Durham born Jan Graveson created a momentum from a very early age taking her from stage, TV and onto film. She has multiple TV credits for popular series and dramas including Eastenders, A Touch of Frost, Byker Grove, Heartbeat, and Casualty.
Jan, under her first stage name of Shainey Khan, also appeared alongside Jimmy Nail, Tim Healy, Timothy Spall and Kevin Whatley in Hasta La Vista, an episode of the second series of Auf Weidersehen, Pet.
‘That’s where I played my first speaking role as Wendy, Oz’s birra fluff. I got recognised in Newcastle straight after the show was broadcast’.
The scene was shot in the fictional club Cannibals, which actress Lesley Saint John talks about in her February 2020 interview (link). Lesley played shadey businessman Ally Frasers girlfriend.
Reverting back to her own name, Jan also completed live stage work in theatre and musicals leading to Broadway.
‘After the last show in Toronto the producer Bill Kenwright came up to me and said ‘Yer going to New York kid’.
I got in touch with Jan and asked if she would like to tell a few stories about her life as a singer and actress.
I’m really busy out here shooting in Bollywood. I was always singing in bands, I was in a ton of bands when I was living in the UK and going to London and playing regularly. Singing was always part of my life. Now I’m singing in Bollywood, India, I’m also in a band in Goa.
I hate this lockdown were going through, it’s like they’re blocking out the music. But hey Gary, the Durham pit yackers are in Bombay now (laughs).
Between her busy work schedule Jan was able to highlight her career so far. First I asked where did it all begin and are you from a musical family?
Music was just something I was tuned into, it was part of my life. I was brought up in a house with a piano and music going on till 2am. My dad was a pitman and used to sing in the working men’s clubs. Our neighbour Aunty Katie used to come to our house and play the piano in the sitting room when he was practicing for the next show. I was always staying up late listening in.
I started playing piano when I was around 3 year old and my mother said I sang before I talked. It was all by ear until I was 7 and my Dad’s money from singing in the clubs helped pay for real piano lessons and tap dance sessions.
My Dads father was also a singer, he used to sing down the mining club at Hordon Colliery and my mother’s mother was also a singer. She was Welsh and had a beautiful voice.
Acting was another discipline you got into, how did you start on TV?
When I was young I got a hunger for working on TV and acting. My Dad was a member of the acting union Equity. I joined when I was 12 and got a provisional card after doing 52 weeks singing in the clubs. I went up for acting jobs by sending hand written letters to Tyne Tees TV.
I started to get a few small walk on rolls and then Auf Wiedersehen Pet was my first real role. I loved doing that it was a hoot from start to finish, it was really good fun. We shot it all in Nottingham. I played Oz’s ‘birra fluff’. I was recognised in Newcastle after the show went out.
I stayed in touch with Tim Healy (who played Dennis Patterson, in AWP). Tim was one of the founding members of Live Theatre in Newcastle and that is where I learnt all my theatre skills. That was with the likes of Robson Green and the amazing director Max Roberts.
I performed around four or five plays there and have to say they were some of the best years of my career and life. Learning acting and comedy skills, and just rehearsing plays at the theatre was amazing. Max Roberts, Tim Healy, Val McClaine, Davey Whitaker – God bless him – used to pop in and watch us and give us notes on our sessions.
That took me onto the BBC soap Eastenders, where I played a lead role.
Working with an agent, Jan landed a dream role in Britain’s number one TV soap. She became a household name and was awarded winner of Best Newcomer to British TV Soap by BBC.
When I left I was looking at forming a career with Warner Brothers as a singer/actress but they just saw me as a soap opera actress, it all went pear shaped really.
After that bump in the road, live stage work and big, bright lights of musicals were in your sights. How did you end up on Broadway ?
I went into my first musical in 1991 called Blood Brothers by Willy Russell. It’s a working class story set in Liverpool with songs and music in it, not your typical huge stage set of glitz and glamour. My audition for that was with Gem (former Oasis guitarist). He came into the Albury Theatre in St Martins Lane, London. I sang Will You by Hazel O’Connor and I didn’t use the pianist for that I took Gem along on guitar. I got the part and was in the West End show.
I left after one year and in 1992 Bill Kenwright asked me back to do the tour to Liverpool and Toronto, Canada. After I did that Bill was looking at New York but it wasn’t certain that he could get the five visas needed.
After the last show in Toronto Bill came up to me and said ‘Yer going to New York kid’. It was a total Wow moment. That’s how I ended up on Broadway, was nominated for a TONY award and my whole life went on its head out there.
Multiple roles on touring musicals have glittered Jan’s career including Cabaret, Rocky Horror Picture Show, 42nd Street, Copa Cabana and All That Jazz.
What advice would you give to anyone looking for a career in show business ?
It can be done if you work hard enough. I’m constantly busy, I fly through life. I tell everyone I’ve never had a singing or acting lesson, I’ve never been to an acting school or institution.
I followed my dad when I was little, I watched and learnt everything from him. There was no acting school in London for me. I did my stagecraft at Newcastle’s Live Theatre.
In the early ‘90s I played Catherine Cookson at The Customs House in South Shields, it was a fantastic gig. I had to age all through that play right up to 75 year old. It was a wonderful cast and we had a lot of fun doing it. I’m a big fan of John Miles, he wrote the music for it, it was a pleasure to work with him – and having a few knee’s up’s at his house on Tyneside (laughs).
But playing that part was a challenge which is what you have to keep doing. It’s hard work and not been easy but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
What are you doing now and have you got anything planned ?
Now I’m writing a web series which is a musical set in Mumbai and based on my life, featuring the North East in the ‘70s. I’m writing the music for it now. It’s really exciting.
I’m also a mentor here in Mumbai and Goa and running workshops in acting, singing and tap dancing. In April I’m starting gigs in a prominent venue in Bombay. I love music, singing, song writing, actors, musicians, I love it all.
Interview by Gary Alikivi March 2021.