Twelve years ago, Will Adamsdale released his untamed id on the broiling masses at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His creation, Chris John Jackson – the American motivational speaking dynamo – caught the attention of audiences and critics alike, rising from sleeper hit to packed-out Fringe favourite, winning Adamson the Perrier Award.
But then Jackson disappeared. Rather than roll out an annual showcase for the character, Adamsdale decided to keep Jackson in his back pocket, biding his time for the right moments to once again release his barmy self-help tips to new audiences. In the meantime, Adamsdale worked on new projects, spanning the genres of comedy, theatre and art. He also stepped for a time into broadcast, writing for radio, acting on the small screen in Channel 4 sitcom Campus, and on the big screen in The Boat That Rocked.
Twelve years on from the early success at the Fringe, Adamsdale is bringing his lucky charm back in Jackson’s Way: The Christmas Top-Up Power Seminar! at Battersea Arts Centre. A few days before his 12-night engagement at BAC, Adamsdale – fresh from tucking in his 11-month-old son – explained what Christmastime means to both him, and Jackson, his megalomaniacal creation…
Andrew Youngson: Hi Will. It’s been some time since you’ve played Chris John Jackson. How does it feel?
Will Adamsdale: It’s scary coming back to him, but I feel it’s much more exciting to do something when you’re slightly scared of it.
The last time he was let out was five years ago when you toured around 26 London venues. How does the character flex in different spaces?
If he’s in a really big space it works because that makes sense for him. But if it’s smaller, his pathos is slightly more pathetic. He thinks he’s Tony Robbins, but he’s just this guy raving in a little space to about 20 people, so it works well. But that’s probably just me justifying performing loads of shows to nobody.
With audiences, is there an expectation that the character will change over time?
Yes I think a certain amount, but I think when some people come back to him they wouldn’t want too much change. Now he maybe has a slight glimmer of a realisation about certain things. Small epiphanies. He’s manically confident and deluded at the same time and he always will be. It’s that combination of massive overconfidence and all-too-obvious frailty and vulnerability which I think makes me like him.
What about this new show in particular. How does the Christmas hook feature?
Well, Jackson has been booked for this Christmas gig at the BAC which, as far as he’s concerned is quite a major venue on a par with the NEC Stadium. But he’s not that bothered about it being a Christmas show – it’s a little bit humiliating to him to be booked for a Christmas show, but he’s contractually obliged, so it will be about him finding that slightly destabilising.
Why doesn’t Jackson want to do a Christmas show?
It’s like booking him to do…I don’t know…he’s not an entertainer; he’s kind of like a sage. And yet he’s sort of agreed to go along with it, to go through the motions and pay lip service to it, but he might try to draw certain parallels at the same time between him and, well, Jesus – the greatest life coach of all. Basically, if Jesus was around, Chris John Jackson would try to do a tour together, but Jackson would be the closer. Jesus would warm up for him.
Is it strange being back in the skin of Jackson?
Like any character, he’s partly me, so it feels really natural. But in other ways you feel sorry for him. Things haven’t gone that well for him so I feel I want him to have had a nicer time, but I know as a writer it’s much more interesting to see all the pain. (Laughs)
Also, doing him again as a 40-year-old man is different to doing him as a 30-year-old. The idea of him being quite mad is more disturbing now than maybe it was when I was 30 or 20. You’re a bit more ginger round those kind of things as an actor, I think. Normally when I act I don’t mind. You hear actors saying ‘it was very difficult to do this role’. I haven’t had that experience, but with a character who’s so much part of you, I can sort of relate to that more. Sometimes it’s hard to be this guy because he’s so crazy. You know, I feel like I’ve made the bed, there’s a structure to my day, and then in the evening I’ve got to do this guy. But maybe that’s the point; in a performance like this you get to exercise some kind of crazy id.
Moving away from Jackson for a bit, let’s talk about Christmas in general. What’s your role at Christmastime?
My approach to pretty much everything is, ‘don’t do anything apart from one massive grand gesture’. Years ago I discovered this technique of drawing on windows with snow spray and a stencil. It got really advanced, and every year the stakes went up. For example, one year it would be a picture of a local landmark, then the next it would be the Grand Canal in Venice. But by a few years ago I needed a break. I think it was a way of getting me out of the other duties really, but it would take me so long to do. Maybe I should get better at doing smaller things.
What has been one of your best Christmasses?
We had a great Christmas in New York once with the family. It was just just after 9/11, which obviously wasn’t why it was nice – it was awful – but New York was such a vibrant place to be at that time because everyone was really affirming their New York-ness. And it’s a great Christmas city anyway.
So that’s Christmas Past. I’m now going to be the Ghost of Christmas Present – what have you done this year that’s made you feel proud?
Well, you know, having a child.
That’s the correct answer. You realise your wife is paying me to ask these questions. (Laughs)
Yeah I could have really failed that. And actually my first answer was going to be something totally different. But yeah, it’s been phenomenal. He’s really delightful, a great little guy. He teaches us a lot actually. You think it’s about you telling him what the world’s like, but it’s as much the opposite.
Work-wise, I’ve been getting some things off the ground. A couple of shows which are coming to the boil slowly. I’m really excited that a few friends of mine and I have got a cabaret night going in Shoreditch Town Hall. It’s called ‘Night of Stuff’, and there’s a big one on the 19th December in the main house. It’s awesome, a really fun night, and some of the things from that will go on to have further life. We wrote a dramatized documentary that might end up being at some festivals in the summer.
And what else of Christmas Yet to Come. Will we see Chris John Jackson popping up in 2016?
Well I think a five year cycle would probably be best, when I’m strong enough. But maybe he will show up. I was thinking of developing him into a sitcom or something like that. So I’m working with someone on how I might get him on camera. That’s part of why I’ve been trying these little videos – to see what he’s like on camera.
Why was that not a route you wanted to go down in 2004 when the character really took off at the Edinburgh Fringe? Did you want to preserve what it was?
It was a combination of that, but also probably laziness and being a bit scared of stepping out of my comfort zone. And probably I feel a bit more confident or interested in it now. Though, it wasn’t as if someone arrived at the door with a big cheque saying ‘sign here and have your own show’.
I’m going to wrap things up in a second. First, though, your old co-star on Campus, Sara Pascoe is also performing at the BAC this Christmas. When I interviewed her recently I asked if she had any questions to pitch to you. She came up with the following question: ‘Why don’t you get a proper job?’
Ha! That’s interesting. I’m trying to rack my brains for what that refers to, or whether it’s just a suggestion. Maybe it’s just Sara’s feeling about my work, or the general job of running about on stage and being an idiot. My answer to that is: ‘It’s too late. I can’t use a computer and I have no other other skills’.
Any questions for her in return?
Um, just ‘Where do you get your energy from?’ I don’t know how she does it. Maybe it’s being a vegan, I don’t know. I would just say: ‘Could I get some a little of that?’ [To discover her secret, read our forthcoming Sara Pascoe interview]
And lastly, I have to ask, what do you think Chris John Jackson will be doing this Christmas Day?
Oh God, as you said it, my first mental picture was of him sitting, looking at the sea. I don’t know where that is or why. I have a feeling he’s going to find himself by a large body of water. There are a number of possibilities there. It could be the beginning of a new voyage, or maybe at the end of the pier. An end or a beginning.
Jackson’s Way: the Christmas Top-Up Power Seminar! is now playing at Battersea Arts Centre until Saturday, 12 December. More info here.