Show People: Sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roles: Ian Dury

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IAN DURY has - used to have - something of a reputation as an awkward customer, but the RSC press office said he was a pussy-cat, and that seems to be the image he's trying to project. Which is not to say that he isn't genuinely affable; but he is noticeably concerned that people might get the wrong idea. He's worried by references to drink and drugs, and particularly hurt by an allegation last year (untrue, he insists) that he once threatened to have somebody chain-whipped: 'Suppose my mother read that?'

This is the new, cuddly Ian Dury - the one Elton John warned was in danger of becoming the Roy Hudd of rock'n'roll. At 51, he seems to be going Establishment. He used to hang out with mates like the Sulphate Strangler; now he attends dinners at the Royal Academy ('It said 'Decorations will be worn'. I had my boy scout badge on'). He's doing his second stint writing songs for the RSC - last year it was Max Stafford-Clark's production of Richard Brome's obscure pre- Civil War romp, A Jovial Crew; Stafford- Clark was pleased enough with the result to give Dury a crack at an undisputed classic, William Wycherley's The Country Wife. Granted, he's not exactly a cosy family man - his marriage, which produced two children, ended in 1985. But otherwise, he's the model of respectability. He lives in a large, dingy flat in a mansion block overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith with his son, Baxter. On the bookshelf in his study - dusty and crammed with drums, speakers and keyboards - Wittgenstein rubs up against Barbie: Her Life and Times. His desk is occupied by Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, in which he is searching for language to suit Wycherley's bawdy Restoration milieu.

But perhaps it's cheating to dress Dury up as a rock'n'roll hard man gone soft. For one thing, the intelligence and good humour were always pretty obvious, even back in the glory days of the late Seventies, when Ian Dury and the Blockheads were charting regularly with songs like 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' (his greatest hit - No 1 for a week in January 1979, 900,000 copies shifted in the UK).

The songs were as much music-hall as rock. They had catchy tunes, tinged with funk and blues, by Chaz Jankel, and Dury's natty rhymes - 'Hit me with your rhythm stick / Je t'adore, Ich liebe dich'; 'Knock me dahn wiv a fevver / Clevor Trever' (sic). He produced sharp character sketches like 'Plaistow Patricia' and 'Billericay Dickie' - Essex man 15 years before his time. He was born in Upminster in 1942. His father was a bus driver and later a chauffeur, his mother was middle-class and well-educated. He was, he says, a child of 'dual heritage'.

When he was seven he contracted polio, he thinks from a swimming-pool in Southend. He spent a year and a half in hospital, some of it encased in plaster to stop his body twisting up. His left arm and leg are still visibly deformed, and there's no doubt that his disability contributed to the startling figure he cut with the Blockheads: a pantomime villain with dark, greasy curls and louche sideburns, canted over on to a walking-stick and bellowing music-hall lyrics in a throaty cockney Sprechgesang. Sometimes he actually sang properly, but he says he has trouble sticking to just the one key.

He was sent to a school for the disabled in Sussex, where it was the policy to leave boys to get up by themselves if they fell over - 'So there were quite a few tortoises lying around.' After that, he boarded at High Wycombe Royal Grammar School, which he hated - although family loyalty leads him to concede that a lot of aunties rallied round to help pay for it so maybe he shouldn't complain.

Art school was the great liberation: first Walthamstow, where he was taught by Peter Blake, now a friend, and then the Royal College of Art, where he met Karel Weight and Sir Roger de Grey, PRA, and the Royal Academy connection crept in. He wanted to sing rock then, but his natural tunelessness ruled him out, and his first proper band wasn't until 1970 - Kilburn and the High Roads, formed at Canterbury Art College, where he was teaching. The college sacked him for non-attendance when the band began to take off; but that was a mere forerunner of the success that came in after he joined forces with Jankel in 1976. New Boots and Panties]] (1977) was his first solo album. It stayed in the charts for 90 weeks. There followed a short string of Top 10 hits with the Blockheads - 'What a Waste', 'Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3)' - but by 1981 their appeal was waning. Their last fling was 'Spasticus Autisticus', a bitter song written for the Year of the Disabled in 1981; most radio stations refused to play it.

Meanwhile, Dury branched out into acting. His roguish presence graced a number of forgettable films - Polanski's Pirates, the Bob Dylan vehicle Hearts of Fire, Rocinante: he only needed Ishtar to complete the set. On television, he did little better with King of the Ghetto. People kept casting him, though - the impression is that at the very least they liked having him around. His first real acting success was in the Royal Court production of Jim Carter's Road in 1987, which also brought the Stafford-Clark connection. There followed Apples (1989), a fully-fledged musical at the Court, with tunes by Mickey Gallagher (still his songwriting partner). The reviews were unanimously awful; Dury thinks his mistake was to write the songs before the book. With The Country Wife, the book is already there.

Since then he's been shrewd enough to play to his strengths, rejecting offers for jobs that may be beyond his range (he says he's turned down Richard III three times). He still keen to play rock'n'roll but the work isn't there - the Blockheads last re-formed three years ago, to do some benefit gigs for the family of their drummer, the late Charley Charles. In the meantime, he has acting and writing to keep him busy. 'There ain't half been some clever bastards,' Ian Dury used to sing. And he was one of them.

'The Country Wife' previews at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon (0789 295623) from Wed, opens 10 Aug.

(Photograph omitted)