Walking memory lane with Walker

ROY WALKER is catching up with his eldest child, 42-year-old Mark, himself a comedian.

"I haven't slept in a proper bed for days," complains the junior stand-up, who has just endured a two-day trip from Afghanistan, where he was entertaining the troops, to see his 'daddy's' Fringe debut in Goodbye Mr Chips, at the Assembly Rooms.

Mark is the second of Walker's three kids to make the journey north. Last week his other son Phil, also a stand-up, caught the show.

The 68-year-old's only regret is that his daughter Josie, an actress, won't make it to see him.

"She has just opened in a play at the Theatre Royal, Bath, but she phones every day," explains the slow-talking funnyman who, for 14 years, fronted the prime-time ITV game show, Catchphrase.

It's obvious that Walker is a proud father and he admits that when he mooted the idea of coming to Edinburgh it was the advice of his kids that he sought first.

"I talked long and hard with Mark and Phil, and they gave me good advice," he recalls. "But Josie gave me the best advice. She said not to hurry through the 'walk through my life', and that became a highlight of the show."

That 'walk through his life' took Walker into new territory and saw him bear his soul to Edinburgh audiences when, halfway through the run, he decided to speak about the love of his life, his wife Jean, who died after a battle against cancer.

"Even after 19 years, it is still very raw," he says emotionally. "But I had to do it while the boys were here. They were so supportive. Phil was very moved by it and Mark said to me, 'Daddy, there are so many subjects that comedians talk about here.

"Even the darkest subjects, rape, murder, having a baby. But when you talked about mum last night, the cutting edge comics couldn't do that. You're getting humour out of a real life tragedy and yet you are treating it with dignity'."

Walker admits it was a difficult decision to include the section. "It was only after talking to the younger comedians that I decided to do it," he says. "They said, 'Roy, you need to talk about that. It's what the honesty of comedy is'. But I'm still not taking any claps on the back for it yet. I'm still not completely comfortable with it."

Talking about Jean for the first time was just part of what Walker confesses has, at times been a terrifying journey.

"Before coming to Edinburgh I had no idea how much I was going to test myself and how the frighteners and the doubts would come," he reveals.

"And that's despite the fact that I've worked in every market place you can think of, from Grosvenor House speaking after William Hague and Boris Johnson to an over-50s cruise ship-type audience.

"At the beginning of the run I was absolutely petrified. Some nights I could hardly go on. Especially at the Assembly Rooms press showcase when I saw Jason Byrne live on stage – he had the audience eating out of his hand between the acts.

"So, I made a decision just to do a quick four minutes, and see if I could make an impact. I did, and that got my confidence up."

The nerves disappeared, he says, the minute he stepped onto the stage to deliver that routine. "I never believed that I would get such a warn welcome. Only a fool would think of himself being received like that.

"It was so reassuring because although you can walk on wearing big flippers and with a red nose and, yes, you look funny, but are you funny? The test is just a minute away."

Doing the Fringe is just the latest chapter in Walker's amazing story. His route to comedy began in his native Belfast, although initially it was his singing voice that made him famous when, at the age of 14 he moved to London to sing soprano with the celebrated Francis Longford Choir.

"After a year my voice broke and I had to leave the choir. I returned home to Belfast and set about finding a job for myself," he says.

"I eventually worked in a shipyard as an apprentice riveter but I spent much of my spare time entertaining in the clubs with an Irish comedian called James Young."

After his apprenticeship, Walker served seven years in the British Army, during which time he became Northern Ireland champion hammer thrower two years running.

"I had gone as far as I could go as a hammer thrower when I came up against some of the giants of international athletics. Beside them I looked totally under-nourished," he dead-pans.

Leaving the army, Walker pursued his first love, making people laugh. In 1969, as the Troubles intensified and club work became thin on the ground, he moved to Sunderland with Jean and their young family. There he began to carve out his stand-up career, working on the club circuit.

He might have been destined to remain there forever but for an appearance on the popular TV talent show New Faces in 1977, on which he received the highest marks ever given to a comedian.

However, it wasn't until 1986 when he was asked to present Catchphrase that Walker hit gold – the series ran for the best part of a decade and a half, making its host a household name.

"The longevity of that series is amazing. That's why I called my live show Goodbye Mr Chips . . . it just won't go away," he quips.

And as his Fringe debut draws to a close Walker reveals that his initial fears about performing at the Festival have all but vanished.

"I think the reason I made it to the Fringe is because I am a prospector. I'm not giving up yet, although I couldn't tell you for sure whether I'd ever come back – mainly because I was received so well I'm not sure I could get away with it again," he laughs.

"But it has given me a taste for stretching myself. I might comeback and combine this show with a one-man play. I feel like I'm on a launch pad. My comedy is back - almost. I just need a bit visibility on TV. You know, I'm 38 years a comedian and I've never done a Royal Command Performance."

After a moments pause, he adds, "Mark said to me at breakfast yesterday, 'Jesus, daddy, you don't mess around. You come up here, take the place by storm, and get five days on the West End out of it.'

"I said, 'Mark, I can't believe it either'. It's just all good luck."

The luck of the Irish!

Roy Walker: Goodbye Mr Chips, Assembly Rooms, George Street, until Monday, 6pm, 12.50-15, 0131-226 0000