Roy Walker: The dark days that inspired Ulster's king of comedy
Known to millions as the genial former host of Catchphrase, Belfast comedian Roy Walker tells how his life wasn't always a barrel of laughs. Ahead of his upcoming gig here, he talks to Una Brankin about leaving Northern Ireland, his showbiz comeback and why he'll never marry again.
Next week, Roy Walker is heading to his Dockers Club gig in his native Belfast from hot and sultry Egypt, with a quick stop-off at his home in scenic St Anne-On-Sea, near Blackpool, to see if the house is still standing.
Busy as ever at 75, the comedian is in the Middle East doing stand-up on a cruise from Dubai to Aqaba.
"I'm surrounded by sand and doing as little as possible," he quips, on a crackling line from Dubai. "Playing to the English and Germans every night. Pure showbiz. But it'll be great to get back to the Dockers. I'll always come back for those sort of festival gigs, and to appear at the Black Box."
A household name from his years presenting TV's hugely popular Catchphrase game show, the affable Roy still plays to sell-out audiences, having acquired renewed fame and popularity - particularly with students - through his Carpark Catchphrase stint on Chris Moyles' Radio 1 Breakfast Show, and via his guest appearances on Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights.
And he can expect a full house at his Dockers gig on Thursday, which - going by his witty repartee and irreverent jokes on the phone - promises to be a highlight of the Cathedral Quarter Festival.
From the Woodstock area of east Belfast originally, Roy first performed as a stand-up in the Pilot Street club in 1971.
"It took another six years after that in England to become good enough to be a TV comedian," he recalls. "I did the next gig at the Dockers in 1977, back in my hometown, and when I got there, I thought there was a fire or a bomb inside because there was a load of people standing outside.
"It turned out they were in a queue and couldn't get in. So I did a gig for them on top of a van before the main event."
He goes off into a peal of laughter at the memory of the impromptu performance, filled with affection and warm reminiscence. Not one for looking back on darker times, however, he makes light of the reason he left Belfast in 1972, when he was running a fruit shop on the Woodstock Road by day, and working as compere at the Talk of the Town club by night.
One day at the shop, he was confronted by two men who stuck a Browning pistol in his face and demanded to know if he was married to "a Fenian".
The thugs had been informed that Roy's wife Jean, whom he met while in the Army, was a Catholic, as were many of his friends from his seven years as a soldier ("the Army had been full of them"). The audience at the Talk Of The Town was, of course, mixed, too.
At gunpoint, he refused to answer the question and was given 24 hours to leave, along with the rest of "them Fenian lovers across the street".
He cried when he locked up the shop - where George Best was a regular customer - leaving a price-card with a message in the window: "The owner of this shop served Queen and country for six years."
It was firebombed anyway and the Walkers couldn't even say their goodbyes to locals, as houses were being torched close to their family home, where their three children were asleep.
"I was lucky to get out once all that nonsense started," he recalls. "I got held up - it could have been worse. I was able to get away, with my family. I wasn't a victim.
"Before all that, Belfast was the place to be - especially The Trocadero on Cromac Street and the Talk of the Town on Bridge End Street, before the Queen's Bridge was built and it went all one-way. There was a bus stop outside then, people coming and going all the time.
"But yes, then it became a ghost town. And Belfast must have been the only trouble spot to have a club called The Boom Boom Room."
The family set up home in Sunderland, renting digs for £7 a week. Jean was an avid supporter of her husband's fledgling comedy career, once hiring a minibus to bring a group of her friends to support him at a stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He eventually found fame on New Faces, scoring the highest level of points ever for a comedian on the talent contest, and went on to present Catchprase for 11 years.
DJ Chris Moyles was so disgusted when the programme makers fired the long-time presenter and creator of the show's famous Mr Chips computer, that he came up with Carpark Catchphrase and got him to present it on his highly-rated Radio One Show.
To this day, Roy credits Chris Moyles for re-igniting his career. He was also supported along the way by admirers such as Bob Monkhouse, who, in his bestselling autobiography, praised "Walker's soft Ulster voice, his lack of aggression, the composed expression hiding a gentle smile, his amazing pauses which defied interruption, somehow overawing and silencing hecklers ..."
Jean Walker lived to see the earlier heyday of her husband's successful career. She died of cancer, at only 49, in 1989, and Roy has remained single ever since.
"The hours are too long," he quickfires at the suggestion of remarriage. "No, I've never been tempted. Who'd have somebody like me anyway?
