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Hold-en to Your Taps

Hold-en to Your Taps

Above: Amanda Holden. Photo: Simon Turtle

Amanda Holden, together with her best buddies, is currently in the middle of a four-week whistle-stop tour with one of am-dram’s favourite shows, Stepping Out, ahead of opening the production in the West End next March.

Paul Johnson caught up with the super-busy TV personality at the Theatre Royal Bath in between rehearsals and emergency mugs of coffee to find out a little more about BGT’s most popular judge, and the story behind those tap shoes…

Amanda Holden’s status as a national treasure is strongly supported not only by her straight-talking honesty, but also of her image of that of an everyday (albeit glamorous) working mum. She is probably one of today’s best known and popular television personalities. However, the forty-five-year-old, who has been a judge on Britain’s Got Talent throughout its entire ten-year history, has plenty more strings to her bow than simply winning the hearts of the nation wearing designer dresses and sitting next to Simon Cowell.

Trained at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, and with television and West End credits to her name such as The Grimleys (ITV), Wild at Heart (ITV), Shrek the Musical and Thoroughly Modern Millie (Olivier-nominated), it may surprise many readers that Amanda is every bit a product of amateur theatre. With the amateur sector’s affinity to Stepping Out, she is passionate to talk about her early days: “That’s how I started, at Bishops Waltham Little Theatre, an amateur dramatics group set up by a lady called Angie Blackford. It was a godsend to my mother because I was doing plays in the back garden and, back in those days, we didn’t have any money and no-one knew about how to get your daughter on the stage; we just didn’t have the funds.”

It turns out the Holden family were similar to a myriad of other am-dram families around the country, immersing themselves into the art form, “So my dad started off as the set designer, he painted the backdrop; my mum ran the bar; my sister was in the chorus. And then my mum turned into the Wicked Witch and my dad turned into Buttons. I was Cinderella and my sister was still in the chorus because she likes to mess about. They used to call us the Von Trapps because our whole family was involved. So, amateur dramatics, for me, is everything because it fed what I knew I was going to do aged nine. I turned my hobby into my profession, and that’s a blessing. It’s massively important, for everyone.”

Anyone reading this who was a little dubious of Amanda’s ‘national treasure’ credentials prior to our interview can rest assured as she continues: “When you go to drama school you learn all about sound and lighting, but I always used to bugger everyone’s cues up. I think you learn more from amateur dramatics, you learn about people’s temperaments and what goes on, the kick bollocks scramble of backstage, the excitement. I can honestly say that putting the show on in the church hall with Bishops Waltham Little Theatre gave me the same feeling in my tummy as it did when I opened in Thoroughly Modern Millie or Shrek. It’s the same feeling of getting up onstage.”

Next month, in between touring Stepping Out and opening at the Vaudeville Theatre on 1 March, TV’s favourite personality will be appearing as panto’s favourite fairy godmother at the London Palladium. But right now Amanda’s (Mandy to her TV chums) head is living, breathing and dreaming ‘tap-dancing’. “I’m completely forgetting about the Palladium at the moment, right now I’m being Vera and, in a couple of months, I’ll turn into to a fairy godmother. But, yes, I have had a few tap-dancing dreams. I had a massage this morning and apparently my calves are in a really bad place, ha ha! But it’s fine, that’s just my age. We are all the same age in the show and we are all feeling the same aches and pains.”

The four-week tour, which started at Theatre Royal Bath has also just stopped in Amanda’s home town at Richmond Theatre before moving on to Cambridge Arts Theatre (31 Oct – 5 Nov) and then Chichester Festival Theatre (8 – 19 Nov). But be warned, if you’re hoping for tickets for the latter venues you might need to join the returns list. Amanda: “We’re previewing at the moment; it’s definitely a work-in-progress. But it’s going really, really well. We’re still plotting loads of things in and, obviously because each theatre has got different sightlines, for things we’ve already plotted, some people can’t see, so we’re sometimes having to change everything. Also relighting certain things so it’s clearer, but the first night we got a standing ovation and a massive reaction. I have to say we are sold-out for the tour; it’s doing really well. I’m just hoping the West End is going to reflect the same kind of response.”

