Obituary: Frank Muir

Frank Muir, writer and broadcaster: born Ramsgate, Kent 5 February 1920; Assistant Head, BBC Light Entertainment Group 1960-64; Head of Entertainment, London Weekend Television 1968-69; President, Johnson Society, Lichfield 1975-76; Rector, St Andrews University 1977-79; CBE 1980; married 1949 Polly McIrvine (one son, one daughter); died Thorpe, Surrey 2 January 1998.

Before Frank Muir and Denis Norden, scriptwriting was not seen as a profession, and in fact it has never really developed beyond what they chose to describe as "a cottage industry" - that is, two blokes in a room inventing humour. It's a far cry from the American "Ten writers, no waiting" approach, but has produced as much good comedy as the high-tech American method.

That it is as it is, is in many ways down to Muir and Norden, who proved that a scriptwriter was more than, to use Frank Muir's phrase, "a comedian's labourer".

In a way, Frank Muir was two people. A carefully honed foppishness, the pink bow tie, the lisp, the tweeds and the retired lieutenant-colonel manner, hid from most people the astute, creative and, above all, authoritative writer.

With Denis Norden, his long-term partner, both as writer and television and radio panellist, he penned some of the most memorable radio comedies, Breakfast With Braden, Take It From Here (from which The Glums sprang) and much else besides. Together they wrote for television Whack-O!, starring Jimmy Edwards, with whom Muir had a particular affinity, and, again for Edwards, The Seven Faces of Jim.

I suppose that for many viewers Muir will be remembered as the suave and beguiling team leader on the television panel game Call My Bluff where, whether in harness with Patrick Campbell or later with Arthur Marshall, and under the beady eye of Robert Robinson, he spun fantasies and elegant descriptions of obscure words, thus baffling his opponents and viewers alike.

He became, with Denis Norden, the (almost) ever-present member of the quartet which made the quarter-century or so of BBC Radio's My Word! and My Music and massively entertained a world-wide audience which rejoiced in the humour and the erudition of those programmes.

Later, also on radio, in the series Frank Muir Goes Into . . ., a ragbag of comic moments from the BBC archives, he held the centre with unfaltering skill.

Behind the scenes of BBC Television, again with Denis Norden, Muir advised the corporation on their comedy output and was later head of comedy at the BBC before crossing over to ITV as head of comedy at the newborn London Weekend Television, where, in spite of some flops, notably We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (which optimistic boast proved unfounded), he conjured up such long-running successes as Please Sir and On the Buses.

When the management team resigned en bloc in protest at the sacking of the programme controller, Cyril Bennett, Muir returned to radio and, in addition, became a skilful writer of children's books based on the character and behaviour of the Muir family dog, What-a-Mess. The first book, published in 1977, was followed by 16 other volumes describing in charming detail the adventures of this accident-prone Afghan hound.

The collections of My Word! anecdotes, reproducing Muir and Norden's tortuous puns, You Can't Have Your Kayak and Heat It (1973) being a typical example, sit happily on the shelves with other of his written works, including the massive The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose: from William Caxton to P.G. Wodehouse (1989).

In a way, Muir seemed like a Wodehouse character, a snuff-taking clubman (the Garrick was his favourite watering hole) and a dandy, his style of dress being in a way his visual signature tune. He was, in fact, more Jeeves than Wooster, usually getting things right. His one novel, The Walpole Orange, published in 1993, was set in a West End gentlemen's club and was, to be honest, patchy. It had great moments, but touches of fustian, too.

His autobiography, A Kentish Lad, published last autumn, went at once into the best- sellers' list. In it he recorded anecdotes of his childhood and his RAF service, which was spent largely in Iceland, where he was stationed as an aerial photographer. He commented, "When we had a plane we didn't have a camera, and when we had a camera we didn't have a plane." But his natural gifts found expression in entertaining his fellow airmen and these blossomed after the war into a successful career in the professional world of scriptwriting.

For three years he was the Rector of St Andrews University, which he says was "spending three lovely years attending church with a terrific choir".

Muir, a devout Anglican, is quoted as saying: "I think there is some kind of after-life, but it's not pearly gates. I wish it to remain a mystery."

- Barry Took

When I first came to England as a drama student and heard Frank Muir and Denis Norden's Take It From Here, I assumed I was listening to a radio adaptation of an S.J. Perelman piece, so brilliant was the wordplay, writes Dick Vosburgh.

Week after week, the film takeoffs which ended the show glittered with outrageous puns . . . Shakespeare shouting to the landlord of the Mermaid Tavern, "See what the boys in the buckram will have!" . . . Dracula saying to a potential victim, "Won't you join me in the old-fashioned vaults?" Or a New York gangster who - having been told that the police have thrown a cordon around the area, stretching all the way down to the Staten Island ferry - exclaims: "You mean there's a ferry at the bottom of our cordon?" In another sketch, Sherlock Holmes said to Lady Baskerville, "Surely deep, deep down, your guardian has some ideas or theories about this spectral hound?" - only to be told, "Yes, there are theories at the bottom of my guardian."

In 1956 Muir and Norden were finally given the opportunity to deliver such extravagant puns in person, when the radio literary quiz My Word! took the air. Each would be asked to give, by the end of the programme, the origin of various quotations. The inventions by both men were brilliant, but my favourite was Muir's fandango around the song title "Come into the Garden, Maud". He told a sad story about joining a yacht club and falling madly in love with a member called Carmen. On hearing that his adored one and a yachtsman called Toothy Gordon had "sailed together into the harbour of matrimony and were moored together for life", he confessed that he could do nothing but sit and mutter again and again:

"Carmen . . . Toothy Gordon . . . Moored!"

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