COMEDIAN, juggler and all-round entertainer Steve Royle recently finished a stint of shows of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena in aid of Comic Relief.
Steve, a Lancashire Evening Post columnist, talks to AASMA DAY about how discovering he could fit two ping pong balls in each cheek and other talents led to a quirky and varied career.
There’s a certain brand of banter only fellow comedians can get away with when joshing with each other.
When Steve Royle realised friend Ted Robbins suffered 12 broken ribs and a cracked sternum when medics battled to save his life after he collapsed on stage during the opening night of Phoenix Nights, he knew he couldn’t just take the obligatory bunch of grapes on a get well visit.
Steve, 46, who lives is Chorley with wife Janet and their three children, explains with a deadpan expression: “I went to the butchers and bought Ted 12 spare ribs and some barbecue sauce.
“I also got him a packet of Love Hearts sweets because he needed a new heart.
“Ted laughed straight away – but then winced because laughing was hurting his ribs.
“I certainly tickled his ribs!”
Making others laugh has been Steve’s forte since he was a youngster growing up in Rochdale. Steve recalls: “I remember going to watch pantomimes and, rather than watching the show, I would watch with fascination thinking: ‘I want to do that myself’.
“When I was growing up, there was a massive church influence and all my friends went to church and it was a big part of our lives.
“The first place I ever performed was during church plays.
“In junior school, I remember being overjoyed at getting the lead part of Rumplestiltskin. I got a taste for performing in front of an audience at a young age.
“During school, I was the smallest child right until the end of high school.
“I was always a bit of a class clown and was quite a popular little kid.
“I used to do Donald Duck impressions which went down well with the children and teachers. Even when I got told off by the teachers for something, I seemed to get away with it.
“I had a very happy childhood and happy school days.”
When Steve went on to sixth form, he became friendly with a group of lads and they began taking part in theatre and drama workshops and Steve became hooked.
Steve went on to Oldham Theatre workshop, which spawned stars including Coronation Street’s Anne Kirkbride and Michael Le Velle.
He recalls: “It was a professional set up and I started getting lead roles such as Bugsy Malone in Bugsy Malone.”
When Steve reached his later teens, he discovered Monty Python, The Young Ones and Blackadder and it really changed his outlook of comedy.
Steve remembers: “Me and a couple of friends started doing our own sketches and we used to enter the Rochdale Music and Drama festivals and win with our sketches.
“I always wanted to go into acting, but knew it was a precarious career.
“While in my teens, I was with an agency and got walk-on parts on programmes including Sherlock Holmes and Seaview.
“However, my parents were a bit cautious about me going into acting and felt I should have an education behind me.”
Steve went to the University of Canterbury in Kent where he studied Economics and Social History. Apart from one play, Steve didn’t do any drama during his university years and instead concentrated on getting his degree.
Steve says: “I was such a homebird that the reason I went to Kent was so I would be far enough away to resist the temptation of going home.”
After graduating, Steve spent six months in London doing temping work including working at a doctor’s surgery and for a removals company.
Chuckling, Steve says: “I remember doing a removals job in the centre of London and forgetting to close the door of the van. As a consequence, a motorbike came whizzing round to tell me a hostess trolley had gone flying off the back of the van.
“I then realised this poor lady’s furniture I was moving was scattered around London.
“I had to go back and collect it all. Luckily, most of it was going to the tip, so I got away with it.
“But I realised removals wasn’t the career for me!”
Steve moved back north after a friend of a friend told him about a job driving cars on Coronation Street.
Steve did this for a week, but a permanent job never materialised, so he got a job in a bar.
While working there, a pub regular asked Steve if he fancied learning to juggle.
Steve explains: “A school in Rochdale started a night school in circus skills, run by Jim Riley who runs Skylight Circus.
“I was 21 at the time and went along and ended up getting hooked on juggling.”
Within weeks of learning to juggle, Steve was offered a job on the Granada Studios tour at Coronation Street.
He recalls: “They advertised a performer’s job and received hundreds of applications and I got the job.
“I did lie to them and told them I was prepared to tightrope walk across the street if they wanted me to.
“However, after I got the job and they mentioned it, I told them the insurance would be too high!”
Steve began entertaining the crowds coming into the street for tours.
He recalls: “I was basically being paid to juggle all day every day for two years and, as a result, I got better and better at it.
“It was while I was doing this that I came up with my ping pong trick that I am known for.
“The trick involved throwing a ping pong ball and it landing stuck on your nose.
“The secret is that you put a bit of glue on your nose and the ball.
“However, because the glue dries off quite quickly, I started juggling with the ping pong ball instead and catching it in my mouth and juggling it.
“That’s when I realised I had a more flexible mouth than most people as I could fit two ping pong balls in each cheek.”
While doing a show as a Mad Hatter character, including fire breathing and juggling, Steve was spotted by people from Camelot and they poached him from Granada.
