He’s played football on the same team as Portugal legend Eusebio, with Brian May on guitar and reckons he’s the first wicket keeper ever to walk on the sacred strip at Lord’s with an ashtray.
“That’s better than a BAFTA isn’t it? Made my very own ashes,” says Richard Digance with that warm wry smile that has been both his entertainment passport for the past four decades and a warning that not everything in his world revolves around awards or ego.
His TV days may be over and he may have missed out on the current rock star stand-up phenomenon that is the domain of Michael McIntyre, Lee Evans and Rhod Gilbert but an appearance at Wetherby Festival, where I met him, is just as important to him now.
“Do I need to work for the money? No, probably not, but this is what I do. I’m a storyteller, whether that’s through songs, poems or simply talking. Billy Connolly and Mike Harding were great inspirations. Before they were around comedians were all about mother-in-law jokes and Irish jokes. All of a sudden, there was Billy on stage for an hour doing one song and the story of the Last Supper and I just thought ‘wow’. The only other performer I’d seen anywhere near that before had been Bob Newhart.’
“What I also remember is that blokes used to buy Billy a beer because he was cool and girls used to chat him up. They were the only two reasons I’d gone to college and I soon realised that my route to where I wanted to go was to get on stage, have blokes buy me a beer and girls chat me up. I was 18.”
After serving his apprenticeship in folk clubs followed by a time when he recalls being the perennial support act for everyone from Jethro Tull, Supertramp, Elkie Brooks and Jim Davidson, he became a regular on TV. His own ITV show ran for 11 years.
Self-deprecation is part of his stock in trade and he could so easily have never achieved anything had he not given himself the proverbial kick up the backside on leaving school.
“It’s bizarre but I’ve never talked about this in over 40 years, what I was before. I’m from a working class family in Canning Town, the East End of London. My mum was a cleaner at the Trebor factory and my dad was a foundry driver for Ford Motor Company. He was a nudge towards Alf Garnett, although I wouldn’t say for one minute he was quite as fascist. If you didn’t live at an even number in Mortlake Road you were a foreigner to him.
“My parents produced three children, my brother, sister and myself, the babe. My brother Leonard was a principal violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, my sister Jill was a second violinist in the London Youth Orchestra and I was a footballer, a goalkeeper. It was only a foot injury that stopped me going through the ranks at Leyton Orient, my local team. I never did any homework. My brother and sister were so good and to this day I can’t read a note of music even though I could sit at a piano and bash out Bill Haley when Leonard wasn’t playing Chopin.
“I remember the day I left school, I looked back at the gates of my school and everyone was burning their books. It was a bit of a tradition in those days. I went to my mum and said, ‘Mum, I’ve blown it. I’ve done nothing at school and I’m a nothing. I’d got four O-levels’. She just told me it served me right. That was when I realised I was an East End slouch and I didn’t want to be.”
Shaking himself up with his own reality check clearly gave him direction.
“I got a job in the Trueform shoe factory and another as a shelf stacker in Safeways earning enough to go to night school where I studied English literature and modern British history passing both at A-level. That’s how I got myself to Reid Kerr College up in Glasgow in the late 60s, which was where my performing career began to take shape.’
“I’d had a passion for playing the guitar since I was 13, but I was only twiddling. When I went to Glasgow I shared a flat with a guitarist who was to become a folk legend, John Martyn who is sadly no longer with us. I used to watch him play and dream of emulating him. I never have but soon I started playing the folk clubs.”
After 14 months in Scotland, he was desperate to get back home to London where he began bombarding the BBC with funny lines, stories and scripts.
“They were all rejected at first but the scripts and the folk club work gave me a double-pronged attack as both a folkie and a writer. It was getting on for two years of sending foolscap pages of funny lines before I got a letter from the BBC offering me work on Bernard Braden’s radio show Stop The World and I was on my way. I used to get £33 for a page at that time and it was an awful lot of money to me.”
His first folk club appearance was in a double decker bus, but his memories are more of watching his heroes.
“Ralph McTell was a great guitar player and Al Stewart. They were the guys who were on the scene at the time. I’ve never been the greatest singer so I thought maybe I could merge funny stories with music. I thought that if I could write for the Beeb then I could write a bit for myself.
“Touring with Steeleye Span in 1973 put me into all the big theatres and from there I got to tour with all the others. It was a wonderful time and I toured with Elkie (Brooks) for four-and-a- half years and with Supertramp on their Breakfast in America tour. I was the perfect support act because I was easy, the bloke with the guitar taking on 3,000 people with my mucking about.”
He’s very good at playing down his talents although he confesses to feeling as though he had won at the Olympics when he was rewarded by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters with a Gold Award in 2003.
“Awards don’t generally mean a lot to me as they don’t pay the bills, but this one was given by your peers. I was given it the year Midge Ure got his and also Ralph McTell, for writing Streets of London.”
Today Richard Digance is pretty much the same as he was in the 70s, 80s and 90s. His humour is gentle with a nod towards sarcasm and the odd expletive delivered without offence. It’s a mix that he readily admits doesn’t appear to be wanted by the generation of producers and moguls running the small screen.
“The last TV show I did was The Ronnie Corbett Show. I stood there all day and when it came to my sound check I sang a song to three cameramen who were completely disinterested and I just thought what am I doing here? It was then I knew that I wanted to get back to playing live. I had a massive urge to move away from the shallowness of show business and go back to where I felt most comfortable with other musicians.’
“I enjoyed my time on Countdown and liked coming up to Yorkshire to film it. Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman were great to work with and I made some other really nice programmes going around the countryside in a Morris Traveller, but would I go into ‘the jungle’ or appear on ‘Strictly’? No I wouldn’t. Would I do QI? Yes I’d love to but I’ve never been asked.
“I like being me. Doing these shows appearing up and down the country and my writing takes up most of what my brain can handle. One of my hobbies is coarse fishing and I try to keep it that way. The one thing that has been a constant for me in any swerve of my career has been my writing. Joe Pasquale is a good mate and will ring and I’ll write stuff for him, but it is my corporate writing that is the backbone of my income. I’m retained by seven large companies.”
Whilst Richard has never hit the singles or albums charts his books, including the children’s poetry book Animal Alphabet, which I bought after seeing him in concert at the New Theatre in Hull many years ago, earn him royalties worldwide. He wrote far more poetry as his children Polly and Rosie were growing up and is published in several countries. This year sees another side to his talents with an art exhibition.
Following his divorce he gave up the entertainment business for four years, bringing his daughters up as a single parent. He doesn’t enter into any more discussion than to say his children were and will always remain paramount.
“I made a move that was right for me in every way. My writing, my music, my humour and my family are all important to me.
“There is a seriousness in being a comedic songwriter and there aren’t that many because it’s actually quite hard. I never left it but it would have been easy to chuck it away and I didn’t want that part of me to go.
“I’m in a very fortunate and honoured position that means I can perform when I want to. I’m particularly looking forward to coming back again to Yorkshire, which I know everyone must say, but I have another very good reason for saying it as one of the three I am doing up here in March is with John Watterson who performs songs of another of my heroes, Jake Thackray. John’s one to watch out for in the future.”
Richard Digance, Victoria Hall, Settle, March 15; Poppleton village hall, near York (with John Watterson), March 16; Hunsley Music Club, Elloughton, near Hull, March 23.