Excerpt for Funny Bones - My Life in Comedy by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Funny Bones

My Life in Comedy.

Freddie Davies

Funny Bones – My Life in Comedy

Freddie Davies

Copyright Freddie Davies, Anthony Teague 2014

Published by Scratching Shed Publishing at Smashwords

ISBN: 978-0992703684

For my darling Vanessa, my son Kent, daughter-in-law Nikki, and my grandchildren Ella and Farren.


About the co-author

Anthony Teague has written for television and the stage. His plays include Hello Pizza, at Soho Theatre, and Guards, at the Etcetera Theatre. This is his first book.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to The Stage Archive and Colindale Newspaper Library.


Table of Contents

Foreword – by Ken Dodd OBE

Prologue

1: Early Days

2: Watching and Learning

3: Mother

4: Excused Boots

5: A Brief Undertaking

6: It Started in Skeggy

7: Surviving in the Clubs

8: Marriage, The Metropole and Minehead

9: Tweeting

10: Opportunity Knocks

11: The Big Time

12: Panto Star

13: Ups and Downs in the ‘Seventies

14: More Pantos – And a Change of Direction

15: The Other Side

16: Freddie Davies Productions

17: A Webb of Lies

18: Not a Delfont, Exactly

19: The Regency Period

20: Red Light Time

21: Funny Bones

22: …And After

23: Last Orders

24: Up in the World

25: Over the Border

26: Quaint Songs and Queer Dances

Epilogue



First ever broadcast - 8th February, 1964


Foreword

By Ken Dodd, OBE

A FAMOUS name – Freddie Davies. That is probably why you picked up this book.

You are picturing a sun-tanned, athletic Adonis. He’s nothing like that – he’s a funny man, a comical chap, unique, a one-off, a multi-tasking entertainer.

Have you ever hit your elbow in just the right spot and felt a tingling or prickly sensation? That’s your funny bone. Every comedian needs a highly developed funny bone.

It also helps to have a humorous physio, physinog – fissiog – a funny face! Freddie ticks all the boxes – a well developed, honed over the years, funny bone and he has the perfect face for comedy and radio.

A performer to his fingertips, nothing beats standing up on stage in front of a live audience. Who can forget him bursting on to our TV screens sporting his trademark homburg hat pulled down over his ears and intoning his catchphrase – ‘I’m thick, thick, thick up to here!’ And of course his feathered friends, the ‘boojies’ – Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies became a shining star.

But this wasn’t an overnight success. Freddie served his time on the working men’s club treadmill. Dressing rooms with a star plastered on the door to hide the word ‘Gentlemen.’ Grim conditions that were eased by a saucer of Trill, a piece of cuttlefish and a mirror and a bell to keep him amused.

Funny Bones is about the making of a comic, explaining how Freddie's love for theatre and comedy grew – the cheers and tears on the journey to much deserved fame.

As an added bonus, it’s also the story of his grandad, the comedian Jack Herbert, who let the young lad watch his act from the wings at theatres like the Salford Hippodrome.

Freddie has many talents: comedian, centrefold model for the ‘Bird Fanciers’ Gazette’, actor, film star, singer, producer and now author. How can one man be so energetic and have so many jobs and yet enjoy every one? And of course Mr Davies is also a pioneer in the field of social networking, being the first person in the persona of Samuel Tweet to begin tweeting!

What you get in this book is the full story, from soup to nuts (he’s big in Brazil) and it’s an indispensable memoir of different showbiz worlds from someone who has been there, done that, and got the T(weet) Shirt.

But what makes this autobiography such a good read is that he’s never afraid to share the lows as well as the highs of his subsequent careers. An invaluable record of the world of showbiz from someone who was there, who saw it all and is still here – a COMEDY SUPERSTAR!

Ken Dodd, May 2014


Prologue

YOU’VE definitely had a heart attack, Mr Davies.’

It sounds odd, I know, but the doctor’s words were reassuring. I’d been in a kind of limbo ever since the strange sensation had passed, not knowing what to make of what had just happened.

A few hours earlier I had been watching my neighbour, John, merrily ploughing away at my lawn when an overwhelming feeling of losing all power had travelled from my head down through my shoulders, leaving me helpless as I slumped on a garden chair. Weakly apologising for leaving him to it, I fumbled in my pocket and managed to get out the angina spray that my GP had given me that day. I squirted it under my tongue as instructed, but it wasn’t long before I passed out.

I’d gone to my doctor because of a tightening in my chest; he’d given me an ECG, which had been clear, but now the hospital doctor was explaining that they’d done a blood test which confirmed that it had indeed been a heart attack. I felt pleased for a moment, glad the mystery had been solved, before it hit me: a heart attack?

‘But you’re alright,’ she continued, looking straight at me, ‘you’re not going to die, we’re going to sort you out. You’re in the right place.’

I KNOW your life is meant to flash before you when you’re facing death. I can’t say it did in my case – but then I’d already had a bit of a head start that summer. I’d been on a variety tour, reprising Samuel Tweet, my lisping ‘Parrotface’ character, almost fifty years on from his first appearance on Opportunity Knocks. The moment I pulled the familiar homburg back down over my – now whitened – locks, the memories had come flooding back: not just of my years at the top but the long struggle to get there, and the small matter of what happened in the decades after fame ebbed away.

One way or another I have managed to survive in this business – thank God – even if I’ve had to reinvent myself a few times along the way. And that, if anything, is the theme of this book: survival. It applies to my life as well as my variegated career, if this recent health scare is anything to go by: whatever the odds, it seems that Samuel will live to splutter another day.

