David Essex: gypsies, Shogun Warrior, paradiddles, Traveller

We interview musician and actor David Essex about his film career, gypsy heritage, almost taking John Travolta's role in Grease & more...

As it says in his autobiography, David Essex means different things to different people. To some, he was a Jackie-magazine-fuelled adolescent obsession and the soundtrack to their youth. To others, he’s a star of musical theatre. To others still, he’s a former ambassador for aid charity VSO, head of the Gypsy Council, or neckerchief-wearing singer of the unavoidable-in-December A Winter’s Tale.

To you he might have been lock-keeper Davey in eighties sitcom The River, or that bloke who went out with Catherine Zeta-Jones before Michael Douglas (or, for that matter, with Sinitta at the same time as Simon Cowell). To Eastenders fans, he’s antiques dealer and father of four, Eddie Moon.

To me, amongst other things, he’s the man whose face is on a tea towel in my kitchen. When I tell him this mid-interview, he laughs good-naturedly and later, as I’m leaving, says, “When you use that tea-towel, think of me”. In addition to the many things David Essex is, he’s also a little bit of a flirt.

I spoke to David Essex about his role in Traveller, a new independent UK film set amongst the gypsy community in which he plays horse trader, Blackberry, opposite his real-life son, Billy Cook…

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You refer in your autobiography a number of times to having a gypsy soul, having gypsy blood, gypsy curls even… Is that what brought you to Traveller then, to represent that part of your heritage?

Both of us thought of that, Billy Cook my son, and myself. He got the lead part first and I thought that was great but it was a bit of a gamble because he hadn’t done much before and if he’s not any good, then the film’s not any good. So, then they contacted me and I read the script and I was very struck with the spirituality of his journey, because he plays a character who’s half gypsy and half non-gypsy and it’s about where he belongs and all that. So I said I’d play Blackberry.

I didn’t know how Billy was doing to begin with, I went down to where we were filming – we were very fortunate in as much as the travelling community and the gypsy community trusted the project so we were able to film on a proper site on traveller land and they were a great help. So I went down and had a scene with Billy and I was just blown away. I just thought he was so truthful and focussed, so I didn’t worry anymore.  I thought, ah, he’s going to be fine.

Is that important to you, truth? To present the truth of the gypsy community?

Yeah, because I know there’s good and bad in all communities, and they can be a handful obviously but it’s not My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. It’s a way of life and it’s a very insular community that we don’t – I mean I did, but most people don’t – look into, and one you can’t get to look into and be a part of unless you’re trusted.

Trust is a big thing with the travelling community, and we were trusted and we were given access and I think we’ve given an insight into English gypsies that probably has not really been there with too many things, so that’s a big plus I think with the film.

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The film isn’t a softened portrait of the gypsy lifestyle, there are bare-knuckle fights. There’s a cock-fight at one point…

That’s right. A lot of these communities are basically outlaws, because they’re not involved in what we know as the norm, so they have to scratch about and find ways of making money for the kids and all the rest of it [laughs]. Sometimes that can cross over a bit.

You mentioned My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Is the film intended as a sort of answer to that representation of traveller life?

No, no it’s not. It’s not carrying a banner for anybody, but I think what makes it interesting is the fact that we were allowed to draw upon their experiences, we were living with them, we were talking with them. I’ve always been aware of them because I was patron of the Gypsy Council and my granddad was a travelling tinker man from Cork. My mum always said, a line which I included in the film…

A land without gypsies…

[nods] …is a land without freedom. And in these very restrictive times, it’s even more important to me that there is a sense of freedom in somebody, instead of a camera being pointed at you and ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do that’, so all those aspects strike a chord with me. They’re quite resonant with me I think, so that’s why I got involved.

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Since then, my son Billy’s done two films, he’s just done a drama for BBC One, and I think he’s going to be nominated for Best Newcomer by BAFTA, so he’s ticking over.

Well, he has a lot to live up to.

Yeah, but we don’t see it that way, that’s why he’s Billy Cook and not Billy Essex. Or not even Joey Essex! [To the PR] They keep saying he’s my son. People say ‘that’s your son isn’t it?’ [laughing]

Is there a part of you that wishes you could get away from the Essex name now that The Only Way Is Essex has come about?

No, no. The only reason I changed my name, because my name’s Cook as you know, was because I couldn’t join Equity as David Cook, there was a fella called David Cook. So I was living in Essex at the time – we’d just moved out from the East End – and my manager said, what about Essex? And I said okay.

It hasn’t done you badly has it?

