John is happy to swap Walford for Chicago

Thursday 3rd October 2002 10:00 pm

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"ALRIGHT Ma?" An oft-uttered question around the Bowman household since circa 1993 thanks to EastEnders' Nick Cotton.

But the man who played "Nasty Nick" and inspired the catchphrase's use chez Bowman explains a surprising development in its usage which may put your interviewer off addressing his mother thusly from now on.

John Altman, who has, for the moment, washed his hands of Nick to tour in the musical Chicago, which comes to Woking next month, explains: "It became a catchphrase in the gay clubs. Alright Ma? meant 'Are you interested?'"

Nick Cotton was the character you were meant to love to hate, but your correspondent loved to love, finding the greasy murdering ex-con and drug addict hugely amusing, particularly during his long campaign to kill off his mother Dot with poison.

"Yeah, I think that was when I was on heroin," John recalls, reminding us that his character killed three people: Queen Vic landlord Eddie Royle, Reg Cox, and even his own son in a motorbike accident (his brake cables were cut by Mark 'can you mind the stall' Fowler).

"It was nothing to be proud of," he laughs.

Did he get any flak from the public?

"Yeah, quite a lot, but I'm not like him so I'd smile and stop and chat and it'd be alright."

He cites his years in EastEnders as a highlight, but admits his Nasty Nick probably got him a few more bad-guy roles. "I don't mind as long as the money's coming in," he laughs.

John featured in the very first episode in 1985.

"Expectations were high. None of us were that well-known apart from Wendy Richards. They spent a lot of money on the set and put in a lot of hard work but you never know how it's going to go, but we were all very pleased when it took off.

"I felt it would do well because it cracked along at such a pace and was so gritty."

As closely associated with Nick Cotton as he is, John has probably spent nearly as much time playing Billy Flynn in the hit musical Chicago, having toured the country over the last 18 months, completing 385 shows. "And I'm still loving it, which shows how good it is," he says.

Flynn, a real-life character of the 1920s, was a flamboyant and high-profile lawyer who turned nightclub dancer Roxie Hart into a celebrity. In the musical, she eventually kills her lover and it's down to attorney Flynn to represent her.

"He was the George Carman of his day. He could charge $5,000 a case.

"It's a bit like Johnny Cochrane who represented OJ (Simpson): the lawyer becomes almost as big a personality as the celebrity."

"I get to wear a tux and sing three numbers," reveals John, who stresses this touring version has not been scaled down from the West End version.

"It's set in 1920s Chicago. It's a bit of a satire of the legal system but a lot of people don't get that."

Singing won't be such a departure for John, having had many sessions with a Wimbledon-based voice-coach over the last couple of years at the behest of his agent, who has put him up for many musicals.

And he says he was always torn between acting and rock 'n' roll anyway.

Touring with Chicago has meant seeing his 16-year-old daughter once a week and living out of a suitcase more than at his Richmond home, but he hopes that once the musical's run has finished - and then panto - he will be able to take a well-earned break.

And after that? Well, let's just hope he keeps well away from his dear ol' Ma Dot Cotton.

James Bowman

l Chicago is on at Woking's New Victoria Theatre from Monday 14 to Saturday 26 October.

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