Old comics never die...
...they just keep on joking all the way to that great seaside special in the sky. Nick Duerden tracked down five faded stars of primetime TV and learnt that, even after enduring jail, addiction, scandal or depression, they're still hungry for one last summer hurrah.
Sunday 27 August 2006
Jim Bowen was recently asked if he wanted to take part in the next series of I'm A Celebrity (Get Me Out of Here!). This could have been something of a boon for the former Bullseye host, who hasn't done much telly of late. Exposure like this, albeit of the fairly humiliating kind, would undoubtedly result in celebrity renewed, but Bowen turned them down flat.
"Excuse me, but sitting in the middle of a jungle eating kangaroo balls is demeaning to the human spirit," he says, cocooned in a leather armchair in the front room of his ample Lancashire home. "I'd rather be in the pub with the wife, drinking Tetley's."
This was presumably something of a shock to the programme's producers, who had grown accustomed to yesterday's funnymen (and, occasionally, women) queuing up to be demeaned in the Aussie outback in exchange for that most tantalising of propositions: a primetime audience. Cannon and Ball had jumped at the chance last year, Joe Pasquale likewise, and all reaped the ensuing dividends. But not Bowen: "I've certain standards, me." Bully for him, as it were.
Television, as we all know, isn't kind to its comedy stars of yore. The moment they fall foul of incoming TV producers young enough to be their offspring, they are mercilessly dismissed, their fading memory mere tumbleweed in the same corridors of power through which they once so magnificently strutted. Already predisposed to bouts of depression, as most comedians inevitably are, bad luck stories then become profligate: the drinking, the drugs, the unfortunate swimming pool incidents.
What must life be like for the faded stars of 1980s variety shows, now that the limelight has swung so emphatically elsewhere? Are they bitter and twisted? Or did they never particularly care for television in the first place, thank you very much?
Many, in fact, continue to thrive in the wings, and August - with its seaside Bank Holiday specials - is a particularly busy month. In provincial theatres up and down the country right now, you'll find poster evidence that suggests something of a renaissance for these erstwhile titans of light entertainment. They are everywhere: here, there, at the end of the pier, and even the Edinburgh Festival, where their otherwise outmoded brand of comedy is now hailed, perhaps confusingly, as post-modern and ironic. In a country where nostalgia is big business, they are laughing all the way to Christmas - to panto, and way beyond.
Here, we've tracked down five such individuals to find out their particular fates, and each remain in gainful - and often lucrative - employment, with or (mostly) without the oxygen of television. In the words of Freddie Starr, for one, "TV is bollocks, who needs it?" But then that's Freddie Starr all over, and we'll come to him later.
Naked but for shorts, Bernie Clifton is striding through the paddocks of his Derbyshire farmhouse towards the sitting room. En route, he points out the small tree in his garden from which packets of Hula Hoops hang (he is a big fan of crisps). I'd heard from one of the other comedians on these pages that Clifton was "a nutter, mad as bats". But today, he appears quite the opposite: genial, and undeniably sane.
"Ah, but that's only because I'm ancient now," says the 70-year-old. "I've become pragmatic, I've settled down. That's what happens after 50 years in the business. I'm just glad I've survived."
Clifton was never A-list material, but arguably a poor man's Roy Hudd in charge of a better-behaved bird (in his case, an ostrich rather than Emu). He popped up on Saturday night variety specials and the children's favourite Crackerjack, ran around at the behest of the bird upon whose back he rode, and popped off again. But in recent years, Clifton, who continues to work today and has just appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, has been reappraised by some critics, and proclaimed an unsung comedy genius, the spiritual forefather of Vic Reeves and Harry Hill.
"The ostrich has only ever been 5 per cent of what I do," he says. "Most of my act is sheer slapstick nonsense, but TV only ever wanted the bird."
When Ben Elton came along in the 1980s and broke the mould for comedy, he says, "a lot of us older comics, me included, hated what was happening. But then TV always was like skating on thin ice, and many of us plunged."
Clifton got depressed (and no, he won't discuss it), then packed his bags and headed for Australia, where variety still passes for cultured entertainment. He also returned to the end-of-pier shows that first launched him, and became a regular on local radio and in panto. He plays trombone for the England football team's travelling brass band, "and I'm currently I'm writing a sitcom as well," he says. "I keep busy."
At the request of our photographer, he braves his bad back and climbs into the ostrich once more, running around a little corner of his 17-acre plot for the sake of a funny picture. It is 34C, and now at last, sweating liberally, the man does indeed look nutty.
"You've got to laugh," he says. And he does, hootingly.
