The Krankies: The odd couple

Janette and Ian Tough, aka The Krankies, ruled children's TV. Then political correctness intervened and they took refuge in panto. But that's not the end of the story. Fan dabi dozi, says Deborah Ross
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The Independent Online

So, off to meet Mr and Mrs Tough, or even Ian and Janette, but especially and for evermore The Krankies. "Fan dabi dozi!" - if you'll excuse my rather over-excited Krankie-speak, which some of you won't, but what do I care? ("Fan dabi dozi, fan double dabi dozi! Anyone seen me mam?")

They live on the south Devon coast, in Torquay. Torquay seems nice, I say in my banal and ingratiating way when I arrive at their house, a 1980s Spanish-style villa set high in the hills. "Aye," says Janette, who will always be more Glasgow than anywhere else, "it is, except on a Saturday night when the stag parties are out urinating on Debenhams." Fan dabi... nasty?

The house is white on the outside and very beige on the inside: beige walls, beige carpets, everything a furiously neutral beige. There's a Through the Keyhole souvenir key on the beige hearth and a china figurine of Pinocchio - Pinocchio is their favourite panto, it turns out - on the mantelpiece. But that's about it on the memento front. What did I expect? Cheesy summer-season posters all over the shop? That Janette would open the door as that rather disturbing schoolboy oddity, Wee Jimmy?

Do you ever dress up as Wee Jimmy for your own pleasure, Janette? Or Ian's, come to that? "I do not!" she exclaims, with horror. In their last house they had memorabilia everywhere, but "it depressed us, passing our lives every day," and "it's just so tacky." It might surprise some that The Krankies know "tacky" when they see it.

They offer coffee, which I accept, so we move into the kitchen, which is such a daring dark beige it might almost be brown. It is wonderfully state-of-the-art, though, even with a sort of slicing machine thing that comes out of the wall. Ian is the cook, and a great one, by all accounts. Janette does not cook. "Can't cook, won't cook," she says. "Can't cook, can't reach," adds Ian. "Aye," confirms Janette.

Janette is tiny, just 4ft 5in tall. She likes to shop at Tammy Girl. Her dainty rainbow wedges are from Ravel - the children's section. Of course, she is this tiny. But it's still somehow unsettling, encountering her dolly dinkiness for real, off the box. I ask later, in my clumsy and insensitive and possibly uningratiating way, whether she minds being so small. "Not really. I probably would if I hadn't come into the business, you know. But it's been me life, really."

She was titchy from the word go. Even at primary school, on the child-sized chairs, "me feet wouldna touch the ground". She'd probably be prescribed growth hormones if she were born today, but they weren't up to speed on that sort of thing then. It can be tiresome. She once reached for frozen peas in a supermarket freezer, fell in, and had to be rescued. But it is who she is, and, in a way, who they are. As Janette says: "Ian will say to me, 'Enough of your cheek, Janette, or I'll put yer dinner on the middle of the table.'" We all laugh. I'm not sure if it's part of the act or not. It's hard to tell.

We are here, ostensibly, to discuss their just-published autobiography, which would have been called Our Life: By Ian and Janette Tough if they hadn't opted for Fan Dabi Dozi: The Krankies, Our Amazing True Story. I'm not sure they are wholly convinced by it themselves. After they appeared on a radio show, they were approached with an offer to put their anecdotes into a book.

Even they wonder who'll read it. "What sad bastard is gonna buy it?" asks Janette. "You're such a pessimist," chides Ian. "No one's going to read it on a train, are they?" says Janette. "How embarrassing, to be caught with a book on The Krankies. They'll have to cover it in wallpaper."

They know that, to some, they are the joke. "We probably hold the record for making the crappiest records ever," Ian boasts happily. Some internet research quickly discloses "We're Going to Spain," which puts any thought of counterargument to rest.

Then Janette says, unexpectedly and quite passionately: "I hope this doesn't kick-start our career again." Really? "Oh, aye, Debbie. That's boring, I noo, but I'd hate for it again. I just like to go to Sainsbury's and do my laundry." She says she once heard a retired actress rebuff an autograph hunter with: "Go away. I don't need you any more." She liked that. She is saying, I think, that she doesn't need to be a Krankie.

So, I ask, you don't hanker at all for your Royal Variety and Crackerjack days? "Debbie. Ah'm 57. I canna do a 10-year-old schoolboy on telly at 57." They were huge (metaphorically speaking) during their Crackerjack decade, taking the programme from just over two million viewers to almost 10 million.

They were never sacked, exactly. "Do you know how they finish with you at the BBC?" Ian asks. I do not, I confess. "The only hint that things are over is when you don't get invited to the BBC Christmas party. Stanley Baxter insists to this day that he still hasn't been officially told he is finished."

They both cackle again. They are saying, I think, that they're not bitter. They're certainly not broke. "We always knew the bubble would burst some day," says Ian. "It always does." They have been sensible with their money, they say, unlike some others they could mention and do. "Jim Davidson was all, 'I'll have that, send for that, I'll have that,' thinking it was never going to end. And a lot of people are willing to take it off you."

They do seem a blissfully devoted couple. I ask if they've ever spent a day apart. "Only when one of us has been in hospital," says Ian. You're the Paul and Linda McCartney of double acts, I say. "It's frightening, isn't it?" says Janette. Hang on, says Ian - there was the time Janette went to London to appear in Ab Fab. "I had to go up for a week," says Janette, "and he said he'd come up on Friday for the show, but he came on Wednesday because he was fed up. I was most annoyed; I had the hotel room to myself and could play with the remote control."

