Once a tabloid ‘love rat’, as Darren Day prepares to star in White Christmas, he tells Sarah Freeman why he much prefers his role as committed family man.
Darren Day recently sat down to write his autobiography. Compared to the glut of bland celebrity memoirs, when it’s eventually published it promises to be juicy stuff. How could it not be?
It was back in 1993 that Day, then an unknown entertainer, landed the lead in a West End production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, following in the footsteps of Philip Schofield and Jason Donovan. He’d worked hard to get to the top of the bill at the London Palladium, with a stint as a Butlin’s Redcoat and the usual round of working men’s club, but nothing could have prepared him for the attention which came with the role.
“My granddad was a vaudeville entertainer and I remember him telling me stories about the Palladium. When I found out I’d got an audition I thought, ‘Great, I get to stand and perform for three minutes on that famous stage’. I really never thought it would be anything more than that.
“I’ll never forget that call from my agent. I was in Marks and Spencer’s and he simply said, ‘The Dreamcoat’s yours’.
Like Donovan – who would also later admit to a serious drug addiction – Day, who was also young, blond and good looking, found himself painted as the theatre’s golden boy. For a while the image suited him, but as his bank account swelled, it was an image which became increasingly difficult to live up to.
By the late 1990s, his cocaine addiction had been exposed and, thanks to a string of celebrity girlfriends who he dated and dumped, Day was rarely out of the red tops, cast in a new role as the tabloids’ favourite “love rat”.
“For a while at the Palladium I was known as Darren Who? Unfortunately, that anonymity didn’t last long. I’ve had to look back at those years for the book, but it honestly feels like I’m reading about my naughty, younger brother. My whole moral standing has changed. Each morning I just try to go out there and be the best person I can be. I know that by saying that, I risk being arrested by the cliche police, but it’s true.”
Like many who manage to escape a cycle of self-destruction, Day has a slightly evangelical air about him. We’re speaking in a quiet corner of the West Yorkshire Playhouse where he’s on a break from rehearsals for White Christmas in which he plays Broadway entertainer and committed bachelor Bob Wallace. Given, his past, it’s a role he should have no problem identifying with.
“The only thing I’m grateful for is that social media didn’t exist back then. Can you imagine? I suspect Twitter would have probably tried to sponsor me. From the point the Press started calling me the next Cliff Richard, I was onto a loser. I wanted to break out, I didn’t want to be squeaky clean. I think at that age even if you are given advice you tend to ignore it. I thought I knew best.”
Occasionally, Day slips into self-help speak, but when he talks about what can politely described as his slightly chequered past, he’s also funny and disarmingly honest. It was, his says, his natural openness that often got him into trouble in the first place.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, although let’s be honest, mainly downs. It wasn’t pretty and as much as I might have tried to avoid the tabloids, there was always someone to show me the next lurid headline. I couldn’t really complain, I loaded the bullets into the journalists’ guns. I made a lot of headlines, but I can’t regret anything because it had made me who I am.”
It didn’t take long for Day’s career to become tainted by the meltdown which was his personal life. Parts dried up and few producers seemed willing to take a risk on a singer and actor who seemed to create scandal wherever he went. Day, now 46, took it on the chin and left the West End for the provinces. At least there he could at least be guaranteed a part in panto and it was a production of Cinderella in Derby nine years ago, not long after his relationship with Suzanne Shaw had broken down, which proved just as life-changing as Joseph.
“I know it sounds terribly cheesy, but that’s where I met my wife. She was Cinderella I was Buttons. At that particular time in my life I really wasn’t having fun. I didn’t like myself very much, and I think maybe I did need a break from the limelight.
“There were a lot of times in the past when I said, ‘Trust me, I’ve grown up’ when I hadn’t. But now For the first time ever I could probably be the boy or at least middle-aged man next door, I feel comfortable in my own skin. The most rock ‘n’ roll things I do these days is stay up past midnight. Steph showed me what life could be like. If she hadn’t, I dread to think where I might have been now.”
When they met, Yorkshire-born Stephanie already had a son and the couple, who have since had two children together, live a relatively quiet life near Wakefield. Although the move north has done little to soften Day’s Essex vowels, his American accent looks in pretty decent shape for his current role, which was made famous by Bing Crosby in the Christmas film, first released in 1954.
“I will always remember as a child watching him do that now famous duet with David Bowie of Little Drummer Boy. I knew even then that it was something special and it led me to his films.
“I hadn’t seen White Christmas for a few years and I didn’t want to watch it until we were well into rehearsals, but three weeks in I went and bought a copy and sat down to watch it with the wife and kids. It’s still magical. I love Christmas, I always have, but since having children it’s even more special.”
With home just a short drive from the theatre, Day says he’s looking forward to finally being able to share his day job with the rest of the family.
Daughter Maddy is coming to the show with a bus-load of school friends and when he talks about the rehearsal process and working with director Nikolai Foster it’s with genuine enthusiasm.
“Nikolai is wonderful. I met him earlier in the year when we were discussing another project and I knew then that I wanted to work with him. He’s someone who is definitely on the way up and it’s honestly been a privilege.
“This production is true to the spirit of the original film, but while there are still all the great big Hollywood numbers that people remember, from Blue Skies to White Christmas, the piece is very plot-driven.
“I think people forget that there is a real grittiness to the musical. When I first sing White Christmas it’s in the middle of the Second World War and I’m trying to distract the rest of the troops from the grim realities of the battlefield. There’s a real depth of story and I think this production has a real edge to it. It’s about relationships, but it’s also about people who are damaged.”
White Christmas is Day’s first musical since he starred in We Will Rock You five years ago. Determined to rebuild his reputation as a performer – and a reliable one – in between he has done as spell on the teen soap Hollyoaks, has starred in a couple of films which are due out next year and has also landed a part in Holby City’s Christmas special as a panto dame.
“I was only supposed to be in one episode of Hollyoaks, but it ended up as a six-month contract which suited me as I really fancied a go at acting in front of a camera. I was ready for a break from the stage.”
Rudy, in which Day plays a bereaved father of a teenage daughter, is directed by Shona Auerbach, who was responsible for Dear Frankie, the 2004 film which brought Scottish actor Gerard Butler to the attention of Hollywood.
“I won’t lie, of course it would be great to be successful on the big screen. It would be a really exciting journey to take my family on, but if it doesn’t happen then, I’ll live.
“When my career was first going well, my personal life was in tatters; then when I met Steph, my career had nose-dived. For the first time it feels like both parts of my life are going well.
“Growing up in Colchester there was a department store called Williams and Griffin. It had a great big toy department and my sister and I used to hassle our mum to let us go in there.
“I’ll always remember her saying, ‘Wait until Christmas and then we can go look to our heart’s content’. That phrase ‘heart’s content’ always stuck with me. I didn’t understand it then. In fact I didn’t get it for a very long time, but I do now. I reckon it’s going to be a pretty magical Christmas.”
• White Christmas, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to January 17. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk