Obituary: Lew Schwarz
Thursday 09 September 1999
Curiously the name of Schwarz, Lew, fails to appear in any reference book about British film and television personalities. Was he a modest man? Not really, but, as his son Conrad says, "Dad was a jobbing writer nobody's actually heard of."
Lewis Schwarz was born in Glasgow in 1926. His father was an optician who put his bright son into Saint Aloysius Jesuit College for a stern education (Schwarz would have made a gag out of that), moving up to the Holyrood secondary modern. The teenaged Lew duly took a job on the Clyde shipyards as a splicer and riveter. Towards the end of the Second World War he joined the RAF as a Flight Engineer, and flew Lancaster bombers over Germany. After demobilisation he returned to Glasgow, eventually moving down to London in the mid-Fifties to ply the trade of taxi-driver.
Always a fan of radio comedy, he penned a few jokes and sent them to Richard Murdoch, star of Much Binding in the Marsh. Murdoch bought them and Schwarz started to take comedy seriously. Through his taxi work he encountered the radio Goon Spike Milligan, told him of his ambitions, and was invited to call in at the co-operative office Milligan and his writing friends, including Eric Sykes, Johnny Speight, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, were running over a greengrocer's shop in Shepherd's Bush - handy for the BBC Television Centre.
Joining the gang as a gag-smith, Schwarz soon teamed up with another more professional comedy creator, Eric Merriman, and together they wrote their first television series, Great Scott - It's Maynard! The year was 1955, in those pre-ITV days when programmes were fortnightly rather than weekly and were broadcast live. Scott and Maynard, Terry and Bill, were stand-up comedians in their own right, now teamed as a try-out double act. The idea, dreamed up by the producer Duncan Wood, worked perfectly and Schwarz and Merriman scripted 17 of the 18 shows. The series combined sketches with a flat-sharing situation that gives it the right to be called an early sit-com.
After the couple split up, Terry Scott was teamed with a fast-rising funster, Norman Vaughan. As two unemployed actors at Bogmouth-on-Sea, they starred in Scott Free. This was Schwarz's first series on his own. Prominent guest stars during the run included grumpy Gilbert Harding, bird-whistler Percy Edwards, and double-talking Stanley Unwin.
Nineteen fifty-seven also brought Schwarz the chance to be a semi- regular writer on The Army Game, the first huge success for the new ITV company Granada. Destined to run no fewer than 154 programmes, with frequent changes of cast, it was an unashamed attempt to produce a British rival to the American success The Phil Silvers Show, alias Sergeant Bilko.
Created by the reigning king of British comedy writers, the former dance- band singer Sid Colin, it included in its original cast Geoffrey Sumner as the chicken-hearted Major Upshot-Bagley, the first-class film actor William Hartnell (later a Dr Who) as Sergeant-Major Percy Bullimore, and Michael Medwin as the cheery cockney wide-boy Corporal Springer. But the mainsprings of this comedy grew to be Alfie Bass as the soppy Private Bisley ("Excused Boots", or "Bootsie" for short), and the extraordinary Bill Fraser as Sergeant Snudge. When the series eventually closed, these two stalwarts were paired off permanently as the demobbed stars of Bootsie and Snudge (1960), which clocked up 104 half-hours, then turned into Foreign Affairs (1964), and much later came back with the original title in 1974.
In 1959 Schwarz joined Jack Hylton, the ex-bandleader who was now sole comedy provider for the London independent station Associated-Rediffusion. He scripted the only television series written around Gert and Daisy, the popular cockney characterisations created by Elsie and Doris Waters. Written by Ted Willis, who saw the couple starring in a television commercial, it was no world-shaker and ran for just six shows.
In 1960, Schwarz teamed up with Talbot Rothwell, a prolific comedy writer who had created a sea-going variation of The Army Game - Mess Mates, starring Sam Kydd, that frequently seen small-part player from a hundred or more British films, as Croaker Jones and the Scottish actor Archie Duncan as Captain Biskett. More popular than might be expected, it ran for 40 programmes.
