Jimmy Nairn and Sue Denning own up to being the odd couple of showbusiness. Between them they have clocked up 100 years in the business, 37 years of marriage, and hundreds of thousands of nautical miles. They had their vows renewed on a ship - and in Vegas too.
Sue, once the star of Peggy Sue’s at Central Pier, is now cruise director for Celebrity Cruises and works out of Miami four months on, two months off, while Jimmy works all the major cruises lines too. He’s just back from the Baltic, a cruise worked back to back with a transatlantic run. He goes down well on cruises – particularly his bagpipe solo of the Titanic theme. One YouTube video featuring such released last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship’s loss has had thousands of hits.
The couple are generally ships that pass in the night. But they have been enjoying an all too brief break in dry dock, back in Blackpool, their adopted home town, to celebrate their anniversary, their daughter Lara’s 30th birthday, and also see her playing the acrobat in seven-time Olivier award winner Matilda in London’s West End. Their son’s a success too. He won rave reviews in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End then went into Sister Act with Whoopee Goldberg, Buddy as the Big Bopper, and now tours with Tenors of Rock which rocked the Harley Festival in Austria this month.
“We usually have Christmas dinner with our kids somewhere around November.” says Jimmy.
Sailors may have a sweetheart in every port but it doesn’t work that way for cruise directors, says Sue. “There’s only one man for me – until George Clooney joins the team – and it’s Jimmy.”
Jimmy quips: “Sue’s ship came in when she met me.” The pair are rock solid in an industry littered with broken marriages. Sue’s also gone from child star tipped to take the music world by storm to one woman show host here in Blackpool – and now life on the open sea for the last 10 years.
Jimmy hails from Glasgow. “My dad was a docker who played accordion. My granny bought me a penny whistle when I was 10 and my playing didn’t impress anyone until I went to school and played it with my nostrils. I got the bug for entertainment then.”
His first love was football. “I was pretty good. I was signed on a schoolboy form at 14 to Hibernian. I used to train two nights a week, then came home one night, and some kids were playing with bows and arrows and one went right through my left eye.
“It ended my playing career. The medics had me bandaged in darkness for a month. My mum bought me a second hand saxophone to give me something to do. There was a TV programme called Oh Boy and the sax player wore dark glasses so I thought I can live with this.”
He’s become one of the most versatile multi-instrumentalists in showbiz. He can play clarinet, saxophone, bagpipes and piano. Prior to working on the ships he was associate TV producer of Catchphrase with Roy Walker for seven years. “We recorded four shows a day, two in the morning, two at night. It became so successful we did three in the morning, three at night. I was also a turn in my own right. I’ve always done gigs. I was a painter’s apprentice for a year until I got bored and joined a group run by a lad whose dad had an undertaking business. We’d use the hearse to go to gigs. If they had a funeral next day we had to put the dearly departed back in the hearse after the gig.
“We toured Germany when I was 17. My dad said that’s wonderful, I shot them, you’re singing to them. It was a great grounding, all breakdowns on the motorway, amps blowing, the works. That’s what the X Factor kids miss out on today.”
Jimmy’s also a comedian and a fine vocalist. He’s performed in clubs, hotels, theatres and cruise ships with a repertoire that includes a roaring twenties clarinet act and material honed here in Blackpool when the couple held court from Peggy Sue’s showbar in the 1990s. I started out as a sax player in the groups in the 1960s. The sax in the middle of The Beatles’ Ob-la-di Ob-la-da is me – and Build Me Up Buttercup too.”
The couple met in 1974 in Birmingham near Sue’s native Dudley. “We were in Stars in Your Eyes. I saw her in this big hat and just fell for her. She’s my lady, she is.”
When the pair get together it’s like a scene from the Love Boat. “I have a diary that says Meet Sue Trevi Fountain Thursday. Or Sue – lunch Lisbon. I’ll fly out.”
Sue’s director of Celebrity Cruises – across all ships in the cruise fleet - having previously worked at Fred. Olsen Line, Thompson Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.
Next year marks her 10th year at sea. “I’ve forgotten what land legs are,” she admits.
If Helen of Troy was the face that launched 1,000 ships –Sue’s the public face of cruising for guests. She meets and greets, bids farewell, and handles all the best bits between, fronting the entertainment, activities, in-cabin telly and public address updates.
“It’s hard work because you are never really off. But it’s a great way of life.”
Sue shapes a programme with universal appeal. “I know what the Brits like but have a sense of what other nations want too. Some turns don’t travel well, some activities work on some ships and not others. It helps that I’ve got a great team and lots of help from shoreside too.”
Sue’s an administrator but remains a performer at heart. She was a child star in her early teens, a recording artist snapped up by EMI. Her acting credits are impressive too – she’s appeared on TV and in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and worked alongside Michael Caine in Little Voice.
“I love to sing,” she adds. “My family could all sing. I did my first gig at eight, and went from one show to another, to panto for a summer season. My brother-in-law was and is a musician and heard the potential in my voice. He suggested singing lessons. I studied classically for six years from the age of 10 to 16 in Birmingham but didn’t want to sing opera – I turned down the Birmingham School of Music.
“Back in those days you did demos and sent them round Decca and the like.
“I was sent a Lloyd Webber song but didn’t like it and then sent an original number. I was working for EMI at 13, singing with the Cyril Stapleton Orchestra, the Ladybirds backing me, Norrie Paramor producing.
“I was younger than Helen Shapiro when I released my song Kiss Me Once Again. She was 15. I was a soprano then, I’m contralto now. I used to do the ABC Minors. That’s how they promoted it, me miming to the song, the guest between the cartoon and movie on a Saturday morning.
“It helped that I was outgoing. And my dad really soaked himself in my career, and my mum and sister. Janice Nicholls would come with I’ll Give It Five and other shows. I’ve got loads of cuttings from the Daily Sketch from that time.
“I was at high school in Dudley and loved it and when my dad gave me a choice I didn’t want to go to London.
“I could have gone to the West End but I fell into pop and production shows instead. I never wanted to be famous, just good, and happy.
“This year I’ve clocked up 54 years professionally and can’t even think how many miles, land or nautical.
“We stand in airports and look up at all the places we have already seen.
“But Blackpool’s home. We have been together 39 years, married for 37 years, here for 32 years, Jaymz our son is Scottish but with a broad Lancashire accent, Lara was born here 30 years ago.
“Blackpool’s been good to us.”