This week we’ve had the pleasure of having Lee Mead in our theatre, taking on the role of Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a role he’s clearly loving. We caught up with him to talk flying cars and fatherhood.
Caractcus is a role that Lee has been waiting to play for a long time: “I actually auditioned for the original production at the Palladium, when I was 19, when Michael Ball was playing the role. I auditioned to be his second cover, but one of the things about being a cover for a lead role is usually they need the cover to be in the dance ensemble, and I’m not really a dancer. I wasn’t the strongest dancer then – and I’m still not now – so I didn’t get the job. So, for me to be able to play the part in my own right, fifteen years on, it’s a huge thing for me.”
“The call came in from my agent with the offer last September, and it didn’t take me long to say yes. It’s a great family show, a really iconic show. It’s got great music and great songs and great characters to it and it’s got real heart to it, a real soul. Obviously the wow factor is the flying car, that’s such an important part of the show, but for me the main feature of the show is this guy with two kids and that story, and the relationship he has with them, and I can really relate to that, being a dad myself now.”
Fatherhood is clearly a massive part of Lee’s life. He describes five- year- old Betsy as his ‘top priority’ in life, and she crops up a lot in his conversation. Betsy lives in Kent with her mother, Lee’s ex-wife, TV presenter Denise Van Outen. Betsy saw the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time last year, replicating a bit of a Mead family tradition, as Lee remembers watching it “every year” as a child.
The part of Caractacus, the inventor (and single dad) who builds the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car, was one Lee couldn’t resist, despite having made other plans: “Sometimes roles come up at a point in your life where I believe they’re meant to happen, and this was one of them. I’ve been filming Casualty in Cardiff for a few years now, and before the offer for Chitty came up, I’d decided to take a year off, and go home and do the school runs and although I’ve got my album coming out [Some Enchanted Evening, his fourth album, released in February], and concerts for that, I’d planned to have a quieter year this year. But then this offer came in, and it just felt right. And it’s not too long a tour, so I’m not away from my daughter for too long.”
Lee came to performing relatively late: growing up in Southend, Essex (where he’s just bought a new home) he “wanted to be a footballer, but I was terrible!” He did his first show aged 17, having joined a local amateur group, “mainly to meet girls.”
When he did decide on a career as a performer, Lee had to work his way up: “I got my first job on a P&O car ferry, as a singer, on about £150 a week. I had a tiny cabin, and I used to clean my own costumes after the show. I wanted to go to RADA, but if you’re a working-class lad from Southend, ten grand a year just for the fees isn’t possible. My dad just laughed when I told him how much it would cost. Most people come away from that with sixty grands worth of debt. So I started at the bottom and did it the hard way.”
Lee had worked his way into minor roles in the West End when in 2007 a TV show called Any Dream Will Do catapulted him to public notice. The show was a contest to find a star for a new West End production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph – a contest that Lee won: “I still have fond memories of it. Everyday I feel lucky that I had that break, that opportunity. I was working for over five years, in choruses and so on, and then fortunately I got my break. And it really helped my career and put me on a platform, and gave me that profile, to show what I can do. I’ve been really lucky that since that show I’ve got to do lots of things that I perhaps wouldn’t have had the chance to do without that kind of exposure. My talent didn’t change, but being on telly and having that profile has brought me opportunities.”