An interview with Jason Donovan: from Neighbours to the stage

Jason Donovan

Jason Donovan - Credit: Archant

From Ramsey Street to the West End, Jason Donovan has ridden the rollercoaster of fame and emerged smiling and philosophical from the other side

Jason Donovan on stage as Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet (photo by Darren Bell)

Jason Donovan on stage as Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet (photo by Darren Bell) - Credit: Archant

He played the sun-kissed, surf-haired Scott Robinson in Australian soap Neighbours, followed it with a chart-topping bubblegum pop career and was one half of eighties power couple Kylie and Jason, on screen, and for a while off it as well.

But Jason Donovan is a rare thing. He has ridden the spectacular ups and downs and insanity of the media circus of his youth, the inevitable side show of being a teenage pin-up, and has enjoyed a long and successful career.

Today his thoughtfulness could be mistaken for melancholy, but that is not the case. He is a content man, both professionally and personally. He is currently starring in Million Dollar Quartet, which arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal this month, in which he plays Sam Phillips, the legendary impresario who founded Sun Records which propelled Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to fame.

The soundtrack reads like an encyclopedia of rock and roll classics – Blue Suede Shoes, Great Balls of Fire, Walk the Line and Hound Dog to name but a few; was it music played at home during his childhood in Melbourne?

Jason Donovan on stage as Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet (photo by Darren Bell)

Jason Donovan on stage as Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet (photo by Darren Bell) - Credit: Archant

“Not in the slightest, it wasn’t something I grew up listening to but look you would have to be a pretty vacant lot if you weren’t aware of this music and its cultural significance. These characters and their work are what American culture is built on and rock and’roll paved the way for so much of what we love today. Sam Phillips is fascinating in the sense that he brought all these egos together. Creative people have their own ideas and that’s why we love them,” he laughs. “But they are not always the easiest people to get along with.”

Jason made his TV debut at the age of 11; then came Neighbours and his role as Scott opposite Kylie Minogue’s Charlene; a chart-topping pop career followed with the release of best-selling album Ten Good Reasons, and then, somewhat unexpectedly, came his triumphant starring role as Joseph in the West End. His career was an unstoppable juggernaut. Girls screamed wherever he went and Donovan-mania grew; then came the very public and spectacular crash. The partying with A-listers, the drug-taking, a career on the wane.

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“There is a great line from Sam Phillips which I say in the show; ‘Beware the curse of the answered prayer.’ It is very pertinent. Sometimes success comes at a price and that is something I certainly realised,” he says.

“I knew I wanted to act, but I never really understood the fame that came with it,” he says. “Today, the social media world means people are very much aware of fame and that almost becomes the most important thing first.

Jason Donovan, mobbed by fans during an appearance at Ritzy's, Norwich, in 1989

Jason Donovan, mobbed by fans during an appearance at Ritzy's, Norwich, in 1989 - Credit: Archant

“But look, I am a firm believer that it is a long-distance race, this business, and if you lose focus you will just get pushed to one side. I am firmly focused on honing my craft. I say to my kids, the most important thing you can have in life is a great loving family and to be passionate about whatever job you choose to do. You spend a lot of your life working, and jeez, you don’t want to get it wrong and be stuck at a desk for 30 years wishing you were somewhere else.”

Jason, who still has his unmistakable Australian brogue, has been brutally honest in the past about what he describes as his “self-centred indulgent 1990s period” but he says it is down to his family – in particular his wife Angela Malloch – that he found some redemption.

“If I could tell my younger self anything, I probably would have avoided that,” he laughs. “But would I change anything? Maybe a few career choices, but other than that I don’t know. Now I have the most wonderful wife who is my best friend, three fantastic children and a great life.

“Thankfully I also still have great fans. I think people have embraced my honesty. I have had my ups and downs, but am pretty up front about everything. My dad once said to me ‘stop being so honest’, but surely that’s really important? It is easy to be honest; lying is the hard part, isn’t it?

“In some ways it is like what’s happening in America. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with the sentiment of it, but they are rebelling against this idea of the spinning of the truth and I can understand that feeling.”

These days Jason is an established stage performer but, he says, the time away from home can be difficult. “Do I love touring around the country six months of the year? The jury’s still out. What I love though, and am addicted to, is the creative process of theatre, the art of performing, that blast you get doing live shows. If you ask me would I love to be doing some great films and television work, absolutely, but I would always come back to the stage. It is challenging and fascinating.”

Last year, he embarked on a music tour performing his pop hits – which he says he loved, but says, wryly; “If I had to rely solely on performing Too Many Broken Hearts every night, I think I would be severely disappointed at my lot, but sometimes, singing the hits is fantastic. Music is magic, that’s what I love about presenting my 80s show on Heart Radio, it’s a real labour of love. Music transcends time and gives you an emotional connection like no other medium, and I listen to a lot of 80s music still. It takes me right back to growing up in Australia.”

For now, away from work, his life very much revolves around his family, and spending time with his children Jemma, Zac and Molly and he says it is the simple things which give him the most pleasure.

“I love having nice lunches with my family, I love to get out of town and love travelling with the kids. But really, and don’t laugh, I love simple stuff like mowing the lawn, tidying the garden, even making the beds. I am surprisingly fussy.”

Million Dollar Quartet, May 22 – 27;; 01603 630000.