OBITUARY : George Williams

Slender as a wind-blown reed, frail as a quail, the slight figure with the chalk-white face topped by the flat cap would stand centre stage and whine weakly "I'm not well . . ." Did he then say? "I'm poorly, I'm proper poorly!"

And was it his catchphrase to say? George Williams always claimed it was. But millions of radio listeners who first heard the late great Reg Dixon say it would claim otherwise. For years the argument as to who created "proper poorly" raged between the two comedians and their fans. As to whether it was ever settled, Williams may have revealed all in his autobiography Hang on a Tick. He wrote it in 1992, financed by an appeal to his supporters, but the book never reached publication stage.

George Williams was born in Liverpool in 1910. His mother was a farmer's daughter and the family moved to Nottingham when George was still a boy. He made his first public appearance at the age of four, when he was chosen by his schoolmistress to sing "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" to the visiting Bishop of Liverpool. As the bishop took his seat George forgot the words and, panicking, burst forth with "Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy". It was his first step on the road to comedy.

The family moved to Leicester and when he was eight George made his amateur dbut in a local concert party at the De Montfort Hall. Again he forgot his words but this time saved the day by making up his own. Once again his reward was laughter.

More came when, studying classical ballet at a local dancing school, he forgot his carefully learnt steps and threw in a few improvised ones. He finally realised that his destiny was comedy and it was as a comedian that he eventually made his professional dbut at the Hippodrome in Accrington.

It was in 1934 that he coined the catchphrase "I'm not well". He played the patient in a hospital sketch. His face chalked white, he was pushed on in a bathchair and got such uproarious laughter that the chap playing the doctor, fed up with the long wait, shouted his feed line at the top of his voice, "What's the matter with you?" The laughter died away and at last Williams spoke. "I'm not well," he said. Again there was audience uproar. It told Williams he had chanced on the gag of a lifetime.

Taking advice from his producer he went solo, from then on making his every entrance in chalky make-up with his opening line "I'm not well". Soon audiences everywhere would respond with a sympathetic "Ah-h-h-h!" Once the laughter had subsided he would launch into his routine. "I keep having a going-off feeling coming on," he said. "I said to the doctor, will you give me something for the wind? He gave me a kite!"

When the Second World War came, Williams, always a frail figure, was found unfit for the Army. He promptly joined the National Fire Service and later, with Ensa, he appeared in some 2,000 shows for the armed forces. Here he developed his soppy soldier act, his feeble frame draped in an ill-fitting uniform and lopsided tin hat.

In January 1944 Williams returned to the professional stage and became an immediate pantomime favourite. Dames, Buttons, Idle Jack: all were suited to his style. He made his first broadcast on Henry Hall's Guest Night, then the all-star Sunday night series Variety Bandbox, where he became resident comedian for some time. He would end his act with a slowly sung version of "Mockingbird Hill" ("Tra La La - Twiddley Dee Dee") and eventually settled on a tremulous version of "I'm in the Mood for Love" as his signature song. Williams would add the occasional "atcha! atcha!" and "pa-doo! pa-doo!"

A popular star of the lunchtime series Workers' Playtime, Williams saw his comedy career crash suddenly in 1952 when he was arrested for a homosexual act and sentenced to prison for two years. It was only in the more enlightened 1960s that he was able to make a comeback and was taken to heart by middle-aged and youthful audiences alike.

In the Seventies he appeared at the Lyceum and toured for the Mecca group and in the Eighties topped all-star charity shows produced by David Drummond for the Friends of the Greenwich Theatre. Drummond billed George Williams as "Not Well. Enough Said".

Denis Gifford

George Williams, comedian: born Liverpool 25 May 1910; died London 23 April 1995.