Steve then spent the next 13 seasons performing at the now closed Camelot Theme Park under the guise of “Mad Edgar”, the court jester, and hosted jousting tournaments and presented crazy juggling shows.
As well as being a children’s and family entertainer, Steve did stand-up for adult audiences at the theme park’s Medieval banquets where he could do more risque jokes.
In 1999, Steve was doing one of these banquets when Les Dennis suddenly appeared on stage with a film crew telling Steve they were filming him as a surprise for a new television show called “Give Your Mate A Break”.
As part of the programme, Steve was made to work with an audience he was unfamiliar with, so ended up performing stand up at the Frog and Bucket in Manchester.
Steve recalls: “I was supposed to do six minutes of stand-up at the Frog and Bucket, but ended up doing 12 minutes as the audience kept shouting for me.
“I then got asked by the club owner to perform there for a proper weekend.
“On my first ever gig there, Peter Kay came to watch as someone had tipped off to come and see me.
“He was not as famous as he is now. He liked what he saw and asked me to support him on his Live At The Tower show.
“After that, I did a lot of northern comedy clubs and was then asked to appear in Phoenix Nights as a bad juggler.”
Steve only had a bit part in the television series of Phoenix Nights, so was delighted to be asked by Peter Kay to appear in the stage version for Comic Relief.
Steve says: “I only ever filmed one night for the actual TV show but many of the cast are good friends, such as Justin Moorhouse and Dave Spikey.
“Being in the shows at Manchester Arena was incredible. It just felt like a load of mates having fun together.
“I felt really lucky to be involved.
“When Peter Kay phoned us all up and asked us to do it for nothing, not one of us hesitated.
“It was the chance of a lifetime. We were initially looking at two nights with 14,000 people a night, but ended up doing 15 nights and an extra show to make up for the opening night.”
His face taking a sombre look, Steve recalls the terrible moment when fellow comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage with a cardiac arrest, minutes into the second act during the opening night.
Steve remembers: “I was the first one on stage after Peter and Ted was at the side of the stage saying: ‘Go on Steve, do your best!’
“Just before I went on stage, he told me he had just told Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry: ‘Steve Royle’s the one to watch’, which was nice.
“I was very nervous but determined not to let the nerves affect me.
“As soon as I came off stage, Ted gave me a huge hug.
“During the second act, I’d done my bit, so settled back to watch and enjoy the rest of the show.
“When I saw Ted on the big screen, I knew something was wrong. Ted looked scared which wasn’t like him at all.
“A couple of minutes into his act, Ted fell over and everyone laughed thinking it was part of the act.
“But I knew straight away something was wrong, as Ted is not the type of comedian to do slapstick falls.
“Luckily, other people in the audience recognised Ted’s symptoms and were quicker than me and more effective. A paramedic is more use than a juggler!
“Everyone was stunned and there were tears as everyone consoled each other. We didn’t know what was happening and were fearing the worst.”
Thankfully, Ted recovered well and the show went on.
Steve stood in for Ted’s show on Radio Lancashire for three weeks while he recovered. He jokes: “I called them my ‘Ted’s Benefit gigs’ - I benefitted from Ted.”
On a serious note, Steve says Ted is a great friend and the pair have known each other for years.
He explains: “When the incident happened, I realised how much Ted has done for me. He got me into Radio Lancashire and when I was at Camelot, he and his kids used to come and see me. Ted was one of my biggest fans.”
Steve also cites Dave Spikey, who he has supported on tour, as another big influence in his life as he encouraged him to do stand-up.
Pantomime is another major part of Steve’s life as he did four years at Preston’s Charter Theatre and this year, he will perform his 13th year at the Blackpool Grand Theatre panto.
Family is extremely important to Steve and he has been married to Janet, who he met on the set of a play, for 15 years.
He proposed to her after three years when they had just bought their house together in Wheelton, near Chorley.
Chuckling at the memory, Steve recounts the tale. “We had spent a fortune on a dining table so on the day it was delivered, I decided to cook a meal and propose to Janet.
“For dessert, I baked two cakes and iced the words: ‘Will you marry me?’ across both cakes. Then on one cake, I iced ‘Yes’ and the other ‘No’. Janet had to cut into the one which was her answer.
“I was really nervous and to make things worse, I made too much spaghetti bolognese so when I asked Janet if she was ready for dessert, she said she was too full! So I had to hang on for a while before producing the cakes.”
The cake with ‘Yes’ had the engagement ring inside it while the ‘No’ cake had a cassette tape of Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” inside.
Steve says: “It shows how long ago it was as it was a cassette tape!”
Jokingly, Steve, who has daughters Daisy, 12, Rosie, nine and Lucy, seven, adds: “Unfortunately, Janet cut into the ‘Yes’ cake which is why after having three kids, I look so tired all the time!”