Billy Pearce has enjoyed tremendous success in clubland and pantomimes, now he is setting his sights on musicals, writes Kevin Berry
“I’ve always wanted to do a musical and to appear in a play,” said Billy Pearce when we met for a brief natter earlier this year. Well, the first of his wishes has now been granted. He has the lead role in Boogie Nights, the disco musical, which opened this week at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre. He is also looking at a new play.
“I jumped at it,” he said, when we had the opportunity to catch up. “A musical is something I’ve always wanted to do but people said: ‘No, you’re a comic, that’s what you do. They said the same thing when I was wanting to try pantomime: ‘You’re a club comic.’ I just want the opportunity to show people what I can do. Yes, I am nervous but at the same time I’m excited.”
Pearce is a supreme entertainer. His summer shows and pantomimes regularly break box office records. Watching him work a live audience invites justified comparisons with Ken Dodd and Les Dawson. Indeed one of Pearce’s proudest achievements was winning the British Comedy Award for Top Theatre Variety Performer in 1994, beating Ken Dodd and Michael Barrymore. Pearce has young, old and anyone in between roaring with helpless laughter and then he brings them to total silence with the slightest of gestures. His co-stars are frequently laid helpless with giggles.
If light entertainment shows were still a staple of Saturday night television he would be a superstar and not just in the UK. “I suppose I’ve come along at the wrong time,” he says. But there is no bitterness. He loves his work and he fills theatres.
“In some ways I kind of lost my way a little bit. I went into the business to be a variety entertainer. But variety was tailing off by the time I did a Royal Variety Performance. You were looked down on, seen as a sort of dinosaur if you did one. But that’s changed now, I’m glad to say.
“I look back on that time with a bit of nostalgia but times have to change. I can remember doing a summer season with Tommy Trinder at the Spa Pavillion, Felixstowe. There were lots of well known variety artists on the bill. They were all talking about the decline of variety even in those days - but I’m still here.”
Pearce talks glowingly about the joy of being on the stage and the companionship he enjoys in a pantomime or a long summer season. He mentions the theatrical version of the Mexican wave - meaning the wall of sound that a happy audience can generate when he asks if they have enjoyed themselves. It is something he has heard many times and he loves it.
Pearce was born in Leeds. His father was a talented pianist and his mother was a respected dance teacher, although neither appeared on the stage.
“The amateurs were always short of boys,” Pearce explains. “So when I was little I got roped into the Leeds Thespians and all of the amateur operatic companies. I could dance a bit and I took my ballet exams. So in a way that’s how I finished up doing what I do. It’s sort of in the blood.”
He was all set for life as an engineer but then a serious motorbike accident intervened. “I very nearly died,” he reveals. “From then on I couldn’t settle and I did lots of different jobs. I’d never been out of Leeds and the surgeon who operated on me let me stay at his place on an island in the Adriatic. I was the only British person on the island. All those things changed my life and I couldn’t settle after that. I certainly couldn’t go back to working in an engineering factory day after day.
“The motorbike was smashed in two. I flew up in the air and landed a few yards away. I put my ribs through my lungs. I had two thirds of my liver taken out and I damaged my kidneys. It was touch and go for a while.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just drifted. I lived in Iceland for a time and worked on the fish docks. I was a dresser at Yorkshire Television and then I was a stage hand at Leeds Grand. I’d always loved the theatre. I was not a confident person but I’d always felt confident on a stage.”
Pearce became a Butlins’ Redcoat with a friend who had attended his mother’s dancing school. They had a musical double act, known as the Stewart Brothers, but Pearce wanted to introduce some comedy. “I suggested a joke to do over the intro to a song,” he explains. “What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup? Well, you can roast beef but you can’t pea soup. So we start and he says: ‘What’s the difference between roast beef and Yorkshire pudding?’ I carried on with the gag and said: ‘You can roast beef but you can’t Yorkshire pudding.’ We fell about laughing but the audience didn’t. He could sing - but with comedy he hadn’t got a clue.”
Nevertheless the Stewart Brothers impressed Stanley Joseph, of the Leeds City Varieties, who got them a booking playing alternate nights at a cabaret club in Barnsley and the Fiesta club in Sheffield. Pearce then went solo and set his sights on becoming a club-filler. “For a long time I was doing the clubs and people
said you’d never get into theatres, you’re too blue,” he explains. “But I got my grounding right. Then I did New Faces and I was in a theatre, the Birmingham Hippodrome. All that I’d done in theatres with the amateurs, all of that experience, came back to me and I felt comfortable. Club acts are so used to working on a small stage most of them don’t know what to do in a massive theatre but I managed to fill the stage. After that I worked with Danny La Rue, who was very good to me, and we did a summer season and I was the compere for Cannon and Ball.”
If anything does rattle Pearce it is the British mania for pigeon-holing. After doing five Children’s Royal Variety Shows people were soon starting to see him as a children’s entertainer. To counter that he decided to do an adult show - “cheeky stuff but never going too far” - which he still does when he is not doing summer seasons or panto.
“Funny thing in the clubs is you do a two spot and you’re a two spot turn,” he says. “In the theatres you do two halves and it’s called An Evening With…”
Pantomime season has seen Pearce drawn increasingly to Bradford but the regularity of his appearances at the Alhambra should not be taken for granted. He does not intend to become a fixture. He has signed for the Alhambra’s next pantomime, his first attempt at Dick Whittington, only because the script is good and there is new material and he feels confident.
“I don’t want to outstay my welcome,” he says. Last season’s Alhambra panto took £1,100,000 at the box office in seven weeks. It was his best and most successful pantomime yet. Now there is the starring role in a musical. Then there will probably be a part in a play and lots more plays. Pearce carries on - stubbornly refusing to be pigeon-holed. He is an entertainer, pure and simple.
“There is nothing better than being onstage in a full theatre,” he says. “Hearing them all laughing and cheering. It’s like gold dust.”
n Boogie Nights is running at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre until October 30
1970: Spends the summer as a Butlins’ Redcoat.
1986: Appears in Central TV’s New Faces and reaches final.
1987: First summer season at Blackpool Grand. First appearance in pantomine at Wolverhampton Grand.
1988: Voted Club Mirror Solo Comedian of the Year.
1989: BBC TV comedy series You Gotta Be Jokin’.
1991: Appears in his first Royal Variety Show at the Victoria Palace.
1993: Hosts the Children’s Royal Variety Performance and makes a further five appearances in future shows. First panto appearance at Bradford Alhambra.
1994: Voted Top Theatre Variety Performer at the British Comedy Awards and receives Sir James Carreras Award for Outstanding New Talent.
1995: Plays summer season at Blackpool Opera House with Sunday appearances at Scarborough Futurist Theatre.
1999/2000: Headlines Hull New Theatre’s pantomime.
2001: Record-breaking summer season at Blackpool Grand with Keith Harris and Joe Longthorne. First of current sequence of panto appearances at Bradford Alhambra, all break box office records.
2003/4: Headlines highest grossing pantomime in Bradford Alhambra’s history.
2004: Summer season at Blackpool playing Roddie O’Neil in Boogie Nights at the Grand Theatre.
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