Linda Trapnell

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Interviewer: Lynda Trapnell

(This article describes Jim's work in creating Fagin in "Oliver!"  at the London Palladium) 

 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!"

Although he now lives in New York, he’s making the most of being back on home ground. 'I love living in London, although this will be the first time I have spent Christmas in England since 1973. I’m a theatre-based actor and this city is great for having a theatre community around you so it’s a real joy to be here. I didn’t want to he prevented from getting to the theatre by subway strikes or bad weather or anything, so I have rented an apartment nearby. It only takes me twelve minutes to walk to the theatre'. 

It's during these walks he is still recognized by people — particularly children which he thinks is mainly because the Carry On films now have a cult status in Europe. Taxi drivers recognize him too, but in their laconic way, never say anything until he’s handing over the cash. I get the impression he doesn’t mind these encounters at all and is rather touched by the attention after so many years on the other side of the pond. 

So how did the wheels turn to bring him back to British boards? ‘I came over to London to do The Music Man for BBC radio and one of Cameron Mackintosh’s representatives was there and asked me if I would like to play Fagin after Jonathan Pryce left. The thing was, I’d never seen Oliver! — I hadn’t even seen the film version with Ron Moody.  At the time, I was appearing in Travels With My Aunt in New York which was going to finish in July, so I said I could come over in August, which fitted in nicely and the deal was made.’ 

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 rehearsals'. 

'If anyone felt something didn’t work, out it went. If a piece of business didn’t look right from the front of house, we would amend it until it did. A stage like the Palladium is huge, and can take a hundred people comfortably, but it is also intimate, you can just put one person dead center and it works. For the song ‘Reviewing the Situation’ we simply sat me down on the chest in the footlights, and let the audience just focus on what I was saying and singing. Sometimes in the midst of all the movement and dancing, you ask that of audience, it can be magical.'' 

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 year contract. 

It's fine to take a huge chunk out of your life doing one show when you are 25 or 30, but later on, a year and a half doing one role is a long time. Playing Barnum was like running a four-minute mile every night because I put so much into it. Gene Kelly came to see Scapino years and years ago, and he saw how exhausted I was. He said 'You know Jim, when I used to do fast, precision tap dancing, the audience cheered and it was lovely. But when I got a little older, I did a 'soft-shoe-shuffle' instead but with the same precision, and the audience cheered just as much. You don’t have to flog yourself to death.'   
Jim chuckled, 'I know what he means', he said, 'and he's right. Where can I buy soft-shoes?'

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"The Creation of Fagin in Oliver!"


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