A stroppy co-star, first-night nerves and the terror of stepping into Fred Astaire's dancing shoes: Twinkletoes Tom Chamber confides in Petronella Wyatt
00:07 GMT, 4 May 2012
When Tom Chambers was five years old, he used to stamp around the kitchen floor at home in the Derbyshire village of Darley Dale.
It was his first attempt at tap dancing — ‘although I didn’t even know what tap was,’ he tells me, earnestly, ‘but, somehow, I just felt compelled to do it.’ Now, nearly 30 years later, he is about to open in the first stage production of Top Hat, the legendary musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
If Chambers still doesn’t know what tap dancing is, he is in big trouble. ‘It’s like jumping off a cliff,’ he concedes, weakly. Of all the films in the Astaire/Rogers canon, Top Hat, released in 1935, is the most iconic. A sophisticated musical comedy, it starred Astaire as Broadway star Jerry Travers, and Rogers as party girl and part time model Dale Tremont.
Turning on the style: Tom Chambers puts Petronella Wyatt through her paces on the dancefloor
Sharing a giggle: Tom Chambers confided in Petronella Wyatt ahead of the opening night of Top Hat
The Cheek To Cheek routine, in which Rogers wore a dress covered in feathers, has become part of cinematic lore, likewise Astaire’s first appearance in Top Hat, in the number Top Hat, White Tie And Tails.
When Chambers, 34, steps on the stage of the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End for the first night next Wednesday, Astaire’s daughter Ava will be in the audience.
Ex-Holby City actor Tom, who has little stage experience, and whose fame as a dancer so far rests on his winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2008, can be forgiven for feeling a huge weight on his slim shoulders.
Strictly Come Dancing winners: Tom Chambers and Camilla Dallerup with their trophy after their winning performance on the show
Every critic will be studying his performance with forensic care, waiting to make unfavourable comparisons between Chambers and Astaire. ‘I’m absolutely terrified.’ His cobalt eyes blink. ‘I mean, it will be like judgement day. There will be people who will think: how dare he!’
His co-star as Ginger Rogers in Top Hat is the Olivier-nominated Summer Strallen, whose credits include the Sound of Music.
But today, under the chandeliers of the Aldwych, I have rashly agreed to be his Ginger Rogers in an attempt to recreate some of the poses from Cheek To Cheek. Needless to say, I am showing none of Miss Rogers’ famous cool.
For our dance, Tom is wearing the 30s waistcoat, trousers and brogues he uses in one of Top Hat’s other great routines, No Strings.
I have borrowed a 1930s lace evening gown from William Vintage in London’s Marylebone. Luckily it has no feathers, although in the film, Ginger Rogers designed her own costumes and concocted a white dress covered entirely in ostrich feathers for the Cheek To Cheek number.
Tom takes my hand and twirls me into his arms, and pulls me with him as he leaps across the floor. He is snake-hipped and slight like Astaire, but muscular and tightly packed.
He suggests we go into a backbend — in Cheek To Cheek, Rogers arches her back over Astaire’s arm in a gesture of romantic surrender.
Tom tells me to keep my weight on my right knee, raise my left leg and go into a position I haven’t been in since my days in the school gym.
Although Tom is supporting me, it hurts. No, it nearly kills me. I cannot smile bewitchingly like Ginger Rogers did, only grimace.
The Astaire-Rogers style of dancing appears effortless, but it’s harder than forcing the retreat of a Panzer Division. ‘It takes an enormous physical toll’, admits Tom. ‘You have to keep so fit.’ With his graceful carriage, Chambers goes into a solo, flying across the room like a laser beam before coming to a perfect halt.
Our dance together has lasted barely ten minutes. Not even a bead of sweat shows on his brow, while I am like Niagara Falls. I’m sure I have wrenched a muscle in my shoulder, my spine feels as if it is subject to a series of electric shocks, yet I feel strangely exhilarated.
As one of Astaire’s exhausted partners remarked, ‘When you dance with Fred, you know you’ve been danced with!’ So it is with Tom, who has more than stamina, he has what takes to lift him above the ordinary hoofer; grit, a passion that permeates his core and perhaps a touch of genius.
‘On tour, audiences were really positive, but some said my dancing was too heavy-footed,’ he tells me.
‘In the show, I have mikes everywhere, including two in my shoes, so yes, it sounded very loud. In the film they added the sound of the taps afterwards, so they could modulate them, making them quieter and louder. We can’t do that, so I have had to learn to dance more lightly.’
Holby City: Donna Jackson played by Jaye Jacobs, Sam Strachan played by Tom Chambers and Maria Kendall played by Phoebe Thomas
Waterloo Road: Rachel Mason played by Eva Pope and Max Tyler played by Tom Chambers
Top Hat is considered the finest film score by Irving Berlin and the show’s producer Kenny Wax, after years of rejection from the composer’s estate, has finally managed to secure the rights to Berlin’s timeless songs, along with the blessing of his three granddaughters.
‘It’s amazing,’ says Tom, who at 34, is the same age Astaire was when Top Hat began filming. ‘For 76 years the Berlin Estate refused all requests to remake Top Hat, but Kenny wouldn’t give up.’ As well as the original film score, there will be extra Berlin classics including Puttin’ On The Ritz and Let’s Face The Music And Dance, both of which were performed by Astaire in other films.
Before Audrey Hepburn and her little black dress in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and long before Liz Hurley and her Versace safety pins, Ginger Rogers’ ostrich-feather outfit become known as THAT dress, for all the wrong reasons.
