Rock on Tommy

TOMMY STEELE is a man of frugal appetites. When we meet over lunch in London's West End, the archetypal East-Ender orders Dover sole ("on the bone") and proceeds to operate on it with surgical precision - before he became Britain's first pop star, back in the 1950s, he waited at the captain's table on transatlantic liners. He leaves more than half of the fish, much to the whispering distress of the waiter.

The elfin Steele, a sort of superannuated Peter Pan, chose the venue, the swanky Savoy Grill, presumably because it has bizarre family connections. On leaving school he was interviewed for a job at the luxury hotel on the Strand, although he joined the merchant navy and became a cabin-boy instead. Nonetheless, so slight and fragile-looking is he that were you to put a pill-box hat and a wee uniform on him, he could still pass for a bell-hop today. "I like it here," says the entertainer, gazing with fondness at the grand Grill Room, with its gleaming silver and glass and pristine napery.

He gestures towards a booth where his wide-boy father - the ducking-and-diving bookie's clerk and Winston Churchill lookalike, Darbo Hicks - would dine in his best whistle-and-flute during the war, puffing on a cigar. He had been recruited by British Intelligence to double as the prime minister in a bid to confuse the Nazis as to the great leader's whereabouts. There was a trio of Churchills who took part in this fiendishly clever plot, which was codenamed Doppel, short for doppelganger. It was only after the war that the mystified Darbo and the other doubles were let in on the subterfuge over another slap-up dinner at the Savoy, with a colonel from the secret service. They were told that if Hitler had got wind of a rumour that Winnie was meeting Stalin somewhere in the Baltic, his fifth column would refer to the dinner being held that same night at the Grill with one of their Churchills. "Confusing, eh!" said the colonel.

"I'll say," agreed Darbo, "wiv bleedin' knobs on!"

There was a snapshot of this extraordinary encounter between Darbo and the doppelgangers, but Steele has been unable to find it among the possessions of his late mother, Betty. What a picture! What a photograph!, to quote one of the irrepressible singer's biggest hits. "I wish I could have found it," sighs Steele. His father, he says, was one hell of a character, the sort of chap who loved to dine on caviare, but who always left "the little black bits" when his son became rich enough to treat him to round-the-world cruises.

Despite Steele's sentimental attachment to the elegant hotel, it might have been more in keeping for us to have met at the chirpy Cockney sparra's favourite caff: an East End pie-and-mash shop, where he has lunch once a week. He walks everywhere, taking just half an hour to get to the Savoy today from his lavish Thames-side apartment. But he likes to get a friend to chauffeur him on Thursdays for a real Cockney concoction of eel pie, mashed potatoes and a thick parsley sauce called liquor. "Usually I get someone to drive me - my agent, most weeks, because I reckon he can leave his car and get his wheels nicked rather than me getting me new green Mini Cooper half-inched. By the way, I had my other Mini for 30 years. There's a bit of the parsimonious Scot in me, you know.

"When I was growing up we wasn't poor, but we didn't have a lot, as my lovely mum used to say, so I 'ate waste. It's the way we was brought up. She never wasted a crumb. A loaf of bread would be exhausted and there'd be only an inch of crust left, but she kept a pail of water in the yard where she would soak all the leftovers until she had enough to make a bread-and-butter pudding, with a handful of currants and raisins, every three weeks. Wonderful! Sometimes we even got custard."

Ah, the good old days, when half a crown was enough to get you a packet of Woodbines, a night out at the pictures and two fish suppers, eh? "Exactly! But, you know, Annie, my wife, won't drive me to Bermondsey because she refuses to sit outside the pie shop in our car, because then she'd have to watch the eels being cut up. She can't bear it. They slice 'em up outside and it makes Annie feel sick. So I had to take a cab last week, and it cost me bleedin' 28 quid. The pie and mash was only three!" he splutters.

Bermondsey's Frean Street, where Steele and his three younger siblings grew up happy in hard times, is like a bombsite today, he says. He now lives in some style (Lord Archer has the penthouse above his flat), but although he owns another house in the Bahamas, he likes to be "only a spit away" from dockside south-east London. "From my home today, I can see the buildings and the wharves of a place that fills me with wonderful memories. I still walk round all those places we ran through during the war, terrified, dodging bombs during the Blitz, and it all comes flooding back as the most marvellous adventure. Many buildings have been knocked down, and Frean Street's gone. The people are just the same, though. They always shout, 'Wotcha, Tommy, are you workin'?'

