When life was a laugh on the ocean wave for Mattishall publican
He's a confirmed landlubber these days, and glad to be so. But in times past, Mr Showbiz turned mid-Norfolk pub landlord Roger Lee enjoyed a life, and many a laugh, on the ocean wave.
Roger cruised the world on liners such as the SS Canberra and SS Oriana helping to keep the passengers entertained, either as a director or performer.
But that wasn't all – this dapper man's many years in show business before, during and after his sea-dog years saw him treading the theatrical boards, performing on television and rubbing shoulders with some of Britain's best-known stars.
Chat to him at his berth for the past four years, The Swan, at Mattishall, and the big names just trip off his tongue: Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Des O'Connor, Ken Dodd, Barbara Windsor, Les Dawson, Norman Wisdom, Vince Hill, Kenneth McKellar, Anita Harris, Harry Worth... the list goes on.
Happy days indeed, he says, but demanding ones. Putting a club or theatre show together, or serving on the crew of a mighty big ship with thousands of passengers, isn't always as glamorous as it sounds.
Slowly but surely the showbiz bug wore off. but if you're lucky you'll catch Roger doing the occasional comic turn, giving a rendition in one of his specialist dialects or playing his harmonica to amuse customers at The Swan. He's hoping to plan another such entertainment with friends next month.
Roger was the Manchester-born son of a chief fire officer and swimmer who had taken part in three Olympics – including the notorious 1936 Games in Berlin – and competed against Johnny 'Tarzan' Weissmuller.
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He joined the Royal Navy. Over five years he was engaged in mainly parade and weapons training, ending up as a petty officer: 'but I only got as far as Malta,' he says.
Back in civvy street and out of work, he found a teaching job at a Manchester remand home. To survive, he says, he started taking on gigs DJ-ing and compering at clubs, birthdays and private parties across the city. Fate, or luck, led him to the Mersey Hotel in Manchester, 'a huge pub on Princess Parkway', where Syd Lawrence was bringing the Glenn Miller sound to a new generation and a host of young, unknown comedians were plying their trade: Les Dawson, Ken Goodwin, Bernard Manning, George Roper... 'They were starting out in the business. Of course, when The Comedians came along on television it made them household names,' says Roger.
He compered the entertainment, there was a five-piece band, and they had to have new songs every week. 'It was pure variety, and a learning curve for me – a first step,' he says.
Granada gave him a part on the Crown Court ITV daytime drama 'with a few lines here and there', but in due course Roger was back at sea – only this time as assistant cruise entertainment director on a Fred Olsen ship, the Blenheim. They'd sail from Millwall docks to the Canaries and Madeira in an era before mass hordes of tourists had descended on the islands. 'At Funchal, there was hardly anything there. And on Tenerife there was really only one hotel,' he recalls.
While filling in as a comic feed and character man doing sketches during a summer season at Scarborough, Roger was offered a big break: a deputy cruise director's job on the Canberra. His first cruise was to the United States – Boston, New York, Charleston and San Francisco via the Panama Canal. 'It was magnificent – an absolutely fantastic trip and an exciting one for me,' he recalls.
And later, it was on to the Orient line vessel, Oriana. 'We started from scratch and built up a nice team of dancers and singers. In my early days on board ships, passenger expectations weren't so high as they went on to be, but as time went on budgets started to go up and we could do the things we wanted to do.
'The Oriana went to Australia, and when she arrived she was a huge hit. Younger people wanted to go cruising as well. I was there two years cruising out of Sydney. They were exciting times. And then the Falklands War came along.'
As the 1982 crisis unfolded, the Canberra was requisitioned and converted for war, ready to carry Paras and Royal Marines to the South Atlantic. Roger was expecting to join ship and go with them, to help fend off boredom on board. In the event, that didn't happen, though he recalls her triumphant return to Southampton after the islands' recapture. 'It was quite emotional,' he says.
But the troopship role had left its scars. 'The deck that went around the ship had been used for yomping, so that was torn to bits,' Roger recalls.
Keeping cruise passengers amused was a round-the-clock task demanding everything from providing learned lectures to dancing, cabaret, variety and lavish musical theatre productions: Carousel, Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof. For world cruises, singers and dancers would be criss-crossing the globe changing ships so the directors could offer a more varied bill.
Themed cruises proved popular, including one focusing on cricket, when the guests included Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, Brian Johnston and Christopher Martin-Jenkins. 'We had a lot of fun on that trip,' says Roger.
For him, being at sea brought a million memories and, ultimately, lasting romance. Summoned to go out to Singapore to work, he fell in love with a cabaret singer called Grace. They got engaged in Phuket, Thailand, and were married in the cathedral in Manila, in the Philippines.
But working life at sea could be a slog: as many as 37 shows to organise in three months on longer voyages. 'On my last world cruise, I think got off the ship three times in those three months. The rest of the time was rehearsing; we just lived from one rehearsal to the next,' he says.
With Roger in one place and Grace in another fulfilling singing engagements, they decided enough was enough. 'We were spending more and more time apart. We didn't get married for that, and we just got fed-up with it,' he recalls.
Anyway, life on dry land had its rewards, too. Landing pantomine roles at Blackpool – the same seaside resort where he'd crossed paths with the likes of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey – Roger got to play beside Norman Wisdom. BBC Radio 2 bookings brought him into contact with Harry Worth. And sitcom work gave Roger the chance to work with Gorden Kaye and Carmen Silvera.
Among the pleasure palaces he worked in was the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds, setting for the TV favourite, The Good Old days.
The journey to a life spent permanently together led Roger and Grace eventually to a pub at Capel St Mary, in Suffolk, and ultimately to Mattishall, where they have sunk their savings into keeping alive a community hub. In these straitened times, Roger likens the lot of a village pub landlord to 'trying to keep your head above water'.
But does Roger, now 63, hanker to be heading out of port on one last voyage to exotic destinations, maybe even as a cruise passenger rather than a member of the crew? 'Not at all,' he insists. 'I've been there, seen it, done that and got the T-shirt. And anyway, they wouldn't be as good days as they were. Some of the ships today are just monsters – they're far too big.'