You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Not for one second.
It was the Gilbert and Sullivan shows that I first saw him in. I was only 7 when Pirates of Penzance toured the country in 1994. I barely knew what a musical was, I just knew we were going to see some show about pirates. Twenty-two years on, I don’t remember much about the show.
And his face. Cheeky, before he’d even opened his mouth. He’d look at the audience, slightly raise his eyebrows, and they’d be in stitches.
You always felt as though you were personally sharing a joke, just you and him, because his cheeky crooked smile was pointing right at you.
See Jon English here in one of his most iconic roles – as the Pirate King from the Pirates of Penzance:
He was oddly sexy. That’s not something I noticed as a child, but all the women around me did, and when I saw him in shows once I’d grown up, I understood. Was it the swagger? Maybe. The hair, perhaps? The only man who could work a mullet? He was usually taller than anyone on the stage, maybe that was it. Or maybe it was the fact that, somehow, he could make tight purple pants with knee-high leather boots look less ‘Pirate’, and more ‘Rock God’ – I remember when he pulled his shirt open to show off his chest, and all the women squealed with delight.
No. It was the eyes. Those piercingly blue, raccoon-like eyes, that you could still see from the furthest seat of the audience.
Those eyes could make the whole arena laugh, and all the women in it melt.
After seeing him tour in The Mikado and H.M.S Pinafore, I knew I wanted to be on stage too. I bet he had that affect on many Aussies. He was such a good performer, that he taught us how to perform, just by watching him. How to be charismatic, how to have great comedic timing, how to be poignant or heavy while still being entertaining. Whatever role he was playing, he was always the most engaging character, the one the audience felt as though they were sharing secrets with. Somehow, he made the audience feel special.
And no one will ever forget that gravelly, rock-star voice.
His diversity is his legacy. He showed us that performers in Australia can and should be so much more than one-trick-ponies, that the sky is the limit. He wrote ballets, operas and musicals (I was and still am absolutely obsessed with Paris, his musical about the Trojan War). He wrote books and albums and film scores. He won ARIA’s and Logies and Green Room Awards. He was a father, a friend, a rugby fan, a musician.
But to me, he will always be the Pirate King.
There will never be another like him. The gentle rock-star with the giant smile.
Vale, Jon English. Thanks for making us laugh, and making us feel special.