Though he started his career on Opportunity Knocks as, ostensibly, a comic, Liverpool-born Tom O'Connor was hardly a seminal stand-up. Instead, in the kind of jumper a sitcom grandmother buys for a sitcom grandson at Christmas, he possessed a comfortable television persona that, by the mid-1980s, had seen him anointed as the king of the cheesy gameshow.
"All told, I did 11 of them, and every one a winner," he says in his room at London's Grosvenor House Hotel where, tonight, he will preside over a corporate awards ceremony. "Name That Tune, Cross Wits, I've Got A Secret, The Zodiak Game. Many more. Why so many?" He winks. "Producers knew that I could make a middling gameshow great. How? I had the knack."
In 1988, though, this former teacher and devout, married Catholic was reported to have fallen in love with an 18-year-old prostitute. The allegations were splashed all over the papers, and the gameshow host issued writs against three of them, before ultimately dropping each one.
"You certainly find out who your friends are when something like that happens," he said at the time. Within a year, he'd lost all but one of his shows, Cross Wits.
When I bring this up, the 67-year-old winces and abruptly segues into a joke about an one-armed Irish swimmer, which he says always gets them laughing.
Life away from TV was initially difficult for O'Connor, largely because he had grown rather fond, "of the fame, the money, the fancy cars. I was an arrogant so-and-so, I thought I was invincible." He was relegated to the cruise-ship circuit, presiding over the same gameshows but now adapted for OAP seafarers. These days, he is the king of the corporate event. Tonight, it's the motoring industry; last week, a pizza and pasta company. For someone who once dominated our TV screens, surely it's a bit of a comedown?
"At £4,500 a night, four, five times a week?" he says. "Hardly. I'm doing very nicely indeed, thanks. There's respect out there for me, and whatever anybody tells you, there is life after TV. I'm living proof."
Later, he performs 20 minutes of standup before a room full of drunken motoring types, some of whom talk all over his nostalgia-driven monologue. The one about the one-armed Irish swimmer still goes down a storm, though.
Keith Harris is sitting in the conservatory of his £500,000 villa, located just outside Blackpool. The man who has shrewdly reinvented himself as an X-rated ventriloquist - his adult show, Duck Off, is a favourite at student unions across the country - has just presented me with a self-produced brochure in which he refers to himself as: "The original, the master, the best." For someone who has made his fortune, in his own words, "by sticking a hand up a duck's arse", this is perhaps showboating a little, but Harris was the most famous ventriloquist the 1980s managed to dish up. Upon one arm sat Orville, a faux innocent green duck in an oversized nappy; upon the other was Cuddles the monkey. They were all over television, much of it children's. His and Orville's theme tune, "I Wish I Could Fly", sold 400,000 copies. Princes William and Harry were fans.
"But what people don't realise about me," the 59-year-old says, "is that I'm also a director, an actor, a producer. I put on pantomimes every year that are not just better than everybody else's - they are! - but that have broken box-office records. What can I tell you? I'm a Virgo, a perfectionist. I may be dyslexic - and I ramble a lot - but I'm very driven too. I get things done."
Quite. Harris's own television death knell came in 1993, and it hit him hard. A marriage ended, he started drinking heavily and, convinced his talents were being cruelly overlooked, he opened clubs in Blackpool and Portugal, declaring himself bankrupt twice in the process. He ended up in AA after being arrested for drink driving.
"That was the real turning point for me," he says. "I spent a night in jail, and it helped me get my focus back." He is married again now, "for the third time - no! The fourth!", and has two young children. And the work, he insists, is good. In 2004, he took part in the Channel 5 reality show The Farm, and won the thing: "I really thought that would spark a major revival," he says, suddenly forlorn. "But not enough people watched it."
More recently, Ricky Gervais offered him a televisual lifeline. "He wanted me to be a racist bigot on Extras, and I would have had to say things like, 'Is the BBC still run by Jews and homosexuals?' I read the script and thought, This isn't clever writing, it's pure filth. I turned it down. I'm not desperate.
"It's all about moving with the times, reinventing myself, staying on top of my game," he says, snapping his fingers once, twice, three times. "And, at 59, I still am."
Within minutes of our introduction, Jim Bowen, the unofficial highlight of last year's Edinburgh Festival, is assailing me with biographical information. I learn that his house is worth £1m, the cars in the driveway £200,000, the gold watch on his wrist £12,000. He presents me with a copy of his autobiography, Right Time, Right Place, which he promises to later autograph.
"You can read that on the train back to London," he suggests. "It's all in there, the whole story. Smashing read, very funny."
Jim Bowen makes for gregarious company, and knows it. A former teacher who worked his way through the Northern comedy clubs circuit throughout the 1970s, by 1980 he was hosting a quiz show called Bullseye, in which working-class Britons threw darts and attempted to answer general knowledge questions in the hope of winning a speedboat that would sit, unused, outside their council house in Bolton.
"It was a rubbish show, absolute shit," he readily agrees, "but it was also gilt-edged, blue-chip, legendary. Of course it was. It ran for 15 years. It made me rich, famous; 10 million viewers a week, and you can't argue with that, can you?"
Bullseye eventually came to an end, as all good things must. Bowen swallowed his pride and promptly took the show on to the QE2 ("and I'm talking the great QE2 years, not the rubbish ones") and other cruise ships too, seeing the world and maintaining his wealth. He was also a talk-show host on local Lancashire radio until, in 2002, he called somebody a "nig nog" on air, and promptly lost his job.
"Ah, but I had no idea it was a racial slur, you see." This seems somewhat unlikely for a comedian who came to prominence in the 1970s - when casual racism was rife - but Bowen is adamant. "It's true! Round these parts, nig nog is just another word for nitwit. Ask anyone!"
The slur didn't quite kill his career. Peter Kay gave him a cameo on Phoenix Nights in 2003, and last year he played the Edinburgh Fringe: 21 shows, every one a sell-out. He plans to return there next year.
"How lucky am I?" he muses, as we step out on to his lawn that overlooking the Lancashire countryside. "I'm 69 years of age, and I'm still in demand. Shall I tell you what I want out of life now?" He leans in close, until we are almost touching. "More time, that's all. More time."
It is difficult to know where to begin with Freddie Starr, but let's try. A quarter of a century ago, he was huge, the country's zaniest comic. No chat show was safe when the lifelong teetotaller, feigning drunkenness, staggered on to wreak havoc in a Hitler moustache and Wellington boots. But offstage, his life was in tatters. He was addicted to Valium, his second divorce became bitterly acrimonious, he had no friends - "and I never wanted any". He didn't so much fade from television, as disappear completely. But Starr was hardly down and out. He toured provincial theatres, and still does today, wowing audiences, he insists, like he always did: "I'm like Lee Evans on speed. I'm very, very physical."
This afternoon, he arrives at his venue of choice, a golf course just outside Birmingham, wearing an inside-out T-shirt and three-quarter-length tracksuit bottoms. He is sweating heavily, and says he needs a cigarette. As we move into the bar, he reveals, sotto voce, how he has just sold his four Spanish homes on the Costa del Sol: "£4.5m cash. I'm not stupid, yeah?" He has now settled in Derbyshire, his love affair with the English countryside reignited.
A red-top newspaper legend (and not just for the 1986 Sun headline "Freddie Starr ate my hamster"), he was poised to follow Billy Connolly all the way to comedy superstardom. But ITV bosses had other ideas.
"They wanted me to be another Benny Hill," he scowls, "but I hated Benny Hill. I was writing stuff like Little Britain 20 years ahead of my time. But ITV wanted fucking family entertainment. So I fucked off television for good. Who needs it?"
He does, presumably. Last year, he appeared on ITV's Celebrity Fit Club, and there is a link on his website encouraging fans to sign a petition to get him back on the box. But Starr doesn't want to discuss any of this. Instead, he talks bitterly of his ex-wife and of his three children with whom he has no contact. He becomes increasingly angry, but then forcibly brightens, insisting that, now, all is good. He is married to Donna, who also manages him, and they are expecting their first child together this autumn. He is 62, she's 35.
And then, suddenly, this unexpected outburst: "The trouble with you is that you believe everything that you've ever read about me, but it's all bollocks. I just told journalists what they wanted to hear because it sells newspapers. Didn't you realise that?"
None of it - not the repeated rumours of bankruptcy, not the gay sex allegations (in 1994, his former gardener claims to have provided Starr with oral sex in return for items of jewellery), not the suicidal depressions - was true.
"You want a sob story from me, that's all. But it's not going to happen. Listen to me: I'm still playing to packed houses every night, I'm making a fortune. And I'm still funny. Now," he says, heaving himself heavily to his feet, "are you going to cover my lunch bill? I normally charge for these things [interviews], so you're getting me cheap."
As he lumbers off, I tell him it's been a peculiar pleasure to meet him. This stops him dead in his tracks. Freddie Starr peers down at me quizzically, one eye open, the other tight shut.
"You're crawling," he sneers. "Stop it."
And then he struts away, hands on hips, in considerable pomp and circumstance. Golfers stop to gawp. "That's not... is it?" they seem to be saying. And, of course, yes - yes it is. Who else could it possibly be?
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