Eli Woods was the dopey, stuttering beanpole who appeared regularly in Les Dawson's television shows. But he was originally one third of a great music hall act, Jimmy James and Company, which at one time also included Roy Castle.
James, a Northumberland comedian, was renowned for his drunk routines – "The Spare Room", "His First Night", "Sober as a Judge". The most enduring was "In the Box": James was the vaguely inebriated gent who falls into conversation with two idiots named Hutton Conyers and Bretton Woods. The lanky Woods, inhabiting a suit that had long ago parted company with sartorial logic, would stand next to James as though in a stupor, jaw agape, struggling to follow a bizarre exchange about the contents of a shoe box.
"In the Box" evolved through several changes of personnel. Jimmy James' real surname was Casey, and it was his nephew James (Jack) Casey who became the definitive Bretton (later Eli) Woods. From 1948 the young Casey was employed as James' driver, until they arrived in Preston to find that one of the stooges would not be able to make the performance. Casey became Woods, and was persuaded to stay.
Hutton Conyers was first played by James' brother-in-law Jack Darby, later by Dick Carlton, and for three years (1956-59) by Roy Castle, who had temporarily abandoned his own act to perfect his comic timing under the acknowledged master. "In the Box" could run for 18 minutes, but Castle never forgot a booking at the notorious Glasgow Empire when the audience gave James the bird, and the trio completed the act in a record four minutes.
After James' death in 1965, Woods stooged for many other comedians, most frequently Les Dawson, throughout the Sez Les (1972-74) era. Woods' doleful demeanour and gangling figure had an obvious appeal for children and he was a perennial pantomime favourite. His most memorable booking on a personal level must have been in 1976 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, where he met Alexis Stanfield, the dancer who would become his wife. They married in 1978 (Les Dawson was best man) and that Christmas Woods joined Dawson, Roy Barraclough and Peter Goodwright in Babes in the Wood at the Alhambra, Bradford (1978). By the time Woods fetched up at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham in 1986, for Robinson Crusoe with Rod Hull and Emu, he was the proud father of two.
In the clubs, Woods' solo turn was a uniquely courageous enterprise, since his genuine stutter did not make it easy to deal with hecklers in the audience, though there is a good story about him promising one troublemaker a great comeback "if you'll j-just w-wait a m-minute."
Between 1976 and 1979 scriptwriter Eddie Braben starred in his own The Easter Egg Parade, The Show With Ten Legs and The New, Improved Show With Ten Legs. Casey produced, with a cast including Woods and yet another member of the family, David Casey. Braben and Woods appeared in a television spin-off, Ready Eddie Go in 1980 for BBC North West.
In 1981 Casey, Woods and Castle were invited on to Parkinson ;with Casey taking his father's role, they performed "In the Box" to such an enthusiastic reception that the following November they appeared to even greater acclaim on The Royal Variety Performance. In a nostalgic "music hall memories" sequence they reprised one of Jimmy James' favourite songs, "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine".
In 1983 they were on BBC TV again, for The Main Attraction and The Good Old Days. 3-2-1 was a themed quiz show from Yorkshire TV which incorporated sketch material between the question-and-answer sessions, where from 1981 Woods appeared in programmes about Nursery Rhymes, Vaudeville, Variety, and (in 1985) Music Hall, when he assisted James Casey in re-creating Jimmy James' monologue on the hazards of running a fish and chip shop.
Woods remained a fixture on BBC's The Les Dawson Show. Realising he was fortunate to have inherited a great stooge, Dawson, displaying the patience of a crumpled saint, took lugubrious pleasure in waiting for Woods to reach the end of a story, gaining useful comic mileage from Woods' trademark hesitant delivery.
Woods joined James Casey and the veteran Geordie comic Bobby Thompson for Roy Hudd's TV series Halls of Fame (1984) on which they reminisced about playing the Sunderland Empire. Woods continued to be in regular demand throughout the 1980s and 1990s, supporting the likes of Kenny Everett, Keith Harris and Orville the Duck, Little and Large and Bruce Forsyth; his was one of the many familiar mugs in Eric Sykes' silent comedy about a funeral, Mr H is Late (1988).
He also had character roles in films – A Private Function (1984) and Little Dorrit (1987) – and TV productions. In 1993 he was in BBC's series about a Newcastle cop, Spender, and there was a festive Heartbeat on 25 December 1994. In 1995 Woods and Casey were glimpsed in Last of the Summer Wine as two Christmas Eve drunks.
James Casey (Eli Woods), comedian and actor: born Stockton-on-Tees 25 August 1934; married 1978 Alexis J Stanfield (one son, one daughter); died 1 May 2014.
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