As someone who spent her teenage years with Wet, Wet, Wet on repeat, there are far worse ways to spend a rainy day in Birmingham than chatting with the band’s former frontman Marti Pellow.
The showbiz all-rounder – who’s pitch-perfect voice has dazzled Broadway and the West End – is doing his press rounds ahead of starring in Birmingham Hippodrome’s Dick Whittington. The first thing he does is offer me a sandwich; I kindly decline explaining it’s my son’s birthday and we’re off to Wagamama’s later. “I love the chicken katsu curry. I always regret when I go there and order anything else,” he laughs.
It’s great to see him back in the city. He was here for Aladdin in 2015 and returned earlier this year to perform at Symphony Hall. “It’s always a pleasure being in Birmingham; I’ve been coming here for years, and the city has always looked after me. It’s changed hugely in that time, but I love that. I love the redevelopment and new architecture, and the Commonwealth Games, of course.”
Dick Whittington means he’ll be in Birmingham right the way through to the end of January. So has he got any plans away from the stage? “Glynn Purnell has already been on the phone and he’s going to take me round and show me all the places I shouldn’t go and some of the places I should go. I want to hang out with him, he always comes across as such as lovely man and besides that he’s an incredibly gifted chef. I read his book and loved the way he talks about food; anything that gets people round the table is great. He speaks so passionately about food and I’m such a big foodie.”
For his latest role he plays The Rat Man, a true panto villain, alongside local legend Matt Slack. “This is what I love about panto, the rules are so defined. Matt is such a wonderful comedian and I love how he works. And even though I love the sound of laughter, you’re seduced by it and think ‘I’d love some of that’, it’s also great to let Matt do his thing and I get all the boos. It’s nice to have that balance in your career.”
Undoubtedly, he is most famous for the hit Love is All Around, the romantic anthem that became the soundtrack of 1994, took a starring role in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and continues to be played at endless first dances. “It was our longest serving number one and I think the biggest selling love song of all time – I often have that conversation with Bryan Adams. People have an affiliation with it because of the movie. We weren’t in the original film but when it was edited, Richard (Curtis) needed another song and picked Love Is All Around.”
I remind him it was knocked off the top spot after 15 weeks by Whigfield’s dance hit Saturday Night. “I can’t really complain,” he jokes. “It was a bit like eating chocolate every day and it was nice to give someone else a shot. It’s still a wonderful pop song and it has such a longevity.”
Music has long been his way of connecting with people, most pertinently during Covid when he launched his hugely popular Lockdown Sessions. “The beauty of the Sessions was you never knew who was watching – I got a lovely email from James Taylor after doing Sweet Baby James, and one from Annie Lennox. People were watching and connecting with it, and it came from a good place. A family approached me, their mum was in a bad way with Covid and was in a coma and they said ‘Look, can you just sing a wee song into your mobile phone’ and that’s how it started. It reverberated with so many people.
“It was therapeutic for me too and helped me navigate through that time. Music is all about connecting and when it got the stage where millions and millions of people were listening you think ‘there’s something here’. It was social media at its most powerful. It’s not rocket science what I do, music is about a point of connection.”
Inspiring millions through a pandemic is a wonderful thing to have on his CV, but what inspires him? “I’m continually inspired by the arts, a great plate of food, family, TV, good books. The older I get the more settled I am in my ways. I love movies, the Ealing classics, and I’m always happy to watch The Thirty-Nine Steps,” he says, as the rain starts to batter hard against window we’re sitting beside. “I just like a rainy day when you can sit down with a black and white movie and argue about who’s going to the fridge to get the ice cream.”
For a lad from Clydebank, he must feel like pinching himself that his career includes critically acclaimed runs on Broadway and West End in Chicago? “As a singer songwriter you are always narrating a story, so when I moved into musical theatre that was a great bonus for me. I want to inform, not just be seduced by the melody, but I understand the meter of a lyric too. So, when I transitioned into theatre, I was able to embrace that, whether that was me singing Brecht or Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber. And as a storyteller they are such great vehicles. I never thought it was going to be something for me, but it’s been such an honour.”
“When it comes to musical theatre and panto you get to explore what you can do with your voice, and this is different again to the constraints you work with in pop music. It all comes from the same place, how much passion you put into it. My favourite musical is Threepenny Opera, I’d love to do that, and the musical Nine; but then again how could you not love Blood Brothers? Even though I did all those performances, and I did hundreds, if not over a thousand performances, every night I still wished for a different ending because I was so engrossed in the piece. You can tell he (Willy Russell) had sat at the feet of women; he writes very powerful women. He’s got a great insight.”
As if he needed to add another string to his bow, the 57-year-old has just finished touring with Pellow Talk, an intimate, one-man show where he shares an honest insight into his life and work. “This was a different skill set again, and it starts with a stream of consciousness. You’re always engaging with the audience in the same way I’m engaging in the conversation with you, so I get your meter as I interact with you and audiences are no different. Some want to be on the tip of their toes while others sit back. You shouldn’t expect the same results every night, day in day out. It’s freedom.
“With pantomime too, you’re always pushing it; what angle will I come at it from or how will I deliver that line? So you’re always trying to push the boundaries. And that’s a challenge. Every day with an audience is completely different, it’s an education. And to be honest a real job would kill me,” he smiles. “That’s one thing about the arts, we may hum and haw about it being a long run and we’ve got x amount of shows. Yes, we do work hard, but the quality of work far out ways that.”
His future plans include a Scottish musical and there’s a new album in the pipeline. “I also want to continue doing a little bit more Pellow Talk because when I started, I didn’t know what I had and as it started to reveal itself, I thought ‘I like it, how I can keep pushing and go on a wee journey with it?’. You’ve got to keep pushing the boat out, working with different people and be inspired. But then I love spending time with my family, it’s important to get the balance right. The most mundane things get my attention, so you might say ‘that sounds like a boring day’, but my idea of pleasure is getting my friends and family around the table.”
As our time runs out, I thank him for a genuinely lovely interview. “And you’ve got Wagamamas now,” he says in that undeniably sexy Scottish twang.