BIG INTERVIEW Norman Pace in Hairspray: 'The audiences leave the show with big smiles on their faces'

Matt Rixon as Edna Turnblad with Norman Pace as Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray
Matt Rixon as Edna Turnblad with Norman Pace as Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray
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From 1988, Norman Pace was, as one half of the comedy duo Hale and Pace, at the start of a decade-long run of a hugely popular prime-time ITV show.

The show gave birth to characters such as children's TV presenters Billy and Johnny and The Management – The Two Rons.

Norman says he still gets people shouting The Management's catchphrases at him.

'Yeah, we still get that. We’d never resurrect it now though – we’d look like sad old men trying to recreate former glories! It’s all over with, but it left its mark, you know? People come up to us and talk about it and watch it on YouTube these days.

'We had our 15 years rather than 15 minutes, but we never became national treasures or legends of the business over here. Strangely, more so in Australia, actually, we toured there about 11 times in 25 years – they gave us a second home, really.'

Since the show's demise, the pair have largely gone their separate professional ways.

The cast of Hairspray

The cast of Hairspray

And in the interim Norman has racked up some impressive stage credits, from Chicago to One Man, Two Guv'nors and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

He is now touring the UK as Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray. Full of enthusiasm for the show, he tells The Guide: 'I tell you what, and not just because I’m in it, it’s one of the finest productions of a very well written piece I’ve ever been involved with – it’s a pleasure to be in.'

The show was an adaptation of director John Waters' 1988 camp classic, revelling in early rock'n'roll and taking on segregation, it became a cult hit. It was turned into a stage musical in 2002, became an immediate Broadway, then West End smash. In a curious turn, a second film was then made using the stage version for its basis.

Before taking the role, Norman had seen the films but not the stage show, and he admits he had some doubts.

'When you value something like the original film, it was so of its time – very quirky and original and a B-movie in many senses – you wouldn’t think that anyone could do any better with a musical, but you’d be wrong.

'It’s beautifully structured, really well written, the songs are amazing, and the audiences leave with big smiles on their faces.'

But once he got the role, he avoided watching the films again, where Wilbur – the father of the show's heroine, Tracy Turnblad – is portrayed by Jerry Stiller and Christopher Walken. 'I think Christopher Walken is one of the finest actors of the last 50 years, and I’d be swayed by his take on it if I watched it too closely. But they liked what I did at the audition, they liked my angle on it and here I am – they’re paying me to do it!'

With more than 30 years in show business under his belt, Norman likes to describe himself as a survivor.

'I did a show last Christmas with Les Dennis and we both sat next to each other in the dressing room and we were saying how we’re survivors – we’re almost identical ages, we started in show business about the same time – myself with Gareth, him with Dustin Gee, and there’s a lot of crossover between us. If you’re still getting paid to do something in your 60s that you started doing in your 20s, you must be doing something right, I guess.'

Although Pace has carved himself a solid niche in musicals, it still catches some unaware.

'Several people have caught me at the stage door on this tour, they’d come to see Hairspray and hadn’t realised I was in it, and they’d tell me: "I said to my wife, that’s him, it's that Hale and Pace bloke!" They’re surprised, but this is such a good production, they’re happy to be there whoever’s in it.'

But that's not to say he's done with TV – he was recently reunited with his old comedy partner for the forthcoming 10th series of the hit ITV sitcom Benidorm.

'I just did four episodes of Benidorm over the summer with Gareth, actually. It’s a different kind of pressure. With theatre you’ve got eight shows a week, so you have to look after your energy and use whatever adrenaline you can muster eight times a week. It’s the opposite of filming, where you sit around for ages and ages, then suddenly you’re on and your head has to focus on the technique of what you’re doing there and then.

'They’re different beasts really, but they both have their attractions.'

But he adds of being back with Gareth: 'It was great. It was just like old times. We went out for dinner together every evening, and with the other members of the cast, and we'd sit there drinking wine and setting the world to rights, as you do.'

Although the pair met through teaching college in the mid-'70s he doesn't think he'd enter the profession today.
'It’s a harder job now than when I was doing it back in the '70s but you could see the buds of disaffection were flowering even back then.

'There’s a high drop-out rate in new teachers, there’s such stress in the first few years of their teaching career that they drop out.

'The problem is that government after government, regardless of colour has come in with their big ideas, and there’s been all this chopping and changing and nothing’s been very consistent. The one consistent thing though has been the increase in bureaucracy and paperwork.'

Hairspray is at Mayflower Theatre in Southampton from January 22 to 27. Go to mayflower.org.uk.