By Ken P.and conducted in 2003
To a generation of children raised on the Harry Potter phenomenon, Jim Dale gives voice to literally hundreds of their favorite characters on the Potter audio books.
To my generation, he was the villainous Dr. Terminus in Pete’s Dragon – whose plan to dissect Elliott for his very valuable dragon parts still brings a shiver to my spine (and a memory of the wonderful song that accompanied the nefarious plot).
Dale is also an accomplished comedian, singer, and theatre actor whose career stretches back 50 years – and it has just been announced this past weekend that he will be awarded an MBE (Member in the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II in the 2003 Royal Birthday Honours List. This honor is bestowed on civilians who have distinguished themselves through exceptional achievement or service.
IGN FILMFORCE: Am I correct in remembering that you were born in Rothwell?
JIM DALE: It’s a very small town – it’s in the very centre of England, about 72 miles north of London, yup.
IGNFF: This would be when, the mid-’30s?
DALE: The mid-’30s, yeah.
IGNFF: How would you describe that sort of environment at that time, growing up?
DALE: Oh, the environment there? It was just before World War II, so it was a very sort of wonderful time for a young kid to be born. It was in the country, obviously, so my front door in the house lead into all the fields, and I literally lived in the fields. I worked on a farm – when I say worked, I went to the farm almost every day to help out. So I was a country boy, really a country boy, and I’d seen very little of theater… I’d seen very little of musicals. On those occasional trips later on, to London, it was quite a thing to hear a couple of thousand people laughing, instead of a few hundred people cheering at a football game.
IGNFF: Being as far away as you were from London proper, what were the war years like for you?
DALE: The war years for me – I have certain memories of them. We were obviously rationed. We had a certain amount of food, and every week we had a certain amount of candy that we were allowed to have. I remember we were in the area where there were American Air Force bases, and there were British Air Force bases. Every night the sky was filled with the sound of hundreds of bombers going over to Germany to drop their bombs over there. Occasionally, in the daytime, we would see fighter planes in the sky fighting some sort of attack from the Germans. We’re not very far from Coventry, which was completely bombed and wiped out during the war. Blitzed it was. I remember seeing a German plane come over and somebody leaping out and parachuting to the ground. About half an hour later, at the bottom of the street, I saw this guy – obviously the pilot – with his parachute in his arms, being escorted by our local policeman, who was just pushing his bicycle alongside the guy, trying to talk to him. It was all very friendly
IGNFF: I can’t even imagine that kind of environment.
DALE: How about that, yeah.
IGNFF: So it was sort of a distant, observational thing for the most part?
DALE: Yeah, I suppose so. My father was too old to go into the army, so he spent the war years as an ARP, Air Raid Police, and he spent a number of weeks up in London helping out there. Came back with vivid stories, plus mementos – like pieces of aircraft, pieces of buzz bombs they used to drop on London. So I had a whole collection of memorabilia of aircraft and rockets, et cetera.
IGNFF: In those country towns, what was the education system like?
DALE: The education system was okay. You moved from a very small school for 4-year-olds to 7, then another school from 7 to 11, another school from 11 to 15 – which was the grammar school – and then you went on to university.
IGNFF: At what point did your first inklings of performing start?
DALE: Oh, that came about when I went to London to see a big musical there, and it so knocked me out I said to my father, “I’d like to do that… make people laugh.” So that’s when I started dancing. He encouraged me to take up dancing, because that was the best way to learn movement as far as he was concerned. He used to work in a theater when he was a kid. My grandmother, she had a house outside the stage door of the theater in the nearest big town, which was called Kettering, and it was called the Savoy. In those days, for more money, she let out one or two of her rooms to the local theater people – or I should say the visiting theater people. My father was in a wonderful position of having breakfast with some of the big stars who were visiting Kettering, which included the great Houdini. My dad actually worked in Houdini’s act as a young boy, while he visited Kettering. Dad had to disappear, then appear at the back of the theater, running down the aisle saying, “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!” Or something like that. So Dad had a little inkling of show business, and obviously he knew the secret of all theater – which is movement.
IGNFF: It’s very surprising for a parent of that time to encourage performing arts.
DALE: Yep, absolutely. He himself was a pianist, so from him I got my interest in music, et cetera.
IGNFF: Were you able to pursue dance in your area, or was it something you had to travel to get to?
DALE: Yes… it’s lucky. There was a dancing school in Kettering, but it only had girls. So I was the only guy there, only young boy. I keep saying I had more fights in tights than any other kid. While everybody else was playing football, I was doing ballet, you know, or tap, or eccentric comedy dancing, or ballroom dancing, or national dancing. There were a hell of a lot of lessons I went to, and I continued that from the age of about 9 to 15 – it was 6 years of it.
IGNFF: I’m sure the other kids were a bit confused by it.
DALE: Well, they didn’t know who the hell I was. I didn’t know who I was either. It was during those times that I used that talent for tap dancing and all that to do some local shows, talent contests and all that, so that gave me an inkling of what it was like to face an audience. Then, later on, I started to bring some comedy into the routines.
IGNFF: What was it like for you, during your first performances?
DALE: Well, you know, obviously when you’re that young, you live off of sympathy – especially if you’re a comic. The jokes were very simple jokes, and they were local audiences. Don’t forget – this is a small town, so they all knew me. I’d be in a competition one week with a ballet dancer and a guy who played the spoons, and he would win. Then the next week, I’d win and he’d come second. The third week, the ballet dancer would win and I’d come second. So we took it in turns to win.
IGNFF: So everyone got a fair shot.
DALE: Everybody got a fair shot at entertaining. Of course, this was in the days before television, so there were lots of opportunities to put yourself in front of an audience. There were some local clubs there that encouraged all the family to go along, and they were entertained by the local people and visiting artists. So I took my place among all of those people.
IGNFF: How do you start to move outside the local circle?
DALE: That came about when an audition came along. There was a guy who arrived with his show at that Savoy Theater in Kettering, a discovery show. He was very well known through his radio shows of discovering young people and giving them an opportunity to present their talent on the radio. He also had this show that toured all the big musicals. It was a discovery show, and they had their young discoveries in there. They came to Kettering, and the first act, the first half of the show, was going to be people who traveled with him, and the second half of the show was going to be local talent that he discovered at the audition on Monday morning. So I, along with 2 or 300 other people who appeared, went along there for an audition on Monday morning in front of this giant, Carroll Leviss to try to get into the show. That’s how it happened. He didn’t like my impressions at all, but I did an accidental trip as I came on the stage and he said, “That was very funny. Get an act where you fall over and come back tonight.” That’s how simple it was. I went home, quickly put together a routine – I was only 17 – and came back and I did this routine in front of him and the audience, and he loved it and the audience liked it. He asked me to become a permanent member of the show. So two weeks later I joined him, and stayed with him visiting every, every musical – big and small – in England and Scotland and Ireland and Wales for the next two years.
IGNFF: Was it a big culture shock to move from your small town?
DALE: Yeah, it was great. It was great to get away. My ambition had been to leave Rothwell, and lots of people’s ambition is just to sort of marry the girl next door. But my ambition had been to leave… it was to join show business in some way. Now, of course, I was having the opportunity to be a part of show business – in a very, very small way, mind you – but giving me an opportunity of traveling, of meeting people, of appearing on different stages and hearing different accents and dialects, and meeting different types of people. So I was learning at a very early age what is invaluable to any performer – the experience. Early experience of communicating with an audience.
