Dave Ismay obituary: Entertainer who was wrongly told he had three months to live
In the 1970s he worked as Bob Monkhouse's warm-up man on ITV's 'The Golden Shot'
Saturday 15 June 2013
Dave Ismay made national headlines in 2010, although not, as the versatile Brummie entertainer, agent and author might once have hoped, for bringing the house down at the London Palladium with a stand-up comedy routine or scoring the winning goal at Wembley for Aston Villa. At the age of 63 Ismay had paid £150 to have a full health test, including a body scan, and as one who considered himself no more than a moderate drinker he was shocked to be informed that he had cirrhosis of the liver.
Given three months to live – and remembering Rob Reiner's film The Bucket List in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman pursued their dreams before they "kicked the bucket" – he drew up his personal wish list of unfulfilled ambitions. These ranged from paying £26,000 for a new Mercedes ("if I was going to go, I was going to do it in comfort") and completing a book about his great friend Bob Monkhouse to appearing in pantomime (he landed the role of Mother Goose in Redditch) and taking his three-year-old grandson to his first game at Villa Park.
Two months later Ismay learned, with a mixture of incredulity and delight, that there had been a mistake; what he actually had was hereditary haemochromatosis (an overload of iron in the blood). While serious in its own right, it is not commonly a terminal condition, and as the tabloid interest petered out he responded well to treatment.
The episode might have been condensed into a bleakly comic half-hour for another of his heroes and fellow son of Birmingham, Tony Hancock, in whose former home in Hall Green he reuptedly once lived. However, Ismay was suddenly taken ill in April and after an emergency stomach operation he died in hospital.
The previous weekend he had driven his friend, Doug Ellis, to watch Villa's victory at Stoke in the former club chairman's Rolls-Royce. Ellis had employed the ex-policeman as Head of Special Projects at Villa for 13 years, with Ismay (who described himself as the club's "Minister Without Portfolio") applying the stagecraft he had learned treading the boards to build the atmosphere as kick-off time approached in his role as on-pitch announcer.
Such skills were honed when he was engaged to warm up the audience during Monkhouse's years as host of the ITV game show The Golden Shot in the 1970s. Ismay had met Monkhouse when both appeared at a Birmingham nightclub, later contrasting his own "stuttering, stumbling ineptitude" with the star's "immaculate style, polish, erudition and wit". Despite the disparity the pair remained close. Ismay, having been at Monkhouse's bedside when he died in 2003, co-authored Bob Monkhouse: Unpublished! following his own, flawed diagnosis.
Stand-up took Ismay to Las Vegas and to Belfast (where he played to British troops during the Troubles), as well as appearances on Celebrity Squares, Live at Her Majesty's, Chas & Dave's Knees-Up and Seaside Special. He hosted An Evening of Stars before the Prince of Wales on two occasions. When a major breakthrough in comedy eluded him he diversified into working as an agent for other performers, among them the Midlands-based comedian Don Maclean.
Ismay also represented Andy Gray, working with the TV presenter and producer Gary Newbon to turn the fearless Scottish striker from a Villa terrace hero into a television personality. Gray's breakthrough as a team captain on the quiz show Sporting Triangles would be the prelude to a career as a Sky pundit. Ismay also collaborated with Newbon in the Telford Tigers ice hockey club, becoming chairman on its launch in 1985.
In another characteristic change of direction he had written and sung a pop song titled "A.S.T.O.N. V.I.L.L.A.", with "We're the Holte End" on the b-side of a 7in single pressed on blue vinyl with a claret middle. The 1979 track resurfaced on the 1996 compilation Come On You Villa!
In recent years he had fronted Velrag Arts, an agency organising corporate events, conferences and receptions, also working as an after-dinner speaker and master of ceremonies. In another string to his bow, he wrote for the sports pages of the Birmingham Mail. His final column ridiculed the recently appointed Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio – "the most unlikely, panic-induced wildcard ever to manage in the Premier League" – and mocked Harry Redknapp as "the textbook definition of diminishing returns".
But then Ismay's humour was invariably acerbic and sarcastic, and several of the tributes after his death reflected the sense that it was not to everyone's taste. Ellis spoke of "a bugger, but a lovable one" whom he had to "push out" of the directors' box because "he wouldn't keep his mouth shut". Maclean remembered a friend who was "hysterically funny" and "a great bloke" but also a "Meldrewesque curmudgeon".
David Robert Ismay, comedian, agent, author and journalist: born Birmingham 1 May 1946; married firstly Sheila (marriage dissolved, deceased; one son, one daughter), secondly Dodie; died Leicester 17 April 2013.
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