From the top...
I scraped my way out, much to my poor Mum's anguish, after days of hammering and drilling from the inside, on Thursday August 9th, 1962 in my Mum and Dad's bed in their Northwood Hills bungalow in London, England. I was born with the name Peter Sellers. Thanks Mum and Dad! - My first little chore when I started to work was to get rid of that! Neither my Mum or I looked too good after my birth, but my Mum recovered nicely... I was the runt of the litter. Tiny, sickly and pathetic - and I've retained all the promise of my youth. At two weeks, I developed a double hernia, as a kid I would bleed from the nose until there was more blood on the walls than in me and I didn't grow past 5 foot until I was nearly 15. Such potential… I had a passion for The Show Business since I could form a thought and there was no question of my doing anything else. At first I wanted to be Gene Kelly, but when I realised that I liked him because he got to kiss Judy Garland - her beauty and talent bewitched me like a sorceress - I focused on the master, Fred Astaire. To this day I can't watch any part of BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940 without weeping with a painful joy that such perfection could be right there, for all to see. My parents, always wanting to do what's right, sent me off, when I reached seven years old, to dance classes at The Paulette School of Dance in Greenford, Middlesex, where we then lived. I adored my teacher, Pauline Withers. Her Mum would take the money and Pauline would have a big reel-to-reel tape recorder with every type of music known to man, from which we would get our accompaniment. She taught the lot; ballet, tap, modern, national, pointework for the girls... I still think of her as one of my greatest teachers. I was on my way. Everything clicked into place. In 1971, at the age of nine, I got into the Royal Ballet School as a Junior Associate, at their then studios in Talgarth Road, Barons Court, in London. They shared the building at that time with the Royal Ballet Company - and so then I entered a magical world. I will always remember the sounds of multiple pianos and castanets from distant studios, the smell of coffee, resin and good honest sweat that would greet you when you entered the building. One day I saw Margot Fonteyn at the payphone, her black hair pulled tightly back and her black tights betraying the fact that she was someone, I don't know, special. I loved the whole world. Bonnie Langford was in my class. I was a little brat at nine and would tease her about being a "star". Now we are great mates, 35 years later. Also in my class were Kim Leeson, who went on to lead the group HOT GOSSIP in the early 80's, Madeleine Loftin, now a wonderful director, Nicola Roberts, who went on to become a principal with the Royal Ballet. All of these people I idolised for their extraordinariness - and still do. The talent, hope and potential in, I guess all of us, was ignitable. After more grueling auditions lasting entire days, we soon each won a place at the famous Royal Ballet School, White Lodge - the next stage of the training. Bonnie had already had a hit on TV with JUST WILLIAM and in the West End and on Broadway with GYPSY, playing Baby June, so she scooted off to Italia Conti, where all the stars went to be groomed (as I saw it) .So the rest of our hopeful gang of sprites arrived at the White Lodge in September 1973. An isolated 17th century hunting lodge in the middle of Richmond Park, outside London, White Lodge was the perfect setting to mould a passion for the arts into willing, impressionable minds and ready, hard-working young bodies.. From the first day, I knew that something had gone terribly wrong…
The Royal Ballet School
I was barely eleven years old when I first went through those iron gates (and over the cattle-grid) to this historic George I/II mansion right in the middle of Richmond Park, in Surrey, a wealthy south London suburb. Immediately, I entered a Victorian world of discipline and competition, where true friendships were neither encouraged, nor sought out. From my normal childhood existance of school camaraderie, well-planned social activities and structured upbringing, I smashed into this existance of joyless, goal-driven, bitching and relentless SLOG! It was a boarding school, but with a handful of "day" pupils-kids who lived in the London area, of which I was one. However my journey to school was about 90 minutes. It would have been better for me to board, but as "day" pupils we were relatively ostracised and partitioned, so by the time it became apparent that getting up at 5.30 am, six days a week and getting home at 7.30 pm after a full day of school and dance classes was too much for me, I chose the lesser evil of exhaustion rather than living full time with all these kids who didn’t behave like the kids I was used to at home. The day consisted of regular schoolwork for half the day and dance for the second half. I realised the education side of the school was not what I would have had at Latymer, where my brother was (and for which I was offered an interview if I chose to follow that route) and, too tired all the time to try to supplement their not-particularly comprehensive education with my own initiative, I