THANKS to the power of Britain’s Got Talent, ventriloquist Steve Hewlett became an overnight hit – but it took 17 years of hard work to get there.
His dummy of judge Simon Cowell ensured Steve made the final (he eventually finished fourth) and had the TV audience in stitches – but he admits that despite all his experience, he was a bag of nerves on the popular show.
“I have played to packed houses, especially supporting Ken Dodd, but it was just the fact that Simon was there rather than the 12 million viewers. Because he can make or break you. I was very lucky my spot went down well each time.
“It was risky for a professional like myself to go on the show. But I know my shows go down well with British audiences so I thought if I did it on a wider scale, and chose some of my best material, it had to work and it paid off for me.
“As I got further into the show I knew I had to do something a bit special and that’s when the Simon Cowell dummy came along, which I kept secret until the day of the semi finals. I brought it out in the final rehearsal and they were crying with laughter. The producers begged me to keep it in and the rest is history.”
Steve’s appearance at the first Derby Comedy Festival has survived the Assembly Rooms fire after his date was switched to Derby Theatre Studio.
It’s a smaller venue but he’s happy to do his bit to make the sure the festival, which starts today and features a host of events across the city, survives.
He says: “The fire was very sad and I know that it has affected a lot of shows but I’m really proud to still be doing the date even at a smaller venue, as I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Steve’s currently on a nationwide tour that started in February and runs through to August.
He says: “It’s a two-hour family show, you don’t need to find a babysitter, just bring the kids along. I even had a six-week baby in on the second night of the tour and I gave it a voice and surprised the parents.
“This tour’s the last chance to see the little Simon and Sinitta characters.
“I am adding new celebrity dummies to my act every year now so they will be changing after this tour. I want to keep my material fresh and original by adding new characters.
“There are also characters I didn’t get to use on Britain’s Got Talent, including Pongo the skunk who has been in my act for 18 years. He goes down so well I close the show with him.”
Steve’s interest in ventriloquism dates back to when he was only 12 and another TV talent show.
“There was a ventriloquist who lived five minutes from my family home called Jimmy Tamly and he won the grand final of New Faces in 1987. He beat Joe Pasquale.
“I was fascinated by what he had done on the show and I knocked on his door and asked him to teach me. Even to this day we are best mates.
“I did charity shows, talent shows, everything up to the age of 22 when I turned professional. That’s what I have been for the last 17 years but it wasn’t until last year that the nation really knew about me.”
Such was Steve’s passion for ventriloquism that he wrote to all the great practitioners asking for advice and when they wished him good luck his belief grew stronger.
When it was time to do work experience at school he asked if he could do a three-week tour around his home area.
“They said ‘no’ at first but as I persisted so much, they eventually helped me put together a tour. I put my dummies in a suitcase, went around Basingstoke on a bus and did 65 half-hour shows at schools and old people’s homes.”
That’s all despite admitting that he was a shy child.
“Like a lot of ventriloquists I hide behind the dummies,” he says. “People who knew me were surprised when this shy little kid started entertaining.”
Derby Comedy Festival runs from June 13-22. Steve Hewlett is the closing act on June 22. Go to www.derbycomedyfestival.co.uk to book and for the full programme.