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Arbroath actor Norman Bowman gets real about showbiz wages, kissing on stage – and why you never ignore a call from Jude Law

West End star Norman Bowman chats to The Courier after becoming patron of his home town's Theatre Stars School. reports.
Rebecca Baird
Norman Bowman hails from Arbroath but his acting career has taken him all over the world. Image: John Phillips.
Norman Bowman hails from Arbroath but his acting career has taken him all over the world. Image: John Phillips.

Standing at 6ft tall, Norman Bowman isn’t someone you’d look at and think ‘hobbit’.

But the West End and film star deemed himself Arbroath’s own ‘Frodo Baggins’ upon returning to his home town.

“It was a bit like Frodo Baggins coming back to the Shire with all my stories and my adventures, and feeling like so much more of an elder statesman now,” laughs Norman, 54, who found overnight success as Marius in the West End production of Les Miserables in the early ’90s.

“I can impart some advice now,” he adds. “Whether it’s good advice or not is a different story.”

Young Arbroath actors ‘cooler’ than Norman remembers

As we speak, Norman is the picture of far-flung fame, Zoom calling from fellow Courier Country actor Alan Cumming’s New York townhouse as he gears up for a night-time gig in the Big Apple with his girlfriend Frankie Ruffelle.

West End leading man Norman Bowman returned to his native Arbroath to visit the Theatre Stars School. Image: AngusAlive.

But just last month, Norman took to the stage of his old high school, Arbroath Academy, to support the school in its efforts to raise money for families affected by the Rwandan genocide.

And not long before, he was just up the road at the Webster Memorial Theatre to lend an ear, and his voice, to the young actors of Angus.

As patron of the Theatre Stars School, which was founded in Arbroath in April 2023, Norman was more than happy to return to his roots and let budding young thespians in on the tricks of the trade.

Norman’s first time on stage (second from left, back). Image: Arbroath Webster Memorial Theatre. Supplied by Norman Bowman.

“Going back to Arbroath is always a heart-swelling thing for me, but if I go back and see any of these little drama clubs, I get so chuffed,” smiles Norman, whose dad still lives in the town, while his mum stays down the road in Dundee.

“First off, I get heartened by the fact there’s plenty kids who still want to sing and dance and put on productions.

“Because I remember, just before leaving for London almost 29 years ago, it was perhaps not quite as in vogue!

“The stage has never been populated by necessarily cool people, it’s always been geeky, awkward outsiders. But it seems like that’s changed now.”

‘What’s it like kissing somebody on stage?’

Treading the same boards on which he began his 28-year acting career, Norman was fired all sorts of questions from the youngsters, and he notes that the priorities of child actors are usually the ones carried on into adult life.

“It’s funny, they start off quite earnest – ‘what was your favourite job?’, ‘what role would you like to play?’ – all that,” he chuckles.

“Then it gets down to ‘what’s it like kissing somebody on stage?’ and ‘how much do you get paid?’. And those priorities don’t really change over the years!”

Norman Bowman in Les Mis, 1993. Supplied.

Just last week, the Theatre Stars School put on their production of Madagascar, and though Norman couldn’t be there in body, he was there in spirit, having helped create a voiceover for the production.

“It’s the biggest flattery in the world to be asked to be patron of the school,” he says. “And Madagascar’s a great choice for a show – what kid doesn’t want to be an animal?”

Life imitates art

Norman’s no stranger to a bit of fur and feathers himself, having donned many an elaborate costume throughout his illustrious stage career.

After his breakout role as Marius in Les Mis, he went on to take on roles in Cats, Guys and Dolls (where he understudied Ewan McGregor), Grease and has now twice indulged his Abba-mania as Sam Carmichael in separate runs of Mamma Mia.

“Retuning to that role almost 12 years after I first played it, and being a very different person and a very different actor, meant I got so much more out of it,” he admits.

“I never tire of the music, not ever. My two favourites before ever doing Mamma Mia are the two songs I get to sing, which are SOS and Knowing Me, Knowing You.

“And I’m far more like Sam now than I was 12 years ago. It’s pretty much life imitating art – having two kids that live with their mum and all that.”