slipped from a bright young kid into a below-average grades kid. Competition was fierce for us budding dancers and by the age of twelve, kids may not have been the brightest, but all knew how to bitch and belittle each other in any given situation. Outward signs that I wasn’t taking too well to this unrelenting regime included my developing a nervous twitch! I remember Richard Glasstone making me come to ballet class ten minutes before the other kids where he would make me lie on the floor to relax and breathe. What all this left me with was a sort of strength, I suppose. I stopped relying on peoples' friendship, I dealt with things by myself without turning to anyone for help. To this day, I perhaps don't really work at friendships enough, perhaps feeling that they'll turn their backs on me eventually, anyway. I made perhaps one friend that I'll call a friend till the end, Jeremy Kerridge, who has just retired from a stellar career with Northern Ballet Theatre in England. He's now teaching at Arts Ed in Tring. My very closest friend at the school, Michael Popper, who when I first met him at the age of 10, I felt I'd known him in a former life - the connection was so strong between us - drifted out of my life when I left that world of ballet and we've never seen each other again, which saddens me. But in time there came many good times at White Lodge. I was always friendly with the much older students and idolised their immense talent; Anthony Dowson, Siobohan Stanley, Cathy Price, Stephen Wicks, Debbie Weiss, Stephen Sherriff, all older and wiser; I saw them as finished products, both as artists and people and I studied them with unashamed little awe. We performed a lot, both with the Royal Ballet in small roles in "The Dream", "The Nutcracker", "Sleeping Beauty", oh gosh, so many things, as well as seasons of our own shows at Covent Garden, Richmond and Wimbledon Theatres and up and down the country and Europe. The teachers were an colourful bunch...some wonderful teachers, like Mme. Douchy, our french teacher, who was a young heroine during World War II, working for the French Resistance. I adored her, but somehow in whose class I couldn’t control myself. I behaved appallingly, screaming and laughing and carrying on like a demon! I suppose it was a form of release. Mm. Douchy often threw me out of the class by my hair! - I loved and respected her though, and she knew it, never giving up on me. Dorothy Dalton, who was our geography teacher, though I wasn't allowed to take my O' levels in geography because I was one of the brighter kids. Bright kids took maths. There was just no time to take a full carriculum. The 'A' group were allowed only one geography lesson per week but I was so fascinated by travel that at the end of term geography exams, which the brighter kids still had to take, I would always come within the top two. Our dance teachers were also a colorful bunch! - I'll only mention the great ones here – the teachers who moved me...Top of the list Nancy Kilgour, who is responsible for a great many of the world's top ballerinas. A tiny, Canadian spitfire, Nancy taught me from the age of 11 through to 17. Always TOTALLY inspiring, full of the joy of dance and of LIFE, she was never an emotional bully, just a taskmaster. Training with her I knew that she would throw herself on the tracks if it meant it would help us achieve. Years later, after life had taken us both around the block a couple of times, Nancy was teaching at a studio in London and I took her class. Afterwards she said to me, "Peter," (my real name) "..you really are a beautiful dancer, aren't you." I'll take that to my grave. Richard Glasstone, my full-time teacher for most of my time at the school, I also admire 100%, I knew that he cared more than the others. He was so passionate and would fly out of control - I mean OUT OF CONTROL!! Every day we debated what he might do to us today. I'm sure today it would be called abuse, but deep down, we knew he actually loved us and it was his passion for dance that overcame him. Somebody told me that when I quit ballet and went into musicals at 18, he cried like a father. I don't know how true this is, but I choose to believe it! There were many other dance teachers too. Most of these teachers brought with them golden experiences to share with us from their days as top dancers around the world. Those experiences also included, in some cases, emotional bullying. But we inevitably toughened up. We developed mighty, durable emotional scars that could hold us up in any given situation. Though, I don’t think I’ve ever come up against any situations quite as intense in my adult life as those that engulfed me at the Royal Ballet School. For the last couple of years at the school, I was in a worse state than I dared to admit. I was trying to keep it a secret from everybody, but I just wanted out of my lot and I would find any, sometimes shocking ways to escape. Teens are simply terrified children reeling at the shock of what their new bodies are showing them of the dark side of existance. Boy, I would get migraines that nearly shut out everything, and trying to find the time on our racehorse schedule to secretly binge like there was no tomorrow required much determination! Barbara