Interview: Claire Sweeney hits the road with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Claire Sweeney
Claire Sweeney
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We’ve all seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, haven’t we? With its fantasmagorical flying car, Truly Scrumptious goodies, Child Catcher baddies, and happily ever after ending, it’s been a staple of our childhoods since the release of the film in 1968.

Or has it? Not if you’re Claire Sweeney it hasn’t. The Liverpool-born actress, singer and TV personality had never seen it. Until, that is, she was cast as the evil, child-hating Baroness Bomburst in the new even more fantasmagorical version of the Sherman Brothers musical, spawned by the film, that comes to Scotland this month.

Or has it? Not if you’re Claire Sweeney it hasn’t. The Liverpool-born actress, singer and TV personality had never seen it. Until, that is, she was cast as the evil, child-hating Baroness Bomburst in the new even more fantasmagorical version of the Sherman Brothers musical, spawned by the film, that comes to Scotland this month.

Claire Sweeney as Roxie Hart in Chicago, 2002

Claire Sweeney as Roxie Hart in Chicago, 2002

“I know! I first saw the movie when I got this job, and I thought, how did you miss that? Then I want to see it with Paul O’Grady as the Child Catcher and I loved it,” she says.

Starring Sweeney alongside Jason Manford (The Producers, Sweeney Todd) as Caractacus Potts and Phill Jupitus (The Producers, Hairspray) as Baron Bomburst, this version is the work of the team who won acclaim for their revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I. Packed with classic songs like Truly Scrumptious, Hushabye Mountain and the title song, as well as state of the art special effects, the musical based on James Bond author Ian Fleming’s book has already broken all box office records in the West End.

“It’s doing really well,” says Sweeney. “So well in fact that I tried to get a ticket for it last night for someone and I couldn’t. It’s a show that appeals to all ages because it has humour for adults and fun for children. It’s just magical and everyone loves it,” she says. “And now there are people who grew up with it bringing their children to see it too.

“It hasn’t been done for ten years and this version is quite different. It uses projections a lot for the scenery, which allows for big changes – it’s amazing what they do.”

Sweeney has been playing Baroness Bomburst since August and will be on the road until February. Is it a role she...

My question is interrupted by the sound of her two-year-old son Jaxon coming into the room in her London flat. She has lived there since 2001 when she left Channel 4 soap Brookside, the show that made her a household name.

“Hold on love,” she says, and breaks off to call out to someone:

“Can you just watch our Jaxon for me?”

Gasp, Baroness Bomburst famously doesn’t like children. Could Sweeney be employing her very own Child Catcher?

“No, it’s a very nice lady who travels with me and when I go to work she looks after him,” she says. “She brings Jaxon to the theatre with me and he loves it,” she says, explaining how being a mum by day and a musical actor by night is the perfect combination for her.

“I’ve got my work life balanced out, it’s brilliant. I don’t go in to work till 5:30pm so I get all day with the baby, and then he comes in to the theatre and goes home at 7pm, then I go home after the show. It suits my lifestyle. I’m going to work for a rest.”

So she’s nothing like the Baroness in real life then, doesn’t find herself displaying Baroness-like behaviour in any way?

“Not when I’m wiping sick off my baby and cleaning his bum!” she says. “The Baroness doesn’t come into that. She doesn’t like children, but I don’t think she’s all bad, and she’s fun as well, which makes her slightly more endearing. I don’t mind if people boo me, but they tend to laugh at me,” she says.

Sweeney is enjoying the role, especially since she gets to sing – Chu-Chi Face and The Bombie Samba – as well as act alongside Phill Jupitus as her Baron. “He’s such a dream – he’s going to show me around Edinburgh because he has a place near there and he knows it really well, although I’ve been to Scotland a lot over the years too.

“I’ve just played Velma in Hairspray and like Bomburst, she’s pretty vile as well,” says Sweeney. “Career-wise I’m in a transition period. I’m starting to play glam nutters, which I’m enjoying. Mature, vile women, it’s hysterical. They’re great parts, and I’m finding my comedy chops too, which is great fun.”

Far from disliking children, the 45-year-old Sweeney couldn’t be more delighted to be a mother, after thinking she might never realise her wish to have a baby, having suffered two miscarriages and undergoing several rounds of IVF. Her marriage to businessman Tony Hibbard broke down after six years and she had an on-off relationship with Jaxon’s dad, Dan Reilly before discovering she was pregnant.

“I was fatalistic about it and thought if it’s meant to be, it will be, if not, then that’s the way it is. You can’t control or buy motherhood. You can’t make it happen. But it did happen, and at the right time, with the right person.”

Sweeney discovered she was pregnant two weeks after splitting up from Reilly, but it becomes evident as we talk that she is very much a glass half full kind of person and harbours no regrets about the way things turned out. She and Reilly are good friends and co-parents to Jaxon.

“I’m happy,” she says. “I’ve got my boy, beautiful friends and I’m in a good place. I’m a really positive person. If you want to find negatives, you will always find them. But I always find the positive. It’s just the way I’m made. Just enjoy where you are. You need to stop and count your blessings.

“I remember a couple of years ago I was a bit fed up and thinking, ‘I haven’t got this and I haven’t got that’, and I looked at my diary from the year before to see what I was doing on that day. There was a wish list, and I realised I’d achieved everything on it. So I thought, ‘I need to stop and smell the coffee’. So now I just enjoy the moment. I look at my little baby and his face. He’s healthy and he’s beautiful.”

OK, there must be something that rains on her parade, let’s see if we can find it. What about the pictures that the tabloids print of her, running in the surf in her bikini on her holidays, or coming out of Greggs, pastries in hand?