Norman Bowman (centre) as Sam Carmichael in Mamma Mia. London. Image: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.

Here he’s referring to his off-stage romance with his on-stage leading lady ‘Cosette’ in Les Mis, Rebecca Vere, with whom he went on to have two children, Ed and Maddy.

“My kids are born of musical theatre, so to speak,” jokes Norman. “I don’t feel like acting was something I was destined to do, but I literally can’t imagine my life without it now.”

Meanwhile his current partner, Frances Ruffelle, played Cosette’s love rival Eponine in a 1996 production of the musical, in which Norman was playing Marius.

But before the glitz and glamour of the London stage scene, Norman was just a 16-year-old kid who’d be nicked for shoplifting in the Abbeygate and had no idea what to do with his life.

Shoplifting shame steered Norman to stage

“I never shy away from my origin story anymore, about being caught stealing when I was 16,” he sighs. “Obviously I wasn’t very good at it – the first day I do it, I go out and get caught.

“It got put in the local paper, the Herald, that I’d been fined. It was awful for my mum, because she regarded me as a cherub – it was my brother who was the rebel. But I think I was just bored.

Norman Bowman at his homecoming concert, Arbroath. Supplied.

“So I was considering my options, which weren’t very many at the time, because I thought: ‘How can I live in a town where everyone thinks of me as a thief?’

“Then my friend asked me to go with him to panto rehearsals. Elaine Masson was directing Robin Hood and Babes in the Wood, and I just had a ball!

“Before I knew it, I was on stage. And I just never looked back!”

Shouted by Jude Law for Firebrand

Although stage is his first love, Norman has dabbled in screen work, and last year appeared alongside Hollywood A-lister Jude Law in period drama Firebrand.

For him, the experience was a lesson in the benefits of professionalism and forming good relationships, as the pair had only met briefly several years before, yet Law asked for Norman personally on the project.

“I’m always just a little bit overwhelmed by working with cameras, because it’s still not something I’ve done quite enough of. And each time I return to it, I’m so determined because I love film,” says Norman.

Jude Law attends the Firebrand (Le Jeu De La Reine) red carpet during the 76th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 21, 2023 in Cannes, France. Image: Luca Carlino/NurPhoto/Shutterstock.

“And when you get a call out of the blue from your agent saying that Jude is doing a film and has asked for you, you just kind of go: ‘Ok!’

“Having worked with him on Henry V, some nine years later when he’s now playing Henry VIII, he had the idea to get actors around him that he knew and liked, and knew that he could trust, rather than just having randoms around him,” he explains.

“It was amazing. I always try to be a good employee and co-worker, so to be remembered by Jude in that way, I was really chuffed.”

‘Where I used to live keeps changing’

Nowadays, Norman is still on stage, but has a second line of work as a non-religious celebrant, which he thinks of as “a different way of performing”.

For him, getting up in front of an audience and telling stories will always be the priority, whether that’s on screen, in song or at a lectern.

Norman Bowman as a celebrant. Image: Mrs T Weddings.

And he’s realistic about the fact that most actors now will have to have multiple income streams unless wage stagnation in the industry is addressed.

“Undeniably, ticket prices are really high, and wages have not gone up in line with that,” he says.

“Ensembles now barely earn what I was earning as Marius in 1997. And yet those ticket prices will have gone up much, much more. So it’s always worth the fight, and it’s worth trying to get young ones interested.”

And he advises young actors coming up now that “success isn’t about hitting giddy heights”.

“It’s not about being famous, it’s about perseverance and still doing it 28 years later,” he smiles. “I think if you can manage that, you’ve done not too bad.”

Norman Bowman and Frankie Ruffelle. Image: Debbi Clark Photography.

Still, he finds it comforting to know that nearly 30 years after he left his home town, he can still have a place on the very same stage where he found his life’s passion.

“Every time I go back to Arbroath, another little piece of my childhood is gone. Where I used to live, on Strathmore Avenue, everything just keeps changing,” he says wistfully.

“But that stage is the same. I’m thankful for that.”