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No, it’s worked hasn’t it?

Is it fair to say that with Traveller and a number of your previous films, there seems to be an autobiographical element? Obviously the first two, That’ll Be The Day and Stardust, two stories about a young man becoming a world-famous pop star, had an awful lot of crossover. Even Silver Dream Racer had your love of bikes in it. Was that your choice or has that been just what comes to you?

No, I suppose it’s choice. Whatever comes, if it sparks a real interest… The play I’m doing wouldn’t be an autobiographical one, it’s called The Dishwashers.

Not based on your life then. Though you did do some grafter jobs before it all happened for you though, didn’t you?

I’ve done proper jobs, yeah [laughing]. But that play’s all about aspiration really and it’s quite political, it’s a very witty black comedy that’s never been done so we start that in January.

Generally, you’re quite right, that’s perceptive, if it strikes a chord with me [clicks fingers] then I’ll give it one hundred percent.

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Filming That’ll Be The Day, tell me, was there ever a moment at five in the morning, sat around the bar drinking with Keith Moon and Ringo Starr when you thought, ‘Tomorrow’s scenes just aren’t going to happen’?

No, I was very professional. I would creep off. My wife and my daughter were with me on the Isle of Wight. We had a house in Shanklin, so I would try to get away.

It’s difficult isn’t it, because they’d be saying [puts an arm drunkenly around an imaginary him] ‘Come on Dave, are you going to have another?’ but no, I’d sort of slope off because I was aware, like Billy was aware in Traveller, if he didn’t come off, it’d be no film. I knew if I didn’t come off in That’ll Be The Day, it wouldn’t be a film. There’s a lot of people’s dreams and aspirations that you’re carrying and you’re responsible for. There’s that sense of duty and professionalism I’ve always tried to hang on to. If I’m doing a show, I won’t tear the arse out of it, I’ll go to bed. Boring, but that’s the way it is.

I grew up around where you were filming on the Isle of Wight…

Did you? Well, you know that film ran there forever, because everybody was in it. So they’d all go and watch themselves and say ‘There I am!’ and it ran there for months and months and months.

One of my teachers was an extra in it.

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There you go. It’s a lovely place.

Not all of your film work is autobiographical of course, you were never a sword-fighting Spanish Duke [as he played in 1991’s martial arts film Shogun Warrior/Journey Of Honor] in real life.

[Laughs] No! I don’t think I’ll ever be a Spanish Duke again with that strange French/Jewish accent!

Do you have fond memories of filming that?

It was mad, it was mad. I was over in Los Angeles for some reason and somebody said ‘Do you want to do this film’, and I said ‘A Spanish Duke? Yeah, sounds like an adventure’, because I never thought it’d see the light of day and anybody would know I’d been in it!

It was odd because all the fight directors were all Japanese so I couldn’t… and there were these big sword fights. It was ridiculous, I think the director must have been in his hundreds he was so old, I don’t know where they got him from, and he was very cranky.

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We seemed to be sitting around a lot in Croatia, which was okay, but not doing very much, me and Ronald Pickup, who’s a lovely actor, we’d just sit there. My sons, the twins, were very impressed because apparently Shô Kosugi is like a martial arts hero but I’d never heard of him.

Your other co-star was Christopher Lee of all people.


Is it right that he saved your eyesight on set after a stunt went wrong?

Yeah he did, yeah, because we were using these musket things and there was bad feeling between the Serbians and the Croatians, you could feel there was going to be trouble, and one of them just filled this musket up with all this powder and it went ‘whack’ into my eye. I was ready to go on, but Christopher Lee said ‘No, you’ve got to get it treated’. So we went off to one hospital and that was shut and we had to go on and get me all stitched up. [Laughing] It was mad.

If there’s something about a project that resonates though, I’m there, because I get offered a lot of things and I think, ‘I’m not going to do that’.

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Does that go back to your old manager, Derek [Bowman]? Have you internalised his sort of, ‘No, David, don’t do that’?

Occasionally I think of him, yes. Because he was always very very suspicious of television, so I’ve not done much TV. I know I did Eastenders, but that was more for my mum, because she loved Eastenders. So I do have that, yeah, a lot of words of wisdom that float by occasionally from Derek.

Different times now, you know, but I would never do a reality show or any of that nonsense.

You wouldn’t?


Well you’re a busy man. I laughed actually, reading your book; you describe yourself as semi-retired because you’re only doing one album and one tour a year. For a lot of performers, that would be a full-on schedule.

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I know, what happened there?

