Basingstoke ventriloquist Steve Hewlett on his UK theatre tour
PUBLISHED: 11:34 17 June 2014 | UPDATED: 11:34 17 June 2014
He's used to remaining tight-lipped but as his first major UK theatre tour gathers pace, Basingstoke born ventriloquist Steve Hewlett speaks to Viv Micklefield about hitting the big time
As surreal experiences go, this surely ranks up there with best of them as I find myself shaking hands with Simon Cowell in the middle of a Basingstoke car park. Not, I hasten to add, the Simon Cowell. It’s a four-foot something foam rubber and latex mini-me of the music mogul, complete with arched eyebrows, a freshly seared suntan and an alarmingly realistic mat of chest hair peeking out from beneath a dazzling white shirt.
Minutes later, this apparition is stashed inside a trunk that’s squeezed into ventriloquist Steve Hewlett’s car boot, along with assorted other characters who will shortly be joining him on stage. While in the world of comedy entertainment a life on the road is often a given, during the past year his career has certainly taken a whole new direction.
“I’ve done the grafting and I know the TV is not going to come to me,” says Steve. “You have to do something to push yourself towards stardom.” And, in his case, this meant coming-up with a new act. One capable of wowing, not only a knee-trembling panel of celebrity judges and a pumped-up studio audience, but, also, the millions at home watching the nation’s biggest talent show.
How, I wonder, do you ever become a professional ventriloquist? Steve, it seems, caught the bug early.
“When I was 12 years-old our family was watching another TV talent show called New Faces and a ventriloquist called Jimmy Tamley won the grand final; he lived just a few minutes’ walk from me. The week after the show a lot of kids knocked on his door, and I was one of them.
“Ventriloquism was suddenly popular again and keen on learning how to do it, I asked for some tips. Jimmy recommended a book written by ventriloquist Ray Allen and, strangely, that same week my sister came home from school with a ventriloquist’s dummy emptied out of someone’s attic. A month later, after practising hard in front of a mirror, I went back to Jimmy’s house and he started giving me lessons.”
While classmates played football, Steve honed his new-found skills at children’s parties and charity events. He showed incredible self-belief by organising a three-week local ‘tour’ for work experience, confounding his teachers who weren’t convinced if this was a serious career choice.
It was the chance to become Jimmy’s part-time roadie however that really encouraged the teenage protégé to emulate his teacher and life-long friend. Steve explains: “I got to see what went on behind the scenes. It was amazing. I learnt how to mix the music, deal with hecklers, how to make sure the lighting was good – if that’s not right you ‘lose’ the audience.”
There might be relatively few of them on the professional circuit, yet ventriloquists it seems are a close-knit crowd. Pongo the Skunk, currently one of Steve’s most popular dummies in his family-friendly act, came from Keith Harris of Orville fame. And Keith, along with fellow performers Nina Conti and Paul Zerdin, was amongst the first to offer his support when Steve announced himself as a contender for Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) 2013.
This was no spare of the moment decision. Here’s someone who left home aged 17 having clinched his first summer season performing at a Barry Island holiday camp. Steve’s led the Hi Di Hi life entertaining British holidaymakers countrywide, ridden the waves in the end-of-the-pier shows and on the cruise ships, and worked alongside many of our best-loved stars of stage and screen from Ken Dodd to Sacha Baron Cohen.
With dummies costing upwards of £2,000, funding his passion for ventriloquism meant winters spent in part-time factory jobs, whilst entering local talent competitions saw new routines tested and much needed prize money. Fast forward and aged 38, Steve is regularly topping the bill at variety shows, and has a young family of his own based on the south coast. “I always thought I had more to give and could perform in a theatre,” he says. “But you’re not going to get a national tour unless you get a break on TV. BGT had been contacting me for six years – the seventh time I said yes, especially when they announced auditions were being held at The London Palladium and would be broadcast on primetime TV. But, there was huge pressure because I am respected in the business, so I was putting my career at risk if I got ‘buzzed’. People judge you straight away. But I did five minutes and got a standing ovation.”
While he admits to still getting nervous when first stepping out in front of a new audience, Steve was perhaps better prepared than most for the twists and turns, waiting to discover if he’d advanced through to the later rounds. As a pro, he also knew the act had to be kept fresh and, while his long-time favourite dummy Arthur Lager is always a crowd-pleaser – and as judge Amanda Holden discovered a bit of a ladies’ man, the introduction of Little Simon was a masterstroke. “Butch,” he reveals, “Was originally a character that had been lying around for years and when my wife and I agreed that he could pass for Simon Cowell, I sent him to a specialist in Portugal who recycles dummies.”
Once they’d got over the shock, what did the panellists really think? “I saw David Walliams backstage and he said: ‘Loved your show.’ And, afterwards, I had a photo taken with Simon. I was very lucky, he had a great sense of humour – it could have gone either way!”
It might be a one-man-show but Steve’s always had the support of his family back in Basingstoke: “They came to the final of BGT but didn’t know I was the wildcard entry. When Ant and Dec called my name out, my mum jumped up crying and screaming all the time.”
Although his name is yet to appear in lights at The Palladium – show winners Attraction got the dream gig, since February Steve has been joined by friend and magic man Richard Griffin, on his first major 38-date national tour and loves every minute of it. During any downtime, he’s busy working on scripts and thinking-up topical props. I’m told there’s been an ‘appearance’ from a new celebrity, and rumour has it one of the Royal’s might be next in line. Actually, there’s a list of famous faces, as long as his arm, waiting in the wings.
With one panto under his belt already, and another in the diary, it’s always show time – that is, while he still has a voice. “I drink lots of water and take some throat sweets before I go on,” says Steve. Before adding, with a broad grin: “Because I came fourth in Britain’s Got Talent, I’ve had to work extra hard to keep my name out there, but I’ve worked 25 years for this. I’m not going to let it go.”
Get in on the act - Steve Hewlett and Friends…thinking inside the box!
The Haymarket, Basingstoke: 21 June 7.30pm; 01256 844244, www.anvilarts.org.uk
Shanklin Theatre, Isle of Wight: 6 July 7.30pm; 01983 868000, www.shanklintheatre.com
More dates: www.thestevehewlettshow.com
Become a ventriloquist Merlynda LK Robinson, founder of the Ventriloquist Club of Great Britain runs courses near Petersfield. For more details visit: www.theventriloquistclubofgreatbritain.com