Funny Bones

by Karen Shaw

Funny man, juggler and Britain’s Got Talent Finalist Steve Royle talks to Karen Shaw.

Image by Andy Hollingworth

Famed for his slapstick, rubber-lipped, bendy-leg antics, Chorley comic Steve Royle is certainly a class act when it comes to juggling his many skills. As well as being a finalist on last year’s Britain’s Got Talent, Steve is an actor, writer, comedian, juggler and Gillard Award winning presenter on BBC Radio Lancashire and he’s ready to hit the road with his extensive tour, The Royle Variety Performance (see what he did there?) I caught up with the Royle man of comedy to chat about partying with Rod Stewart, juggling for Take That and his fleshy cheeks.

Along with performer pal (and van driver) Jamie Sutherland, Steve is looking forward to being centre-stage again after making it to the final of BGT. “I’ll be aiming to capture what I did on there. It’s a show for all ages, so there’s a lot of comedy, slapstick, juggling, stand-up, basically it’s me acting daft for an hour and 20 mins, plus Jamie will be joining to help with a game show idea we’ll be having. It’s a proper variety show, there’s something for everyone in it.”
Sounds like a show most definitely not to be missed, is there a ‘bit of blue’ for the dads?
“That’s one thing I can’t do on this tour,” he grins. “At the stand-up gigs that I’ve been doing, I start with some of my riskier material, I look at the audience and say, ‘Yeah, some of you have only seen me on BGT, they wouldn’t let me use this material there!”’

Since BGT, Steve’s been busy, and is relishing being back in the spotlight. “Both audience and performers alike have so much energy and excitement at the fact that we’re back doing it. From my point of view as a comedian, there’s material that I have used for years that suddenly feels fresh and new again because I haven’t done it for so long.”
For two months out of every year for the last 20 years, Steve has hung up his comedy mask and replaced it for a wig, committing himself to something else he’s rather good at… (Oh no, he isn’t!) pantomime.

“The lowest point for me in the first lockdown was when my pantomime producer called, I remember sitting in the car with my daughters and they saw how upset I was…
“I didn’t know how to cope,” Steve sighs, “I didn’t know what to do with myself. Pantomime means everything to me, it’s the highlight of my year. I’d love to say I had a strategy, but how could we have prepared for what we all went through? All the time we were under the optimistic illusion that it’d soon be over within three months.

“I started to think about getting a new job. What would I retrain as? Who would ever employ me? I’ve been cursed with one of the most stupid faces. I couldn’t do a serious job, although, I can make a brew and tidy up.”

During his mad-cap routine on BGT, Steve, the first act to make it through to the final, threw himself on the floor before doing his famous dance move ‘the worm’ and remarking: “Can I just say…if Rishi Sunak the Chancellor is watching this, some of us can’t possibly be re-trained. This is what I do! It’s comedy isn’t it?”
Panto shouldn’t pose any problems for Steve this year when he’ll play Muddles in Snow White alongside Vicky Entwistle at Blackpool Grand Theatre. “It’s a surprising one,” chuckles Steve, “especially after a pandemic as most of the characters are named after covid symptoms! We’ve got Dopey, Sneezy, Sleepy – I’m a bit worried about Doc, every time he comes on, we’re going to have to stand up and applaud him by banging pans for ten minutes!”

With a degree in Economics and Social History from the University of Kent at Canterbury, how did he go from being ‘boffin’ to showman? “My certificate’s somewhere in the loft, I should dig it out and put it on my dressing room door when I do panto to show that I’m actually quite clever! I may be going on stage acting the idiot and being stupid every night but underneath all that he’s a right brainy bloke,” he laughs.

After finishing his degree, Steve was temping in a bar when a guy came and asked if he’d like to join a juggling class at a local school. And the rest is history. “I fell in love with juggling. I’ve always had that mindset, I like to challenge myself, I have no fear of repetition! I have no fear of repetition!”

Not only can he kick his legs like a Tiller Girl, he’s also pretty talented when it comes to fitting balls in his mouth…it makes for one heck of a party trick! How does this ‘rubber man’ do it?
“I’ve no idea how I can get my legs up there, maybe because I used to play football… as for the ping pong balls in my cheeks, I guess I’m cursed with fleshy cheeks!” I’m not sure I’d describe him as cursed, more blessed, it’s these comedic ‘curses’ mixed with Steve’s hilarious antics and balletic physicality that has made him the north’s best kept secret, until now…
Despite performing live to millions of people throughout the world, Steve’s final performance on BGT was to his smallest live audience ever due to covid restrictions. How did he feel about performing in front of the four judges with a wall of faces supporting him from their front rooms?
“You may has well have put wallpaper up,” grunts Steve. “It looked good on TV, but it was a very different feeling for the performers. It appeared like the audience were applauding, but that was dubbed on afterwards. We couldn’t hear a thing. I was lucky that the judges were so responsive.”
Steve’s defining moment on the show was in his semi-final performance where, after falling off the stage looked to see, Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden standing up, laughing and clapping. “Ashley Banjo was beating the desk with his fist, laughing and David Walliams was applauding. It was at that moment that I realised I’d done the best I could have done,” he grins proudly. “I absolutely loved it. I was determined to love it though. In a way, the mental trauma of lockdown helped me focus better in the semi-final. I felt I was more in tune. I also had a word with myself before I went on stage. I said, ‘someone like me, a middle-aged fella, this is the last chance I’m going to get on TV. Don’t mess it up Royle, just go out and enjoy it.’”
He continues, “A Working Men’s Club in Wigan is way more nerve-wracking than performing to 10 million people. I always look at things in percentages. If you have 10 million people in the audience and 10% love you, that’s one million people, if you’re in a club with 100 people in and only 10% like you, that’s just 10 people! The smaller the gig, the more apprehensive I am about it.”

