It’s been quite a year for Steve Royle, appearances on prime-time ITV show Britain’s Got Talent attracting a whole new audience, his entertaining performances wowing celebrity judges and TV audiences alike, ensuring a top-three finish after a public vote.
And now he’s finally back on the road for a frantic dose of wholesome family entertainment fusing stand-up, slapstick and comic routines. Or ‘a feast of entertainment for both eyes and ears of the young and old’, as his promoters put it.
Away from the acting, writing, comedy and juggling, there’s also presenting, with a Gillard Award secured for his BBC Radio Lancashire show, a performer who was part of Peter Kay’s 16-night Phoenix Nights Live charity show at Manchester Arena having down the years supported some of the UK’s most popular comics, also including former WriteWyattUK interviewee Dave Spikey and Roy Walker.
Steve’s CV includes parts in hit TV comedies Car Share, Phoenix Nights, Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere, Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor and Stand Up Britain, plus straight acting roles in The Things You Do for Love: I Still Believe – a key moment for him, as we’ll find out – and Magnolia.
And while the pandemic delayed his title role launch in a national tour of Naturally Insane: The Life of Dan Leno, that’s set for its West End premiere soon, after a successful Lytham Hall run. But first there’s his surely ironically-titled debut UK tour, so far involving dates in Barnsley, Middlesbrough, Barnard Castle, Leeds, Northwich, Camberley and Newcastle-upon-Tyne,as well as on his home patch at Chorley Theatre (with another show due there in late January) and Burnley Mechanics, with Blackpool Grand and Southport Comedy Festival coming soon.
As those who saw his Britain’s Got Talent appearances now know (cards on the table here – I’d never watched the show before, but made a special exception for Steve, and from what I saw of his fellow finalists, he deserved to win by a mile), entertainment runs in the family, with his partner Janet – an actor and a drama/singing tutor – and three daughters making live TV cameos with him in that final.
What’s more, I can testify after my initial morning call to the winner of the inaugural Red Rose Awards Entertainer of the Year gong that his youngest has the comedy genes too, her recorded answer-machine message including a mischievous, “I’m 11 years old, what could possibly go wrong?”.
“Ah, she’s good, in’t she? A good secretary, that.”
Last time we spoke, I pointed out, he only had one daughter, although the arrival of the next was imminent. But now Daisy and Rosie have been joined by the pre-discussed Lucy. Time flies, eh.
“Yeah … obviously she was the accident.”
Well, I know how that feels as the youngest of five, with neat two-year gaps between the older four then a five-and-a-half year wait for me.
“Oh, that’s a ‘book him in for the snip the next day’ accident, that!”
Steve, originally from Milnrow, Rochdale, was back home later than planned that morning after chatting to the presenters on BBC Breakfast. I missed that but caught his pal Dave Spikey on the red sofa not long before, paying tribute to fellow ex-Eight Out of Ten Cats panellist Sean Lock. And that led to our brief chat about a respected, razor-sharp comedy great, lost far too young.
“He was someone you really admired as a comedian, and someone Dave knew really well.”
By all accounts, Sean was every bit as funny off stage and screen as on.
“Yeah, you tend to like acts that are very different from yourself, and he was quite surreal in some respects. I remember watching him thinking I’d love to be able to do that, make it feel as effortless as he did.”
Steve remains in touch with Dave Spikey, the pair ‘long overdue a meal out’ together. As for me, last time I saw Steve in person was in November 2013, in an interviewer’s role at Chorley Little Theatre for an Ebb & Flo bookshop event marking the publication of Becoming Johnny Vegas, alongside the much-loved St Helens comic.
“As far back as that? Wow. That was a mad night, wasn’t it? I think I left at three in the morning, and he still hadn’t finished signing all the books!”
Funny you should say that. Rumour has it there are still people queuing for the bar, waiting to have their books signed by Johnny.
“It wouldn’t surprise me! Unbelievable.”
After a couple of hours, I gave up, leaving my copy with the theatre staff, who promised they’d get it back to me the following day. And they did, Johnny obliging overnight.
“A very sensible move! I’ve spoken about that night to so many people as an example of just how lovely he is. You didn’t just get your book signed, you got a personal 10-minute experience with Johnny Vegas and a personalised book. I think I was only hanging around to get my copy signed. He said, ‘I’ll do yours last’. Bloody hell! But it was a very elaborate copy when he finally did it.”
As for my last Royle command performance, that was supporting fellow local Mr Spikey at that same venue on his Overnight Success tour in July 2003. He repeated that role on Dave’s following Living the Dream tour, but it’s the earlier one that seems more apt now, 18 years on, following Steve’s own late elevation to the limelight. I mean, it’s been blistering, I suggested, the speed of his rise to national treasure.
“Yeah! There I was on the big irony of Dave’s Overnight Success tour, and now … well, if I didn’t have this surname … instead we’ve made this the Royle Variety Performance UK tour.”
Talking of trips down Memory Lane, I recently unearthed some cuttings from my newspaper past, including a Lancashire Evening Post feature/interview with Steve from August 2005, when he’d just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe with his Slaughterhouse Live co-performers, including Martin Pemberton, a fellow Lancashire lad who worked alongside then took over Steve’s chief jester role at Camelot Theme Park.
Then there was an autumn feature for the Lancashire Design and Living glossy magazine, Steve – also a panto regular – and Janet inviting photographer Paul Simpson and I to nose around their house, the tale of which I still dine out on 16 years later.
“Ah, I still occasionally see that article! The photographer also took a picture of a shoe that had just been moved to put it out of the way, part of a tidy-up, and it got featured. Ha!”
I shall now attempt to retell my story … in as few words as possible. First, let me set the scene. As we walked in, Steve and Janet made us feel welcome, making us a cuppa, and after a lengthy chat, Paul – his next job elsewhere already lined up – got to work while we carried on chatting in the kitchen, me taking notes as he walked around, taking various shots of treasured objects and wandering from room to room.
Then, Steve invited me upstairs (don’t worry, it’s not that kind of story), and with Paul joining us, led us to his daughter’s bedroom, where there was a lovely mural on the wall, which Steve told us was painted by Martin Pemberton.
“Do you remember Martin? He was the jester who took over from me at Camelot Theme Park when I left.”
I did remember him, and we talked about Martin for a while, Steve then explaining that the caravan he previously lived in at the Charnock Richard visitor attraction (long since closed now) was then taken over by Martin, but was in a bit of a state, less and less habitable as time wore on. If you weren’t careful, he pointed out, you could put your foot right through the rusting floor and do yourself a major injury. He then added, ‘Consequently, it was condemned, and Martin had to move out. In fact, he lives here now.”
And with that, Steve reached across to a big in-built cupboard, opened the door, and there was Martin, peering out of the dark from inside, with a casual nod before he greeted us both with a deadpan, ‘Alright’, Steve then closing the cupboard door, before adding, ‘Anyway, which room next, fellas?’, walking ahead of us while we stood there, mouths agape, wondering what the hell had just happened. A few seconds later, Steve returned, cracking up, opened the cupboard door again for Martin to walk out and join us, myself and Paul in a state of shock, soon crying with laughter.
I didn’t know Paul before that day, but he seemed to be in a bit of a mess after that, occasionally knocking over items as we continued our tour, the two of us trying to get our minds back on the job, Steve also in fits as Martin headed off to the kitchen to talk to Janet, myself and Paul now and again staring at each other, breaking into giggles.
“Ah, that’s got to go down as the best practical joke ever, that! I’d forgotten about that until you started talking about it!”
Indeed, and there I was with around 2,000 words to play with at the time, wondering how I could possibly re-tell that tale in print.
As for Martin today, I had a brief look at his online acting CV via the imdb website before picking up the phone, and it seems he remains prolific, not least as a stuntman.
“He’s done amazingly well. I saw him a couple of weeks ago and he’s done all sorts recently, including a new Tim Minchin musical film version of Matilda, and doubling as Phil Mitchell in EastEnders.”
He must have filled out then, I’m guessing.
“Ha! Because he was small, he used to do kids’ stunt doubling, but now it’s big fat bald men. Things have changed for him quite considerably!”
Are you still in touch with the rest of your Slaughterhouse (‘laughter with an ‘s’, as they put it) Live mates?
“Yeah, we have a Slaughterhouse WhatsApp group, and one day we’ll all get back out there … once we’ve decided what acts we can still do. Ha!”
One mentioned in my feature was your character, Alan Sonar.
“Yeah, a blind juggler and inventor of tabasco eyedrops!”
Indeed, described as Phoenix Nights meets Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out, although I never quite managed to see that show live.
“Well, when we reconvene and have a gig, I’ll make sure you’re the first to know about it.”
Are you still in the same house in Chorley’s ‘hill country’ (as we used to call it in print)?
“I am, and still love it here. It’s beautiful, I’m dead lucky. It’s such a lovely area.”
And now you’re back on the road. Has it been tough, this past 18 or so months? And were these dates a long time coming, rearranged, and so forth?
“I think the hardest thing was the uncertainty. When we first went into lockdown, we felt it would be maybe a couple of months, and that worried me, thinking I could probably survive until summer. Then it got beyond that.
“But that’s where Britain’s Got Talent came in. It gave me something to focus on. Otherwise, I think I’d have gone proper mad – I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself. I was lucky in that sense.”
