'The fear factor comes in at the eighth bar of the overture. You walk into darkness. And you know there's three hours of performing to come'
BACKSTAGE PASS:‘It’s the song and dance man’s King Lear’ . . . TARA BRADYmeets Tommy Steele before a performance of ‘Scrooge’
THE ORCHESTRA IS due in for a warm up. Boxes of fruit are being unpacked and transferred on to faux Victorian market stalls. The cast is button-coated with the occasional tiny crutch at the ready.
It’s all go as the veritable army of folks behind Scrooge– the Grand Canal Theatre revival of the West End hit production – counts down to curtain call. In the hullabaloo, Tommy Steele, a pro of the old school, is taking his time lining up the child cast for a publicity shot. A patient tutor in the art and craft of jazz hands, he keeps them laughing, shows each of them their move; then shows it again, and again.
This is the performer’s fourth outing as Ebenezer, but Steele, now approaching his 55th year in the business, is still giddy at the prospect of essaying Christmas’s most beloved old git.
“I love A Christmas Carol,” he tells me later. “I watch Alistair Sim do it at least twice or three times a year. Doesn’t have to be Christmas. All that pathos and humour: such a lovely actor. Everybody who signs up for Scrooge must watch Alistair Sim. That’s the definitive version. For the rest of us, it’s still a great part. It’s the song and dance man’s King Lear.”
Born in Bermondsey, London in 1936, the young Thomas Hicks (as he was then known) was docked in Virginia with the merchant navy when he first heard Buddy Holly. It was love at first warble. Returning to the UK, the former banjo-playing skiffle artist adopted the surname of his Scandinavian grandfather and shot to fame as the British Elvis Presley.
“We were selling rhythm,” he says. “The lyrics weren’t important. It was something to dance to. Then came The Beatles with those beautiful songs and chord progressions. That’s when the music came back really.”
He was the first UK act to reach number one in the charts and the first to play Moscow during the Cold War. But Tommy Steele remains best known as a demigod of musical theatre. And he likes it that way.
“It’s wonderful,” says the erstwhile star of Hans Christian Andersen and Half a Sixpence. “To do a musical is exciting enough in itself. You’re got the songs, the sets, the costumes. We have a brilliant orchestra on this. Sit at the back and you think to yourself ‘bloody hell’. But every now and again something comes along with the pedigree of Scroogeor My Fair Ladyor Oklahoma!. I admire the current crop of musicals. I love what Steven Sondheim can do with a book. But those old school musicals didn’t get staged until there were five or six standalone hit songs in there. You’re humming something when you leave the theatre.”
A bona fide music man, Steele still quivers when the band strikes up and does a fine bit of cheerleading on behalf of a certain Canadian singer. “I could listen to Michael Bublé all day,” he says. “He has such brilliant arrangements. When we were kids we used to buy records to listen to the arrangements. We all listened to Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers for the Nelson Riddle arrangements. Riddle would take a song and turn it into a symphony. I haven’t got my iPod here or I’d play it for you right now.”
If the lure of big strings wasn’t enough, this particular Scrooge is menaced by three particularly terrifying spectres. The groundbreaking illusions, created by the Harry Potter FX consultant Paul Kieve, are a source of constant amazement, even for the headlining star.
“Those Magic Circle guys don’t tell you anything,” he says. “If I was a little one, I’d want my hand held. Those ghosts just appear beside me. I’ve no idea how they get there every night.”
There are, he claims, even scarier things. “For me, the fear factor comes in at the eighth bar of the overture. You walk into darkness. And you know there’s three hours of performing to come. And every bar brings you closer. Is it going to work? Am I going to be welcome? At that moment, every night, if someone said to me there was a bomb scare I’d kiss ’em. And then, on that beat of the bar as you walk out into the spotlight, wild horses couldn’t drag you off. It’s Shangri-La but getting there is a bloody nightmare.”
Scroogeis at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin until January 2nd