Up on the big screen, Suggs is playing up his role as some cheesily archetypal 1930s crooner. In white suit and pencil moustache, the artist still known to his nearest and dearest as Graham McPherson models his routine on real life smoothie Al Bowlly, whose hit, Hang Out The Stars In Indiana, he gives voice to.
Like Bowlly, alas, Suggs’ character ends up a victim of the London Blitz, when a parachute mine puts paid to the briefest of cameos. The film is Edinburgh International Film Festival opener, The Edge Of Love, and, while Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller inevitably get all the plaudits, the original Nutty Boy looks every inch the cheeky chappy he’s always been. This has been the case whether you know him from the chirpiest domestic nosh-up to ever grace a prime time television frozen food ad, or as the lolloping lead singer with Madness, the band Suggs still intermittently fronts today.
Ever the trouper, Suggs also appeared in the original production of Our House, the jukebox musical inspired by the Madness back-catalogue, which steams into Glasgow next week in a brand new touring production. This time round, the show stars X-Factor winner Steve Brookstein and former Only Fools and Hoses moll Gwyneth Strong in an every-day tale of one likely lad’s life in Camden Town, the same manor Madness themselves strode out of in the late 1970s on the back of the Two Tone Records ska revival.
Like their contemporaries The Specials, Madness gave voice to hyper-active adolescent urchins who recognised their own snotty lives only too well in the fistful of hits Madness seriously bothered the charts with over the next few years. On the surface, the songs they released were jaunty, geezerish sing-a-longs that were spot on for anyone making the rites of passage transition from youth club disco to local boozer. This image was helped enormously by the band’s gang mentality, which took a surreal turn in a series of videos that fused the kitchen-sink earthiness of the songs with kids cartoon humour.
Beyond the music hall zaniness, the Madness song-book unravelled a series of bite-size meat-and-two-veg slices of life. From the playground japes of Baggy Trousers and sexual awakening turned fairground ride of House Of Fun, to the hard shoulder knockabout of Driving In My Car, Madness’ narratives were possessed with an irresistibly nudge-nudge common touch. Which is why, on reflection, a Madness inspired musical was a natural progression for Suggs and co.
“We’d thought about it for a while,” says Suggs, taking a breather from rehearsals of Madness’s upcoming live dates. “As a band, we’d obviously always been quite theatrical onstage, and when you think about all those videos we did, the foundations of something was always there. But when we started looking at it seriously, we realised very quickly that just putting on silly costumes and running round like idiots does not a west end show make.”
The turning point, according to Suggs, was enlisting the services of writer Tim Firth.
“He’d done a lot of films we liked,” says Suggs, who, along with his band-mates, were involved as co-producers of Our House from the off. “We really liked Calendar Girls which he did, and he sat us down and spoke us, and what he ended up with isn’t biographical in any way about us, but it does show how we might have possibly ended up if we hadn’t gone one way or the other.”
This is demonstrated in the central conceit of Our House, which, like Sliding Doors, presents parallel consequences of actions taken by the show’s hero, Joe. Where ‘good’ Joe serves his time after a brief flirtation with petty crime, struggling his way to betterment, ‘bad’ Joe does a runner, only to become even worse. This black and white morality play eventually sees the two Joes square up to each other in a confrontation in a street in their beloved Camden threatened by predatory property developers.
Our House opened on the same day as the London marathon was ran, when, Suggs remembers, “The Old Bill turned up.”
Despite their presence, as well as a lukewarm critical reception, Our House ran in the west end for ten months, and scooped the 2003 Olivier award for best musical (Jerry Springer – The Opera had won the year before).
Our House wasn’t the first musical inspired by Madness. In 1993, Theatre Royal Stratford East premiered Alan Gilbey’s One Step Beyond! Somewhat fittingly, Gilbey had primarily written for cartoons, as well as an East End walking tour titled The Back Passages of Spittalfields.
It’s Our House, though, that seems to have taken root.
“We wanted to keep the west end feel of the show,” says Suggs, “but there were still things we had to change to take it on tour. So it had to be re-written slightly, but there’s still a car onstage and everything. It’s not like we’re doing it on the cheap.”
Suggs was born and raised in Hastings, and joined the band then known as The North London Invaders while still a teenager in 1977. Very quickly, however, he was kicked out after preferring to watch football rather than rehearse. After he was allowed back in front of the microphone, the band became Madness in homage to ska legend Prince Buster, who they also name-checked on their debut single, The Prince. A stream of pop classics followed before the band fizzled out in the late 1980s.
Most of these records had been co-produced by Clive Langer previously of ahead-of-their time Liverpool art school combo, Deaf School. Suggs went on to marry former Deaf School vocalist Bette Bright, bridging the north/south divide even more when he managed Scouse scallydelicists The Farm.
Madness reformed in 1992 for a series of ‘Madstock’ events in Finsbury Park. Suggs also pursued a solo career, and has become something of an al-round family entertainer. He appeared in The Tall Guy, hosted celebrity karaoke show, Night Fever and fronted his own show on BBC 6. Suggs has also been the face of award-winning documentaries on disappearing London, and is currently hosting his own chat show, Suggs In the City.
As well as forthcoming dates with Madness and recent dates with The Pet Shop Boys, who rearranged a couple of Madness classics, Suggs and his fellow Nutty Boys are currently hard at work recording their first album of new material since 1999, The Liberty Of Norton Folgate. As Suggs freely admits, this is considerably safer ground than both his turn in Our House and brief appearance in The Edge Of Love.
“That’s not something I wish to pursue seriously,” he deadpans. “It’s bloody hard work, I tell you. We used to think just sitting round smoking fags all day then going onstage was hard work, but after eight hours rehearsal every day, you don’t know what’s hit you. Film’s even worse. You spend four weeks sitting around and end up with two minutes on screen.”
Our House, then, can fend for itself.
“We’ve got all these songs,” says Suggs, “and I’m proud of how it’s all worked out. Put it this way,” he says. “It’d be a lot more difficult to make a musical of Depeche Mode songs.”
Our House, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, June 30-July 5; Edinburgh Playhouse, July 7-12
The Herald, June 24th 2008