But what made me, and that strange alter ego which I’ve never quite been able to shake off? A bit like the hospital, you could say I was in the right place at the right time: a Northern comic in the early ‘sixties when everything in the North was fashionable, from the Beatles to Uncle Tom Courtenay and all.

The opportunity which came knocking via the original TV talent show was peculiarly well timed, too: I’d already undergone a baptism of fire in the working men’s clubs of the North East and a hefty dose of desperation had forced Samuel Tweet into being only a few months earlier.

But the origins of Tweet, and the urge to perform which has never left me, go back a lot further than that. Back, in fact, to the man whose sparkling example first made it all seem possible.


Jack Herbert


1: Early Days

MY life in comedy began with Jack. He was my grandad and I idolised him. Other kids at school talked of becoming bus drivers or train drivers, but from just about as far back as I can remember I knew there was only one thing I wanted to be: a comedian, a funnyman, like Jack Herbert.

Jack was known throughout the business as a very good front cloth comic – a stand-up, as we’d say today. His career spanned the entire variety era, from its glory days to the tatty nude shows which helped kill off the family audience. In the ‘fifties he even played a few of the clubs springing up around Manchester which were to provide a tough new training ground for my generation.

And Jack was there, one day in 1947, when I was hoisted onto a chair in the back room of the Crooked Billet, near Slough, to tell jokes in public for the first time.

It was my cousin Pauline’s pub, so I can only assume that the regulars were happy to indulge a cheeky, precocious ten year old. Evidently they hadn’t seen Jack on stage, because I did his entire act – which may be a unique example of one comic beaming his encouragement as another steals his livelihood.

That’s where it all started for me. Afterwards they passed the hat round and I felt like a comic from that moment on. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, how I was going to get there; that was all to come out later. But my path was set – as far as I was concerned, anyway.

I SAY that Jack was my grandad, and I thought of him that way, though he was actually a later partner of my grandmother, Ruth Beaumont. I was born into a showbiz family as Gran had been a soubrette, which seems a very old-fashioned word now – a comedienne and singer, basically – and my mother Joan had been a dancer in touring revues. She was twenty when I was born, on the 21st of July, 1937, in a terraced house in Brixton, London, which later received a direct hit in the blitz. I always believed my father had died in the war; it wasn’t till many years later that I was to learn differently.

In 1940, like most children from the big cities, and London in particular, I was evacuated, first to Seend in Wiltshire and then to Babbacombe near Torquay, Devon. My great grandmother, Ruth Orr, looked after us while my mother Joan worked; by this time I had a baby brother, Michael, two years younger.

It was in Babbacombe that a tragic accident occured which overshadowed the rest of my mother’s life. Michael sadly died, aged two. He drowned in a garden pond. The war effort had taken all the iron it could find for munitions, and park and street railings which would normally have been round private gardens had been requisitioned; Michael had simply climbed over a park bench and, without too much effort, crawled into a private garden with a pond.

I remember, even at four years of age, my mother’s screams in the police car. Bless her, she suffered for the rest of her short life, and after three further offspring she died, sadly, a very depressed woman aged just fifty-four.

After the tragedy of my brother’s drowning my mother said she just had to go: ‘I can’t stay here anymore.’ So my great grandmother took us to Salford, Greater Manchester.

It wasn’t the safest of places to relocate: Metropolitan-Vickers were manufacturing Lancaster Bombers in nearby Trafford Park and at the end of the previous year Salford had been blitzed over two nights, with hundreds of lives lost. But it was a matter of necessity.

We were accommodated in a two room flat in a dilapidated old mansion house at 9 Leaf Square, Pendleton, in a line of fine Georgian houses, by then semi-derelict. Great Grandmother Ruth came from Salford and her brother Sam was the park keeper in Peel Park; they had kindly arranged the flat for us to live in and it was to be my home until my National Service in 1956.

No. 9 Leaf Square had ten imposing steps leading up to the front door. Inside there was a large hallway – very Upstairs Downstairs – with two former reception rooms to the left which had been partitioned into two rooms each and let as self-contained flats. The ground floor front flat was occupied by Great Grandmother’s brother Sam and his harridan of a wife, Maggie. Auntie Maggie did not see eye to eye with my mother and, being a strict teetotaller, resented the fact that my mum went to the pub and even dared to enjoy herself on the odd occasion. I recall her having some kind of barney with my mother then yelling up the stairs, determined to have the last word: ‘Aye, but we don’t sup ale!’

This dreadful flat cost the princely sum of ten bob (50p) a week. We had just two rooms and a shared kitchen and toilet on the first floor back. Up another flight of stairs lived the Ruddys, Tommy and Betty; Betty Ruddy gave birth to two children in their tiny, partitioned-off flat. Another room was occupied by a man who worked for Metropolitan-Vickers. We all of us shared that same toilet.

Our living room had a big iron double bed, two old armchairs and an old fashioned grate which provided the only heat in the flat. My mother and Great Gran slept in the big iron bed and I had the back bedroom. When Gran and Jack came to stay we would all have to sleep head to toe. Mother was a very smart woman in her younger days and easily obtained a job at British Home Stores on Regent Road in Salford, so we were able to pay the rent – just.

I was ashamed of the flat and never invited any of my friends round. It was just too shabby, I felt, even though most families just after the war were in a state of shock, with men not returning from battle, and many kids who went to John Street School probably lived in worse surroundings than us. A friend from that time remembers me as always being smartly turned out, always trying to better myself; maybe it was because this was something I had some control over, unlike where I lived.

