Midlands Zone meets actor/writer Tony Timberlake, a man determined to revive the reputation of gay sporting icon and Olympic gold medallist John Curry...
Winter Olympics 1976: millions around the world watch in wonder as Birmingham-born John Curry makes figure skating history, taking home two gold medals for Team GB. Combining influences from ballet and contemporary dance, his dazzling choreography is credited with radically transforming perceptions of men's ice-skating at home and abroad, and at the time, he's lauded as a sporting hero, named the “Nureyev of the Ice” and goes on to take the title of BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
But in the years that followed, Curry slowly slipped out of the public consciousness, and his untimely death in 1994 has left a generation almost completely unaware of his achievements. Seeking to rectify that is actor-turned-writer Tony Timberlake, who was among the 19 million viewers transfixed by Curry's Winter Olympics win.
“I sat mesmerised, watching him win Olympic Gold,” Timberlake recalls. “As far as I can remember, there had been no one else like him on the ice. Of course, he was British as well, which made it even more exciting. Getting Gold at the Winter Olympics was quite a rare thing for Britain at the time, so it had this huge impact on me as a youngster.”
Though that admiration sparked in childhood never left him, it would be decades before Timberlake began work on the project that has become Looking For John, a one-man theatre show being performed at Birmingham REP this month.
“Years went by, and every now and then thoughts of him would come into my head. Shortly after he died, I ended up talking to somebody who knew him personally, and I discovered a lot of things about him that I hadn't known before. So I went back and looked at the routine again, started digging around and ended up becoming a bit obsessed by him.”
By coincidence, over the next few years, Timberlake continually found himself working with people who had known Curry, either personally or professionally, as Curry had briefly dabbled in acting as well as dancing and skating. Speaking to these friends and colleagues revealed to Timberlake a whole host of things he hadn't previously been aware of.
“One of the things that really galvanised me into doing this was that I kept finding all these connections with actors and directors I was working with - it made me feel like there was a reason I had to make this show. I think the really big thing that surprised me was the extent of John's courage. Everybody knew that he was this superb, artistic figure skater who changed the sport by standing by what he believed in, but also in his personal life, he never denied who he really was.”
Curry's early death - at the age of just 44 - was widely known to have been caused by AIDS, in a world that was still extremely hostile to gay men who contracted HIV. It was perhaps partly this that contributed to the steady dwindling away of his public profile.
“He was a big celebrity, and although he did go and live in America, he was still very much somebody who everyone knew about, yet he owned his sexuality and his HIV status very publicly, even when it turned into full-blown AIDS. So not only did he stand up to a skating world that believed very strongly that men and women should skate in different ways, he was incredibly brave in the face of great prejudice against him as a gay man.”
For Timberlake, Curry's story soon started to take on a powerful personal significance. Looking For John is as much a tale of self-discovery as it is about shedding light on a forgotten hero.
“As with any show like this, the more you find out about somebody else, the more you discover things about yourself and why you have such a strong attachment to them. It's just me on the stage in the show, playing the various different people that I met and gathering lots of information. One of the most important people I spoke to was Gillian Lynne, the choreographer, who was great friends with John all through his life. As an actor, I've worked with her a lot, and it was actually a conversation with her that really got me started on this project. But I've also spoken to other skaters and friends, to John's biographer, and to some of his past lovers.”
The difficulties that Curry must have faced during his life will doubtless continue to resonate with audiences even now. While these days young LGBT folk do have more representatives in the public eye to look up to, the fact that ‘coming out’ stories are still often considered a big deal, especially in the sporting world, speaks volumes about how far there still is to go.
“I think it's massively important for young people to be able to see others like themselves being successful. I do think things have moved forward over the last 40 years, and I think it's great that a lot of sportsmen and women are being more open about their sexuality, but so often the revelations come after a sports star has retired. That's why when Tom Daley came out, it was so fantastic. He's somebody who's a winner and who's celebrated now, and his sexuality doesn't matter. I just think that's so helpful for young people, to feel like they can be winners too, and it's something I explore a lot in the piece.”
It might be too late for Curry himself to appreciate the tribute, but there are nonetheless plenty of good reasons for staging the show in 2016.
“We're coming up to the 40th anniversary of him winning Gold, which is partly why I particularly wanted to do it this year. Another thing that really fuelled me to get the play put on was going to Birmingham and talking to people there, and realising just how many of them didn't know who he was. And I realised that unless you were over 40, of course you probably wouldn't know.
“It really got me thinking about the idea of legacy. What do you leave behind, especially as a gay man? John Curry's legacy is partly how he changed skating, but I also felt this need to get him remembered and celebrated again in the Midlands, where he was born and died. There’s a statue of him at a big ice rink in Sheffield, and there's also a room named after him at the Actor's Centre in London, but that's all. There's nothing in Birmingham, even though he's very much a son of the city. I'm hoping the show will encourage people to change that.”
The production's not all serious and reverential, though - there should be plenty of laughs along the way as well. Most importantly, Timberlake hopes that audiences will take away a positive, optimistic message about self-acceptance and staying true to who you are.
“I think very often John has been represented as quite a serious person, but a lot of the people I spoke to talked about how funny he was and what a great sense of humour he had, so I felt it was important to reflect that. I hope that it's heartfelt, and I hope that it's fun - I definitely don't want it all to be bleak!”
The project has inspired Timberlake to continue writing. He’s already got a couple of other potential scripts in the pipeline.
“I think there are really important themes about sexuality in this show that I've found fascinating to explore, and I would love to do more. I’ve started talking to people about some other ideas, but obviously I'd like to get John sorted first!”
Looking For John is directed by Tessa Walker and supported by Homotopia and SHOUT Festival.
The show runs at Birmingham REP from Wednesday 16 until Saturday 19 November.
By Heather Kincaid
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