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'The book started on a road trip to Spain...when we get together for fun we always end up working'

As TV star John Barrowman and his sister Carole launch their new novel, they talk to Hannah Stephenson about what it's like when one sibling is more famous than the other

Published 28/05/2016

Sibling support: Carole and John Barrowman
Sibling support: Carole and John Barrowman
Conjuror by John and Carole Barrowman is published by Head of Zeus, £12

Family clearly means everything to musical and TV star John Barrowman and his older sister Carole. They look alike, share the same confidence and infectious enthusiasm, finish each other's sentences and constantly make fun of each other - sometimes caustically but never with malice.

The Torchwood star has been living in California for more than a year now, simply because that's where the work is; he's starring as villain Malcolm Merlyn in the comic book series Arrow, shown here on Sky1.

Living across the pond means he sees more of his sister, an English professor and creative writing teacher who lives in Wisconsin, which has given them ample opportunity to collaborate on several projects. They've written a new digital comic for DC, revealing the back story of Malcolm Meryln - aka The Dark Archer.

They've also dipped their toes in the young adult market with their latest book, Conjuror, a fantasy centring on a 17-year-old boy who has the power to change reality with music. His kind are known as "Conjurors", and the teenager's tasked with stopping malevolent forces.

It's the first in the Orion chronicles series - there will be three or four - and this one brings back twins Matt and Em Calder, "Animares" whose imaginations can bring art to life, and who can travel through paintings; they featured in the Barrowmans' Hollow Earth series for children.

"We went on a road trip through Spain in 'Barry Van-i-low', a white big American van I brought over from the States," John recalls, "and things started to develop from there."

Carole adds: "The road trip was about a month. It was mostly for pleasure, but when we get together for pleasure, we always end up doing work."

They've written a few books together now, meeting up three or four times a year and taping notes. She writes the prose, sends the copy to him, they'll discuss it, and then she edits it.

At 49, John, who is married to Scott Gill, is still dashingly handsome, with matinee idol looks and tireless enthusiasm, while his sister has more academic gravitas but shares her brother's sharp wit and zest for life.

She admits that many of her students are fascinated that she has a famous sibling.

"I have students who actually come to the college because of John. They transfer from other places. A couple of semesters ago, a student was sitting almost at the front of my class and she had a Captain Jack mug sitting there," she recalls, referring to her brother's Torchwood and Dr Who character, Captain Jack Harkness.

"I wandered around, got to her desk and said, 'He is such an ass!'

"Other times, students come up to me in the hall and talk about Malcolm Merlyn like a real person. 'Is your brother that mean?'"

John has many strings to his bow - as well as the musical theatre and TV work, there's also a recording career, plus his property company with husband Scott.

They've amassed a dozen properties in London, Wales (where Doctor Who and Torchwood were filmed), Wisconsin, Florida, Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

"We don't live in all of them," he jokes. "Whenever I've been given a lump sum of money for something, I buy property immediately."

His Arrow gig means he'll remain in the US indefinitely, commuting from Palm Springs to Vancouver, where it's filmed, three days a week from July to April, and he isn't allowed to do a lot of other work due to contract ties.

While he seems happy enough, there's an air of frustration about Torchwood being left in limbo. "After a lot of things changed at the BBC, I was sitting around going, 'What's happening?' When something changes hands on a network, the people who come in don't want the shows they didn't have much to do with, unless they are hugely successful, so a lot of us suffered at the hands of that.

"There's no malice, it's just a fact of the industry. I didn't feel like I'd been dropped but there was no explanation, because the shows I worked on did very well. I just decided not to sit around and wait.

"I'm not away because I don't want to be in the UK; I'm in the States because the work has taken me there."

The Arrow contract could last 10 years, and John says he'd happily do a decade of the series, because it would mean he'd never have to work again.

"I get to pick and choose and do what I want to do. I still do music, but not everybody buys CDs any more.

"I still love musical theatre but it's hard work. I'm 49 and I'm not going to play the part of the young, strapping leading man any more. Careers change and I have to change with it. Television has given me a life at home with Scott."

In recent years, he's considered adopting a child.

"It's something we talk about. Scott will say to me, 'If you do it, I'll do it' - but that's not how you do it. It has to be a joint decision."

Carole is married with two grown-up children and two grandchildren.

"I'm the one they come to when there's a problem and they don't want to talk to her about it," John boasts. "But what they don't realise is that they still get the lecture."

He is also involved with a charity called Sanctuary near his home in Palm Springs, which houses young LGBT people who've been cast out of their foster homes.

"These kids come out with no self-esteem, don't think they are worth anything. So we get them back on their feet, put them into college and into the real world."

Born in Glasgow, the Barrowmans moved to America in the mid-Seventies, when their father's job for Caterpillar machinery company relocated.

John returned to the UK in 1989, taking his first professional West End lead as an unknown opposite Elaine Paige in Anything Goes. He has never looked back, but Captain Jack Harkness was his big breakthrough.

When Hollow Earth came out, there were whispers that John and Carole could create the next Harry Potter phenomenon. That didn't happen.

"We didn't set out to be the next JK Rowling or to be the next Harry Potter," says John.

"We just wanted to tell a story. Our world-building is very different to Rowling's," Carole adds.

John turns 50 next year, but isn't worried about it.

"I don't think about tomorrow. I don't think about next week," he states. "I just worry about what I have to do today."

Conjuror by John and Carole Barrowman is published by Head of Zeus, £12

Belfast Telegraph

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