Ventriloquist Steve Hewlett was making a modest living as a novelty act on the cabaret circuit before last year striking gold with Britain’s Got Talent.
He made it to the final on the national ITV talent show by including a new Simon Cowell dummy and sending up the impresario. It was a bold gamble that paid off and won him millions of new fans, not least Simon himself.
This Easter he is starring in the panto, Alice In Wonderland, at The Grove Theatre, Dunstable alongside husband and wife act, magician Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.
Steve plays Tweedledee with one of his favourite puppets, Arthur Lager, as Tweedledum.
It can be disconcerting interviewing a vent act.
Sometimes they’re reluctant to let go of the alter ego on their right arm and you find yourself drawn to the dummy rather than his handler.
But Steve packed away a reluctant Arthur to talk to me about the show.
“I hadn’t realised that I was doing Easter panto until I turned up at the Grove for a photo-shoot.
“It’s really exciting. I didn’t really know much about the story of Alice In Wonderland.
“But I’ve got a two-year-old daughter so we bought her the DVD and have been watching it together.
“I will be bringing other characters into the show but not sure how yet”.
Steve made his career choice at the age of 12 and served a ten-year apprenticeship before turning pro.
For the last 17 years he’s been entertaining crowds at holiday parks, cruises, pantos and summer seasons.
“I did Britain’s Got Talent last year and my career has sky-rocketed since then. It’s amazing what that show does.
“It’s the biggest showcase there is and it put Arthur Lager’s name in lights. So wherever he goes I go too. Hopefully. Or he might sack me one day for a better ventriloquist!!
“There’s a renewed interest in ventriloquism with people like Nina Conti and Paul Zerdin. Keith Harris is our legend. He’s one of the few left from the old days.
“You can’t not like Orville the Duck. Keith has been really good to me. I’ve known him since I was 14 and he’s been a really good friend.
“At 12 I was taught by Jimmy Tamley (who won New Faces in the 1980s). Both Jimmy and Keith have been helpful to me and looked out for me. I also ask for their advice.
“Ventriloquism hadn’t really been popular in this country until last year and I brought it back to a new generation of younger viewers, which is great.
“A ventriloquist had never got to the final in seven years so I was really proud to achieve that.
“I love my job. To have a wider audience is really sweet.
“Children love Arthur Lager, sometimes more than the adults and grandparents do.
“It’s a real family act. If there are a few naughty jokes in panto, they go over the kids’ heads and the mums and dads catch them so the kids are being entertained visually and the adults enjoy the jokes.
“I’m working on getting more celebrity dummies. The Simon Cowell and Sinitta dummies came up because I was doing the TV show.
“The judges loved them which made Simon embarrassed and he laughed. It makes me smile watching the clip. I was brave enough to do him on both the semi-final and final.
“Simon didn’t say much at the time but he came over after the show and said he found it very funny. He does have a sense of humour.
“I think he was fantastic for taking it in the way that he did. I’ve now got a little baby in my Simon Cowell act. You’ve got to keep updated!
“I think Simon may even make an appearance in Alice.
“To be working with Paul Daniels and Debbie is a huge bonus. There are hugely talented people in the show and I’m really chuffed to be here.
“My act can be a lot funnier when I ad-lib. If something goes wrong or a member of the audience goes for a walkabout, I will pick up on that and they’ll soon sit down again.
“We have a giggle, using the puppet. I love to keep it fresh and innovative.”
Alice In Wonderland runs from April 18-21.