Jim Dale relaxes on the sofa in his dressing room at
the London Palladium, mug of tea in hand, stockinged feet resting on the edge of
the coffee table. As if you didn’t know, he’s back in London for a few
months to play Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's "Oliver!"
As Fagin, he has received rave reviews, but it is a very
different Fagin from Jonathon Pryce's, as any part should be with a different
actor. Fagin is rather like Hamlet, Shylock or any other great theater
character. 'Every actor who comes along must be made to feel he can contribute something
different, otherwise no-one would accept any historical role. I listened to Sam
Mendes the director and I listened to Lionel Bart the writer, and what they both
wanted was a music hall approach. Music hall, which I had played for four or
five years. I knew exactly what he meant so I just poured everything I know on
to the table and said, "Well, here's a lifetime of funny business, let’s
pick out what we can work on, and we’d then incorporate those things into the
Jim considers that the music of Oliver! contradicts the deeper, darker approach of this production to a certain extent, which is why he feels more comfortable restoring the comedy. ‘My Fagin is the sort of character who wants those kids to come home again.’ He hums a few bars of ‘Be Back Soon’ and adds, laughing, ‘after all, if he was rotten to them, they wouldn’t ever come home, they’d stay out!'
He has latched on to the boys’ routine of short sharp breaths, blowing on their knuckles, flexing their fingers ready to start picking ‘a pocket or two’ and suggested that Fagin should adopt those mannerisms, so the children are seen to pick it up and become little Fagins aping the big one. ‘And again, when they pick pockets, they do it like Fagin. We need to show that they are a well trained gang, with Fagin as the loveable rogue of a boss who cooks and looks after them.’
These days most of Jim's work is on the American stage - he does a lot of straight theatre over there. He particularly likes doing plays by luminary British writers like Peter Nichols and Trevor Griffiths. This is a far cry from the old days as a young stand-up comic performing in front of just 24 people on a bus to the beach.
After his stint as a pop singer, he joined Frank Dunlop’s Pop Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival and made a seminal discovery. ‘Frank asked me to play Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale and explained that Shakespeare always used comedians for his clowns. As soon as I knew that, I was a step ahead of young actors who had never been in front of an audience. So I said yes, and the rest is history. I went on to play Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Launcelot Gobbo (Merchant of Venice) and Costard (Love's Labours Lost) — four of them altogether, and it was wonderful.'
After the Carry On films and two years at the National Theatre he was offered the script of Barnum and had an immediate gut feeling that it would be a smash hit and a long run. He played the role for two years — mainly on Broadway but also on tour for six months — with Glenn Close as Mrs. Barnum.
So what next after Oliver! — how about another
musical? On the coffee table in front of him is a cassette and a note from two
of New York's top composers asking him to consider something they have in mind,
it-would be a big commitment. ‘When I came to take over from Jonathon
Pryce in Oliver! it was a mere five weeks’ rehearsal then I opened. If
I had originated the role, I would have been involved in pre-production, maybe
10 weeks of rehearsals, three or four weeks of previews and then at least a one