I'm off to be the wizard! It's 34 years since Russell Grant trod the London Palladium boards, now he's returning as the new Wizard of Oz
Russell Grant tentatively steps onto the legendary stage of an almost deserted London Palladium, 34 years after his last performance there.
He wipes tears from his eyes and whispers to himself, 'Well, well, well, I never thought I'd come back here like this.'
He tells me later, 'Do you know what it's like being up there again It's like love. Love the second time around. When it's sweeter.'
Russell Grant's comeback story could have been stolen from a hard-to- believe TV movie as he nearly ended it all before re-emerging as a superstar
The astrologer's comeback story could have been stolen from a hard-to- believe TV movie: the king of 1980s breakfast TV hits rock bottom for almost two decades, ballooning to 26 stone and nearly ending it all, before re-emerging as a superstar thanks to an unlikely appearance on a dancing show where he was blown out of a cannon for 13 million viewers.
What's more, that stint on Strictly Come Dancing captivated the attention of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who invited the comeback kid to the one place he never thought he'd find himself again… the West End stage. Russell can't believe his fairytale has come true.
During our interview he's in tears three times, overwhelmed by how different his life is today from a year ago. He's in the middle of a brutal rehearsal schedule for a three-month stint replacing the legendary Michael Crawford as the Wizard of Oz. Andrew has even re-written parts of the musical to incorporate Russell's unique dance moves and former Strictly judge Arlene Phillips is honing the routine.
Russell Grant with Andrew Lloyd Webber
Just two weeks earlier, Russell had been summoned from his home in North Wales to Lord Lloyd-Webber's Sydmonton Court estate in Berkshire, a place he last visited 25 years ago, when 'Andrew used to hold debates and summer parties there'. Despite it being a dream role, Russell, who is now 15 stone and getting lighter by the week, had to be convinced to take it on with just a ten-day rehearsal period.
'I was worried as I was due to have an operation on my knee, which has now been delayed,' he says. The former Butlin's Redcoat, who has appeared in more than 30 musicals and comedies, was first at the Palladium in the ensemble for Hans Andersen with Tommy Steele in 1978. 'I'm 61 now. At this age you know your limitations. But you also sense your mortality. So there was a two-way thing going on. I was trying to talk myself out of it, thinking, “Can't I just go back to Wales”'
But Russell was convinced by Andrew, with a bit of help from his close friend Lulu. For the first time in years he's moved to London, leaving his partner at their 30-acre Snowdonia estate. Doug Beaumont was an actor when they met but now manages aspects of Russell's career, including his famous website. They've been together for 40 years.
I thought, “I've got to do better.” The one thing I knew I was missing was showbiz.
'He hates to be talked about,' Russell says, before whispering mischievously, 'just let me say this: it was him who wanted me to do it. He said, “It's the London Palladium. If you look back in a year's time after deciding not to do it, how will you feel”'
The tears return. Is he proud of you 'He must be,' Russell smiles. For years, Russell cut himself off from the rest of the world, as his career floundered and both his grandmothers – the two people in the world he was closest to – died from Alzheimer's.
'I distanced myself from people close to me. I thought, “Leave. Me. Alone!” My friends would say, “We're here when you need us”, but I wouldn't want to talk to them. I wouldn't even want to go out.' He remembers the exact date he decided to turn his life around: 5 January, 2009.
'I thought, “I've got to do better.” The one thing I knew I was missing was showbiz.' Those dark days are behind him now. Russell has a solo show at the Edinburgh Festival this year and there are six offers for TV programmes on the table. But astrology, the 'hobby' that made him famous, is still important.
'It hijacked my career, as people didn't realise I was a performer first. But if I hadn't become a famous astrologer then I would never have done Strictly,' he says. For many washed-up stars who go down the reality TV route, money is the motivating factor. But that wasn't the case with Russell.
Russell in 1980 busy with some astrology work
'Money's never been an issue with me,' he stresses. 'The 1980s were good to me.' You didn't need to do Strictly for your finances then 'Oh my God, no!' he groans. So you could live on your astrology work comfortably for the rest of your life 'Oh yes. And some. If this was about money I'd have done Celebrity Big Brother or gone into the jungle.'
Russell had lobbied for a booking on Strictly for over two years. He eventually convinced the show's executive producer during a meeting at Manchester's Malmaison Hotel, where he stunned the hotel bar with an impromptu routine ('it was a samba waltz but I didn't know it at the time,' he says).
He jumps up to demonstrate the moves, before asking me, 'Now, does that count as rhythm' It's the same question he asked the BBC bosses. They must have thought so because they signed him within 48 hours. Now, against all odds, he's the surprise favourite to replace Alesha Dixon on Strictly's judging panel.
Comeback: Russell with Anita Dobson on the set of Strictly Come Dancing
'Can you believe it' he enthuses. 'I'd love to do it. But I think with four guys sitting in a row, including three gayers, it's not going to happen darling!' After his Strictly comeback, Russell visited the church in Middlesex where he was head choirboy as a lad. He'd made a momentous decision.
'It might sound morbid but I decided to reserve my burial plot,' he reveals. 'I want to know where I'm going to be in the end. I'd rather be in Middlesex where I grew up. It's a beautiful church – it moulded me for the first 15 years of my life. If I could go there every day I would.'
He was brought up in a council house by his set designer father Frank and secretary mother Joan, who both worked at Pinewood Studios. Despite his parents separating when he was 11 and Russell moving in with his maternal grandmother, he had a happy childhood. He's always refused to criticise his parents, who are both still alive and will be coming to see him as the Wizard. Does anything make him angry
'I only get mad over tiny things. I'm such a perfectionist. I tend to beat myself up. I want things to be right. But I don't get mad at other people.' When I raise the issue of Alzheimer's, however, Russell's delightful demeanour changes. Seeing his grandmothers' decline – Alice died in 1994 and Lilly three years later – was a significant factor behind his depression. It's the one issue where he's not worried about being political.
'There's so much international aid going out. I'm not saying stop it. But couldn't we hold a little bit back to support Alzheimer's research and find a cure' he asks. 'If we did we'd save so much on the NHS because people wouldn't need the same support.' Russell has previously spoken of his fears of the disease being genetic. Does he want to find out for himself
'I believe in early testing – and I would do it.' As things stand he has no plans to slow down – making up for his break in the showbiz wilderness is the priority. 'When I quit all those years ago it wasn't a lack of desire for showbiz. It was because I was looking after my grandmas and had gone up to that massive weight. But now if I can do a Bruce Forsyth and get another 25 years in this business that would be amazing.' Maybe it's written in the stars…
Russell starts in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Wizard Of Oz at the London Palladium on Tuesday. www.wizardofozthemusical.com or tel: 0844 412 2957.