My mother called herself Mrs Davies, though this was in fact her maiden name. Before Jack came on the scene, Gran had apparently married a Dutchman called Devus then anglicised the name because it sounded too much like ‘Devious’.

The absence of a husband did not excite much curiosity in those days, however, as lots of kids didn’t have dads because of the war. As I’d never had a dad around and didn’t know what it was like to have one, I couldn’t say I was aware that it mattered to me. But it probably explains the importance of Jack in my life: even though he wasn’t my blood grandfather I always felt a very close bond with him, particularly a comedy bond.

I would walk to school every day, which would take about ten minutes. This involved my crossing the road, a source of considerable anxiety to my mother after what had happened to my little brother, Michael. We lived quite close to a very big main road, the A6. There were no traffic lights in those days, so you would ask someone to help you – ‘Would you show me across the road, please?’ – and an adult would take you over. There were tramlines in the middle and it was huge – the actual street was called Broad Street and it really was a broad street. Mother was totally neurotic about that.

As I grew a little older I became aware that Broad Street also seemed to mark a class divide. On the right of this very wide road facing north was a more genteel kind of living: the occupants of these houses were better off, their children were dressed better and went to the grammar school, while the other side of the street had many slum dwellings. Leaf Square was situated on the genteel side of the street, although I had a guilty sense of being an imposter when I thought of our home’s secret shabbiness inside. But it must be said that I had many chums from the poorer side who always welcomed me into their homes, even though I did not feel able to invite them to mine.

I made a conscious effort to join the cubs at the Pendleton Congregational Church – which was on the right hand side of Broad Street – because they put on an annual pantomime. The natural progression was to go to Sunday School, which is what I did, though I don’t recall feeling particularly religious about it.

The house at 9 Leaf Square was owned by a man called Hepworth who also owned number 7, next door. He had a wholesale confectionery business and kept hundreds and thousands of wonderful sweets and toffees on the premises. I would often steal the odd box of Mars bars from his van as he was loading up and hide them in the cellar of our house. Unfortunately this was damp and a haven for mice so when I eventually sneaked down to gorge myself on the chocolate it was usually well nibbled.

When darkness fell the sirens would go and we could hear the bombs dropping on Manchester. London got the biggest hits but the North West also suffered and Liverpool saw its fair share. We would stand on the top doorstep at number 9 Leaf Square to see the sky ablaze, in particular when a doodle bug made a direct hit on Salford Docks, three quarters of a mile away.

It all seemed like a big adventure to us and we were without fear, invincible – or so it seemed to me at the time. Now I can only guess at what my mother was feeling. But I suppose that, for her, the worst had already happened.


2: Watching and Learning

THERE was one positive benefit to living in Leaf Square. It was just around the corner from the Salford Hippodrome and, as soon as we moved, I would be taken there regularly, or we’d go to visit Jack and Gran somewhere and watch them and the other acts from the wings. I remember they always had to ask the stage manager whether I could stand there because it was in his way really, but usually it was okay.

From this privileged position I saw the various permutations of Jack’s act – Jack on his own, Jack Herbert and Partner (Grandma Ruth), Herbert and Hatton (Jack’s brother Cyril) – many times over the years, along with many other acts.

Jack had funny bones. He looked comedic for a start, with a big, lugubrious face that moved a lot, of the Les Dawson type – though with apologies to Les, I must point out that he was known as Handsome Jack. He had an entirely different persona on the stage: when he went on he was no longer my grandad and simply became this … well, funny man. He’d put a little bit of red on his mouth and eyes and it looked as if he was a loveable uncle as he walked on: ‘Mr Herbert has a style which ensures a friendly feeling,’ as one review put it, and the word ‘joyous’ was used more than once over the years to describe his act.

He was quite tall and fairly well built: a gentle giant, to my young eyes. That’s what worked so well in the double with Ruth, who seemed dwarfed by comparison, but with a feistiness in her stage persona which more than compensated.

He’d come on, and she’d say: ‘Where’ve you been?’

And he’d say: ‘I’ve been to the Post Office to collect a wire.’

‘You mean a telegram.’

‘No,’ he’d say, ‘a wire.’

Getting riled, she’d say: ‘A wire’s a telegram and a telegram’s a wire!’

To which he would ill-advisedly reply: ‘Well, what’s a postcard – a parcel?’ And she’d hit him with a rolled-up newspaper.

He’d make to strangle her, holding out his hands and saying: ‘Put your head in there!’ so she’d hit him again with the paper, making a huge loud crack which he’d react to, saying: ‘Do you mind? Take the iron bar out of it!’

A young actor called Peter Chelsom heard me describing Jack’s act one night in the bar in Ipswich and, twenty years later, the paper slap routine was revived for his film Funny Bones. It’s extremely effective in the film, which I’ll discuss in more detail later, but as so little of Jack has survived it’s ironic that one of his funniest bits of business has been immortalised for its dramatic, rather than comedic, effect.

Ruth was a bit older than Jack, and when she retired in the late ‘forties he carried on doing the single act. The single act was different from the double, though they were both quite silly – it was differently silly, let’s put it that way. He wore a little trilby, he’d have the red in, as I said, and he’d come on to the strains of Faraway in Honolu-lu-lu, which he’d sing at the end of the act.

It’s difficult to describe his delivery. He wasn’t like anyone else. No Max Miller-type attack: very gentle, very understated, but he wasn’t slow, and he definitely wasn’t playing a gormless character. He was, to use that word again, silly.

