The Giles Smith interview
Jim Dale's career story would make a convincing 'Carry On' film: from comic to pop idol to Broadway star. Now he's a youthful 60 but he's still so ... well, rude
Monday 04 September 1995
You could probably fashion, from the bare outline of Jim Dale's career in show business, a passable British comedy film of the kind Dale himself used to star in. It would feature a teenage stand-up comic from Kettering, trying to make it on the fast-fading music hall circuit in the 1950s and failing rather miserably until he is suddenly, by mistake, swept to fame as a pop star and teen scream-idol. Extricated from this, our hero then finds himself running a dual career as both serious thespian alongside Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre, and Carry On movie star, making really terrible jokes with Sid James. And when this goes kaput, he becomes a top-grossing major star on Broadway and an American exile all but forgotten in his homeland, except at Christmas or whenever else the BBC chooses to screen Carry On up the Khyber. You could call this film Now, Here's a Thing or A Funny Turn or Up and Down with Jim Dale. Or, simply, Blimey.
Best, perhaps, to avoid a pat ending - one in which our hero returns after 20 years, springs on to a stage in a West End musical and reveals talents none of his countrymen had guessed at. But, in fact, this is the part of the plot which Jim Dale is working on right now. He has shipped himself from his home in New York back to London, installed himself in a rented flat in Upper Brook Street and begins tonight a nine-month run at the Palladium as Fagin in the Cameron Mackintosh production of Lionel Bart's Oliver.
Ten years ago, the actor Kenneth Williams caught sight of Dale, his old Carry On co-star, on television in conversation with Alan Whicker. Williams wrote in his diary: "There was that ghastly Whicker basket interviewing Jim Dale in New York ... He [Dale] looked as if he'd aged a bit and the figure has thickened out. The old boyish charm has gone." Either Williams was caught up in his own gloom at the passing of time, or Dale has had some sort of boyishness transplant in the meantime, because the Dale that walks smartly to the stage-door of the Palladium could possibly have trouble getting served in an off-licence. He is wearing jeans and trainers and a denim shirt over a white T-shirt. His eyes are bright and he still forms that faintly lascivious pursed smile familiar from the Carry Ons.
We stop briefly at his dressing room - positively palatial by the cramped standards of London theatres - and then go for coffee, over which Dale talks fluidly and animatedly. And although he protests slightly at the way people's attention falls so much on the Carry On part of his story, he is still clearly attached to those films and not above dredging up, unprompted, the odd scenario from them. ("Like in Carry On Cowboy, when I say to Sid James, 'Last night Colonel Houston's ranch was raided and they got away with 40 cows.' And Sid says, 'Bullocks.' And I say, 'I know what I'm talking about.' And Sid says, 'And I know what I'm talking about - they were bullocks, not cows.' ") He draws some words out in an actorly way as if quietly singing them. Also, he has slightly soft Rs. There's a joke there somewhere.
Jim Dale was 60 in the middle of last month but his sense of humour was at least 349. He admits as much quite cheerily, referring to an idea someone once had for a show trawling 400 years of comedy - a sort of rib-ticklers- through-the-ages number. The show never reached a theatre, but Dale reckons that, if it had, we would have seen a fairly continuous thread of bawdiness running through this history with sexual innuendo prominently featured. This is Dale's kind of humour. "I am an aficionado of crude humour," he declares, "I love it, I adore it." He is apt to refer to the type as "essentially British". "That's who we are," he says. "We're the Brits. We laugh at that kind of humour."
Dale refers me, in this context, to a line he enjoyed from Me and My Girl. "A duchess comes up and says, 'Do you know my daughter May?' And I say, 'No, I didn't, but thanks for the tip.' " (A large amount of pleasure plays around on Dale's face even in the re-telling of this.) He explains how, in America, this line utterly bombs. "And this partly has to do with the word 'may', which isn't used much in American speech: it's not 'May I have the sugar?' - it's 'Pass the sugar.' But in any case, only the Brits anticipate a double entendre."
To work properly, a double entendre requires a context in which things are unmentionable. And Dale came to comedy in what was, by any standards, a golden age for suppression. "This was the 1950s. You couldn't do rude jokes," he says. "They weren't allowed. We're talking here about the old music hall theatres. In those days, theatres had the same audiences every week: that seat there was always Mrs Wilson's on a Tuesday night. Fred Brown and his daughters came on Wednesday. And the manager didn't want you doing any lewd material and upsetting Fred Brown's daughters."
