Hairspray’s Mark Benton talks Strictly

Hairspray. Pic: Comp
Hairspray. Pic: Comp
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Mark Benton is light on his feet. At least he’s hoping he is.

Speaking exclusively to the Evening News following the announcement that he is to compete in the new series of Strictly Come Dancing, the popular actor admits he couldn’t resist the challenge, “I thought I’d like to take it on and have a go,” he says.

Of course, Benton is no stranger to our TV screens. He was Eddie in Early Doors, Howard in Northern Lights and Martin Pond in the award-winning sitcom Barbara.

Scoop, Doctor Who and Booze Cruise, too, feature on his CV.

He also played head teacher Mike Newgent in ITV’s Britannia High, and maths teacher Daniel ‘Chalky’ Chalk, in the BBC’s Waterloo Road.

However, none of these roles could possibly have prepared him for his current job, which finds him in full drag as the larger than life Edna Turnblad, in Hairspray The Musical, a role he is set to make his own at the Playhouse from Friday.

Based on the 1988 John Waters’ movie, which starred cult drag queen Divine as the fiercely maternal Edna, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad.

It’s 1962, the ‘50s are out and change is in the air. Baltimore’s Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, has only one passion, to dance.

When she wins a spot on the local TV dance programme, The Corny Collins Show, overnight she is transformed from outsider to irrepressible teen celebrity.

But can a plus-size trendsetter in dance and fashion vanquish the programme’s reigning princess, win the heart of heartthrob Link Larkin, and integrate a television show without denting her ‘do? Welcome to the ‘60s

Stepping into the slippers of the late Divine was a daunting prospect, admits Benton, who also follows Michael Ball, Brian Conley and Phill Jupitus in the role, not forgetting John Travolta, who played Edna in the 2008 movie version.

“When I was offered Hairspray, I purposely didn’t look at anything. I’d never seen the show and I didn’t look at YouTube - although I did see a bit of the John Travolta film. What I had seen was the original with Divine, many years ago. It was a ground-breaking role, quite dark, as were all John Waters films, and I remember loving it,” he says.

“So, if you were to ask me what my Edna’s like, although you always try to make a part your own, I guess it’s more like Divine than anyone else, because that’s the only thing I had in my head.”

Like Strictly, the attraction of Hairspray was the challenge, says Benton.

“It was completely new to me and I guess I was daunted a bit, but it was a challenge. You can get too comfortable and I’d been doing Waterloo Road for some time and felt very comfortable. So it was nice to step into a role where I didn’t know if I could actually do it.”

It didn’t take long for the 47-year-old to realise he could.

“We started rehearsals, and actually, it’s like Strictly, when you actually get down to doing what you want to do, the dancing, or in Hairspray’s case the singing, dancing and acting, it’s great fun. And Hairspray is something very special.”

Explaining, he continues, “I know I’m a bit biased but it is a great feel-good musical. You can’t help but get carried along by the songs, the audience do, but we do too. It also has a really serious message which lifts it above bog-standard musicals, it tackles being an outsider, racism, segregation...

“It’s so clever because it gives you a really strong message without force-feeding it to you.”

Still, it’s going to be an exhausting experience for the actor. “Basically, I’ll be training on Strictly all day, and then doing the show at night. I’ll be cream-crackered,” he grins.

Thankfully, Benton is used to being busy, indeed a look at his credits reveals he’s seldom been off our screens for the last 20 years.

“I have been blessed,” he says. “I put it down to the fact that as a character actor, I’ve always wanted to do both comedy and drama, and have always tried to do as many different things as I can. In my own small way I try to surprise people, keep them guessing.”

He confesses he sometimes surprises himself too. Take Strictly for example.

“Surprised! I shocked myself with Strictly Come Dancing,” he laughs. “I’ve never wanted to do a reality show and then this came along. I thought long and hard about it, and for me, this was the one to do because it’s about learning an new skill. I’m now praying that I get a fun partner to dance with, and that we can have a good time.”

Like millions of viewers around the country, Benton will discover just who his partner is on BBC One this Saturday.

• Hairspray The Musical, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, until 14 September, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £22.40-£52.40, 0844-871 3014

• Strictly Come Dancing 2013 Premiere, BBC One, Saturday, 6.50pm