Tommy Steele's Second Year climaxed by 'This Is Your Life'
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October 1958
Unknown source Tommy Steele article Tommy Steele and Eamonn Andrews
Tommy Steele holds "his life" in his arms. He was the subject of This Is Your Life on Monday. With him is master of ceremonies Eamonn Andrews

with thanks to Pat Richardson of The Official Tommy Steele Society UK for contributing this article

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by Malcolm Johns

The first Monday in November usually sees the Royal Variety Performance. It was the day set aside in 1956, just as it is this year. But two years ago there was no royal show. It was the time of the Suez crisis and the Queen did not think she should attend. During the day the show was called off.

That same day became notable for something else. For the first time Tommy Steele stepped on to a variety stage – at Sunderland Empire. A year later he was chosen to appear himself at the Royal Variety Performance.

In the year between he had become the wonder-boy of British show business, "Tommy Steele's Golden Year" was the way it got dubbed. Steele was a top box-office draw, his records sold by the thousand and every avenue of show business was bidding for his services – films, television, variety and concert offers poured in.

But the big argument was: How would Tommy Steele be rated at the time of the next Royal Variety Performance? Would he, in fact, still be an outstanding figure in the show world?

The same argument is not raised now, Tommy Steele is accepted as rather more important than a passing boy wonder. Only on Monday, BBC-TV rated Steele high enough to trick him into This Is Your Life, to join such people as Vera Lynn, Anna Neagle, Jimmy Edwards, A.E. Matthews, Humphrey Lyttelton, and Harry Secombe, previous show business names who had similarly been honoured.

Year two started with the Royal Variety Performance. It was a nerve-racking show for any 20-year-old. Tommy had it worse than most. His infectious good humour was there, but the starchy audience was slow to respond – as it is to anyone.

Queen clapped

The Queen Mother took up his mood and was seen clapping in time with his music. The others joined in and Tommy was gaining another triumph.

The Royal Variety Show came as a break in the filming of his second picture, "The Duke Wore Jeans," which in the spring was to get a West End showing and a circuit release.

Tommy was not able to see the West End showing as he was out of the country at the time. He had not seen it at an earlier private showing and it is typical of him that he did not ask for one to be specially arranged for his return.

He was quite content to slip off with a few friends to see the film at one of the cinemas in the East End of London.

"The Duke Wore Jeans" was the first time a wide public had seen Steele as something more than a rock 'n' roller. He was cast in a dual role giving him many chances to show his flair for light comedy.

But people in Liverpool had realised it earlier. As soon as he had finished making the film he had gone there to start rehearsals for his first pantomime. "Goldilocks And The Three Bears." He sang, he danced, he played his part in the comedy sketches and gave his usual act for good measure.

NME critic George Harrison wrote at the time: "Tommy is a sensational discovery for pantomime. He moved in with the ease of a veteran."

There was scarcely a spare seat throughout the run of the show. It was perhaps the most important triumph of his career. It convinced show business that he was not just a leader of a craze, but that he had an all-round ability of a performer.

His fame spread far beyond Britain. As soon as the pantomime finished he packed his bags and sailed for South Africa. His reception there was tremendous.

No sooner had he returned to Britain than Steele was off again – this time to Scandinavia. Travelling to the airport, his car was involved in a slight accident and he missed his plane.

Dear trip!

Tommy was determined to let no one down. He chartered a private aircraft and arrived in time for his first show. But there was inevitable rushing and as he went through Denmark and Sweden there were more crowds pushing at him all the time.

In Stockholm, for example, 8,000 people a night turned up to see him in the city's tennis stadium – the largest stadium in town. In the sort of electric atmosphere he generated, fans got very excited.

There was the same problem as in South Africa – how could he have time to rest? He could only get into and out of the concert halls with difficulty.

Back once again in Britain he started on April 30 what was to be a long concert and variety tour. The first night was on April 30 at Dundee, and once again the fans became too keen.

They rushed on to the stage as his act ended and began to tear him apart.

He collapsed in agony and didn't work again for weeks.

His injuries then, the constant work of the previous year and a half and being the unceasing interest of millions of people had proved too great a strain.

The BBC were interested enough to give Steele his own d-j programme, "Handful of Discs." This was arranged before he went to South Africa and despite the injuries he suffered at Dundee he did the first programme as scheduled a few days later.

But his doctors told him that he must have a complete rest. For the first time the strain of being a star was lifted. All his commitments were cancelled or postponed, including his radio show.

Tommy had longed for months to try his hand at recording someone else. Decca chief, E.R Lewis, gave him a go-ahead and with his friend, songwriter Lionel Bart, Steel recorded The Kentones' vocal group, and the resulting disc was issued in America later in the summer.

But it was June 14 before he played another stage date. A few days before came the biggest surprise of all.

At a midnight reception in the office of his agent, Harold Fielding, Tommy announced that he and Ann Donoghue had become engaged.

She was a dancer and actress, but gave up her own career – Ann was at that time appearing in a successful London musical – to help Tommy.

Big help

He returned to variety at Coventry Theatre. Ann Donoghue was with him telling him to stop worrying before he went on and waiting with a towel as he came off sweating.

The fans went wild – just as they always had. His absence was only a temporary set back. He went on to do variety throughout the summer and in the autumn he has been going up and down the country in a series of concerts.

They were arranged to cover as many big towns as possible, and often those he had never appeared at before.

When they were planned he knew that it was unlikely that he could do any provincial dates until the summer of next year.

A year ago, his future seemed difficult to predict. Would he survive rock? Could he stand the strain? Would people still be interested in him?

These questions have been answered with a firm yes.

He plays his last provincial date on November 15 – a fortnight tomorrow – at Kettering Granada. Then he begins work on his pantomime and a new film. With time for rest in between, he will not be free to tour again until next August or September.

It was Tommy's inspired success at Liverpool last Christmas that led agent Ian Bevan of the Fielding office to seek out something really outstanding for his pantomime this year.

High-level negotiating, plus two trips to America later, and Bevan had obtained a complete score of "Cinderella" by the world's leading writers of stage musicals, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, as well as some of the music from another of their shows, "Me And Juliet" for the London Coliseum production.

More films

The film, which follows on his schedule, will be the first of three said to bring him £150,000. If everything goes well for him, he is set for triumphs even greater than those that have gone before.

On record, he has been notably successful during the last year when two American titles, "Nairobi", which sent him soaring up to the hit parade's third position, and then "Only Man On The Island," a number which he had to share honours with American singer Vic Damone.

A year ago we were still keenly buying two songs Steele had partly written himself – "Handful of Songs" and "Water, Water". From his first film, "The Tommy Steele Story," they formed what is so far his best selling record.

These hits from a wide cross-section of numbers proving that his hits don't only come from the rock beat. Soon will come records of his songs from "Cinderella." First Decca try him on a coupling of two American pops, "Come On, Let's Go" and "Put A Ring On Her Finger".

Like every other singer, Steele likes hit records. But even if these don't prove to be hits, his future looks safer than ever.

Tommy has always wanted to be an entertainer. It looks as though he has achieved his goal.