I’m Hooked on playing baddies: We chat to Jimmy Osmond ahead of his appearance in Birmingham Hippodrome's panto Peter Pan
He lent forward, brandishing his hook. “You’d better not shake this,” says Jimmy Osmond, from the safety of dressing room 14 at Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theatre. It was a joke he’d doubtless used at least four times earlier that hour, but it was funny none the less.
“My hand’s kinda sweaty,” he adds, removing his hook. “So let’s elbow bump instead.” We bumped. We laughed. It was a little bit weird. “C’mon in, pal,” he says, as he drew up a seat.
Panto launch day is a feast of fun at Birmingham Hippodrome. And the main event will be even more invigorating. The nation’s biggest panto returns to Britain’s Second City from December 19 to January 27 with Jimmy, Black Country actor/writer Meera Syal, boy band star Jaymi Hensley and everybody’s favourite joker in the pack, Matt Slack.
Jimmy is no stranger to Birmingham. “It feels like I’m home. I’ve been here on various productions but this is my most exciting. It’s my eighth panto and this is the biggest one there is. I don’t know what I’m going to do when this is over.”
Jimmy has previously starred at the Hippodrome in Chicago and Grease while he’s also taken his own shows to the venue. “I just fell in love with this city,” he adds.
Featuring in this year’s high-flying Peter Pan is a dream job. “You always want to be in the best in a particular category. And as far as pantomimes, Birmingham Hippodrome just does such a huge job. So this has always been a place that I’d hoped I’d be asked to play and now here I am. I’m a small part of being a big show.”
He’s looking forward to being the baddie. “I love it.”
Jimmy used to be the good guy, starring at Buttons or Wishy Washy, but these days he’s cast as the villain that people love to hate. “Those good guys were fun but not nearly as much fun as being the baddie. This is my second time as Hook. I think maybe all those years of pent up frustration just comes out when I play the baddie.”
The Hippodrome panto is a show like no other. While provincial pantomimes and even those in London frequently cut corners, the Hippodrome invests huge sums in being the biggest and the best. The stellar cast also features seasoned veterans, like Jimmy and Matt, who have honed their panto muscles. Panto has been an extra string to the bow of Jimmy. The performer and businessman has accumulated six gold records, one platinum record, and two gold albums in his solo career, having previously earned a placed in The Guinness Book of World Records after his recording of Long Haired Lover from Liverpool in 1972 made him the youngest performer to have a number one single on the UK singles chart.
He has featured in musical theatre with credits like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat while also appearing on such UK TV shows as I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, All Star Family Fortunes, Come Dine with Me and Celebrity MasterChef.
In a career that has spanned four decades, Jimmy is the youngest member of The Osmonds, the American family music group who dominated the music industry in the 1970s. With hits including One Bad Apple, Crazy Horses and Love Me for a Reason. Jimmy remains evergreen.
“For me, I kind of took to panto well. I’m from this vaudevillian background. I grew up doing TV variety shows. I started as a three-year-old kid on the Andy Williams TV show and worked with Bob Hope and Andy Williams and all of those great people.
“And then when I came over here as a kid, it made me feel British because I would watch pantomimes. I never thought I’d be so lucky as to be in them. I think my background helps me because in variety TV you have to learn how to do the jokes and communicate with an audience. I was always a performer.
“On this show, I’m looking forward to working with Matt and Meera and everybody. There hasn’t been an experience from which I don’t take away a new skill.”
Though it’s many years since he’s had a hit record, Jimmy continues to fill theatres and arenas with his live shows. In 2014, he also bought the Andy Williams Moon River Performing Arts Center in Branson, Missouri from Andy’s family Honouring Andy’s wish that he keep his legacy going, in 2015 Jimmy debuted the productions, Moon River and Me and the Andy Williams Christmas Extravaganza.” The shows pay tribute to his mentor and lifelong friend, whose television show gave the entire Jimmy family a platform to launch their careers. In addition to performance dates at the Andy Williams Performing Arts Center, both shows are currently on tour in both the US and throughout the UK. The former features award-winning music, nostalgic footage and special memories of Andy Williams to touch the heart. Jimmy also sings the songs that made Andy Williams so beloved by millions including Music To Watch Girls By, Happy Heart, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Almost There, May Each Day, Days Of Wine And Roses, and, of course, the song that was to become his theme tune, Moon River.
The youngest member of the world-famous Osmond family is joined by his singers and The Moon River Band. Jimmy says his career as a pop star has plenty in common with his work in panto.
