Singer David Essex on novel writing, fatherhood and music
PUBLISHED: 09:47 15 November 2016 | UPDATED: 11:33 12 April 2018
Best-known for his stage, screen and songwriting success, heart-throb David Essex wanders into less familiar territory this month at Guildford Book Festival, where he'll be talking about his debut novel. As he looks forward to returning to his old home turf, here he speaks to Matthew Williams about writing, fatherhood and music
When Surrey Life first let slip that we were set to interview ‘70s teen heart-throb David Essex, it’s fair to say that our female readership of a certain age reacted as if the intervening decades had never happened! Knees trembled, voices broke and desperate invitations to join the SL team for the day ensued. If this is what it’s like nowadays, heaven knows how he coped with it all when his poster decked bedroom walls across the country.
Viewed through the prism of teenage fandom, it’s easy to forget that while he may have burst onto the scene for his charm, good looks and knowing pop hits, his career has been a broad one that has seen him work with many of the greats of music and stage, from Jeff Wayne and Tim Rice to Sir Peter Hall (and that’s not to mention his appearances in epic British soap EastEnders, grimy gangster flick The Guvnors and the rest...).
Well, to add to all that, he’s now branched out as a novelist too, having tested his hand with an autobiography and then poetry book, and is set to make a rare book festival appearance this month – by happy coincidence in Guildford – which is why we’re talking to him today. Or at least, we hope to be anyway…
“I’m so sorry for keeping you waiting,” he says apologetically, after there’s a slight hold-up with the start of our interview. “I couldn’t find my phone anywhere. No doubt my son has thrown it down the toilet or something. You know how it is?”
Actually, I do, but this isn’t quite how I’d imagined a conversation with a 69-year-old music star, and once-upon-a-time friend to the likes of Keith Moon, John Lennon and Richard Burton, to start.
“You’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head but it’s all good fun,” he says of life with Sonny, his two-year-old son with third wife, 43-year-old Susan Hallam-Wright. “It’s one of the reasons I took on the book, to be honest, so I could have more time at home. With the first four children (from his two previous marriages), I was away so much touring and such, so I wanted to do things differently this time. We all still spend a lot of time together – it’s my favourite way of relaxing.”
While he’s enjoyed two happy stints of living in Surrey, in Long Ditton and Guildford, home these days is in Covent Garden – but he says he’s looking forward to heading back to familiar surroundings.
“I lived in Guildford for about seven years from 2002, and enjoyed it very much,” he says. “My twins grew up there during most of their teenage years. Things go further than that, however, as my first acting job was at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – I was playing a prince in a pantomime. I’ll always look back on the place fondly and am looking forward to returning for the book festival. I imagine the audiences at these things are a little less animated though than at some of the concerts over the years!” he laughs.
Based on the reaction to our interview, we’re not so sure about that! (Cue image of screaming Surrey ladies flashing life-size posters and marker pens at their teen idol...). In any event, his debut novel, Faded Glory, heads back in time still further than even his heart-throb heyday, taking inspiration from his childhood haunts around the east end of London. Due out at the start of this month, the story tackles generational gaps, with a washed-up boxer taking a troubled youngster under his wing, attracting the attention of the criminal underworld.
“The seed of the idea came from watching the Remembrance Parade, when you see those old fellas walking along and you think ‘what a past you’ve had!’” he explains. “Sadly, in the West, older people are so often just deemed to be ‘in the way’.
“It started as an idea for a film, but I’d put it on the shelf a while ago. Then, when the publishers asked me if I’d like to write a novel, following up on the success of my poetry book, it seemed the obvious idea to develop.
“That area and period for me is very emotive. There’s a few life experiences in there; you’ve got to bring a little of yourself to it otherwise you’re writing in a void. I was lucky enough to grow up in a very colourful area next to the docks, so while it’s a work of fiction there was plenty of inspiration on which to draw. They’re certainly characters I’d bump into as a kid.”