Amanda goes on to tell me of how her involvement in this particular production came about, where I wasn’t surprised to hear she personally played a large part in bringing the revival to the stage. “I watched the movie with my children on TNT last Christmas and I’d just been to see the opening of Funny Girl at the [Menier] Chocolate Factory where my friend, Jason Maddocks, works. He was my flatmate while I was at drama school; we both went to Mountview together and lived with each other for about three years. He’s always been saying to me, ‘When are you going to come back on the stage?’ I told him it would have to be a really special thing because it’s such a huge commitment doing anything when you’ve got children, onstage especially. So then I watched the movie and rang him up, ‘What about Stepping Out?’

I knew it was also a great play, and he thought it was a really good idea. So I bought the play from Amazon, sent the script out to a few friends and asked them to choose a part if interested. We then took it to Danny at the Royal Bath who loved the idea. Then my management team, James Grant who also look after Ant and Dec and basically anyone else you see on the telly – turned around and said, ‘Why didn’t you come to us?’ So they are now co-producers. And that’s how it happened. and all my friends are in it!

How wonderful it must be, to be so famous that you’re able to cast your best mates! …At our amateur level, just the very hint of pre-casting friends would set off a peasant revolt and at least twelve months’ of gossip. As it turns out working with her friends (Angela Griffin, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tamzin Outhwaite and Nicola Stephenson) was only part of Amanda’s journey: “It’s a dream come true, but the biggest dream I think was to get the right director. Jason knew Maria [Friedman], and I’d seen Merrily We Roll Along and loved it, I just think she’s amazing and I’ve seen her in several productions where I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ Anyway. she said yes and I couldn’t believe it.

“It’s just been ridiculous. I was in the bath last night and my husband said to me, ‘You must be happy because this is a dream come true?’ And I said, ‘Yes it is. I’m just a bit stressed out at the moment to actually appreciate it,’ because of Debbie and everything else I can’t really relish it all with so much going on. But I will sit down, probably at the weekend when my children arrive, and probably go, ‘Oh my bloody God! We’ve done it!’ ”

That’s often the way I guess, when you are engrossed in the middle of something; it’s hard to get an outside perspective, a bit like being a member of the Royal Family! “Exactly!” replies am-dram’s new best friend, as she takes a swig of coffee and a bite of her sandwich. “Yes, so it’s been a dream. It’s amazing because we all know each other, we’re all mothers, we’ve all had girls so we know each other’s children, and they are all coming up this weekend. We’ve got a huge dinner booked on Sunday. We’ve all got the same aches and pains. Some of the women are going through the menopause; the air-conditioning is on, it’s off, it’s on, it’s off. We’ve all got the same injuries. We’ve all got the same memory problems – so it’s all been brilliant!”

The ‘Debbie’ who Amanda mentions earlier is her younger sister. Just a week before our interview, Debbie was involved in a serious car accident in Cornwall which saw the forty-four-year-old put in intensive care. With Amanda leaving rehearsals to rush down to the West Country, for a few days, everything was up in the air and no-body knew whether the production would need to be postponed. Luckily, Debbie was out of danger fairly early on: “It’s going to be a long journey and it’s made everything… not as joyful as we wanted it to be. Of course I want to be with her, but my mum is there and she sent me off. Debbie’s going to be fine,” Amanda reassures.

The more Amanda describes the ailments and inevitable challenges running through the cast, the more the production feels like life imitating art. “It absolutely is!” Amanda agrees, accidentally banging her knee against a chair which makes her wince. “I mean none of us are brilliant tap-dancers – which we are not supposed to be. We’ve been told to keep eating and keep being rubbish at tap. It’s like a dream job really. The director doesn’t want us all to be skinny minnies onstage, except for me of course… my character has to be slim, ha ha!”

I point out that Amanda’s ‘working mum’ and ‘national treasure’ image sits nicely alongside, not only the characters in the play but also the thousands of women in amateur theatre – many of whom will inevitably have already been in Stepping Out. After all, the play features an everyday group of people meeting up in a village hall for their weekly tap class – it’s probably the perfect play for a busy mother of two to be in? “That’s very nice of you to suggest I could be a national treasure, but I don’t feel any of those things at the moment, except ‘working mum,” she tells me, counting down the days until her daughters arrive. “At the moment I just feel pure guilt; I’ve literally just got them both new Barbie dolls.”

