Thursday, November 1, 2012

2. - The Man, The Legend

Very few people have the skills to be both a great actor, and a great presenter, but Tony James is a master of them both. A true professional, who has performed at the highest level on the small screen, the big screen, and the big stage. He has performed on the small stage too, but that wasn't an important part of the context.

Tony isn't just a great performer, he is popular too. Not 'very' popular, not 'national treasure' popular, not even 'Stephen Fry' popular, he is perhaps the most well loved actor in the whole country.

Tony started professional acting back in the mid 1970's, a charming young actor who worked his way up through the ranks to starring roles in the West End in less than 5 years. He hadn't planned on being an actor, but after some cajoling from friends he made the move to the stage.

His first show was the Bingley Amateur Dramatics Group's performance of Star Trek – The Musical, where his portrayal of William Shatner playing Captain Kirk was the obvious highlight in a show with several major flaws. Firstly, the music had been composed by a tone deaf YES fan, so large parts of the show consisted of the crew stood waiting to beam up while he simultaneously played four gigantic synthesizers (in three and a half different keys) for several minutes to create 'dramatic effect'. Secondly, the synthesizers took up two thirds of the stage, leaving just enough room for a small control deck and just two transportation pods. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the audience for opening night consisted of three hardcore Star Trek nerds, two ushers, one local theatre critic, and a 16 year old interval ice cream salesman who had mistakenly turned up on the wrong day for his first day of work.

The following weekend the Bingley Gazette printed more starred out expletives in one edition than in it's entire 60 year history combined. Four. To call the review damning would be kind. However one single bit of the show was singled out for praise:

Somehow, in this chaotic, cacophonous calamity, Tony James manages to put in a solid performance as the one character in the show that doesn't make you want to rip your seat from the floor and smash it over their heads.”

From this inauspicious start, Tony worked his way up through the local societies to get his real big break starring in the new show by popular gritty Yorkshire playwright Stan Faulkner. Entitled “Down't Mine Again”, the show told the story of three Sheffield miners who decided to form their own union, against strong pressure from pit bosses and the local community. Tony performed the lead role of John Houghton with the kind of dark, relatable urban realism that won a full 2 minute standing ovation every night.

Universally positive reviews for Down't Mine Again brought Tony to the attention of West End producers, who were putting together their line ups for their new season of shows. Wisely turning down an offer of the lead role in working men's club comedian Harold Munnings show 'So Long and Thanks for all the Foreigners', Tony saw the potential in a bold new show by an unknown writer, and took his vision to producers, whom he eventually convinced to commission 'The Slightly Camp Transvestite and Vampire Show' despite them privately fearing the worst.

Whilst not an instant hit, the critical reception was so positive that audiences gradually increased, after 6 months the show was selling out every night, and Tony became the most wanted man in both the West End and certain parts of Soho.

The surprising success of The Slightly Camp Transvestite and Vampire Show gave Tony his first forays onto the small screen, appearing on the popular evening chat show 'Tea with Terence' and the late night BBC theatre show 'Is Anybody Watching?'. The feedback from both parties was very positive, and they were sure of inviting him back at a later date. As a note of accuracy, Tony also appeared on the family entertainment show 'It's a Gigantic Foam and Gunge Party' as a 7 foot squirrel, in his later autobiography he considered this the low point of his career, even though he managed to smash the world record for 'most plastic nuts rescued from a rotating mechanical tree-house in two minutes'. A record that was held for four years until being narrowly beaten by minor ex-royal Geraldine Wolesley.

Tony didn't appear on another entertainment show for five years, until he made an appearance on Celebrity Noughts and Crosses, sat underneath Irish singer Nadine Cole. Rumours that it was not the only time he was underneath her were never proven, but his reputation as a ladies man continued to grow from this point onwards.

His next venture in the West End was a leading role in Martin Houghton's 'La Calamity', which defied audience expectations to become a long running smash hit. By now Tony's reputation as a gifted actor was spreading, and he took the show to Broadway, however the use of subtitles meant that American audiences were not as receptive, and it closed after three months.

While he would return to the legitimate theatre later, and also take part in a radical illegitimate theatre experiment with the Cambridge Society for Theatrical Experimentation; for the next couple of years Tony's attentions turned to the small screen.

An initial performance as a gigantic alien Lugworm on long running science fiction show 'Space Doctor' proved his acting talents were not just restricted to the stage, and parts came flooding in. His comedy skills were tested by taking the leading role in the BBC sitcom 'Mommy's Boy' playing an incompetent fool with no spatial coordination. Despite injuring himself several times performing the stunts, the show was a runaway success, and impressions of his lead character became staples of Christmas Day television for the next decade.

It was, rather ironically, on the set of his next show, the historical drama 'Country Boys', famous for containing the first prime time gay kiss on British screens, that he met his first wife, the actress Judith Long. Tall and pretty, with flowing chestnut hair and piercing green eyes, Tony was quick to ask her out. In his autobiography Tony described how in slight naivety, he introduced his fondness for her by announcing that it was in fact her that he was thinking about whilst kissing his co-star Kenneth. Luckily she saw the funny side and the two were quickly a couple, moving in to their Leeds cottage in 1982.

In just seven years Tony James had gone from local nobody to a universally loved stage and TV star. A position that he has maintained consistently ever since, barring a spell in the mid-nineties following the disastrous performance of the dated prime-time show 'The Tony James Variety Experience'. From the outset the programme was beset by problems, a lack of coherent direction and a guest booking policy that bordered on the suicidal. Following the last guest on episode two, a blind man juggling three ferrets to the music of David Bowie, Tony resigned publicly on air and vowed never to work for LTV again.

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