IN CONVERSATION – Johnny Altman

IN CONVERSATION – Johnny Altman

‘Nasty Nick’ Cotton was a multiple murderer who even tried to kill his own mum at one point, and got into many scrapes with a plethora of Albert Square residents. Thankfully, Johnny Altman, who played the Eastenders favourite for over thirty years, has little in common with his soap opera character’s persona and is a thoroughly nice chap. And what’s more, he’s about to release an album full of original numbers which he has penned over the last two decades. It’s a bloody good album too.

I had a Skype chat with Johnny about the music, the murder and the mayhem, albeit not without a few technical problems at first. I joked that it was becaue it was Friday the 13th...

Johnny Altman: Oh I don’t believe in that nonsense. I dodged the train once on Friday the 13th, from High Wycombe to North Kent, ’cause I was a student, I had no money, and I had to get home to get some food. In those days there were no electric barriers, so I got off the train in High Wycombe, I crossed London – no barriers you see, and when I got to Herne Bay I just climbed over the fence! That was on Friday the 13th and ever since then, I’ve never believed in it.

God Is In The TV: Fair enough! I agree with you. So, how are you coping with the lockdown?

JA: Oh all right. Much the same as before really, trying to keep fit, keeping busy and of course now we’ve got the launch of the album to concentrate on.

GIITTV: It’s a fine album too. It’s kind of – and I mean this in a GOOD way – it’s kind of all over the place. I mean, I can hear shades of Hawkwind, Buzzcocks, early Genesis…

JA: Yeah, it IS pretty eclectic. I think that…without planning it, it’s a collection of songs that I’ve written over the last 20 years, there’s some stuff on there I wrote with Mark Christopher Lee (from The Pocket Gods) last year. You know, I was born in 1952, the year of the first ever pop charts, so I grew up listening to all that kind of rock and roll on the radio in the late fifties, going into the sixties with The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Hendrix, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Led Zeppelin…I got really into the punk – I loved Never Mind The Bollocks. I saw that Cliff Richard said the punk is dead. It’s not, there are still a lot of punks out there! They used to say that Johnny Rotten couldn’t sing and the punks couldn’t play, but I don’t think that’s true, I reckon they could. But it’s not really Cliff’s kind of thing I guess!

(At this point, my wife rather embarrassingly burst into the room and exclaimed “It’s Nasty Nick!“, to which John amusingly replied “I’m John Altman, actor, dah-ling.” Anyway, after this brief(ish) interlude, we got back to the matter in hand)…

JA: That reminds me of a clip I saw where a guy was being interviewed at the start of this lockdown and this lad bursts in and says “Oi Dad“, and his dad goes “Can’t you effing well see I’m on doing an effing interview here?” and this was on prime time TV! It was hilarious, that.

GIITTV: Ha ha, brilliant. So, did you write any of these songs when you were hanging around on the Eastenders set?

JA: I did write SOME of them at the time I was in Eastenders, yes, like ‘Tightrope‘. At that time, I was in a band called Resurrection – we played around West London – I was with a guy called Phil Brown who was in a band called The Records, if you remember them? And Eunan Brady, who was with Wreckless Eric. Sadly Phil’s no longer with us – he passed away a few years ago, but in answer to your question, yes, I did. And I think ‘Twisted Mind‘ I wrote in a dressing room at the Apollo in Hammersmith with a guy called Ronnie Rocker, so yeah I was already doing that, interspersed with the acting.

GIITTV: I guess a lot of people wouldn’t know about your background in the music industry anyway, and and of course, the things they’d have heard from Eastenders actors before would be things like Nick Berry’s ‘Every Loser Wins‘…

JA: I know! Well, this is the worry, you know! I have to say, that the quality of albums that people from soaps have released have not exactly been the best, although I’m not gonna knock anybody down! Obviously I knew Nick Berry, and he didn’t want to do that album, he told me, but they forced him into it, because he was such a heart-throb, but of course, it sold a million didn’t it?

GIITTV: You also had the difficult task of filling the boots of your late, great friend Gary Holton AND the band’s singer in their most commercially successful period, when you took on vocal duties for Heavy Metal Kids. How daunting was that?

