Tommy Steele: This Is Your Life
TV Times
21 March 1970
TV Times: Tommy Steele This Is Your Life article TV Times: Tommy Steele This Is Your Life article TV Times: Tommy Steele This Is Your Life article TV Times: Tommy Steele This Is Your Life article
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by Eamonn Andrews

TOMMY STEELE: This Is Your Life … a star of the people, spurning pheasant for fish and chips

In his 21st year, a cheeky London cocksparrow called Tommy Steele bounced into the Hit Parade.

He's been flying high ever since but here Eamonn Andrews traps him in mid-flight for another TV Times presentation of This Is Your Life.

Believe it or not, 10 years ago I said: This Is Your Life to a 22-year-old Cockney sparra called Tommy Hicks; and here we are about to say it again in these pages to the same Cockney cocksparrow that millions have come to know about since then on both sides of the broad Atlantic – Tommy Steele.

Maybe the feathers are a bit finer but there's still the same Bermondsey bounce that made a whole new career since then and that will make, God willing, another new one in the 10 years to come. And again, after that, I reckon.

The only one that's going to close the book on Tommy Steele is the recording angel – and he'll have to be quick at that.

When you see Tommy on the telly or the movies, you can't help but notice his eyes. They're flashing away and rolling like ball-bearings in a wheel. Which is why I surmise that the recording angel will have to be quick.

Tommy's always on the watch. But unlike a lot of other people I know who are on the watch too, his defensive mechanism manages to work without being sultry, without being suspicious. He's had a few people try to take him in his time, and he's managed to be one jump ahead of most of them.

Now, although the lighthouse is still sweeping the sea, it's not so serious. Ace leg-puller that he is, he's mostly watching for jokers who might get there first.

One of the great secrets Tommy discovered a long time ago is that we're all equal. You may not be as rich or as talented or as well-connected as the next fella, but you can still look him in the eye and know there are more things make you equal than make you unequal. The secret is to do that without arrogance. Now that (as Sam Goldwyn might have said) Tommy is more equal than most, he avoids mock-humility as adroitly as earlier he avoided the arrogance.

Only a few weeks ago, I saw him at a party thrown (or should I say floated) by Sir Noel Coward to celebrate the Queen tapping him 'lightly' with the knighting sword. There was Tommy and his serene wife, Ann, moving unconcernedly from lords and ladies, from the Peter O'Tooles and the Stewart Grangers to Dame Edith Evans and the Vicomtesse known as Moira Lister, as if he were just passing through on his way for fish and chips but wasn't in any particular hurry.

I asked Tommy what had been the most important thing to have happened to him in the past 10 years.

"Depends. It's all in different categories isn't it? I've had such a bloody marvellous, happy life during the past 10 years. If you're going to ask a question like that it must come in three categories – Family, Professionalism and Art. The Family is the reason for the second category and the rest gets itself involved anyway. Therefore, the best thing is having my wife and my daughter, little Emma. On the more professional level? Aw Gawd! Well, opening at the Old Vic in 1960; opening in London in Half A Sixpence; the same opening in Broadway; and going to Hollywood."

"The best individual bit was when Gene Kelly came into my dressing room and said: 'Want to work with you'."

What most of all would he like to see happen to him in the next 10 years?

"Well, I want to experiment some more. I want to consolidate my position in showbusiness. I reckon I'm at the stage where I know how to put up the score but not to bat properly yet. No one becomes a complete master of the theatre. I think in the next 10 years I'd like to become that much less of an apprentice."

Two things in particular I remember from that first time I said, "This Is Your Life – Tommy Steele". One was television producer, Ernest Maxim, saying:

"There's much more to Tommy than a guitar-playing rock 'n' roll singer... His real talent is for writing and straight acting. He has a really wonderful mind, full of ideas. He has more places to go."

How right he was.

Lastly, I remember a letter of protest. A business executive from the Midlands sent me a typewritten letter expressing his outrage that the programme This is Your Life had been debased by being devoted to a young whipper-snapper like Tommy Steele. He huffed and he puffed and he signed the letter. What he didn't know was that, by the time I got it, and before she'd posted it, his secretary had pencilled on the back:

"I had to type this letter. I disagree furiously. You told us Tommy had been picked for the Royal Variety Performance. Well, if he was good enough for the Queen, he should be good enough for HIM!"

I don't know if HE got a new secretary or she got a new boss, but we've still got – as you shall see – the same irrepressible Tommy Steele.

You were born Tommy Hicks on December 17, 1936, in the south London suburb of Bermondsey. You grew up in the London Blitz and played with the other kids on the bomb sites. A day at the seaside, with Mum and brothers Colin and Roy was a rare treat.

At 15, you joined the Merchant Navy and were at sea for four and a half years. You took part in all entertainments, playing the piano, singing and doing impersonations of Norman Wisdom.

Then, while on leave in 1956, you met the man who was to figure strongly in your life. The venue was a London coffee bar.

"Remember the Cave, Tommy?"

Tell us about it... Lionel Bart

"It was in a basement in Waterloo Road, I was a jobbing printer but my real life was music."

"Tommy, another mate called Mike Pratt and I formed the group, The Cavemen and played in pubs and coffee bars for 10 bob a night."

"But I can still see the Cave coffee bar quite clearly – the cold, old dregs in those coffee cups and the stains on the saucers."

You broke up because Tommy had to go back to sea?

"Yes, but we kept in touch and in 1957 knocked out Tommy's first record, Rock With The Caveman."

In a few weeks it was in the Hit Parade. Within a month, Tommy came your first stage appearance in variety at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland. And you were almost made. But not quite.