IGNFF: What were the difficulties of that kind of schedule?
DALE: I suppose the difficulties were my age. I was very, very young. I had to resort to absolutely clean material – it was clean material I was desperate to do, because that was the only type of comedy that was acceptable to the theater managers. The theater manager would come to you and say, “Look, you’re going to go away at the end of the week, and my customers are going to be coming back, so I don’t want you to drive them away with your dirty comedy material, if you have any. So cut out all the rude jokes, cut out all the blue material, and just give my family audience a good show.” That warning was given to every comedian, which meant that the musical circuit contained very, very good material, very clean material, and material that was worthy of being heard by a family audience.
IGNFF: Were there performers that wouldn’t comply with that?
DALE: Yes, and what happened to those performers was the curtain was dropped on them. They dropped the curtain, and their name was circulated to other theater managers around the circuit and they were banned from appearing. So the penalty for going against all this was quite severe.
IGNFF: What would you say would be the worst audience or worst date you ever played?
DALE: That would be Scotland. That would be Glasgow on a Friday night.
IGNFF: What were the reasons for it being so disastrous?
DALE: Well, they didn’t like the English up there, especially English comics – especially young English comics, and I was about 17 or 18. What they would do to frighten the hell out of you was – in those days the English penny was quite a large coin, measuring about an inch and a quarter across, inch and a half across… a very big coin. These guys would take these coins into their workshop and get the grinding wheel going and sharpen the edges of it, so that it was sharp nearly all the way around, like a knife, a razor – except for the two places where they could hold it in their thumb and finger, to enable them to throw it. You understand?
IGNFF: That’s pleasant.
DALE: So you would be doing your act and suddenly you would hear jeering from the second balcony, and suddenly thud – you would go down and see a penny embedded in the stage. You’d go to pick it up and you couldn’t get it out of the stage, it was buried in it. It’s a frightening, frightening, frightening experience. To see five of six of these pennies embedded in the stage by the time you finished. They could have been embedded in your head.
IGNFF: Was anyone injured?
DALE: On one of the nights it went through the bass drum – the guy was in the pit, completely out of sight, what I thought, to the audience sitting in the auditorium – but not to the second balcony. They threw a penny, and a penny missed the stage and went straight through one of his drums that was obviously visible. It went straight through it, a very big slit straight through it. So it was a pretty dangerous place to be.
IGNFF: Is that the kind of thing where you just sucked it up and finished the act?
DALE: What happened, like an idiot – they were jeering and I called out, “I’ve got one word for you.” And the guy called out, he said, “What?” And I said, “Jump.” They were waiting for me afterwards, and so I was beaten up just as I came out the stage door. These guys stopped me and said, “Are you the bastard who called back to us?” I said, “Yeah, it was quite a funny joke, wasn’t it?” The result of it, I limped on stage the next day with a black eye and I said, “A funny thing happened to me on my way back from the theater last night.”
IGNFF: Well, at least you were able to use it for material.
DALE: I had to, because I was limping. I couldn’t do my dance routine anymore.
IGNFF: How often would you play Glasgow?
IGNFF: So once was enough?
DALE: Once was enough, yeah.
IGNFF: I guess that would qualify as the worst experience.
DALE: Looking back now, yes.
IGNFF: How would you define a good night?
DALE: A good night was when the audience were really with you, they were a happy audience, something had happened – maybe there was good news in the newspapers that day and everybody was in a great mood. Maybe it’d been a nice day and everybody had been out in the sun, something like that. Maybe it was just because I felt good that night and was really going all out. On those nights, it’s lovely to hear the whole audience laughing and applauding you – especially a young kid. That’s the encouragement that you need.
IGNFF: Well, that kind of scenario – being a kid, out on the road – it seems like it’s ripe for people being taken advantage of. Were there any protections against that?
DALE: No, there were no protections whatsoever. Actually, looking back on it now, I was with all these kids, Carroll Leviss Teenage Discoveries, and no time that I was with them, sharing digs with them, did I hear any stories or witness anything about these kids being taken advantage of. It was just very alien and unheard of.
IGNFF: And financially, no one was rooked out of any money?
DALE: No, looking back on it, I can’t remember anything. Nobody was ever molested by stagehands – and we were kids – we were 16, 17, 18 years of age. But we didn’t have any people there to look after us, we just looked after ourselves. As I said to you, I can’t remember looking back and even hearing of anybody being screwed out of money or beaten up or molested or anything like that. Those were what they called the innocent days, in every way.
IGNFF: It’s amazing.
DALE: Absolutely, absolutely.
IGNFF: Especially when you describe the venues you were playing, that nothing ever happened.
DALE: That’s right.
IGNFF: How long did you play that circuit?
DALE: Well, there were many circuits … the great big Empire Circuit theaters. Then you have the smaller ones, and then the even third rate ones. So we jumped from one to another … We got our taste of the very best and the very worst.
IGNFF: How many years could you stay with the juvenile acts?
DALE: They finally caught up with me to join the Royal Air Force, to do my national service, when I was about nearly 19. I was forced to join the Royal Air Force program, compulsory two years, which I did.
IGNFF: Was this the time they declared anyone born after 1940 was not required?
DALE: Actually, I think it was 1936 or something. I was one of the last ones to be caught, as it were. I was furious, because I just started my career, and now there I was stuck in Germany entertaining the troops with a guitar, singing away.
IGNFF: Do you think that was, in hindsight, a valuable experience in getting out of the country – or it just ground your career to a halt?
DALE: Not at all, not at all. I think it was just a waste of my life there. I tried to work in the theater as much as I could when I was in the Royal Air Force in England, for 14 months. See, they were waiting for me. I had been on television, doing my first comedy routine on television, and I was due to join the Royal Air Force the following week. I thought, “What can I do, as a way of a comedy act?” I had the announcer say, “Jimmy’s just about to join the Royal Air Force next week, and we’re giving him his big opportunity today.” So I came on the stage and started to do my act, and then suddenly two – I’d arranged for this, I got two guys, we rehearsed this – and they came on dressed as military policemen with a big kit bag and they came and interrupted my act. They said, “It’s not next week, it’s tonight. You’re late.” There was me desperately trying to do my comedy routine, and I’m being kitted out by some Royal Air Force men. Finally, I was frog marched off the stage, and I’m still trying to get the tagline of a joke out. I thought it was funny, the audience thought it was, but the powers that be at Padgate didn’t. They were waiting for me the next week – there were about 8 or 900 of us in a hanger. We’d just arrived and the sergeant stood on a table and said, “Anybody’s name here Smith?” Because my name was Jim Smith in those days, James Smith, Young Jim Smith. About 12 of us stood up, and he said, “Jim Smith, comedian.” The other 11 sat down, and there was just me standing there. He said, “Come out here.” I marched out to the front, and he said, “Get on that table.” Then he called out to the 900 kids, he said, “We don’t mind you taking the mickey out of the Royal Air Force, lads, we all do it. But when you’ve got the gall and the bloody cheek to do it in front of 3 or 4 million people, that’s going a bit too far, isn’t it laddie?” And that was it. Instead of 8 weeks training, which is what you should do at Padgate – which is a very strict training camp – I was held there for 14 months. They kept me there for 14 months. Not absolutely training, I did my 8 weeks training then I was put onto permanent staff there – and my job was to have a new musical, a new show every three weeks, I think it was. I had to get the talent from the new guys who had just arrived, so I would march into the village and say, “Has anyone here been in the theater before?” And of course they all came from farm country, they all came from very poor housing estates, nobody had been on the stage. So within three weeks I had to get maybe 10 of them, dress them as women, and have them doing a knees-up Mother Brown routine across a stage like the Rockettes. It was crazy. I was lumbered trying to create entertainment on the base for another year.
