Davy Kaye was the archetypal East End Jewish comedian who would have been seen by his mother to have "done well".
Standing just under five feet, he was a cocky wisecracking figure, both on stage and off, who looked as if he would have been just as much at home in a tailor's shop. He had more in common with American comics such as Milton Berle and Sid Caesar than he did with British variety and yet for 60 years he managed to top variety bills, made numerous radio broadcasts for the BBC and was a popular panellist on quiz shows. One of the highlights of his stage act was his one-man-band routine where he played "McNamara's Band" with drums, cymbals and hooters and in the process got caught up in a complete shambles.
His first professional engagement was on a variety bill in 1935 at the Mile End Empire. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was rejected by the Army on the grounds of his diminutive size, later telling the story that the medical officer had said, "When we declare war on pygmies - we'll send for you." This led to his appearing in variety and revue shows at munitions factories and army bases before joining the BBC, where he was a regular with such shows as Midday Music Hall and Variety Bandbox, alongside such names as Norman Evans, Derek Roy, Mrs Shufflewick and other radio comics who were beginning to make a name for themselves.
After the war his agent was the legendary Joe Collins (the father of Joan), who booked him as principal comic in Teddy Hinge's revue Fanny Get Your Gun in London. The title became the subject of a well-publicised court case brought by the impresario Emile Littler, who was presenting the musical Annie Get Your Gun at the same time. Littler lost the case and the posters were then overprinted by Kaye himself with the words "The Show They Tried to Ban!" which naturally increased business.
For 14 years, from 1954 to 1968, Kaye was resident late night comedian at the Embassy Club in London, and at one stage was doubling by appearing as the character Benny Southstreet in the original production of Guys and Dolls at the London Coliseum. He played the lead (which was actually five parts) in the ill-fated 1960 Wolf Mankowitz musical Belle (The Ballad of Dr Crippen), which was deemed a disaster by the critics.
He fared better playing another lead, in Androcles and the Lion in the 1960s at the invitation of Bernard Miles at the Mermaid followed by a series of cameo appearances in Crooks in Cloisters (1963), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and a memorable slot as a book- maker in Carry On At Your Convenience (1971).
A brash man who was reputedly difficult to work with, he nevertheless was rarely out of work and on two occasions the Variety Club of Great Britain gave him a lunch in his honour at the Dorchester Hotel to celebrate his 50th and 60th year in show business respectively, both of which were televised on the BBC. Kaye was a man who enjoyed such occasions, usually inviting most of the guests himself with the line "I hope you'll be coming", meaning that it was something of a royal command.
For 40 years he was a comic force to be reckoned with in the Grand Order of Water Rats, the show-business charitable organisation, particularly at their lodge meetings, where he would deliberately try to upstage fellow comics. One of Davy Kaye's last appearances was as a special guest on Barrymore in 1987: there he talked amiably to his host with a fund of typical show-business stories, heavily embroidered, but was none the less a throwback to an era that is completely gone.
- Patrick NewleyReuse content