Tom Chambers struts his stuff in Strictly Come Dancing
Astaire didn’t see the frock until the day of the shoot. Astaire’s wife Phyllis and David Niven, who had been invited on to the set, watched in horror as Rogers walked across the floor.
Phyllis Astaire, who suffered from a speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce her r’s, exclaimed: ‘She looks like a wooster!’ As the couple began to dance, the feathers flew up Astaire’s nose and into his eyes, rendering him unable to perform the steps he had worked on for six weeks.
He lost his temper and Rogers burst into tears. Astaire recalled in his memoirs: ‘Her mother charged in like a rhinoceros defending its young. Seamstresses then spent the whole night securing every damn feather.’
At the end of filming, he presented Rogers with a gold feather for her charm bracelet and serenaded her to the lyrics: ‘Feathers, I hate Feathers,’ which she failed to take in good humour, giving rise to the enduring myth that the couple hated secretly loathed other.
Ironically, though, as if fate hasn’t been tempted enough, Summer Strallen’s dress is an almost identical version of Rogers.
Tom guffaws. ‘Thankfully, we have superglue these days. But even so, you can see feathers on the stage after the routine is over. In the end, we decided to take some of them off, to make the dress more elegant-looking and less like Mother Goose.’ How does Tom get on with Summer Has stage mirrored film, with feathers flying He gives an Astaire-like wry smile.
‘Well, Summer comes from a theatrical dynasty. She was born in the wings. Her aunt is Bonnie Langford. Like Fred and Ginger we were on completely different pages.
‘It’s taken me longer to pick things up. She’s been telling me what to do.’ He pauses. ‘We were arguing like cat and dog, or roosters on a farm! So we’ve had to work to find a relationship.’
Tom’s career has been an extraordinary odyssey of determination in the face of setbacks and disappointments, a journey enabled only by his belief in a dream.
As a child, he wanted to be like Fred Astaire; he used to watch all Astaire’s films on TV. ‘I was totally inspired. My idols were him and Gene Kelly, while my schoolmates liked footballers and pop stars.’
When he attended Guildford School of Acting, ‘I used to argue with my teachers and say that this sort of musical would come back, be popular again, because it’s real magic. They never believed me. They said it was finished.’
So determined was he to prove them wrong that in 1998, he wrote to the Royal Variety Show, hoping to convince them that a tap dance routine could appeal to a modern audience.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in the 1936 RKO film Swing Time
Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the 1957 film Silk Stokings
‘I’d always loved Astaire’s 1937 film A Damsel in Distress and a scene where he dances with a drum kit. I thought a tap routine incorporating drums might be liked by people today.’ Chambers spent nine months recreating it. He constructed a wooden floor, and put up mirrors in a hut in the end of the garden. He then studied the routine on video, frame by frame, and painstakingly copied Astaire’s steps.
He sighs. ‘Then, when I had got it ready, the Royal Variety Show didn’t have room for it after all. So I got a friend to film it in black and white and we put out a thousand copies on the web.’
There were only two responses, one from the producers of Holby City. Chambers giggles infectiously.
‘They were looking for an actor to play a doctor and assumed I must be American as I was copying Fred Astaire, even though there is no dialogue in the routine!’ He auditioned and won the part. His career began to take flight and in 2008 he triumphed in Strictly. Soon after, he was starring in a touring production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas when he heard of auditions for a new production of Top Hat.
Cheek to cheek: The Astaire-Rogers style of dancing looks effortless but is in fact very hard work
Anton du Beke had been approached to reprise Astaire’s role, but negotiations foundered.
Tom got the part and then, one day, while he was still in White Christmas, Ava Astaire walked into his dressing room. ‘She was wearing the ring her father had worn in Top Hat and it was like being one step away from my hero. I was blown away, especially when she complimented me on my dancing.’
The predations of the stage have led to daring changes in the original choreography. Astaire’s Top Hat routine has undergone radical alterations that may infuriate purists.
Film buffs will look in vain for the sequence when Astaire uses his cane to gun down a line of men in tails. ‘We tried it the original way on tour, because we wanted to stick to his choreography, but it doesn’t work so well on stage, so now the line of men will actually join me in the dance and it will look as if we are rotating formations.
‘I hope people will like it and be open minded. The original choreography is iconic, so it’s very nerve-racking.’
Did Chambers find himself trying to imitate Astaire ‘I am not Fred Astaire and would never make a claim to be his successor. I love his style, so I have always gone for that, but, in the end, it has to be me, playing a fictional character in a musical comedy.’
Still, it’s a great deal to ask. Top Hat is on the list of the American Film Institute’s 20 greatest ever musicals. It broke box office records, rescued the film company RKO from bankruptcy and Astaire and Rogers danced into legend.
‘The real issue,’ says Tom, ‘was whether to realise my childhood dream of somehow getting audiences to love the great Hollywood musicals of the 30s and 40s and all those wonderful songs, or chicken out.
‘And I think it’s a risk worth taking. When we got standing ovations on tour, I knew I was right.’
‘In the provinces, we have had a lot of mature people in the audience, but in London there is evidence of an interest from the young. I’m even getting tweets!
‘The young people who’ve seen it have said they were so surprised how much they loved it, because it’s not fuddy-duddy. And the songs and the dances are eternal.’
If Fred Astaire is looking down on this show, he must be smiling. Twenty-five years after his death, his legacy lives on in a boy from Derbyshire, who, against all odds, and the prediction of his teachers, will make him come alive again.
And I will eat my Top Hat if the audience doesn’t rise as one.
Top Hat opens at London’s Aldwych Theatre on May 9. For tickets visit www.tophatonstage.com.