Talking mostly to musicians, I get the impression those who missed out on live performances built up nerves over that period, with too much time to reflect and over-think maybe, performers thinking they’ll have forgotten how to do it after so long.
“There is that, but I’ve also noticed audiences are so much more forgiving, more responsive. And they’re willing you to do well. But there will come a time where I’ll think things are back to normal when I go on stage and get the miserable ones sat staring at me.”
With the hard-boiled ‘C’mon, make me laugh, lad’ folded arms approach?
“Yeah, soon as I get back to one of those gigs, I’ll know, ‘Okay, things are back to normal now, I’ve got the miseries back!”
The public voting for you in droves for Britain’s Got Talent suggests there’s definitely an audience out there for what you do. But a ‘debut UK tour’? That seems hard to get my head round. I mean, you’re no stranger to the circuit, surely.
“Ah, well you can only imagine how I feel about that then, can’t you! As a support act for so many years, finally seeing my own name up there and getting brochures sent from so many areas of the country …
“I’ve always had a bit of a following in the North West – such as the Grand Theatre in Blackpool, where I’ve done panto for so many years – but when you’re selling tickets in places like Poole and Exeter … I’ve just seen a message this morning from someone saying, ‘Just seen you on the telly this morning and we’ve booked tickets for Exeter’. Then there’s North Yorkshire, and so on. It’s suddenly put me on the national map, this ‘local celebrity’.”
It must have been a shock when you put your specs on, realising Barnard Castle was on the schedule.
“That really did make me laugh! I don’t know if my agent put that one on deliberately. Last year, people were tagging me in comments on Twitter, saying, ‘What’s Dominic Cummings doing on Britain’s Got Talent?’. If I have one regret during the pandemic, it’s not getting in touch with him sooner, taking the flak for that. If I could have bribed him for at least a quarter of a million-winning prize, we’d both be in a better place today.”
Dare I ask if success has changed you? Will there be a few blue gags to drive shocked parents away, muttering, ‘That wasn’t what I expected’?
“I’m trying to bill it as a family show, so there won’t be anything too offensive, but I’ll continue to try and entertain all levels all the time … and throw something in for the Dads! It sounds ridiculous, but I just have to be myself on stage, be that clown I’ve always been.
“And I’ve not got too big for my boots. I’ll still chat to people after. My Dad gave me the best bit of grounding when the final came on, with John Courtenay – who won it – playing these tunes on the piano. I phoned Mum and Dad up just after the results, and Mum was full of praise and, ‘Well done, son, I’m so proud of you, Steve.’ She couldn’t believe I didn’t get anything for third. I had to explain it’s not a church raffle.
“Then it was, ‘Anyway, your Dad wants a word now …’. He came ont’ phone and his first words to me were, ‘I told you that you should have kept up those piano lessons.’ And when you’ve got a grounding like that …”
Was that the piano I saw at yours back in the day, the one belonging to your Grandpa?
“Oh yeah, it was! And it’s still there. That was my Grandpa on my Mum’s side.”
It seems to me that your daughters could be following in your footsteps, career-wise.
“It’s the youngest one who’s the very quick-witted one in the family. My eldest, still a baby when you popped around, flees the nest in September, going off to university to study at the London School of Fashion. The middle one’s into dance, so at least staying theatrical. She’s a big dancer. And the youngest is the comedian in the family. She’s always funny and does some amazing characters.”
Where does she get that from?
“I don’t know.”
Mum’s a drama teacher, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Blame the mother. Don’t blame me!”
When you said the middle one’s into dance, I thought you said she was in Gdansk. I hadn’t expected that.
“Ha! Yeah, she’s big on Polish history. And she’s off to Sunderland the week after!”
The lad’s still got it. And what’s his Camelot Theme Park alter-ego, Mad Edgar up to these days?
“Probably still in some medieval hovel somewhere. I dread to think what he’s up to. Actually, that’s how I know how long people have known me. If it’s from Britain’s Got Talent, they say, ‘Hi Steve,’ and if it’s from Camelot days, I get, ‘Hi Edgar!’. King Arthur still lives half a mile from me … and I still call him King. You never lose respect for someone like that.”
Whereas his Camelot friend Martin Pemberton made it to the big screen, his past roles including one in Cold Mountain, Steve seems happy with past small screen ‘bit-parts’, not least The Things You Do For Love: I Still Believe, a Granada TV drama about crooner Ronnie Hilton and his affair with a dancer, as it was on that set when Steve met Janet.
As for his friendship with Peter Kay, Steve was working the nights he staged his charity comeback this summer, but remained in touch with the Bolton comic during the pandemic.
“We had some proper chats, and he was very helpful, giving me tips on Britain’s Got Talent. And it’s just brilliant seeing him back at it.”
