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Tommy's still Steeley at 76
TOMMY Steele’s career has seen him dubbed Britain’s first rock ’n’ roll star and become the first homegrown talent to score a number one album in the UK in the days when the charts were dominated by US stars.
He’s appeared on the big screen in hit musicals such as Half a Sixpence, danced with the legendary Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and headlined at the London Palladium more than any other act.
Now 76, his toothy grin is as wide as ever, his cockney accent as recognisable, and his enthusiasm for life and his work showing no sign of waning as he prepares to take the title role in the seasonal show Scrooge: The Musical for the fifth year running.
“It’s great,” he says. “That moment when I first step on the stage in front of the audience is magical.
I look forward to it every night.”
The story, based on Dickens’ perennially popular, A Christmas Carol is a musical for all the family.
“It is a great show for everyone,” says Steele, “from grandparents down to young children. It is the story that appeals. The adults know the dark side to it, but the children just enjoy the tricks.
“Scrooge in this isn’t nasty. He does what he does like a naughty boy.
“The story tells you that it’s never too late to change and make amends.
Children might ask their parents about that on the way home, which will start a debate, and I think it’s great that a show can do that.”
Steele’s career began in the 1950s, but it was not the path he intended to follow.
He has a lifelong love of the sea and had planned a career in the Merchant Navy, which he joined as a teenager straight from school.
But he’d always been musical – using a pen attached to a bit of string as a makeshift microphone to mime to records as a little boy – and his talent as a singer and guitarist was spotted as he played in his spare time on leave.
He was signed up and quickly catapulted into the limelight.
“I was 19 years old, and it was a real voyage of discovery,” he remembers. “It was 1956 and most people didn’t have a television.”
The result was a number one hit with Singing the Blues as well as many other popular songs.
But he decided he wanted to move into stage and film musicals.
Arguably the best known of these is Half a Sixpence, but he also notably starred alongside Fred Astaire and Petual Clark in the 1968 Francis Ford Coppola-directed Finian’s Rainbow.
In 1983 he directed and starred in the West End Production of Singin’ in the Rain, using the tap-dancing skills he was taught by none other than Gene Kelly when they appeared on a show together 20 years earlier.
“He was very strict,” Steele remembers. “But he taught me to tap dance in four weeks. We did this routine and he would be saying ‘closer, come closer’, and I was worried I would end up stepping on him!”
He doesn’t for one minute regret turning his back on the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle for the world of musicals.
“ B e c a u s e Scrooge is getting on a bit, I don’t have to worry about getting too old for it, and I’ll keep on doing it as long as my legs hold out.”
And if enthusiasm alone can keep you going, Steele will probably be on that stage for many years to come.
“I still feel like I’m in Shangri- La,” he says. “I love it.”
Scrooge: The Musical. The Mayflower Theatre Southampton from Tuesday November 12 to Saturday November 16. Call the box office on 023 8071 1811 or visit mayflower.org.uk.
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