The torch-bearer – John Barrowman

As the charismatic Captain Jack in TV series Torchwood, John Barrowman is forging the way for talented musical theatre actors to gain well deserved recognition, he tells Matthew Hemley

Ask John Barrowman to sing, dance or act for you and he is more than likely to oblige. In fact, he would probably find a way of doing all three at the same time.

Ask the multi-talented performer to spell multi-talented, however, and the 40-year-old might not be so forthcoming.

He may be the good-looking, all-singing, all-dancing star of screen and stage, but when it comes to grammar, Barrowman is the first to admit he could do better. And ironically it is Doctor Who, the show in which Barrowman plays Captain Jack Harkness, that is to blame.

“When I grew up in America I watched Doctor Who marathons on Sunday nights and would be up until 1am,” he explains. “I failed every spelling test on a Monday morning my entire school life and that is why I am a shit speller. To this day I cannot spell and Doctor Who is at fault.”

Not that he is likely to hold it against the show. Doctor Who has seen him become a household name in the UK and abroad and his appearances in it paved the way for him taking the lead in spin-off show Torchwood.

This series was created by Russell T Davies and follows the activities of the fictional Torchwood Institute, set up to deal with extraterrestrial occurrences, with Captain Jack at its helm.

When it first hit our screens on BBC3 in 2006, the post-watershed show achieved the channel’s highest ratings for that year, attracting more than two million viewers.

The show returns for a second run later this month on its new home of BBC2 and each episode will be repeated with a specially edited family-friendly version. All of which is sure to give Barrowman’s profile a boost. And thankfully for him, attention is something he thrives on.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” he says. “It’s one of the most amazing feelings you can ever have. The television thing has come along and given me international fame and credibility, so I am embracing it.

“In every person who gets involved in this business – no matter what they do – there is always a little part in the back of their mind saying, ‘I could be famous’. I detest anyone who says they have never thought about that. It’s rubbish. So when it happened to me I was like, bring it on. I don’t understand anyone in the business who shies from fame because they always knew it could possibly happen.”

Not that Barrowman simply went down the television route in pursuit of fame. The actor, who initially made his name in West End musicals by appearing in shows such as Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera and Anything Goes, claims he went into television to prove to people how talented musical theatre actors are.

He acknowledges his move from the stage to Doctor Who and Torchwood has raised a few eyebrows among fellow theatre actors, but he is adamant that his intentions have always been for the good of the industry.

“I took a lot of flak in the beginning from people saying I was abandoning theatre for TV,” he admits. “But I was not. I went to TV to prove to people how good West End actors are.

“For years people would say, ‘They’re just musical theatre, they don’t know how to do anything’. My response is fuck you. We are some of the most talented people in the industry. We sing, we dance, we act, we do it all.

“Having broken into TV and two of the most popular dramas in the UK and internationally, I can show people how underestimated musical theatre actors are.”

Barrowman also credits the Andrew Lloyd Webber and BBC shows How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and Any Dream Will Do as helping to raise the profile of musical theatre performers.

Barrowman was a panellist on both programmes and although he recognises some people are not keen on the idea of casting lead roles from television shows, he claims they have been the most important thing to help the industry in the last decade.

“If you had said five years ago there would be a prime time Saturday night show promoting musical theatre, everyone would have laughed at you,” he says.

“This has been the biggest thing to help the industry in the last ten years. It will stop – there will be a time we will do no more. But it has shown everyone there is a world in the West End of talented people who are not looked at.”

He adds: “I was asked to represent the West End and I think I was pretty clear in what I said and adamant about who I stood for. I wanted the West End to see that. I didn’t want to choose the wrong people because then I would have been putting people in positions who would be taking jobs away from me.”

Barrowman confirms he is lined up to appear in the next BBC musical theatre-based show, I’d Do Anything, searching for the stars ofOliver!. After that, he is keen to return to the West End stage himself and reveals he is in talks with both Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh about roles in future productions.

He says nothing beats performing in front of a live audience and cites the musical Anything Goes as the show that had the most impact on his career.

It gave him his first break in 1989, when he played Billy Crocker alongside Elaine Paige at the Prince Edward in London, and it gave his musical career a “resurgence” when he appeared in the 2002 National Theatre production, which later transferred to the West End.

It was the latter production that led him to his agent, Gavin Barker, who eventually secured him a role in Doctor Who. And while joining Barker has proved to be the right move for his career, Barrowman also says being with the agent is good for him on a personal level. He claims Barker was “not afraid” of him “being who he was”, referring to his sexuality. Not that he really thinks being gay has ever caused him any problems.

“If it has been a problem, no one ever told me,” he says.

“I remember, years ago, when Saturday Night Fever was cast, someone told me I didn’t get it because I was openly gay. To be honest I think that was a bunch of rubbish because I was so not right for that show anyway.

“I don’t think sexuality matters at all. I am proving that with what I am doing, as are others, like Graham Norton and Paul O’Grady. I know people who lie about being gay because they think it will affect their work chances. And that is just sad.”

* Torchwood’s second series airs on BBC2 on January 16 at 9pm.

* Barrowman’s album Another Side is available now, while his autobiography Anything Goes is published on January 24. He can currently be seen in the title role of Aladdin, which is playing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until January 22

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