How Frankie Howerd left me feeling belittled

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The Independent Online

Having seen Saturday's Channel 4 programme on Frankie Howerd's private sex life, I feel degraded and humiliated, and would like to put the record straight. Witness after witness on the programme said that Frankie Howerd tried to have sex with every young man he met. Well, I met Frankie Howerd, and he showed no interest in seducing me at all. No wonder I feel besmirched and belittled. So today, I would like to take the chance of putting the record straight and giving you the background to the time I was not a sex victim of Frankie Howerd.

I don't think I had any idea at the time that he was homosexual. All I knew was that he was a very funny man. When I was still a child, I had seen him in pantomime in Liverpool, the nearest big city to where I grew up, and it became a family tradition every year to traipse the 30 miles through Chester and Birkenhead to go and see such stars as Arthur Askey, or Jewell and Warris. It was probably the only time I ever saw comedians in the flesh before I grew up.

After all this time, there are only two things I can remember about Frankie Howerd's performance. One was that when he did the routine about getting children up on stage for a brief number, he got a laugh by pausing at one little girl and saying: "Oooh, you're pretty - come back and see me in 10 years' time!". The other was that he did a joke I didn't understand, something about going up men's trousers. It got a big laugh, so I knew it involved something I didn't yet know about, and when we got home I actually said to my father that I hadn't understood one of Frankie Howerd's jokes.

"Which one was that?"

"The one about going up men's trousers," I said.

"He never said anything like that," said my father vehemently, presumably rather than have to try to explain it. I didn't persist, though I knew very well that he had said it.

Years later, when I was on the staff of Punch, Frankie Howerd was one of the guests at the weekly Punch lunch. It wasn't unusual for comedians to appear there - I can recall Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan coming along - but I seldom got to talk to them, so I was surprised to find myself actually sitting next to Frankie Howerd. He chatted a lot to me, all about himself, and a depressing lunch it was too, for he talked in the most miserable way possible, all about his psychological troubles, his illnesses, his gloom for the future. I felt like a psychiatrist who had struck gold with his first patient and didn't have a clue what to do about it.

At one point, I tried to cheer him up by telling him I had enjoyed seeing him in pantomime in Liverpool, and then I recalled the joke about going up men's trousers, so I told him about that too, and how my father had said he had never said any such thing. I imagined Frankie would slap himself on the wrist for his naughtiness, but he got quite indignant and said he had never said any such thing. So I found myself in the strange situation of having Frankie Howerd and my father united against me, even though I was convinced both were wrong. Maybe that was why he didn't put a hand on my knee. He sensed my father's disapproval.

But the person I sometimes think of is that little girl whom Frankie Howerd told to see him again in 10 years. I sometimes think it might have the makings of a good dramatic episode. Imagine if she stored away that injunction in her teens. Imagine what would have happened if, 10 years later, now a lovely young woman, she had presented herself to him and said: "You told me to come back in 10 years, and here I am!"

And imagine how she would have felt, not knowing he was gay, when he gave her the instant brush off and ran a mile.

Another of his victims, like me.

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