IGNFF: Well, there must have been something positive in having to …
DALE: That was positive, that was good. I mean, what did I know? I was only 19. So, with my little bit of experience, I managed to put on some sort of camp show for them… camp in every way. It was fun – that part of it was. Then I was finally sent to Germany to finish my service over there, and nobody wanted to know about camp shows there, because they were out every Saturday night to the local town where all the dances were and the girls were. All I could do was entertain at the bingo. So that took me up to about 20, 21 when I came out of the Royal Air Force.
IGNFF: How does that affect your standing within the circuit you were once in?
DALE: Oh, I didn’t go back to that show. That show had sort of passed on by that time. I went back to being what I thought was a stand-up comic. I had an agent who’d seen me before I went into the Royal Air Force who said he would represent me as soon as I came out. So I joined him, and his name was Stanley Dale, and so my name was Jim Smith. One day I got a contract saying, “Jim Dale, care of Stanley Dale.” They’d made a mistake, and I thought, “Well, the name looks good. So I’ll change it.” There was another Jim Smith that was a comic and he was getting better reviews than I was, so there was good reason to change your name. So I became Jim Dale. For the next couple of years I was touring the country as a stand-up comic.
IGNFF: Was it different touring independently, outside of the group?
DALE: I’m a little more adult by this time, but I was on my own. Before, I’d been with lots of kids who were friends of mine, you know – we were always a crowd. We went everywhere. During the day we’d go to the cinema together, we’d go to the parks together, we’d go swimming together. This time, I was just me on my own, so it was a very lonely life. Very lonely life, and every week was different. You were in a different room of people. This wasn’t a traveling show… I went to a different theater every week with a different number of stars or performers. I never knew who I was going to meet. By the time Friday came, you’d just got around to saying, “Hello, would you like to have a coffee?” and then by the time Sunday came, you were on a train elsewhere and never seeing each other again, maybe. There was a very big community of people on the road in those days, because there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of theaters throughout the country. The big cities had maybe three or four of them. Everybody was traveling.
IGNFF: I’m assuming the audience makeup was different for those shows?
DALE: No, they were still music hall. The thing about music hall – it attracted the same audiences because it was the only entertainment that town had. So it had its regular customers. Every week, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their two children would go on a Thursday night. Their neighbors would go on a Friday night. For other people it was Tuesday night they chose to go to the music hall. But a great number of the townspeople always made the local music hall a stop one day of the week, it didn’t matter who was on. It didn’t matter who was there. That was their local thing they did, every certain day of the week.
IGNFF: So, essentially, it was the same places you played with the juvenile act, but you were just independent this time.
DALE: It was the same places, yeah.
IGNFF: I’m assuming it’s very similar to the vaudeville circuit in the U.S.
DALE: It’s not quite like the vaudeville, but it was just as hectic I think.
IGNFF: Were the dangers different, being a single act touring on your own?
DALE: No, not really… I don’t think there were any dangers. I mean, seriously, I never experienced anything in the way of anything criminal that went on there. Not to my eyes. I never experienced it, and I did it for a number of years.
IGNFF: What other aspirations did you have at that time?
DALE: Aspirations when you’re a comedian and you’re in a small theater and it’s Tuesday and there’s about a dozen people in, your aspirations that night are not to necessarily play the London Palladium – your aspirations that night is to make that guy in the second row put his newspaper down and recognize that you’re up there and you exist, and you’re trying to entertain him. That’s all you can think about, that I’m playing to 12 people and 1 of them doesn’t even know I’m here. So there were no big aspirations to star, to be a big star in those days – it was just work. It was just getting experience. Something lucky might come up later – that’s all we lived on. The possibility that we might be seen by somebody. Obviously we didn’t have the talent to go straight to the Palladium, but we might be given a little leg up the ladder by being put in the company of another comedian on his bill, so that we could learn from him. Or given an opportunity on a radio show – or this new medium called television, which was just raising its head.
IGNFF: So it’s not something you could actively pursue…
DALE: No. No.
IGNFF: So what was the big break for you?
DALE: The big break for me was when a rock and roll show started on television. We didn’t have many rock and rollers in England – we didn’t have any, just half a dozen singers. We’d heard of Elvis and the rock and roll thing starting. I’d always strummed the guitar, so I was asked to go along as a comedian to warm up the audience for this rock and roll show. So I warmed them up with 5 or 6 minutes of my humor, and then I said, “Can I borrow your guitar?” to some kid there. He said, “Yes,” and I took it and I sang a song. The producers phoned me up during the week, or my agent, and said, “We’d like Jim to come back next week, actually to be on the show.” I said, “You want me to do comedy on the show?” They said, “No, forget the comedy, but we’d like you to sing.” I said, “But I’m not a singer, I’m a comedian.” They said, “Well, you sang last week. We’ll give you a song to sing and you’ll come back on as a singer.” So this happened, and then they called me back and said, “We want you on next week.” They didn’t have enough talent in England to fill out an hour’s show. So Jim became a regular, singing a song until one day a guy phoned up, he said, “Hello, my name’s George Martin. I’m a recording manager, and I’ve just started work for EMI. Why the hell don’t you record one of your own songs, or an English song, instead of promoting all these American songs, and I’ll record you?” That was my introduction to Sir George Martin. I became one of his first recording artists. Myself, I was in the pop field, and Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth were in the jazz side of it. This was a few years before the Beatles, obviously.
IGNFF: When would this be?
DALE: That was about ’57, I think… something like that. I stayed with George for a number of years. One number was number two in the Hit Parade – that’s about as high as I got. I made half a dozen records with him.
IGNFF: Where are all these records now?
DALE: Well, they’re in museums throughout the country. No, they’re not – you can find them in junk shops, all over the place. I went into one junk shop, and they had all these old 10-inch breakable records, and I looked through them, and it said, “Jim Dale, ‘Be My Girl.'” I said to the owner, I said, “Hey! Look at this!” He said, “What?” I said, “It’s by Jim Dale!” He said, “So?” I said, “Well, it’s ‘Be My Girl’!” He said, “So?” I said, “Well, that was a big hit for Jim Dale – ‘Be My Girl.'” He said, “So?” I said, “How much is it?” He said “4 p.” Now, 4 p is like 6 cents. I said, “4 p, for a Jim Dale record?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “It’s worth 4 pounds, of anybody’s money.” He said, “All right, 4 pounds.” I said, “That’s better,” and I peeled off four pound notes and gave them to him. I’m not going to be sold cheap.
IGNFF: Did it make you feel better?
DALE: It made me feel much better. You’d be surprised – kids in those days, they’ve still got some of these records. I keep hearing from people. So, anyway, I stayed with George Martin and became known then as a pop singer, going back to the same musical theaters that I had been before, but now gone were the family audiences. This was a theater packed with hysterical, screaming teenage girls. You know? That were around in those days of the rock and roll era, and I became part of all that craziness for a couple of years.
