Steve is a child of the 60s. Not so much Swinging London, more Gloomy Leeds. It was a tough working class upbringing, a world of Woodbines, tin baths, catalogue money and fog. A never disappearing fog. And if cobbled streets and outside toilets weren't enough, at the age of three Steve developed that disease of the poor: consumption. Or TB as it's known today. If he had been born a decade earlier, Steve would probably have died but by then consumption was curable, even if it did mean a long period of isolation in hospital. During this time away from home Steve's only companion was his teddy bear, 'Little Ted', who, very happily, now sits by his bedside. But it was a difficult time and formative for it gave him, he has said, "a certain emotional independence which people often build for themselves when suddenly separated from those they love."
In the 60s, all of Steve's extended family lived close by in Harehills (or 'arr'ills, as said by the locals), a well known area of Leeds, and, typical of the time, they were all, day on day, a part of his early life. Steve's paternal grandfather, Charlie Nallon, was a miner and later a dustbin man, and his grandmother on his father's side, Lena, was a char in the local factory. Charlie was a quiet, conscientious, hardworking but often distant man, whereas Lena was all hugs, kisses and enveloping "big loves". Steve's grandfather on mother's side was Jack Oddy, a well known figure in the local area, who sold newspapers and magazines from his front door. Since the 1930s Jack had run a team of paperboys (including in the 1970s Steve himself) delivering the Yorkshire Evening Post. Mary, Jack's wife, had been a seamstress for Montague Burton (later the clothes shop Burtons) but by the time Steve was born she had more or less stopped working. Instead she looked after Steve and his sister and cooked meals for everyone at dinner and teatime. She was a tough and resilient woman who, although not always right, was not one to be argued with. Mary Oddy would later prove to be a major influence in Steve's life.
Steve's mother, Christine, unlike her parents, was part of a new, aspirational post-war generation. Christine bought a fridge, something Jack and Mary never had. And she had fitted carpets rather than rugs made of the off cuts brought home from Montague Burtons that covered her parents' floorboards. Christie became qualified as a comptometer operator and went to work in the office of an insurance firm. Only then, one night, she came home... and simply died. A sudden and fatal brain haemorrhage. Steve was nine and his sister was eleven. "That sound of her dying breath," Steve has said, "a deep chesty rattle, still echoes. It's a loss that's always there somewhere in your life."
Steve's father, Joe, was a bookkeeper and had been training to be a maths teacher but due to a series of mental breakdowns and hospitalisation he was forced to abandon all his ambitions. In the late 60s he was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia and was at one stage nearly committed on a permanent basis, but Christine insisted the doctors give him and her one more chance. They did. But weeks after Joe was released Christine died. In those days, people with a mental health record found it almost impossible to gain employment. Joe was a gifted man, without lessons he taught himself to play the piano by ear and he could do complicated mathematical equations in his head. He wrote many short stories and even invented an ingenious board game which he took with great excitement to Waddingtons. But it was all to no avail and for years he was unemployed and unemployable. Eventually the Catholic Church 'took him in' and gave him the job as a caretaker and cleaner at the city cathedral of St Anne's where he stayed for the rest of his life. Being part of the life of a cathedral sounds romantic, but it was anything but. The church itself was in Leeds town centre and vagrants would come in everyday and use the confessions as their toilet. And the mess left behind was Joe's to clean up. Inevitably perhaps with two teenagers children at home and an onerous life at work, Joe's mental stability deteriorated still further. Sometimes he didn't come home and found himself in a police cell over night. On occasions he'd be sectioned, as it's called now, and then spend a few weeks in hospital. And when he came home few ornaments were left unbroken and no glass lampshade remained unsmashed. Life became not only difficult but dangerous. One evening, a few days before Christmas in 1974, Joe became completely unhinged. Doreen, Steve's sister, ran out the door and Steve himself soon followed. But where to go? He was fourteen, she was sixteen. The only option that night was their maternal grandmother and grandfather. The next day, Mary Oddy, that tough and sometimes fearsome matriarch, confronted Steve and Doreen's father. "Joe," she told him, "the kids are staying with me. And that's that". There was no arguing. And they never did return. Their new home was a mucky, damp two-up, two-down back-to-back house scheduled to be demolished. Steve and Doreen slept in the attic with Auntie Jennifer, Mary and Jack's grown-up daughter. After two grim winters they were re-housed by the council on a local estate. The timing was perfect, for Steve, now sixteen, at last had a room to himself. You see, it was that year he discovered the great joy of learning and reading books. This was his chance. And he set university as his goal.