Fewster was the principle of the Royal Ballet School back then and she was so tough. Of course, as a feisty, rebellious teen, I was at loggerheads with her constantly. By the end, I think she had despaired of me, calling me unbalanced and telling me to quit dancing before it put me in an institution! Today, I have a fuller picture of my own limitations at that time. I was always exhausted, always living on my nerves, looked so young for my age and was very small. I found out four years ago why this was. I was born with a hole in the heart - three, actually (I'm so competitive!) All of those symptoms, fatigue, small for one’s age, irritability, were all classic hole-in-the-heart symptoms. When I found out in 2002, the cardiologist said that he was amazed that I'd done all that I had for so long without - well, you know... I had open-heart surgery to fix it in 2003 and though it was a long and very painful recovery, I'm now getting back on my feet and am able to dance again and stronger than before. One day I would love to see Barbara Fewster again and explain why disappointing her was out of my hands. I still feel like I let her down, in a sense. But I know I was destined to do what I do now. However, wherever you are, Miss Fewster, I give you a big hug and a thank you for making me the artist you were afraid I'd never be.
1981. Striking out on my own.
Now, it was up to me. My passion had always been for musicals so musicals are what I did. My immediate problem was to get my Equity card. Without it, I couldn't get into a West End musical. If I joined a ballet company it would get me that provisional Equity card and leave my path open, so I took the train to Manchester and auditioned for Northern Ballet Theatre. They took me on, and I hurriedly packed my bags and joined the company. Three weeks into my contract, I called in sick and took the train back down to London to audition for THE SOUND OF MUSIC revival with Petula Clarke. On the train who should I bump into but Robert de Warren, the director of Northern Ballet Theatre. "What are you doing here, my dear?" - I was caught with my pants down! Luckily I got the job as understudy to Rolf in the show. At the audition, which was on the stage of the Apollo Victoria Theatre, I met Bonnie Langford, who was auditioning for Liesl. She was in the middle of rehearsing for a new musical at the New London Theatre and she wasn't convinced that it was going to amount to anything, so she had decided to try out for Petula's show. Luckily for her, she ended up staying with her own show. It was CATS. So, until rehearsals began I took a job as an office boy in a solicitors in the Temple. It was such fun and such a tempting taste of normality that I thought about staying on and being settled. That thought lasted about week. In the early summer, I was called back to Northern Ballet Theatre to play 'Eros' in their production of SYLVIA that was playing at the Richmond Theatre. I remember being rather out of shape, having worked in an office for the past couple of months, but it was a good laugh being back with some chums again, though it was extremely weird to be waiting at the same bus stop after the show was over, that I had waited at while a terrified kid at White Lodge. It was actually creepy for me. Richmond and White Lodge still crops up sometimes in uncomfortable dreams...a psychologist could tell me why; something to do with being thrown into that environment so young and about aspirations never aspired to - a failure before I'd begun...but who cares, the place just gives me the creeps, no matter how gorgeous it is. THE SOUND OF MUSIC was the perfect introduction to the the musical theatre world. The cast were like family. We pooled rides home, we all socialised, had big warm parties and trips to the country - it was idyllic. Claire Parker played Liesl, and she and I taught ourselves the entire "Begin the Beguine" number (that Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell danced in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940") under the stage at the Apollo Victoria every afternoon and rewarded ourselves with scurrying next door to Woolworth’s afterwards to gouge on bars of Nestles Milky Bars!. I was at last where I felt I belonged. I went on as Rolf many times and when Paul Shearstone left the show, I took over the role. I was in heaven. The producer of the show, Ross Taylor, was so nice to me – I was just a kid in the chorus - and he took time to give me many lectures in his office, advising me, amongst other things, to develop a unique singing style and to try not to sound like all the traditional musical theatre voices. He told me to study Petula and note how she had formed her own distinctive sound. For me, it was the best advice - and I must have taken it, because even if I tried real hard, I wouldn’t be ABLE to sound like a traditional Broadway singer! We were teching the day Charles and Di got married around the corner. That summer, out of the blue, I got a final school report from The Royal Ballet. It seemed strange to me, because I had left the school right at the beginning of the year and had put a lot of distance between myself and those school-days. The report said, "He is gifted and should not waste his talents."