IGNFF: Did it make you feel like a star at the time?
DALE: No, it just made me think, “Where the hell were you when I needed you a few weeks ago?” So two years of that, and I’d had enough. I appeared in a film. I did so many television shows it’s unbelievable. I was on the radio a hell of a lot and I got my face to be known, but I didn’t enjoy it. So I said, “I’m giving it all up and I’m going to go back to comedy.”
IGNFF: To everyone’s dismay?
DALE: Yeah, I suppose so. Not mine, I just hated it all. I just didn’t like it. I had girls sleeping on my doorstep outside my house, and my wife just hated the idea of that.
IGNFF: I can imagine that might be the case.
DALE: So a guy from Southern Television, which is Southampton, got in touch with me. He said, “I’m the head of the television scene down here. You say you want to get back to comedy – I’ll give you a lunchtime show with the option of a further two. Just one, with an option of two.” I went to see him, and I said, “Well, can we put sketches in the show?” And he said, “Yes, provided you sing in it as well.” So, by the time we finished, we had a one hour lunchtime show – and it wasn’t just one with an option of two, we actually stayed down there doing three shows a week for two years. We were writing our own comedy sketches, so that was something like 600 plus sketches I wrote, with a guy called Dick Vosbrugh, who is a very good writer, and two or three other script writers as well. So that was my introduction to television as it were, proper.
IGNFF: Did you enjoy the format more than playing theaters?
DALE: Absolutely. Oh yes, I was my own boss then. I wasn’t being dictated to. See, in theater, I’d take my guitar off to tell a joke, and the whole audience would scream, “Put it back on!” And they didn’t want to hear my jokes. They just wanted singing. That wasn’t interesting to me. So at least I was back doing what I love to do, which was inventing comedy and performing it.
IGNFF: How long was each program?
DALE: An hour, three times a week. Three days a week, a one-hour show, so it took quite a lot of putting together, and a lot of rehearsal time and writing time was necessary.
IGNFF: Did your experience with the RAF influence your ability to put those shows together?
DALE: Yeah, I think that came about, having to quickly put up stuff.
IGNFF: See, and you said the RAF stuff was useless…
DALE: The latter part of it, in Germany, was useless. The earlier part, putting together the shows, was helpful, because I found the secret of it. If you’re going to do a two-minute sketch, start off with a joke. Make it a joke that becomes a sketch, and then work back from the tagline. Work back from the funny tagline
IGNFF: So it’s just being able to improvise on the spot.
DALE: Yeah, literally. Start with a funny ending, and work your way back so that you end with a laugh, as against a blackout with nothing. At least we ended our sketches with a laugh.
IGNFF: Do any of these programs still survive?
DALE: No, I think this was before videotape. That’s why we did – in those days, there was no taping of it, you did it live. Earlier on I did a magic show that was put on, we did it in London on the Tuesday, then had to go by train up to Manchester and rehearse the show and do it live on Thursday. With the advent of tape, you wouldn’t have to – it would have just been shown on the Thursday. So there was a lot of extra work due to the fact we couldn’t capture it on tape.
IGNFF: Was there a point where the grind began to get to you?
DALE: Oh yeah – there’s a grind to everything, after a while. You start to O.D. on it all, or you’re working too hard, so you need to take time off. I’ve always tried to pace myself that way. When I felt really tired, I knew I wasn’t doing my best – so, you know, just get out of it for a few weeks or months and do something else. I don’t mean just sit on your ass – I meant get out and do something else. Travel up another branch of show business that you haven’t explored.
IGNFF: Around this time you started doing more films, right?
DALE: I started to do disc jockey work for the BBC, and that was interesting as well. Then I started to do Carry On films, yes. Many other things. I continued songwriting. So there were many things that would keep me occupied, rather than just sitting on my ass watching the sun go down over a sea somewhere.
IGNFF: I know that Americans don’t really know much about the Carry On films, which are a huge phenomena in the U.K. How would you condense what exactly the Carry On films were?
DALE: All right. You’re looking at a screen, it has a house on it. You see someone walk up, opens the door, there’s an empty field behind it. That’s an American film. You see a house, somebody walks up, opens the front door. There’s a field behind it, and there’s a urinal sitting in the field – that’s the French version of it. Carry On, there’s the house, somebody walks up to the front door, opens up the door. There’s the field, there’s the urinal, and there’s somebody with his back to it, using it. In other words, push it to the extreme, be as crude as you possibly can without being too, too disgusting. In other words, we didn’t show bare breasts in all these Carry On films. It was innuendoes, all the time… innuendoes.
IGNFF: Do you think it was just this side of burlesque?
DALE: Yeah. It was British humor. There were some beautiful lines. I remember one guy was just about to have his head chopped off in a film about the French Revolution, and a guy ran up to him on the scaffold and said, “I have your reprieve, my Lord.” And the guy looked up and said, “Drop it in the basket, I’ll read it later.” This, to me, is wonderful comedy. But most of it was a bit double entendre and innuendo.
IGNFF: There’s been what, over 20 of them so far?
DALE: There were 33 of them. I only appeared in about 14, under the same director.
IGNFF: That was during the formative years, wasn’t it?
DALE: Yeah, even Phil Silvers came over to do one, called Carry On, Follow that Camel or something.
IGNFF: I know they’ve started releasing them on DVD.
DALE: That’s right. Yeah, I’ve been over there, putting my voices on them. That’s me saying, “Oh my God, look at this! This is pathetic!”
IGNFF: Does it feel good that the work is being preserved?
DALE: I think it’s wonderful. I’m only sorry that my work in the theater has not been preserved with such intensity as this, because I’m very proud of my work in the theater – but I’m not necessarily ultra-proud of the Carry On films. They were just, as far as we’re concerned, just run of the mill. Two and a half films a year – we never knew they were going to be put on television, we never knew we were going to become famous in Prague and Budapest and East European countries, as we are in Africa and Australia. Not that I’ve ever been to these countries. I wouldn’t want to be recognized in the streets in any of the countries. I don’t even want to be recognized in the streets over here. I’m allergic to being recognized. We didn’t know that those films were going to go on television, so no proviso was made for remuneration and residuals. So nobody has ever, ever made one penny out of the fact that these films have been shown thousands of times – and are still being shown thousands of times on television. They are as popular as The Honeymooners are in America.
IGNFF: It must be nice to know that they’re finally breaking into the American market, being available here.
DALE: It’s nice to know. Well, the whole series of films has been accepted by the British Museum, and put in the archives of the British Museum as a perfect example of humor of the twentieth century, at that particular time.
IGNFF: What was it like filming one of those?
DALE: You filmed it all in eight weeks. You were never allowed to ad-lib, you were never allowed to put an extra line in. You were never allowed to do more than one take, because this was real film they were using.
IGNFF: And real film cost money.
DALE: That’s right. So take two? Forget it. Take three, definitely out. But it was fun to do… I was working with a very good crowd of comics. Comedy actors, I should say, not comedians. These were comedy actors, and some of the best in the business.
IGNFF: With a lot of stage experience, I’m assuming?
DALE: Absolutely. All stage experience, yes.
IGNFF: I can’t see that kind of one take perfection coming from anything less.
DALE: That’s right. Well, you had to have the expertise. You couldn’t just have people, just comedians going up there, because comedians did not have any experience of working with other people in scenes. So these had to be stage actors, who were comedic stage actors, and we had the very best. That was the joy of working with the top, top, top people.
