“Tonight, Cat, I’m going to be Jerry Lee Lewis!” a 14-year-old Duke Christopher told Cat Deeley on Stars in Their Eyes in 2003. Emerging through the dry-ice in a blue satin jacket and with wavy slicked-back hair, he performed Great Balls of Fire on his feet while hammering out the song’s famous piano chords, just like the first bad boy of Rock ’n’ Roll. His charismatic copycat rendition led him to win the show.
“My dad took me to see Jerry Lee Lewis live when I was six, I remember it vividly,” recalls Christopher in his Welsh lilt. He is dressed in an immaculate white uniform, with three half stripes on each shoulder, and has one eye on a computer screen.
Glancing down I spy sparkly sequinned-covered tuxedo shoes, which look rather out of place in his small, pared-back office.
“Jerry's last song was ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and he poured oil on to the piano, setting it on fire,” he enthuses. “I was hooked from that point onwards.”
Now entertainment director on Princess Cruises' Crown Princess, Christopher oversees the 100-strong entertainment department with the help of a management team that includes the production manager and the cruise director.
He explains that impending upheaval is behind his distraction because one of the transformers in the Princess Theatre has blown, which could mean no show that night, as well as no power in three bars and restaurants.
Although there is, fortunately, a replacement transformer on board, it weighs over half a tonne and will take five people several hours to shift. Luckily the ship is staying in port all day.
“You have to be stationary to do any heavy lifting work at sea,” he explains, adding that he’s not so keen on crisis management when it spills out from behind the scenes. “When it potentially affects what guests will see then it’s a problem,” he says.
Christopher didn’t ever imagine he would work in the cruise industry, although he was attracted to the sea and as a young boy dreamed of being a marine biologist or a singer.
His showbiz dreams almost came true when he competed on The X Factor in 2009, the year that launched Olly Murs into stardom, but were eventually thwarted by a string of bad luck.
Although he sang his way through Bootcamp to reach the selection stage at the Judges’ Houses – where he would have performed in front of Cheryl Cole and Will Young – a family emergency meant he couldn’t travel to Marrakech in Morocco at the last minute. Despite this, he was signed by Syco Music, Simon Cowell’s record label, to record his own version of Stand by Me.
He was naturally elated with his long-held hopes of chart success finally in his grasp. But just before its release he was diagnosed with painful vocal chord nodules and Cowell’s record label dropped him.
After three unsuccessful operations to fix the problem, he had to face the reality that his dreams of an international singing career were no longer a possibility.
“It was tough at the time, but cruising brought me back,” he smiles.
With a faint hope that he could still have a singing job, he took a six-month contract as a cast performer with Thomson Cruises (now Marella), but after a while doctors warned he could provoke serious damage to even his speaking voice if he continued.
During his first six months at sea, with regular crossings of the Bay of Biscay, which is known for its rough seas, he learned the hard way during a dance sequence that shows need to adapt in stormy weather.
“We had a cruise director who wouldn’t let us change the choreography,” he recalls. “I remember throwing this girl up in the air and having to run to catch her on the other side of the stage because the ship listed. I caught her by her ankles and her head swung down missing the floor by a matter of inches.”
With performance at sea a far more erratic affair than on land, not long after he played the role of Orin Scrivello in London’s West End in Little Shop of Horrors. “I went to work during a thunderstorm and I automatically thought that the show would be cancelled,” he laughs. “But, of course, the theatre wasn’t going anywhere – on land you don’t have to worry about things like that.”
Even though land performances were more predictable, he had become hooked on life at sea, and working with a cruise director had opened his eyes to the job. He took a junior assistant position with P&O Cruises, before joining Princess Cruises and progressing from assistant cruise director to deputy and finally a fully-fledged cruise director.
When the company split the role into cruise director, the face and voice of the ship on board, and entertainment director, the head of department responsible for staff, planning and scheduling, three years ago, he was thrilled to move up the ladder.
Although he misses the stage sometimes, he loves getting out onto the floor and observing the ship’s entertainment, which has often been scheduled up to two years in advance. “Watching what’s on paper come to life on the floor is the best part of the job,” he says.
There are some one-off events where his sparkly loafers take their rightful place back on the stage, such as Voice of the Ocean, Princess Cruises’ on-board partnership with television’s The Voice.
Christopher is one of the red-chair judges on the Crown Princess version where he can combine his love of cruise and performance with his The X Factor and Stars in Their Eyes experiences.
“I get to coach the singers,” he says. “It’s incredible – the highlight of the cruise, for sure.”