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To infinity and beyond

After a 20-year career in musical theatre, John Barrowman has become a bona-fide star with Torchwood. As he arrives in Edinburgh to promote his autobiography, CLAIRE BLACK observes the steely professionalism that keeps his feet on the ground.

LADEN with luggage, John Barrowman has just arrived in the foyer of a hotel in Edinburgh's West End. He's a little late and a little tired, thanks to a visit to relatives in Stirling the previous evening which extended into the wee small hours. Within seconds, though, he's in professional mode, posing for a portrait and following the instructions of the photographer, who's trying to make him look up into his camera lens as he sits on a leather bench. "I'd never sit like that," Barrowman.

It's a small incident but it speaks volumes. John Barrowman may be hitting new levels of fame as Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood, the BBC's spin-off from Doctor Who, and as a judge on I'd Do Anything – the latest TV talent show aimed at finding stars for an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, this for a Nancy and Oliver for Oliver! – and he's more than capable of being the larger-than-life show-stopping personality in interviews, but that's not the John Barrowman who's here today. Wearing ripped jeans and a pink cashmere sweater that's slightly rumpled, the John Barrowman in front of me is the consummate professional, a dyed-in-the-wool entertainer with a 20-year career in musicals, television and film behind him.

"I'm a business," he says matter-of-factly, sipping at his latte. "I'm the product of my company and I sell that. People don't look at the entertainment business, the business of entertainment, and think of it as a career; they think it's about screwing around. It's not. For the Maria girls (found in How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?] and now the Nancy girls and even the Oliver boys, they have to understand that if you're coming into this as a hobby, get out now, because there are thousands of others who will push you out the way in order to get that job."

Barrowman has always wanted to be an entertainer. He grew up in a family where everyone did turns at parties – he even had a stainless-steel drinks measure which served as his microphone. Performing is in his blood. And it's something that the Barrowman family are still doing, he tells me. "Last night we went to visit my Aunt Ruby and as soon as we went into the house her grandchildren, Laura and Scott, put on a CD and said, 'Can we give you a song, John?' That's just our family."

Born in Glasgow, Barrowman lived in Mount Vernon with his parents, John and Marion, his brother Andrew and sister Carole (with whom he wrote his new autobiography), until he was eight. Then in 1976 his father's job changed and the family moved across the Atlantic to Aurora, Illinois.

Suddenly "Wee John" became the all-American boy, albeit one who sounded a bit funny – he was bullied at his new school for his Scottish accent – and who played the flute, which was "not what boys did", he says now.

Barrowman is an old-fashioned entertainer with a very modern twist. He's a musical star, a TV presenter, a singer and a chisel-jawed sci-fi hero with a devoted and growing fanbase. He's also openly gay, and entered a civil partnership with his partner of 17 years, architect Scott Gill, in December 2006.

But this has done nothing to put off Barrowman's female fans. At a packed signing session in a Princes Street bookshop a few hours after our conversation, I watch one woman in her forties struggling to stutter out a compliment to Barrowman as he signs her book. He trains his 100-watt smile on her and says: "Well, you can take me to bed with you tonight," nodding towards the book. She's still giggling as she makes her way, a little shakily and with a bright-red face, towards the exit.

So what does he think that women find so attractive? "I think it's that I'm honest," he says in the Glasgow accent he uses with family and slips into when he's in Scotland. "I'm upfront and I will talk about things that other people won't. My mum always says every mother should have a gay son and my girlfriends say that every girl should have a gay mate."

I suspect it may also be something to do with the square jaw, the piercing blue eyes and the fact that John Barrowman seems like a thoroughly charming man, down to earth and clear about the fact that he's living his dream.

"I've done jobs when I've been paid 50 quid a week, but I enjoyed doing that as much as I enjoy doing what I do now, getting paid what I do," he says. "The money is not the deciding factor. I've always wanted to work. I want to have a career of longevity, that's why I do so many different things, because it's part of my business, part of the game.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I make really good money and I have a great lifestyle because of that, but I do those different things because I want to have a good, well-rounded career."

Barrowman was already, in his own words, a "quintessential leading man" in London's West End, having played roles including Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard opposite Elaine Paige, Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, the narration role, Che, in Evita and Billy Flynn in Chicago, among others. So was he surprised when the small-screen role of Captain Jack Harkness came along? "I didn't have any ambition to be on television by a certain time (in my life], or to do a certain thing. It just all fell into place; it just happened," he says.