But despite the zaniness, he was essentially an Everyman, one of his audience, and he spoke and sang of their concerns. He transformed the well-known slushy ballad We Make Mistakes (‘and feel sorry ...’) into a lament for ill-luck with the football pools (‘We make mistakes every Saturday …’).

His closing gag was the one about the feller ringing the hospital and saying: ‘How’s my wife doing? She’s pregnant.’ And they said, ‘Well nothing’s happened yet, ring us back in ten minutes.’

So he rang back in ten minutes and they said, ‘Oh, you’re the father of a bouncing baby boy’ – he said, ‘Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous!’ – they said, ‘Ring us back again in half an hour.’

So he rang back in half an hour and said, ‘Any news?’ They said, ‘Yes, you’re the father of a bouncing baby girl.’ He said, ‘That’s two.’ ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘ring us back in half an hour.’ ‘Good God,’ he said.

So he rang back in half an hour and the voice said, ‘You’re the father of another baby girl.’ He said, ‘That’s three.’ They said, ‘Ring us back in half an hour.’

He went in the pub and got absolutely ... leathered. He dialled the wrong number and somebody at Lord’s Cricket Ground answered. And he said, ‘How are they doing?’ And they said, ‘They’re all out now and the last two were ducks.’

And then it would be into Faraway in Honolu-lu-lu, which may have been another parody:

Faraway in Honolu - lu – lu,

Lives a girl called Ragtime Cowboy Joe

Her father was an Irishman and his name was Hung Fu,

Her brother was a dirty dog and so they hung him too,

In Honolu! (dundundun, dun dun dun)

In Honolu! (dundundun, dun dun dun)

She’s not a real Hawaiian as you might think

She’s a cross between a whippet and a Chink,

But I know that she, awaits for me,

Beneath the pickled onion tree,

If I could ride a bike that’s where I’d be...

Where some of them are thin, some of them are fat –

That was their mother’s fault, they can’t help that!

Oh, that’s a place you really ought to go –

The girls out there, dress rather bare,

And oh, the dances they do!

They will sing their songs so gaily,

Dressed in nothing else but a ukulele,

Faraway in Hono –

exiting...

Faraway in Hono –

Faraway in Hono – luuu!!!

WHEN Jack and Ruth toured they would often visit and I would be allowed backstage at the various theatres they were playing in the area: Queens Park Hippodrome, Accrington Palace, the Palace, Preston, Leeds City Varieties, the Palace, Hull and Hulme Hippodrome (Manchester) to name but a few.

Shows were classified during this period as either Number 1, Number 2 or Number 3 circuits, the Number 3s being somewhat down the scale. The Number 1 shows usually played the Moss Empire or Howard and Wyndham circuits which were allegedly a cut above the rest of them.

THE connection with Jack gave me privileged status at my ‘local.’ Salford Hippodrome was part of the Broadhead theatre circuit (Number 2-3) and Percy Broadhead, a rotund, rosy-cheeked gent with a Santa beard and smiley face, knowing I was related to Jack, allowed me a complimentary ticket first house on Monday, every week. If he spotted me he would even treat me to an ice cream in the interval, so I made sure he did.

The touring revue shows in those days were just a delight to my young eyes, even though some of them were crappy nude shows. These are now associated with the end of variety in the ‘fifties but they were already around in the mid-’forties. The famed Windmill in Soho didn’t have a monopoly on naked ladies at that time, although that was purely a titillation place, with comics in between. The shows I saw were proper variety shows, or what was laughingly called a revue.

Jack alternated between touring revues and variety throughout his career, so before we go any further maybe I should try to explain the difference between the two forms, though the short answer is: not all that much, really.

A revue had variety artists who would do things to make it more of a show. Essentially, it was like a posh concert party: they would do sketches together, an opening number, and then the close of the first half would probably be a musical routine with the company. So it was more of a running, produced show, and all the words, the songs, everything that was going to be done, had to be presented to the Lord Chamberlain. Acts would then be inserted into that format, like a speciality act and a comic. The principal comedian might do his solo act as part of it, but if he did his double then the feed would also be in the musical routine and they would do a comedy sketch together in the second half.

There were lots of producers around like Hindin, Richards and Hicks, who put on touring revues. Lots of comics used to put their own shows together too, like Terry ‘Toby Jug’ Cantor, who would do a family revue show with his wife and his son Kenny, who did a little tumbling act, or a juggling act; it would go round and they would be paid for the revue as opposed to being paid for single acts.

Revues could be more lucrative for the producer, though not necessarily for the act, who in effect was working harder than on a normal variety bill. Jack would have to do the double or the single – the ‘act as known’ – as well as appearing in the sketches.

The term ‘revue’ may now suggest something sophisticated, but that was only really true of the West End shows; the Number 2 revues in which Jack made his name were really no different in tone from standard variety bills.

I saw the aforementioned Terry ‘Toby Jug’ Cantor around that time, as well as Cyril Dowler and several of the shows put on by Hindin, Richards and Hicks. Before the grip of television in the early ‘fifties, cinema was very popular, but the variety halls were holding their own – so to speak. Nude ladies standing still in a sort of tableau were the norm and Jane, the popular cartoon character from the Daily Mirror, also toured. She was no drawing but, allegedly, the actual model for the cartoon, a blowsy, big-busted blonde who would take a bath on stage and show absolutely ... nothing.

