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Roy Castle was born on 31 August, 1932, in the village of Scholes, near Holmfirth, Yorkshire, UK. He got his first taste of the music business when, at the age of six, he took up piano lessons and later began learning to tap-dance. Roy's stage debut was as the cat in a production of Dick Whittington. From there, he joined the Jimmy James Comedy Act as James' stooge along with Eli Wood, but his big break came with his first television appearance on The Dickie Valentine Saturday Spectacular.
Make 'em Laugh
In a career which spanned over 35 years, Roy proved himself to be the very definition of versatility. He appeared in many major musicals on Broadway and London's West End - most notably in the revival of Singin' in the Rain and the Dickens adaptation Pickwick, alongside ex-Goon Harry Secombe - as well as in five Royal Command performances. He had his own variety TV show in the mid 1960s and acted in many films, the best known of which are probably Dr Terror's House of Horrors, Dr Who and the Daleks, the big-screen adaptation of the popular sci-fi TV series (which also starred Peter Cushing1) and Carry On Up The Khyber (one of the long-running, bawdy Carry On... series of comedies). Speaking about his Carry On... appearance, Roy once said:
My favourite moment of 'Carry On Up the Khyber' was the famous eating scene. We all had to continue eating and chatting completely oblivious of the explosions going on all around us. As the place slowly disintegrated and debris fell into our food, we pushed it around our plates and tried to avoid actually 'eating' any. The scene continued for what seemed an eternity, and this being a filming technique where the actors never actually played to the camera, no-one had noticed the crew's practical joke. We carried on pushing the food around which now included Fuller's earth powder (not harmful but equally not appetising). Eventually we had to put some of the revolting concoction in our mouths. This made our serene acting even more difficult. Finally, Sid James broke the silence by emitting one word - 'Bastards!'. The director had given the cameramen and crew the wink. They had stopped the cameras but no-one had said 'Cut'. They all quietly sneaked away and left us to it!
Roy also enjoyed a successful recording career, featuring on the soundtrack albums of many of the musicals he worked on. In 1960, he even scored a top 40 hit in the British singles charts with a song called 'Little White Berry'. In 1994, he released Ben and Roy Castle's Big Celebration, an album of music alongside his son, Ben.
In 1973, Roy starred alongside Ronnie Barker in 'Another Fine Mess', an episode of Barker's Seven of One, a series of one-off plays2. In it, Roy and Ronnie played two Laurel and Hardy impersonators - Roy was a lifelong fan of the comic duo and had, over the years, perfected a startling impression of Stan Laurel.
It is as a presenter of the BBC TV programme Record Breakers (with his self-penned signature tune 'Dedication's What You Need'3) that Roy is best remembered. During his 22 series on the show, Roy gained no less than eight listings in The Guinness Book of Records, including the world records for the fastest tap-dancer (1,440 taps per minute, 24 beats per second), playing one tune on 43 different instruments in four minutes and a 3-hour, 23-minute long wing-walk. It was with the typical optimism that he was renowned for that, in 1992, he announced one final 'record' he intended to break - surviving cancer.
The Last Walk
Roy Castle was diagnosed with lung cancer despite being a lifelong non-smoker (it's believed he was a victim of what has become known as 'passive smoking' due to his time working in smokey clubs, playing the trumpet). Nevertheless, he amazed all with his enthusiastic, positive attitude to his predicament, drawing on his devout faith in Christianity and his determination not to let his final years go to waste. He became the figurehead for the Cause for Hope Lung Cancer Appeal (later renamed the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation) and spent his last months raising money for the future development of the world's first 'International Centre for Lung Cancer Research'4 on his 'Tour of Hope', a massive 1200-mile walk around the UK. Despite warnings from his surgeon, Roy used every last vestige of energy to promote the cause, knowing full well that his time was short. He told reporters at the time:
My ambition was always that, when I came to my last days, I wanted to be able to look behind me and smile.
During this time, he also completed his autobiography, Now and Then, which was a candid account of his life, including his long and varied career as well as his own reaction to the news of his illness.
Roy Castle finally lost his battle with cancer on 2 September, 1994, two days after his 62nd birthday. He was out-lived by his wife of over 30 years, Fiona. His son Ben has followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a noted jazz musician.
Among the many tributes that followed, Roy's name was given to a train, the 47786 'Roy Castle OBE'5. Before the smoking ban was introduced in the UK, his name was also used for a 'Clean Air' award given to pubs, restaurants and other public areas that refused to allow smoking on their premises.