My life with the stars

Kings Theatre, front of house manager, Nigel Stewart.''Picture: Allan Hutchings (151144-013)
Kings Theatre, front of house manager, Nigel Stewart.''Picture: Allan Hutchings (151144-013)
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Spending an hour in the company of jovial Nigel Stewart leaves a deep impression.

For when you leave him you are not quite sure whether it was Nigel you were interviewing or some of the greats from the world of light entertainment in the past half-century.

After 46 years in showbiz, rubbing shoulders and chinking glasses with his heroes, it is hardly surprising their distinctive characteristics have become ingrained in his soul.

It helps, of course, that he has a natural ability for impressions.

In quick succession Nigel, 63, switches from Tommy Cooper to Larry Grayson; Spike Milligan to Norman Wisdom. For good measure there’s a smattering of Max Bygraves, Eric Morecambe, Bob Monkhouse and Lee Evans. It’s a little like meeting Mike Yarwood or Alistair McGowan for coffee.

His Larry Grayson is pitch perfect as he recalls the time the then host of the Generation Game on television rolled up at Nigel’s theatre in his brown Roller with LG3 plates.

‘He got out, took one look at the building and the first thing he said was ‘‘Hmm. It looks like a gents’ toilet’’, recalls Nigel.

Grayson, like so many in the business, liked a drink.

Nigel adds: ‘I took Larry to his dressing room and the first thing he did was offer me a drink. It was four in the afternoon but I wanted him to come back later in the year, so I couldn’t refuse could I?

‘With that he opened one of his suitcases and it was like a portable bar. Every drink imaginable was inside.’ Nigel shared a couple with him, the ice was broken and Grayson agreed to that return.

He has also worked with some of the leading rock bands: The Who, Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, Status Quo.

‘These were the originals,’ he points out quickly. ‘Not tribute acts. I have to tell the boys and girls who work here that there once original bands.’

‘Here’ is the Kings Theatre, Southsea, where Nigel is currently a duty manager. He joined the staff seven years ago, becoming operations manager.

‘It’s a younger man’s game, but I love the business so much I can’t leave it alone. I could have retired to spend my time on the golf course or fishing, but life just wouldn’t the same.’

He ponders that life for a moment before adding. ‘I’ve been so very lucky. I’ve discussed football with Eric Morecambe in his dressing room... ‘

His past 18 years have been spent in Portsmouth and Southsea, ‘the longest I’ve stayed anywhere’. But life began in Worthing.

‘My dad had been in the navy so we were always coming to Portsmouth when I was a kid. And that’s where my ambitions were. I wanted to follow my dad and go into the navy.’

But he failed his physics O-level. ‘I wanted to be a navigator and for that you needed physics. I didn’t fancy becoming a deck hand.’

So he answered an advertisement in a newspaper for a junior clerk in the entertainment, publicity and catering department of Worthing Borough Council.

‘This was 1969 and it was great. I was earning £7 a week – £1 a day.’

A new boss ‘must have spotted some potential in me’ and promoted Nigel to a job which was to herald a career in seaside entertainment. ‘I was put in charge of the beach huts, handing out the keys for the weekly lets on a Saturday morning to little old ladies who usually returned to me within half-an-hour complaining the padlock to their hut had rusted. The most useful thing I learned was how to use a hacksaw.’

But he stuck with the entertainment industry and ended up putting on variety shows in council-run venues in Folkestone, Weymouth, Tunbridge Wells and Portsmouth and Southsea. In 1992 he left local government and went freelance.

It was during that period that he put on a World Cup show starring his sporting heroes, West Ham and England legends Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst.

‘As a Hammers fan I wasn’t going to say no to that, was I? But I couldn’t believe it when Bobby turned up in a Ford Transit and unloaded a projector and screen from the back and carried it inside. He did it all himself.’

Harking back to those glorious end-of-the-pier shows, Nigel continues: ‘I was so lucky that my career coincided with the tail end of the great variety shows in seaside resorts when summer seasons were 20 or 22 weeks long, when you were living with the stars of the show for five months at a time.

‘They’ve virtually all gone now because they’re seen as old hat and corny, but I think there’s still a market for them. Cromer in Norfolk still has a 15-week season on its pier and it’s massively successful.

‘Of course, we used to have them here on South Parade Pier... ’

He adds: ‘When I was seven my parents took me to shows at the London Palladium where I saw Max Bygraves and at Blackpool where I remember Bruce Forsyth chasing me down the aisle during the interval when I’d gone for an ice cream.

‘I fell in love with the whole world of variety, but never dreamed I’d be working with these people one day.’

Perhaps his biggest idol was Bob Monkhouse, the comedians’ comedian.

Nigel recalls time spent with him while he was putting on shows in Tunbridge Wells. Again the meeting happened in a dressing room over a whisky.

‘He arrived 20 minutes before the show and asked me if I’d like a drink. He had a copy of the Daily Telegraph in front of him and he said: ‘‘Nigel, give me some bits about Tunbridge Wells’’.

‘As I spoke he made notes in the margins all the way round the edge of the Telegraph.

‘He memorised them and then went on stage and told gag after gag about the town. The man was a genius.’

Nigel Stewart does a great impression of Tommy Cooper. Just like that. Or was it like that?

Many people could and can still mimic one of the all-time-great funnymen, but Nigel does his not because of TV but through time spent with him.

He recalls: ‘Tom was wonderful. Great company.

‘You always give artists 15 minutes or so after a show to wind down and on one occasion after enough time had passed I knocked on his door and asked if he was all right.

‘He called me in and asked if I’d like to see a trick. Who wouldn’t want to have a one-on-one with Tommy Cooper?

‘So I sat down and he produced a pack of cards and gave me, face up, the nine of diamonds.

‘Tom, who obviously knew what the card was, said ‘‘look at the card and memorise it, then put it back in the pack’’.

‘I did and he shuffled the pack and put the cards on the table.’

Nigel continues: ‘Then from inside his jacket he produced the biggest nine of diamonds you’ve ever seen. I had no idea it was there.

‘And Tom said ‘‘was this your card?’’

‘It was crazy, pure Tom, but his timing was perfect.’