A wonderful chance to see '50s rock 'n' roll star take on the big band sound
Penny Flood interviews Tommy Steele
Wimbledon Theatre is no stranger to big names in the world of show biz having played host such American glitterati as Linda Gray, Britt Eckland and Jerry Hall, as well as some of our own including Shaun Williamson (Barry from East Enders) and Jo Brand, but now it's pulled out the big one with the announcement that Britain's greatest living song and dance man and national treasure, Tommy Steele, is starring in The Glenn Miller story which opens at the end of August.
Tommy is the man whose show Scrooge was so successful he became the Palladium's all-time record breaking performer having headlined more shows than any other star in the history of the Palladium, a record he still holds. And now he's coming to Wimbledon.
I was in a group of theatre bookers and press who were invited to meet him in the theatre's Piano Bar to chat about the new show before heading off for a one to one. I have to say, the first thing that struck me about Tommy was his charm, he's a natural, he exudes it. The next thing that surprised me was his age, he's nearly 80 but he doesn't look it, he's slim and fit, and full of energy. The blond locks are grey now and he wears reading glasses, but the blue eyes still twinkle and when he smiles it's the old Tommy Steele smile. Looking this good when you're old he says, is largely down to luck, and being a song and dance man helps.
But back to Glenn Miller. He said it was during an informal meeting with his old friend Bill Kenwright that the conversation moved to the band leader Glenn Miller, Tommy owned up to being a huge fan and the germ of an idea was planted. Admittedly, it took another three years before it came to fruition and now here it is. Tommy says when they were discussing the idea for a show he had no intention of appearing in it. "I'm a boy from Bermondsey, how could I play the great Glenn Miller and anyway I'm too old", he protested. These protests were ignored and the results will be unveiled in just a few weeks.
Although he doesn't live in Wimbledon he's very fond of the place. His daughter used to live here, close to the Common and at Christmas, whenever they can, the family come to Cannizaro House.
And the theatre has some great memories for him because this is where his huge musical hit Half a Sixpence made its debut, and it was in the piano bar that the record breaking song Flash Bang Wallop was launched.
It's a complicated story but a good one. Tommy explains: "Three days before the show opened the choreographer, director and producer were worried that there was no big number in the second act. It's what they call the eleven o'clock number on Broadway as it's the song that the audience goes out talking about it, and we didn't have that number."
Summonsed to the theatre for rehearsal on the Sunday before the show opened, he says they were just sitting around in the piano bar when the composer David Heneker arrived and announced he had the song. He just sat down at the at the little piano and played Flash Bang Wallop and that was our big number. But with only two days before the show opened the choreographer said there's no way he could do a dance routine for the whole company.
He solved the problem by keeping movement to a minimum. The scene was in a photographer's studio where Tommy had gone to talk to the photographer about his wedding. There's a line in the chorus that goes 'Hold it Flash, Bang Wallop What a Picture' so Tommy was told to run up and down singing it like a pub song and every time he sang 'Hold It' the cast froze into funny positions, and it worked. Hopefully nobody noticed the photographer had the words of the song pinned underneath his camera so Tommy could read them, it's a long song and there wasn't time to learn them properly.
When the show opened for Wednesday matinee the audience went wild. "There was so much applause he says that when we went off stage to change for the next scene they were still clapping so we had to come back to take a bow to stop them so the show could carry on." They played five nights in Wimbledon before transferring to the Cambridge Theatre in the West End, where it continued to be a big hit, but Wimbledon had it first.
Strangely, the song didn't appeal to everybody, and because of it the show very nearly didn't make it to Broadway. The American producer said they had to drop the song because the American's wouldn't understand it. But Tommy was having none of it, he told them, the show went with the song or it didn't go at all. He won, Flash Bang Wallop stayed in and the American audiences lapped it up.
The Glen Miller Show is touring 11 venues in 11 weeks. It starts in Wimbledon, followed by Southampton then all the way to Glasgow before zigzagging back across the country to finish in Milton Keynes, so it's a good thing that Tommy loves touring. "I have as much fun going from here to Manchester as he do from going to my house to the Palladium every day, it's the excitement of going to the theatre.
"When you go out on tour and start going north, south east and west of London there are loads of great theatres out there and the people in those towns, they want to see great shows but they don't get them because it costs a lot of money to travel them. I always say if I'm going to do a show I have to do three months first on the road because I love to get the reaction of those audiences. They can't get to London every time to see a great musicals so the great musicals come to them. Harold Fielding who I did all those great shows with, Half a Sixpence, Singing in the Rain etc, he did it the other way he used to say once we've done it in the West End we must to two years on the road. I tour because I want to be on the stage and I love meeting people".
But that's not all he's done at Wimbledon. There were two tours of his Scrooge which transferred from the London Palladium and did his one man show here, although that was a while back.
Tommy's been a star since 1957 when he released the fabulous Singing the Blues, which went straight to the top of the charts six months before Elvis Presley did. At that time he was hailed as Britain's answer to Elvis but he's proved himself much better than that. As well as being a rock and roll star, he can dance and act and has played Jack Point in Gilbert & Sullivan Yeoman of the Guard at Sadlers Wells where he died for the love of a lady. I can vouch for his performance in that one as I saw it and he broke my heart. He has also played Feste in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and was Truffaldino in Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters amongst many other things.
It's only on for nine nights, so if you want to catch and see Britain's first great rock and roll star in a show about big band music, get your skates on.
By Penny Flood
July 24, 2015