Obituary: Roy Castle
Saturday 03 September 1994
SELF-DEPRECATION is scarcely an asset in show business. Yet Roy Castle was loved and admired as much for his modesty as for his prodigious talents. An accomplished musician, singer, dancer, actor, comedian and, more recently, television frontman, Castle had all the ingredients for international stardom but for an inflated ego and the need to be loved by millions. Indeed, in the early 1960s, having already made a big splash on British television, he performed in a series of American television shows, co-starred with Harry Secombe on Broadway, and played Las Vegas, where he was admired by everyone from Sinatra downwards.
A tailor-made Broadway vehicle was promised, along with a lucrative series of television commercials. He and his wife, Fiona, booked into a smart apartment in Manhattan, anticipating fame and fortune, only to learn that the musical had been shelved, the commercials cancelled.
Devastating as it must have been, this experience brought home the fragile nature of celebrity, and helped Castle to sort out his priorities. Looking round at the broken marriages and estranged children of showbiz cronies, he resolved thenceforward to put his family first. He still remained one of Britain's most popular entertainers, but forsaking international recognition was the price he was prepared to pay.
Roy Castle was born and brought up in Huddersfield, where his father was an insurance salesman and his mother a ladies' hairdresser. An only child, Roy had an early introduction to music with the Huddersfield Choral Society, of which his mother was a keen member, and, from the age of eight, Roy gave amateur concerts as a boy tenor. At 10 he was sent for tap-dancing lessons which, being the only boy, he loathed. He left school at 15, and toured music halls in the north as a song and dance prodigy. He once described himself as 'a Yorkshire Jimmy Osmond'. In 1950, aged 18, he entered the RAF for his National Service, glad to be put in an environment where sport - his first love - took precedence over show business.
By the time he had completed his National Service, Castle had mastered a mean jazz trumpet, and in 1964 he was summoned to London by the producer Val Parnell. Work was scarce, however, and he finished up playing Dick Whittington's cat in pantomime. In the mid-Fifties he was stooge to the veteran comic Jimmy James, wearing an outsize overcoat and a hat rammed down over his ears in a character reminiscent of Stan Laurel. Later, when he worked with Harry Secombe, Castle took to impersonating Laurel, with Secombe well-fitted to play Hardy.
By the start of the 1960s, he had his own radio show, Castle's On the Air, and shortly afterwards his almost whimsical affability found a place in the affections of the British viewing public. For the next 15 years or so he was seldom off the small screen.
When in the last two decades of his career there was less demand for a happy-go-lucky song-and- dance man, Roy Castle - 'Mr Versatility' - cleverly refashioned himself as a television presenter, fronting 16 series of The Record Breakers, based on The Guinness Book of Records. There he won two entries of his own - the first for tap-dancing in 1985 (completing one million taps in 23 hours and 44 minutes) and the second for wing walking (three hours and 23 minutes) on a flight from Gatwick to Paris in 1990. Castle would have preferred to re-emerge as an actor in the way the 1950s television comedians Dave King and Bill Maynard had done, but the opportunities did not come along. His realisation in the 1970s that his time had passed must have been hard to handle, and perhaps led to the well-publicised problems in the Castles' previously harmonious marriage.
Fiona Castle's solution was to find God. Roy and their four children followed suit. God and show business are not the happiest of travelling companions, which might explain Roy Castle's infrequent appearances in recent years. The deeper his commitment to Christianity, the less he needed the transient joys of celebrity.
After he was diagnosed as having lung cancer in 1992 Roy Castle devoted much of his time to warning people of the dangers of passive smoking (he had never been a smoker himself) and to launching a pounds 12m appeal to build a centre for lung cancer research in Liverpool. Only two months ago he undertook a 1,200-mile nationwide 'Tour of Hope' roadshow to raise money for the cause. He also found time to write his autobiography, Roy Castle Now and Then, which is due to be published this autumn, and to release a Christian jazz album with his musician son Ben.
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