Frankie Howerd was the master of innuendo. Now secret tapes reveal protests over his smuttiness drove him to drugsHe brooded on the criticisms of
self-appointed censor Mary WhitehouseA doctor prescribed the hallucinogenic drug LSD to help the actor Comedian suffered from bouts of self-disgust at his homosexualityHe told Cilla Black: 'If I could take a tablet to make
me normal, I would'
23:02 GMT, 28 December 2012
The bizarre home of comedian Frankie Howerd has been frozen in time since his death two decades ago. The life-size painting of Howerd over the fireplace, the 3D portrait of Elvis Presley, the gold velour sofa where the comic died . . . it is as though the house is waiting for Frankie to return.
And no wonder, for he was the king of miraculous comebacks. Fifty years ago, Frankie Howerd stood up to give what he believed would be the last performance of his career.
The former bill-topping star of hit radio shows, beloved by millions, had been left behind as the age of TV took over.
Cesar of comedy: Frankie Howerd in the legendary British comedy from the 1970s, UP Pompeii!
Unable to get even the worst end-of-the-pier jobs in comedy, by 1962 Howerd had decided to chuck it all in and run a pub with his business partner (and secret boyfriend) Dennis Heymer.
Howerd resolved to make just one farewell appearance. It was a performance that was to revive his popularity, putting him back on the path to national stardom.
Now, thanks to an incredible cache of recordings found at Howerd's home in Somerset, it will be possible to hear part of the show that saved his career. These crackly audio discs and tapes form part of a 90-minute documentary airing on New Year's Day on Channel 4, called Frankie Howerd: The Lost Tapes.
Howerd had been invited to 'say a few words' at the 1962 Evening Standard theatre awards. Fortified by half a bottle of Scotch, he begged the celebrity audience, with his inimitable splutters and stuttering: 'I want to make a little appeal to you — but it's not an appeal for money. No, you're all right love . . . she's getting her purse out! No, it's an appeal for you to laugh as much as you can.'
Among the guests that night was the young star of satire, Peter Cook, who had just opened his Soho club, The Establishment. He buttonholed Howerd and booked him on the spot for a series of stand-up gigs, which proved so popular he was soon featuring on TV's Saturday night ratings buster, That Was The Week That Was.
During an appearance on This Is Your Life, included in the documentary, Cook recalled how Howerd's speech at the theatre awards had left him laughing helplessly.
'He is one of the funniest men in the world,' he declared. 'I'd say the funniest, but Dudley's very sensitive' — referring to his comedy partner, Dudley Moore.
Born in 1917, Frankie Howerd was brought up in Eltham, South-East London. His early hopes of a career as a serious actor fell through when he failed the entrance audition at the drama school RADA.
King of miraculous comebacks: The actor, pictured in 1965, almost chucked it all in three years earlier
As Gunner Howerd of B Battery in the Royal Artillery during World War II, he started to perform in concert parties, and when peace came in 1945 he joined a touring show, playing provincial theatres as a stand-up comedian. Quickly becoming a star on BBC radio's Variety Bandbox, by 1950 Howerd was probably the most famous comic in the country.
But it didn't last. In the early Fifties he attempted to make the transition to movie stardom with a succession of films that failed at the box office.
Unsure whether to concentrate on cinema, stage or TV, he fumbled all three and, despite brief success on the West End stage, by 1959 he was reduced to bottom-of-the-bill appearances at the kind of small-town theatres where he'd started out.
Howerd was bewildered by the startling transformation of his fortunes. Even in 1957 his star had still seemed to shine brightly.
He had taken over from Alec Guinness in the knockabout hit Hotel Paradiso, and the same year he starred in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Old Vic — though with typical coarseness, he always called it the Tit and Bum Show, because the leading characters were Titania and Bottom.
He was so brilliantly funny that, when he was performing in the ever-popular farce Charley's Aunt in 1955, the other actors had to stand in the opposite direction to him — one look at his face reduced them to helpless giggles.
But he was also impossibly difficult, which may have contributed to his downfall. He suffered from deep depression, crippling insecurity and bouts of self-disgust at his homosexuality. Though he was never shy about propositioning men, he refused to admit his preferences publicly, right up to his death.
Over dinner with Cilla Black and her husband a few years before he died, Howerd admitted: 'If I could take a tablet to make me normal, I would.'
Popular: Howerd in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at Manchester Opera House
Throughout his career, he quarrelled with everyone. Radio producers despaired at his eruptions of ego and temper behind the scenes of shows such as The Howerd Crowd, in 1952.
A BBC letter, also revealed on the documentary, pleads for 'no more fusses, no more arguments'.
Howerd came to accept this up-and-down life. 'I am a yo-yo jerked by a manic hand at the end of the umbilical cord of Fate,' he wrote in his autobiography.
