Notebook: The joker turns thief

BARRY CRYER, it must be said, doesn't look very much like Robert Maxwell. Nevertheless, this is the man who is set to take the role of the sunken Captain for a try-out performance of Maxwell: The Musical next month before an invited audience. Cryer is unperturbed by the dissimilarities: 'I shall be wearing a black wig and a fat suit.' And the voice is rather good.

The would-be large mogul is not building too much on the possibility of the role in a run, but he enjoys performing as much as the script, gag and joke-writing which have been his day job for the last 30 years or so. He is just back from Edinburgh, where he has been giving his one-man show, recording I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Humphrey Lyttelton's well-known antidote to BBC Radio 4 quiz shows, and appearing with his friend and fellow panellist, Willie Rushton, in their acclaimed bit of nonsense, Two Old Farts In The Night.

He has written for Frankie Howerd, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Jack Benny, Les Dawson. When he was being introduced at a dinner recently, they read out these sort of credits and somebody in the audience shouted: 'But they're all dead]' So he likes to stress that he is now working with the likes of Jimmy Mulville, and that Mark Thomas, another feted cabaret comic, is a fan, even if for Cryer and Rushton 'alternative' means that they don't play golf.

Still, he does believe jokes might be on their way back, after a long spell of being comically incorrect. He has spent much of this year taking his one-man show, a mix of joke and anecdote, round the arts centre circuit, to places like Taunton, Frome and Oldham. It is a throwback to his false start as a stand-up comic on the old Number Three circuit, at the Regent, Rotherham and the Royal, Bilston. Have the audiences changed? 'They're kinder to an old man.' Are today's performers better? 'Arthur Askey gave me the best definition. He said every generation was the same: a few brilliant people and a load of crap.'

Barry Cryer doesn't even look very much like Barry Cryer: people continually think he is Barry Took, Barry Humphries, or Bob Cryer, the Labour MP. Cryer, unperturbed, says he regrets that he lost his career as an entertainer to writing, and that he's now at an age - 58 - to frighten himself, 'to be pushed in at the deep end'. When I say this will give me an opportunity to make some laboured joke about Maxwell, he smiles kindly.

(Photograph omitted)