Steven Houghton: ‘Nothing beats a White Christmas’

White Christmas with Steven Houghton. Pic: Comp
White Christmas with Steven Houghton. Pic: Comp
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LONDON’S Burning made Steven Houghton a household name when, in 1997, he was cast as firefighter Gregg Blake. More recently, well, in 2011, Coronation Street brought him back into the nation’s homes as a love interest for Sally Webster.

But while series such as BUGS, Holby City, and Bernard’s Watch have also made him a regular on the box, the 42-year-old has never deserted his first love of dance, as audiences heading to the Festival Theatre are discovering.

The Irving Berlin musical White Christmas, based on the 1954 Bing Crosby movie, finds Houghton playing GI turned song and dance man Bob Wallace who, along with army buddy Phil Davis, stages a variety spectacular to help out their old general, now an inn-keeper.

Houghton is in his element, but before talking about his latest role, he reflects on his already varied career, which began in the most Billy Elliott-esque of fashions.

“As a kid I went to my local dancing school, where I did ballet and all the rest of it,” says Houghton. “And then I went to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds, where I did a three-year course, before going to work professionally in London.”

That professional work included musical theatre and TV appearances backing some of the top chart acts of the time. Laughing, he recalls, “I did lots of commercial dance backing pop acts like Bananarama, Whigfield... and all that palaver. I did that for a good five years.”

However, it was while dancing in the chorus line of a West End show that Houghton had his epiphany.

He explains, “I remember being in a musical, dancing at the back of the stage, my arms in the air, and clocking the singer at the front...

“It dawned on me that they were getting paid a lot more than me and were receiving far more adoration.

“Now, although I’ve always been able to sing, I’d never really classed myself as a singer. So, while I was doing the musical Cats, I worked on my singing every day.

“By the time London’s Burning came along, I was always the first understudy to the leading man in the shows I did, and London’s Burning gave me the impetus to step up.”

With his name now recognisable from the TV series, Houghton went from first understudy to leading man, almost overnight.

“London’s Burning was my first ever television casting. It just came through. I went for it. And I got it.

“I was so lucky, and it totally changed my career. Still, even now, jobs come through because of it. This job would never have happened if I’d not done that TV show all those years ago.”

Back in those early days, Houghton didn’t only dance with pop stars, he actually had a couple of hits in his own right.

His eponymous album went gold, selling more than 200,000 copies, and his first single, a cover of Wind Beneath My Wings, reached No 3 on the UK Singles Chart, while his recording of the Lionel Richie song Truly, only managed No 23. “Around London’s Burning time I did two singles and an album with Simon Cowell,” he says.

“It was just after he’d had hits with Robson and Jerome and before he had his own telly profile. He was head of RCA and BMG at the time and had his own plush offices.

“What I always remember of him is that he was the most polite man ever. He used to come to interviews with us. We’d go into a building and he’d ask the lady at reception her name, then, after we’d had a whole five hours of meetings and interviews, he would remember her name as we left.

“He remembered people, which is a real skill.”

Houghton loved his short-lived stint as a pop star, but admits that fame and celebrity have never been the draw for him.

“As a career, when I look back at the experiences I’ve had, it’s not about being famous, I don’t class myself as famous. I’m not famous. It’s not about being a celebrity either, that doesn’t interest me.

“It’s about the experiences you have. And it’s lovely to look back because, when I do, I’ve done tenfold what I expected I might while I was training at college. More than I ever imagined I would.”

Another thing Houghton never imagined doing, was returning to a role. However, for White Christmas, he has made an exception.

“No role I’ve have ever played in any musical has been the same as another. They’re all quite different.

“But I originally played Bob Wallace last year and this is the first time I have ever returned to a role, simply because the part is just brilliant. I get to be Mr Showman, it’s a great little acting part, I have some amazing songs and I get to dance again.

“It really is a pleasure to be part of it because, first time around, although you’ve got the part, you’re still kind of proving yourself until opening night.

“It’s flattering now to have been asked back, and nice to come to Edinburgh knowing that the producers really like what I do.”

After a moment’s thought he adds, “You know, this should be on Broadway. Indeed, it has been, it’s just such a proper, full-on musical.”

White Christmas, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, until 4 January, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £16-£46.50, 0131-529 6000