We’re back on the theme of singers who act and actors who sing this month. You’ll need a very good memory, and probably a bus pass as well, to remember when Mark Wynter was a chart topping vocalist. But to remember Mark as a successful actor is much easier. He was at the Everyman last year with a fine production of Witness for the Prosecution and he will be back on 31st January, again with the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, in another court room suspense drama, Verdict.
When I arrived for our chat Mark was in the middle of his saxophone practice; an instrument he’s been learning for a couple of years. He reluctantly put it down as I asked him if he knew Cheltenham.
“I’ve been in Cheltenham many, many times. I came here years and years ago when I was as a pop singer in about 1960 when we did a one night stand at the old Gaumont cinema in Winchcome Street - which I see is all closed up now. The first time I came as an actor was here, to the Everyman when it was run by Malcolm Farquhar and I was in Sleuth with Tony Britton. That was great. It was during that really hot summer of 1976. It was wonderful; I so enjoyed doing the play.
“I didn’t come back again until 1993 when I did Annie with Sue Pollard and the last four occasions have been with Agatha Christie’s and Verdict is the fifth. The first one I did for Bill Kenwright was Unexpected Guest in 2007 which was a big success and he’s asked me to be in every one since. Bill has the rights for all Christie’s plays, no one else can do them.”
All the Agatha Christies run for most of the year so I wondered if Mark found touring a bit of a chore. “It’s relentless. It has its good sides and it has its down sides. People think the management books you into a hotel and sends a car to the station, that it’s terribly glamorous and you are riding in style. But it isn’t like that at all. You have to find somewhere to stay, book your own travel, they do pay your fares, but you have to do everything and sort yourself out. You have to be very organised on tour. If you’re not organised you’re sunk. It sometimes means a five or six hour drive but you go to some really nice places, like Cheltenham.”
All this talk of touring took us back nicely to Mark’s previous life as a singer. He must have toured a lot then. “Suprisingly not a vast amount. I remember the first tour I did in September 1960 and that was only three weeks. But they were all one-night-stands of course, often playing twice nightly. I then spent quite a bit of time in Australia where I had a string of hits. I used to tour there every year with people like the Everley Brothers, who were my heroes, and Bobby Vee, people like that.”
And did he never go out on the Sixties revival shows?
“No never. I have been asked but I won’t do them. I’m an actor now and have been for 40 years. I think the last appearance I made as a singer would have been in the early seventies. I did some Sunday night concerts at the Opera House, Blackpool. One of them was with Shirley Bassey I remember. She wouldn’t go to Blackpool unless she had a private plane and she was kind enough to give me a lift. After the show a car took us to the airport at Lytham St. Annes and we’d stop for fish and chips on the way and her husband would have champagne waiting for us and we’d get on the plane and away we’d go.”
I suggested it must have been quite difficult making the transition to serious actor. A lot of his contemporaries, Jess Conrad, John Leyton, Craig Douglas, Jim Dale all tried with varying degrees of success. “I remember the very first play I did in 1970 which was Conduct Unbecoming at the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, Cliff Richard sent me a first night telegram saying how much he envied me. He wanted to make that transition into acting too - he’d made a couple of quite good early films – but he didn’t stand a chance. I saw him in Five Finger Exercise at the old Bromley Theatre and every time he came on stage the audience, which was full of mums and teenagers, oooed and ahhhed through the whole play. Didn’t stand a chance.”
So how did he Mark make the transition so successfully? “Hard work. I came back from Australia after my first tour in a play and I became a jobbing actor. I decide to stick with that. I did a lot of wonderful stuff in rep. To start with it was a bit of trick casting, to have somebody from the pop world, but I got good notices and was soon taken seriously, I was accepted in a different guise. I worked a lot in rep, I wanted to gain across the board experience of all kinds of plays. I made a concerted and firm decision not to go back to pop singing. I put myself through exactly the same harness as any jobbing actor in terms of auditioning, learning speeches and all that that entailed.”
But the teen idol thing must have opened doors? “Definitely, oh definitely. It was certainly useful for musicals. I had a wonderful agent, who I was with for thirty years, and he was great in guiding me. He pointed out I would be earning a lot less money as an actor. I don’t know if that was true. In my first summer season as a pop idol I earned £15 a week and had to pay my agent, my manager, paid my digs and sent money home to my mother. But it was wonderful. I loved it. I was curious to know what was the most he’d ever earned as a pop singer. “The most was £350, that was tops. But I had quite a lot of outgoings. I didn’t have my own band so I had to have arrangements done which cost a fortune, pay publicity and everything. I didn’t get rich. I’m doing much better now.”