Compared to say, someone like, say, Scott Walker, who came around a bit before you and went through a similar sort of phase with the teenage fans in The Walker Brothers and then moved away from it, and he’s now doing one album every ten years…

[Laughs] Oh, I couldn’t wait that long.

You couldn’t? What drives you then?

I’m less driven then it was. I always wanted to get to tomorrow today. That was a fault I think, because I never savoured any success that I’ve had, it was always, ‘Oh, number one, nice, what’s next?’

Now I’m older, obviously, there’s not so many days in the future, so I think I take stock a little bit more, but I’ve still got that insatiable urge to move on. Being able to work in all those different mediums for me is the key, being able to float from one to the other, it’s different, it feels fresh again.

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Like you’re making progress?

Yeah, it’s a change. A change is as good as a rest, isn’t it?

So they say! I’m interested in your perspective on British film over the years, because you’re working now in independent UK film with Traveller and…

Meet The Guv’nors

…yes, and a few decades ago you were working on That’ll Be The Day so you must have seen a lot of changes. How have things changed in the industry from your perspective?

I think more people are trying to make films with very low budgets, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but then you hit a point where those films never get promoted, because they’re not big million, billion dollar films, that gets a little bit depressing. For instance, Traveller is only a limited release. It’s in cinemas, which is a big deal really for a film like that as opposed to going straight to DVD.

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I’m always a little bit disappointed in as much as there seems to be two kinds of British films, the period ones, where they do throw a bit of money at it, and then the bang crash wallop type, you know? Like Meet The Guv’nors is all about [adopts a rough, growly accent] gang warfare, you know what I’m saying.

East End gangs?

Yeah, well, Thamesmead. It’s about gangland warfare between two generations. Good film, nice script and all the rest of it, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were different kinds of films instead of the period drama and [does the growly voice] ‘I’ll knock your lights out’. It seems to me there are those two and not much in the middle, whereas I think, Traveller has got a bit of spirituality about it. I’d like to see more of that. I’d like to see more poetry in British film.

Do you think there used to be poetry in British film, but it’s gone?

Brief Encounter is a beautiful film – isn’t that a great film? It’s poetic. I know it’s very posh and very clipped and of a bygone era, but it’s absolutely beautiful.

It’s quite a small film isn’t it? I mean in terms of story, it’s very contained, just about two people.

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Yes, it’s lovely. There’s no… it’s just people, it’s about people. I like films like that. I prefer films like that. I can’t stand films where they’ve got all special effects. I mean, I went to see Skyfall and thought, what a waste of money this is.

Oh, you’re not a Bond fan?


Michael Apted [That’ll Be The Day director] went on to do one of those.

Did he? No, I like films about people and what happens to them.

You’re not a fan of those East End gangster films as a rule then, Danny Dyer films?

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Do you watch Jason Statham films?

I actually don’t. I’ve got a problem here, I have to speak to Debbie [his PR] about, I’m supposed to name five favourite films and I don’t watch films.

At all?

I think I’ve seen Brief Encounter, I’ve seen Terminator and a few films on the plane.

You must have seen your own? Though I suppose it would be bad form to name those in your top five…

[laughing] Imagine! Number one, Silver Dream Racer, then That’ll Be The Day, Stardust, and don’t forget Shogun Warrior.

No, cinema to me seems like a waste of time. I much prefer going together on a journey with live actors in the theatre, so I don’t know about films really. I enjoyed that The Great Gatsby, I saw that on the airplane.

The Baz Luhrmann one?

I really was interested by the score of that because it’s like a strange mixture and mish-mash, I thought that was good.

Jay-Z did it I think.

Yeah, I saw that. I thought it was really good.

Another sort of trend in your film appearances is that they don’t tend to have happy endings…

[Laughs] I know, I like that. I went to see War Horse recently and I thought, ‘Why didn’t they shoot the horse?’

[Laughter] You must have been the only person to come away thinking that!

[Laughing] I was, the only person. I’ve got this dark side to me that likes that. It’s funny, because on Silver Dream Racer, they changed the end for American audiences.

I noticed that! If you read the Wikipedia entry now it says the film ends with Danny crossing the finish line first.

There you go. They had to change it because America couldn’t stand the fact that the hero died.

Is that reluctance to have a big, shiny happy ending is something to do with being British? You’ve described yourself as “very, very English” in your book, which is why you couldn’t really settle in America at the height of your music career.

It might be, it might be. It might just be a [adopts mysterious ominous voice] a strange darkness in my character.

