What a difference a Dee makes

She won an Olivier for her role in Carousel, is championed by Alan Aykbourn and has turned down the US for the West End. So why, asks David Lister, is Janie Dee still worrying?
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Now here's something Janie Dee has never revealed before. The tall, blonde, bubbly, gloriously talented and award-winning actress chose the stage name Dee after getting a crush on a colleague during a pantomime a couple of decades ago. His name started with a D: as in David, as in David Jason. Yes, Del Boy himself was the unknowing object of the young actress's affections. Indeed, he still doesn't know.

She let the piece of information slip (and it took some pretty tricky negotiating to allow me to use it) during our chat about her name. Janie Dee worries about her name. For a woman who has won the best actress prize at the Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics' Circle awards in the same season (a feat matched only by Dames Judi Dench and Diana Rigg), she worries a lot. She worries about her ability, about how she is viewed in the profession, and, now, about her name.

"I was with a troupe of dancers when I was a teenager, and we were in a Ken Campbell panto with David Jason. I was 17 and I thought he was the most talented, hunky, sexy man that I'd ever met, and I got such a crush on him, and I don't think he ever really knew. And I named myself Janie Dee after him. Janie Dee does seem to go with the parts I play," she says, frowning, "the Janie Dee twinkly girl."

I reply that I suppose Janie Dee as Cleopatra might sound a little bit odd. And that makes her look more depressed. Which is a pity, because she has the most wonderful smile, one that seems to dance into life just below her eyes. So I change my mind. Of course, you can be called Janie Dee and still play Cleopatra.

"Oh, I hope so," she sighs. "There's such a serious side to me that I don't bother to tell people about."

At the moment, though, a touch of twinkly won't do any harm. She is about to open in the West End in a musical comedy, My One and Only. The tap-dancing show, which features the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, was an Eighties Broadway confection and a big hit for Twiggy.

Over the years, Dee has done a lot more than twinkle. She won an Olivier for her portrayal of Carrie Pipperidge in the National Theatre's Carousel, in which she was as infectiously effervescent as she is in real life. She was much praised last year for her performance in Chekhov's Three Sisters at Chichester, where, according to one critic, she made Masha "a living force, at once desperate and spikily independent". She also played a very young Lady Capulet in a Regent's Park open-air production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Judi Dench in 1993. It was there that she met her future husband: Rupert Wickham, who was playing Mercutio.

"We never spoke to each other at the time," she says, a little dolefully. "I was far too intimidated by this great Shakespearean actor to speak to him." They clearly spoke afterwards, as they have a five-year-old daughter, Matilda. Rupert now concentrates on theatre for children, with the group Theatre Unlimited.

Dee's great champion is Alan Ayckbourn. He cast her in the lead of Comic Potential, where she played an amorous android. Those of us who saw it will not easily forget the moment of sublime comic timing, when her human boyfriend went under the table at a restaurant to fix the machinery between her legs. As the young man put his head under her skirt, she attempted to soothe the glaring waiter by confiding girlishly: "It's our anniversary."

But those of us who saw it did not include some of those that Dee wanted to see it. "It was a desperate thing for me. I thought, 'Please Nick Hytner, please Sam Mendes, come and see me in this.' Nick didn't see me in anything after Carousel. I wrote him a letter," she says, her voice trailing off; then she perks up. "Alan Ayckbourn is my champion because he didn't know I had a serious side, but he observed it."

Perhaps Dee, who is equally gifted as an actress, singer and dancer, suffers, in that strangely British way, from being too versatile. If she were just a classical actress, our top directors would make it their business to see her. If Hytner and Mendes missed her performance in Comic Potential, it was their loss. But for Dee, it adds to her own self-doubt. "It's how you think of yourself. I feel I don't know enough. I feel I'm not really good enough. There may be one performance in a whole run where I feel it's really completely worked."

The penchant for self-criticism seems, in part, to come from the perfectionism of her parents. They now live in France, a country that dad, a former motor cyclist, fell in love with when he competed in a rally in the south of France. Janie, who used to ride with him a lot herself, tells how he "gave up his exciting career as a motorcyclist because he saw one of his mates bouncing his one-year-old on his knee before a race and at the end of the race he was dead. Dad himself once skidded for a couple of hundred yards on his nose and still has the scar. So he gave it all up and became a Mother's Pride delivery man."

It could be that her father wants the oldest of his four daughters to be the best at her dream because he had to give up his. Janie says: "He is very critical of me. And it doesn't matter what I am doing; if my father is in the audience – daddy has been so critical and my husband is critical as well. But you're grateful in the end because it makes you achieve things you didn't think you could."

She still thinks of her Buckinghamshire village childhood with great warmth, though there was a period when the family were poor and Janie looked after her three sisters while her mother went out to work. "And then," she says, "we became middle class. It was very odd. Dad got lucky. He got a business."

She and her sisters all went to the Arts Educational School. Janie began to excel at dancing (though her sisters were no slouches, one going to the Royal Ballet School). The dancing brought Janie to the edges of anorexia. "About the age of 13 to 14, it ruined that time of my life. All I could think about was not eating and what my figure looked like."

That experience made her wary when the opportunity came to join the Hot Gossip dance troupe. Its leader, Arlene Phillips, said she would have to lose weight to join the outfit. She refused and danced and acted in variety and pantomime, where she encountered David Jason and her stage name, before giving it all up in her mid-twenties to go to Rome for two years to teach dance.

"In Rome I taught, I went to singing lessons and learnt to cook. I met so many lovely Italians. I almost had a fling with somebody, and thank God I didn't because it turned out he was gay. He would kiss me and I would fall completely in love and I would be heartbroken and I would think I'm not good enough, of course."

But she came back to Britain and back to acting, eventually making her name at the National Theatre.

To bring My One and Only to the West End, she turned down a leading part in the forthcoming stage musical of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She also turned down the chance to be a TV star in America. She was wooed to be in a TV series – actually not just in a TV series, but to have one moulded around her – but she refused.

Certainly, she has a genuine belief in My One and Only. "I said to the producers, 'Don't do this by halves, have a big orchestra, pull out all the stops and I will work my butt off and be a great leading lady.'"

But also, being on TV in America would bring her personal problems. She would see less of her husband, her daughter and the London flat with, she stresses, the sofa on which she gave birth to Matilda. "I was flown out to LA," she says, "and given the treatment. I got introduced to everybody, But they told me I had to sign a big six-year agreement before I even screen-tested. I said: 'Maybe a film would be nice.' But they said: 'You're a TV person.' They saw me as the new comedy girl. But I was having a terrible time with my husband because of this. He said: 'So you're going to live in California. You'll end up playing some naff butler.' And I thought, 'I'm giving up my home, my country, my family for six years.' It was nice to be loved and they were going to build a show round me. I thought, 'This is my dream.' Then I realised on the plane, 'I've already got my dream.'"

'My One and Only' opens at the Piccadilly Theatre, London (020-7369 1734) on 25 Feb

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