He had a low opinion of himself. His face, he said, looked like 'a disreputable bloodhound, a melancholy camel or an apologetic yak'. But the public loved him.
His catchphrase on Variety Bandbox in the late Forties entered the language. It can still be heard today — uttered with sceptical, withering disbelief: 'And the best of British luck, mate!'
Every line he spoke acquired a double meaning that was all in the mind of the audience.
These were more innocent days. Howerd was once dragged offstage by a theatre manager hissing 'Filth! Filth! Get out of my theatre!' for the crime of opening his act:
'Lay-deez and gentle-MEN, I am now going to sing a little song entitled, She Sits Among The Cabbages And Peas.'
Carry on laughing: Howerd started performing as a Gunner in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War
When the fashion for camp innuendo caught up with him in the Sixties, he was in demand everywhere. He made two Carry On films, as a bedridden conman in Carry On Doctor and a bird-watcher in the Tarzan send-up, Carry On Up The Jungle.
He had a West End hit in 1963 with a musical comedy set in ancient Rome, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum — and that led to his biggest TV hit, Up Pompeii! in 1969.
Censor: Television campaigner Mary Whitehouse
Playing a lecherous, gossipy slave called Lurcio, he turned the most innocent dialogue into sauce and ribaldry.
When a Roman conspirator tried to attract his attention, hissing 'pssst', Howerd would look aggrieved and protest: 'I am not! I haven't touched a drop.'
It seems innocuous now — but, as the documentary reveals, Howerd was shaken by the letters of protest he received from outraged fans. Instead of throwing away the complaints from 'Disgusted of Milton Keynes,' as most actors would have done, he replied with apologies and then filed the correspondence.
He brooded on the criticisms of self-appointed censor Mary Whitehouse, who called his show: 'Sordid, cheap and a disgrace for a man of Howerd's undoubted talents.'
Depressed by the vitriol he faced, Howerd turned to psychoanalysis, with a doctor who prescribed the hallucinogenic drug LSD to help him find enlightenment.
It did not help his mood swings, but he did come to see that he couldn't please everyone and remain funny.
With an early inkling of the
political correctness that would change comedy, Howerd realised it
wasn't his fault if people took offence. He had a letter from a woman
objecting to a smutty joke about a leper, with the punchline: 'Unclean!
Her husband had leprosy, she complained, and she had never been so offended.
Innuendo: Howerd, pictured with television presenter Sally James, came to accept his up-and-down life
Howerd decided to stop apologising. 'You can't allow for having a leper in the audience,' he said.
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Blatantly funny: Other actors had to stand in the opposite direction from Howerd to stop themselves laughing
McCartney replies: 'Well, you know, I do a lot of exercise.'
Leaping straight away on the tiniest hint of a double entendre, Howerd asks suggestively: 'What sort of exercise Mmm Hah! Anything you can tell us about'
'Every morning, I walk twice round the block,' McCartney answers, deadpan.
Even more unexpected are snatches of a TV special unaired since 1970. It features Barry and Maurice Gibb as knights of King Arthur's round table and Howerd as a dying magician roused by the prospect of hanky-panky with a butch pageboy.
The hour-long special, Cucumber Castle, has a long-forgotten Bee Gees soundtrack and a succession of inexplicable shots of the Gibb brothers munching cucumbers.
Though the comedian never had faith in his gifts, his admirers were staunchly A-list.
Richard Burton and Liz Taylor were friends who indulged his obsession with 'Roman' furniture — they presented him with two replica swords from their Oscar-winning movie, Cleopatra.
Laughter: 'I want to make a little appeal to you. It's an appeal for you to laugh as much as you can'
Again and again in the rediscovered footage, famous faces appear. On the front row at the theatre awards, Eric Morecambe is laughing uproariously. Backstage, Sir John Gielgud is clutching Howerd's arm.
On the comeback recording at The Establishment club, the braying laugh of Kenneth Williams cuts through every gag.
Howerd loved fame but, as he explains in a never-before-seen interview, made in 1987 for the BBC's Arena programme about five years before he died, he never knew what it was for.
'I was very ambitious to be famous — I don't know why,' he says. 'I often try to puzzle out what the goal of being famous really is.'
Trying to make sense of it, he adds: 'I'd like to be the first man to act on the Moon.'
The sadness is that Frankie Howerd never really understood that he didn't have to go to the Moon to get laughs.
He was loved by millions just for being who he was — coarse, saucy and outrageous. And his ribald catchphrases are still making us smile: 'No! Missus! Titter ye not! Oh, please yourselves!'
FRANKIE HOWERD: The Lost Tapes is on Channel 4 on New Year's Day at 7.30pm.