Charlie Williams

Footballer turned comedian who made fun of racial stereotypes
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Charles Adolphus Williams, footballer and comedian: born Barnsley, Yorkshire 23 December 1928; MBE 1999; married (one son, one daughter); died Barnsley 2 September 2006.

Watching 1970s footage of the comedian Charlie Williams, he seems too genial and harmless to be forging new ground, but that is precisely what he did. The black Yorkshireman became a national celebrity through the television series The Comedians, which became notorious for promoting racial stereotypes, and he deflated what some of those comedians were doing by the sheer power of his personality. He was known for his catchphrase "me old flower", which was delivered in a broad Yorkshire accent, and his put-down to hecklers, "If you don't shut up, I'll come and move in next door to you."

Charlie Williams's father came from the West Indies and settled in Yorkshire, working as a coal-miner. Williams was born in Barnsley in 1928. He left school when he was 14 and worked at Upton Colliery. He was a good sprinter but he was spotted playing football for the works team by a talent scout for Doncaster Rovers.

Williams became a professional footballer, one of the first black players in the league. (To put this in perspective, there were no black players in a cup final until 1965.) He played for Doncaster Rovers from 1948 and became their regular centre-half in 1955, appearing in 157 league games between 1948 and 1959 and scoring one goal. He was a journeyman player, doing well but never talented enough for the national team. He told me, "I suppose I made my mark. We went from the Third Division North to the Second Division. Football was a man's game and we got stuck into it. I recall playing at Bury after a rainstorm and the pitch was a quagmire. I said to t' captain, "If you win the toss, stick with the tide." We drew four-all so you can tell what kind of game it was."

When Williams left football, he was earning £20 a week. He was well used to the taunt, "Get back to Africa." But he knew what he wanted to do. He had always encouraged team spirit by making the players laugh, so the move from football to clubland was not hard. He started as a singer, performing the songs of his hero Nat "King" Cole, but he sound found that the audiences preferred his light-hearted patter. He made a good living in the Northern, working-class clubs and, oddly enough, he learnt about the bounds of respectability from the clubs, not from television:

Clubland was strict and the chairman would shut the curtains on you if you went over the top. I never did the heavy stuff though: naughty, yes, because everybody loves a naughty joke. I would have liked to have done more singing. I wasn't a great singer but I thought I could put over the numbers well.

In 1971 the television producer Johnny Hamp asked the most effective club comics to appear on a prime-time show, The Comedians. It was a superbly edited succession of jokes from master joke-tellers and it was an immense, prime-time hit. Paradoxically, you could have Bernard Manning and Charlie Williams on the same programme:

"You never know what is going to be a catchphrase. Bobby Ball said, "Rock on Tommy", and everybody loved it. I used a Yorkshire expression, "Hello, my old flower", and I've said it ever since. I enjoyed doing The Comedians but I had to come out of it because it was eating up too much of my material. Once you've said a joke on TV, who wants to hear it in a club?"

Charlie Williams had his golden year in 1972. He starred in a variety show at the London Palladium for six months, appeared on the Royal Variety Performance and was featured in This is Your Life:

"I was doing pantomime in Swindon and, on my day off, I was asked to go to the Batley Variety Club with its new stage. They said they would send a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce for me, so I said, "OK." I hadn't the slightest inkling that it was going to be for This is Your Life and it was the first time that they had done the programme outside a studio."

In 1973, he made TV specials for both the BBC and ITV and he hosted The Golden Shot, following Bob Monkhouse and Norman Vaughan but by then the programme had had its day. In the same year he published his autobiography, Ee, I've Had Some Laughs.

His comedy often came from his upbringing, and was very different from the confrontational comedy of the American Richard Pryor. He talked about his childhood, the Second World War and living in terraced houses with outside toilets - really about being British. He would joke about racial stereotypes: "During the power cuts I had no trouble at all because all I had to do was roll my eyes." Or, "It was so sunny today I thought I'd been deported." He was an unofficial ambassador for racial harmony but he eccentrically defended the use of the Golliwog motif on Robertson's jam.

Lenny Henry said in the book Windrush: the irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain (1998): "You have to understand that Charlie Williams was perfect for the time that he appeared. Nobody was doing what he was doing. He was playing the fat bellied, bigoted Northern comedians at their own game. I went through a period of thinking it was all bad, man, and my stuff's a reaction against that, but I made just as many mistakes. It was the times and you did what you had to do to get by in a predominantly white world."

Mark Lewisohn, the author of the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy, has a subtler take on Williams's popularity. He says: "The most surprising thing about Charlie Williams, and why he had success, was that he had a totally British name and totally Yorkshire voice, but he was black. A complete surprise. Blind viewers would scarcely have got it. He became a talking point simply because he spoke like a Yorkshireman, not a negro. This is why he worked that particular mine so hard."

Most comics do not have a long shelf-life on television and younger comedians, often black ones, came up to replace Williams. He settled down to a life of clubs, opening stores and pantomimes (the singer Helen Shapiro, who worked with him in Aladdin in 1988-89, remembers him as "lots of fun, charming, friendly and full of ad libs"), and was quite content with his big house and the trappings of success.

For several years, Williams suffered from Parkinson's disease and senile dementia. In 1999 he was appointed MBE for his charity work and in 2004 voted Doncaster Rovers' all-time cult hero.

Spencer Leigh