1982. Working at the Apollo Victoria.
Until the end of September, I was involved with THE SOUND OF MUSIC. The management made me verbally commit to doing a UK tour of the show in 1983 where Isla St Claire would play Maria. I think it was around November that I received a call to say that the tour was cancelled and I was free to accept other work. While I was still with the show, Finola Hughes, who was then working with Wayne Sleep on his group, "Dash", begged him to audition me for the group. From the moment I walked into the studio, I knew he hated me. Even today, if I get a vibe from the people I'm auditioning for that they don't dig me. I shrink and become as untalented as they obviously intend me to be - I'm too accommodating, aren't I? - so, at the end of the audition, Wayne gave me one of his more withering smiles - he had many to choose from - and said, "You're very minny, aren't you!" - Poor old Finola, she was standing there, just breathing in. She tried so hard to get me a break but it just wasn't meant to be. I'm still grateful to Finola for putting herself out for me though. I still wish I was better at auditions. In my opinion, it's NOT about going to "audition classes" and perfecting it that way. It's - in reality- a pot-shot, and if you're on that day all well and good. Some people are just always "on" – but I’ve notes that these are the ones who suddenly turn "off" at curtain up, thus keeping mediocrity healthy and alive. I worked from November till January 2003 at the Players Theatre in London. This is the famous music-hall theatre underneath the Arches at Charing Cross. We did a music-hall Christmas show called ALI BABA AND HIS THIRTY-NINE THIEVES. Melania Morley and I were the two dancing thieves, I guess. I can't remember much about it, except that every night I ate at "Food For Thought", the wonderful vegetarian restaurant in a Covent Garden basement. It's still there, on Floral Street. Every time I go home I make a bee-line for it. If you ever go, try their "scrunch" desert... I started studying with Deidra Lovell in Horton jazz dance and was blown away by it and her. It was at a decomposing old dance studio called the Urdang. It was a very cold winter and because the studio was pretty much unheated, I remember steam rising off our bodies as if we were on fire during the two hour class. I turned down "Babes In Arms" - not sure for who; maybe Leicester?...and "Poppy" for the RSC that year, which was supposed to go to Broadway. Not sure if it did. There are so many things that we don't get hired to do but we audition them too, you know!
1983. "Y' at the Piccadilly Theatre.
In February, after finishing my run at the Players Theatre, I went on my first grown up adventure. I took a five week trip to New York City. I was only twenty, but nothing was going to stop me doing it; renting an apartment on East 49th Street, right opposite Katherine Hepburn...though I never caught sight of her. I spent the entire time doing classes at Alvin Ailey, seeing Broadway shows, sightseeing and eating, eating, eating. The first Broadway show I saw was "Forty-Second Street", with Millicent Martin. I was dumbstruck, it was so out of this world. I only came home when the money ran out. It had sowed a seed and from then on all I wanted to do was go to New York. London no longer quite did it for me, though probably because I would no longer let it. It's funny, now that I'm older - though not much wiser, London holds the same romantic fascination for me that New York did in my young naivite. Once back in London, I was seeing someone who was in Arlene Phillips' Hot Gossip and a brilliant and very much in demand dancer on the TV and commercial circuit. Conequently, I was lucky enough to briefly get involved in Flick Colby's group, "Zoo". This was, I think her last dance group for TOP OF THE POPS on BBC1, having had such huge success with LEGS & CO and PANS PEOPLE in the seventies. I did the 1000th episode of TOP OF THE POPS as a member of "Zoo" and it was such an exciting adventure for me to be in the show I had been glued to ten years earlier, though God knows I was hideously gawky and balletic. I still had much shaping to do. I was getting back into form after those weeks of eating in New York, and auditioned for a new show that was being resurrected from the ashes of the show, "I", that closed before it opened at the Piccadilly Theatre. "Y", as it was re-named, was going to use the same