IGNFF: Was it constricting? Being a comedian – here you are, and you can’t ad-lib…
DALE: Well, obviously, you feel you’d like to take – for instance, I was in a film with Phil Silvers, there was one when I had to fall off a camel. Now, I defy anybody to have had experience falling off a camel to say they have, because very seldom does a camel come into your life. When it does come into your life, you very seldom fall off it. But, having fallen off it backwards, and landing with my head embedded in the sand, they said, “Okay, cut. Thank you.” I said, “Please, please, please, let me try a different way.” They said, “We haven’t got time.” I said, “Please let me try. Let me do something different, please …” They knew me by this time, that I wasn’t going to waste their time, so they said, “Okay, take two.” This time, I slid down the neck of the camel as it lowered its head to put its knees down. I fell off the side of the neck, my foot got entangled in the straps around the camel’s harness, the camel turned around, started biting my leg. My valet, the guy playing my valet, ran on into the scene with his umbrella and started smashing the camel around the head with the umbrella. I finally got free and dragged myself off. That couldn’t have been written, you see? And that’s what I had to try and impress on them. Comedy builds itself, comedy grows from moment to moment to moment, and you must allow it to happen.
IGNFF: How often were you able to impress that on them?
DALE: A few times. But they did trust me in so far as they knew I was not wasting their time if I said, “I’ve got a better idea than what you’ve done. Please give me an opportunity.” But who needs to have to beg? Comedy should be allowed to grow. We just didn’t have the time. Eight weeks from start to finish, and that was a one and a half hour film.
IGNFF: What was it like working with Phil Silvers on that film?
DALE: Oh, Phil was in a bit of a problem. Phil was losing his eyesight, and he also was forgetting things. He would tell you a story about meeting the Pope, then two minutes later he’d say, “Did I ever tell you when I met the Pope?” And you’d say, “Yes, you just told it to me about two minutes ago.” Then five minutes later, he’d say, “I met the Pope once.” You’d say, “Yes, you told me.” He wouldn’t even hear that, he’d tell you the same story again. He wasn’t very well, he wasn’t very well at all. I think it was a problem. He was the only American in an all English cast. It’s like a new musician going into the Beatles. You know, you’re an alien because you don’t know their world. It’s another world that you’ve entered.
IGNFF: And he, with his film experience, wasn’t used to one take.
DALE: No, exactly. He said, “I’d like all the words put on a blackboard, alongside the camera.” And our director said, “We don’t do that. You learn your lines.” He said, “I can do a two-hour show in America without having memorized one word.” And the director said, “Well, I would like you to try and memorize these words.” Phil was losing his memory a bit, and he couldn’t memorize the words. So we did have to put them on a blackboard. But we were professionals – we never did that. Part of our job is learning your words, not just reading them on the morning of the shoot, because reading words doesn’t give you an opportunity of actually performing those words. We were comedic actors – therefore, when we were talking the words, we were also using our facial expressions or our body language to emphasize what we were saying. Not just standing there reading the jokes.
IGNFF: So it was a bit of a culture clash?
DALE: Yeah, yeah. I think so. But it was a bit of technique clash – that’s the technique they did in Northern America. That’s not the technique we did in England. We had more pride in what we were doing. We’d actually memorized the lines first.
IGNFF: As you said, if you look at a lot of American performers who had come from Vaudeville and such, there wasn’t a theater background.
DALE: That’s right. No, that was stand-up comedy, a slap-dash of scenes, confrontational scenes between large-boobed girls, et cetera. But that wasn’t theater. We came from theater, we came from plays, et cetera and all.
IGNFF: At what point had the Carry On series burned out for you?
DALE: It burned out for me when they offered me Carry On of the Jungle, and they said, “We’d like you to play the part of Tarzan.” I said, “Where are the words?” They said, “He doesn’t speak.” I said, “Well, that’s it. Thank you, good-bye.” It wasn’t a very good film. I was at the National Theater at the time… see, there’s a contrast – doing a Carry On and appearing at the National Theater. I was playing Autolycas in The Winter’s Tale, and I’d just signed up to join the National Theater to do some more serious work with them. I really didn’t have time to do the Carry Ons anymore. That was the reason.
IGNFF: You also did the role of Autolycas in the film version…
DALE: Absolutely. That’s a film that I think is lost forever. I only ever saw it once. I don’t know what’s happened to that. But, yes, I did film that. I had forgotten about that. I’ve got the poster of it, but God knows where that film is.
IGNFF: Who else was in the cast on that production?
DALE: Laurence Harvey, Jane Asher. It was a company called Pop Theater, which means popular theater at popular prices, with popular performers. In other words, you know, to get a younger crowd in to see Shakespeare, it’s very difficult. But we managed, and that Pop Theater turned into what’s called the Young Vic, which is a very famous theater now in London. I was the first one to open in a play. We opened a play at the Young Vic called Scapino, and it was Scapino that became a big hit over there – and that was the play that we finally brought to America in 1973, or 4, and it stayed on Broadway for a year.
IGNFF: Around that time, didn’t you also get a new TV series?
DALE: I’d had lots of television series. I had Meet Jim Dale, and things like this. There were many of them.
IGNFF: All basically the same format?
DALE: Sometimes. You know, they allowed me to improvise on one of them, and I had more fun on that. But basically the same. It was 8 weeks, say, or 10 weeks of the Jim Dale Show, and it would be a different format for each Jim Dale Show. Another thing I was doing at that time was hosting Sunday Night at the London Palladium. That was a live show that was broadcast all over England on a Sunday night, and I was hosting it. They had all the great stars of television and films, et cetera. That was quite an experience as well. I was working in a musical in the West End during the day, and then in the weekend, on my Sunday off, doing Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
IGNFF: So, in other words, you don’t like free time.
DALE: Well, I do – I appreciate free time when I have somebody to spend it with. You know, nowadays, over here now, I have a little more free time than I did in England, because London is the center of television, film, and theater. Whereas New York is the center of theater. Television and film is probably Los Angeles. So I’ve literally edited out of my life work on television and films, purely because I want to live in New York and be in New York, and work here, and be with my wife.
DALE: Do I miss it? Well, I made 28 films, and I haven’t made any for 3 or 4 years – so yeah, you miss making films. The last one I did was with Mandy Patinkin over here. It was called The Hunchback, I think. We shot it in Europe, with Richard Harris… a lovely crowd of actors there. So that was a few years, and yes, I enjoyed that. But most of my work seems to be in theater at the moment.
IGNFF: I know something I definitely wanted to speak to you about was Adolf Hitler – My Part in His Downfall.
DALE: Yeah, there’s another film. I haven’t seen that film, either. I’ve got a poster of that as well. But I’ve seen that once at the press showing all those years ago , and I think it’s been on television recently over here. I missed it.
IGNFF: And you portrayed Spike Milligan, right?
DALE: Right, yeah. He portrayed his own father in the film.
IGNFF: I can’t even imagine this experience.
DALE: Well, see, we had the same agent, so I knew Spike as a kid. When I was 19 or 20, that’s when I first met Spike. We were in a farm – we called ourselves “The Farm.” It was Stanley Dale – he represented Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Eric Sykes, Ray Galton and Allen Simpson – who were two of the top, top writers in England – and Frankie Howard, one of the great, great comics. So I got to know all of these people, meeting them at the various offices and all that, and I knew Spike very well. So when they said they were making a film of Spike’s book, Adolf Hitler, would I be interested in playing the young Spike? I said, “Yeah, certainly.” I jumped at the idea. I didn’t try to imitate Spike, because nobody can, but I tried to play the part as a young Spike, who was just beginning to blossom and realizing how different he was.
