I Am What I Am
By John Barrowman, Carole E. Barrowman
Michael O'Mara Books Limited Copyright © 2010 John Barrowman
All rights reserved.
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'Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.'
Six of my favourite things in my house in Wales
1 A caricature depicting the Torchwood cast embracing Captain Jack and Captain John in an exuberant tangle of arms and legs (say no more).
2 The original sheet music for Cole Porter's 'I Get a Kick Out of You' (a gift from my Reno Sweeney, Sally Ann Triplett).
3 Model planes, ships and cars, and a telescope to view the stars (these are a few of Scott's favourite things, too).
4 Two goldfish that my niece, Clare, and I rescued from a friend's house and named after two of our 'pet' names for each other (Shaka and Nina).
5 My gran, Murn's, two 'Wally Dugs'.
6 A bust of Caesar and a statue of Buddha in the bathroom, plus an oversized, welded-steel statue of a male diver in a backward pike that dominates the interior courtyard.
Welcome, readers – to my home in Sully, Wales, and to my life in the spotlight. Watch out for my dogs tangling themselves at your feet: Harris, a boisterous black cocker spaniel; Charlie, a gorgeous red-haired Dogs Trust rescue spaniel; and the family's thug, Captain Jack, a rescued Jack Russell terrier from Cardiff Dogs Home. Try to avoid their frenzied doggy madness as you step into my front foyer, and consider yourselves very lucky – because, since there's so many of you, I haven't gently urged you into the foyer, switched off the lights, closed the outer door ... and left you alone to discover that a full-size black Dalek looms in the corner.
The Dalek is one of a kind, made especially for me by the Doctor Who tech guys; I requested that the Torchwood logo be tattooed beneath his menacing eye stalk. My Torchwood Dalek is one of two treasured pieces of memorabilia displayed in pride of place at the front of my home because of their importance to my success in the entertainment business.
The second piece is far less scary, but equally significant. Hanging on my interior front door – where a welcome wreath might normally be – is the SS American life preserver from Trevor Nunn's revival of Anything Goes, in which I played Billy Crocker. Anything Goes, as you may know, was the Cole Porter musical in which I made my West End debut with Elaine Paige in 1989.
Anyone can make a grand entrance promenading along this hallway towards the main part of the house; even the dogs love to skid up and down on the blond oak-wood floor. To your left is a guest bathroom that I call my 'superhero room'. It's decorated with comic-book art: a poster-sized 'Spidey Saves the Day' comic cover, and on the wall opposite this is a poster from one of the first Superman movies. The film's tag line is 'Irresistible Force' – which is an appropriate mantra for a toilet, don't you think?
Most of the art and the photographs in this hallway – and elsewhere in the house – punctuate special moments in my life or Scott's. For example, next to the bathroom door, you'll notice the framed drawings and costume swatches for one of my Dancing on Ice costumes. The best art, though, is through the far windows in front of you.
The view of the sea and the distant English coast is stunning, isn't it? After a hectic week of meetings or rehearsals or recordings or whatever, I come down this hallway, see that expanse of water – the Bristol Channel, and beyond to the Celtic Sea – and the surrounding craggy cliffs, and my entire body kicks into relax mode. One of the first things Scott and I do when we arrive home together is drop our bags at the bedroom door and step outside, where, for a few minutes, we simply stand and stare at the majesty of it all.
While sitting on my deck overlooking this spectacular view, I began exploring ideas for this second book. I re-read many of your comments about my first book, Anything Goes. I've received letters and emails from all over the world since AG's publication, and after seriously mulling them over, a few things really struck me.
One of them was this. No matter what your family experiences, you found connections with the Barrowman clan. Sisters wrote to me about their brothers; brothers wrote to me that they, too, had a bossy big sis. Mums shared the book with daughters, and then they passed it along to their sons. Gay sons gave the book to their parents, hoping for some understanding; and parents gave the book to their gay sons, saying they understood. A few of you told me you used the book as a way to mend bridges within your families, and a lot of you revealed that the book reminded you of your own family's silly antics. You sent me tales about your dogs, your children, your schools and your grans. And all of them brought me great joy. Some of you shared stories of alienation and exile from your families, and I'm deeply touched that you found some comfort in the anecdotes from mine. It was a no-brainer, then, that this new book would include a few more Barrowman yarns.
Watch your step as you come down into my main living area, which runs the length of the house; its expansive windows frame the pool and the sea beyond. This space is divided into three distinct living areas: two ranged with their own comfy reading chairs and oversized leather couches, while the third space, at the far end of the room, accommodates a massive wooden table that came from Thailand. The table is scarred with the knots, crevices and imprints of the two trees that produced it, as well as the countless cocktail parties, family dinners, lunches and buffets it's played host to, and the book piles, laundry piles and other everyday stuff and more stuff that ends up on all dining-room tables.
