Teen dream that came true
They're 19, live at home, are the biggest pop idols since East 17 and a re very, very nice. John Lyttle has a Coke with PJ and Duncan Some time soon they plan to use the names they were born with `Did you see Byker Grove at the start? I was crap, man, crap'
Thursday 12 January 1995
Neither PJ nor Duncan clock the response. When you're hot (five hit singles and one gold album, Pysche, in the past 12 months) you don't. Hell, when you're 19 you don't and PJ and Duncan are both famous and 19.
"We've been shopping today," says PJ. "We bought new trainers, the both of us. Look. Great, hey?" Legs are lifted to display the footwear. Neat. "We did bags of shopping. 'Cause we got a photo session on Saturday. Is it for Germany? Could be for Germany.The new single's out there. Not sure. Don't know. Anyhow, we had to get different looks so the stylist will have a choice."
Duncan starts chatting about doing Top of the Pops yesterday and how it takes time, two run throughs and two rehearsals, and PJ breaks in to say how yesterday he kept missing his camera and the cameraman had to "do this". He mimes the contorted pose the poor man was forced to adopt and Duncan cracks up. Really, sweetly, sincerely cracks up. The bar man looks over. They did order Cokes, didn't they?
PJ and Duncan like being pop stars. In fact, the thing about PJ and Duncan is that they like everything. Getting the right gear, girls screaming at them and not at Take That or East 17, attending the Smash Hits party to collect a Best New Act Award and being the last to leave. "Everyone thought we were party animals, you know, out every night, but all last year we were on the road, going from gig to gig, to this club and that club," PJ says. "We stayed till the end because we hadn't been out for ages." Still, they even like being on the road in their smelly van. To repeat: they like everything.
No, revise that: PJ and Duncan don't particularly enjoy being known as PJ and Duncan any more. Those are the names of the characters they played on the BBC children's programme Byker Grove for six years, until leaving late in 1993, and their music company thought it best to launch them as their alter-egos. Duncan appreciates why - "That's who we were known as" - but some time soon they plan to use the names they were born with, exchanging Duncan for Declan Donnelly and PJ for Anthony McPartlin. Names for grown-ups, because they are "Declan and Anthony, or Ant. Most of the the music mags already call him Ant. That's who he is."
But that's the future. Here's the past. "We met on Byker Grove," says PJ. "We just clicked. We've been mates ever since." It's easy to see why. It's a classic Likely Lads scenario. Duncan's the quiet - well, the quieter one, the youngest of seven children, the one girls want to (s)mother - and PJ's the oldest of three, the only boy, the stud as cheeky chappie: "Did you see Byker Grove at the start? I was looking at some old tapes. I was crap, man, crap."
It couldn't work better if it was scripted, right down to the loving families they both still live with. "My Mum," PJ says, "you'd love her. The plumber will call and she'll tell him who her son is. `He's that PJ. He's had hit records.'" Duncan laughs. His Mum "points out the gold record" to anyone who comes into the house while he waits for the ground to open up. They both hoot. They love their Mums: "Our Mums are great."
Their Newcastle agent wants to keep them unspoilt. "He threatens to break our legs if we get `extravagant'," they say. But it's actually their families who keep heads from swelling, especially their sisters, who know all about how teen idols should conduct themselves, thank you, and can't quite credit that their brothers are the focus of adolescent lust and media mania. Duncan has moments of doubt too. "Some mornings I look in the mirror and I wonder who I am. Who's that face? Why are girls screaming atme?" PJ gives him a funny look. But if Duncan can't talk to PJ about it, he can always share his angst with God. "I'm a Catholic and it's important to me. I lie in bed at night and I have someone to talk to. It's my faith. I'd feel less without it. Simple, really."
Faith has certainly been required. Whichever way you cut it, the past six years have been extraordinary. The boys have been through it all: the auditions designed to suction non-professional working-class locals off the streets of Newcastle and into television, having to learn to act on the trot, dealing with public recognition.
What Duncan remembers most, however, is that his teachers suddenly turned cool, told him he wouldn't amount to anything and that he must abandon acting. "I was in the headmaster's office and he asked how much money I was getting. I said that was private.My parents left the choice up to me. I chose Byker Grove."
There have been sacrifices, though. The pressures of celebrity caused a final break between PJ and his girlfriend Nicola Bell, who played Debbie Dobson on Byker Grove: "When you're touring you can't have a relationship by phone. I'm terrible on the phone." And Duncan lost his main squeeze, actress Claire Buckfield (Jenny in 2.4 Children) for the same reason. Duncan says the record company told them this would be a tough year and they'd have to work hard and give up things, but, still, you know . . . .
The other sacrifice might be music itself. Three years ago the lads were Indie music-crazed.They worshipped Inspiral Carpets and the Stone Roses. Today the songs have titles like `Why Me?'" and `Eternal Love' and `Let's Get Ready to Rhumble' (sic) - the latter was a great pop single, but hardly indie flash.
"Our fans are young girls, 10, 11, 12 and that's what they're into," PJ adds. "They're so honest. They'll tell you what they hated." And it's not as if taking the commercial route has hurt their "credibility". PJ and Duncan are hip with everyone from theSun to the NME. Pre-packaged as they are, they also seem authentic. They seem to be having fun. They seem to think it's all rather a happy accident. "That's it!" says PJ. "The album cover [gaudy, bright, deliberately cheap] is meant to be a joke. Us dressing up as the Pet Shop Boys, that was a joke. We just decided to do it.
They're right to trust their instincts. One reason they're successful is that they are, in a sense, their own audience. They know the desires and hopes of their fans because they've been there, indeed, are still.
"I remember watching Top of the Pops when I was a kid" PJ says, admiring his new trainers. "I dreamed that one day I would be on it. And I am. It's wonderful. Everything I imagined." Duncan nods and wonders if he should have another Coke.
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