Brian Beacom

ACTORS are born with rhino skin, aren’t they, able to charge forward in life, to push aside fears of rejection?

Not Norman Pace. The one time half of comedy act Hale and Pace has found major success in the business.

Right now he’s set to appear in the touring production of Hairspray The Musical.

However, the 64 year-old admits he never had the initial confidence to go it alone.

Despite knowing he wanted a career in showbiz from the age of five, having appeared in a school production, had he not met Gareth Hale at teaching college, the showbiz career may never have happened.

“When I went to college in 1971, Gareth was the first person I met,” he recalls.

“And half way through the second year we decided we could do it (get into showbiz) together.”

Norman admits he needed a partner because together they could create this third person who had the confidence to battle on.

“That’s absolutely true. We had some disappointments along the way but because there were two us they didn’t get below the surface.

“Without each other we would never have become professional performers. It was all too scary out there. We needed each other.”

Les Dennis has spoken of how he wondered if his career would survive after the death of his comedy partner, Dustin Gee.

Did Norman feel the same when he split with Gareth in 1999?

“Interestingly, I’ve spoken with Les about this when we worked together at the Chocolate Factory.

“And yes, the first time I worked without Gareth I was lost. We had shared cars, dressing rooms, and we wrote together every day.

“The first theatre show on my own I was lost but didn’t want to knock on other actors’ doors because I didn’t want to seem like a lonely old git.”

Norman Pace is far from the brash, confident actor. Growing up in Midlands in a single parent council house family, there was a glass ceiling to break through.

“My mother said I should become a teacher first, then if I wanted to become an actor after that I could do so. So that’s what I did.”

He reflects for a moment and adds; “I’ve never told anyone this before but to be honest I think I was scared of going off to London to drama college, going out into the big, bad, world.

“I imagined all these elegant Eddie Redmayne types coming in from Eton, whereas I was a small bloke from the Midlands.”

But it all turned out the way it was supposed to. He and Gareth Hale built up a double act on stage and radio until they landed television work and became nationally successful with The Two Rons.

Then it was time to go it alone. Norman has been relishing his appearances in the likes of like Chicago and One Man Two Guv’Nors.

Now he’s playing Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray. Set in Baltimore in 1962, it tells of Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair whose dream is to dance on national TV.

She finds fame, but uses it to fight for racial equality.

“On the first morning of rehearsals, the director made a speech about the message in the show.

“As actors, we’re all used to diversity but as we go round the country there will be people who aren’t so used to it. This is a great chance to get that message across.”

Norman loves the idea of playing the quirky, eccentric dad. But the part is demanding.

“Wilbur is all good, so all I can do is pour the butterscotch of charm over his little fat body.

“But with any part you play you have to get out in front of an audience to really find out if he works.”

He adds, smiling; “Having said that there are 28 very talented people in the cast. You can tell by the look on their faces if they approve or not and you’re doing something wrong.”

The physicality of the role surprised him.

“I’m not a trained dancer and I’m being asked to do quite a bit,” he says with a mock sign.

“But by the end of the tour I’ll either be fit – or dead.”

Thanks to two pair of socks in rehearsals, he will at least avoid blisters and bunions.

Hale and Pace parted ways after they moved from ITV to the BBC in 1999 and their show flopped.

The split was amicable, and in reality although professionally divorced, they still enjoy the occasional tryst.

Now, the partners who once played night club heavies are back working together in ITV sitcom Benidorm, playing a couple of hapless detectives.

“It’s been great fun,” he says of the episode that will transmit in January.

“We had to work to come up something for our characters that will come up to the standard of the regulars.

What of the future? More musical theatre?

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of variety in my career,” he says.

“I just want to keep on working. But I’ll soon be sixty five and picking up my pension.

And I know there’s a limited time for the likes of the work I do in Hairspray, with all the movement.”

He adds, grinning; “I guess I’ll just have to hope someone pays me to be in an Agatha Christie play where I get to sit in an armchair.”

*Hairspray, the Musical, the King’s Theatre, October 2 – 7.