Roy Walker, the Enduring Conundrum
Belfast-born comedian comes home for the Out To Lunch Festival
BBC Radio One DJ Chris Moyles is not to everyone’s taste, but Northern Irish audiences will forever forgive his rambunctiousness and monumental ego for one very good reason: Carpark Catchphrase.
It is Moyles we have to thank for the professional rebirth of Belfast's own Roy Walker, after ITV cancelled his career-defining television game show, Catchphrase, in 1994. Moyles was a fan of Walker's various slogans – 'It's good, but it's not right!' and 'Say what you see' amongst others – and set out to revamp the concept as a feature for his breakfast show.
‘So he called me up one day and asked to meet,’ says Walker down the line from his home in Lancashire. ‘He’s a very determined type of fellow, and when I heard what he wanted to do, I signed up straight away.'
Carpark Catchphrase takes the original format and replaces studio buzzers with carhorns. Contestants from different parts of the UK take part whilst parked up on the way to work.
Walker's pre-recorded intros, written by Moyles sidekick Comedy Dave, are surreal and unpredictable. For example, one day Walker's dimwitted character will extol the benefits of Zumba Fitness, the next he'll be listening to Tinie Tempah whilst preparing breakfast. All the while, Walker hams up his Northern Irish accent, which hasn't dimmed despite over 30 years spent living in England.
‘It’s great fun,’ Walker declares, ‘and not too much work. Comedy Dave writes the scripts, so all I have to do is record them. I’m amazed at the response. It’s been wonderful for me.’
Walker is an entertainer of the old guard, and he admits without the merest hint of pride that his career was in the doldrums before Moyles made the call. But Walker views the entertainment business as a profession just like any other: shipbuilding, for example, or taxiing, both of which he was employed in before enjoying his unlikely 'big break' as a comedian on the ITV talent show, New Faces, by winning the competition in 1977.
Walker cut his teeth as a compere and singer in Belfast cabaret clubs like The Talk of the Town in the Markets area during the 1960s, before the onset of the Troubles. They 'changed the town entirely', according to Walker, who was forced to close a grocery shop he owned after Loyalist paramilitaries threatened him as a 'Fenian lover'. Walker relocated to England with his wife, Jean, and tried his luck on the fiercely competitive English scene.
His Belfast accent wasn’t a handicap. His singing, on the other hand, clearly was. ‘When I went to England in 1970 – because there was nowhere to work at home, there were no venues, the place was a riot zone – every club had a compere just as good as me,' Walker explains with refreshing humility.
‘I had no real interest in telling jokes, but one night the band was so bad that I was forced to fill in for the second half, and so I told jokes that I had learned working as a riveter at the Harland and Wolff shipyard and it went really well. After that, I dropped the singing and concentrated on stand up.
‘Six years later I managed to win New Faces. Then I started supporting people like Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Barry Manilow, appearing on The Comedians, and, in 1985, I got Catch Phrase, which more or less made me a household name.
‘I’m always amazed by it all. When I was a kid running around Belfast doing talent shows I never dreamed that I would still be doing it – that I'd still be successful – at 72 years of age.’
But Walker is very much 'still doing it', and audiences in Northern Ireland can enjoy his enduring brand of old skool comedy at the Out To Lunch Festival on Friday, January 6 when he performs two shows in Belfast's Black Box at 1pm and 8pm.
Although he regularly returns home for family visits, it is 'the first time in a long time' that Walker will perform for a Belfast audience. The last time he was home, the ongoing post-Troubles transformation of the city caught him off guard. 'I was walking down Royal Avenue and there were all these great big holes in the road,' he quips. 'I said, "Was there a bomb?" But they were just putting in new trees!'
Cult figure status: it is, presumably, what every aging showman longs for. Just ask the likes of David Hasselhoff, whose weird legacy continues to keep him in the red, and then some, years after his own career-defining television shows lost their audiences.
Walker doesn't take anything for granted, however, and, perhaps unusually for a performer of his ilk, would talk down the line all day if it weren't for the gaggle of other hacks waiting their turn for an audience. It is that good humour and 'love of people', as he puts it, that may see Walker continue to earn into his 80s.
'This is a whole new ball game for me,' he says of his current touring show, which incorporates the best bits of Catchphrase (Mark I and II), as well as older and newer jokes that Walker has collected over the years. 'But I seem to be getting away with it.
'I don’t think I’ll want to retire; I think they retire you. But I don't want to rock the boat. My grandchildren always say to me, "Granda, when are you going to grow up?" And I always reply, "No, no. That’s the secret. Never grow up!"'
Roy Walker performs at the Strand Arts Centre, Belfast on August 30, as part of the 2013 East Belfast Arts Festival.