Not that I was interested, as I was far too young to appreciate any sexual connotations and thought it all quite boring – well you would, wouldn’t you? I was a seven-year-old child at the time. I believe I have made up for my naivety since.

GRANDMA Ruth and Jack lived at 17 Pratt Street, Camden Town. I remember the address because in 1947, when I was ten years old, I stayed there for one never-to-be-forgotten month’s holiday when they took me to see all the variety shows in and around London. This was when I made my first public appearance at the Crooked Billet in Slough, but there are two other events which stick in my mind from that time.

Jack knew everyone in the business and I remember being taken by him to Sid Field’s dressing room at the Prince of Wales. My hero Danny Kaye, a great admirer of Sid’s, was there too, and I got his autograph.

The occasion was also memorable for another reason, because Sid gave me half a crown – a tidy sum for a kid in those days – and at the same time I saw Jack being given what I now believe to have been a bung, in the form of notes in an envelope. Sid Field had been Jack’s feed in the late ‘twenties in various Clara Coverdale revues and it was known in the business that Sid later pinched Jack’s mannerisms for his own act, such as an affected little cough which Jack used to accompany with a shaking of the leg and the sound of sleigh bells from the pit.

Later, when I was better able to understand this, I didn’t get any sense that Jack felt what Sid had done was wrong. I think he may have been struggling then, coming to the end of his career by the late ‘forties. Eight years his junior, Sid’s star was undoubtedly in the ascendant, appearing as he was in his third West End show.

Nevertheless, I’m certain I saw money being passed on. I know I was only ten years of age, but it stuck in my mind: I got half a crown from Sid but Jack got notes.

Not that I was too worried about what this meant: a loan, maybe, or Sid owed him the money. I might even have thought that it was a gift, like the hot half crown pressed into my hand – I mean, I didn’t know that adults gave money to each other like they did to kids, but if they did it made sense that the sums would be scaled up a bit. If I thought much about it at the time it would have been along those lines; looking back now, however, the clear implication is that Sid was paying for what he took.

Whether it was an unspoken thing, I don’t know. I can’t say whether Jack was business-minded enough to have made it a formal transaction, but I certainly think that if Sid did bung him, it wouldn’t have been entirely innocent, as though this was just another handout for an old pal: he would have known what he was bunging him for, whether or not that would have been openly articulated between them.

I never got the impression, incidentally, that Jack was a huge admirer of Sid’s act. Nor was there any particular sense of shared delight in the fact that a comic from the North had hit the big time in a legitimate West End theatre. The only sense I got was that they were in the same business, and whatever happened between them was right and proper.

Readers unfamiliar with the name of Sid Field may wonder why I am labouring this point. The answer is that although his name has slipped into obscurity, those who were influenced by him, such as Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd, have not, and I’d like my grandad’s role in his success to be acknowledged.

As to why Jack himself never made the big time, that is a tale to be untangled later.

My final memory of that month in London is, technically speaking, a non-event. I mention it here because it continued to puzzle me over the next six decades, and I only discovered the answer to the mystery recently.

At the Casino (now the Prince Edward Theatre), American vocal group the Ink Spots had been flown over for a Bernard Delfont show; he was putting on variety shows in opposition to his brothers, Lew and Leslie Grade, at the Palladium. The group were absolutely huge in those days: one newspaper reported that their opening night at the Casino caused ‘one of the biggest traffic jams the city has experienced since pre-war.’

I kept badgering Gran to take me and she eventually relented. We went to see the Wednesday night first house show and the Ink Spots, it seems, had been sent home – it was never publicised as to why. Standing in were – no, not the equally trendy Mills Brothers, but comedy duo Jewel and Warriss, without so much as a ‘bomdey do dey’ between them. I was bitterly disappointed. And puzzled.

Flash forward to 1983 while I was in Las Vegas on holiday: I noticed the Ink Spots were on a bill with Matt Monro and Johnnie Ray at the (now flattened) Sands Hotel. Only one of the original ‘Spots’ was still in the group and I asked him in the bar one night what had happened in 1947. He looked at me as if I was stupid and said, ‘I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, never mind 1947!’

Which I thought was the end of that, until I recently learnt the group had a disagreement with Delfont, who informed them that he expected them to commute between the Casino and the Lewisham Hippodrome, giving extra performances each night for no extra money. The differences were eventually resolved, but it seems to have been my bad luck to have been there on one of the nights when they refused to perform until an agreement had been reached.

So there we are. Not quite as funny as the Vegas tag, I admit, but never mind.

IT may be a little too neat to say that my experience at the Crooked Billet was the catalyst – I always was a cheeky little sod and had been telling jokes at home for some time before that – but that first appearance before an audience undoubtedly reinforced my sense that I was destined to become a comic, and after I returned to Salford I began actively looking around for ways to achieve that goal.

In my teens I became a regular in all the school plays and Sunday School pantomimes which were a big feature at the Pendleton Congregational Church Hall, just a quarter of a mile from Leaf Square. This was where I first appeared in amateur pantomime; as mentioned earlier, I had joined the cubs specifically to give me an ‘in.’ The producer was Jack Magnall, who became my very first mentor. A stalwart of the Congregational Church, Jack was a police sergeant and a very well respected Dixon of Dock Green type of copper. I am still in contact with his son John, who was a friend then; we have met up over the years for reunions with other Sunday School members from those postwar days.

The pantomimes would usually run for five nights and I would normally play a comedy part. I can still recall my very first joke. I was playing the part of a gnome and had to walk across the stage carrying a prop door. The King stopped me and asked me where I was going with the door, to which I replied: ‘I have lost the key.’ When the King asked what would happen if I lost the door I said: ‘I would climb in through the window.’