Finding the blues
Born in Plaistow in 1947, he grew up in a tough area but “life always seemed fine and dandy” with his two loving parents. He was a promising footballer, making the youth ranks of his still beloved West Ham United (he has “mixed emotions” about the club’s move to the Olympic Stadium, for any football fans who were wondering) – but then the music bug hit.
“Initially, all I ever wanted to be was a blues drummer. I was in a band called Moody Indigo and then I was stuck up top and it all went from there.”
The early days saw gigs in iconic venues, such as the Marquee, Eel Pie Island and the Flamingo, with other up-and-comers including Davy Jones and the Locker (later better known as David Bowie) and Bluesology (who featured a “quiet, non-singing” Elton John on keyboards).
“Later, the acting came from my manager, Derek Bowman, who was also a theatre critic and a journalist. When the band folded, he asked me if I wanted to be a solo singer. I just nodded. Generally, all the adventures I’ve had have come about because someone’s asked me and I’ve said yes. Fortunately, most of them have come off.”
His first notable acting role, Godspell, at the age of 23, was where things really took off and opened the doors to stardom, adoration and his own hit singles.
“It’s funny, as in a way my first real hit, Rock On, came out of this time and partly as a complete accident,” he continues. “Jeff Wayne was going out with one of the understudies in Godspell and I found out he worked in a studio; mainly on jingles. I’d already been writing material and so when we spoke, I said: ‘well, you produce and I’ll write.’ We came out with Rock On and away we went.
“I’ve just been with Jeff again actually for a few months doing his War of the Worlds musical at the Dominion Theatre, which was a lot of fun to go back to after 30-odd years. I wasn’t The Artillery Man this time though; I was The Voice of Humanity.”
In a year where so much is being made of the 150th anniversary of HG Wells’ birth, who wrote War of the Worlds while living in Woking, I wonder if he ever enjoyed the sci-fi writer’s books before or since appearing on Wayne’s seminal concept album based on the classic tale.
“I’ve got to be honest, when I did War of the Worlds, I’d never read the book,” he laughs. “I’m not a very good reader really, as I don’t have the attention span for it! I may have been turned off by my English teacher at school who had a habit of picking some pretty depressing stuff.
“When I was asked to write my own book, I had to go and check a few to see how many pages were expected of me!”
One thing’s for sure; there are plenty more tales to tell, should the inclination strike, especially of the rock ‘n’ roll variety. He became “good friends with Richard Burton”, for instance, and “liked Keith Moon a lot” – but any of their hell-raising shenanigans were “kept to London rather than Surrey, I promise”.
Back on the road
For now, though, with book number one done and dusted, he’s looking forward to getting back to the day job with his first major tour in over four years imminent in November. It’s also his 70th birthday soon but he “will be happy with whatever the kids fancy conjuring up”. And, on top of all of that, filming has now been completed on a David Essex documentary, though he’s “not quite sure yet” whether that will see the light of day.
In any case, enjoying the anonymity of life in Covent Garden these days (“you could walk around with a bag on your head there and people are just as likely to tip you as take a second look…”), he found the latter experience of watching himself on film for two hours “intensely odd”.
“I’m a very private person, to be honest, so it’s not the kind of thing I rush into,” he adds. “I don’t even like being interviewed generally.”
And with that, he’s off, and one likes to imagine for the nursery run, where unsuspecting younger mums regale their own mothers with tales of the charming silver-haired gentleman they share passing words with each day…
• David Essex: Faded Glory appeared at Guildford Book Festival on Wednesday October 12 at The Electric Theatre in Guildford. See more at guildfordbookfestival.co.uk
Essex on Surrey
“We used to love the Italian restaurant, Carlo’s (Trattoria) up in the hills. The views from around there are tremendous.”
“I lived in Long Ditton for a while before moving to Guildford and became president of the cricket club there. I was always more of a footballer really though and lucky enough to play youth football for the team I still support, West Ham.”
“I worked with the director Sir Peter Hall on his version of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. It opened with a week in Leatherhead in 1993 and then embarked on a tour of Britain.”