Image by Andy Hollingworth

Steve brings sheer joy to every performance, he’s a true ‘old school’ professional entertainer, who has honed his art, learning his comedic timing from legends such as Ronnie Barker and Eric Morecambe, and of course, Bobby Ball. “I get likened to him a lot, he was my ultimate hero,” says Steve. “The biggest compliment I ever had was when I worked with Bobby, he said to me once, ‘you’re like me mate. You’ve got funny bones.’ When your hero says that to you there’s nothing better! His death really hit me but what a brilliant guy.”
The ‘comedian’s comedian’, it wasn’t just Bobby who rated him, but fellow funny man, Peter Kay claims Steve is his favourite comedian…
“He’s always supported me so much has Peter. The first ever weekend I did a stand-up Peter came to see me as he’d had a tip off and I ended up on tour with him,” smiles Steve. “He’s always looked after me, whenever he’s written anything, he’s always put me a little part in it. It’s flattering innit? It’s the same as the Bobby Ball situation, when someone like that admires you, it’s incredibly humbling.”
A former Northern Life columnist and pal Duggie Chapman MBE, known as Mr Entertainment, Duggie was responsible for many a pantomime and variety show over his 70 years in show business. Sadly, our Duggie passed away in 2017, but Steve fondly remembers the man who gave him his first break.

“My first panto was for Duggie Chapman. I have so much to thank Duggie for. He gave me my first break. He took a chance on me. I always knew pantomime would be my thing I tried for years for different producers to book me and they never did. I eventually got a meeting with Duggie and he took a chance on me.”
So committed to his beloved pantomimes, Steve once stayed sober while carousing with Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and Take-That at The Royal Variety after party in London, where Steve had been the first ever comic to act as warm up.

“Rod’s a big hero of mine and when he walked past me, I shouted, ‘Oi Rod, great gig,’ he walked over to me, patted me on the back and said, ‘Thanks mate.’ The downside of it was that it was the last week of pantomime rehearsals and it was three in the morning, I’m sitting there thinking I’ve got to drive home and then go to rehearsals!”
It wasn’t the first time his path had crossed with Take That, he’d met them only a few years earlier, when juggling in a bid to provide the lads with an audience! It was in his first job in entertainment at Granada Studio Tours. “I suppose you could say it was my first ever warm up gig,” he grins. “They used to send me out onto the street, I’d start juggling to raise a crowd and then Take That would come out and do their bit! A year later they were massive, at the time they couldn’t get an audience and I had to get one for them!”
Stand up was his first love, will it be his last? “Without a doubt,” comes his affirmative answer, quickly followed by, “mind you, after saying that, I really do love acting.”
When Steve turned 50 in 2018, writer David Slattery-Christie approached him about playing the lead in Naturally Insane: The Life of Dan Leno. The play charts the life of the English music hall comedian who developed his skills as an artist in the Northern and Lancashire Music Halls and became a champion clog dancer, acrobat and comedian. He then went on to become a huge celebrity in the London theatres and established his name as the pre-eminent pantomime star at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he created some iconic dame roles, and became a favourite of King Edward VII and the Royal family.

Always up for a challenge, Steve agreed, “I wanted to prove to myself that I could still remember my lines,” and learn his lines he did, receiving rave reviews. “We’re hopefully taking it to the West End in November this year. I’ll be proper acting! I really enjoy being someone else instead of stupid me! It seems very ‘arty farty’ to say it, but I proper get into it. It’s like a drug, I can feel this other person take over me. I get really absorbed with the character.”
Steve’s first starring role was at primary school as Rumpelstiltskin. “I absolutely loved it. I had to come on and say, ‘Hello pretty lady, why are you crying?”’everyone just laughed at me. I wasn’t embarrassed by it, it struck something inside of me. I had a real burning feeling inside that I wanted to be up there on stage.

“There’s always one kid in every class who would fulfil the dares, and ‘that kid’ was me! I was always getting told, ‘Royle, don’t be stupid lad!’ That should be the name of my tour! I’ve been told not to be stupid all my life and as a result I’ve become utterly stupid!”

He may play the idiot, but he’s certainly nobody’s fool!

Northern Dates

The Civic BARNSLEY, Thursday, 16th September.
Little Theatre CHORLEY, Tuesday, 21st September.
City Varieties LEEDS, Thursday, 23rd September.
Mechanics BURNLEY, Saturday, 25th September.
The Grand Theatre BLACKPOOL, Saturday, 2nd October.
Comedy Festival SOUTHPORT, Sunday, 17th October.