It probably won’t shock you to learn that John Barrowman is a big fan of Christmas.
‘To quote the song, it’s the most wonderful time of the year,’ says the singer, actor, presenter and all-round glittering showbiz force of nature, whose new album – called, naturally, A Fabulous Christmas – opens with that very number.
Making a Christmas record has been a long-held dream. ‘I used to love going to the Christmas Eve service and celebrating with music,’ he recalls. ‘But when I started growing up a bit, I realised that not every group of people was as accepted in the congregation. So I wanted to do something that was more inclusive – where people can celebrate themselves, if they don’t feel they can go to those sorts of places. That’s why I always wanted to do a Christmas album.’
The record is his first since signing a new deal with Decca Records. (Weekend points out that they turned down The Beatles, but not the Barrowman. He seems very happy with that thought.) With a tracklist that roams from upbeat festive favourites (Sleigh Ride) to cosy classics (When A Child is Born) and hymns (O Holy Night), it’s a big production number, complete with choir, symphony orchestra – the full jingle bells and whistles. ‘You couldn’t do a Christmas album without making it sound lush,’ he says. ‘I wanted to choose songs that had an emotional connection to me, and give them the kind of John Barrowman twist.’
Throughout December, he’ll also be sprinkling a bit of Christmas stardust across the country on his UK tour, where, between songs, he’ll be digging out the photo albums and home videos, and dishing out a few presents with the help of Santa and Mrs Claus. ‘I want this to be the launch that gets people into the festive mood, and gets their Christmas off on the right foot,’ he beams.
As with most of his live tours, he’ll be accompanied on the road by his husband Scott and his parents John and Marion (don’t tell the kids, but we think it might be them in the Santa outfits). After that, they’ll all decamp to the Barrowman home in Palm Springs for the festive season, where JB’s to-do list includes making sure everyone’s got Christmas pyjamas for the big day.
Family is a big deal for Barrowman, who met Scott when he came to see him performing at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1993. ‘I was naked on stage, so he saw what he was going to get before he even met me,’ he laughs. ‘My parents were also in the audience, so he met them before he met me.’
This year saw the 52-year-old marking three decades in the business of show, and it’s fair to say he’s covered most bases in that time. From West End musical theatre star to Saturday morning kids’ TV presenter, recording artist to quiz show host, sci-fi action hero to Desperate Housewives hunk, he is surely one of the few people on Earth to have worked with both Carol Burnett and The Krankies (‘Both of them are equally funny and legends in their own right,’ he suggests, generously). It’s little wonder he called his autobiography Anything Goes.
‘I still have to pinch myself,’ he admits. ‘Everything I’ve done has led to something else. When I started in 1989, I was just happy to be working in the West End, opposite Elaine Paige. I could have done that for the rest of my career, but it ended up going off in so many directions. Looking back, the thing I’m most thrilled about is the fact I’ve worked consistently for those 30 years. I feel really lucky.’
Though things were bumping along nicely (you’re forgiven if you didn’t catch him as the lead in 2002’s straight-to-DVD Jaws rip-off Shark Attack 3: Megalodon), it was the role of charismatic, ‘omnisexual’ time agent Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood that sent his career into orbit.
‘Captain Jack changed my life, and put me on a different level,’ says Barrowman. ‘And I meet a lot of people who tell me he changed their lives, too. It helped them deal with who they were. Here was a heroic character, who didn’t care about his sexuality, played by an openly gay man. But I always remind them: Don’t thank me, thank Russell T [Davies]. He created Jack Harkness, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude.’
He’d always been a massive Who fan. ‘One of my fondest – and scariest – memories as a kid was my mother hiding me inside her coat as we walked down Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow,’ he recalls. ‘I wouldn’t go in front of a shop window, because I thought the Autons [aliens disguised as shop window dummies] were going to come alive.
‘I always said, if I’m ever asked back, I will go back at the drop of a hat, because the feeling I have when I’m on the set of Doctor Who… I’m that kid in the candy store, because I’m living out my childhood fantasies. Who doesn’t want to fight the Daleks?’
And if you ever were asked back, then you’d have to keep it top secret, wouldn’t you John?
‘Well obviously,’ he says. ‘That’s the rules of the game.’
He’s far from the only Whovian in the business, of course. Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry was enough of a Captain Jack fan to write Barrowman a part on Wisteria Lane, and since 2012 he’s played one of the lead villains in the DC Comics TV show Arrow. On top of his classic, matinee idol looks, John’s transatlantic appeal is boosted by the fact that, though born in Glasgow to Scottish parents, from the age of eight he was raised in the US, after his father got a job managing an Illinois tractor factory. ‘I am 100% Scottish, with an American twist,’ is how he puts it to Weekend. ‘I’m like the best whisky and coke.’
From his earliest freshman performances in high school musicals, Barrowman has never exactly been a shrinking violet; on the contrary, he’s someone who’s seized success with both (jazz) hands, and is refreshingly unapologetic about enjoying fame. ‘I don’t understand why people complain about it,’ he says. ‘I just don’t get it. It’s not in my DNA. We should be grateful for where we are, and to the people who have put us there. I love it. If you want a selfie, I’ll do it.’
John’s irrepressible nature even saw him smiling through three weeks in the jungle during last year’s I’m A Celebrity, where his cry of ‘FAB-U-LOOOUS!’ became a camp (in both senses of the word) catchphrase, and in January he takes up his new role as a judge on ITV’s Dancing on Ice, alongside Torvill and Dean. ‘I’m excited,’ he says. ‘I’ve been there myself. I competed in the first season, so it will be great to get to finish the series this time!’
Does he ever have down days?
‘I do, but people don’t want to see that,’ he insists. ‘If I’m fed-up, I just keep my mouth shut and get on with it. Sometimes when I come home, I’m quiet. I’ll say to my husband, “Can we just sit?” He says I’m a nightmare when I’m not working, because I’m not good at relaxing, but I don’t see that. I love laying in front of the TV and watching a movie.
‘But I am pretty much upbeat,’ he adds, lest we should be in any doubt. ‘It takes more muscles to frown that it does to smile, so why frown? I feel happy. I can tell you, categorically, that I feel fabulous.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 12 December, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend