Roy Castle, Eric Morecambe, Christianity and me

Suffolk-bound Fiona Castle, widow of Record Breakers presenter Roy, reckons she was once a bit of a nag. Steven Russell doesn’t buy it. Goodness – she was a friend of Eric Morecambe, after all. She tells us about the perils of lying, smoking and a hidden talent with castanets

FIONA Castle must have given hundreds of talks over the years. Does it come naturally? Not on your Nellie. “No! Absolutely not. Kicking and screaming, that’s me!”

There’s a cheesy old saying that behind every successful man is an immensely capable and supportive woman. If the late Roy Castle is able to gaze down upon this Earth, one can imagine him being tremendously proud of his wife of 30-odd years.

Fiona, a former dancer introduced to her husband-to-be by comedian and mutual friend Eric Morecambe, has carried the baton after Roy’s death from lung cancer in 1994. She stood on the frontline during the successful campaign for a ban on smoking in public places – handing in a petition at Downing Street in 2005, for instance – was awarded the OBE a year earlier for services to charity, and is willing to speak about her Christianity to anyone happy to listen.

She’s in Ipswich in September and her story – some of it surprising – is bound to find an interested audience.

“I became a Christian when I was 35, having been at rock bottom with my self-esteem and everything like that,” she explains. “I was always a very shy person – stay at home and enjoy being a mum, and that sort of thing – but I just felt I was rubbish.

“Anyway, it led to somebody phoning me when I was down on my knees, crying out to God, saying ‘I’ve had it; I can’t go on. If you’re there, do something.’ This woman who was a Christian phoned me and said she’d had me on her mind – I’d met her only a couple of times – and had this sudden urge to ring me and felt I needed to talk.

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“To cut a long story short, I went round to have a coffee, talked to her, and at that point became a Christian. It just ‘let go’, really. From then on, I just felt I had an opportunity. If people asked me to come and tell my story at coffee mornings and things, I felt I’d no right – if I’d given my life to the lord – to keep silent. So that’s how I started.”

She doesn’t try to ram religion down people’s throats, “saying ‘Are you safe, brother?’ That would be a real switch-off, wouldn’t it!” she chuckles.

She and Roy had been churchgoers, but had grown up in an era when most people did go, and did “believe in God”. But this was the real deal.

Roy became a Christian soon after, having seen the difference in his wife.

“I was such an old nag,” she says of her former self. “I suppose you could have classed it as depression, but it was mainly because I looked around and saw other people doing what I was trying to do an awful lot better than I was doing it. It’s an extraordinary thing: I’ve seen so many people going through similar affliction.”

At this point she and I bemoan the competitive nature of western society, which forces people to compare themselves to others. “It’s drummed into us not just by our lives but by the media: makeover programmes about our bodies, our clothes, our houses, our furnishings, our gardens – everything, isn’t it?” says Fiona, who was born not long after the start of the Second World War.

One of her daughters, Julia, lived and worked in a Peruvian shanty town for 12 years. She’d had a gap year in an orphanage and fell in love with the country. After four years in London, she dumped everything to go back, teaching people how to make a living by producing jewellery and cards. She’s now back in England, but continues to support the enterprise.

Fiona went to stay in Peru and felt humbled by locals’ ready willingness to share what little they had. She subsequently wrote a book about living simply. “I was just so horrified by what we waste, and how we grumble, and how we’ve lost the care of one another, always thinking about this materialism.”

Smoking is still a major concern for Fiona. She’s patron of The Roy Castle Fund: a charity backed by showbiz luminaries such as Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck. Money raised goes to Cancer Research UK.

A medical consultant had told non-smoker Roy that his lung cancer was probably down to passive smoking during years of playing the trumpet in jazz clubs.

The public-place smoking ban in England is now four years old. Does more still need to be done?

“I think education is the important thing,” says Fiona. “The fact we have become smoke-free in public areas has made people aware of the problems. I have to say that, sometimes, even smokers like going to a smoke-free restaurant and not having to put their clothes through the wash as soon as they come out.

“I was working in Uganda and had to go via Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, and at that time it wasn’t non-smoking. I had to change planes and thought ‘What’s this awful smell?’ I sat in the coffee shop with smoke all round me and I suddenly realised what a benefit we had over here.”

Fiona has supported a campaign to help parents make their homes smoke-free, so their children avoid breathing fug.

“The statistics I learned were that if someone smoked 20 cigarettes in a confined space, like a car, the people around them are virtually smoking 17 of those 20 cigarettes – and, of course, you’re getting the non-filtered end.”

At least things have improved. When Fiona was a dancer “every theatre had little ashtrays in the back of every seat. You’d see the smoke swirling through the spotlights. You couldn’t avoid it.”

Did she ever nag friend Eric Morecambe to give up tobacco?

“No, I never did; because in those days you didn’t, did you? There was never any indication it was bad for you. When I was in the theatre, most people did smoke – I didn’t – and you never thought anything about it. Hated it (though). I was a singer and dancer, and the last thing you want is to contaminate your lungs.”

Speaking of Eric, she saw the Victoria Wood-created BBC biopic from New Year’s Day. It was about the early years of the comic’s partnership with Ernie Wise and was nominated for a Bafta award. Fiona thought the actors playing the famous comedians, Bryan Dick and Daniel Rigby, were brilliant . . . but wasn’t a fan of the way Eric‘s mother came across.

