Interview: Lee Mead on his starring role in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at The New Wimbledon Theatre

Starring in one of the most famous musicals of all time, Lee Mead tells Vicky Edwards why he’s so happy to be in the driving seat.

At the wheel of the most fantasmagorical car in history, Lee freely admits that when the offer to play Caractacus Potts in the stage musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was made, he didn’t have to think twice.

It is debatable, however, who was more excited: Lee, or his five-year-old daughter Betsy.

“I took her to see the show in Southampton and watching her get so involved was really special. She knows all the songs and sings them all the time,” grinned Lee, who is clearly both a proud and hands-on dad.

Having grown up watching the film version, Lee was already familiar with the Chitty story and score, but he also has another link to our fine four-fendered friend — a connection that dates back to the early days of his career.

“When I was just starting out, the show was opening in the West End and I went to an open audition to be Michael Ball’s second cover,” he said.

“Now, I can move really well, but I’m not a trained dancer and you needed to be part of the dance ensemble to be second cover for the role”.

Game over. Footwork not quite up to scratch, Lee lost the gig.

“It makes it all the more special playing the role now,” he told me, eyes twinkling with both amusement and delight.

Talking of things being special, I asked Lee what he thinks makes Chitty such a well-loved show and why audiences of all ages are still so enchanted by Ian Fleming’s story of a magical car and a single dad.

“I think what makes it one of the most iconic shows in the world is that it has such a heart,” he answered thoughtfully.

“The relationship between Potts and the children, Grandpa and Truly are really important, but you have to hit those beats or it becomes just a show about a flying car, you need those truths.

“The scenes going into songs are quite tiny so you have to really work to get those transitions right and to mark those moments.

“It’s also a great story. Even as an adult you are taken on that journey, you can’t help but allow yourself to do that. It’s a very clever show with brilliant characters and brilliant songs.”

Lee Mead as Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Credit Alastair Muir (2) (1)JOYOUS: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has a special place in Lee’s heart

Ah yes, the songs. Wonderful they are indeed, and thanks to an ace 12-piece orchestra the impact of the music in this particular production is nothing short of spellbinding.

“It’s unusual for a touring production to have such a big orchestra and they are incredible,” agreed Lee, who shot to fame when he won the BBC talent show Any Dream Will Do, and with it the title role in the West End revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Leading West End roles in Wicked and Legally Blonde followed, along with the release of several solo albums, and also being cast in TV’s Casualty as Ben ‘Lofty’ Chiltern, for which he earned a Best Newcomer at the National Television Awards 2015.

Not bad going for a lad whose first job was singing on a booze cruise ferry where the clientele were often so well lubricated that Lee sang from a cage in case any of them, worse for drink, took exception to his dulcet tones.

“But actually I loved it and looking back I realise that not being able to afford to go to drama school in London was no bad thing,” he said.

“A lot of young actors now aren’t prepared to go on tour, they just want to walk into the West End, but that’s not where you learn your craft.

“Because I have toured so often I have been to almost all the venues that the show is going to. I love Wimbledon and I am really looking forward to returning there with Chitty”.

From schlepping around the country on low-budget tours to playing gigs on car ferries and doing cabaret with seasoned old-timers like Ken Dodd, Lee soaked up experience and learnt as much as he could.

“Apart from being great fun I think you have a far greater appreciation of success when it comes than if you had just walked into the West End,” he nodded, explaining that the ratio of actors out of work at any time far and away exceeds those with jobs.

“I do talks in colleges and I always advise kids to go and learn on the touring circuit.”

LtoR Aaron Gelkoff, Daisy Riddet, Lee Mead, Carrie Hope Fletcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Credit Alastair Muir (1)DRIVING FORCE: From car ferries to the most famous car in showbiz 

Starring in a major musical, being a devoted dad, talking to college kids — nobody can accuse Lee of being a slacker.

Laughing, he said: “I’ve also released a new album called Some Enchanted Evening.  I wanted to do an album of songs from the 40s and 50s film era, giving them a modern twist.”

A huge hit with fans, the album smashed into the top 20 in the Independent Charts. Typically modest, Lee is quick to credit his band, but is nevertheless thrilled.

“The response has been brilliant and I’ll be touring the album in October when I finish on Chitty,” he said.

Actors are often slightly rigid about their pre-show routines, so while I put my coat on I asked Lee if he had any such rituals.

“I like the five minutes before the show to be silent and focussed — to have that still moment before you go out on stage and it is like an express train,” he says, unnecessarily apologetically.

Wanting a bit of peace and quiet before a musical marathon hardly counts as diva behaviour, I countered.

“And I’m a bit OCD about my desk area,” he joked, in mock hopefulness of sounding like a highly strung artiste.

Sorry, fella. You’re just too much of a sweetheart to qualify as a foot-stamping prima donna.

And, after an hour in his company, and later watching him in rehearsal, I can confirm that this triple-threat performer and gentlest of gentlemen is also absolutely perfect as Potts.

Images courtesy of Alastair Muir, with thanks

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