It was a hard and rocky childhood, and Steve's teenage years were traumatic. But there were happy times too, with sing-songs round the piano, afternoons at the seaside and, most importantly, a strong sense of being loved. Tough love, they call it. Perhaps the best kind. Family gatherings in those early years were always a great highlight, for Aunty Edith would make Steve stand up and sing 'Ave Maria' for which he would receive a big hug, a round of applause from everyone - and a sixpence put in his pocket! The need to perform had always been there. And dressing-up too. That wonderful world of pretend, able to become someone else. Still you, yet somehow not you. And when that strange wonderment becomes part of your life it soon becomes your life. And, as the big smiles from the family photos testify, whether Steve was pretending to be a boxer or dressing up as a bridesmaid, he was clearly beginning to revel in it...
Steve was a grammar school boy, one of the last from that bygone era. St Michael's College, Leeds, was an all boys Jesuit run school with traditional values. Teachers were called 'Masters' and Latin was compulsory. Though strict on discipline and academic achievement, the Headmaster, K.D. Morris, very much encouraged theatre and drama. And Steve took every opportunity to perform in school plays and at cabaret evenings. There were roles in CHARLEY'S AUNT as the real aunt, in WIND IN THE WILLOWS as the Judge and in ANDROCLES AND THE LION as the Roman Emperor. The old fashioned greasepaint was difficult to remove, and left you with an oddly orange face for days, so you could always tell which boys had been in the school play. And the odour of that greasepaint lingered too. A smell like no other. The showbiz bug had bitten, taken root, and wasn't going to go away...
Technically Steve's professional debut was on 'the West End stage', or, to be more precise, the floorboards of the Pudsey West End Working Men's Club and Institute Union stage in Leeds. Whilst still at school, and aged sixteen, Steve developed a successful comedy act which he took round the Working Men's Clubs of the north. He had became, as they say in Yorkshire, a 'turn'. The act was mainly impressions of TV actors, personalities and comedians such as Leonard Rossiter, John Inman and Pam Ayres. It included a soap opera routine featuring the voices of Amos Brearly (Ronald Magill) from EMERDALE FARM, Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) from CORONATION STREET and Shughie McFee (Angus Lennie) from CROSSROADS. But there was also a comedy section where Steve did leading politicians, including Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and young Leader of the Opposition called Margaret Thatcher, in a crosstalk routine of gags and insults.
During these early years on the northern club circuit as a turn, Steve learnt that showbiz is a fickle mistress. One night you could be booed-off and paid-off (meaning sent home with only half your fee), and on the very next show, sometimes in the same evening, you'd be cheered to the rafters with cries for "More!". Steve was discovering that every venue and each performance presented their own challenges. A lesson that still comes in handy even today, whether it's performing stand-up on the comedy circuit or playing theatres on tour.
In 1979 Steve took the offer a place at the University of Birmingham to study Drama and English. Whist performing on the northern club circuit, Steve had been seen by casting director Bill Hetterley who was on the lookout for new talent for a TV show, but after the performance the agent had told him that Steve had a place lined up at university. When he and Steve met years later, Bill told Steve that he remembered him well and had even kept the notes he'd made that night where he'd written, "Excellent mimic, does a brilliant Kenneth Williams impression", but thought that at nineteen university would be the better path to follow. Steve was forever grateful for that decision as his life at university opened up an entirely new world.
In those days the Birmingham Drama course was renowned for its emphasis on a practical knowledge of theatre. Put simply, the philosophy was 'to understand it, you must do it.' Books were not enough. The course was a panoramic study and ranged from the acting methods of Brecht and Coward to the theories of Meyerhold and Stanislavsky. And in this new world there were also the likes of Chekhov, Ibsen, Pirandello, Aristophanes and Maeterlinck. There was even an American Musical Theatre course where Steve ended up 'hoofin' it', as they say on Broadway, in the opening number from A CHORUS LINE.
The degree was Combined Honours and in the English department Steve took a strong interest in Satire, especially the works of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Pope said of satire: "O sacred Weapon! Left for Truth's defence, / Sole dread of Folly, Vice and Insolence!" Swift had a slightly more cynical approach: "Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders go generally to discover everyone's face but their own." Steve's interest in Satire never went away and he now lectures on its history, especially in the broadcast media, at universities and societies across the country.
