COMEDY / Perfectly Frank: Frank Randle eschewed the stereotyped comedy of his Wigan peers, but became the forgotten star of the Forties. Mark Wareham reports

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Fans of Coronation Street will know him as Harry Norton and the Mexican Mouse-Eating Spider, but unless you live north of Birmingham the name of actor Keith Clifford will probably mean about as much to you as, well, the Forties comedian Frank Randle. The two are, however, inextricably linked.

It all started for Clifford in the mid-Eighties when he took a part in cartoonist Bill Tidy's The Great Eric Ackroyd Disaster, a musical comedy about a coughing choir set in a smoke works. One of Clifford's lines - 'Eee Mr Grindley, charity runs through thee like a Madras curry' - struck him as being the sort of thing Randle might have said, so he styled his character on him. In the bar afterwards, the comic Mike Harding came over and said, 'My God lad, when are we going to do it?' 'What?' said Clifford. 'The Frank Randle story,' replied Harding. 'Bloody hell, I thought it were him.'

Since then, Clifford has maintained a one-man crusade to resurrect the ghost of Randle. His efforts bore fruit last year when he won the Sony Radio Drama Award for his performance as the great Northern comic in Trevor Hoyle's Randle's Scandals: The Life and Liver of Frank Randle.

Randle's story runs an exaggerated rags-to-riches course. Born in Wigan in 1901, he started out as a cheeky beggar impersonating Chaplin on the streets of Blackpool. For 20 years he ground it out on the circuit, honing his comic skills with acts like the Bouncing Randles, until, in 1936, he supported another Wigan lad, George Formby, at the Blackpool Opera House.

He was soon topping the bill, and by 1938 had formed his own company, Randle's Scandals. For the next 16 years he toured the North with 80 entertainers, becoming Britain's highest-paid comedian. He earned pounds 1,000 a week and owned a yacht, umpteen Lagondas, Mercedes and a custom-made caravan.

But unlike Formby, he failed to go global, stubbornly refusing to tone down the Wiganese for London shows. He'd last a couple of weeks, then get in his car and drive 'back to sanity'. 'Formby,' says Hoyle's Randle in Randle's Scandals, 'gives the Southies what they expect. The gormless grinning Lancashire tosspot with a gobful of teeth, a ukelele and bugger all else. That's how they like to think of folk up North, and that's what George, bless his pigskin wallet, delivers. But not me. Never.'

Randle's wilful streak manifested itself in a loathing for the authorities. He dismissed theatre managers and script censors as 'the mental pygmies of showbiz'. He wouldn't even bother to send his scripts in to the Lord Chamberlain and was often hauled up in front of the Watch Committee. Word would go round that Frank Randle was 'playing' the county court. So popular were his courtroom antics, touts would sell seats in the public gallery. Instead of being banned for contravention of the Theatre Act, he'd end up getting off with a pounds 30 fine for having been so entertaining. 'Some of my finest performances were on the stage of the Blackpool Magistrates Court,' he boasted.

The fun came to an abrupt end in 1954 when the tax man hit him with a demand for pounds 56,000. Hard years of Woodbine and Guinness addiction had left him with cirrhosis of the liver and TB in both lungs. His act swiftly deteriorated. Keith Clifford remembers seeing him in 1956 at the Halifax Palace. 'My dad told me, 'I'm taking you to see the greatest comic on God's earth.' It was a disaster. He was in the pub somewhere and they dragged him back, drunk and inaudible, while 2,000 people sat in silence. He leaned into the orchestra pit and spat. They all put down their instruments and left him to be steered off stage. People were practically in tears.' A year later, Randle was dead.

'Scandals: The Life and Liver of Frank Randle': Lancaster Grand Theatre tonight, Leicester Phoenix 17 Feb. 'It's a Grand Life', starring Frank Randle, Leicester Phoenix tonight. 'An Evening Misspent with Frank Randle' by Keith Clifford, Courage Hall Barnsley 24 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)