IGNFF: George Martin was producing The Goons at the same time he was producing you, right?
DALE: Yeah. Yes, he must have been. Oh, George is such a lovely man.
IGNFF: What was George like at that time?
DALE: He was very young… he was 27 when I joined him, I think. I’ve got a photograph of us, just the two of us in his office looking towards the camera, but we’re on either side of the latest record-playing machine – which is now an antique. It’s this big thing that you lift up and there’s two turntables – two! This was before 45s… this was way back, way back. My relationship with George was and is still that of admiring his ability and loving him as a person. He is, without doubt, one of the English gentlemen. Everything about him is that of a gentleman, and I think everybody recognizes that. I’ve never heard him lose his temper or get angry with anybody. He probably can, but nobody seems to have been in. He doesn’t use his anger to get things to work – he just talks and smiles and you love him for it. So, a great relationship.
IGNFF: So when are you putting that photo up on your website
DALE: Oh, I haven’t got it up on the website, have I? You’re damn right, I’ll do it. Yes, I’d like to do that. I’ve got so many photographs I haven’t put up. Oh, you’ve seen the website?
IGNFF: Oh yes.
DALE: That’s what I do in my spare time. I designed that and put it up. That was quite fun to do. Getting other people’s contributions as well.
IGNFF: If you could find those recordings, you should put your recordings up there on the website as well.
DALE: I don’t know. I tell you – here’s something. I wrote a song for an English performer called Des O’Conner, and it was called “Dick-A-Dum-Dum.” It was a song about modern day London, and it was quite a catchy song. I just found out it got to number 17 in the English Hit Parade. But that happened all those years ago. My children, about 5 or 6 years ago, heard this song, and my nephews, and they all fell about laughing, because they thought it was the silliest song – which is fair enough. It probably is now. My son recently – and he’s old enough now – he was having a row with his cousin. They’re both in their 35s, and they were screaming, nearly coming to blows, and my son hurled something at him in the way of an insult, and his cousin couldn’t think of anything worse to say than to scream at Murray, “At least my father didn’t write ‘Dick-A-Dum-Dum!'” And my son fell on the floor laughing. That was the worst insult he could ever hurl at him. Isn’t that funny? So anyways, that’s true. But, getting back to George Martin – yes, lovely to work with him, and I must put that picture up there.
IGNFF: Yeah, the website’s real fun to navigate, and you can definitely tell that it’s something you enjoy doing in your spare time.
IGNFF: Another movie I have to ask you about – since it was such a large part of my childhood – was Pete’s Dragon.
DALE: Oh my God, yeah. See, that never worked out for Disney. They thought it was going to be another Mary Poppins. For the company, they say it was a flop. But, you know, the number of kids who were brought up on that film and loved it, really enjoy it – I’m amazed. We had a great time doing it. It’s just such a pity that it wasn’t distributed and recognized better than it was.
IGNFF: It’s such a wonderful performance
DALE: Ah, thank you. With little Red Buttons.
IGNFF: I know that it’s something where everyone in my generation seems to know the songs from that.
DALE: Well, you know, the greatest challenge of that, as I said to you when we were talking about Phil Silvers – you have to know the words. Remember?
DALE: Now, in this film, “Passamaquoddy” – that was one of the most difficult songs for anybody to perform on film because you had to lip sync to it. That was the challenge.
IGNFF: And make it look fresh.
DALE: When you memorized it, you had to put in a few mistakes deliberately, like, “Oh, ah, ooh,” because they had to be recorded, and they also had to be lip-synched to everything – not just the words. That was the big, big challenge to that film, to actually memorize “Passamaquoddy,” knowing that the camera was going to be on you all the time, and there’s going to be somebody sitting at your feet, looking up at your mouth and listening at the same time, and getting ready to stop you should you screw up … and it never happened once, which was great.
IGNFF: I think the remarkable thing looking at the performance of that, is – as you say – actually seeing a performance of the character stumbling through, trying to figure out what he’s going to say.
DALE: Yeah, that was fun. Thank you for that.
IGNFF: That was your first special effects film, wasn’t it?
DALE: Yeah, I think so. I did a couple more for Disney. I don’t think any of them worked. One was called – I know why it didn’t work -.it was called The Spaceman and King Arthur. Then, when it came to America, it was given another title which even the kids wouldn’t come to see – with a title like Unidentified Flying Oddball..
IGNFF: I can say, I have never see it.
DALE: As I said, an astronaut in King Arthur’s Court is the same as a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It was an updated story of that. You know, a space ship takes off and lands in Camelot – why not? But, to change it to Unidentified Flying Oddball …
IGNFF: Well, there are some things that you can say, “Yeah, you know, that’s early ’80s.”
DALE: Yeah. So when they say, “Are you proud of that?” I say, “What was that title again?” So I had three films from Disney during the time that I was working over here. As I said, I came over here in ’73 or 4, and then during the next 5 or 6 years I did 3 Disney films, and then finally came over to do Barnum. Of course, that was the big, big Broadway hit. I decided to live over here from then on. So I’ve been here for the last 23 years.
IGNFF: What was it like to star in a huge hit like Barnum was?
DALE: Well, it was just unbelievable… to know that you’re giving them something – not just you, but the whole show, directed by Joe Layton. He was the genius behind it. But, to have 12 kids on that stage – I think that’s all there were – but those 12 kids made the audience think they’d seen a three-ring circus with hundreds of people and the most unbelievable sights and sounds ever. At the very end of the show, there were just 12 kids up there on the stage, and an audience cheering their heads off every night. That was great. You see, you can’t create magic from something – you can only create magic from nothing. We didn’t have the smallest man in the world – we had the tallest furniture. You know? Things like that. It’s not magic, taking a rabbit out of an empty hat. It’s magic if the audience thinks they saw a rabbit come out of an imaginary hat. That’s magic, and that’s what we created up there on stage. We took them back to the circus days when they were kids, and we created a few little miracles up there, without the use of magic.
IGNFF: It’s a shame that that performance wasn’t preserved on film.
DALE: Well, I didn’t preserve it. Michael Crawford came over from England to study that part, to play it in London. I’d love to have done it in London, but they wanted me for Broadway. They’d sign me up and I had to stay on Broadway. Michael Crawford came over and studied our show intimately, because that’s exactly what he did in London, and it’s that production that they filmed. So, it’s a great pity they didn’t capture the one in New York. They did do a version of it for Lincoln Center archives, I think they just put one camera at the back of the auditorium on a wide-angle lens and just shoot the whole show, which of course doesn’t look anything – but it just proves that it existed once.
IGNFF: At least the cast album is still available.
DALE: The new cast album, they’ve done it digitally now.
IGNFF: Oh, did they remaster it?
DALE: Yeah, they’ve remastered it. It’s supposed to be very good. I never listened to any of these things. I’ve never listened to Harry Potter, you know, but I’ve heard that this CD of Barnum is supposed to be very, very good. But I haven’t heard it myself.
IGNFF: How long did that show run?
DALE: A year and a half on Broadway, with Glenn Close playing Mrs. Barnum.