“People like to remember their lives. It’s the same with a pop concert as it is with panto. If you come to a pantomime you’ll see a grandma, a teen and a little kid. The shows are so masterfully written that they create scripts that speak to all of the different levels. I think it’s cool that people forget their problems for a couple of hours and have fun.”
This year’s panto features an intense run of two shows each day for five weeks, meaning performers will be on stage for 70 performances. Some would be daunted by such a schedule and fear burn out. Not Jimmy. He can’t wait.
“I’m not worried about that. I grew up in it and I have a theatre and we do two shows a day. I’ve done that most of my life. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have something to do. You know what I mean. Seventy some odd shows is a lot, but that’s normal. If I don’t do 150 shows a year myself, I worry. It’s what I do.”
The big skill for Jimmy is keeping it fresh. He likes to give something different to every show to make sure he stays on the ball and the audience has a good time. And the trick is to let the audience be a part of what’s happening.
“It’s all down to the audience. I think what’s cool is when you’ve sung songs so many times that they are almost like muscle memory: they’re there. And when you reach that point you can forget about it and just focus on the people. When you do that, there’s a different relationship because people feel like we’re here for them rather than the other way round.
“I’ve found some genuine friends through that over the years. The audience see that we’re not full of ourselves. They see that we’re there to do a good job for them and they realise that we care. They realise we know they’ve bought their family and spent a lot going to a show.”
Jimmy has acted, sung, starred on TV and more in a glittering career. The ninth and youngest child of Olive May and George Virl Osmond made his first feature film, The Great Brain, in 1978 and has performed on stage and television often with his older siblings. He has no particular favourite skill – he simply enjoys performing. He’s also a successful businessman and president of Osmond Entertainment. He has developed and supervised most of the Osmonds’ merchandising business, as well as producing hundreds of hours of programming for networks including ABC, PBS, the BBC and the Disney Channel.
And yet for him, the most satisfying accomplishment of his life has been his marriage to Michelle [Larson], which has lasted since 1991. They have raised four children together: Sophia, Zachary, Wyatt, and Bella.
“Family is everything. But I like to perform. I like all of it. I think I’ve proven that. I don’t have to be the star of the show. You know, I think Matt’s got a bigger following than anyone else, especially locally. I think I bring a flavour to the show, Matt brings a flavour to it, Meera brings a flavour to it. I love a show that delivers, so whatever is right for the show is what’s important – it doesn’t have to be me doing it.
“The team off stage is hugely important. Qdos, the people who do this show, really know and care and that’s why they’re the best. I didn’t lobby for this job here, they sought me out and that makes this even sweeter because it says I did a good job for them. I put my teeth in and my moustache on and jump in – hopefully that makes me the right guy for the job.”
One of the most unusual experiences for Jimmy when he started starring in panto was being booed. He’d been used to cheering and applause throughout his career – rather than faux derision. Strangely, he loved it.
“Oh, yeah. I love being booed. I remember the first time I did it, I was ‘oh my gosh’ because fortunately it hadn’t really happened until then. But I loved it. But it’s not about me, it’s about being the right character for the show. You’re only as good as your last show. Panto is a work in progress and you’re only ever as good as your last show.”
The entertainment industry has changed considerably since Jimmy cut his teeth 50 years ago. The pursuit of money and fame motivates many as they seek out opportunities on talent shows or via social media. In Jimmy’s day, it was all about being good at a particular skill.
“It’s about learning. When we started performing, my dad was so worried that we were trying to do it to be famous. His philosophy saved us. He wanted us to have a career. He wanted us to have a craft.
“He wanted us to be good at it rather than famous for it. You know, you can go into our homes – and we sold a lot of records and there were a lot of accolades along the way – but you won’t see any of those in our homes, to this day. Because it’s not about that. It’s not about how many likes you have on Facebook. It’s about how many likes you have when you’re performing live in front of these people.
“I think that idea probably saved us. I guess we could have savoured the moment a little bit more because we worked with everybody. Not brag but I think now what I would do a little differently is just savour the moments more.
At this stage of my life, I didn’t think showbiz would last for me. I just pinch myself with my hook and enjoy the moment. You have to be grateful for what you have. I could stop tomorrow and feel like my life is filled with neat people and great experiences.”
l Peter Pan runs at the Hippodrome until January 27. Buy tickets from www.birminghamhippodrome.com