Meanwhile, I was also visiting as many theatres as I could, travelling by bus and tram to the posher Manchester theatres: the Ardwick Hippodrome in south Manchester, the Regent, Salford and the Grand Theatre, Bolton. Hulme Hippodrome, Moss Side, later BBC North’s main light entertainment studio, home of programmes like The Clitheroe Kid and The Al Read Show, was where I made my first radio broadcast some twenty years later.

I would invariably travel on my own as I was a bit of a loner, I suppose. Not many of the kids I knocked around with really understood about me going on the stage. That wasn’t a job, as far as they were concerned, it was just people acting daft, whereas their ambitions lay in going down the pit or getting an apprenticeship in some trade or other and following in their fathers’ footsteps.

I wanted to explain that I was doing the same thing: following in my family’s footsteps by going on the stage. I knew, technically, that Jack wasn’t my blood grandfather, but the connection was as strong as if he were and as I’ve said, my mother and grandmother had been in the business.

Coming from a theatre-based household, I think I was looked on as a bit odd at school. Kids called me Danny – from Danny Kaye, the big star in the ‘forties, although it wasn’t done unkindly. In fact for some time I was actually known as Danny, but nobody believed me when I said I’d met the great man in 1947, and I learnt that was not a thing to boast about; you’d get beaten up if you said that.

So there was no point in bragging about the fact that I’d been to London with my grandparents and taken around all the theatres, because as far as other kids were concerned that was fantasy land: I would have been lying. I learnt to keep quiet about that kind of thing and to live an odd, contradictory existence with loyalties on both sides of that very broad street.

I saw some wonderful comedy acts on my travels: Jimmy James and Co, with the lion in the box routine; Jimmy Gay (who wasn’t) did a self-deprecating routine about the fact that the theatre was half empty: ‘It was so quiet last night that they shot a stag in the gallery.’ Anticipating a more recent trend for people putting powder up their noses, he also did a very funny snuff routine at a time when many had this curious habit. He would take the snuff in various ways, spreading it up his arm and sniffing it away, until finally he would blow up a balloon, put a pinch of the snuff in the top and release the air which would blow the snuff up his nose. A very funny man.

I would usually have to sit in the gallery, or ‘the gods’, as it was called, as the cost of going to these shows was prohibitive. Somehow, however, I managed to pay my way – and it was usually half price for children, so that helped.

I also went to see all the latest films at my local cinemas: the Scala behind Pendleton Church, the Ambassador on Langworthy Road and the luxurious, recently-built Carlton in Cross Lane. Our local fleapit was the Central, or ‘the Cent’ as we called it, in Gardner Street; I remember once pretending to trip over so I could say my 6d admission had slipped out of my hand and fallen between the floor boards. They let me in, but when they went down to the cellar to check and didn’t find the sixpence, they came in and threw me out.

Across the road from the Carlton was the Regent Theatre, where I saw Frank Randle in pantomime. He would take his teeth out and belch over the audience: ‘Ee by gum!’ He was an alcoholic but a very funny man in his day. He made several films at the Mancunian Studios, although they only gave a hint of his stage presence.

Other great comedians around this time included Freddie Frinton, a great drunk act though a teetotaller himself, whose famous Dinner for One sketch has been a New Year’s Eve ritual on German TV for the last fifty years.

But it was another sort of act which gave me my first professional engagement – if you discount that whipround at the Crooked Billet in Slough.

Professor Sparks’s Washing the Electric Baby was another of those eccentric comedy acts touring in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. A family act with wife and son, the setting consisted of a prop lighting board approximately twelve feet square, with flashing bulbs and large electrical cables attached. The cod ‘professor’, with long hair, tatty tailcoat and a pseudo-German accent, would open the act with a couple of ‘electrical’ feats, such as lighting a bulb in his teeth while holding one end of the cable. He would then invite volunteers from the audience to join him on stage – though actually these were his stooges: his son and two others picked up locally each week.

A pal and I became stooges together, sitting in the audience near the front at every show until he called out for ‘volunteers’. His son played a goofy character who would do a stage trip up the steps from the side stalls to the stage then generally cause mayhem. What my pal and I had to do was ‘wash the electric baby’ – a porcelain doll with one of the heavy cables coming from its arse connected to the ‘current.’ The joke was that when you attempted to wash the baby it would appear as if you were getting an electric shock and wash all the wrong bits, making the doll jump up and down.

For this, my first paid job at the age of thirteen, I received the princely sum of ten bob (50p) for the week. My pal and I had thought we’d be making fortunes – well, a fiver at least.

The experience, however, was to prove priceless. I didn’t realise it at the time but when I was watching acts like these I was actually taking everything in and learning. When Professor Sparks’s son fell up the stairs and things, subconsciously that taught me how to do it.

And in later years when I would be asked to do something a little bit different in a show – ‘Can you go on and do this bit of business?’ or ‘Can you go on and do this number with these three guys?’ or whatever, it didn’t seem to me to be difficult. Everything I’d seen was all in the back of my mind. I immediately knew how to do it, I didn’t have to think about it: it was ingrained, in my muscles, because I went every week to see these shows. And seeing Jack perform so many times meant that I’d learnt his act (ahem) parrot fashion, as kids can do, so it was second nature to me.

