Following in a film star's footsteps is not an easy task, even for what today passes for a professional lookalike. But when that star was an old Irish washerwoman in bonnet, shawl and button-boots on the outside, and a man who never showed his private face to the public on the inside, then the substitute performer is a rare one indeed. Such a man was Roy Rolland.
For the younger generation who never saw the famous comedian Arthur Lucan as the original Old Mother Riley, except perhaps in a foggy film re-run on early Channel 4, but instead grew up with Yorkshire Television's Junior Showtime in the Seventies, the other Old Mother Riley will be an hilarious memory, even if they never knew she was really a man called Rolland.
Rolland was born in 1921 in Oldham, Lancashire, and thus, like his Mrs Riley predecessor, was never Irish: Lucan was born Arthur Towle in Boston, Lincolnshire. Despite being 34 years younger than Lucan, when Rolland was in his Riley make-up, white wig with a bun and a big bump on the end of his nose, the two comedians could have done a perfect twin sister act. Of course, Rolland had a master of make-up to show him how, for he had spent some valuable apprentice time both on stage and in film studio as Lucan's stand-in, doubled for some active scenes, and gone on stage for his guv'nor when Lucan's liquor consumption rose to an excess, an occurrence ever more frequent in Lucan's later life.
The teenage Rolland, always in love with show business, started as a lowly cast member of concert parties and seaside summer shows around the North of England. Never making much of a name for himself, it was not until he happened by chance to meet Lucan around 1950 that he got his big break.
In 1952 Lucan made his final film, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, a horror comic starring Bela Lugosi, the original screen Dracula who was touring England at the time. This was Lucan's only film without his lifetime co-star, Kitty McShane, who had grown too old and overweight to play Ma Riley's daughter. Dora Bryan was cast instead, and Rolland was Lucan's stand-in.
The Lucan and McShane team finally split assunder with Kitty retiring into drunken management and Lucan into drunken performance. On the evening of 17 May 1954, at the Tivoli Theatre, Hull, as the chorus girls cried "Here comes Old Mother Riley!" Lucan dropped dead in the wings. The understudy Frank Seton took over, and McShane soon sent for Rolland.
For a while Rolland topped the touring bills as both Old Mother Riley and Old Mother Kelly, a name-change that seems to have happened after some contretemps with McShane. She died in 1964, after which Rolland moved to Rhyl. Here at the Gaity Theatre he starred in locally popular revues with a pantomime every Christmas. Naturally he played the dame, who naturally was called Old Mother Riley, but now and then he made a change by portraying a fashionably-frocked Old Mother Goose.
In 1974, Jess Yates, then in charge of children's programmes at Yorkshire Television, was producing a weekly variety show called Junior Showtime. Bobby Bennett, a clever young impressionist (his Hughie Green was especially brilliant), played the host, and tiny Bonnie Langford was his smart little stooge. Inspired perhaps by seeing Rolland at Rhyl, Yates popped him into a regular sketch in the heart of the show. Old Mother Riley, music-hall queen of the Thirties, film star of the Forties, was back in action, a telly star of the Seventies.
Riley entered from her cottage in Paradise Row, waved farewell to Ivy Ginochie, her neighbour, and sang "I'll Be Your Long Dead Liver From Loverpool" as she made out her shopping list: "Half of best end of duck and three quarters of silverside of goose!"
I was the script-writer, drawing on my many memories of the original. But there was one major difference between Lucan and Rolland, despite the arms that wagged like railway signals and funny flat feet. Rolland was completely unable to manage the proper Riley gabble-talk, much of which I still recall from Lucan's 1942 radio series. "Good evening, Mr and Mrs Wavelength, long, short and medium, Home and Forces and the cat's- whisker. It's me, I'm here and I'm taking the air!"
After the Jess Yates scandals and the disappearance of Junior Show Time, Rolland found himself a guest star in Danny La Rue's Summer Show at the Blackpool Opera House. Here the two masters of drag played Mother Riley and her daughter Kitty in the remarkable recreation of the first great Lucan and McShane sketch from the 1930s. "Bridget's Night Out" began with Riley lamenting the lateness of Kitty's homecoming. The clock strikes three: "One o'clock three times!" The finale is a melee of smashed crockery as a huge dresser full of plates and dishes is reduced to rubble. It was the last laugh of British music-hall and of Rolland.
Roy Rolland, comedian: born Oldham, Lancashire 29 June 1921; died Rhyl, Clwyd 16 August 1997.
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