During his University years 1980 to 1983, Steve started writing, directing and acting in shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. Building sets in the morning, running box office all afternoon and then performing in shows and plays in the evening became a way of life. However, Steve discovered the real challenge of a month in Edinburgh wasn't so much the drama on stage but rather the endless squabbles behind the scenes where the artistic temperament is often delicate and easily bruised. Contemporaries and fellow Edinburgh performers from that era include Mark Billingham (later a successful novelist), Nick Philippou (later an experimental performance art theatre director), Chris Ballantyne (later a TV producer on PEAKY BLINDERS), Marcus Prince (later a production manager on DOCTOR WHO) Mandy Stevens (later called 'Amanda Ross', owner of Cactus Television), Tim Taylor (later called 'Tim Frances' who became a successful West End actor), Angela de Chastelai Smith (who quite right kept that alluring bohemian name and went on to direct EASTENDERS) and Jon Gaunt (later a controversial 'shock jock', enemy of all things PC and outspoken Brexit supporter). Imagine all those egos living in a tiny flat, working together every hour God sends us for weeks upon weeks with no escape... oh, the joy! The unimaginable joy! But despite sometimes heated words, personal vendettas and delusional psychosis, Edinburgh was to become a sort of second home for Steve and in the 1990s and 2000s Steve brought several one-man shows to that great city and continues to be a regular visitor to the festival.
After leaving University, Steve spent some time in repertory theatre until, in 1984, his life changed dramatically. For that was the year ITV launched a new satirical puppet programme called SPITTING IMAGE and Steve was to go on to become a founding member of the team.
The puppets were created by Fluck and Law and the programme was produced by that master of comedy John Lloyd. For the show, Steve provided the voices of Alan Bennett, the Queen Mum, David Attenborough, Roy Hattersley, Margaret Thatcher, Denis Healey, Malcolm Rifkind, Enoch Powell, Bruce Forsyth, David Frost, Ted Heath, Leonard Rossiter, Harold Wilson and many more for the next ten years. "It was great fun and often quite exhilarating to be part of this ground-breaking satirical series. Most importantly it led to the making of many life-long friends and colleagues", Steve has remarked. In 2014, the 1984 team were reunited for a series of panel discussions at the BFI (the British Film Institute) celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of SPITTING IMAGE and these panel talks later became part of the BBC Arena special WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO SPITTING IMAGE?
During the 80s television producers discovered that Steve could not only sound like the Prime Minister he impersonated on SPITTING IMAGE but with his peculiar protean talent (and an expensive wig and careful make-up) Steve could look like her too. Thus 'The Thatcher Years' were born. Throughout the following decade and beyond, Steve became a regular face on television, albeit looking like someone else for Steve's impersonation of Mrs Thatcher in the full regalia became, as THE TIMES put it, "the industry standard". His appearances on TV shows of the 80s and beyond include THE NEW STATESMAN with Rik Mayall, THE MIKE YARWOOD SHOW, THE LITTLE AND LARGE SHOW, THE TROUBLE WITH JOAN COLLINS, BULLSEYE, THE RORY BREMNER SHOW, THE BIG BREAKFAST, CINDERELLA - THE SHOE MUST GO ON, THIS MORNING, WOGAN, TEN GLORIOUS YEARS, THE BOBBY DAVRO SHOW, THE KRYPTON FACTOR, THAT'S LIFE!, CHILDREN IN NEED, COMIC RELIEF, the US series BAD GIRLS: REBELS WITH A CAUSE and even a five minute slot on NEWSNIGHT. Steve was featured as Margaret Thatcher in the film DREAMING, a BBC Screen One drama, alongside comedian Billy Connolly, and made special appearances in the stage shows THE SECRET POLICEMAN'S THIRD BALL and THE SECRET POLICEMAN'S BIGGEST BALL. Steve also 'guested' as Lady Thatcher on the 80s themed edition of THE WEAKEST LINK and was memorably seen in the short film THATCHER FROM HELL! directed by Roger Law which was shown at the BFI. A particular favourite appearance was oddly enough singing 'My Favourite Things' with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis, where slightly altered lyrics such as "Capturing butterflies, / Breaking their wings" somehow found their way into the evening's entertainment.
