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Ladies And Gentle-men, Mr Frankie Howerd...
Frankie Howerd was a comedy great who mastered the art of the mournful aside and the most laboured of puns. Francis Howerd (spelled with the 'e' not 'a') became a byword for all that was saucy and slightly camp: he was doing his brand of innuendo-laden dialogue long before present-day children's TV presenters had even dreamt of putting the 'Ooh err missus' in1. Frankie would come on stage - baggy, crumpled, wig looking like a dead stoat - and sum up the attitude 'You can't have everything!' Often he would come on injured, with a sling round his arm. By now the audience would be raising their empathy ('dirty devil') while Frankie declared, 'That's right, get your ahhhs out!', and then he would tell the assembled mob not to worry about the sling as, 'The doctor said I can have it off in the morning!'.
Birth of a Comic
Francis Alick Howard was born in York on 6 March, 1917; his parents Edith and Frank already had two children, Sidney and Betty, and Frankie would be their last. At the age of two he was moved to Eltham in Kent, which was in those days a place that was still quite rural and unspoilt. Frankie began a lifelong appreciation of the countryside and was always a solitary walker, eventually practising his lines to an assembled audience of cows in some local field - the BBC weren't too fussy about the audience in those days!
Eltham had also given rise to a comedy legend before Frankie, for the young Leslie Townes Hope was born there in 1903; today he is best known as Bob Hope.
Like most great comics, Frankie was extremely shy and uncomfortable with the person he was, and he would always remain painfully shy and never have more than 10% confidence. To counteract these deficiencies, Frankie took an interest in the theatre, where frogs can become princes and weak men can play brave, handsome leads. Frankie became interested in drama and joined many local amateur dramatic societies where, if not the most gifted of actors, he was certainly one of the more enthusiastic.
After a period of unhappy schooling Francis went to work as an office clerk for the huge sum of £1.35/hour; not surprisingly Frankie was deeply unhappy and longed to become a comic like his heroes: the great Max Miller and Sid Field. Several dole queues and failed auditions later, Frankie was drafted to fight Hitler and save democracy as we knew it. One man stood between the South Coast and Nazi ridden France - Frankie!
During this period he met another prop in the Howerd repertoire, Mrs Vera Roper who was enlisted as his pianist, but was of course deaf. During the many years that she would be with him, Frankie would introduce her the following way:
Oooh noo, please, it's wicked to mock the afflicted! Well it might be one of your own! Don't laugh at her, she might want paying - I told her this was an audition! She's known to me as Madam Vera Roper, but she's known to everyone else as The English Open!
At this time Frankie also discovered what was to be a particular party piece and have people laughing years later. 'Three Little Fishies' was a song he decided to adopt after realising the comic potential in this otherwise rather tedious children's tune that began:
Down in the meadow in the little bitty pool
Swam three little fishies and a mama fishie too
'Swim' said the mama fishie, 'Swim if you can'
And they swam and they swam all over the dam
The crescendo to the Frankie Howerd interpretation would be a spluttering, rasping explosion of various sounds, described by him as a 'refined raspberry', and usually a mournful look to the audience, followed by the comment, 'I'd like to win the Pools - I'd pack this bloody lark up!'
The song was recorded several times by Frankie during his career and was always present at his live shows, where audiences in the front row were directed to avoid the spray by wearing their coats!
John Inman was another comedian who would later record the 'Three Little Fishies' song, but it will forever be associated with Frankie Howerd (Ooh yes, missus!).
After World War II, Frankie experienced many ups and downs, constantly going in and out of fashion. Reviews, amateur nights and tatty varieties eventually led to the heady lights of pantomime, acclaimed reviews, radio, and then the natural progression to television. One star had truly been born, and what an entrance!
Winds Of Change...
By the 1960s Frankie's star had appeared to descend, calls were not coming, money was drying up and comedy was changing; never was there such a period when 'Frenzied Francis' became more appropriate.
The satire boom of the sixties had come to stay, with shows like That Was The Week That Was, and the acclaimed review Beyond The Fringe, led by Peter Cook. The humour of the day was political, and mother-in-law jokes and acts that had been established by hard slog and toughened by a thousand tatty boarding houses were personae non gratae. Frankie was, in 1962, an early victim. Not feeling in the mood to even think of competing with the university-educated, clever young things, Frankie felt old hat and the audience seemed to agree.