Amanda wholeheartedly agrees about the characters in the play: “Even though I love Richard Harris’s screenplay, I think his stage play is much better. The play is raw and has more honesty – and isn’t stupidly set in America, which I never understood. I think it’s relatable, the women are so relatable, everyone’s got something going on in their life and by the end of the night you really care enough about them all to want them to succeed in that tap dance. And I think that’s the joy of it. I read the play and loved the part of Vera; she’s very outspoken and very funny. But probably my favourite parts are Maxine and Dorothy who are both very sweet and funny. I think you recognise somebody you know in every single one of the characters in it.”

There’s also a parallel to be drawn with her big ‘day job’. In Stepping Out surely Amanda also gets to feel a little of what all those Britain’s Got Talent hopefuls have to go through. “Ha ha. Yes, I’ve never forgotten what it feels like to audition, believe me,” she joyously reveals. “And Simon’s probably going to come and see it in the West End next spring. I said the same thing to him, I said, ‘I think if we came along to audition for you, you’d probably buzz us, but David would definitely put us through. Ha ha. That’s what it feels like. And I know Alesha would put us through too. But we really are like one of these groups of women who comes on BGT… We should probably turn up and audition, but they might wonder why I wasn’t in my seat.”

It’s ironic that around the same time Stepping Out will be competing for bums on seats with Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s new musical The Girls also opens in the West End next spring? If you swap the tap shoes for naked photographs, the characters and village hall scenarios are, in fact very similar. “I know! It’s really funny because I’ve always said Stepping Out is Calendar Girls in tap-shoes,” exclaims Amanda. “But I’m sure there’s enough audiences to come and see both. We certainly wish each other well, the Calendar Girls musical will be brilliant. And I love Gary Barlow. But I’m going to make him come and see me first.”

Before next March, however, there’s a little matter of a major six-week run Amanda will be doing in the UK’s biggest panto production this year, Cinderella at the London Palladium. The epic show (and it really will be epic) features a truly star-studded cast including Paul O’Grady (Wicked Stepmother), Julian Clary (Dandini), Lee Mead (Prince Charming), Paul Zerdin (Buttons), Nigel Havers (Lord Chamberlain) and Count Arthur Strong (Baron Hardup) …as well as Amanda as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.

How on earth does her diary cope? “I just think of myself as any other working mother, except I’m in the public eye,” comes the cool reply. “I experience the same difficulties with childcare and feelings of guilt as I’m sure most working mothers in this country feel.” If we were in America I might have suggested she runs for president at this point.

Then again, unlike most families, at least Amanda’s daughters will get to see and maybe even believe their mum is Cinderella’s real Fairy Godmother! “Yes, my littlest one already thinks her aunty is a mermaid (Debbie teaches scuba diving), so it’s quite normal for her to believe her own mother could be a fairy godmother! Ha, ha.”

Somehow, even before Amanda picks up her fairy wand or goes near a pumpkin, and way before the aches, pains, massages and sore feet return in the New Year for the run up to March’s big West End opening, the other big love in her working life will already have kicked off its eleventh series. Being a judge on arguably TV’s biggest talent show obviously keeps her profile at the very top of the pile. So, presumably it’s not only important but essential to maintain the crazy schedule balancing both career areas – even if it does mean a trip to Birmingham’s ICC right in the middle of Stepping Out’s current ‘preview’ tour? “I love all genres of this business,” replies Amanda, and you’d be foolish to doubt her. “I think in order for me to continue being a judge on Britain’s Got Talent I have to continue to put myself forward and up for judgement!” Well that’s an annoyingly well-observed point and one that perhaps we might all dwell upon. When push comes to shove, weighing the whole work diary up, it is indeed the TV work which gets the Holden vote: “I love live television best of all, with theatre a close second!”

Stepping Out (Cambridge):
31 October – 5 November 2016

Stepping Out (Chichester):
8 November – 19 November 2016

Stepping Out (West End):
From 1 March (press night 14 March)

Cinderella (Palladium):
10 December 2016 – 15 January 2017