33 years have passed since Joe Greco enthusiastically announced “And I’m Joe to You” from the Pink Windmill Kids line up. Joe et al were catapulted back into the spotlight at the end of 2016, and with jovial pressure from PWK fans on social media they reformed for Comic Relief 2017.
Giving up performing, presenting and puppeteering in 2000, Joe works as a Video Editor and Cameraman, mainly in the corporate sector. He is married to performer and puppeteer Sheila Clark; the couple have twin daughters and live outside London.
Being good friends, Joe and I decided to have a chat about his life as a child performer, his later career, struggles and what he hopes will come next..
What is your background? Are you from a theatrical family?
Born in London, Mum’s English and Dad’s from Italy, the province of Salerno (south of Naples), he emigrated to Britain in the 1950s. My parents met on a London Underground train in the 1960s, I’m the youngest of 3. My family wasn’t theatrical at all, but my sister Mary began attending Corona Academy Stage School from the age of 9.
Yeah, I experienced some bullying because of my weight at primary school, my Mum was afraid the same could happen at high school. So Corona took me on, in truth, because I was Mary’s brother.
What was your initial experience of stage school?
It was fine actually, I settled down okay initially. It was a fee paying school, but when you started working, after you paid your fees and costs for tap shoes, books etc; you got back what was left, which I loved because I managed to buy myself a video camera.
My parents didn’t pay any fees for me after the first term. Corona really was like walking into the 1940s, Dennis Waterman, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Francesca Annis were among the famous alumni and we were warned there was a reputation to protect.
When did you get the Rod Hull and Emu gig?
Within the first year! I got Emu’s Magical Easter Show (Look out for a very young Joe an co accompanying Dana) for the BBC.
You were very young to be working in such a professional environment?
Thinking about it now, yes, I was very young. Within reason, I do believe self-discipline and independence are great skills to learn early on in life.
On the whole, stage school was great fun, but it was really hard work too, there was a lot of travelling and being away from home.
I did a job for 6 weeks in Bury St Edmunds at age 11 – the major downside was I missed my family dreadfully, I was so homesick and anxious. We were reminded by Corona to “Stay quiet and be professional at all times“. That mantra, at times, could be very difficult to handle, but I wouldn’t change a moment of those stellar years.
Sadly, the magic of being a child performer dissipates quickly, we all thought we were the kids from Fame at Corona, but it’s all quite fleeting in reality.
You were going into adolescence in the spotlight, were there any pressures you faced?
I loved performing, but I started seeing myself on television and became increasingly self-conscious, anxious about my weight – plus a few of the other kids were making fun of me for being bigger. I know the teasing reflects more on the insecurities of those doing it, stage school is also a notorious breeding ground for competitiveness.
I was convinced I wouldn’t be in the next series of Emu if I didn’t lose weight, I told my Mum this was a fact, it probably wasn’t true thinking back. Having a larger-than-life Italian Father and extended family, my home life had always revolved around food.
This is where my difficult relationship with food and anxiety really began, with Mum’s support I began to diet at 13, I was hungry quite often, but I was living the dream and wanted it to continue. I managed to slim down and was successful from then on.
After leaving school you did go on to star in Spin Off and Spatz as a young adult…. I recently watched the first episode of Spatz and you do look very thin, were you struggling with your body image then too?
Yeah, I was definitely struggling, from 18 to 20 years old, I was obsessive about my weight, swimming 60 lengths (about a mile), 3 times a week and not eating very much at all.
I remember Vas Blackwood (who played Dexter on Spatz) commenting something like “Well, you don’t eat anything anyway“, I just laughed and disagreed with him. I then watched myself on-screen and noticed I didn’t look very well, I was too thin.
Did you get any help?
Not professional help, my Mum and brother thankfully got me out of the rut, Alan (my brother) encouraged me to do weight training with him, learning about food as nourishment, helping me change my thought processes.
I’m dealing with my anxieties much better these days, I moderate my food and alcohol intake; go to the gym and I attend two dance classes a week with Roy Gayle (who was part of Hot Gossip back in the day).
Why did you quit performing?
It was my body issues and anxieties once again, I didn’t feel comfortable in front of a camera anymore. I still wanted to perform and realised that puppetry was a good way of performing and working with scripts, yet staying hidden. You’re utterly exhausted, aching all over after a day puppeteering, so after a while it becomes a strain physically.
Creatively, I get very itchy feet after a while; so I decided to train as a Video Editor when I was 30, and moved into camera work in 2012.
I always enjoyed the technical side of the arts, when I was at Corona, and away filming, a few of the others and myself would make short films, we had so much fun! I think we made a mini horror film at the hotel once.
What did you feel when PWK went viral?
Scared, I had always been really embarrassed about it all, and locked the memories away, hoping the PWK would never see the light of day. I found it really hard to watch, because of seeing myself younger and I would just cringe.
I soon realised how much genuine affection there is for the PWK and it is quite amusing. People tell me that the Pink Windmill is a huge part of their childhood too, so I got over myself pretty quickly and I don’t mind at all now.
How did your family and friends react to the PWK reunion?
I did think to myself “What on earth are you thinking Joe?” But my wife Sheila and everybody close to me have been really kind and supportive.
My daughters are teenagers, so I think they were a little mortified to start off, seeing Dad being all cheesy, singing and dancing. But they are used to it all now, and they like how it cheers me up I think.
What do people tend to ask you about those days?
I am asked mainly what Rod Hull and Carol Lee Scott (Grotbags) were like to work with? Rod Hull was a nice man and Carol was a very sweet lady, it’s sad to think that both of them have now passed away (Rod died in 1999 and Carol in 2017)
In the current climate within the media, people seem to be fishing for some kind of sensational historical scoop about bad treatment, but I have nothing bad to say about my time as a child performer.. Luckily, I had a blast and most of the people I worked with were great.
The funniest thing I saw was in the studio, Carol (Grotbags) was standing a bit too close behind a flower container, it had a flip top, so when Rod and Emu popped up out of it, Carol sadly caught the full force of the lid to the face. It must have been painful because it brought a tear to her eye, I’ll never forget Rod’s biting instant retort, “That’s the best bit of acting I’ve seen you do”..
How did it feel when the PWK reunited?
It was strange, but we were soon back in our old dynamic. The parameters have changed but we are all the same characters from 1984 really. It was a special reunion, so nice to be in touch again, it’s like a long-lost family. Getting older has made me realise that the PWK is something that I’m really proud I was part of.
So what’s next for you?
I’ve decided to venture back into acting! It is a daunting prospect, but an exciting one. I need a new challenge, acting really is my first love, what makes me truly happy. I began to really miss performing about 5 years ago, but my anxieties have been holding me back.
I have realised, since PWK especially, life is short and I don’t have room for such negativity any longer, I have wasted so much time worrying about “whatifs“. I have received loads of encouragement from those closest and that means the world. I knew something had to change and it’s time to be happier professionally.
I’m currently looking for representation (agent), I have been setting up my website, I’d be quite interested in trying some writing, film and stage work too.