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Down Under star is a jack of all trades; Richard Edmonds finds Aussie Jesse Spencer has a gift for good old British panto.

With his shock of bleached spiky hair and his flashing teeth, he is the ideal son a million mothers would like to hug.

With his easy charm and swimming champ physique, he is the date a million girls would happily die for.

He is, in fact, 20-year-old Jesse Spencer, better known to the world as Billy Kennedy, the Neighbours' hearthrob, currently appearing as Jack in Wolverhampton Grand Theatre's sell-out Jack and the Beanstalk, where his inexhaustable wholesome smile lights up the theatre twice daily, Sundays included.

Jess - his preferred abbreviation - turns up promptly, fresh from the local swimming pool where at least he can find a brief sanctuary from autograph hunters on the bottom of the deep end.

"Being recognised comes with the territory and you accept it. I would sign autographs forever and I consider myself privileged to be able to do so. But it will always be slightly awkward for me, although I have to get used to it.

"Some days I can deal with it, some days not - those are the times when being a well known face gets in the way. I mean, you're hurrying to fulfil a busy schedule when someone stops you and wants you to speak to their niece lower down the street. And that is something I believe you must do - although it does play havoc occasionally with timetabling."

Jess started in the Australian Boys' Choir when he was 12 and he reckons that was where his theatre career began. "A choirmaster asked me to audition for The King And I which was opening an Australian tour with Hayley Mills as the governess. They wanted a boy to play Louis, her son. In the end I became an understudy but I did get all the excitement of watching a great production being made, because I went to all the rehearsals and I made a lot of friends in the company."

I tell him that it was Jean Cocteau who called theatremania "the crimson and gold disease". Jess likes the expression and he laughs out loudly over his cheese sandwich and promises to remember it. He reckons he caught the virus backstage during The King And I and it led on to an agent and then eventually to Neighbours where he spent five years.

"I was filming Neighbours all day and trying to study for my school exams in maths, biology, music etc at night and weekends. I saw my teachers whenever I could and it really was very difficult to get along.

"At one time I was also playing Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh. I used to rush off from the football pitch, shower, and then go on as Christopher Robin. I got a bad kick during the match and for two weeks played with a broken ankle without realising it."

Was he ribbed by the rest of the team for Winnie The Pooh?

"What do you think? But my mother loved it."

He left Neighbours in November last year along with several other characters. "The scripts were becoming increasingly dull and I just wanted a change away from it all and it's not likely that I shall be going back into the series." Jess says he hadn't heard of Wolverhampton before he signed the panto contract although he was aware Birmingham existed and he has some interesting opinions on the local talent.

"You have some really strange girls here who are obsessed with Neighbours." Any visitor to the panto will require no confirmation of that point of view - the screams when Jess walks on and shouts "Hello everybody", to a crowded theatre, are truly phenomenal.

In fact, all any panto needs is Jesse Spencer. This is his second in Britain - it is not a theatre genre which seems to have any firm roots in Oz and therefore other members of the Neighbours cast are also here doing their bit in panto.

But Jess has a natural gift for comedy which comes quite naturally to him, and Daisy the Cow sequences with Hi-de-Hi's Jeffrey Holland, who plays the Dame, are as funny as anything I've seen since the days when Arthur Askey once milked the cow and got a packet of frozen peas and a dried-up sausage for his pains.

"I think timing is something you either have or you haven't," explains this excellent performer who has without doubt helped audiences towards a firmer understanding of panto slapstick.

"I learn a lot from watching other actors as I stand in the wings. There is so much you can gain from watching the timing of people like John Nettles and Jeffrey Holland."

Jess attended for a time a drama studio in Melbourne where he told me that he studied the Meisner method. "It was a bit like Stanislavsky, actors' studio stuff, where you learn to internalise your character, looking for motivation and emotional structures. I gained a lot of confidence during that period of theatre study but it is the practicalities of acting I enjoy most and I think that the excitement of ad-libbing is something that is without compare."

The conversation switches to Mel Gibson and to that actor's Hamlet, which I have always rated. Jess has not yet had the opportunity to see Gibson's work in the Shakespeare play but he rates him as a film actor like many of his countrymen for whom Gibson has set a national standard. And you get an inkling that deep down inside Jess has a hope that one day they might work together, although his plans at the moment are unfixed.

"After the panto, I may be heading straight home to Australia although not before some time in London where people don't appear to recognise me quite so much. My father, who is a doctor in Melbourne, was over here early in January, and we did the tourist sights together, London Bridge, the galleries and St Paul's. And what a sight that was - all that stone heaved up on pulleys, it was like the Pyramids, you wonder how on earth they did it."

From the moment I saw him on walk on stage as Jack, I visualised Jesse Spencer as Orlando in As You Like It. He has a strong, slightly rough voice like a rugby forward and a huge stage presence. I asked him if he would ever try an audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.

Wise beyond his years, he is also professionally non-committal when the occasion demands. "As long as I'm doing stuff I'm happy with, I'll do it," he says, "so who knows? I've got to find my own way in theatre so, really, anything could happen in the future." And off he goes to pantoland as the coaches pull up outside in the January rain.

Yet oddly enough his physical presence remains in the room for some time afterwards - it is something I noticed once before after an interview with an actor - that time it was Alan Bates.
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Author:Edmonds, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 24, 2000
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