull off something extraordinary. So I decided to do a three-minute song and persuaded the powers-that-be to let me make it this show's finale.

I chose an old song called So Tired, which I did as a Teddy-boy, Rock'n'Roll number surrounded by all the girls in sticky-out-petticoats, it brought the house down. I got an agent and an audition for Godspell in Aberystwyth, where I played Judas for the summer season and gained my all important Equity union card. From that I got a season at Basingstoke Rep, which included the worst-ever production of Sweet Charity the world has seen; and Toad of Toad Hall-I was Ratty! From there, it was off to Manchester in the lead of Pirates of Penzance. I couldn't believe it. When did the starving in the garret happen?

I'd had two ambitions when I left drama school. I wanted to be in Coronation Street and to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). While I was in Manchester, I got three episodes as Malcolm Little, a toffee-nosed tennis pro, in Corrie and then Cameron Mackintosh cast me as Marius in the original RSC production of Les Misérables.

We did 12 weeks at the Barbican and then we transferred to the West End-and that's when it all started going wrong. I got glandular fever and I tried to work through it. Eventually, I took five weeks off, but I came back too soon. I was drained, and then, I started getting panic attacks. I'd arrive at the theatre, start shaking, turn around and go home. I developed agoraphobia. The attacks would start on the tube and I'd head back to my flat. I was having a sort of a breakdown. I decided that I'd never be able to perform again. So I phoned Cameron, who'd already given me three months off, and he agreed to let me go. I sank to my lowest depths-I was in my mid 20s and was convinced I'd never work again.

But unexpectedly, I was offered the chance to sing live on the Miss England contest on TV. It was kill or cure, but I got through it. Then Cameron, bless him asked me to come in to sing for Andrew Lloyd Webber, with a view to going into The Phantom Of The Opera. I must say, I did a blinder of an audition. I got the part and then, my tonsils got infected. When a surgeon said they should come out, I didn't hesitate. Now I feel that the whole extended period of anxiety was the best thing that could have happened to me. It made me a better performer, without a doubt.

It was while I was performing in Aspects of Love that Cathy McGowan came to interview me for a BBC news programme. That was 1989. We didn't get together exclusively until 1991 and then moved in together the following year. We've always jealously guarded our privacy. We don't do first nights. We don't pose on red carpets. We don't let people photograph us in our home.

What makes Cathy special? Oh God, so much. But the bottom line is she really loves me. I know I can put my complete trust in her. People talk about the age difference-she's 15 years older than me-but have you seen her? It simply isn't an issue.

Of course, I've thought about fatherhood, but not having children has never been a matter of regret. We're surrounded by kids. Cathy's daughter has two children and my sister and brother each have kids. And I have had such an engrossing career.

My new album has 39 tracks on it and I'm proud of the variety it encompasses. But it all counts for nothing when you place it alongside what happened to Angela. Cathy's sister-in-law. It was in 1992. I had a record at number one, a best selling album and the show was selling out at the Apollo. But Angela was in hospital dying from ovarian cancer. I'm a co-founder of the charity, ROC(Research into Ovarian Cancer), and its been a constructive outlet for the anger and grief we all felt at her untimely passing. I'm pleased to be in a position where I can do something practical.

When someone comes up to you and says that they're still alive because something you said on TV prompted them to go and get the test that may have saved them, there's nothing like it. I feel more proud about that than anything.

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