Michael Jackson’s huge UK fanbase helped Adrian Grant to launch a hit tribute show.

LIFE has been a thriller for theatre producer Adrian Grant since 1988 when he became a Michael Jackson fan and has ended up running shows personally endorsed by the mega-star.

Grant opens Thriller Live in the West End on Wednesday and brings the touring version to Newcastle and York in the next two months.

So what was it like when he met the controversial superstar back in 1990? “When I first went over to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch and there was monkeys running around inside and a tiger, a giraffe, llamas and everything, I was thinking ‘this isn’t real’. His security guard told me ‘it is real for Michael Jackson, he’s grown up with that, that’s his reality’.

“When you do spend time with him you realise he’s as very down to earth as much as I’m talking to you now. He’ll joke around and he’s very knowledgeable about his music and his craft, but away from all that he’s just a normal guy who has had massive success. His life has been lived under a microscope unfortunately and he’s been naive and been let down by people and made mistakes which he’d hold his hand up to,” says Grant.

In the Eighties, he launched the Off The Wall fan magazine selling 200 copies. Subscriptions grew to 25,000 and led to an annual Michael Jackson tribute show from 1991 with the tenth anniversary event attended by Jackson.

“We had over 3,000 people there and it came into my mind that it would make a stage show in its own right. At that time a one-off event cost us about £30,000 up to £100,000,”

says Grant who gained the investment of the Flying Music production company in 2006 to develop the show, but admits it was hard handing over “his baby” to the commercial experts. “On the creative side I work hand in hand with the director (Gary Lloyd) but he provides the choreography and staging,” he says.

The only down side of linking your burgeoning stage production career so closely to Jackson is that Reading-based Grant finds himself having to defend the 50-year-old singer’s reputation even though his show never touches on the “wacko”

side of the artist.

“The funny thing is that when one of his records, like Billy Jean, plays people aren’t talking about the allegations against him. We don’t touch on any of the controversy.

People are just dancing and having a good time. We’ve had people as young as five and as old as 70 dancing in the aisles,” says Grant, who developed Thriller Live from two years of UK and European touring. This year it will move on from Newcastle and York to Czechoslovakia and Poland.

Jackson hasn’t seen this latest version of the show but brother Tito did pop along to the Lyric Theatre last week “and was complimentary”

while a taped version will be sent to the singer who is currently recording in Los Angeles and promising new releases, TV appearances and tours in the near future. “He’s going to come back bigger and better than ever. I’m looking forward to hearing his new material. He’s looking forward to putting this negative period behind him. In my case, it’s hard to go wrong with Michael Jackson’s music.

“When we first started touring he gave me a message of congratulations. Otherwise, there is no direct deal with Michael Jackson.

It’s a concept presentation of his music, not a book musical where you’d need planned rights. With tribute shows you’re free to put on a presentation.”

Grant says that his many meetings with Jackson shows that the “reclusive” side of the singer is more of a media myth. “At the end of the day he’s one of the most open pop stars I’ve met. Prince is reclusive, but Michael will open his doors to the public and fans. I once offered him a few dance moves which he laughed at. His advice to me was that you need rhinoceros skin to be in this industry,” he says.

THE West End version boasts Sunderland’s Ben Foster as the voice of Michael Jackson during his rock music period and he sings songs like Beat It and Dirty Diana playing the US performer’s alter ego.

“We could never emulate Michael Jackson as one person because of the expansive career he’s had which has lasted 40 years so we’re going from having a young Michael Jackson and split his material across five lead singers including a female version (originally Darlington’s Zoe Birkett followed by Denise Pearson of Five Star for the West End run),” says Grant.