'Who's that then?" is how Tommy Steele answers the phone when I call. From the start of our conversation, it's obvious that the Bermondsey-born entertainer is still the happy-go-lucky cheeky chappie he has always been known to be.
Steele, known as Britain's first rock'n'roll star and teen idol, has had a 60-year career and shows no signs of slowing down. He made his recording debut as the frontman of The Steelmen with Rock With the Cavemen, their first single, which reached No 13 in the UK charts.
By 1957 he had added another string to his bow as a film actor. Over time, he wound down his rock'n'roll career and took on more roles in the West End and in film, in productions such as Half a Sixpence, The Happiest Millionaire, Finian's Rainbow and Singin' in the Rain.
Now, at 79, he has landed a dream role, as Glenn Miller, the legendary American big band musician, in musical The Glenn Miller Story.
The director, Bill Kenwright felt that Steele, as a big fan of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the swing era "ever since I was a little boy during the war", was the only man for the job. Steele protested that he was "too old and too British" for the part, but Kenwright insisted.
“It’s the most magical present you can give me. I would never in my wildest dreams have thought anyone could write a show like it,” says Steele. “But now it’s on, and I’m in it, it’s just wonderful.”
When I ring, he’s in the middle of a band call. The full orchestra is on stage, getting ready for the performance that night. Touring a musical can be gruelling for 20-year-olds, so Steele could be forgiven for not taking up the challenge. Why does he still do it?
“Well, I want to see 80,” he says.
Over the years he has seen changes in technology that have made shows easier and better, but otherwise show business doesn’t really change.
"Just attitude changes with the show," he says. "You can go to the Royal Ballet and you can see Swan Lake, and it's been danced like that for the last 150 years and it's still enchanting. You can go see My Fair Lady, and it's still relevant; it never dies. Theatre stays. It's constant, it's always there, saying to the audience: 'Come and be enchanted, and let us take you on the journey for a few hours, and see if we can convince you this actually happened.' It's an oasis of light, is theatre. 'Come in to the light and let us charm you for the night.' "
In search of a sound
The story of Glenn Miller will stay equally relevant, he says, because people have such an affinity for that 1930s swing music sound.
“That’s the story,” Steele says. “He’s in search of a sound, and the trouble is – as he says in the play – ‘I can feel it, but I can’t hear it, and one day I know I will’. As the years go by, he suddenly finds it, purely by accident, and that’s the wonder of musical comedy. He’s a brilliant icon of sound, and it never died. People will enjoy his music as much as they continue to enjoy Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings; it’s always going to be there. In Miller’s case, it’s also the dramatic end, and the vanishing, that makes it a mystery too.”
Over the years, Steele has worked on shows with people regarded as some of the greats. Gene Kelly taught him to tap dance when he realised Steele could dance almost anything except the tap he needed for Two of a Kind. Six months later he was working with Fred Astaire on Finian's Rainbow. "You can imagine being in the presence of those two is something that you never forget," says Steele.
Working with them, and people like them, he quickly learned that to be one of the greats takes more hard work than talent.
“Where Kelly would spend 12 hours in front of the mirror every day, looking at the style he was doing, Astaire would spend 14,” Steele says. “They had the same thing where everything had to be exact; it had to be as close as they could get it. They were never, ever satisfied. They always missed a tap here or a step here and would agonise over it because they loved the profession and they wanted people to be able to see something they were doing at its best. And do you know what? They never failed.”
Steele has also learned how to put on a show, earning himself a very strong reputation in show business. One thing he has never mastered, however, is whistling. His biggest hit, Singing the Blues, which reached No 1 in the UK, features someone else whistling, which has remained a secret until now.
"I can't whistle for nuts. It was the tea lady who whistled on Singing the Blues," he says. "She was about 60 years old, with her hair in curlers, pouring the tea. We were sitting around, with people going, 'Why can't you whistle?' and me going, 'I just can't whistle.' She said, 'Do you mean like this?' So we stuck her on. That's the first time I've ever told anyone that story."
It is obvious from speaking to Steele that he genuinely loves theatre, performing, and song and dance, and those are the things he wants to be remembered for.
"I remember there was a woman coming out of the theatre once, about 30 years ago. I think it was Singing in the Rain I was doing. Someone said to her, 'What was it like?' She said, 'He really seems to be enjoying himself.' And I thought, God, that's a rather nice epitaph: he was always enjoying himself," he says.
He says he will never retire, not as long as good parts and scripts are put in front of him. Is there a show he hasn’t done but would like to? “No, I’d rather be better, do [the shows I’ve already done] better.”
He has enjoyed his 60 years in show business, and he says he has no time for regrets. “There isn’t even a second in my mind that I would give to a regret in this business, because there’s nothing regretful. It’s been one great cuddle since the moment I walked on to a stage to when I walk on the stage tonight, and when I walk on the stage in Dublin. You walk on, the audience sees you, and I’m part of the dream for the next couple of hours. You can’t take that away from anybody.”
- The Glenn Miller Story is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, February 2nd-6th; tickets from €20