"I did this on the Barrymore show last Christmas," he said one day last week, tap-tap-tapping away, patent-leather stage shoes shuffling across the slats. "After I'd done it he asked me how old I was. I said 94. Don't know why, just slipped out, one of those things. When I got back here they said, `You lying little sod, you're 84'. I said, `I know, but I always add 10 per cent for my agent'."
That's the kind of gag you hear at Brinsworth House, Britain's only retirement home for variety folk. Brimming with erstwhile comedians, singers, dancers and a 102-year-old trapeze artist, it boasts one of the finest bills ever assembled in British variety, daily going through their paces in the Bob Monkhouse room, the Lord Delfont nursing wing or the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber lounge.
"There's a lady in here, almost completely senile," said Audrey Lane, the administrative manager."Not sure what day it is, but if you ask her to remember the time she understudied Cicely Courtneidge, she goes into the full routine, word perfect."
They all have histories in Brinsworth. Harry Seltzer, for instance, was a big figure in variety, firing off gags from the stages of music halls across the country. The evidence is on the walls of his room, in the framed playbills (on the same one: Charlie Chaplin, Tommy Trinder, Harry Seltzer) and the photographs of him with the stars ("To Harry, best wishes, Val Doonican"). It is also there in the scrapbooks he has compiled throughout his career and now files on the bottom shelf of a bookcase crammed with glittery memorabilia.
"That used to be me, many years ago," he says, flicking to a faded picture of a double act in the Thirties: Harry in Groucho Marx paint-on moustache, glasses, cigar and waddling pose, while his straight man just stands there. "I used to do singing, dancing, gagging, miming. If the audience didn't like one thing, I'd try something else."
These days Harry Seltzer remains a big figure, but on a smaller stage. Everyone knows him at Brinsworth as he trots through the corridors and public rooms of the house, chivvying, telling gags and picking up bets from the infirm which he runs to the local bookies.
"It's like a Green Room, this," he said. "One big lovely Green Room. It's the most marvellous place. Without it, well, I'd be on my last legs. I'd be living in a cardboard box somewhere."
Which is the point of Brinsworth. It picks up folk like Harry and gives them a last home. Hylda Baker died here, and Ben Warriss, Jimmy Jewel's double-act partner. Two years ago Harry moved in, after he was left helpless and alone following a car crash in which his wife was killed and he was badly injured. Two years on and, but for a stiffness in his right shoulder, he is tapping his way back to health.
Brinsworth has been providing this sort of service since 1907, when it was bought by the Variety Artists' Benevolent Fund. Six hundred performers each contributed £2 10s to pay for the Victorian mansion, their names ("The Noble 600") forever engraved on a board behind the front door. Fred Karno's is on it, so, too, George Robey's and Little Tich's.
"Showbiz was never the most secure of professions," explained Peter Elliott, executive administrator of the Entertainment Artists' Benevolent Fund, as it is now called. "Especially back then, when there were no unions, or if you got ill or a show folded,you were left with nothing. These days I don't think artists get ripped off like they used to, but they're not the most brilliant folk with finance. It will be always thus."
Mr Elliott used to be Dick Emery's agent, used to produce 16 pantomimes a year. But running Brinsworth House he considers the most worthwhile production of his career.
"Danny La Rue pops in, Ronnie Corbett pops in, we do bingo twice a week, we go and see shows," he said. "We try to make life as entertaining as possible for our residents. There must be nothing worse than finishing your life sitting around alone in a single room. It must be like being in the nick, I'd think. No way for people who've entertained us to go."
His present company consists of 36 residents and 64 staff. It costs nearly £1m a year to run the show, more than half of which comes from the Royal Variety Performance, a joke almost as old as those in Harry Seltzer's repertoire. "I don't know why the press are so shitty about the Variety Performance," said Mr Elliott. "It's a laugh, people love it, it does nobody any harm and it does a lot of folk here a lot of good. Yet the press tries to ruin it. Why? It can only be because we've got a shi t ty pressin this country."
Indeed, walking round Brinsworth you can see his point. A visit would make even the most cynical snigger less loudly about the fact that the last time Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales were seen on a public engagement together was at the Royal Variety in 1992: sitting through that was enough to precipitate any divorce. Meeting Ellen Minning, the 102 year-old trapeze artist, whose sparkling demeanour suggests there are life-enhancing properties in hanging by your teeth from the ceiling of a big top, you realise there is a purpose to an evening with Frank Skinner and Take That.
"When we do the Royal Variety, we try to get the younger performers involved," Mr Elliott said. "Because one day, God forbid, they might need us."
Which is something Harry Seltzer would agree with. He knows all about showbiz charity fund-raising: in 1969 he was King Rat, leader of the Royal Order of Water Rats, the showbiz operation that raises thousands a year and obliges its officers to wear masonic regalia and call each other by bizarre names.
"I followed Frankie Vaughan as King Rat, you know," Harry said.
So who followed Harry?
"The debt collectors," he roared. "Ha ha ha. I had to get that gag in, you fed it to me beautiful."
Now, by a nice piece of symmetry, Harry, who wears a gold Water Rat brooch on his lapel, is benefiting from others' efforts, from all the benefactors who do their bit for the generation above, like Jim Davidson, who has just supplied a monster video projector and screen for the television lounge.
"Some of our residents have fallen on very hard times," said Peter Elliott. "Like the midget lady we have here, who was classed as a misfit in her previous home. The minute she came here, she wasn't a misfit anymore, she fitted right in. Others just comefor the camaraderie and pay their way. You would think having a lot of artistes here together egos would clash, we'd have a lot of tantrums. But we don't. They're a good bunch, a meeting of like minds."
And would they mind being photographed going about their daily routine (and routines)?
"This lot?" he said. "Don't be silly, they're showbiz. They'd fight you if you didn't take their picture."
He wasn't wrong. Down in the bar, where many of the residents gather for a lunchtime tipple, were Doreen Harris and Adele Cantor. They were sitting beneath a framed picture of a grinning John Major taken during a recent visit (he might end up there himself, incidentally: the offspring of variety performers are eligible for consideration). They patted their hair and giggled as a camera hove into view.
"I used to be quite well known, you know," said Doreen. She had own television show in the Sixties, she added, and there was the occasion she topped the bill at the El-Alemein reunion, singing for an audience that included Churchill and Monty. These day s she doesn't do much, not since she had a stroke which invalided her right side.
"I fool around maybe," she said. "I do the dirty songs."
"Ooh yes, she's very good at that," said Adele, a former showgirl who most recently ran a fancy dress shop in Leeds.
"Funny how as you get older you can remember the saucy lyrics," said Doreen, "and forget the clean ones."
"Ah, you get a good laugh here," said Adele.
"Just as well," said Doreen. "Otherwise you'd cry your eyes out."Reuse content