Martin Kelner went in search of a sad-old-end-of-the-pier-comic story. But when he found it, he discovered Freddie 'Parrot Face' Davies had rewritten the script
Monday 28 August 1995
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Freddie was a contender. With his saucer eyes, Homburg hat pulled down over his ears, and comic lisp, he was rarely off the telly. At the height of his semi-fame, Freddie's catchphrase, "Fair dos" (said with a lisp), was on the lips of the nation, he was presented with a budgie in a gold-plated cage by the Budgerigar Information Society, he advertised Trill on television.
The Daily Mirror was confident that Freddie would take his place alongside Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd and Ken Dodd as one of Britain's comic greats. But, as is often the way with such predictions, it didn't quite happen. And now we are in Frinton High Street, Mr Parrot Face and I, watching an elderly gent staring abstractedly at the gloves in one of those genteel clothes shops you only ever see in Ealing comedies or English seaside towns. "They come here to die," says Freddie. "And then they forget why they've come here."
Freddie is doing summer season at nearby Clacton. Francis Golightly presents his Spectacular Cascade at the West Cliff Theatre, starring Freddie "Mr Parrot Face" Davies and Bernie Clifton, plus singers and dancing girls. It's one of only two surviving traditional summer revues in Britain.
So far so sad, but this is not one of those where-are-they-now tales that ends with the tragic former star straightening his toupee and shedding a tear for the death of variety. Freddie arrives in Frinton via film festivals in San Francisco and Berlin, where his performance in a new British film, Funny Bones, has been lavishly praised.
This news is particularly surprising to those of us who remember Freddie's dead budgie routine on Opportunity Knocks: it did not - he would be the first to agree - exactly guarantee his place on any list of comedians most likely to succeed on the art-house circuit.
The new film, directed by Peter Chelsom (who made Hear My Song), opens in Britain next month, and was chosen for last night's Edinburgh Film Festival finale, an inspired choice in a city full of comedians, since one of the themes of Funny Bones is that there are two types of comedian - those who are funny because they say funny things, and those, like Tommy Cooper, with so-called funny bones.
Freddie plays one of the latter kind, a sad-faced comic whose act was stolen by big-time American star Jerry Lewis. His son is a seriously unhinged clown and small-time crook played by Lee Evans. Freddie's wife is played by Leslie Caron. (Again, there was nothing in the actress's charming performance in Gigi to suggest her as a future screen wife of Freddie "Mr Parrot Face" Davies.)
"That Opportunity Knocks appearance in 1964, which happened entirely by chance, started everything for me," says Freddie. "I was dying on my arse in Dunoon, where I was supposed to spend the summer, so I escaped from that to the Candlelight Club, Oldham. As it happens, that was dead handy for Opportunity Knocks, which I stepped into when someone dropped out.
"I remember I turned up there at the last minute with my own music and they said, 'These are tatty music-hall arrangements.' I said, 'What do you want? I'm a tatty music-hall comic.' "
Freddie has a typical trouper's recall of minute details of gigs and pantos of 30 years ago, and the setting for these reminiscences is perfect. We are in the dining-room of Frinton's grandest hotel. At the height of summer, there is just one other couple in the room, speaking in hushed tones. Like seafront dining-rooms in Hotel Splendides around the coast of Britain, it somehow has the atmosphere of a cathedral with a slight smell of Brown Windsor soup. The owner, who serves us with extravagant politeness between splenetic diatribes about social security scroungers and foreigners, has come straight from Central Casting. He would not have been out of place in Freddie's film, which is largely set in Blackpool and rich in seaside detail.
Chelsom was brought up in Blackpool, which is how Freddie Davies comes to be in his film. Freddie was living in the resort in the 1970s, working on television, in the big northern chicken-in-a-basket clubs, and occasionally directing pantos and summer shows. He was friendly with Chelsom's parents, who asked if he could give their stage-struck son a job. As a consequence, the young Chelsom spent Christmas 1974 in Ipswich, cleaning up after Cinderella's ponies and listening to Freddie's stories of tatty music-hall comics, particularly his grandfather Jack Herbert, whom he always described as a "funny bones act".
"The title of the film and the element that deals with the nature of comedy comes directly from Freddie," says Chelsom. "I've carried it around for 20 years, and wrote the part specifically for Freddie. He didn't disappoint me at all, and Jerry Lewis and Leslie Caron were very complimentary about his performance."
Freddie, now 57, is hoping the film will help rehabilitate him after a difficult time in recent years. I had originally telephoned him after hearing an interview on local radio in which he said he'd gone to Orlando in 1988, and taken a job as a cruise director entertaining elderly Americans sailing the Caribbean.
What, I thought, could have happened to make a 50-year-old with an act refined in Britain over 30 years flee the country and try to make it in the States? Freddie "Parrot Face" Davies - The Missing Years. I knew nothing about the film, and must admit to having a sad-old-end-of-the-pier-comic story in mind.
As it turns out, Freddie, despite his solemn eyes and the fact that he is a good deal less lean than we remember him, is far from sad. He's recently married for the second time to Vanessa, a former stage manager of his, and is able to be quite chipper about his misfortunes.
Much of the Seventies and Eighties were spent producing pantos and summer shows and in theatrical management, until Snow White did for him in Leicester in 1987. The promoter for whom he produced the show went bust, leaving Freddie pounds 150,000 out of pocket. "I had to sell up and move to America," he says. "Eventually I ended up back where I started, organising entertainments for holiday-makers. Forty years ago I began my career as a Butlins redcoat, and these cruise ships are just like Butlins at sea, except without the knobbly knees contests... We had knobbly tits contests."
The bonus for Freddie was that, in front of the Americans, he was able to lose the Homburg and the lisp. For the sake of Frinton's nostalgists, Parrot Face is still alive for the moment, but if Funny Bones is well received, says Freddie, the parrot will be no more. It will cease to be. "I'm prepared for a movie career," he tells me. "I've just been taken on by an agent in Los Angeles. In fact, I'm out of work all over the world at the moment."
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