Film ID: NEFA 21859 Video of NEFA 21859 Tommy Steele Returns to the Sunderland Empire NORTHERN LIFE: TOMMY STEELE RETURNS TO THE SUNDERLAND EMPIRE 1976 Visitor TabsDescription Tyne Tees Television reporter Peter Holland interviews rock and roll star Tommy Steele from the stage of the Sunderland Empire where twenty years ago he made his stage debut as frontman for ‘The Steelmen’. He recollects that first night and is asked about pop stardom and the course of his career since then. This report was transmitted 14 September 1976. The report begins with Tommy Steele walking the streets of Sunderland, making his way towards the Sunderland Empire theatre. Outside he looks up at the façade before walking inside. He shakes hands with two women inside the theatre and chats with a small group of supporters. A cake is brought out decorated with twenty candles and icing that reads ‘Tommy Steele Twenty’. Tommy bends over, closes his eyes and says ‘OK Sunderland, thanks’ before blowing the candles out. On stage, Tommy and reporter Peter Holland walk together while chatting. Tommy takes a seat on a stool and the interview begins. Returning to the Empire was a lot more nostalgic that he had thought, says Tommy. When he left London that morning he thought that he might remember a few things. The journey from Newcastle Airport, across the bridges and the Wear, up the hill to the theatre and seeing the ‘foreboding façade’ as it was 20 years ago when it read ‘The Dynamic Tommy Steele, Britain’s Teenage Idol’. He remembers the cobbled backstreet beside the stage door, the greasy spoon across the road where they [The Steelmen] spent half the morning talking about what they will try and do that night. Tommy recalls a fireman who ‘presented himself on stage’ and having to explain to him what the amp was for. He remembers how he was told he needed to have a fire bucket beside him through the performance. Coming on stage ‘to face the multitudes of locusts’, the prototype audience to come with a bucket beside him. Tommy looks into the camera and addresses that same fireman to say he hadn’t forgotten him. That night, says Peter Holland, he was top of the bill, but six weeks earlier he was an unknown merchant seaman. How had he adjusted? It wasn’t difficult, replies Tommy, as he was enjoying himself. He was a ‘kid with a new sort of toy’ and touring was a ‘huge fantastic camping holiday’. He was going to sing songs he knew and that audiences were going to come see them. Peter says that there aren’t many Brits from this era who remained ‘super stars’. Tommy doesn’t give it much thought, they all enjoyed the same period of time; ‘new, exciting, youthful paganistic in some ways’. Tommy went on to do other things because he wanted to. Those who fell by the wayside ‘jumped off’. Tommy explains that he was a rock and roll star for only three or four years as he wanted to do other things. Reporter Holland comments that ‘Half a Sixpence’ conquered both London and New York, he’d been in multi-million pound films, stage plays, prestigious television, successful panto and cabaret in Las Vegas, what next? Smiling he says that he would like to update Gilbert and Sullivan, something new, keep on moving. He first acted in ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ at the Old Vic and learned his lines with a dictionary beside him. He did that because he didn’t understand half the words, he still doesn’t. He remembers doing ‘12th Night’ with Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson and Joan Plowright a couple of years previously. He didn’t understand one of the speeches and was given three different interpretations from each of the actors. Tommy is then asked if he has thought of becoming a tax exile? No he says, ‘you can go anywhere in the world and you won’t find anywhere as good as our country. You can’t buy that.’ The final question, if he hadn’t been spotted ‘twanging’ his guitar in a Soho café, would his talent have come to the surface? He doesn’t know, but he would have been the most popular entertainer on-board ship. He would have settled for that. Context Rock ‘n’ roll nerves of Steele Tommy Steel returns to Sunderland Empire in the 1970s and recalls his years as Decca’s dynamic new star of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Tommy Steele, former merchant seaman on the Mauretania and an early rock ‘n’ roll sensation hailed as “Britain’s answer to Elvis”, makes a nostalgic return to Sunderland Empire, scene of his first professional stage success with The Steelmen, his teenage fans that night like locusts. He was catapulted to the top of the bill at the theatre after he was talent spotted ‘twanging his guitar’ at the legendary 2i's coffee bar in Soho and signed to the Decca record label in 1956. On 5 November 1956, toothy Cockney Tommy Steele debuted in the Empire variety show with an eccentric mix of entertainers including comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters, Welsh boogie-woogie maestro Thunderclap Jones and Ballet Montmartre. This old music hall tradition of programming continued throughout the 20th century amid keen competition from cinemas and ballrooms. In the 50s varieties proved popular with a television audience through shows such as ATV’s ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’. Local theatres like the Empire could not compete so started to hire young music acts favoured by teenagers as a survival strategy, despite the media publicity about ‘Teddy Boy riots’ at rock and roll concerts.