The first (and last) time I met Denise Black was about 25 years ago at Blenheims wine bar in St John’s Wood, north-west London. She was then an actress but instead of ‘resting’ was singing for her supper. Since then she has had a successful career as an actress and has from time to time kept up with the music, although acting was and is her first love. Her first big theatre break came in 1984 when she appeared in Pam Gems’s play Pasionaria at Newcastle Playhouse. There she met fellow actresses Josie Lawrence and Kate McKenzie with whom she started a jazz band called Denise Black and The Kray Sisters. She also found musician Paul Sand, who had written the songs for the Gems play, and who subsequently became her husband. More theatre followed until she got her break into television via Casualty in 1990. Since then she has appeared in most of the major TV drama series including A Touch of Frost, Bad Girls, Merseybeat, Dalziel and Pascoe, The Bill, Born and Bred, Waking the Dead, Where the Heart Is, Peak Practice, Holby City, Midsomer Murders, Doc Martin, Robin Hood and many others. She will, however, be mainly remembered for her role as Hazel Tyler in Russell T. Davies’s groundbreaking series on the Manchester gay scene Queer as Folk and for her years as a soap star, playing hairdresser Denise Osbourne, one of Ken Barlow’s extramarital interests in Coronation Street. Did she think all those years ago at Blenheims in which direction her career would go?
“I had no idea what was going to happen. The first flirting I had with success was with the music business. I had put a band together even earlier than when you saw me. At my second gig somebody came up and offered me £1,000 and said you are going somewhere. I made an album, which was a mistake. I should have made a single. It took me almost a year to make it, by which time most of the band had left because nobody was making any money. The next flirt with success was somebody who wanted to manage me and for six months he sent me library material but I didn’t like any of it as it was all incredibly derivative, so I said to my husband Paul, if I’m going to be a singer, will you write me some stuff and he wrote me twenty songs which we rehearsed and performed for this manager guy, but the contract basically said he owned the songs and I would be paid £50 a week until I died and I had to do what he said. So, as the contract was non-negotiable, that was the end of my singing career.”
That was when acting came along and Denise met some successful people. However, she admits that “I was just a nasty young brat who said I do it because I love it. And they pulled me up and said that things don’t happen by chance. You have to work with a singularity and a dedication. Success is a double-edged sword. No young person these days says I don’t care about success – everybody cares about success.” Success in the theatre for Denise means that she has done Ayckbourn at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Shaw, Lorca and Wesker at Manchester Royal Exchange, Edward Albee in Liverpool, Chekhov at the Royal Court in London, and played Goneril in King Lear at the Ludlow Festival. I wondered why she hadn’t combined her music and the theatre and acted in a musical. She did The Threepenny Opera at Oldham Coliseum which led to her casting in Coronation Street, but might she not enjoy doing something like Blood Brothers, Kiss Me, Kate or even Mamma Mia!?
“Musicals such as Billy Elliot – and others – have flirted with me but I don’t know. My first love has never been musicals but music theatre and just theatre itself as my initial instincts are for the red meat of drama. I love Shakespeare and the huge great journeys of characters who start somewhere and go through all these hoops and burn up. In my heart that’s what I like, with music that propels the action rather than being a big spectacle. It might seem like a contradiction in terms but I’ve always loved music and vaudeville comedy. I absolutely adore Fred and Ginger, and Jimmy Cagney is probably my all-time hero both as a song and dance man and as a serious actor. Judy Garland is my complete guru, as fine an actress as she was a singer. I adore Rufus Wainwright and will be doing his Dinner at Eight at Pizza on the Park. There are some great young singer-songwriters out there and it’s exciting that people are being more verbal and putting ideas into songs again. There’s no kind of music I don’t like and I also have a soft spot for pop , because I reckon there are only two kinds of music – there’s good music and there’s bad music. So, I’ll do Tell Him which was a pop hit.” In fact Bert Berns’s 1962 song was recorded by Johnnie Thunder, Billie Davis and Alma Cogan, but it was the version by The Exciters that made Dusty Springfield become a soul singer. Will there be new material in the Pizza on the Park show including some songs perhaps by Denise herself? “I have been writing endlessly but to date I have written one song that I like and two lyrics I like, so I wouldn’t say I was prolific yet even though I have always been surrounded by writers and composers. There’s nothing of mine in the show or on the CD that we have made for the band’s London debut. The show will have new songs and some standards and three or four songs specifically written by Paul for the Loose Screw members in new collaborations plus what we’ve each brought to the table.”
Denise met most of the Loose Screw personnel at the Chichester Festival Theatre when she was appearing in a play called Aristo. “Martin Sherman’s Aristo is a serious play with an underscoring of Greek folk songs which I had to sing live in Greek. The musicians in the show invited me to be in a band. I had already had a band with my husband three years ago and he’d been writing for me for a long time. We started the current album, First Fourteen, about a year ago.” The resulting band comprises Graeme Taylor, who produced and engineered the album and was formerly in folk bands such as Gryphon, The Albion Band and Home Service, and was also with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He’s on guitars, bass, mandolin and vocals, Ben Grove plays guitars, bass, piano and vocals, and Michael Gregory is on drums and percussion. Special guests Kate McKenzie, vocals, and The Dovetail Quartet are also on the album, while bassist Hedi Pinkerfield will be playing at Pizza on the Park. Paul Sand has contributed five of the fourteen tracks on the release which has a mix of folk, rock and funk. It’s now available from the Dress Circle shop in Covent Garden and at the band’s gigs.
“When I had another band three years ago I made a conscious decision to look at the audience. Unless you go out there on a regular basis and face them, they don’t quite know what to make of you. Looking at them and trying to assess them, what I felt I had was a little too downbeat, too introspective and melancholic. I remember thinking maybe it was something to do with my age, but felt I really needed to be able to deliver not just anxiety or pain or whatever, but also feel-good, a solution, a reason to stay alive or happiness. I felt I was short on that.” Check for yourself whether Denise Back’s Loose Screw has that feel-good solution. They just might have it in spades.
- Denise Black’s Loose Screw is at Pizza on the Park, Knightsbridge, London SW1, 17-21 November 2009
- Tuesday to Saturday at 8.30 p.m., doors open from 7
- Tickets £15.00 on 0845 602 7017
- Pizza Express Live