JA: I just went for it, you know? And I felt quite comfortable with it all. Some of the stuff I’d written, we could have used, really. In fact, a few years back, when we were doing Quadrophenia, the director looked at Gary Holton and me and said “you look like brothers, you look so alike!” – I think Gary might have actually gone up for the role of Nick Cotton at the time as well – we were both looking for similar jobs at the time, you know. So yeah, I didn’t feel like I was filling any boots, as such, but I wanted to give it some of Gary’s gusto. There’s a clip you can see on YouTube of us at the 100 Club where I was really giving it some, you know – I was hurling the microphone around and all that, I’ve got that kind of madness in me when I perform, like Gary had! We were good mates actually, used to hang out together around Maida Vale area, Windsor Castle, Harrow Road, down under the Westway…this was around the punk era, so there’d be Tony James from Generation X, Glen Matlock from the Pistols…and I bumped into Nancy Spungen one time, in Maida Vale, after she’d just had a row with Sid Vicious…

GIITTV: There’s a surprise…

JA: She was pouring her heart out to me! Then after I’d gone home, Sid came back apparently, and said to her “Oi, what you been up to then?!!!” and she said “Oh, this really nice bloke, Johnny came round, and he really listened to me, unlike YOU, Sid!” and he said “Oh yeah? Well the next time I see him, he’s gona get one of THOSE” (raises fist). Anyway, one of my mates went round to the flat, a lad called Mark, and Sid thought HE was ME and got his belt out and gave him a real lashing! Poor Mark!

GIITTV: Oh no!

JA: (laughing) Yeah, anyway, that’s just one little story from Maida Vale in those days. I lived in a bedsit on Sutherland Avenue. A lot of good music came out of there – I remember recording a track with Brady in there once. We recorded it in the bathroom, and to fade the track, he picked up the tape recorder and physically walked out of the bathroom! Anyway, I digress…

GIITV: Love it. Going back to the album, you worked with Mark Christopher Lee of The Pocket Gods. That’s an interesting combination.

JA: Well, we met at the Nub TV studio, down at the embankment, and I mentioned that I had some music, and we kind of kept in touch, and then I went up to his place near St. Albans, I played him some stuff, had a cup of coffee and a bit of a chat. We seemed to get on all right, so he said “Well, would you like to record a track, and put out a single?” so then I played him another track, and another one, and he said “Well ok, why don’t we do an album?” – it just came about naturally. I’ve always wanted to record an album, so it was all very exciting. Actually the first track, ‘Looking For The Love Of My Life‘, we wrote that one together. He gave me the music, and I went away with it and thought “Where am I at, at the moment? I’m single, in lockdown…no woman in my life“, and I’m quite an affectionate guy, I think, so I just wrote down ‘looking for the love of my life‘, and that’s where that one came from.

GIITTV: I was a bit concerned when I heard the lyric “Let’s live it large like Trump and Farage” in ‘Outrageous‘, as it made me briefly wonder if you were a Trump supporter or something…

JA: No, no no, that was meant to be a satirical thing, really. That song kind of encompasses everything anyway. I mean, they’re not exactly adored, are they? So that WOULD be outrageous.

GIITTV: Obviously I’m going to have to touch on the Eastenders stuff as well, given that Nick Cotton is not just one of the great soap villains, but also one of the greatest ever TV villains, period. I’ve read several scary articles about actors being beaten up because people don’t seem to be able to set the actor apart from the character…

JA: Like your missus!

GIITTV: Ha, fair point. Did you ever have any trouble in that respect?

JA: Well I managed to avoid it really. I was fairly mature when I started playing Nick, I was over thirty…I mean he was supposed to be 22, but I lied about my age. I didn’t hang around in pubs at closing time, when people might have getting a bit like “Oi! So you think you’re an ‘ard man then, do ya?” – Actually, the reaction I got, from playing Nick, looking back at some old clips of Nick with Steve McFadden (playing Phil Mitchell), I thought it was kind of amusing in a way – it was a very dry sort of sense of humour – not exactly a comical side, but there was some humour in those scenes, which is probably one reason why it never really got so bad for me. But what people really DON’T like is maltreatment of characters – there was one character who beat up Kathy, so that wouldn’t have gone down too well with those kinds of people. I remember seeing that Ian Bartholomew – a friend of mine – was in Coronation Street, it was the Geoff and Yasmine storyline. Now, I wouldn’t normally be watching Corry but as it was Ian, I watched it, and there he was playing this absolutely evil bastard, and he was up for an award, and yeah, Ian took some of that abuse pretty badly. But no, I didn’t really get it too bad. I mean, people do shout stuff out to me, but generally they keep their distance too. I mean, Nick did kill four people so they probably don’t want to take the risk, just in case I AM anything like him!