"As soon as I realised that (as an actor] not everyone was going to like me, things became a lot easier. Things seemed to fall into place. If you worry about pleasing everyone all the time, you'll go mental."

There's a lot to make you wonder whether John Barrowman is a phoney. The showbiz grin – he displays those pearly whites at every opportunity and in every photograph – the showing off and even the accent. But actually, he's endearingly down-to-earth and very funny. In his autobiography, Barrowman's humour covers the spectrum from cheesy to filthy. He loves a double entendre and can never resist the temptation to try out a saucy one-liner. But in person, he's much more subdued, though still as frank. That is, until the audience shows up.

Arriving 10 minutes late to the signing, Barrowman is greeted with wolf-whistles and more than a few excited squeals. He poses for photographs, making sure to look directly into each lens (a professional to the last) before he starts signing copies of the book. As teenagers, grown men and women and couples with babies arrive, proffering their books, he has a smile for each and every one of them.

Some chat to him, some are starstruck and a couple of girls are so overwhelmed by his presence that they almost start to hyperventilate. A few people have brought along gifts, each of which he sweetly accepts with a heartfelt "thank you".

Some have also brought copies of Barrowman's CDs and Torchwood memorabilia for him to sign. Here to promote only his book, he explains that he's not allowed to sign anything else. "Send it to me with a stamped addressed envelope," he says to each one, though. "I'll sign it and return it to you." And I truly believe that he will.

&#149 Anything Goes: The Autobiography, by John Barrowman with Carole E Barrowman, published by Michael O'Mara Books, is out now, 18.99.

WHO'S COMPANY

A LONG time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – OK, the year was 1999, the location Britain – an entity which many thought had fallen into a black hole began once more to emit light.

After Russell T Davies left the BBC in 1992, five years' experience as a writer and producer of children's programmes under his belt, he was heard to say that he would return only if asked to revive the long-dormant Doctor Who, of which he had been a fan since childhood.

In 1999, having established a talent for scripting adult drama (Touching Evil, Queer As Folk), Davies was approached by the BBC with a view to fulfilling this ambition. Nothing came of it that year, but in September 2003 BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey and head of drama Jane Tranter announced that a new Doctor Who had been commissioned, to be scripted and produced by Davies.

Keen as he was, the writer knew what a risk was being taken, as the Doctor had last spun off into space in 1989, taking his wobbly sets and cheesy special effects with him. Even with a budget for top production values and actors, could a new generation be won over, along with those old-school Whovians still nostalgic for the Tom Baker years?

Davies's anxiety proved unfounded: launched in March 2005 the new Doctor Who, starring Christopher Ecclestone as the enigmatic Time Lord and Billie Piper as his human sidekick, Rose, was a hit. Fans old and new embraced its bold plots, properly scary monsters, witty dialogue and palpable sexual tension.

RAF Captain Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman, first appeared in an episode of Doctor Who in May 2005, introducing himself as a "freelance Time Agent". Evidently a law unto himself, he flirted with the truth as well as with Rose and even the impassive Doctor.

By October that year Harkness had a new role as the central character in Torchwood, Davies's post-watershed Doctor Who spin-off. Its seeds were sown in 2002, when Davies was crafting a British sci-fi/crime drama in the style of the massively popular Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

His development script, entitled Excalibur, was shelved when Doctor Who came into being. When in 2005 BBC3 asked Davies to develop a grown-up sci-fi series, Excalibur was dusted off, revamped and renamed Torchwood (simply an anagram of Doctor Who, and the codename used for it in the early days of filming).

Torchwood's premise is a fictional extraterrestrial investigation institute based in the architecturally rejuvenated Cardiff Bay, manned by five specialists who deal with (alarmingly regular) invasions of the Welsh capital by aliens. Charismatic Captain Jack's task force comprises Gwen Cooper (police liaison), Dr Owen Harper (medical officer), Dr Toshiko Sato (computer genius) and Ianto Jones (general support).

Torchwood has succeeded in drawing adult audiences to implausible and often downright silly extra-terrestrial scenarios by keeping a firm grip on the human side of its characters.

It is rare to see an episode that doesn't feature at least one furtive snog or moment of crackling carnal desire. Captain Jack's bisexuality, coupled with his good looks and seductive charm, ensures that he gets more opportunities than most for close encounters of the best kind.

 
 
 

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