At 83, comedy legend Barry Cryer has been in showbusiness for six decades. Here he looks back on a life of love, loss and laughter
…Always wanting company, people and noise.
It was just me and my mother when I was growing up in Leeds, because my dad died when I was five, leaving me without a father figure. I have the odd memory, like him buying me an Airfix model aeroplane. We assembled it together in the front room and when I flew it, it landed straight in the fire. But there’s a single photo of him in a room upstairs and I look at it now and think, I never knew you.
Barry on the beach as a young boy
…Wining an acting prize for playing Falstaff in a school production of Henry IV.
It was a joint award with my friend John Gledhill, who played Hal. At the ceremony, I took the cup, and handed John the base. It got a big laugh. Even then I had the instinct, “Oh, this will be funny.” But I had no real performing ambitions at that time. I had a half-baked idea of becoming a journalist, but none of entering showbiz, even though I loved comedians like Tommy Handley and Max Miller.
…I was a university drop-out.
I studied English Literature at the University of Leeds, but I was in the bar chasing girls, not concentrating. My first-year results showed it. But I was in a student show at the old Empire Theatre. This guy had come from London to watch someone else but saw me telling jokes and offered me work. My first week as a professional was at the Leeds City Varieties in 1956. I’ve been back a lot of times since, appearing in The Good Old Days, and this year we recorded an edition of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue there. It’s been refurbished and got a glass lift now. It was a tip backstage years ago…
Barry on stage at Leeds University during his student days
…Learning to die with dignity at the Windmill Theatre in London’s Piccadilly.
It was the most incredible apprenticeship for stand-up comedy. I’d just come down to London to try my luck. I auditioned at 10.30 in the morning, and was on stage by 12.15. You’d never get an audience like that anywhere else, where they would open a newspaper when you came on, or just watch you in silence while they waited for the girls. Six shows a day, six days a week. It was amazing.
I rang my mother and said, “I’m a Windmill comedian.” She had no idea what I was talking about. A very unhappy Bruce Forsyth was also on the bill. He said, “I’m packing it in. I’ve got as far as can go, I’m opening a tobacconist’s.” A year later I heard he was going to be compere on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
I met him in the street and asked him, “Bruce, what happened to the tobacconist’s?” He simply replied, “Postponed.”
…Meeting Ronnie Corbett and my future wife Terry Donovan on the same day.
It was at a rehearsal at Danny La Rue’s nightclub not far from the Windmill. She was a singer and dancer and I was smitten from when I first caught sight of her standing by a piano.
We married in 1962 and are still together. We have four children, seven grandchildren, and now a great grandchild. We had a small family do at our home the other weekend. There were 15 people in the room and I loved it. The laughter and noise of your own family is a joy.
With best man John Harper
…Marriage cured my eczema.
Before Terry, eczema hospitalised me 12 times in eight years. In those days we were caked in make-up as performers. I thought, “I’ve had it, I’ll concentrate on writing.”
Eczema isn’t life threatening, but it’s extremely unpleasant and there’s the psychological side of it too, thinking, what do I look like? I was in hospital one time when a guy hanged himself in the gents. He was covered in eczema. When Terry first met me, I had dark glasses on and a coat buttoned up to the chin. She thought, Oh God! Who’s this one? He looks a bit weird. But I was only in hospital with it once more after meeting her. Not a coincidence, I think.
…Being a sort of bridge generation writer.
I was stuck in the middle. I knew the Pythons before they were Pythons, and all the Goodies before they were Goodies, and yet I had these links with variety and the older comedy acts. I always say Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper have lasted because they were never topical. Even my grandchildren have grown up with them.
Barry and Terry on their wedding day
…Never writing on my own.
David Frost really got me into partnerships, after he made me a Frost Report writer. He introduced me to Graham Chapman and we ended up writing about 50 shows together, including for Ronnie Corbett. John Cleese wrote a lot with him too, and he’d ask, “Are you being unfaithful to me with Baz?”
Graham was good with construction, the plot, what happens next, whereas I like to think I’m good with characters.
...Tommy Cooper’s act didn’t relate to real life.
And he didn’t in person. He didn’t like reading. He wasn’t dyslexic, but the best thing we found was to give him a simple idea and let him run with it. Off stage, I never heard him talk about politics or anything like that. We’d all be sitting round the table talking, and Tom would sulk, not being the centre of attention. Next thing you knew, a pack of cards would come out of his pocket… “Pick a card.”
…Frankie Howerd was painfully serious.
He didn’t fool about much in company. You’d go down the pub and come out disappointed you hadn’t had much to laugh about. But he was a fascinating, intellectual man, in an era when gay men were haunted and hunted. Jimmy Edwards and Kenny Everett were the same.
Frankie’s ambition was to act but he failed RADA and thought he’d be a comic instead. His bête noire was Larry Grayson who did a routine with a pianist, like he’d already done.
When Bruce Forsyth left The Generation Game, Frankie offered to audition as his replacement. Who got the job? Larry Grayson.
We were having lunch one day and, for some foolish reason I mentioned Larry. Frankie shouted, “That man stole my act!” his voice getting louder and louder, as everyone turned round to look at us. An embarrassing moment.
…Meeting Humphrey Lyttlelton years before I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.
I was singing outside Leeds Town Hall with the University jazz band. I was a huge jazz fan. He was in town to do a show there that night. He came over and said, “I heard you earlier.” I preened myself. Then he said, “It wasn’t difficult. You’re quite loud.”
…I started off in I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue as chairman.
I wasn’t on the original panel but John Cleese and Bill Oddie left because they were unhappy about the show being unscripted, so William Rushton and I were brought in. The 46th series is about to go on air. When Humph died, we all said, “Never again,” but after a year off, the BBC brought us back.
Our chairman Jack Dee is very modest and says, “I can’t fill Humph’s shoes.” Well, there’s only one Humph, but Jack has made a pretty good follow up.
…Going back to doing live shows in the early 1990s
reminded me of my days as a warm up act. I worked for everyone from Noël Coward and Tom Jones, to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I surprise people by telling them I’m not a comedian. But I’ve spent my life working with comedians and I know what I’m talking about.
The people I’ve worked with, like Max Miller, Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise had something of their own, they were originals. I love making people laugh but I also tell stories and sing songs. I’m happy to be described as an entertainer, or raconteur.
Barry poses in Maida Vale in the 1960s
…Ken Dodd telling me I’d cornered the market in obituaries.
It was at a British Music Hall Society dinner when Doddy was the speaker, and he looked over and addressed the remark towards me in a joking tone.
It’s true, I do get asked a lot to contribute my memories of deceased comedians, but my memory is not infallible. Philip Porter has produced this marvellous book, The Barry Cryer Comedy Scrapbook which reminds me of things that happened in my life, and people I’ve met, that I’d forgotten about.
Barry posing with his wife Terry. They've been married for 56 years
…The Queen told me to Keep it up.
I thought, “oo-er, missus, this is like a Carry On film.” I was one of about 100 people at the Palace to receive my OBE.
They were handing her bits of paper as we went forward. She said, “Still writing?” I’m not sure she really knew who I was. But I do have every intention of keeping it up. I’m still in I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, I do the gigs and I appear at the Edinburgh Festival each year. I’m a survivor. Young comics say to me, “You tell jokes!” as if I’ve invented some radical new genre. So I’ve got my niche now. I’m the old man who tells jokes.