I also learnt from Jack and other performers about timing and what not to do. A comedian will usually have his act set out with a big finish that he knows will leave an impression, ad-libs permitting. But there was an odd discipline when I worked on the stage, particularly when I first started. As there were two houses a night, strict timing was enforced – and from a comic’s point of view it is always very difficult to time your act to exactly ten or fifteen minutes because audiences change with each show: Saturday second house was always better than first house Wednesday, for example, so it was easy to put on two minutes with pure length of laughs. Managements were totally obsessed with timings - particularly Moss Empires - and you would be taken to task if you went one minute over your time.

So I had to find a way of getting this act of mine a) to do fourteen minutes and b) make that fourteen minutes into an entity with a beginning, middle and an end, which I could then snip things out of when the audience were brilliant, which is what you had to learn to do. It’s so hard when they’re screaming and yelling, and you know the extra gag you’ve put in is going to get such a reaction. But you’re thinking: ‘I’ve got to take it out because, if I do it, I’ll be a minute over and they’ll be banging on the side ...’ Those decisions are made on the hoof because you never know what it will be like until you actually get on stage.

Apart from Professor Sparks’s son falling upstairs, I can’t really trace specific bits of business back to individual performers. But I absorbed it all: the funny walks, how to take a call, which is very important, and how to walk on. Things like that became a natural part of me; nobody taught me or said: ‘This is how you do it.’

That, in effect, was my apprenticeship, starting at the age of four on the very first day I was taken round the corner to the Salford Hippodrome. When I came to do it myself later, it was very natural for me. I never felt out of place. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to walk on the stage. I never, ever got nerves. Well, I was nervous, apprehensive even, but I have always felt that as long as I know what I’m doing before going on, I’m fine. It all comes together as a natural thing to do.

When I’m performing I suppose I still feel connected to that four year old watching from the wings at the Salford Hippodrome. No, it’s not quite as corny as saying I feel more at home onstage than off. But I do feel I’m in the right place when I’m there.


3: Mother

SCHOOL leaving age in 1952 was fifteen and, along with my classmates, I embarked on a job-finding mission.

There was no possibility of further education, though I don’t recall feeling any resentment about this because there were too many of us in the same boat: we were very much in an underprivileged working class environment. Nobody went on to further education from my school. Friends from Sunday School may have gone to better schools and then on to the grammar down the road, but nobody else that I knew went to Uni.

Had I been serving some kind of apprenticeship, I would probably have gone to night school, which many of my friends did. But even though I might have wanted to continue my education in preference to finding a job, it didn’t particularly rankle because I knew I was going to be a comedian – and you didn’t need a degree for that. At this stage I was still formulating how I was going to do it, through amateur shows and what have you, but I knew I would get there.

I was due to learn the tailoring trade – I certainly looked Jewish enough – but my prospective employer, who had rented part of 7 Leaf Square for his business, above the sweet wholesalers, had now moved to larger premises on the south side of Manchester which my mother, quite rightly, felt was too far to travel on a daily basis.

But employment was easy to come by in 1952 and my second option was as a junior salesman at Weaver to Wearer, a large gentleman’s outfitters similar to Burton’s the Tailors, but in direct opposition – strangely, they usually had stores next door to each other. I used to pay one penny from Frederick Road to Regent Road on the tram bound for Salford Docks. My salary was 32s 6d per week – £1.62 in today’s currency. I kept ten shillings pocket money and gave my mother the rest. But ten bob was plenty in those days and I was never short, even though I smoked, as everybody seemed to do. At least, I had enough to exist on, but there were no extras.

I was taught how to shorten and lengthen trousers, something I can still do. A three piece suit was £6 10s and a pair of trousers was £1 12s, but I only served if the manager or the senior salesman was not available. The manager, Eddie O’Reagan, a soft-spoken, slightly built, gentle Northern Irishman, would call me from my position in the back room with: ‘Forward, Mr Davies!’ whereupon I would leap into action.

After nine months I transferred to the Broad Street branch of Weaver to Wearer, just across the road from Leaf Square, but the manager, Tommy Dunbar, was of a different ilk to the kind yet firm Eddie O’Reagan. I stuck it out until another job came up at the local Co-op. A pal of mine had been working in the grocery office for the Pendleton Co-op and wanted to transfer to the Co-operative coal office (don’t ask). Anyway, I got his job, becoming one of the junior clerks who sat at high-slanted Dickensian desks which opened upwards to reveal a drawer for the ledgers. My duties included answering the phone and working the switchboard which was of the very old fashioned type with a separate earpiece on a handle at the side of the speaker.

I still had no idea how I was going to realise my theatrical ambitions but continued in amateur dramatics with the church and joined a local amateur touring variety show playing hospitals and old folks’ homes purely for charitable purposes. I used jokes picked up from the other comedians I had seen on my various weekly theatre visits – and, of course, Jack. I did a whiteface ‘proper poorly’ act, probably copying the comic George Williams, whose opening line used to be: ‘I’m not well.’ I remember playing at Winnick Hospital, a huge Victorian mental institution, and thinking, ‘I hope they don’t keep me in because I’m acting a bit simple.’

I also took up ballroom dancing, in particular Old Tyme and modern sequence dancing, which I found a good way to meet the opposite sex, though I didn’t have too much success in this quarter beyond the odd fumble in the grass. I thought I was going to get lucky once with a girl called Pat who had buck teeth, but a park keeper shone his torch on us and said that as the park was closing, perhaps we should find somewhere more comfortable.

