Stage star and Staffordshire University honorary doctor Jonathan Wilkes talks to Horizon about his work and ambitions.
With his cheeky chappy persona and that ever-present smile, Jonathan Wilkes is best known as a TV presenter, musical theatre star and the co-founder of Soccer Aid - which has raised £40 million for Unicef.
What is less well known is that the Stoke-on-Trent-born lad, who has starred in 14 pantos in his home city, now spends much of his time working behind the scenes nurturing stars of the future.
Wilkes Academy, the performing arts college he runs with wife Nikki Wheeler, trains a steady stream of young performers who have gone on to secure lead roles in musicals not just in the West End but around the globe.
“The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Starlight Express...name pretty much any West End musical and we’ve trained people with lead roles in it,” says Jonathan, known as Jonny to his friends.
“Hundreds of our alumni are performing all over the country and all over the world.”
Jonny also spends much of his time producing high end stage shows for P&O cruise ships, including a show he put together with TV presenter Stephen Mulhern.
Rather than starring in the shows himself Jonny writes, directs and produces the productions - often finding himself able to provide opportunities for Wilkes Academy graduates along the way.
“I get everything set up and then, once I’m happy with it, I leave the show to run. I keep going back to make sure that everything is exactly as I want it to be.
“Astonishing, a show I put together with Stephen Mulhern, is on six P&O ships. It’s a show we love doing and we’re very proud of it.
“I’m about to launch a new show called Festival onboard a new P&O ship called Iona.
“Last year 30-odd of our students graduated on ships all over the world. The ships are brilliant, they’re like a floating city, and the theatres are as good as any you’ll find on land.”
Jonny and Nikki set up The Wilkes Academy in Wiltshire eight years ago. It’s grown to have a faculty of more than 45 staff, more than 250 current students and 16 performance studios.
“Nikki is the principal and the boss,” says Jonny modestly. “She’s the driving force behind it. I’m the spokesperson more than anything.
“My job is to make sure everybody is happy and to look for job prospects for our graduates. Before the pandemic, 86% of our students went straight into a job.
“P&O Cruises scholarships are a big big thing for us. Our alumni grows stronger and stronger every single year.”
The Wilkes academy offers a three year Staffordshire University musical theatre degree. Jonny, an honorary doctor of Staffordshire University, is delighted to have yet another link back to his home city.
“It’s a strong partnership and the first year of the course has been incredibly successful, which pleases me so much,” he says. “It ticks a lot of boxes for me, and of course it’s great to be part of anything that puts Staffordshire on the map.
“We have students coming in from all over the country and the world to study for a Staffordshire University degree with us.”
It would be impossible for someone who loves performing as much as Jonny does to step away from the stage completely.
He still does a lot of work for charity including performing at and compering events for hospices and other good causes in Staffordshire and Wiltshire.
Jonny has starred in the Regent Theatre pantomime in Stoke-on-Trent for 14 years, a gig that he is clearly very passionate about. An announcement about the 2021 pantomime has not yet been made.
“I’ve been coming out of retirement once a year to go on stage for panto and convince myself I can still do it,” he says.
“For 15 years I did eight shows a week. I’d never close the door to going back to that but right now I’ve got other ambitions to be going on with. Me as a performer takes second place to that.”
Jonny has appeared in countless theatre productions over the years, presented TV show You’ve Been Framed before Harry Hill and reached number 24 in the UK charts with his single Just Another Day.
He set up the bi-annual charity football event Soccer Aid in 2006 alongside fellow Stoke-on-Trent son Robbie Williams.
They’ve attracted world-famous celebrities and football legends to take part over the years including the likes of Alan Shearer, Gordon Ramsey, Olly Murs, Woody Harrelson, Sir Mo Farah and Usain Bolt among many others.
That glittering celebrity lifestyle is a far cry from Jonny’s childhood in Baddeley Green, Stoke-on-Trent; although signing for Port Vale FC at the age of seven and then playing for Everton FC as a teenager did give him a taste of what was to come.
He’s still an ardent Port Vale supporter and returns to watch his team as often as possible.
“Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire is a big community,” he adds. “I love being a part of that and having as many connections with Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire as I can.”
Jonathan Wilkes graduated from Honorary Doctor of the University (DUniv) in 2009.