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Tommy Steele Story, The (1957)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

1956. Piccadilly Circus at night, as a soundtrack calypso singer provides the narrative. Tommy Steele performs with his group the Steelemen at the smart Café De Paris to an elegant middle-aged audience who enjoy the music along with the teenagers in the gallery. At a subsequent press conference, Tommy's manager, John Kennedy, suggests that rather than answering lots of questions, Tommy should sit down and tell the assembled reporters the story of his rise to fame.

Five years earlier. Following a back injury at his judo class in Bermondsey, young Tommy is injured and has to spend many weeks bedridden in hospital. His nurse introduces a busker, who lets Tommy try out his guitar. Noting his interest, the nurse presents Tommy with a second-hand guitar and tutor book. He practices chords and scales - to the annoyance of older patients - but is eventually good enough to sing and play at the ward Christmas party.

Tommy returns to his terraced family home at 52 Frean Street, Bermondsey. His dad wants him to get a steady job as an office boy, but 15 year-old Tommy wants to join the merchant navy and see the world. But first he needs another guitar - as those in the Charing Cross Road music stores are too expensive, he buys one from an old man in a junk shop for a pound.

At sea, Tommy is befriended by 'Brushes', a Jewish refugee from Austria, and they both work as stewards in the kitchens and lay tables in the dining room. While in Jamaica they visit the Caribbean Club and Tommy sings with a local group. 'Brushes' likes what he hears and encourages Tommy to leave the merchant navy and become a professional entertainer. The chief steward, however, disapproves of Tommy's singing in the dining room and the kitchen, and he is reprimanded more than once.

In early 1956, after four years service, Tommy decides the merchant navy is not for him. Too embarrassed to face his parents and down on his luck, he enters a Soho café, the 2 I's (two eyes are painted on the wall), which has no other customers. The sympathetic owner, Paul Lincoln, sees Tommy's guitar and asks him to play for him. Liking what he hears, and thinking it could boost trade, he invites Tommy to return the next evening to sing a few numbers. His songs attract more customers to the 2 I's and Paul suggests he plays and sings there on a regular basis for a fee. Tommy agrees.

Tommy returns home and tells his mum and dad that he has quit the merchant navy and is singing in Soho. They disapprove (especially of the Soho bit), but agree that as he has promised, he can return - for one more night only. Tommy keeps his promise, and on the next night teenagers dance energetically to his rock 'n' roll numbers. Between songs, John Kennedy, a showbiz agent, introduces himself and arranges for a recording test at Decca the next morning. Four experienced session musicians accompany Tommy as he sings 'Elevator Rock'. Tommy signs a record contract - the 78 rpm records are manufactured, packed in sleeves, the sheet music is published and articles appear in the music press. Back at Frean Street, his mum and dad are amazed when Tommy shows them a cheque for £300. Kennedy arrives with an offer for Tommy to appear on the variety circuit, starting at Sunderland Empire next Monday. Tommy is reluctant, but signs the contract without reading the 'gobbledegook'. At Sunderland, teenagers in the audience are wildly enthusiastic about Tommy.

Back at the Café De Paris press conference, Tommy announces that he wants to present a concert at Bermondsey town hall to say a big 'thank you' to all the fans from his local community who have supported him. There are performances from Humphrey Lyttelton and his band, Tommy Eytle and his calypso band and Nancy Whiskey with the Charles McDevitt Skiffle Group, and Tommy concludes with the rousing 'Teenage Party'. As we hear the calypso singer again, Tommy's young fans reach out for him to sign autographs, and Tommy acknowledges them and us, the wider audience.