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

Frinton is one of those places, like Tunbridge Wells, whose name conveys far more than a simple geographical location. Harwich for the Continent, Frinton for the incontinent, as the old joke goes. It is just the sort of town you might expect to end up in when you embark on one of showbusiness's more arcane quests - to find out whatever happened to Freddie "Mr Parrot Face" Davies.

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."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone