Naughty postcard man touches the heart of Middle England: Cheeky, mischievous and coarse - Michael Barrymore's humour follows an old but irresistible formula, writes David Lister

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The Independent Online
BY 10am every day this week earnest-looking middle-aged and quite elderly couples were dancing perfect rumbas on the floor of Blackpool's ornate Victorian ballroom as the white-suited man at the wurlitzer accompanied them from the stage.

And every evening those same couples lose their earnest expressions and roll around helpless with laughter in the adjoining Opera House auditorium for the Michael Barrymore show.

The seaside variety show never went away, but suddenly, through its latest exponent, it is tremendously popular.

OK, that is less a tribute to the art form than the notoriety of the artist, a Saturday-night television star with 14 million viewers and a new pounds 3m contract from London Weekend Television, and an off- stage life that is also a throwback to another era: the working-class boy turned millionaire whose old mum pleads from her council flat for him to get in touch, and who succumbs to alcohol problems and dries out in a bizarre American clinic run by a Benedictine monk.

What is also interesting is that this highly paid, highly regarded comedian, with a catchphrase 'Awight' that is as popular as it is banal, is spending his summer not just on television, but doing the most testing entertainment of all, playing live to an audience with an age range of 4 to 90.

John Fisher, head of variety with Thames Television, says he is 'the top light entertainer in the country, a position Bruce Forsyth held 15 years ago and Max Bygraves held in the Fifties'.

I attended the first night to find out what makes Barrymore so popular. The first notable factor is the audience. It is Middle England out for an escapist night - to see a traditional dancing-girls routine, a female singer and then a top of the bill who will have them rolling in the aisles.

The first surprise was that Barrymore's remarkably quickfire act was like a Blackpool postcard - cheeky, mischievous and coarse. The second surprise was that the audience, particularly the elderly portion, adored the coarseness, delivered always at the expense of a member of the audience, with a shared wink and cheeky grin to the rest of the auditorium.

The lanky, rubber-jointed comedian worked the audience like an English Dame Edna. With a Frankie Howerd-style indignation at imagined slights, he threw a couple of people out of the hall, chased a Sun reviewer out to great applause, and made a gay pick-up approach to an embarrassed-looking chappie in the front row.

Then came a pure Barrymore unpredicted moment, which exposed an equally unexpected vein of anarchic humour in the audience. A woman, well into her eighties, slightly distressed, wandered by the stage. 'What's the matter, love?' he asked. 'I've lost my seat and my husband,' she said. 'Your seat and your husband,' he replied. 'Well, you can only have one of them back]'

Then, in a flash, he jumped off the stage, lifted the startled woman up on to it, pretended to make sexual advances to her, and as her husband came up to reclaim her Barrymore played the part of the lover caught in the act.

Then it was a sudden change of jacket and the donning of dark glasses to sing rock'n'roll, then a snatch of opera, interrupted as he spotted a latecomer and chased him round the auditorium.

He even took the gamble of having three young children up on stage, playing them off to the audience and exploiting the audience's love of the little ones with an innuendo that the children didn't get, but they did. 'He just makes me feel happy, he's naughty but never nasty,' said a 60-year-old woman afterwards.

Barrymore himself acknowledges this. 'It doesn't matter how clever you are, what a wonderful voice you've got, how brilliantly you dance, if people don't like you as a person. It's what Tommy Cooper had. Nobody was more off the wall than Cooper; he was a load of rubbish, but you loved the man and you trusted him, and if he thought it was funny, you did.'

'He is very special,' says John Fisher, who used to be at the BBC and gave Barrymore his first break there in the Eighties. 'He has a creative spontaneity, something one hasn't really seen since Danny Kaye, the ability to be totally in charge of 3,000 people.'

What is bringing in the audience is a mixture of a stage persona which is mischievous and rude, but always laughing with and on the side of the audience, and a versatility that has come from years of hard work.

He deserves a good measure of credit for bringing back a touch of vaudeville.

(Photograph omitted)