“A well-dressed gent with thick greying hair and a polite air, his Irish voice, his lack of aggression, the composed expression hiding a gentle smile, his amazing pauses which defied interruption, somehow overawing and silencing hecklers...”
This is Bob Monkhouse attempting to sum up the charms of famous Ulster-born gameshow host and stand-up comedian Roy Walker, who has most recently been joking with Chris Moyles on BBC Radio One’s Carpark Catchphrase.
Now Walker is gearing up for a round of stand-up shows that take a comical look back over his life, his years on Catchphrase alongside the inimitable Mr Chips, but also memories of his childhood, of excelling as a boy soprano, finding his way into stand-up and becoming compere of Talk of the Town, one of Belfast’s most popular cabaret entertainment spots in the 1960s and a place where Van Morrison and jazz stars showed up frequently, when things were cool and ‘happening’ - as Walker remembers - before the outbreak of the Troubles.
He made his name with self-coined catchphrases on the iconic British gameshow: ‘Say what you see’ and ‘It’s good, but it’s not right’ memorably peppering his TV patter.
But there’s much more about Roy for audiences to discover and his show builds on his 50 years experience as a comedian; even during his Catchphrase years he never gave up on his first love of stand-up comedy.
“People know me as a singer, as a gameshow host and as a comedian, so I want to do something that will incorporate all three,” says Roy.
“This is going to be a comedic walk through my life.
I show the audience some of the most famous moments of Catchphrase because it’s a part of my life story; I was doing the show for 14 years and during all that time I was still doing stand-up.
“I think my stand-up style is a lot slower than stand-ups today and not as much in-your-face. It’s quite dry really.
“I loved American comedians when I was growing up, people like George Burns and Jack Benny. I also really like Jimeoin McKeown - he’s from Northern Ireland and has enjoyed a lot of success in Australia and I do think we’re quite similar in our approach.
“It’s about telling a story and the timing is very important.”
Born in Islandmagee, near Larne, as a teenager Roy performed in the Francis Longford Choir, then worked as a riveter in the Harland and Wolff shipyard. He was something of an all-rounder: Northern Ireland champion hammer thrower for two years, and he served time in the British Army.
He first went to work at the age of twelve, “to bring a few extra pennies into the house” and later ran a fruit shop on the Woodstock Road. On the side he was spending evenings working as a compère at the Talk of the Town club.
“I suppose it was always clear that I wanted to be a performer: I was a very good boy soprano like Allan Jones - I sang all over the place at the drop of a hat really. I was quite an introvert though until people asked me to perform and then I could be the extrovert.
“Talk of the Town was really the start of cabaret entertainment here. I was the first one at The Trocadero in Cromac street in the middle of the Markets - it was packed every night. People like Van Morrison used to come in to see us back then. After six months we moved to a place at the bottom of the Newtownards Road and I named it Talk of the Town. I guy called Murray Sharp owned it and he really gave me my big break by making me the compere there. We had big American stars coming over, Guy Mitchell and jazz singer Salena Jones and many others.”
He remembers the city nostalgically, full of possibility and good vibrations before conflict broke out.
“The mid-sixties were a beautiful time - The Stones and The Beatles were out, this was a happening Belfast before the Troubles began. I felt it was like a miniature London. Integration was happening in bars and clubs, people were having fun. Protestants and Catholics drank together in Talk of the Town. Over night it changed.”
The Troubles had personal consequences for Walker. He was a Protestant, his wife was a Catholic, and the sectarian discrimination they encountered meant they had to take the difficult decision to move to England. It was a blow for Roy who had been steadying building a career in entertainment here and across the Irish Sea he had to start once more from scratch.
“I was lucky I got away. I had to start over and it was hard at first - it took me seven years to get a small bit of success. My family kept me going though.
”I’d been ‘Mr Belfast’ but in Sunderland I had to wait by the phone at nine o’clock hoping that some other poor comic had been paid off after his first act.”
In 1977 Roy came to national prominence through TV’s New Faces, receiving the highest marks ever given to a comedian. Many major television appearances followed until in 1986 he became host of Catchphrase. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1998 - when Bob Monkhouse coined such charming observations about him - and appeared in the hit series Phoenix Nights.
Since his 2008 run at the Edinburgh Fringe with Goodbye Mr Chips, Walker has been enjoying something of a comedy renaissance. Working with Chris Moyles on Radio One for the past seven-and-a-half years has added to his cachet.
He describes the portly, truculent and sometimes annoying wisecracking Moyles as “a very ordinary wee fella who loves his mummy and daddy”. Roy’s off soon for a farewell party with him now that his Carpark Catchphrase days are over.
More than anything, Walker is looking forward to reconnecting with Ulster audiences. But don’t expect his yellow computerised compadre to be in tow.
“Mr Chips has run off with another man’s wife so he won’t be joining us. I have to say I always expected this kind of behaviour from him.”
He has a rare kind of amiability does Roy. It’s good and it’s right.
n Roy Walker, Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, September 14 (02890 340202); Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen, September 21 (02866 325440); Riverside Theatre, Coleraine, September 22 (02870 123123); Grand Opera House, Belfast, November 18 (02890 241919).