Basingstoke’s Steve Hewlett explores the history of ventriloquism in lockdown
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 June 2020
The Britain’s Got Talent contestant on how appearing on the show changed his life, while penning a history of his craft.
When Basingstoke’s Steve Hewlett applied for Britain’s Got Talent it was with an eye on the top prize, a slot on the Royal Variety Performance, which was his lifelong dream.
Now six years on from coming fourth in the national ITV competition he is yet to take a spot in the royal line-up, but he has achieved much more – from UK and US tours to meeting and working alongside some of his entertainment heroes.
When Hampshire Life last spoke to Steve in 2014 he was going on his first UK tour. The coronavirus lockdown has postponed his 2020 jaunt – with a hometown show at The Haymarket moved to September – but he’s not idle during this enforced layoff.
One major project is a book exploring the history of ventriloquism, which he is editing during the lockdown. “I’ve started with my own story, watching New Faces in 1987 and seeing Jimmy Tamley who was a ventriloquist living around the corner in Basingstoke,” he says.
“I went and asked him to teach me and turned professional 22 years ago. There are about 30 books about ventriloquism, but so many teach you how to do it. I wanted mine to be different.”
He has interviewed about 30 different ventriloquists from around the world – from the three who have won America’s Got Talent, to performers from Sweden, India, Switzerland and Kuwait. Along the way he got to talk to his heroes – including the late Ken Dodd who he used to tour with in his pre-Britain’s Got Talent days. “Ventriloquism got Ken into showbusiness,” says Steve. “He gave me a few stories about the ventriloquists he’d worked with – he always used ventriloquists in his shows. He had a close friend, Dennis Spicer, who did the Royal Variety Performance in 1964 and died in a car accident two weeks later.” As part of the research for his book, which he has been working on for almost three decades, Steve spoke to Dennis’ mother, who was then 90 years old. He is releasing the finished book at next year’s international ventriloquist convention in Kentucky. “Lots know about it because they are in it,” he laughs.
Until Britain’s Got Talent Steve could mainly be found playing holiday parks and cruise ships. Since then he has played the most unusual places – from appearing at the Royal Albert Hall with saxophonist Kenny G, to being invited to play Andy Williams’ former venue the Moon River Theatre in Branson, Missouri, by its current owner Jimmy Osmond. “I feel I’m blessed,” he says. “I don’t take it for granted – it all came out of Britain’s Got Talent.”
One big change in recent years has been his entry to the showbiz fraternity of the Water Rats – after being invited by the late Roy Hudd. “There’s a real history to the people who have been in the Water Rats – people like Tommy Cooper and Les Dawson,” says Steve. “Roger De Courcey, who is famous for Nookie Bear, seconded me – he said there weren’t many younger ventriloquists coming through.”
As part of the touring show he is taking out on the road later this year he pays tribute to Ken Dodd alongside some of his other heroes. The rest of the show is dedicated to Steve’s most popular character – Arthur Lager. “I was doing a panto at The Anvil in Basingstoke about 16 years ago and I was told we needed an old man puppet,” says Steve. “The old man puppet got significantly better reactions to Butch, who was my main character at the time, so I never put him back in the act.”
For the new show, which Steve had been hoping to take to the Edinburgh Fringe, he has created puppets of Arthur as an eight year-old, 20 year-old, 40 year-old and 60 year-old. “He will be born in my arms and by the end will be really old,” says Steve, who has been working on the final sketch with his wife Nina.
The pair now live with their two daughters in Eastbourne, who Steve has been home-schooling during the lockdown.
In December Steve is returning to panto, having spent Christmas of 2019 headlining the annual festive extravaganza in Thursford, Norfolk. “It was 130 people onstage,” he says. “There are 50 musicians in the orchestra and another 50 singers. I did the show ten years ago for three Christmasses – I got to do a near Royal Variety Performance one year when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came to the show. This year I was the only comedy in the show – there was two-and-a-half hours of music and half-an-hour of me and my characters. I had the best time.”
He believes part of his appeal comes from the fact he’s able to perform to a family audience. “Keith Harris once said you can entertain a one-year-old next to a 101-year-old,” he says. “We can bring the whole family together. There’s not much like that anymore – it’s difficult to get a show that everyone can go to.”
He admits that getting on in showbusiness isn’t easy, but he still has the example of his fellow Water Rats to follow. He has been using YouTube and his website to reach his fans – including taking part in an acapella version of We Are The World with fellow entertainers. “I’m pushing myself to do bigger and better work,” he says. “I don’t want to stop. Last year’s King Rat was Nicholas Parsons. He was 96 and was still working, there was always a smile on his face. He was someone to look up to and admire. You don’t leave showbusiness, it leaves you – you just have to keep going!”