costumes and same format as "I" - a Paris Revue-type show - but they ditched the director and choreographers Derek Deane and Graham Fletcher of the Royal Ballet (Graham and I were soon to share a life and a dressing room for 18 months in CATS) and replaced them with somebody more in tune with how to bring their very Parisian ideas to reality, Molly Molloy. Molly was, and is Paris' most in-demand choreographer/director. The shows at the Paradis Latin are hers, as well The Crazy Horse, hundreds of movies, TV, commercials, pop videos and industrials. There was nobody better equipped to take on this sprawling, damaged phoenix and put it back together again. This time, with performers that she had picked. The audition was gruelling. All day, non-stop. I remember one routine was to "It's Raining Men" and I was already drooling at her gorgeous choroegraphy. I got the job and rehearsals were very intense (we rehearsed at that Urdang Studios - poo!) but she made it so enjoyable. Her wit and charisma kept us all begging for more and watching her demonstrate her work, how could anybody not want to go to the very edge to emulate her style? "Y" was a very grand Paradis-Latin-style revue, brought to London and housed in the Piccadilly Theatre, which had been renovated to fit the show; its stalls ripped out and replaced with cabaret-type tables, chairs, sofas, etc and one of the lobbies was fitted with a full-restaurant kitchen. The money!.... That summer, I also worked for Arlene Phillips for the first time. She came to see "Y" and invited a few of us to audition for a Cliff Richard project that she was choreographing. Arlene had started out as Molly's assistant before striking out on her own and forming the incredible "Hot Gossip". That group radically changed so many things, from dance-style, to fashion, to sexual borderlines - it also gave a career to Sarah Brightman, who headed the group before the divinely talented Kim Leeson (we'd been classmates at the Royal Ballet and she has always been one of my idols) took over and made the group soar. Working with Arlene has been another blessing for me. Watching her work and create, sometimes having to do it off the cuff in that fast-paced world of videos where you really have to instantly adapt to the situation you're thrown into and shoot! I loved her discipline, her wonderful choreography and her loyalty too. In 1983 alone, I did three videos for her for Cliff Richard, one for Sarah Brightman ("Listen To The Rhythm Of The Falling Rain" - an all-night shoot in an alley in the East End with fake rain coming down on us and Andrew lloyd-Webber, arms folded, sculking in the shadows, not speaking to any of us), and a TV commercial for "Soda Stream". This was all juggled with getting to the theatre by our 9pm show-time every night. Oh and I must say that Cliff Richard IS the loveliest man in show-business. A gentleman through and through; between takes he tried to give up his seat to me in his trailer so that I, one of the dancers, could rest. Me - a nobody! Now, THAT's class. Back at the theatre, we all shared a huge quick-change dressing room off of stage right and all the boys and girls were constantly naked together. Any prissy inhibitions were knocked out of you if you were in "Y". To this day I'll whip 'em off in front of anyone and not give it a thought. But that's another story... The show featured the Italian quick-change master, Arturo Brachetti and had a Dracula number, an Ali Baba number using "Zubbediya" from KISMET" ( I had big baggy Arabian pants on for this and at one point had to run off the upstage left wing and come right back on again to do something fancy from the next wing down. One day my huge baggies (my pants, silly!) got caught on a light in the wing and I fell, face down, with just my head and torso on stage, the rest of me trapped in the wings. I performed the entire solo half onstage, pinned to the floor, tugging...), there was a Louis XIV courtly gavot that turned into a raunchy strip, (to "Sweet Inspiration") - all so sexual and yet all the top London dancers were in this show. I remember a really fantastic charleston number with myself and four girls. I loved it so much and went so crazy every night in it, that during the last show before Christmas of 1983, my left cartilage popped onstage. Bamn! I slipped on some oil from the dry-ice machine and that was it! I spent the early hours of Christmas Eve in the emergency room.