Obituary: Jimmy Jewel

Denis Gifford
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:24

James Arthur Thomas Jewel Marsh (Jimmy Jewel), comedian: born Sheffield 4 December 1912; married Belle Bluett (died 1985; one son, one adopted daughter); died London 3 December 1995.

The producer of television's Heroes of Comedy, John Fisher, in his classic Funny Way to be a Hero (1973), writes of double-acts, "The static combination of gullible, gormless, grotesque and shrewd, pompous know-all reached its zany apotheosis in the late Forties with the act of Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss." Warriss was the straight man in the snappy suit and Jimmy Jewel was the baggy-panted comic. Never reaching the popular heights of Flanagan and Allen, they nevertheless topped the bill for many years before the brighter, younger comedy of couples like Morecambe and Wise came flashing in.

Jewel and Warriss were probably the tail-end of the variety doubles, a trade learnt the hard way from small-town tours through the Thirties. Both came from show-business families. They were cousins, born in 1912, six months apart, in the same bed. Jimmy was the son of a comedian, James Marsh, who changed his name to Jimmy Marsh, and then to Jimmy Jewel. Jewel senior wrote and produced his own touring revues, and designed the sets, built the props and painted the scenery. The cousins did their first double- act for the family at the age of four. They sang "Here comes the Five- Fifteen, hear the whistle blowing".

Jimmy made his professional debut one year later. Dressed up as a little red devil he was shot on to the stage through a trap door, and broke his arm. "My first break in show- business", he quipped.

Educated at boarding schools in Derbyshire and in Penge, south London, Jimmy joined the family troupe, but backstage, helping with the sets and the scenery. It was in the revue Explosions in 1925 at the Hippodrome, Roxburgh, that he turned "pro". Ben Warriss was in the show playing a miner's boy. To prune the expenses, Jewel sacked Ben and gave his part to Jimmy. This led to a backstage fight. Meanwhile Jimmy, now re-christened Marsh Jewel by his father, was tried out as a comedian. "Act daft," he was told, so he did, and after a crash course in clog, tap and soft-shoe dancing, Jimmy had an act to please the patrons.

By 1931 Jimmy Jewel junior was starring in cine-variety, which meant he went on between the B-picture and the Pathe Gazette. He would open with a song, "Annabelle Lee", followed by impressions of Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier, and close with a chorus of "Pit Pat Listen to the Rain".

He next tried his hand at his own show. He formed a co- operative with Willie Lancet, a midget whose act was as a telegraph boy who sang a saucy song called "I Always Take a Long Time Coming". The cast included Jimmy's Uncle Fred, and under the title of We're All In It and Up To Our Necks, it opened in Castleford. Its run was shorter than expected when two detectives arrested Uncle Fred for not paying his maintenance money.

Ben Warriss was by now a well-known solo turn as a blackface singer. He and Jimmy chanced to be booked together for a one-night stand. The bill required two single acts and one double. Money was tight so the cousins agreed to do the lot, whipping up a patter act and receiving 50 shillings between them for the night. The venue was Welwyn Garden City.

In May 1934 the double-act first came together. Jimmy and Ben had been booked separately by Jewel senior for a show at the Palace, Newcastle. Another double-act failed to turn up. It was the boys' big chance. Remembering gags from all the doubles they had seen down the years, Ben opened with the classic straight line, "Ladies and gentlemen, a little monologue entitled 'The Wreck of the Hesperus'." Jimmy came on with a funny run, shouting, "Have you seen a feller with a small bowler hat, tall suit and black shoes?" "No", said Ben. "Blimey!" said Jimmy, "I'm lost again!"

The new act was booked by the Northern impresario John D. Roberton, father of the Carry On comedian Jack Douglas. He paid them pounds 14 a week for his revue, Revels of 1934. Jewel and Warriss were on their way, if not to the top of the bill, at least to Australia. Here, Jimmy met Belle Bluett, the pretty daughter of a show-business family. He fell in love and married her.

Jewel and Warriss finally made their West End debut at the Holborn Empire; top of the bill was Max Miller. They starred in a touring revue and first performed their quarrelling act known as "The Mustard Routine", which their agent had bought from the popular American double-act Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Their first Palladium show, Gangway came in 1942, and their film debut a year later, as Vera Lynn's brothers in the Columbia musical Rhythm Serenade.

During the Second World War they played for the forces through ENSA, and starred with Two Ton Tessie O'Shea in the Blackpool spectacular, The Big Show (1943). A provincial tour in Black Vanities followed, by which time they were earning pounds 200 a week. In 1946 Val Parnell put them into his Palladium show High Time.

Radio now entered the scene; the BBC producer George Innes booked them for a run of 13 weeks in his series Navy Mixture. A series of their own followed. Up the Pole made its debut in October 1947 and ran until 1952. The pair were cast as the cross-talking proprietors of an Arctic trading post, with Claude Dampier as Horace Hotplate, Mayor of the North Pole. Jon Pertwee played Mr Burp the handyman.

Films tried them again in 1949, and the act went to Manchester to star in a film directed by the Northern film-maker John E. Blakeley. Jimmy and Ben played a pair of clumsy soldiers bossed about by their sergeant - the Irish tenor and income tax refugee Josef Locke. The film was to have been called Up the Pole, but the BBC wanted a fee for their title; Blakeley promptly re-christened it What a Carry On! A pity he didn't copyright that.

The act did better in television. Ronnie Waldman, the head of BBC light entertainment, created a spectacular Saturday show around them, written by Ronnie Hanbury. Turn It Up started in September 1951. A second series ran in 1953, entitled Re-Turn It Up.

Their next series was a comedy thriller serial, Double Cross (1956). Their writers were Sid Green and Dick Hills, who later wrote for Morecambe and Wise. Jewel supplied the idea, inspired by the real-life spy affair of Burgess and Maclean. A pretty blonde singer, Jill Day, was the girl in the case, who was so frightened that she fainted during the live transmission. Without a pause, Jewel prompted Warriss into going into their long-lasting Mustard Routine.

Television proved the "third life" for Jimmy Jewel, as recorded in his autobiography, Three Times Lucky (1982). After the team broke up in 1966, Frank Muir, the BBC's Head of Comedy, tried him out in the short play Spanner in the Works (1967). His success in this led to a role in the full-length Lucky For Some. Then came the breakthrough, the part of Eli Pledge, pickle manufacturer, in the Granada series Nearest and Dearest, which began in August 1968. The brilliantly eccentric Hylda Baker co-starred as his sister Nellie, a pairing that came off perfectly on the television screen, but not so off-set. They fell out and only spoke to each other when on camera.

While Warriss soldiered on chairing the occasional old-time music hall, Jewel went from strength to strength. He turned into one of those great variety stars who, like Will Fyffe and George Robey, found new careers in legitimate drama. In Spring and Autumn (1973), he played a widowed father living with a very unwilling son-in-law. Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1975) secured him a permanent place in the theatre.

Jewel's last television series, Funny Man, was based on his own life story and his family's career in the music halls. The most surprising role he played on television was as a cartoonist on the game show Quick on the Draw. His early work as his father's scenic painter was evidently at the root of his unsuspected ability to sketch out impromptu visual gags, proving that everything learnt in life counts - if you live long enough.

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