IGNFF: The very start of her career.
DALE: Yeah, really. She was sitting in the box one night, just before the show, and the director of The World According to Garp was sitting in the audience. He looked up and he said, “That’s the type of serenity I want from Garp’s mother.” So Glenn really got the part before the show even started. Which was wonderful for her. She hadn’t even opened her mouth. Big things happened for Glenn, which was great for her. Then we toured for another six months to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
IGNFF: As you mentioned, things happen when you’re not looking for them.
DALE: That’s true… that’s true, isn’t it?
IGNFF: What about New York did you fall in love with?
DALE: Well, I fell in love with the owner of a gallery, to start with. Most people go into a gallery, buy something, and come out. I came out with the owner. That was 21 years ago, 22 years ago – we got married, and I lived here ever since. Julie has the gallery on Madison Avenue and 65th Street called Julie Artisans’ Gallery, and we just live on Park Avenue a few blocks south. So she walks to work every morning, and it’s perfect for both of us.
IGNFF: Was it just a function of New York that the only thing available was, as you said, stage work?
DALE: Well, for me, yes. When you look back on the stuff I’ve done over here, there’s probably one word that comes over, and that’s quality. I’ve tried to make everything that I’ve accepted – I’ve done it because of the quality of the material, or of the fellow artists I’m working with, or the director. To me, that’s the only way to really be completely, utterly satisfied and able to close your eyes at night… not going around doing every bit of crap that comes along for the extra buck or something like that. I’d rather stay out of work. You know, people tend to think that we people in show business live it 24 hours of the day, but in actual fact, I don’t. I don’t think many of us do. I’ve got another life, you know, which is Julie’s world. She has all her artists, who are just as talented as some of the stars on Broadway, and it’s their world that I’ve entered by marrying her, and it’s their world that I share with them when I’m not working in the theater. So I’ve got two lives going, and it’s absolutely marvelous. When I’m not working, I’m not exactly not living. I’m living it up to the hilt, but in another, different type of world.
IGNFF: How would you compare how you are now to the performer you were at 17 or 21?
DALE: There’s never been ambition, I promise you that. There’s never been ambition, or I would have gone to Los Angeles and be living over there now, desperate to make a big name for myself. There’s never been that sort of wanting to be a star. It came along by accident in the pop world. It’s great to be known in the theater in New York, but it’s great also to be able to get in a car and drive for half an hour out of New York and nobody knows you from Adam. That’s a joy – as against being recognized everywhere you go, like certain film stars are. That I’ve had in the past, during the pop singing, and I hated it. So I’m absolutely thrilled to be in New York, working here, doing the very stuff that I think is good work. Because the people who come to see me and have done over the years know that the stuff I do is worth a visit. If Jim says he’s going to be in a play or a musical, you can bet your life that he’s not going to be in a load of junk or crap. I’ve never disappointed them, I hope. That’s the only thing I have an ambition to do, which is just to come up with these good projects for the future.
IGNFF: So you cut out all the distractions.
DALE: Yeah, yeah. I don’t need to work with egotistical actors anymore. I don’t need to. I don’t need to do bad material. As I said, I’d rather be part of another world while I’m waiting, and enjoy myself in that. But when I do do work – like the latest one, The Comedians – I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled, to be doing that.
IGNFF: I was reading the reviews that you’ve gotten, which are just glowing – to say the least.
DALE: Well, I wish you could see it, because I’m working with some of the great talent … Everybody on that stage is so bloody talented, and it’s just a joy for an actor to be completely in a company of talent like this. This is 50 years, by the way, this year, that I’ve been a professional performer.
IGNFF: And how are you celebrating?
DALE: I’m not.
IGNFF: Continuing to work?
DALE: I’m celebrating with The Comedians. That’s a great play to be doing after 50 years of work.
IGNFF: How many people after 50 years can say they’re still working…
DALE: Yeah, that’s the point. If you’re a big star in the movies, you’re not going to be around. I don’t know… I can play in Broadway, Off-Broadway, until I’m 120. I hope I am. Age doesn’t come into it, not at all.
IGNFF: How did the Harry Potter books come along?
DALE: I did a play Off-Broadway called Travels with My Aunt, which was written by Graham Greene. It starred Maggie Smith in the films, remember? So the stage play had 33 different characters in it, and there was a cast of 4 men – all dressed in identical blue suits, all with the same moustache, all with the same hairstyle. In other words, 4 clones up there on the stage, almost. The idea was that without any change of costume or makeup, just with a flick of the wrist in my case, you become a different character. So there were 33 different characters we created. Somebody in the Harry Potter office was asked, “Do you know of anybody who could perhaps read the Harry Potter books? They’ve got so many different characters in it.” One of them said, “I saw Jim Dale in a play, he’d be all right. He used to be an actor on the stage and now he’s doing books. He could perhaps …” And I got the job through that. It was only later that the guy realized that out of the 33 characters, Jim Dale only played 2. I played the aunt and the nephew. But by that time it was too late, and that’s how I got the job.
IGNFF: You do a marvelous, marvelous job.
DALE: Thank you very much. I’m dreading the next one.
IGNFF: How does the process work?
DALE: Well, you know, the next book will be 255,000 words. Now, the last book was very, very thick, and was 196,000. So this is 50,000 more, and at least 200 characters. It must be – the last book was 127. So I’m thinking along the lines of having to find another 50 or 60 voices on top of those 127 that I did for the last book. You can run out of voices. You know, you can run out of them. I was trying to remember every voice I’d ever heard as we got three quarters of the way through the last book. But it’s nice. They’re sending away to the Guinness Book of Records to see if we can be accepted – “Most voices by one actor for an audio book.”
IGNFF: Now they just have to wait until you do this latest one and you’re a shoo-in.
DALE: Well, I don’t think anybody’s ever recorded anything like over 100 voices for one audiotape. I think there’s a good chance of being able to get in. There aren’t many more people in that category.
IGNFF: How do you keep the voices straight in your head?
DALE: You open the book, and there’s page one. Three lines down, it says, “Professor Dumbledore said,” so you start a little tape recorder by the side. You say, “Page one, third line down, Professor Dumbledore,” and then you read into the tape the line that Dumbledore says, with the voice that Dumbledore uses. All right? So now you’ve got that on tape. Now, you read further down the page and there’s somebody else talking. So you then say, “Voice two, Professor McGonagall, seven lines down on page one,” and then read her first line. So you’ve got all this on tape by the time you get to the studios. As you’re going through, reading, you suddenly get to Dumbledore, and you say, “Can we stop just here?” Then we stop and I play the tape, and I hear myself say, “Professor Dumbledore,” Dumbledore’s voice, and then I say that first line, and I say, “Oh yes, I remember. Let’s record it.” Then we start the recording again, and I record that. Then, further down the page, we stop to see what the next voice is. You go through it like that. In fact, the recordings are just hundreds and hundreds of stop, start, stop, starts, and the success of it all is the linking it all together to make it look as if Jim Dale doesn’t take a breath for the whole bloody book. That’s the expertise of these wonderful editors.
IGNFF: You can’t tell the pauses – there’s a very natural flow to it.
DALE: Yeah, that’s what they’ve given me.
IGNFF: How long does the recording process take?
