ROY WALKER has just had an intimation of mortality. "I woke up this morning and thought to myself: 'Is it possible I could I have a heart attack?' So I jumped out of bed, did some exercises, and passed on the extra sausage." The cause of the veteran comedian's anxiety is his Festival Fringe debut on his 68th birthday and the anniversary of his sacking as host of Catchphrase. "I can't sleep because I'm so excited about Edinburgh," he says in the softest Belfas
A few years ago, Walker was on the verge of quitting the old country. "I fancied the West Indies: nice jobs on cruise ships and sunshine for my creaking bones." But then Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles – who seemed to regard Walker's dismissal as the injustice of the age – dreamed up Car Park Catchphrase for his breakfast show, using original quiz snippets. Now Walker is cool, a cult hero to students. "To be selling out universities and hearing 3,000 kids chant 'Roy Walker! Roy Walker!' football-style – incredible," he says.
It's easy to be cynical about old showbizzers on the Fringe; there are so many. Michael Barrymore, Les Dennis – they used to be on ITV and now their game is eye-ron-ee. But Walker has had post-modernity thrust upon him and is genuinely surprised by this turn of events. In fact, he could be just about the most genuine (ex)-wearer of a shiny suit and flaunter of a cheesy grin there's ever been.
We meet in a London bar. He's just done breakfast telly; after me it's Jonathan Ross. His press officer waves around a hectic itinerary. He barely has enough time to hyperventilate and his forthcoming autobiography may have to be delayed. He wants it out for this Christmas; the press officer reassures him that next Christmas will be fine. But Walker wonders if this autumn in his career might not be over by winter 2009. You should take nothing for granted in comedy, and he likens it to boxing. There have been more than a few punches below the belt.
His reminiscences about Belfast at the time of the Troubles certainly put the odd heckle into perspective. By day, he ran a fruit shop; by night he was the compre at the Talk of the Town club, everyone's ideas of a grand evening out. That was until two men confronted him, stuck a Browning pistol in his face and demanded to know: "Are you married to a Fenian?"
"Protestants and Catholics drank together in the Talk of the Town – integration happened in front of my eyes every night," he says. "As a Protestant myself, I had lots of Catholic friends – the Army had been full of them. Bob Hope said you should never admit to anything and that day I didn't. But then I was told: 'We're giving everyone 24 hours – that's you and them Fenian lovers across the street.'
"I got one of the cards I'd used for the apple prices and on the back I wrote: 'The owner of this shop served Queen and country for six years'. I stuck it in the window, closed up and walked down the Woodstock Road for the last time."
The shop had been a kind of annexe to the club with the likes of George Best and Guy Mitchell even taking turns behind the counter. But the terrorists were true to their word and firebombed it. Walker and his wife Jean couldn't even say their goodbyes because houses were being torched close to where their three children were sleeping.
Walker fled to the mainland, desperate for work. "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. That seven quid got me my digs." Once he raced round Manchester in a beat-up Ford Prefect and played five gigs in a night. "The last one was at Stalybridge Celtic Social Club; Bernard Manning had just come off and he didn't think I'd be able to follow him." Walker not only did that, he followed him on to The Comedians, the show that brought clubland humour to the TV masses.
Manning and Frank Carson were top dogs and could afford the best lounge suits; it was shabby velveteen for the rest. "Bernard and Frank were bullies but everyone hated each other – it was worse than chorus girls – and you had to be careful not to let another comic see your idiot cards or he'd ruin your act." By then, dizzily, Walker was earning 50 a night.
Bob Monkhouse best summed up his comedy: "A well-dressed gent with thick greying hair and a polite air, 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…" His act used to be based almost entirely round married life, but when Jean died of cancer in 1988, he had to throw a lot of gags away. "That was tough; I couldn't be bothered with comedy for a long time."
He also used to bait the crowds. Everyone did in the gloriously politically incorrect Seventies, but the style didn't suit him. He thinks he's only ever sworn once on stage. So what gets him angry? "Our soldiers dying in Afghanistan, Tony Blair buying another house…" Walker's youngest son Phil is currently in Afghanistan, entertaining the troops. The oldest son Mark is also a comic, while their sister Joanna is an actress. Did he warn his boys about the perils of comedy? "No, because they wouldn't have listened. I never did. My dad died before I got to know him; my mum wanted me to stay a choirboy."
As a lad, Walker went to work at 12 to bring a few extra pennies into the house, so a stint on the Fringe competing against younger, supposedly cleverer comics doesn't faze him – despite the odd early morning dose of the collywobbles.
His show will cover his entire career, including those 14 years of Catchphrase ("Say what you see … it's good but it's not the right one"), so there's no shortage of great material. His only real dilemma is whether or not he should break the habit of a lifetime and swear.
He laughs: "I always get mistaken for Tom O'Connor and he dines out on that. Once I got stopped by a whole family in an airport. The mother said she loved my act because I didn't use bad language, but she thought I was that man O'Connor. I told her I wasn't and in front of her kids she said: 'Well, who the feck are you then?'
His second F-word gag relates to a piece of old Belfast graffiti – underneath 'No Popery here', someone had scrawled 'Lucky feckin' Pope' – and this is the cue for more reminiscing. "When I walked away from my shop, I had a lump in my throat. But when I turned round for one last look, I laughed. I couldn't see my sign-off – only a board from the previous day: 'Salad days are here again.'
For Roy Walker, who's since had a hometown street named after him, they're still here.
Goodbye Mr Chips is at Assembly, George St (0131-623 3030) Thursday until August 25, 6pm.edfringe.com