Claire Mahoney speaks to Kim Gavin, choreographer, creative director and Thames Ditton resident about his role in Take That’s rise to fame and why he is back working with Gary Barlow on the BBC’s new Saturday night talent show – Let it Shine.
If anyone knows how to do spectacle – it’s Kim Gavin. You want a 30ft mechanical elephant to start a show? You got it. How about a giant bust of John Lennon’s face centre stage that is constructed out of a giant human jigsaw to the tune of ‘imagine’? Churchill on top of Big Ben? No problem.
Gavin has been the creative force behind some of the biggest and most inspirational shows of the last twenty years, including, Party at the Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, The Rugby World Cup 2015 opening ceremony and most notably, The London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony, which featured the aforementioned bust of John Lennon. He has choreographed and worked with likes of Darcy Bussell, Katherine Jenkins and Coldplay. It you need something magical and musical on a grand scale – Kim is your man.
Not that you would know all this when speaking to him at his Thames Ditton home. He is, to put it mildly, rather modest and incredibly pragmatic. But then you probably have to be when your job involves telling thousands of dancers, actors and lighting technicians what to do.
He describes doing the Olympic closing ceremony as: “Going down the English channel on the biggest tanker you have ever been on, knowing that you can’t turn back.” The final show had a £20 million budget, much less than the opening ceremony and ran for nearly three hours.
When it was over, all Gavin wanted to do was to go back to grass roots. “I suppose my ultimate aim when I came out of the Olympics was to do something smaller. It was all so vast, even the volunteer schedules had to be put together a year in advance and so I just wanted to do the flip-side of that – like a two-man play with some music in a community centre. I wanted to go back to working closely with and developing an artist.”
It is perhaps this love of developing artists through performance that is at the heart of his most enduring working relationship – with Gary Barlow of Take That. Kim has worked with Gary since the early days of Take That before they even had a top ten hit and helped develop them into the chart-topping pop phenomena they ultimately became. He also worked on their comeback tours including Progress and Circus which wowed audiences with their many spectacular theatrical elements.
“I suppose my ultimate aim when I came out of the Olympics was to do something smaller”
This year Kim has again been working with Gary on BBC’s new Saturday night talent show – Let It Shine. The show, which broadcasts in January, aims to find five lads who will ultimately perform in a musical called the ‘The Band,’ based on the Take That story.
“I’ve been very blessed with Take That,” he says “Back in their early days, the band’s manager needed someone to organise them and rehearse them and provide a structure for them to respond to. They were big personalities, but the difference was they did want to be organised so it was very much a collaboration from the start. I don’t think everyone is of that mould and it’s one of the reasons why Robbie left because he is the type of character who just wants to walk on stage and make it up. I think the other four liked the discipline and that is why it worked.”
It was Kim’s background as a ballet dancer that provided him with an understanding of the discipline sheer hard work needed for performance. At the age of 11 he won a place at the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park where he trained for five years. He soon realised that a career in ballet wasn’t going to be for him and it was in choreography and directing that his skills lay.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be the principal dancer – I just wasn’t loose enough. But they did these little choreographic competitions and I did very well in those, so from a very early age I started to realise that I could construct and realise a process. So I left and went to London and got work on a TV show called Search for a Star – which is weird in a way as Search for a Star was in the 80s what Let it Shine is today. “
However, it wasn’t until his 20s that he started choreography properly. His first musical theatre show was ‘Oh! What a Night’ which starred Kid Creole and toured the UK for ten years, with performances in Sydney, Melbourne and Hamburg. In 1992 he was invited to choreograph the Children’s Royal Variety performance where he first met Take That.
“What I loved about choreography was that I would have a new challenge every week. I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to be in a show and do the same thing every night. I realised that I like to tell stories and have a reason for doing something. And that’s the great thing about ‘The Band’ idea and ‘Let it Shine ‘- there is a real story running right the way through it. It’s very exciting and I love musical theatre for that very reason.”
Kim and his family (wife and two young sons) have lived in Thames Ditton since 1997. Obviously Kim is required in town a lot so the convenience of good trains links is a bonus. He said the family also moved to Surrey to get a bit of space which the surrounding countryside, parks and their large garden provides. “I think my son kicked a ball around in the garden the whole time we were viewing the house,” he laughs.
When not working Kim enjoys walking their dogs and enjoying local arts and culture. “We love to go to Hampton Court and pay regular visits to The Rose Theatre in Kingston and the Everyman in Esher. The Rose always has something good on.”
When asked about the work he is most proud of Gavin is typically humble and pragmatic but admits much of the satisfaction comes in retrospect when the work is over. “You put so many ideas together that you forget a lot of them,” he says. “ Then you go back and think that was a good idea, I might re-apply that. Or you watch something you’ve done and think – wow that was stunning. The thing is you don’t remember it as stunning. You just remember being exhausted and having to get it done.”
Let It Shine is to be broadcast on BBC 1 in January