His new show is What a Show], a 'megamix' of the Steele career, his greatest bits, chat, song and dance, tooth and hoof, Half a Sixpence, 'Singing the Blues', 'Flash, Bang, Wallop', 'Little White Bull', and Tommy flirting and playing to the audience as shamelessly as ever, defying age and aspirates, crinkling the eyes, shaking the head, hand on the heart as the applause from a full house in Wimbledon rolls up at him from the blazers, bald patches and perms who were young when he was young and have aged as he has not aged. Watch Tommy and you can see how good and bad music hall must have been.
The next night, in his dressing room, Tommy is smaller, but still smiling through. He has five months, 17 venues and a few thousand miles ahead of him. He explains his fitness regime, his squash, his one square meal a day, his daily weigh, his search for the seconds of breathing, relaxation time he needs between the changes and more than two hours on stage. What, though, exactly, is Tommy? How does he describe what he does, what he is? Tommy refers and defers to the New York Times drama critic who saw and loved his Half a Sixpence on Broadway: 'I remember he said he couldn't describe what I did: 'He acts singing. He acts like he can sing. He acts like he can dance, and he acts acting himself.' I'm not a singer, as you heard, I'm not a dancer, and I'm not an actor. I suppose I'm a well-rehearsed amateur.'
But do not suppose that he takes it lightly. That is not his reputation. Tommy Hicks was a merchant seaman at 16 who learnt the guitar, picked up a smattering of country music in America and somehow became Britain's first rock and roller (after a brief spell as Chick Hicks, lead vocalist with Jack Fallon and the Sons of the Saddle). But Tommy fell in love with Variety and became a musical theatre man as quickly as Adam Faith became an actor. Half a Sixpence followed, and Hollywood, with Finian's Rainbow and The Happiest Millionaire. Later, here, back on the West End stage, he directed and starred in Singin' in the Rain and Some Like It Hot.
Tommy is not all grin and front. Of his films, he likes The Tommy Steele Story for its documentary quality and Half a Sixpence for its story and photography, but says the rest 'aren't worth a toss, really'. He makes a few excuses for the early demise of Some Like It Hot but says it's not worth printing them: 'A flop is a flop.' He has written four novels, but the last two have not been published, which is a bit of thorn in the side; still, as he tells the wife, they don't cost anything to keep. He has just finished Richard Ellman's biography of Oscar Wilde, and reckons it definitive.
He once admitted to an ambition to play Iago. Challenged now, he grins but says he would still like to, even though he supposes he never will: 'There should be more to Iago in order for him to get away with what he got away with, with that Moor. But somehow he always seems to be played like the fox in Pinocchio.' Betjeman rose to applaud Tommy's Tony Lumpkin at the Old Vic in 1960. Gielgud asked him for advice on how to play direct to an audience in 40 Years On. Tommy told him not to worry, he was bloody brilliant.
Tommy paints and sculpts. One of his sculptures, Union, has just been unveiled at Twickenham. Tommy knew Henry Moore, met him, fittingly, at the dentist. Moore said 'How do' and asked him if he'd seen the programme about Modigliani on BBC2 the night before, which, of course, Tommy had. Moore told him that sculpture had to be touched: 'You have to see it against a cobalt blue sky and feel where the sculptor has been to understand.' Tommy went into the Tate and felt Moore's Nude Reclining. An attendant objected. 'Listen, mate,' Tommy told him, 'the fella who did this told me to touch it, so I'm touching it.'
Where do all these gifts come from? He doesn't know. His father was a bookie's runner. Tommy doesn't drink and can't stand horse-racing. He is a pro. He gives you all his attention, but as soon as you have asked your last question, and he has agreed, all in all, he's not done that badly and that he's booked until 1996, he is off, in a twinkling. There are things to sort out, and Tom is gone.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content