Arts

Martin Kemp and Milton Jones sail into Belfast for panto launch

Having recovered from a gruelling month filming Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls, actor and pop star Martin Kemp has teamed up with Mock The Week regular, comedian Milton Jones, for a stint in Neverland. Jenny Lee caught up with the unlikely duo as Storm Ali blew them into Belfast to flag up the year's biggest panto

Milton Jones and Martin Kemp in Belfast this week for the launch of Peter Pan – The Arena Adventure. Picture by Hugh Russell

AS STORM Ali blew into Belfast on Wednesday, so too did TV stars Martin Kemp and Milton Jones. The duo, who were in town on a whirlwind PR trip, are hoping to take the SSE Arena by storm this Christmas, whipping up a frenzy of boos as they star in Peter Pan – The Arena Adventure.

In the larger than life show – described as “more than a panto” – actor Kemp, will play ultimate baddie Captain Hook, while pun-tastic comedian Jones will play his simple-minded right-hand man Mr Smee.

I couldn’t resist starting our interview by asking stand-up Jones, a regular on BBC Two’s Mock The Week, what was the secret behind his trademark windswept hair?

“I don’t actually use any hairspray; what I use is a thing called volumising powder. I used to use wax, but wax under lights is a disaster,” he laughed.

The comedian is more used to performing alone with a microphone in his stand-up shows but said he’s excited about doing something so different.

“I said to my agent I fancied doing panto and he came back with this. It’s no ordinary panto – it’s a spectacle and I’m looking forward to it. I’m able to do my own gags in it but I’m allowed to mess up the rest of the show as well,” he joked.

The panto's publicists promise that it will bring JM Barrie’s magical story of Peter Pan will to life in gigantic proportions, with props including a seven-metre-long animatronic crocodile, a life-size Jolly Roger Galleon sailing around the arena in front of a 10,000-gallon water wall and the "highest human Peter Pan flight ever staged".

Milton Jones and Martin Kemp in Belfast at the SSE for the launch of Peter Pan– The Arena Adventure. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Kemp and Jones will be joined by a cast of more than 100 including circus performers and Irish dancers and Jones will be literally throwing himself into the action.

“We haven’t starting rehearsing yet, but I’ve seen the script and I get involved in the acrobatics, dancing and all that.”

So how are his Irish dancing skills?

“That could go very wrong,” laughed Jones, who said he was working on his crocodile jokes.

Jones might not be the most politically correct comedian around – even though unapologetic about his Christian faith. And although he said he was keen to inject some Northern Ireland humour into his forthcoming performance, he realises he will have to “keep a lid” on things for this Christmas family show.

“It’s all about context. If you are doing late night at the Comedy Store, people know what they are in for. Obviously being in Ireland I have to be extra careful what I say,” added Jones, who despite the effortless delivery of his quickfire, often surreal one-liners, admitted those gags take “a lot of preparation”.

Pop star and actor Martin Kemp and stand-up comedian Milton Jones in full Peter Pan get-up

Kemp, best known as the bassist in the new wave band Spandau Ballet and for his portrayal as Steve Owen in the BBC soap opera EastEnders, is reprising his role as Hook, who he played in last year’s production in London and Birmingham.

“Captain Hook is the ultimate cartoon baddy. There’s a fine line between making the kids nervous of you and sending them out of the arena crying," Kemp told me.

“Last year was such a success and one of my favourite Christmases since my own children have grown up. It put me in the Christmas mood all month seeing the energy and enjoyment of the children in the audience."

Kemp said he was looking forward to getting even more boos when Captain Hook – The Arena Adventures comes to Belfast, Leeds and Manchester and with only seven performances, he'll still have plenty of time to fit in some Christmas shopping.

“We probably play to the same amount of people as a traditional panto run does over six weeks. It’s not only good for us as performers, but also for audiences, as they aren’t watching a bunch of tired performers,” he said.

Kemp can currently be seen on our television screens on Sunday evenings battling the elements on Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls. Despite suffering a four-inch cut in his leg, which turned poisonous, and returning from the month-long expedition more than two stone lighter, Kemp insisted he “thoroughly enjoyed” the experience.

“It’s been one of those shows I never missed and was jealous I wasn’t involved in. It was the roughest thing I’ve ever done, physically and mentally, but also the most rewarding,” added the silver-haired star. He said he came home a different man – not just because of the weight loss and beard (which brought Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses to my mind, though I didn't tell him that) but because it changed his opinion on humanity.

“It was like rehab for appreciation. I’ve grown up in this business since I was seven and everything has been ‘a job’. I’m coming up to 57 now and you lose that appreciation for the people around you and everything you do. You just take things for granted along the way. The Island was like a reboot,” Kemp admitted.

However, the experience hadn’t inspired him to venture off to the moorlands with a one-man tent.

“No. I went on holiday last week to St Tropez and Shirlie asked me if I wanted to come in the sea. I declined the offer as I’m done with the sea for this year,” he said.

The actor and singer has been married to Shirlie Holliman, former backing singer of the group Wham! and one half of the 1980s pop duo Pepsi & Shirlie, since 1988. The pair were seen on our screens this summer in the BBC travel series The Road To Saigon, when Shirlie dramatically crashed their Mini Cooper.

Kemp defended his wife’s driving skills, saying her quick thinking saved their lives.

“Shirley is a good driver – it’s just one of those things that happen," he said. "We were driving too fast on a rally in Thailand on gravel and we flipped the car.

“To be honest, we were going towards a tree and Shirley saved us, spun the car and we ended up upside down in a paddy field. We were lucky to get out unscathed.

“Driving through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam was another amazing experience. You have got to live life collecting these anecdotes – it gives you something to talk about at dinner parties.”

Both Jones, who performed at The Ulster Hall last November, and Kemp have fond memories of Belfast. As a member of Spandau Ballet, Kemp recalls playing the King’s Hall in the 80s.

“I remember the first time we played the track Through the Barricades in Northern Ireland and realising everyone felt that song belonged to them. That was special."

:: Peter Pan – The Arena Adventure will be performed at Belfast’s SSE Arena on Saturday December 15 at 3pm and 7pm and on Sunday December 16 at 1pm and 5pm. For tickets visit PeterPanArena.com

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