“The great thing about being in a play is the company. When I worked as a singer I spent a lot of time alone. I’d arrive in a town in the afternoon, hang around until the show, do my hour and be finished at ten o’clock. All the musicians would go off together for a drink and I’d be spare. I found it pretty solitary. In fact,” he said, looking at his gleaming saxophone, “I wish that I’d started learning this then. I would have had something useful to do. But in a play you are in a group of like minded people and I so enjoy it. I immediately felt much more at home in a play than I did on a pop tour for those very reasons. I love what I’m doing now because I’m constantly challenged with new things and that’s what I like.”
Which brought us rather neatly to Verdict, this year’s Agatha Christie. What’s it all about? I asked Mark. “It’s about a brilliant professor who leads a happy and morally upstanding life. But his world is turned upside-down when the prospect of life-saving treatment for his invalid wife persuades him to take on a new pupil against his better judgement; the spoilt, conniving minx Helen, played by Dawn Steele (best known for playing Lexie MacDonald in Monarch of the Glen), who will stop at nothing to get her way…. I’m not going to tell you more than that except that it’s got a real nail-biting climax.” laughed Mark. I said my good-byes and he picked up his saxophone and continued his practise.
A couple of dates for your diary
We’re used to television spin off plays but here’s one with a difference - Columbo. This is the first adaptation of a US show that I’m aware of and it promises to be quite exciting. This is Columbo’s very first case so hopefully it will be too long ago for you to remember who dunnit. Peter Falk will not be appearing but his replacement John Guerrasio looks as though he’ll be able to fill his dirty mac. Opens 17th January.
Another popular television series in the seventies was The Champions which starred one time Everyman
leading man William Gaunt and the lovely Alexandra Bastedo (above). Forfortunately she will have no need of her super-human powers in the sedate market town which is the setting for another sort of TV spin off;
This witty and poignant comedy of early Victorian life comes to the Everyman on 24th January and also stars Hidegard Neil and Ben Roberts from The Bill
Inhabited largely by women, the community thrives on cooperation and gossip. The domestic peace is constantly threatened by financial disaster, long-lost relatives, imagined burglaries, births and marriages.
Made popular by the BBC’s adaptation, the non-stop liveliness of the irresistible characters and their small
adventures, absurdities and major tragedies will not only provide endless entertainment but also capture your heart.
One of the most important people in any theatre is the stage door keeper. Everybody who wants to enter the back stage area must pass here and woe betides anyone who does not have the correct credentials. The head stage door keeper at the Everyman is Alison Greening who has worked at the theatre for nearly twenty three years. She invited me into her domain and as the phone went and people passed, she told me about her duties.
“We open at about eight in the morning to let the cleaners in and we’re here till everyone has left. When that is depends on how long the show is, but it’s usually about midnight. There are three of us. I’m full time and the other two girls are part-time.
“Our day to day duties are basically to welcome everybody in and out of the theatre, make sure we know who’s in the building. We monitor security on the CCTV and there are a lot of health and safety issues to take care of and we are the main telephone switchboard for the whole building. Our last job is to switch on the alarms.”
Alison hasn’t always been stage door keeper. “I started here on 1st February 1987. I answered an advert for a cook. They wanted someone to run the Green Room and cook the actors’ lunches. I used to do a soup, a meat dish and a vegetarian dish each day. Plus snacks and things like that. It was still the rep in those days so there were normally about 40 people to cater for. A main course used to cost £1.50 and £1 for soup. I became stage door keeper when the rep finished in 1995.”
I spoke to Alison a few weeks ago when the Russian Ballet was in residence and while I was there, one of the more unusual duties of the stage door keeper came to light.
“For each show I have to put the names of everyone in the company up on the board there so they can put the slider across to say if they are in or out. For the Russians, many of whom don’t speak English, I had to put their names up in Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet. Luckily I found the font on the computer but it still took a hell of a long time to do it.”
At that moment a large Russian lady came in from the street carrying a very heavy saucepan. She spoke no English and as my Russian’s not so hot, I said до свидания and left it to Alison to sort out.