Walking through the cold London streets - a figure of dejection, head bowed, tatty raincoat pulled around him like a comforting friend, staring at the empty theatres of the West End - Frankie was not a happy man. He was so depressed at this stage that he decided to give it a few days, and if nothing happened there was only one thing for it: he would leave comedy and performing and open a pub!
That year, Frankie was present at the Evening Standard Awards. Also in the audience, clapping and cheering, were Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, leading Frankie to quip, 'The best actors here tonight are the losers!' Peter Cook was just opening his London nightclub, The Establishment Club, at this time. The Establishment Club would be the High Church for the stand-up satirists of the day, and Cook wanted Frankie as its Head Preacher.
Eventually Frankie Howerd agreed to play the Establishment Club, although he claimed he was asked when he was slightly drunk, and Dutch courage was yet to wear off. Writers claimed that Frankie was such a bag of nerves and so unconfident that the 'young and with it' crowd would find this tired old music hall comic funny, that he passed his script to nearly all the greatest comedy writers of the day in order to reassure him that it was OK.
Primarily Johnny Speight (later to pen Till Death Us Do Part) wrote the main bulk of the material, but the writers of Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour, Galton and Simpson, also contributed; and if that wasn't enough Frankie also got Barry Cryer, Barry Took and Eric Sykes to check it over, although none of them got paid for their effort!
Frankie Howerd at The Establishment was a huge success, his opening line that, 'If you expect Lenny Bruce then you may as well piss off now!' received a tremendously rapturous laugh, and all those 'young with it' things were astonished that Frankie Howerd was so good. This classic Frankie extract proves that when it came to satire, you can't write off an old horse:
Very clever, all those boys are - Beyond The Fringe - very clever boys. I think they should turn professional. They tell me now they've learned to put on make-up. Soon they're going to use it on the stage!
Frankie then got to the heart of the satire, and in particular the Prime Minister of the day Harold Macmillan:
I was on a cycle rally and we were passing Chequers2 - I thought, I'll nip in. I'm sorry - I told him. I was very forthright, stupid to be anything else. I said, 'Harold, be careful', I said, 'Harold, don't rush into this, I beg you.' I don't think he got the message. Well, it's very difficult when you're shouting through a letter box!
Ned Sherrin was so impressed by Frankie that he immediately offered him a 13-minute spot on That Was The Week That Was, where he was a sensational success, and the offers flooded in.
Frankie Howerd was back on top; not for the last time had failure almost finished him just to see him saved by the fickle finger of fate at the final hour! How grateful we are that Frankie called 'last orders' on his plan to open that pub.
A Funny Thing Happened...
1963 was a truly 'funny year' as the TW3 (That Was The Week That Was) appearance had led to a breakthrough in his career that would be the mould for his most successful venture yet.
Frankie flew over to New York to see Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum; this was because Frankie had been offered a big part in the UK version. The authors of the show, Burt Shevlove and Larry Gelbart, had been to see Frankie in Puss In Boots at the Coventry Hippodrome after a suggestion that he would be perfect to cast as the Roman slave Pseudolos. With music by Stephen Sondheim and a very good script, Frankie was beginning to sow the seeds of another Roman-type farce, where low puns would mingle with high skirts.
Togas & Titters! (The Prologue...)
Talbot Rothwell had written a sitcom based on the play A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Frankie was to be its lead character. The show ran in on BBC television in 1969 and 1970 and would be Frankie's high point, for which he is best remembered. The show was called Up Pompeii.
This is the show where Frankie donned a toga and became Lurcio the slave; no innuendo was too risky and no nymph's skirt too high; it was a show that encapsulated Frankie Howerd at his best, the asides to camera ('Titter Ye Not'), the dreadful puns 'You can't die here - this is the living room!' and the orgies and sexual ambiguities of such characters as Prodigious, Hernia and Amonia ('Makes you sick').
The show was packed with innuendo and steeped in campness, and what comic poetry:
LUDICRUS: Dear Child. So delightfully chaste.
LURCIO: Yes, and so easily caught.
The Radio Times announced the pilot of Up Pompeii as a 'sort of '"Carry On up the Forum".' Frankie always claimed that Up Pompeii was an instant hit for him. 'Up Pompeii seemed to me to contain the basic ingredients of popular British humour: cheeky, cheerful, seaside postcard bawdiness,' he said.
