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Traveller - David Essex interview (exclusive)

David Essex

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAVID Essex talks exclusively about his pride in making Traveller in terms of both starring alongside his son, Billy Cook, and nodding to his grandfather.

He also talks about forthcoming work, including a new play The Dishwashers, new tour dates and reflects on some of his past career successes, including the run of hits that paved the way for his career longevity.

Q. Traveller must be a special film for you…
David Essex: I believe in it quite a lot. I think we’ve done something quite special because it gives you that insight into English travellers, which sets it apart. We did the film with real travellers and we filmed on a real travellers’ site, and they trusted us, so that says a lot.

Q. The film must have appealed to you initially on at least three levels: the fact that it allowed you to nod back to your grandfather, because it enabled you to star alongside your son, Billy Cook, and also putting together the soundtrack?
David Essex: I know! He kind of surprised me, to be honest. When he got the lead, I wasn’t actually involved with the film. But then he told me about it and when I read the script I saw that he was in every scene. And I must admit I was a little nervous for him because I thought if he doesn’t pull it off, then there’s not a film. But thank goodness, he’s done a really great job. It looks like he’s going to be nominated as best newcomer by BAFTA and he’s done a couple of things since then, so it’s coming together nicely for him. I’m really proud.

Q. How was getting to star alongside him and share scenes?
David Essex: Well, like I said, I was a little apprehensive at first because I knew there was a lot on his shoulders. But within two or three scenes… well, within 30 seconds I could see he was truthful, focused and had got it together, so there were no worries. And I didn’t give him any tips… he did give me a couple, cheeky sod [laughs]! But seriously, it was a privilege. I think he has a very truthful and a very raw kind of talent. We’re not a unit – he has his own career so it’s great to see him doing so well. And I think it’s commendable that he is Billy Cook and not Billy Essex.

Q. And of course it allowed you to nod to your grandfather. How important was that to you?
David Essex: It is important. I’ve always been open about my background and I’ve never hidden the fact that my grandfather was a travelling tinker-man from Cork. I never met him because he passed on before I turned up, but I heard lots of stories about him. What was nice, my mum and I would go fruit picking and things like that and it was during those times that we would meet the odd relative, and hear another story about him. So, it’s in my blood.

Q. Do you ever get frustrated about the negative perception and portrayal of the travelling community?
David Essex: Yeah, I do. The thing is there’s good and bad in both communities. But the travelling community is very insular, so it’s hard for outsiders to penetrate. But I think this film does that to a certain extent. There’s a line in I got from mum, which I put in the film, which is “a man without duties is a man without freedom”. And I think in these restrictive times, through health and safety and cameras, it’s a problem to travel and those things throw up resentments and misunderstandings.

David Essex

Q. How did you enjoy putting the soundtrack together?
David Essex: I enjoyed it a lot. I don’t do it often. The last one I did was Silver Dream Racer in 1980. So, it’s something I enjoy doing but it’s a lot of work. But with this particular film, because I believe in it, I thought I’d do it. And I drew on a Celtic motif generally for it because the character that Billy plays, his dad comes from Ireland, and there’s something about Celtic music that suggests fresh air and openness and countryside. There’s also some big orchestral moments and a couple of songs from me, of course, so I enjoyed doing it.

Q. You continually seem to be busy, whether touring, writing and recording new music, appearing on stage, on TV or in film. How do you maintain your enthusiasm?
David Essex: I think it’s because I do seem to work in a lot of different mediums, which means it keeps things fresh and sparks interest in me. Fame and fortune is fairly irrelevant to me. It’s nice because it gives creative freedom. But just wanting to be famous is ridiculous because it’s so vacuous. So, I get offered lots of different things and if they spark my interest, I’ll try and do them because they form part of a wider creative circle. For instance, the next thing I’m doing will be back on the stage. It’s a play called The Dishwashers and it’s a black comedy. It opens in Birmingham next year and we’ll then do a little tour in February, March and April. It’s a massive part, because it’s only a three-hander, and I’m the only one who says anything for about two hours [laughs]. So, I’ve got my work cut out really. But it’s a really witty and interesting play.

Q. So, does that mean you’ll be doing the dishes?
David Essex: It certainly does. I’m the king of the dishwashers. But I think I’m hardcore. I won’t be wearing any gloves.

Q. Will it head to the West End?
David Essex: Yeah, I think that’s what the produces want.

Q. Do you get frustrated by the lack of opportunity for new productions in the West End? Or is that unfair to say? You’ve got a rich history of West End work…
David Essex: You’re right and I do get frustrated. I think it is hard to bring something new to the West End and I do get a little bit angry about the lack of new things in the West End. I’ve brought things I’ve written, such as Mutiny! and All The Fun of the Fair. But it seems to be a lot easier to bring marquee names, such as a film or a revival, rather than new stuff. You tend to have to look outside for that, which is a shame. But it’s the same with the music industry – it’s more about accountancy as opposed to creativity.

Q. I saw Mutiny! twice and loved that show…
David Essex: Oh thank you very much. It’s nice to hear. It was very clever technically with the boat. The main thing for that was to stay alive every night and not go ass over tit and fall 50 foot into the bowels of the Piccadilly Theatre. But it ran for a year and a half and people seemed to enjoy it, so it was a fun thing to do.

Traveller, David Essex

Q. You’re also on tour again next year….
David Essex: Yeah, I’m doing the final tour of the Once In A Lifetime events. I was reluctant to do it at first because I’m not big on nostalgia. But then I realised that this is a celebration of a generation, so we’re doing eight arenas in June. I’ll also be doing my own tour when I get time. But I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be quite a heavy period with The Dishwashers beforehand so it’ll be nice to follow that by getting together with the band again.

Q. And is there any new material in addition to the Traveller soundtrack?
David Essex: I have a new album, Reflections. I’ve had a look at four big hits and done them in a more acoustic way and others are new songs. I think it’s No.1 on Radio 1’s indie list, whatever that means [laughs].

Q. How did you enjoy your time playing Eddie Moon on EastEnders?
David Essex: It was fast and furious… honestly, the storylines I had were enormous, and there was no rehearsal, you’ve just got to know what you’re doing. If you can do EastEnders and pull it off, you can do anything.

Q. I know you’ve said you don’t get nostalgic but when you look back on such a long and distinguished career, what are your own personal highlights and best memories?
David Essex: Well, I suppose the blueprint for the longevity was 1973, when I was in the hottest show in town, Godspell. And then coming out of that, I did That’ll Be The Day with David Puttnam and Ringo Starr, which was the film to see, and my record Rock On became a No.1 hit world-wide. So, there were three mediums converging and it’s been like that for 45 years. So, that for me is great and it’s allowed me to keep moving from one medium to another and keep it fresh and exciting. It’s been a terrific journey and it certainly beats working [laughs].

Q. Well, it’s been great following you along the way, whether it’s musically, on stage, on TV or on film…
David Essex: Thank you. It’s nice to know people are still taking notice. I just keep my head down and keep doing my thing and hope that I don’t outstay my welcome. I don’t want to outstay my welcome. I should say, though, that I also have another film coming out called Meet The Guvnors. Its about gangland warfare and it’ll probably go straight to DVD. But it’s good fun. Harley Sylvester, of Rizzle Kicks is in it, and I had to knock him out. It’s all about family, ‘innit [laughs]?

Traveller is in selected cinemas and VOD from December 6, 2013, and on DVD from January 27, 2014. The soundtrack is available now.