Dominating these main living areas – along with my 52-inch Sony flat-screen TV, which I have to admit is on most of the day – is big, bold, bursting-with-colour art by Steve Walker and bright pop images by Burton Morris. My dear friend in LA, Brett Vinovitch, introduced me to these artists. Brett used to work for Andy Warhol and he knows his hues from his values better than most.
Currently above the fireplace is an oil painting by Paul Kenton, which captures in its broad strokes and blurs of colour the kinetic energy of New York's Times Square. On its left is a painting of a Tutsi woman warrior that Scott bought for me for my birthday while in South Africa, and on the right is an original artwork depicting some very fit baseball players by the Abercrombie & Fitch artist Mark Beard. Below the mantel sit my gran, Murn's, two Wally Dogs – or 'Wally Dugs', as they're known in Glasgow. ('Wally' is slang for 'made with china'. Use in a sentence? You could drink from 'wally cups' if you lived in a 'wally close'.)
Another thing that struck me from your feedback was that lots of you wanted to know my perspective on aspects of love and life from under a celebrity spotlight. You don't necessarily want to know what I think about big global issues, but you do want to know my opinions on what matters to me. That's why inside this book, among other things, you'll find my insights about being Captain Jack, about being a talent-show judge, about being a family man, a gay man, a brother, a son, and a lover.
And that's why I've invited you into my home: to give you an opportunity to spend time with me in a more intimate setting, listening to some Barrowman table talk and learning more about my personal escapades and professional experiences from the past couple of years. So, please, join me at my table. I've made dinner and I have lots of terrific table talk to dish.
'WE ARE WHAT WE ARE'
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'From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs, That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad: Princes and lords are but the breath of kings, "An honest man's the noblest work of God."'
Robert Burns, 'The Cotter's Saturday Night'
'Skinny Malinky long legs, big banana feet, Went tae the pictures, an' couldnae get a seat. When the picture started, Skinny Malinky farted, Skinny Malinky long legs, big banana feet.'
Twelve things I've learned from my parents
1 Don't go to bed angry (but if you do, wake up first and make the coffee).
2 Don't let anyone make you feel bad about yourself (that's your mother's job).
3 Take responsibility for your actions (especially if you've been caught red-handed).
4 To love another person is to see the face of God (or the Face of Boe, depending on your beliefs).
5 You always have room for dessert (there's a special section in your stomach).
6 You always have time to read (there's a special section of your brain that melts if you don't).
7 Laugh every day (especially at yourself).
8 Speak up for yourself (especially if you have something to say).
9 Speak up for others (especially if they can't).
10 It doesn't take much to be kind (if it does, time for you to be off to that remote island).
11 Where e'er ye be let yer wind gang free (just ask David Tennant, who was once trapped in the TARDIS with me when I followed this advice).
12 Always have a party piece ('Skinny Malinky' doesn't count).
When we were growing up, my dad was perpetually late. Never for work or anything business-related, but if it involved a family outing, we'd all be sitting waiting in the car, crisp and clean and ready to go, and my dad would be nowhere to be found. My brother, Andrew, would already be unbuttoning his collar and untucking his shirt from his trousers; Carole would be ten pages into the emergency book she'd hidden under the seat; and like a pinball I'd be bouncing from the front to the back to the side of the car and again from the front to the back to the side – ping!
'Has anyone seen your dad?' my mum would inevitably ask.
'He's cleaning the garage,' one of us would inevitably say.
The genesis of the phrase is from early in our childhoods in Scotland. It was a Sunday morning, and my mum was expected to be singing with the choir at the Church of Christ in East Kilbride within the hour. Carole, Andrew and I were decked out in our 'itchy clothes' and had all clambered into the car, when my dad spotted something out of place in the garage, something he had to change, clean or repair at that precise moment.
We did not make it to the church on time.
Throughout my childhood, and even today, this was our response whenever we were waiting for my dad.
'Where's your father?'
'Cleaning the garage.'
My dad even has a recurring dream about his chronic lateness, which stems from a real-life incident that occurred in America. As you may know, in the mid seventies, my family, including my gran, Murn, emigrated to the US. One summer, we were all travelling back to Scotland for a visit. (For our first few years living in the States, we went back to Scotland fairly regularly, especially so my dad could see his brothers and his parents.) This particular trip home, the entire family was waiting in a hired limo, which was ready to take us to O'Hare Airport in Chicago for an evening flight to Prestwick. We were already cutting it a bit too fine in terms of getting there on time.
'Where's your dad?'
In unison: 'Cleaning the garage.'
Fifteen minutes later, my dad emerged from the house after having double-checked for the fourth and fifth time that every light was out, every plug unplugged, every switch in the off position. The house was sealed so tight we'd be lucky if there was oxygen left inside when we returned.
Of course, we were heading to one of the busiest airports in the world, so there was a lot of traffic. When we were about two miles from the terminal and no longer moving, my dad realized we might not make our flight. The driver pulled over and called the airline and got assurance that if we could get there in the next fifteen minutes, the plane would wait for us. Keep in mind this is the late seventies. Airlines actually had live people answer their phones back in the day and international flights often waited for their late passengers.
With eight minutes left in our fifteen, the limo squealed up to the kerb at the terminal. We all scrambled out. Carole and Andrew helped Murn into a wheelchair. I piled bags on her lap and my mum distributed the other cases among the rest of us.
My mum looked at my dad, and nodded ever so slightly. The look that passed between them in that instant was one that kids often see parents exchange in moments of crisis, when children know instinctively not to argue – just to do what they're told. My mum grabbed my hand. Carole and Andrew watched my dad's face for the sign. We were poised like runners from Chariots of Fire.
Then my dad yelled, 'Go!' And like bats out of hell we went.
Dad led the way, propelling Murn forward like a battering ram, followed by Carole and Andrew, with Mum and me bringing up the rear. The crowds parted before us as if my dad was Moses. Murn was shouting in broad Glaswegian, 'Oh dear God! Oh dear God! Oh dear God!' and my mum was yelling after my dad, 'John! John! For goodness' sake, slow down!'
With seconds to spare, my dad, who by this time was a few lengths ahead of the rest of us, spotted the flight attendant closing the gate. He made a deep lunge and let go of the wheelchair. Murn – still screaming, mind you – went rolling forward and just missed the ankles of the flight attendant. The near miss bought the needed extra time for the rest of us to catch up. However, it was at that moment that my dad realized he'd left all our passports in his briefcase in the hired car.
When my parents first met, my dad knocked my mum off her feet – literally. He stuck his size-eleven shoe out and tripped her as she walked past him on her way to the cloakroom at a dance at Wellshot Hall in Tollcross. She was with her girlfriends and my dad and his friends were trying to make slouching against a wall look cool. My dad admits the bit with the foot was not his best move, but it was one he was sure would get my mum's attention. And, of course, it did.
My mum picked herself up from the floor, brushed off the dress Murn had made from a picture they'd seen in a fashion magazine, and the words just tripped from her tongue: 'My God, what a smooth move that was. I want to have your children some day.' Well, maybe not exactly those words. According to my mum, she already thought my dad was a bit of a nutcase, so this latest move didn't really surprise her.
Humiliated and angry, my mum ignored my dad for the rest of the evening. In fact, when my mum tells the story, she reminds us of how she dismissed the entire event as just more 'carry-on' from those Barrowman boys, and she kept her dance card filled with dances from other young men.
My mum never lacked dance partners. Even today, aged seventy-five, she still has some good moves – as she proved onstage during my recent concert tour.
This talent is not the only reason I love to have my mum perform with me onstage, though. When she was first married, she had an opportunity to audition for a television show. She chose not to go because she had just found out she was pregnant with Carole, and she decided to follow that particular path instead. When she sings 'Amazing Grace', or our other family favourite, 'The Wedding', onstage with me, I like to think I'm giving her a taste from her road not taken.
Although my parents didn't officially meet until this auspicious moment, they grew up in fairly close proximity to each other. My mum spent most of her childhood in Shettleston, a village nestled near Tollcross, where my dad grew up. I remember a neighbour in Mount Vernon (where I spent my childhood) telling me that one of her earliest memories as a young girl in Tollcross was of my dad and his brothers getting chased out of the fruit shop for stealing apples. My father, of course, denies this, especially when his grandchildren are within earshot.
My mum finally agreed to go out with my dad after he delivered extra bags of coal to her house for a week; my Papa Butler 'felt sorry for the boy'. For the longest time after my mum and dad started dating, my mum's girlfriends thought she was actually going out with my Uncle Charlie, my dad's older brother, because Charlie did not wear glasses and when my dad was with my mum, he refused to wear his. (Continues...)
Excerpted from I Am What I Am by John Barrowman, Carole E. Barrowman. Copyright © 2010 John Barrowman. Excerpted by permission of Michael O'Mara Books Limited.
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