Devoted, then, but always faithful? No, not always faithful. There's a chapter in their book that would have been titled "The Truth About Our Curious Marriage" if they hadn't decided to call it "Ding-Dong" instead. I refer to it, naturally. "Ah, our dutty thutties," they chorus, and which I deduce means "dirty thirties" in non-Glasgow-speak. Yes, I say. Your dutty thutties. Tell me about your dutty thutties. They do.

Janette: "We were on tour with a show called the Palm Beach Review..."

Ian: "And there was this spesh act, a magician called Eric Zee who had a real leopard..."

Janette: "He also had a leopard tamer called Rocky and an assistant called Angie who always wore glittery things..."

Ian: "And everybody was jumping into bed with everyone else..."

Janette: "And I don't know what came over us, but he ended up going with Angie and I ended up with Rocky..."

Me: "Blimey. Did he make you jump though a hoop? Did he try to put his head in your mouth?"

Janette: "Noooo. Tell her, Ian, how I caught you out."

Ian: "She said to me, 'I know you've been with Angie. You've got glitter on your balls...'"

Janette: "And he said to me, 'I know you've been with Rocky. You smell of leopard's piss.'"

Actually, maybe The Krankies don't always know "tacky" when they see it. They laugh. I laugh. I do feel a little queasy, though. Janette adds: "Thank God me mam is dead." I'm guessing Janette's mam would have felt a little queasy too.

It was, they insist, the only instance, and it didn't dent their marriage in the least. "It was just a mad time," says Janette. "We've never thought of leaving each other, ever." They've been together since 1966, and married in 1969. They met when they were both 18, at the Glasgow Pavilion; she was a dancer and he was the theatre electrician. He thought she was so adorable he would throw sweets down to her while she was on stage. "I'd be trying to do me act when suddenly a Merry Maid caramel would bonk me on the head." She liked him, too. "He wore a cardigan and smelt of aftershave. The rest of the crew were quite scruffy."

They got together as a song-and-dance and gags act, playing the clubs, and were going nowhere until Wee Jimmy came along in 1970. A fellow comic told Janette she should use her height more, should find a character for it. They found Wee Jimmy in Ian's loft. "That's where we found his grandfather's boots, his little brother Colin's red school cap and his older brother Alistair's shorts." Janette put them on. Ian nearly killed himself laughing. "I knew we were on to a winner." Colin Tough is now the editor of TV Times. He's never asked for his cap back.

I ask Janette if she'll put on Wee Jimmy for me. She's reluctant: "Nooo, I dinna want to." I tell her I understand that a 57-year-old woman affecting to be a 10-year-old boy could be seen as mighty sad, pathetic, tragic etc etc. I sympathise. I'd feel the same. But go on, go on, go on, go on. "I really dinna want to..." However, I do manage to charm her into it, largely by telling her that if she doesn't I'll punch her in the face and as I'm bigger than her - at last! I'm bigger than someone! - she'd better think carefully about her next move. "Ach, OK then."

So it's off round the back, where Wee Jimmy is in storage with their other props, then into the bedroom, and then out she comes and IT IS SCARY! IT IS WEE JIMMY! Wee Jimmy with the red hair and cap and boots and Dennis the Menace badge and everything. I can see catapults. I can smell stink bombs. I can sense slugs and snails and puppy-dog's tails. Where has neat little Janette in her Tammy Girl and child-sized Ravels gone? I AM SPOOKED!

"Aye," says Janette. "Ian says I even walk different as Wee Jimmy." Do you feel spooked, putting him on? "Debbie, I hate to be boring again, but it's just a job." It might be to you, I say huffily, but Wee Jimmy was part of my childhood. She is so contrite. She says: "Can I change back now?" I say: "I bet you weren't as sulky with Rocky." She says: "It's gonna kill your mam, Ian."

After Crackerjack there was a spell at ITV, then back to the BBC for their own shows, but come the Nineties they were pretty much out in the cold. They blame political correctness. "They were asking us to explain," says Ian, "what the relationship was between this wee boy and the man." This made them cross then, and it still does. "It's just panto," says Janette. "It's not sexual at all." This is followed by quite a long grumble about what's wrong with TV today. Too many reality shows. People on telly don't have any "backbone or experience". And "it's all garbage, isn't it?" Perhaps they are not as not bitter as they'd like to think.

Still, they appear to have a good, contented life. There's occasional stage work, and the annual panto. They own an apartment on the Australian Gold Coast, where they spend five months each year. They've never had children, they don't know why. It just never happened. "And what you dinna have you dinna miss," says Janette.

We move to the veranda and drink wine. They are terrific drinkers. They are terrific anecdotists. Oh, what a bore that Paul Daniels is, always following everyone around doing his silly tricks. Once, says Ian, "I was so annoyed I swung for him and sent him flying off his bar stool." And Great Yarmouth? When the mayor gave a speech at the end of the season and asked for a big hand for... The Wankies! The poor mayor's wife, says Janette, you should have seen her face: "It just got redder and redder."

We watch the sun go down over Torquay. It's not a Saturday, so presumably Debenhams is safe. It is pleasant here. Decidedly so. More wine, they ask? Yes, I say. That would be fan dabi triple dozi!

'Fan Dabi Dozi' is published by John Blake at £16.99, which is quite a lot, but it has an introduction by Max Bygraves. And you can always cover it in wallpaper. Lots and lots of wallpaper

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