He was a child star who refused to let fame go to his head. Now a TV presenter and broadcaster, Phil Penfold catches up with Aled Jones.
In the rather frenetic, not to say cut-throat world of TV entertainment, there are a only a few presenters who the bosses think of as a “safe pair of hands”. Step forward, Mr Aled Jones.
Now in his mid-40s, he rose to international fame as a boy chorister, had a slew of best-selling albums, and was left at a personal cross-roads when, in his mid-teens, his voice broke.
There are countless morality tales of the perils of being a child star and Jones is one of the few who managed to carve out a successful career in showbusiness as an adult. A familiar face on our screens, and a much-loved voice on radio, he lives with his wife in south-west London, is a huge fan of Arsenal, is quietly spoken and so considerate that he forgot that we were going to make initial contact by phone while he was on a rail journey.
He pottered off into a quiet carriage where he switched off his mobile. “I just didn’t want to disturb anyone,” he confesses a day or so later when he is finally tracked down, “and if I had been able to speak to you, it would have been….” (he lowers his familiar voice to a barely audible whisper) ….. “a lot like this….”
In more propitious circumstances, he says he “talks to everyone” and when he goes back home to Llandegfan, near Bangor in North Wales, it’s more like a royal progress for the town’s most famous son.
The adulation is largely down to his first hit, Walking in The Air, which went very close to the top of the charts in 1985, and which is relentlessly revived over and over again every year. When Aled’s voice inevitably cracked, he was wise enough to get himself a place at the Royal Academy of Music, and then went on to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
“I decided that performance was what I was what I wanted to do, and that I wanted to have a career in that field, and that I might as well take every advantage of professional training. That way, if someone ever said anything disparaging like, ‘Huh! Former boy soprano, he’s rubbish’, at least my reply could be ‘Yes, but I am trained rubbish’.”
When he graduated, offers of jobs came in thick and fast, and in all sorts of fields. In fact, I suggest to him, that the only things he hasn’t attempted so far are pantomime, and the circus. “Oh, but I was so nearly in panto,” he laughs. “I was cast as Jack, in Jack and the Beanstalk, at the Richmond Theatre in London, and I was going to be playing opposite an old mate of mine, John Challis (from TV’s Only Fools and Horses). Everything was in place and it was looking really good until we got to the night of the dress rehearsal, and I walked out on stage and snapped my Achilles tendon. I was in agony, and that, sadly, was that.”
Instantly likable, many of Jones’s colleagues have become close friends and mentors and he is still feeling the loss of Sir Terry Wogan, who died earlier in the year.
“He was,” he says with an obvious catch in his voice, “a very good mate of mine. A wonderful man. He was my ‘radio dad’, if you like, and he taught me so much. But he was in so much pain at the end that... well, you know.”
Jones is modest enough to admits that his longevity has been a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
“It’s all been a bit of a fluke. I never had a masterplan. How could you, when you are just in your early teens?” Truth was there wasn’t much time to think. Before his voice broke, he’d sung at events where the audience included the Queen, Pope John Paul II and the Prince and Princess of Wales, recorded 16 albums, which sold more than six million copies, and he was already working as a children’s TV presenter.
After graduation he made his professional stage debut in the classic How Green Was My Valley and was then offered the lead in a Blackpool summer season production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Other musicals followed and as doors began to open, he found himself landing a regular Sunday morning slot with Classic FM.
“About three out of four of the shows are done live. Occasionally I have to pre-record them, but I try to keep that down to a minimum. It is a far better ‘connect’ when you are doing the show ‘as is’. It has that air of spontaneity.”
He has presented Songs of Praise, Cash in the Attic, Daybreak and The One Show. And there was also Escape to the Country.
“I loved doing that because it allowed me the privilege of being nosey in other people’s houses. But I never got envious, never once. The nicest sound in my life – apart from hearing my wife and daughter – is the click of the front door when it closes as I get home.”.
Jones will be popping up on the small screen again in a few weeks in a new series called Going Back, Giving Back, which will air on BBC One. Aled explains: “It isn’t celebrity-led, far from it. The idea is that we go to ordinary members of the public who have battled hardships and obstacles at some point in their lives, and who have been helped in some way and we give them the opportunity and the choice to say a big ‘thank you’.
“There are a lot of incredible stories and histories out there and a lot of it, I promise you, is absolutely heart-rending stuff. I’ve been moved to tears on a few occasions. It’s been pretty emotional stuff.
“We’ve recorded all over the UK, and a fair bit has been in Yorkshire. It all proves – if proof be needed – that there are some very special, big-hearted and generous people out there”.
Before the first of those 20 programmes goes out though, this weekend sees Jones at Castle Howard for their Proms Spectacular
“Castle Howard is one of my favourites. You get a bit of everything there from the greatest opera hits like Nessun Dorma to the join-in songs such as Land Of Hope And Glory. It’s always a huge pleasure to sing there,” he says.
Later this year he is also planning to go back into the recording studios again to lay down tracks for a follow-up to the phenomenally successful One Voice, the CD which blended the singing of the pre-voice-break Aled with his tones of today.
“What happened was that when the break came, there was an album ready for release, but the company thought that no-one would want it, so they gave the tapes to my dad, who was told that he should put it in the airing cupboard, to preserve the quality.
“And there it sat, for more than 20 years, until the idea came to use today’s recording technologies to blend the Aled of yesterday with the Aled of me today. I’m so chuffed that people have loved it. They asked for more, and we’re going to deliver – just in time for Christmas.”
Then there’s a tour, more concerts and with more than three decades of experience, did he offer any advice to his 14 year-old daughter Emilia, who has already taken her first steps into acting.
“No way,” he laughs, “she wouldn’t listen anyway. I’m just her dad to her. All I offer to anyone, my daughter or not, is ‘Be happy at what you do. Have a crack at it.’ Because you never know what is around the corner.”
Proms Spectacular, Castle Howard, tonight, 01653 648333.