Now Schwarz hit his luckiest break. He was invited to join Charlie Drake in scripting his Charlie Drake Show (1963) for ATV. Pocket-sized Drake and his oversized partner, Jack Edwardes, had started on BBC Children's Television in 1954 as Mick and Montmorency. A great success, largely due to Drake's squeaky catchphrase, "Hello my darlins!", they had been taken on by Associated- Rediffusion in 1955 for a run of 91 shows. Now moving into adult time, Drake, helped in the writing by the sitcom specialist Richard Waring, succumbed to the lure of ATV, and he took Schwarz as co-writer. This began as a sketch show, the first programme containing no fewer than 33 such in 26 minutes.
Schwarz and Drake hit it off well, and came up with The Worker (1956), the series that sealed Drake as one of television's top slapstick stars and made a new career for Henry McGee, who played the put-upon Mr Pugh, manager of the local labour exchange.
Feature films followed. Drake was signed up by Associated British, and with Schwarz co-wrote Petticoat Pirates (1961), the diminutive comic donning ladies' uniform as a Wren, and The Cracksman (1963), wherein Drake is a jailbird locksmith forced to steal jewels from a museum. Big-budget productions, they were shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope and featured such leading co-stars as George Sanders.
Schwarz's later films were much lower in budget. The Cool Mikado (1962) was an early Michael Winner flop, despite starring Frankie Howerd, and The Cuckoo Patrol (1965) was even shabbier, top-billing Freddie and the Dreamers, those faintly remembered jumping jacks of pop music. Schwarz's 1959 film Some Will, Some Won't was a disappointing remake of the wonderful Laughter in Paradise (1951), starring Ronnie Corbett and Thora Hird instead of Alastair Sim.
On the whole it seemed as if television made a happier home for Schwarz's style of humour, although not every series was a hit. HMS Paradise (1965) was created by Lawrie Wyman, the jovial genius behind radio's Navy Lark, but cast with actors rather than comedy specialists it made no great waves. The Lance Percival Show (1966) was better, but best of all was Nearest and Dearest (1968). Created by Vince Powell and Harry Driver for those two veterans of variety, Hylda Baker, minuscule malapropist supreme, and Jimmy Jewel, now split from his straight man Ben Warriss, as Nellie and Eli, purveyors of Pledge's Pickles. This series ran for 46 weeks despite the continual off-screen squabbles of the two stars.
A series for Dora Bryan, According to Dora, came in 1968; he also had a hand in creating The Liver Birds (1969) with the feminist writer Carla Lane. Originally featuring Pauline Collins and Polly James, the series really got started when Nerys Hughes came in as Sandra, followed by Elizabeth Estenson as Carol. There would be 87 episodes in all, with several other co-writers following Schwarz. His original title for the show was Birds on the Dole.
Ronnie Barker starred in Schwarz's Hark at Barker (1969), which was followed by the unlikely Shirley's World (1971), starring none other than the Hollywood beauty Shirley MacLaine. Another big star to speak Schwarz's laugh lines was Norman Wisdom, in a now- forgotten series for ATV, A Little Bit of Wisdom (1974). For the same company Schwarz wrote a television version of the cinema's very popular "Carry On" series - Carry On Laughing (1975). Schwarz wrote episodes entitled One in the Eye for Harold, a burlesque of the Battle of Hastings, and Lamp-Posts of the Empire.
As the work tapered off, Schwarz became a teacher of creative writing at an adult education college, and in 1989 put what he had learned into his only book, The Craft of Writing TV Comedy. In his introduction he wrote:
Writing comedy for television is not as easy as it looks. It is a craft, as wood carving and pottery are crafts. Talent is essential, but without an understanding of the materials and a mastery of the tools, success will tend to remain elsewhere.
One hundred and eleven pages later he summed up his 20 years at the typewriter: "Writing comedy for television is a very serious business."
Lewis Schwarz, scriptwriter: born Glasgow 16 April 1926; married 1956 Margaret Glen (three sons, two daughters); died Ashford, Kent 29 August 1999.
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