Tom Jones, at 71, is still eager for new challenges, and this week two of them coincide: The Voice UK goes live, and his first real acting role, in King of the Teds, is broadcast in Sky Arts’ adventurous Playhouse Presents season.
“They’re both things I’ve never done before,” he says happily. The Voice, of course, has become a Saturday-night sensation, its recorded “blind auditions” achieving a larger audience than ITV1 rival Britain’s Got Talent.
At first some suggested it was demeaning for him to judge (the preferred term is “coach”) a TV talent contest: they can seem like an end-of- the-pier karaoke screechfest, with flashy production values. But not Tom.
“I like to see new talent emerging,” he says, “and it was important in the auditions that we didn’t know the stories of the people performing and couldn’t even see what they looked like. We’re not thrown by the fact that someone might have five children and been trying to make it for ten years.”
He believes he has a strong team of contestants, including his final pick, 20-year-old Ruth Brown – “I heard something in that girl’s voice I haven’t heard in a long time.”
The Voice on primetime Saturday BBC1 will naturally command more attention than his much braver acting debut on Sky Arts 1 this Thursday. Meeting him to discuss that is instructive about modern celebrity.
Polite and uncontroversial
Fifteen years ago when I interviewed him for RT, he and I were alone, except for his silent bodyguard, in the luxuriant garden of the Bel Air hotel, a few yards from his Californian home, and chatted for a lively couple of hours over two bottles, or so, of Dom Perignon champagne.
Today we sit cosily next to each other on a small sofa in a caravan parked on location in a muddy field in Surrey, with a paper cup of unidentifiable brown liquid and a pretty young PR, who has an incipient migraine and threatens to intervene if dullness doesn’t remain intacta (she’s joking – I think).
The mantra of modern publicity is to lobotomise “the talent” in protected surroundings and pray we move on, goggle-eyed with enthusiasm for whatever project is being purveyed.
“I’ve been warned to be polite and uncontroversial,” I explain to him.
“And incredibly boring,” adds the PR.
Luckily, even though he has a fearsome temper, somewhat countered by the fact he says his prayers every night, he remains the lusty boyo of the Welsh valleys – face-lifted medallion man, well-manicured goatee covering the scar of a chin tuck, still with a twinkle in his sculpted eye.
He agrees, laughing, that “polite”, “uncontroversial” and “boring” are impossible for him “on all counts”, in spite of his courtesy to contestants on The Voice.
King of the Teds
He’s always had a good sense of the ridiculous and irony, as evidenced by his agreeing to star in King of the Teds. He plays Ron, a failed pop star in his late 60s who once dated two teenage girls: one of them, Tina (played by Alison Steadman), he married when she became pregnant, and the other, Nina (Brenda Blethyn), left and became a business consultant.
They meet again, in a rendezvous brokered via Facebook, in a bittersweet comedy by Jim Cartwright, the award-winning writer of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.
“The only thing I regret is that I’d like to have had a pop at acting when I was younger. My name was up for James Bond at one time, but [producer] Cubby Broccoli apparently said I was too well known for people to believe it.”
And that’s the problem with King of the Teds: handsome, tanned Tom with his successful smile cannot quite transform himself into redundant, has-been Ron, whom even his wife finds a disillusioned bore.
“Singing is my first love,” Jones continues, “and I’m not a frustrated actor, but I wondered if I could play a role other than myself, as I did in Mars Attacks! I don’t have any other acting plans, but if something comes along I might have a go. I think I’m quite good. Well, they tell me I am.”
“They” would, wouldn’t they? “Not at all,” he says. “I insist they let me know if it isn’t working, and they would because there are two brilliant actresses here, a great director and the script is fantastic. If I can’t pull it off, the whole thing will be bad.
“I have a tendency to overact, go over the top. It’s a Welsh thing. The camera records every expression, so you have to try to underplay. I haven’t had acting lessons, but someone is helping me to get the words right because there are rhythms in the language and I have to be word-perfect.
