Norman Collier: Comedian famed for his 'broken microphone'

His most famous routine was born when a bingo caller was having problems with his microphone

Norman Collier was one of the best-known faces in comedy throughout the 1970s and '80s, appearing regularly at theatres and on television. He was appreciated especially for his "broken microphone" routine and his chicken impressions.

He was born in 1925 in Hull into a working-class family. "It was hard work," he recalled in a 2009 interview. "I was the eldest of eight children and it was hard going. It fell to me to go on errands and I even had to wash the kids." He saw active service during the Second World War as an aircraft-carrier gunner. "We saw plenty of action but no danger," he recalled, "although the thought of doing it now would terrify me." On demob he took a variety of labouring jobs, where he delighted in trying out his jokey routines on workmates.

He got his first stand-up gig in 1948 at the Perth Street West club in his home town, stepping up at the last minute when one of the booked acts hadn't appeared. "The next thing I knew, I was being announced. That was the first time in my life and it was as if I had been doing it all my life." But it was not until the early '60s, with the advent of nightclubs and the increasing demand for comedians on the circuit, that he took the decision to go professional. His career would last more than 50 years.

Of all his routines, the best known was the "broken microphone", inspired by an incident at a local Working Men's Club where he was performing. He loved to recount the story of the bingo caller before him who was having electrical problems with his microphone, resulting in intermittent announcements.

"I was ready to go on and the plug was loose in the socket on the wall. I was standing there watching all this, tears running down my face. When I got home I thought about it and it went down very well, so I decided to keep it in the act. I'm pleased I was there that night when he was doing his bingo because I would never have thought of it." The sketch became a staple of his performances.

The duo of Little and Large were often on the same bill as Collier, who played in pantomime with them as Widow Twanky. Syd Little recalled their first meeting in 1968 in his autobiography Little by Little. "Norman Collier was top of the bill and Wally Harper – Bobby Ball's uncle – was a comic support act. Wally just couldn't resist heckling Norman all the way through his noon performance, but Norman, being the gentleman that he is, just carried on and gave as good as he got."

Influenced by Al Read, Collier's patter was most often in the style of long monologues, playing on the ridiculousness of everyday situations. In 1970 the ITV Series Ace of Clubs allowed him to present a full set as part of a competition. He won with a unanimous vote from the judges.

Collier's big break came when he was invited to perform at the Royal Variety Command Performance in 1971, to acclaim from audience and critics alike. A review the following day read: "Unknown comedian Norman Collier won a standing ovation for his act in the Royal Variety Show."

However, despite several offers, he declined the opportunity to move to London, preferring to remain in his home town and concentrated on the northern club circuit, with regular television appearances. His autobiography, Just a Job: The Recollections of Comedian Norman Collier, was published in 2009, after much prompting from his son-in-law John Ainsley, who said he wanted their children and grandchildren to realise Collier's achievements.

He continued in cabaret and charity work, with TV and radio appearances until six years ago, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Towards the end of his life he lived at a care home in Hull.

The impressionist Jon Culshaw paid tribute to him online, saying: "Rest in peace Norman Collier. Funny, funny, wonderfully funny man. People would be permanently laughing whenever they were around him." Danny Baker added: "Expect lots of 'broken up' tweets but that really was some act."

On learning of his passing, Syd Little told The Independent: "To me and Eddy Large he was the funniest man. He was so inventive and a real comic's comic. He made so many people very happy and we never ever saw him unhappy. He will be very sadly missed."

Norman Collier, comedian: born Hull 25 December 1925; married 1948 Lucy (one son, two daughters); died Hull 14 March 2013.

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