YUL Brynner arguably made the role of the King of Siam his own.
But as much as Ramon Tikaram would love to eclipse that definitive performance, he has no intentions of ditching his hair for the touring production of The King And I that lands at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre on Tuesday.
“They’re not paying me that much,” quips the actor who first came to prominence in cult 1990s series This Life and is now a regular in EastEnders.
What audiences do get is the warmth that comes from taking a story most know from film to the relative intimacy of a theatre setting.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s smash-hit musical tells the story of a British governess brought to the court of Siam to tutor the King’s many children.
“The king is a despot, that has to be established in the first instance otherwise you don’t get the reward of him turning out to be a man capable of change and education.
“But we’ve factored in all that and created moments where actually he’s quite funny with his difficulties in understanding Western culture, because he does come out with some sensible notions in terms of pure logic.
“To make those moments funny, that’s been the challenge and I think we’ve been fairly successful.”
This new production is directed by Paul Kerryson as a lavish, grand-scale spectacle with giant gold Buddhas, sumptuous costumes, a chorus of children, acrobatic dancers and an orchestra reproducing sweeping melodies such as Shall We Dance, I Whistle A Happy Tune and Getting To Know You.
Cast alongside Josefina Gabrielle, who plays Anna, the King is certainly stark contrast to the BBC 4 film Ramon has just finished with Dougie Henshaw in Morocco – a drama called Hotel Taliban about Shaun Langhan’s incarceration by the Taliban.
“I thought, when I received the script, it would be a hilarious half hour comedy but turns out it wasn’t,” quips Ramon, who acknowledges the King presents one of those unusual roles where he, in effect, gets to play a goodie and a baddie.
“You make that arc and it’s rare you get to play that. For me, whenever I play baddies, they usually stay bad. I was going to say it’s a deeper examination of the human personality, but I don’t know if it is that exactly.
“But is it true, it’s rare I get offered the opportunity to play nice guys. I don’t know what it is about me or my presence.
“In Hotel Taliban there was the possibility I could play the interpreter who really goes through the whole gamut of fear and disaster and the audience completely sympathises with him.
“No, they gave me the Taliban commander; they decided that was more me. I don’t know what it is but I do tend to get cast as people who have a lot of problems with other people, misanthropes.”
Then soldiers son Ramon attributes the roots of his sense of authority, perhaps, to his upbringing in a military family in Germany and Kent.
“I did grow up in a very military environment. The discipline from that, as much as I hated it at the time, has kind of informed the way I approach my work. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I work very hard.
“I suppose my father was always a stern, direct, kind of scary guy. Although I’m very different to him in terms of personality that has informed a lot of my mannerisms and behaviour and looks. That’s unavoidable really.
“I’m very jolly and I try in real life to be as opposite to any character I play on stage or television. But as soon as a I walk into a meeting with a director and I’ve read the role I pretty much know what they’re looking for and it all comes out. It must be something to do with natural authority. I try to play against that in real life.”
But whatever his perceived demeanour, Ramon has been pulled to musical theatre since he burst onto our screens as the irrepressible Ferdy in cult BBC drama This Life.
“When you talk about what plans there were at the beginning of my career being in musicals wasn’t one of them,” admits Ramon.
“Going back to the mid-1990s, after the success of This Life, the Really Useful Group contacted me and asked if I wanted to play Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Initially I was apprehensive.
“They kept putting the figure up and up until they made it very difficult to say no. Quite mercenary, but that’s how I initially got into the West End.
“It is a discipline you kind of miss when you’re not doing it. When you do a lot of TV you can get lazy or lose sight of other skills so I try to do some theatre.”
THE last time Ramon Tikaram was in Sheffield he was rehearsing a band at Red Tape Studios.
While he still holds musical aspirations, as a father and successful actor, the brother of ’90s chart regular Tanita Tikaram knows he has to go where the work is.
“I haven’t got management for that kind of thing and I’m so lazy and I’ve still got kids who are growing up. I can’t really say to them ‘Dad’s going off again because dad wants to do this’.
“Tanita always knows exactly what she wants – she has a very clear vision.
“She’s always followed through regardless of what anybody else has said.”
Ramon went to university but, like Tanita, had already caught something of a music bug.
“My parents always had an amazing collection of records. We weren’t cut off from the art world but also growing up we created our own little world inside the home because growing up in the British army in the 1970s was quite difficult if you were of colour.”
While his character in This Life might not have sat well with his family back then, it launched a career embracing some high-profile and diverse roles.
Ramon admits he didn’t really have a strategy after the series, however.
“The profile you get from doing something like This Life is unexpected so if you do have a plan you’ve got to do it on the hoof,” says the actor.
“I didn’t have one, but I knew I didn’t want to be playing bisexual bikers for the rest of my life – that was my only criteria.
“In a sense This Life was ground-breaking, the way the script was written, the way it was shot, and the sense that people owned that programme because it didn’t have a large push; it was discovered by people rather than thrust upon them. Maybe that helped, that we weren’t celebrities as such.”
Ramon’s CV since includes working with the politically-powered band Asian Dub Foundation and with Noel Fielding – playing a “not very good warrior” on The Mighty Boosh – after they met on another project in which he was a psycho Japanese hairdresser called Troll.
In the past two years he’s been appearing on and off in EastEnders as Qadim, father of Amira Shah, although he is unsure where that role is heading.
“They made it very difficult for me to not do it and said ‘we’ve got nobody else’,” he recalls.
“I continue to be Amira’s father. I don’t know if I will for much longer because I don’t know what is happening and... I’m talking too much now. I’m not really privy to what’s happening.”
For now, however, Ramon is proud of what they’ve managed to achieve with The King And I, and audience reaction.
“They’re getting what they believe they are gonna get,” he concludes. “Because the script is highly prescriptive and there’s not really space for deviation you can’t reinterpret, but what you can do is re-stage in inventive and clever ways and use actors you think might reinvent moments. I think we’ve done that, myself and Josefina, so I’m jolly happy with it.
“My agent came to see the show and she was saying to me ‘If I had to list the parts you would end up playing before the end of your career this would have been on it’.
“Being half Malaysian...that wasn’t the reason I was asked to play the role but it does help because I know that side of the world.”