“I knew Eric’s mum . . . and I didn’t like it. She was a very gentle little soul.”

Fiona always loved Eric’s company. “I did a pantomime with him way back, when I was 17. I did a summer season actually in Morecambe, which is when I got to know Sadie, his mum, quite well. I was quite friendly with Eric and Joan (his wife) and we used to go and spend weekends at their home, and things like that.

“He was very generous with me, because I was simply a chorus dancer, but I got on very well with Joan and the two little children, and stayed friendly. Gail, their daughter, was one of my bridesmaids and Gail’s daughter is my goddaughter.”

That panto was at Coventry Hippodrome: the longest-running panto in the country at the time, apparently, stretching into April. Harry Secombe was top of the bill. It was Dick Whittington, but set in Spain. “We as chorus dancers had to learn the castanets. So many people have asked me, because of being married to Roy, if I played any musical instruments. I always say ‘Yes, I can play the castanets!’ But nobody ever asks me!”

People do ask about Roy, though.

“It does surprise me and amaze me that people still remember him. It’s 17 years since he died, so there’s a huge group of people now in their early 20s who wouldn’t have a clue who he was. What I do love is that people come to me with little stories: ‘Ooh, I met Roy at such and such. Look, he signed my photograph.’ And they bring pictures or letters that he’s written. That always pleases me.

“He was such an ‘ordinary’ guy – he was not a celebrity in that sense at all – and he just got on with people. He really liked people. He was always friendly. So I do get really nice feedback.”

I was a teenager during her late husband’s most high-profile years, as presenter of the BBC TV show Record Breakers, and he always seemed so happy, smiley and genuine – with no “side”. People seemed to respond to that.

“Yes. He was like that in real life. What you saw was what you got.

“It was really funny. Recently I was having coffee with a friend in Amersham, only a few miles away (from where I live). Suddenly this grizzly elderly man threw his arms around me, and said ‘Hello Fiona; you don’t recognise me, do you?’ I went ‘Sorry, I don’t.’ He said ‘I was your dustman.’ He said ‘You and Roy, you always made us a cup of tea. I’ve never forgotten it.’

“It’s just as well we weren’t arrogant or snooty!”

In the 1970s there wasn’t the celebrity-driven madness we witness today, but did Roy’s profile ever have a downside?

“No. There was never anything like that. I think we lived such boring lives that we were never of any interest to the press! Roy’s maxim – and he passed it on to me – was ‘The press have a job to do; if you make it easy for them, and you tell the truth, they’ll get their job done quickly and they’ll go away happy. If you try to get in their way, or if you start to tell lies . . .’

I don’t need to tell you what’s gone on lately in the media.

“And he was absolutely right; to the extent – and this is to my shame – that one day, when somebody from the press picked up the fact he’d got secondary cancer, with brain tumours, and phoned me, I just thought ‘Oh, we’ve had enough . . .’ I said ‘Oh, that’s a load of nonsense. No, no, no.’ And eventually put the phone down.”

Roy asked his wife who she’d been talking to. Fiona explained it was a lady from the press. “And he said ‘You told a lie, didn’t you? You told her I hadn’t got brain tumours. That’s a lie. You know we never tell lies. Ring her up and apologise.’

“So I did. But he was right, wasn’t he? If we all took a leaf out of that book, we’d be in a much better place today.

“My brother-in-law was a QC and he said ‘You don’t have to worry about the truth; you can forget it, because it always stays the same. You always have to worry about a lie, because you’re always covering your back, and eventually you get caught.’”

For many people, the most enduring memory of Roy is the 1977 mass tap-dancing world record attempt that took place in the outdoor area of BBC Television Centre – an area known colloquially as “the doughnut”.

Fiona understands the fountain in the doughnut was used hardly ever, apart from Record Breakers filming, because when it was turned on the water blew everywhere and wet people!

Sadly, the Beeb confirmed a few weeks ago that the truly-iconic building in west London is for sale – something Fiona feels is “absolute madness”. Major departments such as sport and the children’s section are bound for Manchester, while other staff will find themselves at other BBC locations in the capital.

The family’s ties with Television Centre are strong. There was Roy’s career at White City, of course, while daughter Antonia does work for the corporation as a freelance floor manager.

Another irritation for Fiona is the planned high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, which for �17billion would send very fast trains through pretty countryside in her home county of Buckinghamshire to cut – at most – 23 minutes from journey times.

“If people really need to get to Birmingham, why don’t they get up half an hour earlier and get an earlier train?” she asks, rhetorically. What compaounds her frustration is thinking about that project in the light of the story about NHS trusts delaying hospital treatment in order to save money.

“They’re spending billions on that (the rail line) and yet they can’t afford to treat someone who needs an operation. Where is the sense in that?”

Then there’s a laugh – and a quip that she’s just a grumpy old woman. Which she’s not. In fact, Fiona Castle says she feels 25 inside, blessed with a lot of energy and joie de vivre. Another chuckle. “It’s only when I look in the mirror . . .”

Fiona Castle is talking at The Key, a Christian centre in St Margaret’s Plain, Ipswich, on Saturday, September 10. The event, which begins at 7.30pm, includes a harvest buffet and will be supported by members of a local gospel choir. Tickets are �5. Phone 01473 211585. Web link: www.thekeyipswich.co.uk