Final bow for beloved star

Jon English. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Jon English. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

Jon English, who has died aged 66, found fame playing Judas in the original Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972.

With his boundless energy, rock-star looks and gravelly voice, English became the star of the landmark production and one of Australia's most-loved stage performers.

He went on to starring television roles in the miniseries Against The Wind and sitcom All Together Now, and to play piratical parts onstage in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. He also won numerous Aria Awards.

Jonathan James English was born in London on March 26, 1949. In 1961 he moved from Essex to Australia with his parents, Syd and Sheila, and his three siblings.

He took up the guitar while a student at Cabramatta High School, and in 1964 saw the Beatles perform at Sydney Stadium. With his schoolmates, English formed a garage band named Zenith. He performed first as a guitarist, then as a singer.

He went on to become an early member of the rock group Sebastian Hardie, which played the Sydney pub scene and backed Jonny O'Keefe.

In 1969 English married Carmen Sora, whom he met at Cabramatta High. He said this stable relationship helped him through his frantic schedule of the 1970s.

English left Sebastian Hardie in 1971 when he was cast as Judas Iscariot in the first Australian production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Jim Sharman and produced by Harry M. Miller.

When the show had its first run at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in March 1972, English's performance was reviewed as "rather wild" and "lacking in sufficient depth". He had remedied any errors by the time Jesus Christ Superstar opened at Sydney's Capitol Theatre on May 4, 1972. English got rave reviews and was catapulted from obscurity to fame.

He continued in the role for four years, and in many later revivals.

During the show's two-year run at the Capitol, English found time to sing on the soundtrack recording of the show and to perform with outside bands. He co-wrote the music for a NSW Dance Company ballet, Phases, and sang the title role on the soundtrack of Australian rock opera Ned Kelly. He also released hit singles including Handbags And Gladrags, Turn The Page and Hollywood Seven.

In addition there was a successful solo album, It's All A Game, guest appearances in TV dramas including Number 96, Matlock Police and Homicide, and a starring role in a Nimrod Theatre production, Bacchoi.

In 1977 English had another No 1 hit with Words Are Not Enough and toured with the band Thin Lizzy.

Realising that English was a star who could sell records and draw audiences, the producers of the 1978 historical miniseries Against The Wind cast him as a romantic lead - his first major dramatic acting role.

Though he'd never had acting lessons, English was not daunted.

"I've never taken any singing classes either," he told the Australian Women's Weekly. "I believe, though, that a good singer can act because that's a part of singing ... I don't differentiate much between speaking a speech and singing a song."

English did the score and soundtrack for the miniseries. Against The Wind was a hit around the world and English won a Logie for Best New Talent. He also had a hit with Six Ribbons, one of the featured songs.

English tried to avoid the rock 'n' roll lifestyle at the height of his fame: "My wife and I have a very successful marriage. We've been married for 10 years and we've got two nice children. They're all very normal people and I don't particularly want to drag them into my publicity." In 1984 English made the first of his many forays into Gilbert & Sullivan, playing the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance in a production that also starred a young Simon Gallaher and veteran opera singer June Bronhill.

In the late 1990s, English played Pooh-Bah in The Mikado and Dick Deadeye in HMS Pinafore. In 1987 he played the title role in the 1987 mad-monk musical Rasputin.

He also continued to take TV roles. From 1990 to 1993 he played a faded rock star in the Nine Network sitcom All Together Now, starring opposite Rebecca Gibney. English was nominated for a Logie for his role.

In 1990 English sang the role of Hector in a concept album about the Trojan War, Paris: A Love Story, which he had co-written with David MacKay. It won the 1991 ARIA Award for best original soundtrack and in 2003 was turned into a stage musical.

Despite struggles with alcohol and depression, English never stopped writing music and performing live. He played Mr Lucas in a 2001 production of Are You Being Served? and Sergeant Wilson in the 2004 stage show Dad's Army. In 2013 he donned a dress to play Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.

At the time of his death, English and Gallaher had plans to reunite their 30-year stage partnership for Monty Python's Spamalot. English was to play King Arthur.

After tweeting the news of his friend's death yesterday, Gallaher told journalists: "We've lost a giant of the industry."

English, who split from his wife Carmen in 2006, is survived by her, his subsequent partner Corelea Cameron, and by his four adult children, Jessamin, Josephine, Jonnie and Julian.

- AAP

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