"I'm on the road all the time. I've three children older than the Belfast Telegraph and two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, who I never see. I'm always on the road, and no, I've no notion of retirement. That's a bad word. My book's full.
"I don't have a home abroad, and I don't want one, my holiday is going to work. My work is my hobby and this is the only thing I've ever wanted to do. I am lucky to be making a living from it. I have no plans ever for retirement, I'd rather be dead."
He denies the claim on Wikipedia that he suffered a mini stroke a few years ago - "a lot of nonsense" - and puts down his recent weight loss to going to the gym three times a week - "no, it wasn't Dehli belly from my time in India".
Viewers of the recent hit BBC show Real Marigold Express wouldn't have been surprised if Roy - one of the celebrities dispatched to India - had decided to spend his golden years there, but he's happy zooming around on his Triumph Thunderbird motorbike at St Anne's, near his sons Phil and Mark, who are both in showbusiness, and his daughter Josie, an actress, who has starred in the musicals Cats, Phantom Of The Opera and The Beautiful Game.
Phil, like his dad before him, made his name in the TV series The Comedians. Roy never met his own father, who died young, and says he was never tempted to find out anything about him. He has a half-sister, Jennifer, who lives in Canada, from his mother's second marriage, and "a couple of cousins left in Belfast" - one of whom was the legendary Belfast Telegraph sports writer and wit Jimmy Walker, who died last December.
"Mum was very dry and funny," Roy remembers. "She was called Charlotte but was always known as Lottie. She worked in a factory until she was 75; a great worker.
"When she passed away in the mid-Seventies, I went to the City Hall to get her death certificate and discovered she had forged her birth certificate.
"The girl said, according to these papers, your mother was christened 10 years before she was born... All to get work, presumably."
He goes off into another gale of laughter before he eventually admits that times were hard in his youth. He went out to work at 11 to bring a few pennies into the house and left school to work at as riveter at Harland & Wolff, before joining the Army.
"Ah, you know, things were so bad after the war, in places like Malcolm's Lane and the Short Strand they thought Angela's Ashes was Downton Abbey, tee-hee-hee!" he jests, typically making light of the tough circumstances his family found themselves in.
"Back then, I was in a group with other Belfast kids - I had a good voice. We just did pop songs, like a boy band. It was the time of the Baker Sisters and Billy Bates, in the Fifties, and then Jimmy Young used us in a lovely little sketch.
"I got my comedy from him - he was quite a genius," he adds, serious for a moment. "To me, he was an old man, like an uncle. He was funny and there wasn't any sort of badness in him, and he paid you on time."
His other comedy heroes include the late Joan Rivers and his late friend, Frank Carson.
"I had a tremendous fondness for that fella [Carson]. I miss him; I adored him. You know, there was once a fella who claimed he went to the same school as Frank Carson, George Best and me. Must've been a time traveller.
"Yes, and Joan Rivers - she was the queen of comedy and plastic surgery," he adds. "She was the only person who could get away with all that slagging. She was pure showbusiness. I followed her closely.
"And guess who came to see me at my last gig, by the way? Eddie Izzard. He came up afterwards and said, 'what about ye?' in a real good Belfast accent. As you can hear, I haven't lost mine."
He sounds genuinely thrilled that Belfast is thriving once again, enthusing about his gigs in recent years at the Black Box club and in the apparently haunted Crumlin Road jail.
"I didn't see any ghosts but there might have been a few in the audience," he chuckles. "Northern Ireland really is doing good now. I meet all sorts from home on my travels and they all say how well the city is doing. That's why I go back to do these festivals as well as shows at Sean Kelly's Black Box. I'm always glad to come back."
- Roy Walker, The Dockers Club, Thursday, April 28, 8pm, tickets, £10. To buy go tocqaf.com or buy in person at Visit Belfast, 8-10 Donegall Square North or tel: 028 90 246 609
The making of a king of comedy
Best known as the original host of the game show Catchphrase between 1986 and 1999, Roy Walker was also one of the stars of the stand-up comedy showcase, The Comedians.
Raised in east Belfast, as a teenager Walker performed in the Francis Longford Choir - "my mother wanted me to stay a choirboy" - then worked as a riveter in the Harland & Wolff shipyard.
He was the Northern Ireland champion hammer thrower for three years, and represented his country internationally.
Walker first started work at the age of 11. By the end of the 1960s, he was running a fruit shop while working in the evenings as the compere at the Talk of the Town club in Belfast.
He is most famous for being the original presenter on the game show, Catchphrase, from 1986-1999, where he was known for his catchphrases: "It's good, but it's not right", "Say what you see" and "Riiiight".