Your innate need to kill off horses…

I just thought it would be shocking [in War Horse] if they’ve gone through this whole thing – I’m talking about the stage show, I’ve never seen the film – and he finds the horse and all the rest of it, and then there’s a German guy who’s just about the shoot the horse – [laughing] shoot the bloody horse!

About your Englishness, I was surprised to hear that you’d been in the running for John Travolta’s very American role in Grease.


Did you consider it?

I considered it, I’m glad they never asked me to do it, because I thought John Travolta was great. [Sings] ‘You’re the one that I want, ooh ooh ooh.’ [laughter].

Do you ever do that one on karaoke?

Never. I never do karaoke. I don’t enjoy singing to be honest. Mad isn’t it?

Just now or…?

I’ve never really enjoyed it. I’m a drummer that’s what really I am, and it’s gone downhill from there! But I enjoy communicating and I like writing and writing lyrics and so on, and a few of my songs mean a lot to a lot of people, that’s nice, but the actual thing of singing… I always find it interesting, like, if I’m doing a musical, you can always hear everybody singing all over the place, and nothing from my dressing room. I just have a cup of tea, have a fag and go and do it.

It’s just a job to you?

It’s the communication I like. It’s not like [in an impressively operatic singing voice] ‘I’ve got a great voice, I’ve got to siiiiing’ like they do, they just walk up and down doing [does an effortless operatic scale] all these warm ups that they’ve been taught at stage school and of course, I never went to stage school. I had to learn in front of audiences.

Out of your dressing room then, is just the sound of biros drumming on the desks and walls?

I’ve got over that. That’s a syndrome that drummers have, but I’ve kind of got over that. I’m not still doing my paradiddles. Shall I teach you how to do a paradiddle?

Go on then.

Okay. Right, left, right, right [taps out a rhythm on the table with his fingers, I follow it]. Good, now, left, right, left, left [I do it] That’s it, you’ve just learnt a right-handed paradiddle and a left-handed paradiddle.

So if I’m ever called to the stage…

You can paradiddle.

And I can say I was taught by a master.

[Laughs] They’re military rudiments that you learn as a drummer. So you’ve got that [starts tapping away, getting faster and faster]. You need that speed, right? [more impressively fast drumming].

[I don’t have that speed] The idea of you in Grease really tickled me.

It’s hysterical.

Well, not because you wouldn’t have been great in it.

Oh, I don’t know about that!

But because That’ll Be The Day is almost an opposite to Grease isn’t it? One’s so English and about being an English teenager in a realist way, and the other’s so American and marshmallow-y.

It is, yeah. That’s right.

You actually found yourself being taken a little bit more seriously by the American music press than in the UK after all the Essex mania happened, is that fair to say?

Yes, that’s right, because over there, there wasn’t that kind of presence that I had here with the fan magazines and all the rest of it, it was out of my control and a little bit bewildering.

I was saying to a journalist earlier, fame and fortune has never been my motivation. It’s always been the project or the adventure of doing something rather than, I want to be famous. That’s vacuous, that’s pointless. Because once you’re famous, what is there?

That’s the message of Stardust in a nutshell isn’t it?

Exactly, exactly.

Going back to musical theatre, your show All the Fun of the Fair and fairgrounds generally sum up some of your work quite nicely don’t they? You’ve got the showbiz glitz and glamour – the Hold Me Close, Top of the Pops stuff – but underneath is something a bit dark, a bit dangerous – the bit that doesn’t like happy endings and wants the horse to die in War Horse?

Yeah, I suppose that’s part of my make-up.

I am a nice person I think. I think I’m a good person. Dark things appeal to me much more than pink and frilly. That’s what I look for. I look for levels and obviously, there is no drama without conflict, so you need that.

You’ll have to forgive me for this question, but as it’s this time of year, can I ask if you’ll be doing your Christmas shopping soon?

Yeah, I’ve got five grandkids now, I like to get out and about and get their stuff.

So like the rest of us then, you must hear A Winter’s Tale a few times with every shopping trip?

Yes. But that’s generally supermarkets, I try and keep out of those, it causes a bit of a stir.

Do you ever find yourself walking around those supermarkets hearing it and thinking, that’s another 10p of royalties in [songwriters] Tim Rice and Mike Batt’s pockets?

Nah. I don’t think that way. I think, I’ll duck, if I’m in a supermarket I’ll duck, otherwise they’ll say, come on Dave, join in. Give us a verse.

David Essex, thank you very much!

Traveller is in selected cinemas and VOD from the 6th of December and on DVD on the 27th of January 2014.

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