James Casey: Comedian, writer and producer who created 'The Clitheroe Kid' and discovered Ken Dodd
Thursday 26 May 2011
James J Casey was the son of the legendary music hall comedian Jimmy James, and in the 1950s, billed as Cass James, he stooged in his father's variety act, playing a character named "Hutton Conyers" opposite his cousin, another James (aka "Jack") Casey, who had assumed the stage name "Bretton Woods". Conyers would be introduced as James' "latest discovery", a theme rapidly abandoned for a surreal exchange of dialogue about the contents of a shoe box, with interruptions from a stuttering Woods. Conyers was the truculent simpleton forever demanding to know, "Are you the one putting it around that I'm barmy?" and eliciting the retort from James, "Why, are you trying to keep it a secret?" The trio's "In the Box" routine became an enduring classic.
Behind the scenes, Casey wrote additional material for the act; and when a show they were doing in Manchester, Northern Variety Parade, needed a small boy to deliver a couple of lines, he booked a midget comedian named James Clitheroe. In show business from childhood, the adult Clitheroe – little more than four foot in height and with a shrill falsetto voice – had all the right qualifications, and his immediate success gained him a radio series built around his juvenile persona.
Between October 1955 and March 1956 four editions of Call Boy, broadcast on the BBC Home Service from the North of England, featured Jimmy Clitheroe in a variety show format which took wireless audiences "backstage at your Radio Music Hall" to meet guest stars like Ted Lune, Robb Wilton, Ken Platt, and, of course, Jimmy James. Casey, still working as Cass James, wrote all but the first of these programmes, and the ensuing two series in 1956 and 1957. He was then elevated to producer, credited under his real name, and Call Boy was accepted for the Light Programme, where there was an opportunity to reach a wider audience.
Among the visiting turns like Jimmy Wheeler, Chic Murray and Harry Worth, the most popular segment of Call Boy was a miniature domestic situation comedy, usually running about seven minutes, with Clitheroe as the mischievous son of a typical working class family. In 1958 this evolved into The Clitheroe Kid, destined to occupy most of Casey's time for the next 14 years, a workload shared with his co-writer Frank Roscoe.
Casey was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1922. At the age of 18 he was offered a place at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, but instead joined the Army. On D-Day he landed in France with the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, and went on to be one of the very few officers who reached Berlin unscathed.
As well as Clitheroe, Casey and Roscoe also launched a youthful Ken Dodd with It's Great To Be Young (1958-1961) in which the comedian exchanged wisecracks and catchphrases with a gallery of eccentric characters, after the style of Tommy Handley's ITMA. In due course Eddie Braben was recruited, and from 1963 onwards he would be the comedian's sole associate (on The Ken Dodd Show). Meanwhile The Clitheroe Kid was on course to become a Sunday lunchtime institution. Recorded before a live audience at the Hippodrome in Hulme, Manchester, the show relied upon an earthy humour, dealing with everyday situations. The scripts expressed real warmth, and an understanding of the way ordinary people lived, that more than compensated for a general lack of sophistication.
Jimmy's radio relatives included his sister (complete with idiot boyfriend, the great Danny Ross) and Scots grandfather, while his adult victims in the world at large were interpreted by a repertory company that over the years included Leonard Williams, Brian Trueman, Deryck Guyler, Tony Melody and the impressionist Peter Goodwright. Casey and his team delivered 280 episodes between 1958 and 1972, peaking with a run of 26 consecutive shows in the 1966-67 season. Thanks to Casey, Clitheroe became a huge star of pantomime and variety, topping the bill at venues like the Newcastle Empire under the banner of his familiar punchline "Don't Some Mothers 'Ave 'Em."
During the 1960s and 1970s Casey, as Head of Light Entertainment in Manchester, was responsible for many hits: Blackpool Night, Radio Tarbuck and even the occasional peripatetic Workers' Playtime, introduced "from the canteen of a factory in Hull" or some similar location. Between 1974 and 1978 he masterminded the occasional Castle's On The Air starring the versatile Roy Castle (who as "Hutton Conyers" had supported Jimmy James from 1956-59) and featuring his cousin Jack Casey, now professionally known as "Eli" (no longer "Bretton") Woods. And when Eddie Braben performed in his own specials, The Show With Ten Legs (there was a cast of five), The Easter Egg Parade and The New Improved Show With Ten Legs between 1976 and 1979, Casey produced, with the personnel including not only Woods but another relative, Casey's son David. Comedy First, a showcase for new writers, was to be David's last appearance in one of his father's productions; in 1980 he died from asthma.
In the 1978-79 pantomime season Casey co-write and co-directed some comedy business for Babes in the Wood at the Bradford Alhambra, where Eli Woods was playing one of the robbers opposite Roy Barraclough, with Les Dawson starring as the Dame.
Towards the end of 1981 Casey, Woods and Castle were invited on to Parkinson where, with Casey taking centre stage in his father's role, they performed "In The Box" to such an enthusiastic reception that in November 1982 they appeared to even greater acclaim on The Royal Variety Performance, where they reprised one of Jimmy James' favourite songs, "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine". In 1983 the three were together again for The Main Attraction and The Good Old Days. As themselves, Casey and Woods joined the veteran Geordie comic Bobby Thompson for Roy Hudd's Halls of Fame (1984) on which they reminisced about playing the Sunderland Empire.
In 1985 Tyne Tees Television made a series for Channel Four entitled Super Troupers wherein contemporary entertainers impersonated the stars of yesteryear. Atmospheric use was made of the New Tyne Empire's stage in Newcastle, and for the penultimate show Casey and Woods got back into the old routine once again, with Reg Varney taking a one-night-stand as Hutton Conyers.
3-2-1 was a quiz show from Yorkshire Television which integrated comedy and musical items with the question-and-answer sessions, and in 1985 for an episode on a music hall theme, Casey, assisted by Woods, recreated Jimmy James' monologue on the occupational hazards of running a fish and chip shop. This "lecture" was primarily visual, demonstrating how a crooked elbow and intermittent wink – occasioned by the habitual scooping arm movement and blinking of the eyelid to avoid splashes of fat – results in a permanent "come hither" posture of an unfortunately camp nature.
In 1992 Casey and Woods were back on stage at the famous City Varieties theatre in Leeds (from where BBC television had relayed The Good Old Days for 30 years until it was axed in 1983) and towards the end of 1995 they were glimpsed all too briefly as two Christmas Eve drunks in Last of the Summer Wine. Whether as performer, keeping alive the memory of his father, or as creator of Jimmy Clitheroe's phenomenal radio series, James Casey made a significant contribution to cheering us all up in more innocent times, and like all the best comedy talents from the North of England he never forgot his roots.
James Casey, comedian, actor, producer and writer: born Stockton-on-Tees 16 August 1922; married 1943 Joan Hyde (deceased; one daughter, and one son deceased); died 23 April 2011.
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