Dale started doing stand-up comedy at 17. "It was nothing like the modern style. There was none of this 'I was on my way here tonight when ... ', or 'You know how it is when you're on an aeroplane ... ' - none of that. It was jokes - 'Did you hear the one about ... ' " Dale enlivened his act by introducing some physical stunts - some eccentric dancing, some tumbling. This had mixed results. At 18, responding to a heckler on the second balcony of the Glasgow Empire, Dale shouted, "I've got one word for you." "Oh yeah? What is it?" the heckler asked. "Jump," said Dale. After the show, the heckler was waiting at the stage door along with his friends. "I got a fist in the face, a boot in the stomach. It taught me not to answer back."
There was less dangerous work available, warming up the audience for the television pop show Six Five Special. But then he found himself drafted on to the show itself. George Martin, later to produce the Beatles, was looking for a British Elvis to assist in turning around the fortunes of the Parlophone record label. He thought he'd discovered it in Dale, who went to number two in the charts in 1957 with "Be My Girl" and followed up with three further Top 30 hits. "Suddenly," Dale says, flatly, "there were hysterical girls wanting to tear me to pieces."
If your real name was James Smith and you were the son of a foundry worker from Northamptonshire, this might well have seemed like the most fun it was possible to have. But abruptly - and to the amazement of Martin - Dale announced that he was jacking it in to return to comedy. "It didn't make sense to me that you walked on stage and they screamed at you. What for? What had you done? They were screaming at an idea of you as some sort of Presley figure. I put a bullet through its head and it didn't upset me at all - except the sudden loss of revenue." (Even that, Dale would shortly compensate for by writing, in the mid-1960s, the song "Georgy Girl". The royalty cheques continue to this day.)
In the early 1960s, Dale secured a lunchtime television show. Then the Carry On films took off, with Dale as the regular juvenile lead, "mugging like mad". Off-set, Kenneth Williams would flirt with Dale outrageously. Dale would point out that he was married with children. Williams would tell him he was just playing hard to get.
By Dale's count, he made 13 films with the Carry On team, beginning in 1962 and completing approximately three movies every two years. Each one was shot in eight weeks. "If we'd known it was going to be around years later, I think all of us would have made some effort to polish it." Dale's run came to an end in 1970. He had wooed Anita Harris in Carry On Doctor. He had run away to join the Foreign Legion in Carry On - Follow that Camel. But he drew the line at Carry On up the Jungle. "I read the script and I just didn't like it. They wanted me to play Tarzan and I thought that was ridiculous."
In any case, by then the theatre director Frank Dunlop had talked him into doing some Shakespeare ("I said no at first. I was a stand-up comic. But Frank pointed out to me that Shakespeare wrote clowns for comics. He showed me the link between, 'Hello, my name's Jim Dale' and 'Hello, I'm Autolycus, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles' "). And 1970 was the year Laurence Olivier asked Dale to join the National Theatre company. "It wasn't as if I had risen above the Carry Ons," Dale says, "but I was working very hard at the National, sometimes doing three plays a week, including a two-hander with Anthony Hopkins." (Actually, "hander" isn't quite the right word. The play was The Architect and Emperor of Assyria, a piece of Spanish expressionism which required the actors to perform from a pair of forklift trucks.)
His American break came in 1974 when Scapino, a Moliere adaptation, opened on Broadway. It got him nominated for a Tony and led him to the title role in the circus musical Barnum, for which the New York Times declared him "the toast of Broadway". A string of well-paid roles has followed, many of them in British items: Comedians, Privates on Parade and, most recently, Travels With My Aunt. "I never had any intention of setting up out there," Dale says. "It's just the way it broke. They offered me work there which I would never have got here."
As a result of which, Dale now lives in a Manhattan apartment on Park Avenue and 58th Street, two blocks away from the art gallery owned by his wife, Julie Schafler, to whom he has been married for 14 years. "I went into this gallery one day and walked out with the owner," he says, with the slickness of someone who has used this line before. The couple also own a country house an hour and a half away from the city on a 90- acre estate. "Live where your wife lives," Dale advises me. (Alternatively, live where your ex-wife doesn't: Dale and his first wife, Tricia, divorced in 1981 after a 23-year marriage. Dale has four children from this marriage and three grandchildren.)
He says his Fagin will "bring out the stand-up comic in the role, the mother hen, too". ("You want depth," he adds, "read the book.") Audiences may see a Dale they didn't know existed, but it may not obliterate in their minds the one they know well. On holiday once, walking with his wife in a remote part of Anguilla in the Leeward Islands, Dale noticed up ahead a large and threatening-looking man emerging from the bushes. Dale muttered to his wife to be ready to run. The man drew nearer and squinted at Dale very hard. Then he said: "Mr Jim Dale! Carry On films!" and shook him warmly by the hand.
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