Obituary: Larry Grayson

Anyhony Hayward
Monday 09 January 1995 01:02

William Sully White (Larry Grayson), entertainer: born Banbury, Oxfordshire 31 August 1923; died Nuneaton, Warwickshire 7 January 1995.

Larry Grayson brought high camp to television in the Seventies with his catchphrases "Shut that door!" and "What a gay day!", and his references to fictional characters such as Everard, Slack Alice and Apricot Lil, delivered with pursed lips and hand-on-hip flouncing. After spending much of his career in variety, Grayson found his greatest fame on television as host of The Generation Game, taking over from Bruce Forsyth and finding new heights of popularity to the game-show that featured relatives of different generations and a host of prizes.

He was born William White, out of wedlock. His mother Ethel travelled for the birth from Nuneaton to Banbury, Oxfordshire, because she was so scared of her family's reaction across the border in Warwickshire. He grew up back there with foster-parent friends of his mother - Jim Hammond, a miner, his wife Alice and their two daughters - and his mother was a regular visitor, as "Aunt" Ethel, but he never met his father, William Sully, a factory foreman. When he was six, his adoptive mother died and he wasbrought up by the younger daughter, "Fan" (Florence).

On leaving school at the age of 14, William took to the stage with The Very Lights concert party, making his debut at the Fife Street Working Men's Club, in Nuneaton, singing a risque song, "In the Bushes at the Bottom of the Garden". Exempted from war service through a weak heart, he entertained the troops and, when peace came, changed his stage name to Billy Breen, toured the West Country in Harry Leslie's revue Tomorrow's Stars (1947) and did a summer season in Redcar with Barry Wood's Radio Tymes. It was during this time that he developed an act as a female impersonator, appearing for one half of the show in a suit and the other half wearing a short frock and a beret, carrying a sling handbag and opening with the line "I've just returned from Portsmouth." In the Fifties, he changed his professional name again, taking the surname of Kathryn Grayson, the Hollywood singing star, and adding the forename Larry, suggested by his agent.

For 30 years, Grayson worked in pubs, clubs, works canteens and summer seasons. He eventually dispensed with the dresses and added stand-up comedy to his act, stepping up the ladder briefly to appear in London at the Metropolitan and the Finsbury Park and Chiswick Empires during the last days of variety. But, by the Sixties, he accepted that fame would probably never come his way and returned to the Midlands, getting work around his native Nuneaton.

His act was based on gossiping about make-believe friends, the delivery inspired by landladies Grayson had met. Everard, whose speciality was dancing the Gay Gordons, was the name Grayson heard a Brighton landlady calling her 11-year-old son. Slack Alice, a coalman's daughter, was more famous for her Black Bottom, and Apricot Lil worked in a jam factory.

In 1969, the theatrical agent Peter Dulay - who later became known to television viewers as host of the revived Candid Camera - persuaded Grayson to do a week's performances at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in London. His music-hall patter went downso well that the show ran for seven weeks and the impresario Paul Raymond cast him in his all-male revue Birds of a Feather, which opened at the Royalty Theatre the following year. "England's Comedy Sensation", as Grayson was billed in the show, won acclaim and was booked for a summer season in Brighton, variety at the London Palladium, a Goldilocks and the Three Bears pantomime with Dora Bryan in Brighton and a cabaret season at Danny La Rue's London club.

Grayson's limp-wristed act proved a hit when he made his 1971 television debut in The Leslie Crowther Show and, a year later, appeared in ITV's Saturday Variety show. The ATV boss Lew Grade saw a star in the making and signed him up to make a string of appearances in the programme, before giving the comic his own, 16-part series, Shut That Door! (1972), a title inspired by the catchphrase that Grayson had first used when he felt a sudden draught while on stage at the Theatre Royal, Brighton , in 1970. In the television series, he invited viewers to "make yourself at home for a gay evening. Pull up a chair and let's unwrap that surprise package, with everyone doing their own thing." In 1972, he also performed in front of the Queen in the Roy al Variety Gala at the London Palladium, in aid of the Olympics Fund, and was named the Variety Club of Great Britain's Showbusiness Personality of the Year. Stardom had finally come his way in middle age.

On stage, Grayson did two summer seasons of Grayson's Scandals, in Margate and Blackpool, before taking the show to the London Palladium in 1974, the year he presented a television special called Larry Grayson's Hour of Stars. The following year, he chauffeured his good friend Noele Gordon and John Bentley in his white Rolls-Royce for the television wedding of Meg Richardson and Hugh Mortimer in Crossroads. He had previously appeared in the serial two years earlier, as a guest checking in at the famous television motel. He also presented two series of The Larry Grayson Show (1975 and 1976-77) on ITV, before switching channels.

When Bruce Forsyth left the BBC in 1978, Grayson took over as host of The Generation Game, which had become a Saturday-night institution, and took the programme to new heights. He and the fresh-faced folk singer Isla St Clair were an even bigger hit thanForsyth and Anthea Redfern, attracting more viewers than Bruce Forsyth's Big Night, screened on ITV opposite Larry Grayson's Generation Game, which ran for four series until 1981, when Grayson decided to stop while still on top.

Unfortunately, his next game show, Sweethearts (1987) - revolving around whether couples were telling the truth about their romances - was a flop and proved to be Grayson's last series, apart from captaining one of the teams in the A Question of Entertainment quiz (1988). His other television work included topping the bill three times in the BBC music-hall series The Good Old Days (1984, 1986 and 1991). His last appearance on television, seen as marking a possible comeback, was in the Royal Variety Performance in front of the Prince of Wales at the Dominion Theatre last November.

Anthony Hayward

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