I would travel to Blackpool for the day and see the shows, waiting outside the stage door for a glimpse of a star and the chance of an autograph. My favourite singer was David Whitfield, who had a hit with Cara Mia; he topped the bill in Blackpool for several years. He was later convicted on a charge of indecent exposure and died in a welter of bad publicity; I met him once at the Batley Variety Club and he looked dreadful, as though he had led a life of complete debauchery.

I also enjoyed some of the comedians in Blackpool in the ‘fifties such as Bill Waddington, who ended up in Coronation Street as Percy, and Joe Church, who became a good mate in later years. Jewel and Warriss were at the Opera House, packed twice nightly every night for twenty weeks … but of course I’d seen them already.

MY call up papers for National Service came, after I’d turned eighteen, in 1956. After extensive medical examinations it was discovered that I had an irregular heartbeat but passed A1, so I was sent to war – at least as far as my mother was concerned. She was convinced that Hitler was still alive and waiting for me somewhere.

That’s not quite the joke it might appear as I don’t think my mother ever really recovered from the tragedy of my brother Michael’s death. She was a very loving, good mum to all of us, but overprotective to the point of exasperation – for us, I mean. She was like that with all of us, but me particularly, because I was her first-born and I don’t think she could contemplate the pain of losing another child.

She may have had a point about the hazards of crossing Broad Street when I was younger but she was always neurotic about my leaving the house, fearful I would get into some sort of unspecified trouble. I remember coming back from a dance one New Year’s Eve – I was about fifteen or sixteen – and because it was gone midnight she was out on the road looking for me, coming up the street, shouting: ‘Where have you been?’

It was very difficult because I knew her concern came from love, but that didn’t stop it being annoying at the same time. So, quite apart from wanting to emulate Jack, I suspect another reason I was drawn to school plays may have been that they gave me a degree of independence: a way of being out of Mother’s orbit for a while, even though I was doing something she approved of.

My birth effectively put an end to her career, but my mother always considered herself to be still in show business: she would come and help with the make-up at school plays and Sunday School functions. I suppose she was involved, albeit at one remove, because in the early ‘forties her mother, my grandma Ruth, was still working, doing the double with Jack; when she retired, Jack reverted to the solo act and the occasional double with Cyril.

She wanted me to go into showbiz. I came home after the army for a couple of months but then left to start my career at Butlins and never really went back again. There were no tearful pleas from her to find a regular job – yes, she cried and didn’t want me to go away from home but she knew that’s what I had to do.

When I eventually acquired a degree of fame, she was there to enjoy it. She saw my act occasionally over the years and was always very vocal in her praise – not just to me but to everyone around – and I was thrilled when she came to my first recording of Opportunity Knocks at the old ABC studios in Didsbury.

My biggest regret, really, was that I couldn’t do anything for her, despite my new status. And I really, really tried to help her. I wanted to. But over the years her depression had deepened, and she had become a very sad lady.

She lived in a rather basic council flat, and she hardly ate, she was skin and bone. But nothing I did seemed to help. I would buy furniture and have it fitted, but the next time I went she had no interest in the house, no interest in having a decent living. She would just carry on as she always had done; she didn’t seem to know any different. It was such a shame, because she wasn’t stupid, just sad.

Whatever I tried to do for her financially was a waste of time. I sent her a monthly allowance, but every time I would get to see her I could never see that the money had been put to good use.

The trouble was that the damage had been done in the early ‘forties in a pond in Babbacombe and it was irreparable: she had two children then all of a sudden she only had one. And no husband to support her or share the grief. In those days during the war you were just told to get on with your life, because so many were dying. People were not coming back from the war and it was just normal. You stuck together and got on with things.

That was the theory, anyway. But my mother was never really well and the doctor was never far away. Luckily we had this wonderful lady doctor, Louise Parks, whose surgery was the second house in Leaf Square (in much better condition than ours), so it was not far for her to come.

In 1957, whilst I was doing National Service, Mother got TB. And she was in a sanatorium, close to where she lived. Ironically, it was good for her health in the sense that she got regular meals and put on weight and started to look after herself. There is a photograph of me and her from that time in which she looks well and fit, the best I’ve ever seen her. It’s inscribed: ‘From your loving son Freddie.’ I was twenty. She was forty. The children had to go into care; they were looked after by a foster mother, who they hated. Mother was there for a year but made a full recovery.

I must stress that her depression never got in the way of our feeling that we were loved, though her over-possessiveness did make things difficult in later years. Whenever I would go to see her, she was very: ‘Oh, my Freddie’s come back to me!’ She and my first wife, Jackie, never got on with each other and I hardly ever told her when I was visiting Mother in order to avoid conflict.

I did take my mother to Blackpool once when we were living there, and she and Jackie had a terrible row. I’d been to open a fête and came back to find her sat on the doorstep: ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that cow’s thrown us out!’ and I had to take her home to Manchester. Very sad, they just didn’t get on at all. When Jackie and I got married I couldn’t even think about asking her to the wedding.

THERE were two long-term men in my mother’s life. The first was Burly Lyall, with whom she had two girls and a boy. He lived with us from time to time but I never liked him much as he could be a bit abrasive.

He came from Northwich and had a wife and child there; he was estranged from his wife, but not actually divorced. He would appear at odd times as he was a long distance lorry driver. I was quite young at the time – my half-sister Shirley was born when I was eight – and he would come and stay, disappear for days on end and then come back again. Mother had Peter and June quite quickly after that, and I think it was always assumed that Burly would settle down with her. But he never took steps to divorce his wife and in the end my mother had enough and threw him out.


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