I SHOULDN’T even be here!” People’s darling Russell Grant is telling me how he defied doctors’ orders to hot-foot it up to Newcastle this week to take on his role in Grease at the Theatre Royal.
And even if he is still feeling “a bit jaded” following last Thursday’s sudden admission to hospital, he reckons he made the right decision to come.
“I was rushed into hospital last week with bronchitis – they’d thought it was pneumonia,” says fast-talking Grant who’s rattling along to make the most of our interview slot which is brief because his spell out of action has left him with several to catch up on.
“I wouldn’t say I was on my death bed; it’s not that bad,” he goes on, as he fills me in on the drama. “But I was on a drip with antibiotics and they said, ‘You can’t go to Newcastle and sing and dance’ and I said on Sunday, ‘I’m going’!”
So he left his home in Wales at 4am on Monday and was on stage in Newcastle that night, taking over as the Teen Angel in Grease, a role-share with 2010 X Factor finalist Mary Byrne who did her stint last week.
If he’s sounding his usually upbeat self then that’s down to us – or rather that first night audience who welcomed him and those who have mobbed him in the street, asking for photographs and autographs.
“I had four hours’ rehearsal for the role but that night was one of my happiest, most memorable theatre experiences I’ve every had.
“The people were unbelievable.
“When I went into the samba and tango that my friend Arlene Phillips choreographed for me, they went crazy again!
“After that night I had tears running down my cheeks.”
With fans shouting out, ‘We love you, Russell’, it sounds as if all the outpouring of affection has done him no end of good.
Grant has been something of a national treasure ever since his memorable efforts partnering Flavia Cacace on Strictly Come Dancing last year, which endeared him to viewing millions and which included that moment of TV gold when he was shot from a cannon.
He happily admits this week’s audiences are coming to see him dance; many were on their feet, joining in themselves.
His role in the summer lovin’ musical favourite sees him sing and dance at the same time – a first for the star who is actually an old hand in the theatre, with a CV taking in stage plays, musicals and TV, such as sitcom On The Buses, long before he became famous as an astrologer on the BBC and TV-am breakfast sofas in the 80s, enjoying the title Astrologer Royal after giving a reading for the Queen Mother.
Having effectively relaunched himself in recent years, following ill health and a well-documented battle back from depression, the Middlesex-born entertainer is back in the limelight where he belongs.
Recently he played the Wizard in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium.
It was in the capital for Grease rehearsals, struggling through a couple of humid days of 30 degrees, that his illness, which started off with hayfever and asthma “which I’ve suffered from since I was a kiddie”, took hold. He managed about three hours’ rehearsals before he had to cut them short.
He had time for just an hour more in Newcastle “but going on stage was worth it.”
He continues: “At the stage door there were a huge amount of fans there.
“Earlier I went to the Co-op to buy myself a deodorant and I was mobbed: photographs, autographs and I forgot the deodorant.
He’d been so looking forward to coming to Newcastle, having spent six months living in Jesmond as a young actor in 1970.
He’s appeared at the Theatre Royal before but it’s been years since he was last here.
“The city has always been very kind to me and I love Jesmond.”
As well as revisiting it this week, Grant – an amateur football league fan who’s had his own football show on TV – plans to catch up with Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew: a lovely man, he says, “and isn’t he doing well”.
The experience of live theatre is a buzz for him that differs from that of TV, though Strictly Come Dancing is an exception in that it has a live audience and requires performers to start afresh at each show.
Generally “they’re totally different”.
“They both give you wonderful experiences as the buzz is different.
“With TV you rehearse and then go on; then it’s all over.
“With theatre you are repeating and repeating the same role – and you’re only as good as your last show.
“Also there’s an intimacy with the audience; you can touch the audience.”
It is that two-way appreciation that’s sustaining him this week.
“I defied doctors’ orders to come here. It was the best tonic I could have had.”
He adds: “I’ve been so lucky over the years.”
“I’m 61 now and, as Elton John would say, I’m still standing!”
Grease – which stars Danny Bayne, winner of ITV’s Grease Is The Word, as Danny alongside Carina Gillespie as Sandy – is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, until Saturday. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 112 121.