Billy Pearce is West Yorkshire’s King of Panto and as the curtain goes up on Peter Pan he talks to Phil Penfold about his life on stage.
He is certainly a survivor. He’s had two serious road crashes – one on a scooter, which left him fighting for his life, and another on a motorbike – and lost a fortune on an unsuccessful business venture. But Billy Pearce, the lad from Leeds, is a fighter, a consummate entertainer and, for the record, a thoroughly nice guy. He’ll be 66 next February, but as he says he’ll retire only when the phone stops ringing and, looking at his diary, that’s unlikely to be any time soon.
When we speak he’s just coming to the end of an autumn tour of a play called Seriously Dead, which will resume in the New Year. In between he will be where he always is at Christmas – on stage in the Bradford Alhambra pantomime, this time in Peter Pan.
Pearce was a born entertainer, so it’s funny then that we almost lost him to the world of mechanical engineering. As a teenager he was given a coveted apprenticeship with Schofield, a Leeds firm who saw potential in the 16-year-old. Then came that scooter accident, which resulted in terrible damage to his kidneys, spleen and liver, and also a change of priorities.
“Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I survived,” he admits. “But thank God, I had the attention of a marvellous surgeon, who also happened to be the personal physician to the president of Yugoslavia. He sent me off to an island in the Adriatic that he was allowed to use. That’s where my real recuperation began, and also where I started to think about where I was going.”
When he returned to Leeds, Pearce, whose father was a pianist and whose mother was a dance teacher with a formidable reputation, handed in his notice. He knew that wasn’t where his future lay, but he admits that for a while he just drifted.
“You’d never believe the jobs that I did. I met a lass, and followed her to Iceland. I worked on the fish docks. I came back to Leeds again, and got an evening job shifting scenery at the Grand.
“I’d always been involved with show business in one way or the other because of my parents. My mum Jean choreographed for all the major amateur outfits, and they loved her work. When I was growing up she’d get me little roles in all the musicals going on. I can remember being in The King and I as one of the King’s children and going back home, on the bus in full make-up. I must have been about six or seven. I dread to think what the other passengers must have thought of me, but doing things like those shows, and dancing in them, wasn’t something that you told the other lads in your class.”
However, as he got older and the embarrassment waned, Pearce slowly began to realise that show business might yet give him a career. After the Grand, he got work as a dresser at Yorkshire Television where he met people like the late Les Dawson.
It was Dawson, he says, who encouraged him to look for work in front of the scenery instead of moving it, and Pearce made his professional debut, as had so many before, as a Redcoat at Butlins. Afterwards he and a friend formed a double act called the Stewart Brothers and they were spotted by the hugely influential Stanley Joseph, co-owner of Leeds City Varieties. Pearce’s rise up the slippery showbiz pole had begun and a few years later he won the TV talent contest New Faces.
“Even that was a bit of a fluke,” he says. “I auditioned for it, and I was turned down. Then the act that had been selected fell out for some reason, and they rang me in a bit of a panic, asking me if I could go in as a replacement. I didn’t take more than half a split second to say ‘yes’.”
Anecdotes flow from Pearce, each one another little piece of the jigsaw which is his life. There was the time, he remembers, when he was booked into a summer season in Bournemouth, where top of the bill was Danny La Rue, who could pack a house every night for four months.
“I mistook the dates,” says Pearce with a big grin, “and I got there a week early. But instead of spending time on the beach and just enjoying myself I really worked on my act. Danny had all the big spots, but I had 18 minutes of my own, which was pretty generous. Mr La Rue was a stickler for professionalism, punctuality, and sticking to your timings. He taught me a lot of lessons, and I developed a valuable instinct on how the act was going – did that gag work well, or was that not getting a good laugh? You fiddle with it nightly, it keeps you on your toes.”
Anyone who has seen Pearce on stage – and particularly in pantomime – will tell you that he never stops moving. It will be his 18th Bradford panto – and he annually breaks the show’s own box office records. He’s also a regular at Blackpool, where he has played more shows than any other artist, but it is here in Yorkshire where he feels properly at home.
“There’s a tidal wave of love that comes over the footlights at the Alhambra,” he says. “Honestly there is. I wish I could bottle it to give me energy for the rest of the year.”
Billy is married to Kerry, a former dancer and has two sons, 33-year-old Ricky from his first marriage and 16-year-old Jack.
“I can’t tell you how blessed I am. When all that financial what-not hit the fan after I’d stupidly entered into a business deal with someone I thought I knew well, but didn’t, I had to ring Kerry at home. I said: ‘We’ve lost the lot. Everything’s gone. We might have to sell the house, and it isn’t beyond possibility that we’ll end up sleeping in a tent, the three of us’.
“It really was as bad as that, but you know what she said? She told me: ‘Don’t be so ruddy daft. We haven’t lost everything. You have me, I have you, and we both have Jack, and whatever happens, we’ll get through it.’ She’s a wonderful woman, and she was right, we have.”
Pearce has done Royal Variety Shows, appeared before 130,000 people in Hyde Park to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day, where he entertained them with jokes like “Did you hear about the dyslexic bloke from Barnsley? Always wore a cat flap.”
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve had some belting nights – as well as walking on to the sound of my own feet. My humour could be classified as old-fashioned, but it still gets laughs. I’m a comedy entertainer, and if I can make people chuckle and forget their problems for a while, then I feel I’ve done something. But, you know, I still don’t think that I really know what I really want to do and I wonder if I’ll ever find out.”
Peter Pan, Bradford Alhambra, to January 29. 01274 432000, bradford-theatres.co.uk