Nowadays, Steve is often called upon to voice the former Prime Minister for films and television shows where, often for legal reasons, it is not always possible to access original archive. This he has done for the Mark Strong movie DAYS, which told the story of the SAS raid on the Iranian Embassy, and the cult comedy horror movie EAT LOCALS, directed by Jason Flemyng. For many years, Steve recreated Thatcher for the BBC's UK CONFIDENTIAL programme, a radio documentary series with dramatic reconstructions of the British Cabinet papers, and recently he played the former Prime Minister opposite Toby Jones in the BBC radio political drama THE CORRUPTED adapted from the GF Newman novels. Stage performances as Margaret Thatcher include the political play DEAD SHEEP and the satirical comedy THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON, both by the playwright Jonathan Maitland and put on at the Park Theatre. Steve is often asked too to contribute to TV programmes and documentaries analysing the style, voice and politics of Margaret Thatcher and these have included WORLD IN ACTION (ITV), THE SOUTH BANK SHOW (ITV), THE DAY SHE WENT (BBC) and the HBO series THE SECRETS OF BODY LANGUAGE.
In the 90s Steve was invited to return to the Drama Department of the University of Birmingham, this time as a Visiting Lecturer. Over a period of seven years Steve created and directed courses in Stand-up Comedy, Screenplay Writing, Greek Theatre, The American Musical, and the Comedy-of-Manners acting style, as well as delivering lectures as part of the university Film Studies course. Former students of Steve from this period include the actors Matthew Goode, Tom Riley and Richard Galazka, the classical singer Natasha Marsh, the comedy performers James Wrighton and Andrew Spiers, theatre directors Ed Curtis and Richard Twyman, and the TV producer Neale Simpson. Steve still enjoys lecturing and is always happy to gives talks to various groups on a wide range of subjects. He also regularly runs practical drama workshops for professional actors and students of all ages and backgrounds at universities and colleges across the country.
Whilst at university Steve appeared as Harold Gorringe in the play BLACK COMEDY which was directed by Laurence Roman whose father George Roman was Artistic Director of Theatr Clywd. This connection led to Steve being invited to audition for a new musical called THE CLOGGIES at Theatre Clwyd and it was the reviews from this show that Steve sent to John Lloyd that then resulted in him being seen for SPITTING IMAGE. In the early 90s, and following the death of his grandmother who had helped bring him up in his teenage years, Steve wrote a short piece about her which was read by a BBC producer who then invited Steve to write a column on 'Grandmothers' for Radio Four. This led to a succession of broadcast columns and features that itself resulted in the making of a whole documentary series on the nature of Fame. Similarly, when Steve's Musical Theatre university course notes were written up and became a series of articles for the magazine MUSICAL STAGES an editor at Flame Tree publishing read them and a commission to write the chapter on musical theatre for THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF MUSIC quickly followed. Likewise, the publication of the book I, MARGARET led to a play for BBC Radio called PRIZEGIVING and soon more writing opportunities presented themselves, including the full length BBC Saturday Playhouse drama PROPS and the satirical comedy series THE GHOST OF NUMBER TEN. Steve's grounding as a puppeteer on SPITTING IMAGE prepared the way for a whole variety of television puppet shows such as THE SPOOKS OF BOTTLE BAY, CRAZY COTTAGE, CATS' EYES and THE HOSUE OF GRISTLE, and work as a Computer Motion Capture performer (or Mo-Cap as it's known in the industry) at Pinewood Film Studios. Appearing as Professor Edmund Spencer in the BBC short film THE GANZFELD PROCEDURE led to Steve landing the leading role of astro-physicist Professor Richards in the Sci-fi movie 51 DEGREES NORTH, directed by the German born film producer Grigorij Richters. Coming from the north and with a strong comedy background meant that Steve was the obvious choice to play Roy Barraclough in the play CISSIE AND ADA, centring on the friendship of Roy Barraclough and Les Dawson and the creation of their comic characters 'Cissie and Ada'. The play had a nationwide tour in 2013 and one of venues included the Buxton Opera House and it was his appearance there as Roy/'Cissie' that led to Steve being offered the role of Dame Trott in the panto production of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. And from hearing about the success of this production, casting director Marc Frankham cast Steve in the Greenwich Theatre production of CHINESE WHISPERS.
Everything connects. Wheels within wheels. And each creative discipline connects too. Writing, teaching, devising, acting, designing and directing, each are interdependent crafts and so it's only when they come together that they can create The Arts of Performance.