DALE: It varies. On a normal book, hopefully you can record 20 pages an hour. If you’re doing voices, strange voices, then you have to allow a little more time, because you have to keep stopping and starting – because if one voice ends and the next voice starts, sometimes it’s difficult to do the switch vocally. The last book, [Harry Potter] 4, took about 10 days in all.
IGNFF: So you’re probably looking at about two weeks on number 5?
DALE: If we get it, yeah. But what happened [on Book 4] was I couldn’t read the whole book. They said to me, “It’s Friday now, we want you in the studio on Monday.” Now, you can’t possibly read 700 pages and invent the voices in two days. So we decided that I would read 100 pages a night, and invent the voices for those 100 pages, then record that the next day. Then that night, Monday night, I’d come home and read another 100 pages and invent all the other voices for that 100 pages. Then record that on Tuesday. Tuesday night, come home, read more. That’s how we did it for a total of ten days. So I really didn’t know where the story was going – I hadn’t read the book.
IGNFF: That’s mind-boggling.
DALE: I’d just read it once the night before, and then recorded it. So it was the second time I’d read it – the first time I’d read it out loud. If you read 100 pages out loud to yourself the night before, you’ve no voice left for the next day. After recording all day long, you can’t go home and start reading aloud to yourself, because you can’t – you’ll ruin your voice box. So that was a problem with trying to create the voices with what little voice I had left at the end of every day’s recording. But we got through it. We got through it.
IGNFF: Did they give you any inkling on when you’ll begin recording book 5?
DALE: I think the book’s supposed to come out on June 21, which means that the audiotapes will have to be on the shelves the same day as the books – or the kids will not be able to control their enthusiasm and insist that their mothers buy the book. Then the mums are going to say, “You either have the book or the audio tapes when they come out. I’m not buying both of them.” So we’ve got to get the audio tapes on the shelves the same time the book’s released, which takes quite a bit of doing, because they’re in front of us – the publishers are in front of us with the book. What we have to do is to actually record the audio book, and then edit it, and then see how many CDs there are, and then design packages for these CDs.
IGNFF: Then manufacture, and then ship.
DALE: Yeah, there may be 20 CDs for this next book. My suggestion is that they design packages to accommodate 18 or 19 or 20 or 21, so that they’ve done that work in advance. Then, we find out there are 19 CDs – at least the drawings are there and you go straight ahead without wasting time designing it then. That’s my advice to them, but that’s probably what they’re doing anyway.
IGNFF: I can’t even imagine the logistical nightmare of this. And imagine – you still have two books left. The next two could be even bigger than this one.
DALE: Oh please! What a lovely legacy to leave your grandchildren, isn’t it
IGNFF: It’ll take at least a year to listen to them.
DALE: That’s true, yeah. It’ll be 30 hours of listening, something like that. It’s nice for the kids growing up to know my voice. It’s lovely.
IGNFF: A whole new generation of fans.
DALE: Yeah, but there always will be a whole new generation. It’s like I’m Alice in Wonderland. There’s always a new generation ready to read the books. Hopefully the audiotapes or CDs of Harry Potter will not be just for this coming generation, but for future generations. That’s the joy – to be part of all that.
IGNFF: Just like Pete’s Dragon. That’s entering, what, its fourth generation now?
DALE: That’s right, that’s right. Isn’t that nice?
IGNFF: And I saw they just re-released the remastered soundtrack last year.
DALE: Did they really? I didn’t know that.
IGNFF: It sounds very nice… completely remastered.
DALE: Ah, good, good
IGNFF: When you look at the Harry Potter books, is it almost like a sort of “in the background” celebrity? Because a lot of people found it odd that you weren’t cast in the films at all.
DALE: Oh, I haven’t been cast in the films, no, and I don’t expect to. I’m over here, I’m doing the voices. My agent, in London, did get in touch with the office when Chris Columbus was directing and said, “We sent you the audiotapes of Harry Potter, recorded by Jim Dale doing all the voices, in hope that you might have a part in the film for Jim Dale. Has Chris Columbus even listened to Jim Dale?” And the answer to it was very interesting. The secretary said, “Oh yes, Chris listened to the tapes to give him some idea as to what the characters should sound like.” Isn’t that nice?
IGNFF: Well, that’s sort of a backhanded compliment, isn’t it?
DALE: Backhanded, isn’t it? It really, really is. I don’t know, I’ve got the market over here for Harry Potter audiotapes, so maybe I should be just grateful and satisfied with that.
IGNFF: And more to come.
DALE: More to come, hopefully.
IGNFF: So, what is your next project?
DALE: I was going to do a big Broadway musical, but that fizzled out. I signed the contract the day before the tragedy in New York City, and the next day 10 million dollars ran away. They’re thinking of maybe doing it this year, but I’m sort of ready to pass on it now. It’s been too long, do you know what I mean? My enthusiasm for it has dissipated.
IGNFF: The bloom is off the rose?
DALE: Yes, the bloom is off the rose, as they say. I really don’t know. This is far better than me saying to you, “Well, I’ve got another four seasons on television …” That, to me, would be hell. That’s like telling you of a prison sentence I have. Not knowing what I’m doing is an absolute freedom for me to do what I want. That’s the joy of saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing next.” It doesn’t mean there won’t be anything, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be out of work. It just means that at the moment, I really have no idea. I’ve got three or four plays in front of me that I’m reading, a couple of revivals here – so I’ve got these things to pick and choose from. I’ll go along with my own instinct, which has never let me down. Obviously, if your own instinct has never let you down, you don’t go along with anybody else’s. You go along with your own, first, and I’m waiting for mine to really let me down in a big way – and then I’ll trust somebody else’s instinct. So far, I’ve gone along with my own instinct, and it’s paid off handsomely… in the way of not necessarily monetary gain, but in the way of having the greatest experience of working with good people or good material.
IGNFF: For 50 years.
DALE: Yeah, for 50 years.
IGNFF: Would you say that you’re happy with where your career is right now?
DALE: Don’t I sound happy?
IGNFF: You sound extremely happy.
DALE: Exactly. I think that’s what keeps me young, because I’m extremely happy
IGNFF: You don’t sound like somebody who’s been in the industry for 50 years.
DALE: No, I don’t. I know that. I’m very happy, I’ve got a fantastic family in England, and I’m seeing one of my sons this weekend. He’s flying over just for one day, from England. I mean, that’s loving. So he’ll come and see the show. I have five grandchildren in England, who I adore. They come over here regularly so that I can take them fishing whenever I want. As against staying in London, waiting for them to be available to me, it’s much better for them to come and stay with me over here – then I can wake them up any time of the day or night. They’re mine, they’re mine, they’re mine! And being happily married, and living in New York especially – what more joy could you want in your life? That’s it. I’m very happy and very contented.
IGNFF: Now you’ve made me envious.
DALE: Get back to New York.
IGNFF: It’s a wonderful place to live, if you have money. How do you compare it to the New York you experienced during Barnum?
DALE: Oh, it’s changed. It’s changed completely. Times Square now is a joy to walk through. You’re not hustled, you’re not bustled. There are no sex shops there. Wandering through at 11:00 at night, it’s marvelous. It really is a nice atmosphere down there. I have friends who have come to New York and have been amazed at how safe they feel, just walking through the streets. It really is a safe feeling these days.
IGNFF: The kind of place where you’re perfectly content, wandering around with your grandchildren?
DALE: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
IGNFF: Did you ever think you’d see a New York like that?
DALE: No, but I’m amazed – great transformations. And it works.