You worked at London's Stork Room for £20 and then £25 a week. As the late-night socialites made their way home in cabs and chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces, you stood waiting for the all-night bus to Bermondsey. But you were destined to become a star of the people.

"The kids in this country need … the boy next door who comes from the same street, and talks the same way."

That's what John Kennedy, your first manager, told your mother when she asked him why he felt you had star potential. The quote comes from his book about you, in which he describes pointing to the room of your Bermondsey home and to the yard outside and saying: "All this makes Tommy a natural. With that kind of approach and Tommy's wonderful talent I'm sure we can get him to the top."

John was as good as his word. You retained your boy-next-door quality, but had to listen to a few words of wisdom when you appeared at the Cafe de Paris.

"If you want to be a star, you've got to act like one and expect to be treated like one."

Come in, Major Donald Neville-Willing! You ran the Cafe de Paris, and were responsible for producing – for the entertainment of the cream of London's society – international stars like Noel Coward (now Sir Noel), Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead. Tommy joined the star-spangled class. Did he pass the test, Major?

"He was an incredible success. But I remember having to point out to him some of the inevitable trappings of stardom. Once, a rather rough character came in and said: 'Ere, Tommy. Are yer coming' then?"

"I asked Tommy who on earth he was. 'Oh, he's my chauffeur,' said Tommy."

"So I explained: 'You don't have to be high-hat and snobbish with the people who work for you. You can be as friendly as you like. But it's not a very good image to be spoken to in those terms.'"

"That was one of Tommy's strengths. He would listen to anyone who could give him advice. At the same time he could be totally friendly with anyone at any level. He always behaved beautifully."

Yes, Tommy your manners were impeccable if a little tongue-in-cheek.

"Don't get worried. We're not Labour anymore. We vote Conservative now."

Remember saying that to Lady Lewisham, now the Countess of Dartmouth, when she called on you in Bermondsey with Major Neville-Willing?

You knew she was coming – the Major had told you – but you didn't let on when your visitor first arrived. You made them very welcome, offered some tea and then said:

"It's funny you should turn up, Major and bring your girlfriend. I was expecting some Lady Thingummybob."

"This is Lady Lewisham," said the Major.

"Oh, yeah!" you replied, "nice to meet yer."

Only you could organise a gag like that.

Life was good then. After your Cafe de Paris appearance, you made your London stage debut at the Dominion Theatre and then two films, The Tommy Steele Story and The Duke Wore Jeans.

That same year, 1957, marked your inclusion in the Royal Variety Performance. In 1958, you starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella at the London Coliseum. Your triumph continued in films like Tommy the Toreador.

But things hadn't always been so easy. Not many people know, but you have had pneumonia six times, heart trouble twice – and spinal meningitis which put you in Guys Hospital when you were in the Merchant Navy.

Your great sense of humour saw you through. A humour that frequently extended to elaborate practical jokes.

"You must go to Germany for your country. Pick up your pistol and your lethal tablets."

Those words come from a most unlikely person – your wife, Ann. You married in 1960 in Soho, a stone's throw from the Two I's coffee bar where you had your first success!

She, better than anyone, knows the kind of gags you have played on people. Ann, tell us the one about Andrew Ray.

"Tommy got two friends to dress-up in spy-type raincoats and call on Andrew Ray at his theatre. They asked him in official-sounding tones to go with them. They took him to a mocked-up office which was supposed to be some kind of Secret Service place. They asked Andrew if he would be prepared to help his country and perform a dangerous mission to Germany. He was given detailed instructions and told: 'Go to London Airport and meet your contact at the end of a particular corridor. He will give you your pistol and your lethal tablets in case anything goes wrong.'"

"Andrew took it all in. Trembling with fear but proud to be helping his country, he went to the airport and there at the rendezvous point was a man in a raincoat with his back to him. Andrew approached him, with his password ready. The man turned round – it was Tommy! Andrew took it well. I think, though, he was a bit disappointed it was only a hoax and not for real!"

All good fun! But you were still working hard, Tommy.

In 1963, you opened in the musical, Half A Sixpence in London. Two years later you were the toast of Broadway in the same show, which you later filmed. And in 1966, came The Happiest Millionaire which you filmed for Walt Disney in Hollywood.

Then you found yourself working with one of your childhood idols.

"He was so eager to learn. It didn't matter how much work was involved, he would fling himself into it with tremendous enthusiasm."

That's the voice of the great Fred Astaire, with whom you made the film, Finian's Rainbow in 1968.

Fred confirmed that you have all the attributes of a great star and are prepared to work to retain them.

All the time, you have improved and polished, but have never changed at heart. You still prefer cockles to caviare … fish and chips to pheasant.

When you agreed to play Dick Whittington at the London Palladium last December, you promised to bring back real, old-fashioned panto. No smut, just honest-to-goodness entertainment. And the result was a fantastic success, with you still playing nightly to packed houses.

Your special quality has won the applause of another famous entertainer.

"Want to work with you"

When Gene Kelly told you that, it was one of the best things that happened to you. He believes you are part of a very special club – the one he belongs to and has as its members Donald O'Connor, Fred Astaire and Ray Bolger.

Gene explained that it's a group loosely applied to the 'Song-And-Dance-Man' – and you certainly filled that role in Half A Sixpence.

"Every once in a while," says Gene, "we older members find someone we'd like to make part of our company."

"I think we've found one in Tommy Steele. He sings, he hoofs, he can turn a fast quip or play a sober scene. He has a unique quality that can make an audience laugh, cry, but, most of it, love the performer and be glad to be there with him. To be watching Tommy perform is to be part of a joyousness. As an old pro' at the game, I say: 'Welcome to the club.'"

Tommy Steele – star of the people: This Is Your Life.