“I wasn’t nervous. I’ve always been adventurous. In music I’ve tried different genres. Acting is something new again and keeps me on my toes. It’s harder than singing, which is natural. Acting is not.”
King of the Teds resonates with him as it mirrors aspects of his early life. “I was supposedly King of the Teds growing up in Pontypridd in south Wales. Linda, my wife, got pregnant at 16 and we married in 1957 [their son, Mark, a Tom lookalike, and his wife Donna manage him] and the only difference is that, unlike the triangle in the play, I didn’t have two girlfriends.”
Linda believed you? “She did, thank God. She’s trusting. She had a lot of girlfriends, but I never took them out. I only jived with her, no one else.” Hmmm. He has acknowledged in the past that his notorious flings throughout his career made her unhappy.
“I was talking to Linda in Los Angeles last night [they’ve lived there since 1974] and she asked how it was going. I said, ‘Christ, if I hadn’t cracked it, this could be my life.’ There but for the grace of God.”
He reflects on his early career in London when Linda supported him by working in a battery factory: he vowed she’d never have to work again if he became successful. “At first I thought I was barking up the wrong tree. I didn’t worry about failure.
“I’d worked in a paper mill and an old fella there – well, younger than I am now – said, ‘Give it your best shot. If you fail you can always return. It doesn’t take a genius to work in a paper mill.’ That still rings in my ears. I moved to London in July 1964, and It’s Not Unusual was number one the following March.”
Many pop stars have tried acting. “The only one who could act as well as he could sing was Frank Sinatra. Elvis was great, but a little over the top. I knew him fairly well and he said his favourite film was King Creole, which was the closest he got to real acting.”
His generation of pop stars, with their clutch of knighthoods, has been prolific. “Thank God for the Beatles. They opened the door for us to go to America. Earlier singers copied Sinatra and Elvis too much. After the Beatles, we could be individual.”
As well as singing at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert on 4 June, he has an album out later in May, Spirit in the Room, a follow-up to 2010’s Praise & Blame (“earthy gospel,” he describes it), which was called a “sick joke” in an email leaked from his record company. That still rankles.
“Yeah, I still haven’t got to the bottom of it. I said I hoped it wasn’t a publicity stunt because it would backfire. No one will ’fess up. It was said by an accountant, apparently. They had to cool me down.
“I have a temper that frightens me. When I was younger I got into fights. Now I’m older, I can’t get into any bother. Some people explode and are cool again within five minutes. I can’t be like that. Now if I explode, I’m the one who’s going to die. I’m an old man. I’m happy and everything’s great, so leave me alone.”
We discuss a tonsorial mystery: how most of his pop contemporaries manage not to go grey. “To each his own. It’s not for me to tell others what to do. But you can’t get to a certain age and have black hair. If some can, bless ’em.
“Every Christmas I’d take two months off and never dye my hair. And when I started a new tour, I’d look and think, ‘It’s not white enough, a bit patchy’, so I’d dye it again. It must have looked pretty obvious. I should have let it go five years earlier.”
Last year he gave up his annual stint in Las Vegas – “my pension”, he told me. “I was flogging a dead horse. When you’ve been somewhere a long time you’re taken for granted. But it’s hard for me not to sing. Linda sometimes tells me if I’m singing in the house, ‘Time to get back on stage.’ My voice is as strong as ever. Hopefully, when it’s not, I’ll stop. It can’t be far away, but I hope it’s a long way off.
“Getting older is great. I look forward to birthdays. It’s very sad if you moan that ‘it’s not like the old days’. I know entertainers who do that, and claim the music isn’t so good. Bulls**t. If you’re making records that sell, and people want to see you on tour, there’s nothing better.”
Every night he falls to his knees by his bed and prays, he says. “I thank God for still being with me and keeping my voice strong, for my family and those who work with me, people I know. And then for world peace: ‘Please stop all this fighting and killing each other.’”
And he’s cut down on the libidinous roistering? “Oh, yes. As you get older you mellow. And I’ve mellowed.” He pauses, smiles, and adds, “A bit.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 April 2012.
The Voice UK continues tonight at 7pm on BBC1.