GIITTV: Ha ha brilliant. I know what you mean about having to watch something if someone you know is in it, because my friend Dave Mounfield, who’s no longer with us sadly – he died earlier this year – was in an episode of Eastenders, playing a plumber. He had a very brief speaking role, and he always told me that, even though he was in lots of other things with more substantial roles, that short scene he did for Eastenders was by far his biggest wage packet! He always spoke fondly of it. I imagine you must have had a lot of happy times on the show. What are your happiest memories from that time?

JA: Probably the scenes we shot in prison actually. We had Julia Smith, the co-creator and director, at that time, and…I wouldn’t say she was a harridan, as such, but she was a bit like Margaret Thatcher you know? She was the best man for the job, I always said! And by that, I mean she didn’t take any nonsense, she was that type. But anyway, we all went down to Devon and filmed in Dartmoor Prison – we were there for about two weeks with a whole load of other actors, and I remember Julia dropping her guard a bit, and having a chat with her at the bar. And another happy time was doing a thing called The Return Of Nick Cotton, where he came out of prison and heads back to the square. It was like doing a mini-movie! It was exhausting! So I prepared myself for it, you know, because I was in every scene, every day! So after filming I’d head back to the hotel and learn some more lines for the next day. So that was a very happy time. And of course all the scenes with June Brown. I loved working with her and we got on really well. I saw a clip of her and Lady Ga Ga when they were on Graham Norton’s show, and they pretty much took over. Graham just sat back. At one point June said “Would you like ME to sit in your chair?” and Graham just went “Er…nooooo” – I saw that again recently and it was still great entertainment actually.

GIITTV: Did you draw on the experience of being in prison when you were younger, when you filmed those prison scenes?

JA: Of course I did! And Leslie Grantham, who I was in the show with, had of course been in prison too, and for a crime that was far more serious than mine! Oh by the way I want to get one thing straight – I was in prison, in Belgium once, but somebody once wrote that I was in there for drug smuggling, and I want to just say now, that was an absolute LIE. I was suspected of it, but I didn’t even have anything on me. It was because of some kid I was with, and they suspected me because my passport had ‘Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal’ on it, so they automatically assumed that I MIGHT be an international drug dealer! But I thought I would save the story for my book, In The Nick Of Time, which has just been released as an audio version actually. I kept a diary when I was in prison and it was interesting looking back. It’s almost like somebody else had written it because it’s such a long time ago. But yeah I’d never really mentioned this stuff in interviews because I was saving it for the book. I asked my brother what he thought of the book and he said “Sex and drugs and rock and roll, bruv!” – I thought that was quite a compliment!

And that pretty much sums up the interview! We did talk about other stuff – a bit of politics and some more of the old punk bands, namely, but I reeled those in a bit, for fear they might have taken up a bit TOO much of the conversation, and then about his hopes for the album (“I hope it’s a huge seller all over the world!“), about the Twilight Zone type experiences he’d had recently: he’d just been playing Bowie’s Absolute Beginners and then immediately, a van with the word ‘Absolute’ pulled out in front of him, and then he was talking to the lady in the back of the car about the fact that Sean Connery had died, and then another van appeared with ‘007’ on it! He also went so far as to kindly record a message, as Nick Cotton, for my wife’s young colleague, who is a big fan. And as a former alcoholic (thirty years off the booze now), he had some advice for those who are struggling with lockdown and turning to their drinks collection for comfort:If you’re going to drink, do it in moderation – I was drinking almost a bottle of vodka a day when I was drinking, which is obviously NOT moderate. Whenever you FEEL like having a drink, go and sweep the garden instead, or go for a walk, exercise lots, make love, whatever! If you ARE going to drink, a couple of glasses of wine is ok. Just don’t let it get so you’re drinking during the day and going on into the night. And there’s an association called AA who will provide you with all the information and advice you need. You don’t necessarily have to go to rehab and pay extortionate amounts of money. The AA is the way to go, definitely.

So there you have it – Johnny Altman: actor, musician, songwriter, all round nice bloke, and who knows, maybe MYSTIC too! But he doesn’t believe in all that stuff of course…

Never Too Late To Rock And Roll is released on 20th November. Johnny’s book (and audiobook) In The Nick Of Time is out now.

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