David Essex interview - The show must go on

THE STAR'S dressing-room at the Theatre Royal in Brighton has seen better days. Its bubblegum-pink walls probably last saw a paintbrush many moons ago and, despite the No Smoking sign, it reeks of stale cigarette smoke. Ah, the glamour of showbiz. So much for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll – although we shall return to these subjects later.

On the door, there isn't even a star. But when David Essex drifts back into the "No 1" room, having had to clamber nimbly over dodgem cars, carousel horses, motorbikes and a rifle range in the wings – part of the set of his new musical, All the Fun of the Fair – he's clearly in much better nick than his surroundings. This is a fact that will delight a generation of women of uncertain years, who still come over all of a-quiver at the mere mention of the name of the original Essex boy (actually, a strong streak of tartan courses through his veins).

Boy? Well, senior citizen, more like, since Essex – whose late father was the son of a stern Scotsman from Greenock – was 61 in July.

It's a fact this self-effacing chap celebrates, insisting he has no problems whatsoever with ageing. He speaks with the quiet confidence of a man who has had 23 top 30 hits in a career spanning four decades and whose annual albums, now released on the internet, still do extremely well.

"Growing older doesn't bother me. I hardly ever look in the mirror anyway. Botox? A face-lift? Get away with you! I couldn't care less about lines and wrinkles. I've honestly never been that interested in how I look – I'm just a natural born scruff."

He does look somewhat rumpled, in shirt and jeans that could do with an iron. The romantic halo of unruly, dark curls is no more. His thinning, silvery hair is cropped into a short back and sides and he has a neatly trimmed beard that only adds to his somewhat grizzled appearance. The blue-grey eyes, however, still have it. "Oh, those come-to-bed eyes," sighs a friend who still goes weak at the knees when she recalls how pretty he once was.

"Yeah, well, all that's gone now," says Essex, with a wry laugh. "It's all changed. And I couldn't care less. In any case, I've just let everything go. I was always embarrassed by the girl-pulling, good-looks image, as you've just described it. My focus has always been on the music or the piece of theatre or film that I'm doing. For me, it's always been about communicating with people and not about all that pretty-boy image stuff."

Considering it was his devastating good looks as much as his voice that made him the pin-up boy of the 1970s, a Byronic figure whose poster was on more bedroom walls 30 years ago than Anaglypta, perhaps the gentleman doth protest too much? This, after all, is the man women used to stalk, donating him their knickers; one besotted fan even threw herself out of a theatre box on to the stage to get closer to him, nearly killing herself in the process.

"I am the most unvain person – is that a word, or have I just made it up? – you are ever likely to meet," he insists, toying with a bottle of Lucozade, presumably for a quick energy boost – he has two shows to do today. We meet just an hour before a matinee performance of All the Fun of the Fair, which he brings to Glasgow next week.

"An actor prepares," he jokes, sitting at his shabby dressing-table, which is not even framed by the usual blaze of electric light bulbs.

The show – set in the 1970s and telling the story of a father, a son and a travelling fair – has been put together by Essex with Jon Conway, creator of Boogie Nights (the 1970s-set stage show, not the Mark Wahlberg film). The title, of course, comes from Essex's album of the same name and includes hits from his back catalogue, such as Make You a Star, Hold Me Close and Silver Dream Machine. Such is the ear-splitting decibel level of screaming from his fans, however (isn't hormone replacement a wonderful thing?), you often can't hear a word he's singing on stage.

Which is really heartwarming, he says, because he frequently looks out across packed theatre auditoriums and sees at least three generations of women. "I love that. They all seem to be enjoying what I'm doing, which is just great. Some people relate to me in a nostalgic way, of course, but I also have a younger following who hear about me from their parents."

Nonetheless, the show is more Blood Brothers than Boogie Nights. "All the Fun of the Fair is not a stroll down memory lane," Essex says, adding that, in any case, he doesn't do nostalgia. "I am not remotely interested in revisiting the past. I'm just not that keen on looking back, despite the fact that I've had this amazingly long career."

No Stardust memories in the musical then? "OK, maybe just a few," he concedes. And if he does choose to look back? "Oh, I see a charmed life." Which just happens to be the title of his 2002 autobiography.

IN THE BOOK, he writes of a childhood of extreme poverty and hardship in grey, postwar London in the late 1950s, although he tells me that since he knew no different, it didn't seem so bad at the time. "I had the best mum and dad ever, really loving parents. They gave me a very, very happy childhood because I knew I was loved, although I did grow up in a very different world to the one we live in now; it was a different era."

Born David Cook in West Ham, then still part of Essex, he is the only child of Dolly and Albert. His late mother was a cleaner, the daughter of an Irish tinker (Essex's charity work, for which he was awarded an OBE, has included high-profile campaigning for the rights of travelling people). His father was a docker, the youngest in a family with 13 children. Essex never knew his dour grandfather who, he notes, was "a very Victorian Scotsman".

"He never called my dad by his name, but always referred to him as 'One Too Many'. Can you imagine how awful that must have been for my dad? It doesn't bear thinking about. I guess that's one reason my dad found it hard to show emotion, although towards the end of his life we were able to hug each other without embarrassment. I still miss him – and my mum, too, of course. They were good people."