Do you think there will ever be a return for Phoenix Nights (Steve having appeared not only in Peter’s Car Share in 2017, but also as an uncredited ‘Crap Juggler’ 20 years ago, which at least makes for a better credit than the one he got for his role as a ‘Wanking Santa’ in 2004 TV movie Christmas Lights)?
“I doubt it very, very much. It’s the dream we’d all very much love to be fulfilled, but I think he’s so busy, going on to do so well with Car Share, his tours, and other things. I don’t see it ever happening, really. I doubt it.”
Well, if all goes to pot and the stage engagements dry up, there’s always a DIY shop opening for you where you started back in Rochdale, I guess.
“Yeah, I can still cut a key. And I’m still a dab hand with a metre rule!”
You told me when I first interviewed you, you had dreams one day of owning a restaurant chain, probably one where all the dishes arrive in threes.
“Ha! Well, there’s so many TV programmes with chefs nowadays, I realise it’s a much tougher job than I thought. When you get in late from gigs, like I do, there’s three things on telly – old editions of Homes Under the Hammer, Naked Attraction – getting to watch people naked in boxes – or Gordon Ramsay visiting horror restaurants. And do you know what – that’d be my restaurant. I will certainly continue to frequent lots of restaurants and bars, but I won’t be looking to run one myself.”
How about your title role in Naturally Insane: The Life of Dan Leno – is that still set to happen, including its prestigious West End premiere? Or did the pandemic kill off that opportunity?
“We actually did the show again at Lytham Hall, and we’re about to be back in the West End, premiering that in November. And it’s something I absolutely love doing. It’s a real passion, and it’s just nice to act. It’s alright being me, but I like being someone else … even if it’s a madman in a lunatic asylum!”
It’s certainly an intriguing true story (the Lytham Hall production having also featured Janet). I recall an article about Dan Leno that made an impression on me as a teenager, not just about his legacy but also later ghostly sightings of him in the West End.
“Yeah, the Drury Lane Theatre, apparently.”
Or apparitionally, perhaps. I also recall reading a theory that perhaps Dan’s genius moved on to Stan Laurel, then Peter Sellers.
“Yes, and Roy Hudd had quite an affinity. He was doing the play with us until he sadly died last year. I think I have that affinity too. Maybe he’s put a little of himself in all of us. He was so influential. People don’t realise, because of when he was around, but he was a big influence on the likes of Charlie Chaplin and, as you say, Stan Laurel, who then went on to influence so many others. We probably have more reason than we realise to be grateful to the guy.”
Finally, these days you’re credited as an actor, writer, comedian, juggler and award-winning radio presenter. Which description sits best with you?
“Ah … Dad! Or – having three daughters, taxi driver is probably the best description for me now. That’s what I tend to be doing most of the time now, between gigs, ferrying them around.”
You’ll no doubt be missed in that respect when you’re back on the road then. In the meantime, I’m pleased to see your own overnight success finally come to fruition, and hopefully it won’t be 15-plus years before our next catch-up.
“Yeah, try and make it shorter, will you? Don’t come and visit me in a home, saying, ‘I’m sorry it took me so long’. I don’t want to be wheeled out for our next interview!”
Steve Royle’s October dates continue this weekend, reaching Northallerton The Forum tonight (Fri 1st, 7.30pm, 01609 776 230), then Blackpool Grand Theatre (Sat 2nd, 7.30pm, 01253 290190) and Bilston Town Hall (Sun 3rd, 7.30pm). He then heads for Norwich Playhouse (Wed 6th, 7.30pm, 01603 598598), Lowestoft Marina Theatre (Sat 9th, 7.30pm, 01502 533200), Peterborough Key Theatre (Thu 14th, 7.30pm, 01733 207 239), Southport Comedy Festival (Sun 17th, 2pm), Eastbourne Royal Hippodrome (Fri 15th, 7.30pm, 01323 802020), Hayes Beck Theatre (Tue 19th, 7.30pm, 0208 561 8371), Exeter Corn Exchange (Wed 20th, 8pm, 01392 665 938), Bridgwater McMillan Theatre (Thu 21st, 7.30pm, 01278 556 677), Taunton Brewhouse (Friday 22nd, 7.30pm, 01823 283 244), London Leicester Square Theatre (Sun 24th, 7.30pm, 0207 734 2222), Llanelli Theatr Ffwrnes (Tue 26th, 7.30pm, 0345 226 3510), and Poole Lighthouse (Thu 28th, 7.45pm, 01202 280000).
And next January, you can see Steve at Kettering Lighthouse (Thu 12th January, 7.30pm, 01536 414141, ) and his Chorley Theatre return (Sat 29th January, 7.30pm, 01257 264 362). For all the latest from Steve Royle, head to his website, and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.