A quick glance at Tom Chambers’ career reveals that he’s far from your typical television thesp.
Having appeared in low-budget British film Fakers in 2004 alongside Art Malik, he then found himself out of regular acting work for a number of years (during which time he was offered auditions for a Kit Kat advert in Spain and a role in the Bob The Builder Arena Tour, the latter of which he turned down) before landing a major role in Holby City as arch housewife-botherer Dr Sam Strachan, and later, as the villainous Max Tyler in Waterloo Road.
However, an appearance in 2008 on Strictly Come Dancing, a dwelling place for creaky ex-athletes and television personalities trying their luck at the rumba, appeared to reveal Chambers’ true passion, at least if you judge by the fact that he won the competition outright.
Speaking from his dressing room in Canterbury as he prepares for a matinee, he begins to explain that his lead role in Top Hat, a stage adaptation of Fred Astaire’s 76-year old ‘screwball comedy’ (as Chambers puts it) classic that he will bring to the Edinburgh Playhouse alongside an ensemble cast next week, is the realisation of a long-held ambition.
With music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and based on the RKO motion picture, the screenplay is by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott andhas been adapted for the stage by Matthew White and Howard Jacques.
“It’s been a very, very long journey to get to this point, and it’s actually come full circle as it were, because when I was five years old I used to stamp on the kitchen floor before I knew what tap dancing was.
“I used to see those matinee afternoon films, the old, golden, Holywood musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and absolutely loved them to bits.
“I felt like I was always kind of born in the wrong generation. All my schoolmates were into Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenneger and Jean Claude Van Damme, and I was into Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Carry Grant.”
Short as they were of bandanas and wooden catch phrases, Chambers’ role models were similarly revered for their all-action routines. Another Fred Astaire film Damsel In Distress, features an iconic scene in which Astaire tap dances while playing a drumkit, a scene that holds great significance for Chambers and inspired an idea that would change his life.
After struggling to find work or an agent that would help him find some, Chambers resorted to drastic measures - an audience with the Queen.
“I thought, if I write a letter to the Royal Variety Show, and say ‘please accept this idea, this Fred Astaire film and a routine with a drumkit’ - because I thought the hook for a modern audience would be a tap dance with a drumkit, rather than just an old-fashioned tap dance - and they said ‘OK, get it ready’.
“So I spent nine months getting it ready and two weeks before the show they said ‘don’t bother coming, we’re full up, we’ve found everything, we’ve got singers, acrobats and what not.’ ”
Undeterred, he filmed himself performing the routine and sent out 1000 copies, after which he received two responses (“one was just some bloke wanting to do ‘an evening with vaudeville’ theatre piece”), one of which was an audition with Holby City.
Strangely, it was thanks to his appearance on Holby City, and not the routine that preceded it (which caused a bit of a stooshie with the tabloid press at the time, because while all participants were assumed to be complete amateurs, Chambers, of course, was not) that had landed him a slot on Strictly. Though some reports suggest that he was scathing of the show, his tone here is far more conciliatory. “Strictly was another world altogether. It was just so huge, and such an amazing human opportunity to have. It’s ballroom and Latin, it’s worlds apart from any other form of dance. I was desperate to do it because I just wanted so much to get to the show dance, knowing that if I got there then we could do a mixture of all sorts of dancing, where you could inject a bit of that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly kind of American smooth-type dancing.”
That said, he goes on to confirm that he feels that Top Hat is a better representation of his passion for dancing and musical theatre and it seems likely that, as Chambers’ profile grows, that more opportunities in this vein will present themselves.
Reflecting on a rather circuitous career he says, “The weird thing is, it started with a tap dance that got me onto Holby. There’s no way I would’ve got Strictly if it had not been for Holby, and there’s no way I would’ve got this job on Top Hat if it hadn’t been for Strictly.”
Whatever he decides to do after Top Hat, you’d expect his next step to be a rather more sure-footed one.
Top Hat, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, Wednesday to Saturday 26 November (Wednesday and Saturday matinees, 2.30pm), £16.50–£42.25, 0844-871 3014