Interview: James Dreyfus - The phone call that destroyed my Hollywood dream; James Dreyfus was working on Bette Midler's US TV show when it was cancelled. Now he's back on Gimme Gimme Gimme. By Thomas Quinn.
Leaning back on his sun lounger, the television and film star James Dreyfus took in the scene before him. His magnificent house high in the Hollywood Hills, the deep blue of the swimming pool, the indoor gym, a breathtaking view of Los Angeles and the wonderful weather.
It was exactly the kind of lifestyle his character Tom Farrell - the hopeless, aspiring actor in the BBC's surprise hit sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme - would go crazy for. Yet James, who has just turned 33, knew this personal paradise could all disappear with just one telephone call. And when that call came, he had to give it up and return to Britain.
Dreyfus - who also starred as the hilariously camp PC Goody in Ben Elton's The Thin Blue Line - was living it up in sunny California last year after landing a part opposite Bette Midler in her comedy show. The sitcom, Bette, won early praise from American critics and it seemed that Midler's popularity would guarantee success and put James on the road to riches in his role of the singer's witty English pianist.
Within a few weeks, the actor found himself being recognised on the streets of LA, but at the same time Dreyfus knew the game was almost up. For every runaway success like Friends, he realised, there were dozens of shows like his.
"Initially it got a good reaction from everyone, but it really was a case of too many cooks. Bette was executive producer as well as the star and it all became very stressful," says James diplomatically.
"As the ratings went down she panicked and started to fire all sorts of people. The whole thing changed and it just wasn't a happy time, even though the cast and crew were so brilliant and wonderful to work with. I knew early on that it wasn't going to last long, so I rented a nice house with a wonderful swimming pool up in the hills and lived the life of Riley for a year, while I could."
The end was heartlessly swift.
"There wasn't a party, no goodbyes even," James recalls. "We did 18 episodes, which is far more than I've done in a series of Gimme Gimme Gimme. But I've only ever watched three of them because I lost interest when it became obvious what was happening.
"Then I got a phone call to say the show had been cancelled. It didn't come as any surprise. I just said, `OK, fine, so can I just clear out my dressing room?' By the time I went into the studio, Bette was already on a plane back to New York. When things were going well she was delightful, great. But when she got stressed... well, it was her company, her name. Let's just say she had a lot on her plate.
"After that, I hung around for another month, did some travelling with my friends and then I came back to London. I had a good time on that show - I worked with Bette, Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John, all these people, it was exciting."
Midler, the flame-haired comedienne, singer and movie star, had hand- picked Dreyfus for his role after seeing him in the film Notting Hill where he played Hugh Grant's incapable shop assistant. She flew him to her house in New York and auditioned him personally.
"She summoned me," says James. "It was tremendously scary. I was just quivering. She gave me a script that I had to use and she would improvise round me. Of course, it didn't make any sense and I was sweating, wiping my head with napkins in fear."
Now, James, who is softly spoken and introverted compared to the characters he plays, puts it all down to experience and even admits to not having saved a cent from his Hollywood adventure.
"It all went," he laughs. "I wasn't on that much anyway. I was unknown over there. I'll get more if I go back, and I would like to go back soon. I like LA, even though I don't drive and couldn't smoke anywhere."
The fact that James made it to Hollywood at all is a tribute to his determination. A year before the Midler show, his life was spiralling deep into depression. He despaired of his career and worried that he was being typecast in lightweight roles.
"I thought everything had got stereotyped and I was just playing silly characters. I had been drinking too much," he confesses. "I was being very unhealthy, then a depression hit and I thought this is a good time to go and sort it out."
James checked himself into the Priory Clinic in Roehampton, South West London, where he stayed for over a month. "I went quietly and sorted it, and I'm very glad I did," he says. "It was counselling and therapy, and just time out. It was about getting my life back together. It got sorted and I am glad I did it. It's behind me now."