Dolly, Albert and their son lived in a one-bedroom rented flat until the landlord announced that children weren't allowed. While on the council waiting list – eventually they moved into a prefab that even had a garden – the family was split up. His mum moved with him into Forest House, a place that sounds like the 20th-century equivalent of a Dickensian workhouse and which provided shelter for the homeless and the mentally ill.

There were some interesting characters there, but it was difficult for his mother. They slept in cubicles divided by curtains. Basically, they were destitute, while his father, who had tuberculosis, struggled to find work to keep the little family together. Essex is still not good in rooms without windows, which is presumably why he keeps his dressing-room door wide open, although he gets up and closes it when the stage manager begins loudly calling the half – 30 minutes before curtain up. "I hate the feeling of being trapped," he says.

Life in Forest House wasn't easy. "But we survived it," he says, with a shrug. His father's continuing ill health meant money was always tight. By the time he was 12, Essex was working on street market stalls. When he was 15, he joined a band, playing blues and jazz, and was discovered by a suave showbiz writer called Derek Bowman, who became his manager. He credits the Oxford-educated Bowman with opening up his theatrical side. Bowman, as someone once noted, was to Essex what Brian Epstein was to The Beatles.

In 1971, Essex was cast, from 6,000 hopefuls, as Christ in the hippie musical Godspell, the first person – and definitely the prettiest – to play Jesus in the West End, a role for which he won two major awards. Afterwards, his career went stratospheric; he made two movies, That'll Be the Day, opposite Ringo Starr, and the sequel Stardust, and also had a massive hit with Rock On, his own composition, which he tells me proudly was one of John Lennon's three favourite songs and which is still a big seller in the United States. "It's such a weirdly original song; it still seems strange to me that they love it so much in America." It has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

Of course, since he was a rock star, there were sex and drugs too, or rather, many offers of drugs. In 1989 one American TV company even camped outside his family home in Connecticut, plying him with offers of drugs, girls, anything he wanted if he would do a show for them – and sign away his soul for ever and a day. He turned them down, of course, and came home to do the Royal Variety Show instead.

There were pots of cash, obviously – at one time he had 12 houses and 100 motorbikes. He had affairs, too, with a couple of dancers from Hot Gossip; and a live-in relationship with the singer Sinitta.

Married twice, he met his first wife, Maureen, when they were both 19. They have two children: a daughter, Verity Leigh (37), who made him a doting grandfather four years ago when she gave birth to her son, Joseph, and Danny (30), who works in music production. However, by the time Danny was two years old the Essexes had split up. "I dunno if we were too young; possibly. I'm still great friends with my first wife. I care very much about people who have been in my life," he says. "I don't just turn off."

As his marriage was breaking up, he was creating the role of Che in the smash-hit musical Evita, but missed out on Broadway and the film version. He recalls spending time with Keith Moon, John Lennon and even Richard Burton among many other celebrities over the years, while continuing to sell records worldwide and playing annually to more than a quarter of a million people in his concerts.

In New York he met American singer and composer Carlotta Christy – she wrote Missing You for him – with whom he has 20-year-old twin sons, Bill and Kit, both now pursuing careers in the music industry. "I'm so proud of them, and of Verity and Danny, too, of course. Family's everything to me."

He and Carlotta didn't marry until 1997, following the death of Bowman. Suddenly, with intimations of mortality and with his personal life in a mess, both financially and legally, in the space of a year he divorced Maureen and married Carlotta. "I wanted my friends and family to be taken care of," he says. There was a lot of space in his second marriage since Carlotta lived in the US, where she raised their sons, and he divided his time between London and their New England home – he has always clung fiercely to his independence. "It works for us," he once said. But, he tells me, they are now divorced, although they remain great friends.

So is he still a bit of a Casanova? "What do you mean?" he responds, unable to keep the cheeky grin from his face, and stroking my knee.

I point out that he wrote in A Charmed Life that he didn't believe in everlasting love. "Yeah, well ..." he mutters, his voice trailing away.

And is there a lady in his life at present? "There may be and there may not be," he replies.

So he's still wooing her, is he? "Not necessarily," he replies, enigmatically.

Regrets? "It's a good question," he says. "I can honestly say, hand on heart, I've none. I regret nothing. I have had, am having, a wonderful life."

Before we part, I ask if it is his handsome young face Photoshopped on to the young man standing beside him on the poster for All the Fun of the Fair. Essex replies: "Oh no, that's not me. It's my son, Bill, who is the dead spit of me. We used him because we hadn't yet cast Paul Ryan Carberry in the role in the show when we had to print the posters. But, yeah, Bill's a good-looking boy, isn't he? Just like his twin."

Has he always been so easy-going, I ask as a loud rapping on the door indicates it's time for him to slap on the greasepaint. "Oh yeah, it's my greatest virtue and my greatest fault," he replies, in his laid-back, almost horizontal fashion. "Semi-conscious, actually," he says, giving me a relaxed wink. sm

n All the Fun of the Fair is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 3-8 November; tickets, 16-30, tel: 0141-240 1111.