Britain’s cheeky chap has fun playing mean old skinflint

Bill Kenwright production of'SCROOGE'with Tommy Steele'directed by Bob Thomson
Bill Kenwright production of'SCROOGE'with Tommy Steele'directed by Bob Thomson

Thank goodness for Uncle Harry, the miserable old man who made it possible for Tommy Steele to slip into the darkness of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Tommy, for long the nation’s archetypal cheeky, cheery chap, delves back into his own family for his portrayal of the unrepentant skinflint in the big musical version of the Charles Dickens classic, which brings him to Brighton this Christmas.

“I just think of Uncle Harry,” Tommy laughs. “I had an uncle just like Scrooge. He never smiled. He walked with a hunched back. I said to my dad ‘Why does he walk like that?’ He said ‘It’s because he doesn’t want to look into your eyes.’

“But I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that he was stuck living with my grandmother who was 96! But yes, it’s my Uncle Harry.”

However, Tommy insists that the unreformed Scrooge isn’t so much evil as naughty: “I think he is doing a lot of it for effect. There is a glint in his eye.”

Tommy is now seeing himself in the way that producer Bill Kenwright clearly saw him. His brush with Ebenezer began ten years ago when Kenwright invited him out to lunch.

“When a producer asks you out to lunch, you know that either he is going to offer you something ridiculous or he is going to fire you.

“I was waiting for him to drop the bombshell. I was thinking all the time ‘Here it’s coming!’ There is no such thing as a free lunch. And then he said ‘OK, to business... Have you ever thought about doing a musical version of A Christmas Carol.’ I said to him ‘Bill, you are very kind, but I am too old to play Bob Cratchit’. He said ‘No! I mean Scrooge!’”

Tommy was 66 at the time; it had never occurred to him that he was the right age for the part, and certainly not the right character. And then Uncle Harry came to mind...

And so Tommy discovered one of his greatest roles yet, a role that calls for huge energy – an energy 76-year-old Tommy delivers day after day.

“It’s easy when you have got a great part. It’s like going along at full speed with a great engine. It’s true. And using that sort of metaphor, the engine is a Ferrari.

“I love playing the grumpy old git, and I love to surprise people,” says Tommy, recalling a great moment at the Palladium last year, a huge venue. One particular party had come 150 strong and were split across the rows.

“At the end of the first half, this woman shouted down to her husband ‘How are you enjoying it?’ He shouted back ‘It’s great, but when’s Tommy Steele coming on?”

All thanks again to Uncle Harry. Tommy was one of the first singers to make the transition onto the stage, but he’s quick to point out that he did it very early in his career, in December 1957 to be precise.

“I had been in showbusiness for about nine months when I was invited to do a pantomime in Liverpool called Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I had seen panto once or twice in my life. I knew it was a bit of fun, but I knew nothing about the stage except going on to do my beat music.

“I went on the first day of rehearsal, and the director was a very stern man. He said to me ‘In the first scene, I want you to come down and sing with the chorus.

“In the fourth scene, I want you to do a song and dance with the ugly sisters, and in the middle of the third Act I want you to fall in love with the Princess.’

“And then he said, ‘And so you won’t need that!’ and pointed to my guitar!”

Scrooge is at The Brighton Centre this Christmas from December 23 to January 4.