"When you grow up with bombs raining down on you, nothing in this life ever frightens you," he says. "It don't matter what it is, it ain't gonna worry me or hurt me - not even the worst stagefright. I go back to Bermondsey and my roots because I don't never want to forget any of it."

You can take the boy out of Bermondsey, it seems, but you can't take Bermondsey out of the boy - "Thank gawd!" he exclaims - as Steele's newly published memoir, Bermondsey Boy: Memories of a Forgotten World, proves. "It ain't ghosted, you know," he says, flashing one of his trademark toothy grins, when I compliment him on his writing. "It's all me own work."

If a jellied eel could talk, it would sound like Steele, who comes across as a straightforward, simple man, although he's also something of a polymath. Turning 70 next year, he is well read, eloquently quoting everyone from Austen to Hemingway. He has published a couple of novels, both of which sold well in the 1980s, has written children's stories and composed music. He also paints and draws - he has exhibited at the Royal Academy - and he sculpts. One of his pieces, of two rugby players, is on display at Twickenham, the home of English rugby.

A sickly child, Steele spent years in hospital as a boy. He had purpura (an enzyme deficiency that affects the nervous system, the same condition that famously contributed to the madness of George III) and pneumonia, and then he got spinal meningitis. While he was recovering, a nurse gave him the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. "Then I read everything I could find."

The original pop idol, Steele has starred in some of the biggest West End musicals, from Half a Sixpence to Singing in the Rain, appeared on Broadway, danced with Gene Kelly, made Hollywood movies, been friends with Noel Coward (who compared him to Keats - "Fred Keats, my milkman") and has his own blue plaque at the Palladium. Through it all, he has carefully preserved his Cockney accent, of which he's inordinately proud. His atmospheric book, with its recollections of a bygone era, is so replete with curious Cockney rhyming slang and the lively argot of the streets that the dialogue tap-dances off the page. Bermondsey Boy tells in vivid prose the story of his action-packed adventures, which include being shipwrecked, rubbing shoulders with the Mafia and losing his virginity to a dusky beauty on the exotic island of Martinique. The book goes up to the point where, after finding fame and fortune, he made the momentous decision to have nothing more to do with rock'n'roll and chose instead to become an entertainer. The rest, of course, is theatrical history, since he is one of those legendary figures of British showbusiness adored by grannies everywhere, and has proved to be far more durable than any of his contemporaries who rocked on in his footsteps. "Apart from the Stones," he says, "although they was years behind me anyway."

Cliff Richard, he points out, was four years behind him too, "And he's still doing the same act!" Others are dead, wasted on drugs and drink, or have simply given up the business because it gave up on them. He never drank or took drugs. "They weren't around when I was young," he says. "The height of decadence back then was dissolving an aspirin in Coca-Cola - and I didn't even do that."

Steele had a head start on his rock'n'roll contemporaries because his job in the merchant navy meant frequent trips to the United States. There, he heard the early hits of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, and saw Buddy Holly on stage. Back home, he bought a guitar, learnt their songs and gigged around Soho coffee bars such as the famous 2Is.

Soon he had a manager and changed his name from Thomas Hicks to Tommy Steele. His first record, 'Rock with the Caveman', made it to number five in the hit parade. In 1957, he went to number one with 'Singing the Blues'. As the first singer to be mobbed by screaming fans, he recalls going on stage at a packed Caird Hall in Dundee, in 1958, and waking up in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. "I walked on and started the act. A wee redhead appeared from nowhere, walked past the Steelmen, my band, and tapped my hip. The screams of the throng in the auditorium rose to a frenzy. I turned, the little girl smiled and handed me a sweet. The audience became a heaving mass of hysteria. They all had sweets, so they all rushed up on stage. Sweets to the left, sweets to the right.

"When I woke up, the orthopaedic specialist explained that my left arm muscles had been damaged and that I needed a course of deep massage before I could play my guitar again - after all the scratches healed. Wot a night!"