The star, who lives alone in London with his various pet dogs and cats, comes from a large, sprawling Anglo-French family. His mother Margot, a former catwalk model for Christian Dior, divorced his father, Chris, before James was two and while his brother Sebastian, who now works in advertising, was still a baby.
After spells in France and America, she settled with the boys in Devon where she often struggled to make ends meet. However, James's businessman dad insisted his sons should go to the top public school Harrow, and he paid the fees.
"I didn't like it," Dreyfus says now. "It was a very arrogant place. You were told you were the creme de la creme, but I couldn't really see any evidence of that. My dad was the one with the money, but in the school holidays my brother and I were back with our mum and we didn't have much. Yet there we were in this place where people had thousands. It just wasn't me."
From Harrow he went to college to study for A-levels and then won a place at RADA. Both his parents re-married and he now boasts half-brothers, sisters and cousins in both England and France, including one who directs rap music videos in Paris. "Apparently he's a real wizz at it," Dreyfus laughs.
Although he insists they are a close family, despite the physical distances between them, the actor admits to not knowing what his father actually does for a living.
"I've never known," James says. "He does different things. He's quite secretive. A lot of times people have said to me, `I hear he's a spy'."
Dreyfus has been credited with saying that his father's lifestyle had earned his dad the family nickname of James Bond. He recalls, "It erupted once and he rang me and said, `I see you've said I was a spy'. I told him I'd said no such thing, just that I didn't really know what his job is. He told me, `Well, I'm not a spy'."
James admits to being delighted by the current, third, series of Gimme Gimme Gimme being transferred from BBC2 to the more mainstream BBC1. Even now, he finds it hard to credit that this mad comedy, packed full of the most blatant innuendo and toilet humour, can find a slot on the premier family channel.
"Can you believe it? It's incredibly rude," he says. "And they've been very good, they haven't toned it down at all. I was stunned. But yes, this series plunges new depths."
The show, which co-stars Kathy Burke, is garish and over the top and, like its two main characters, totally obsessed with sex. The gag with this odd couple is that James's character, Tom Farrell, is just as mad about men as his flatmate, Burke's ginger-wigged, bespectacled Linda La Hughes.
"My mum watches it and so does my dad," says James. "They both hated it initially. Then they saw it again and they've grown to like it. I think a lot of people loathed it the first time they saw it. It was such an assault on the senses, but it grows on you."
Gimme Gimme Gimme has also been criticised by the pink press for the way it represents gay men. Dreyfus also suffered a mauling from the same commentators when he appeared as the heterosexual, but very camp, Goody in The Thin Blue Line.
"I'm a gay man but I'm not a part of the whole gay scene," says James defiantly. "The gay press hate me. My argument is that this is television. I do it purely for comedic reasons and I play it to get the maximum laughs.
"I actually think Tom is a very progressive gay character - he's not worthy, but he's not a victim. He's unhappy about everything in his life apart from being gay. He doesn't even think about that. That's not an issue for him. The comedy of it is that she says terrible things about me and I say terrible things about her. I find none of it especially offensive because I'm a gay person."
However, despite these words and his success playing the most camp roles on television, Dreyfus also admits he is desperate to hang up his pink slippers, at least for a while, to play serious parts.
"I'd done serious theatre work for six years and then, in 1996, I got an over the top part as a hairdresser in Ab Fab and it sort of went on from there," he recalls, shaking his head. "One over the top part led to another. But it didn't bother me because I was working with my heroes. I used to idolise people like French and Saunders, Kathy Burke and Rowan Atkinson. But I'd like to go back to the theatre again and do more serious roles."
So the next time James appears in tights, it might just be as Hamlet.
l Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Friday, BBC1, 9.30pm
HAPPY DAYS: James had fun with Bette while her show lasted; CARRY ON CAMPING: James (top) in The Thin Blue Line and (left) in Gimme Gimme Gimme
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Nov 3, 2001|
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