Actor John Partridge talks to Ruth Supple about returning to EastEnders, not regretting his time on Celebrity Big Brother and how he’s looking forward to returning to Northampton this month to star at Derngate in the hit musical, Chicago . . . .
Sorry for keeping you waiting; I’m running behind today because I started back on EastEnders yesterday and am filming that in the day and Chicago at night,” apologises award winning actor John Partridge to me at the start of our conversation. “I’m supposed to be having an eye test now because my eyes are getting a bit tired. It’s an age thing; I’ve got floaters and that’s apparently because collagen is breaking down in them - who’d have thought you’d have collagen there? I’m turning 45 soon and it’s all going rapidly downhill!”
It’s a refreshingly frank opening to my interview with the star, who is best known for playing Christian Clarke for more than five years in the hit BBC1 soap, EastEnders . . . a role he has just returned to after a break of more than 12 months. And he says it’s “wonderful” being back on the famous set of Albert Square.
“It was my first day back yesterday and it felt wonderful; like putting on a nice comfortable pair of shoes. It was wonderful to see everyone again and just felt like I’d never been away. Everyone was very welcoming and it seemed so natural to be back.”
Huge secrecy surrounds the storylines in EastEnders and any attempts to find out if John is back for an alleged major twists are quickly and politely rebuffed.
“I think what I’m filming for now will be screening around June,” he can say. “Obviously there’s a long and ongoing storyline with the Beale family and the whole ‘who killed Lucy?’ thread. Christian has come back to look after Jane Beale and it is going to be a big year for the Beale family.
“Unfortunately I can’t tell you any more though. If I told you what happens, I’d have to kill you!”
It could be a line from his current theatre tour of Chicago, which comes to Northampton’s Derngate this month. John plays the lead role of smooth-talking lawyer, Billy Flynn, and after a day on set at EastEnders, he has to carry on working at night, though that is something he doesn’t mind at all.
“I am released at a certain time of day off set at EastEnders so I can continue in the tour of Chicago, and they’ve worked around my schedule, which is fantastic,” says John. “I thrive on being at work; work is the best remedy and cure. And the best thing about my job is I get to bit of everything, from stage and television to presenting and reality TV. I’m very lucky to work in the field I love, that’s the way I look at it. I’m a jobbing actor and love every minute of it, although in this business you’re not always going to be in work. Ask any actor and they will tell you they always worry that nobody will employ them again and that this job will be their last.
“At the moment I’m absolutely loving being Christian Clarke in the day and then transforming into Billy Flynn at night.”
It’s the second time in a matter of months that John has been in Northampton. Last Christmas, he starred as Prince Charming in the panto, Cinderella, and says he is really looking forward to coming back to the town.
“I had a wonderful time at Christmas in Northampton. The audiences were fantastic and the theatre is a well-oiled machine,” he says. “Everyone at Derngate works very hard and I’m really looking forward to bringing Chicago to Derngate. We’ve had a fantastic response to the show, which was really ahead of its time when it was first released.
“It deals with celebrity and the celebrity culture and the lengths people will go to to keep their profile in the media . . . murder in this case. It’s real tabloid story stuff and my character, Billy Flynn, is the king of spin. I get to wear the tux, shiny shoes and have my hair slicked back every night and love it.”
John is no stranger to that celebrity culture, having been in showbiz from 16 after training from the young age of nine as a ballet dancer with the Royal Ballet School.
“I was 16 when I made my first professional appearance in the West End in Cats and then went from show to show. I’ve honestly lost count of how many West End musicals I’ve been in; it’s in my blood.”
Instead of playing someone else though, he was himself when he chose to go into the Channel 5 Celebrity Big Brother house earlier this year. In spite of being heckled and booed when he left the house in sixth place, John says he has no regrets about his choice to put himself in the spotlight.
“I was incredibly difficult for me; I think I would challenge anybody not to find it the same. It was very intense experience but I survived it and still have five fingers and five toes,” he tells me (and I take it he means on both hands and feet). “It did no lasting damage to me and I’m having a fantastic time right now.”
During his time in the house, he tells me he built up a friendship with the music producer, David Gest, who died suddenly in April, just months after the show ended.
“It was shocking news to hear of David’s death,” says John. “David was a wonderful, kind-hearted man. I didn’t know him before I went into the Big Brother house, but we became friends and we spoke many times since leaving. He came to see Chicago in Wimbledon and we spoke regularly. He was about to go on tour and was full of life, a warm, kind-hearted, very loveable man and it is an absolute shock.
“He was great in the house and always managed to lift the mood. It’s one of those events you don’t expect and it’s terribly sad.”
John entered the Big Brother house a day after finishing panto at Derngate and says he took part in the reality TV show to pay for his mother, Bridget’s care bills. She was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2010.
“‘Do I regret taking part in Celebrity Big Brother?’ No, because I did it because my mother is very ill and I need to pay the bills for her care. There are some jobs I enjoy and some jobs I don’t. I’m a jobbing actor and needs must,” he admits. “We are a small family and it has become increasingly expensive to care for somebody privately - £45,000 a year, just for the basics. I’m not a millionaire so, yes, I would do Celebrity Big Brother again. But if my mother wasn’t ill, then no, I probably wouldn’t.
“Everyone has many reasons for going into that house and they were mine. I never thought it was going to be easy and it wasn’t.”
John says his mother hasn’t been very well again lately and that he spent most of his time during the panto season commuting up to Warrington, where she lives, from Northampton to see her.
“She was very ill and had six strokes,” he says. “I was doing two shows a day, then driving from Northampton to Warrington, sleeping on the hospital floor; it was a very difficult time. I was worried sick about her and she did have a period of improvement but had another stroke two weeks ago.
“Once again she keeps coming back and I’ll always be there for her while she goes through this very difficult time, because I’m her son and she’s my mum and I love her. I’ll drive through the night and do whatever it takes to be there for her because she’s my mum.”
Ultimate professional John put a brave face on things throughout his time in panto and says he had to be people’s Prince Charming and be part of their Christmas dreams.
“Work is my remedy and when I’m on stage for two hours I become someone else and when the audience come to see shows they leave all their worries at the door. I’m no different to other actors who go on stage, whatever is happening in their personal lives. Work gives me the opportunity to free my mind from whatever is worrying me; that’s the wonderful thing about this job.”
A highlight for John was when his mum came to see him perform in Chicago when it was in Manchester, a day before she was taken seriously ill again.
“She hasn’t been to see me on stage for about four years and they’d recently changed her medication so she was able to come to the theatre, which gave me such a kick. It was such a wonderful moment to get her into the theatre and very special for me and for her.”
Chicago is at Derngate from May 23-28; tickets from the box office on 01604 624811; www.royalandderngate.co.uk