WELL, I must say that John Barrowman is looking a whole lot better than the last time I saw him, trampled underfoot at Glasgow’s Queen Street Station.
This was his panto phizog, advertised large on the concourse floor and, in a café round the corner from his London mews flat, the real thing tells me that a cousin in Stirling used to text him regular updates on the state of his graffiti moustache – Groucho Marx one day, Randy from Village People the next.
He’s a handsome fellow and no mistake, all the better for lacking his TV sheen. The smile is less Ultrabrite, less VistaVision and more natural, and he’s almost ludicrously boyish. I admit I’d been apprehensive about my encounter with the Torchwood star. Loud, outrageous and exhausting was what I’d envisaged. I mean, there is a Barrowman who dominates today but it’s not him.
“You’re going along fairly well in life and suddenly you’re presented with a wee brother,” says his sister Carole. “Back in Scotland, John was a nightmare, crying the whole time. To get me to push him round the block in his pram, our father would wrap him in newspaper and threaten to put him in the bin. But I’d give a friend my pocket money to do it because I couldn’t stand the bawling.”
“She almost killed me once,” says John. “I was two and she was babysitting while our parents were round at the neighbour’s. When Mum and Dad got home I was choking – Carole had shoved crisps in my mouth to keep me quiet. Another time she soaked my dummy in rose hip syrup and stuffed me in the closet. The syrup made me bounce off the walls and some people reckon I must still be on a heavy dose. Obviously I came out of the closet a long time ago.” John is 44 and Carole 52 and they’re very close, even holidaying together in John’s campervan with his partner Scott, an architect, and Wisconsin-based Carole’s husband Kevin, an academic like her. When she talks, which is often, John is quiet, almost blending in with the furniture. It’s a neat trick, suggesting he possibly does possess special powers. But when she gets too bossy, he’ll remind her: “You’re not my mother, you know!”
The pair have written a children’s novel. After collaborating on John’s two volumes of memoirs, Hollow Earth is the story of 12-year-old twins with their own extraordinary talents: they can enter paintings and make art come to life. There’s a gap in the junior wizard global phenomenon market, of course, and John says they’re not trying to out-Potter Harry although, yes, it would be wonderful if that happened.
Carole says: “John brought copies of the first Potter out to Wisconsin before the American publication and on a sunny day when my two kids could have been swimming, they were devoured.” Hollow Earth came to them on a car journey through Wales, past Cardiff, where John films his turns as omnisexual interplanetary buccaneer Captain Jack, and on to his beach-house.
“I’ve always been a voracious reader and I used to pick books for John,” Carole adds.
“The first was Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator, and you still do,” he says.
She: “So have you read the last one I gave you, [creepy thriller] Those Across the River?”
He: “No, but it’s by my bed.”
For being such an attentive big sister, John now buys Carole Enid Blyton first editions, although really it’s their parents they both have to thank for their love of books, and a lot more besides.
Born in Mount Vernon, Glasgow, John was eight when his father, who worked at the Caterpillar plant in Uddingston, was put in charge of tractor manufacturing in Illinois. “I had a very different upbringing to Carole and Andrew, my big brother. When they were kids Mum and Dad were struggling and trying to make it. My childhood was Beverly Hills, 90210.”
Carole adds: “They never let Andrew and I know that when Dad was going to night school Mum wasn’t sure she’d be able to put dinner on the table. But the move was more of a wrench for me, who was about to go to uni, and Andrew, who’d had football trials with Rangers. John was ready for a big adventure.”
John: “You didn’t want to go because you had your life of smoking fags and listening to records. Carole preferred the Rolling Stones to the Beatles so you can imagine the stuff she was getting up to with boys.”
Their parents have been married for more than half a century and spend their summers close to Carole and her family and the winters in John’s pad in Florida. “That’s where I keep my Warhols and the rest of my pop art,” he says, “although Dad is forever sticking up paintings of Scottish soldiers.”
All the family are high achievers and John says advice given by his father has become his personal mantra. “Dad told us: ‘Be good at what you do and nobody can deny you.’ ” He’s used this as a performer and also as an out-and-proud gay man who strives to be a role model for people struggling with the fact they’re “different”.
John’s favourite book as a young teenager was SE Hinton’s coming-of-age cult classic The Outsiders. Carole is laughing as she remembers John in a high school production of Phantom Of The Opera. “Were you a member of the chorus?” she asks.
John: “I’ve never been in a chorus.”
“Well, you were incredibly cheesy and camp, and not in a good way either.” Later, she visited John in London when he was making his name on the professional stage. “The flat was full of artefacts of naked men.”
John again: “I probably thought me coming out would be a bigger drama but when I told Mum and Dad they were like: ‘Yeah, we know. Let’s go for a meal.’”
In Hollow Earth, the young heroes with the super-active imaginations, Matt and Emily Calder, are dubbed “freaks of nature” by the fearsomely traditional Council of Guardians. Their powers are sought by criminals, even on remote Auchinmurn island where they flee. For Auchinmurn, read Cumbrae just off Largs, the scene of many a Barrowman family holiday when these two were in jelly-shoes.
John: “The wee shop doesn’t normally stock books but I’m delighted to say it’s taking ours.”
Carole: “And did you know the island is for sale? You should buy it.”
John: “You’re not my mother, you know!” «
Hollow Earth (£6.99, Buster Books) is out now