“Well, there’s a Greggs in my road and I’m always in there,” she says, matter-of-fact, couldn’t care less. “The pictures go with the territory. You can’t get too wound up about it. If you’re in the business of giving interviews and chatting to the press, it’s part of the territory. But if you refuse to do it, then you can get p***ed off by the attention. I think if that’s the worst I get, then that’s OK.”

Sweeney is as down to earth as you would expect from the daughter of a Toxteth butcher and his wife. There was no showbiz family background, but young Claire always loved singing and dancing and any spare time that wasn’t spent selling sausages in her dad’s shop, was eaten up with acting and dancing lessons.

“I went to a stage school in Liverpool and always wanted to be a dancer really. But every week we would sing and my classmates would do Wham!, while I did jazz standards: Billie Holliday, Mel Tormé and Ella Fitzgerald. My teacher, Elsie Kelly (former head of Theatre Studies at Elliott Clarke College and now Johnny Vegas’s mum in Benidorm) pointed out that I had a voice. She encouraged me. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

After Elliott Clarke, the teenage Sweeney left Liverpool for London and enrolled at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.

“I was there Monday to Friday and at the weekends I went home to Liverpool and sang in Blackpool.”

Sweeney’s parents may not have been in showbiz but they encouraged their daughter, chaperoning her to clubs to sing.

“They gave me encouragement, self-belief, and a work ethic. I worked hard. Singing in the clubs when I was 14 was a baptism of fire, but singing for half an hour, I was getting three times as much money as I got for a whole day in my dad’s butchers and I worked out which I preferred,” she says.

After college, Sweeney landed a job entertaining the guests on cruise liners, and sang her way around the globe several times over.

“I loved going to places that I would never normally get to, like St Petersburg – I was there when it was still Leningrad – or Vietnam. It was really interesting. Then you’d get to places that are just really nice, like Bali and Sydney. I did that till I was 26 and got the job on Brookside.”

After docking at a different port every night for several years, she jumped at the chance of returning to her home town and buying her first flat.

The role of Lindsey Corkhill was one that made Sweeney a household name, playing the part from 1991 to 2001 and then again in 2003. Lindsey brought no end of trouble and organised crime to the Close before finally sailing off into the sunset with the well dodgy Barry Grant. Well, settling in Barry’s mansion in Tyne and Wear, with her no mark dad Jimmy ensconced in a cottage in the grounds.

“I loved that job because it was exciting, learning the craft of acting by being on TV. And I loved being in one place, with the stability of a regular job, going to the same place every day. My favourite story line was the romance with Barry Grant. If they ever brought it back, maybe I would do it again,” she says.

After Brookside and the move to London in 1991 Sweeney returned to her first love of musicals, as well as TV presenting, with gigs like 60 Minute Makeover.

“I love musicals, watching them, being in them, and I have encyclopaedic knowledge of them.”

She’s not kidding – she has her own radio series on the subject, the does what it says on the tin, Magic of Musicals on Liverpool radio station Magic.

“It’s my specialist subject,” she says. “Ever since my mum took me to see Blood Brothers when I was about 11 or 12 and watching that, I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

And do them she has. A lot of them: Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Guys and Dolls, Chicago, Tell Me On A Sunday. She even wrote and appeared in her own comedy musical, Sex and the Suburbs, when she was still breastfeeding Jaxon. Sweeney credits each one with giving her something different, a new experience.

Tell Me On A Sunday was very emotional,” she says. “You’re on your own for 26 songs, so it’s a rollercoaster. And Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is more fun, laughter and frivolity. Educating Rita is different again, just you and another actor [Matthew Kelly] on stage. Chitty is different, you’re surrounded by lots of other people and it’s not all on your shoulders.

“I have enjoyed all of the roles I’ve done. And I did Loose Women again the other day, which I enjoy because it’s live and that gives it an element of excitement.”

Doesn’t she worry she’ll say something controversial, since Loose Women is live and tell it like it is?

“I really don’t care. You shouldn’t care about that. People are what they are,” she says.

After Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Sweeney has no idea what she’ll be doing next, apart from taking Jaxon to Liverpool to stay in the flat she has there over Christmas. “The show is in Manchester for six weeks over Christmas so we can stay in Liverpool. And my dad died on Christmas Day last year, so we want to spend Christmas with my mum.

“I don’t look that far ahead,” she says. “In this business, one phone call can change your life overnight. I never know what’s coming, and that’s good because I like new challenges.”

Whatever life throws at her Sweeney sounds like she will take it in her stride. She’s laid back, happy with her lot. Ask the former property makeover show hostess, a woman who could turn a maisonette into a mansion in 60 minutes with a tin of paint and a few sheets of MDF what her house is like and she responds with, “Well... it’s nice. But like most houses, needs freshening up,” in a tone that suggests she won’t be heading to a DIY superstore to stock up on paint any time soon.

“I’m 45 now and I’ve got my baby. I’ve done everything, been everywhere, have done loads of great work. I have achieved a lot. I’m really content. I have literally done everything and I wouldn’t have done anything different in my career. I gave up my 60 Minute Makeover show to do Guys and Dolls in the West End with Patrick Swayze. An iconic role with a movie icon. I mean it was a choice between Patrick Swayze and a paint brush. No contest.” she says.

At this point Jaxon enters stage left once more, and Sweeney must carry him off to the theatre.

“I’ll have to go love,” she says. “Sorry, it’s chaos here. I’ve got two shows today, a matinee and… Jaxon? Jaxon? Has anyone seen my keys?” and she’s gone. She has a child to catch.

Let’s hope it’s not the keys to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang he’s swiped. n