Steele has already written the second part of his story (and is now working on a novel and a history book for children), about the showbiz years, which is what he thought publishers might be interested in, given today's obsession with celebrity. It has amazed him that anyone would also want to read his poignant, comic memories of a lost world, his working-class childhood and warmly loving family life, however evocative they might be. "It's unashamedly nostalgic, this book," he says. "But two publishers fought over it - I suppose because I have some incredible stories to tell about my childhood, my family, as well as my years at sea, then breaking into the business. But you should see the stuff I left out! It would have just been one anecdote after another - and I didn't want it to read like I'm in my anecdotage. I mean, I'm old, but I'm not that old. I feel great and sometimes I still look great. I feel good - so good I play tennis five times a week and eat only one meal a day. I rarely eat at lunchtime, which is why I couldn't manage the sole. And I never eat dairy because I don't want to gain weight or up my cholesterol."

life for the young Thomas Hicks was filled with colourful, joyous adventures. His dad got him started as an actor at an early age, when he recruited him as a child conman, "an artful dodger", in Steele's parlance - a role at which he proved useless. His dad was "lovely", says Steele. Often narrowly avoiding "having his collar felt" and usually surrounded by dodgy mates, conmen who rejoiced in nicknames such as Garlic, Nibbler, Lumps and Dummy, Darbo was "naughty, but there was no harm in him. He adored my mum. He never was unfaithful to her. Up to the day he died, they always sat close enough to cuddle."

There was a lot of sadness in the Hicks household, though. Betty gave birth to seven children, but three of them died before the age of three. Steele remembers seeing his baby sister, Betty, who was killed in the blackout by a hit-and-run driver, lying "sleeping in a pool of her own blood". His mother grieved terribly, though never in front of her son.

Of the four children who made it to adulthood, three are still alive. Along with Tommy there's Colin, a pub landlord, and Ron, who runs a travel company. Their younger sister, Sandra, died two years ago of cancer. Steele's eyes fill up again. "She was just like my mum," he says.

He was devoted to his mother. "Betty possessed a dazzling smile, and honesty shone out of her. She had the patience of an angel and the strength of a tank regiment," he writes in Bermondsey Boy.

He has photographs of the beautiful, redoubtable Betty all over his house. "There's a big one of her in the hall and I give her a wink whenever I pass. I talk to her every day. I'm not psycho or nuffin', but I adored my mum," he says, his pale blue eyes watering at the memory of her. "I still miss her and Darbo."

A grafter, Betty cleaned offices at dawn, worked in the Peak Freans biscuit factory all day, served school dinners in her lunch break, and nurtured her family. She died in 1982, six years after Darbo. By this time, Steele had bought them a beautiful bungalow with leaded windows and gardens front and back, in Bromley, Kent. They had a gardener and a cleaner, because his mother had been ordered not to do any housework or shopping. "I'll do me own bleedin' cleaning," she insisted, despite undergoing surgery for the cancer that eventually killed her.

He remembers his dad gazing at the green lawns and saying, "Tom, it's quiet as a mortgage here." Steele laughs. "What he meant was 'quiet as a morgue'."

Steele and his wife Annie, a devout Catholic, have had a long marriage too, having been together for half a century. He insists that, despite having to fend off all the adoring fans, he has never strayed. They have one daughter, 35-year-old Emma, a yoga and pilates instructor. "She flirted briefly with showbusiness, presenting a TV show, then doing panto, but she has always been sporty. She used to do three-day eventing, in fact. Annie and I lived in fear for her life. The day she announced she was giving it up, Annie went to the church and lit 15 candles. Now Emma is a yoga professor, teaching yoga teachers. She spends a lot of time in Edinburgh because one her gurus lives there."

He and Annie always wanted six kids. "It wasn't to be. It took us nine years to get Emma, then Annie had two miscarriages, so we contented ourselves with our great girl."

A Yorkshire lass, Annie gave up her career as a dancer when they got engaged. "She always says she retired at the height of her fame. She was in Expresso Bongo - a musical shamelessly based on my life story. We have a strong marriage - it started as a love affair, developed into a loving friendship, and now it's something so special I can't define it. I've spoken to her every day for 51 years, even when I've been on tour. I always tell her, 'Listen, this marriage ain't gonna last.' We make each other laugh and we respect each other.

"And she's always right - she's phenomenal! I never take a job without discussing it with Annie first. I was offered two musicals recently, one for this year, another for next, but she said, 'No, they're not for you.'"

Quentin Tarantino - "of all people!" - is a big Tommy Steele fan. When Kill Bill was released, the Hollywood director announced that it was his ambition to work with the star of one of his favourite movies, Disney's The Happiest Millionaire. "I've told him, if he says, 'Jump!', I'll just say, 'How high?' Especially if I can co-star with Uma Thurman," says Steele, giving me a nudge, a nod and a wide-boy wink.

• Bermondsey Boy: Memories of a Forgotten World, by Tommy Steele (Michael Joseph, 18.99)