The show ran for 14 episodes, after which Frankie for once decided he would not get typecast and wanted to leave the show on a high.
That wasn't entirely the end of the story though. During the 1970s the British craze for transferring what were successful TV shows to the big screen was in full swing; Till Death Us Do Part, The Likely Lads, Are You Being Served?, plus the ever popular, yet hated by the critics, On The Buses all got a chance to (dis)-grace the cinemas of the era. Up Pompeii was no exception to this trend and once more Lurcio would be resurrected. Up Pompeii (1971), Up The Chastity Belt (1971) and Up The Front (1972) were all spawned from the golden egg that was Up Pompeii.
These films were pretty dismal and never captured the success of the original shows, mainly due to Frankie not being used to playing to just a film crew where they were not allowed to laugh. Frankie was much more successful when he could play off an audience and use that relationship as the dynamic for many of his whimsies. Also Talbot Rothwell was not the writer of the films; never before had such a genius been so required.
It is no coincidence that the BBC series Up Pompeii was written by the Carry On punster-in-chief, Talbot Rothwell. Francis was the ideal man to spout the great Rothwell lines, for even when the women are voluptuous and Frankie has taken all manner of love filters, sex is still something to be done, not for the lust or desire, but because they may as well, as, 'It's bitter out!'.
Rothwell was a man who enjoyed the cheap joke and memorable line, perhaps his shining hour was when he wrote that famous line in Carry On Cleo for a rather fey Julius Caesar, played by a man with gladiatorial campery, Kenneth Williams, 'Infamy Infamy, they've all got it infamy!'
What A Carry On!
Frankie was in two Carry On films, Carry On Doctor, where he played the subtly named Francis Bigger, and Carry On Up The Jungle where he revelled in the part of Professor Inigo Tinkle.
The camp undertone to the Carry On film series, and the pun-riddled scripts, with double entendres spraying out like machine gun fire, suited Frankie's style to a tee, and he was always considered a natural within the close knit community of the Carry On family. It also gave him a chance to work with other camp and outrageous performers, most notably the leader of the Carry On pack, Kenneth Williams.
Like Howerd, Williams was camp, frivolous, gay and prone to deep depressions and melancholy. That the two never formed a real 'friendship' is disappointing, however Williams said of Frankie Howerd in a diary entry dated 28 September, 1967, 'He is undoubtedly a very boring man. Loves talking, but there is no really cultivated mind. He continually says "eksetra" which is irritating.'
Frankie off-stage was not the image of a clown. Slightly moody, racked with insecurities, and prone to bad temper, but also a very sensitive and deeply religious man who felt vulnerable, he was in all senses unfunny - until he had an audience and then no one could touch him.
Rediscovered - Again!
Frankie Howerd also remained a fine and accomplished live stand-up comedian. Most notably, when LWT (London Weekend Television) recorded him addressing the Oxford Union in 1990, the art of low humour had truly earned a high amount of respect, but then Frankie was the Freudian comic, never more so than when he would wave around and thump in the palm of his hand a loofah - for Francis it wasn't just a coded message that his back wanted scrubbing! The Oxford Union performance was released on video under the apt title of Frankie Howerd, On Campus! This video release represented the rediscovery of him once more by a new generation and signalled that the downward curve of the 1980s was over.
Before he died, his career was on another up after a decade of lows - all through the 1980s Frankie was, once again, ignored. Yet a repeat run of Up Pompeii in the late 1980s and the Oxford Union date had meant that yet another new generation of fans had discovered Howerd's way.
The Frankie Howerd clothing range were also formed at this time to produce 'Frankie Say's' T shirts, all containing the sacred words from the Frankie Howerd scribes, 'Titter Ye Not', 'Shut Yer Face', and 'Get Yer Titters Out!' They were a nod and wink to the young teenage audience who were worshipping the High Priest of comedy to go forth and spread the word.
An LWT one-off remake of Up Pompeii, Further Up Pompeii, in 1991 saw the wheel turn full circle as Frankie would, for the final time, don a toga and play his most famous character, years after those distant Talbot Rothwell days. It was no longer AD, or BC (or BBC), plus the substandard script meant it was poor in comparison. Frankie also insisted that no 'live' audience would be present at the filming - he thought he could save more grace if the show wasn't funny - however when the cameramen started laughing Frankie realised his mistake in not allowing a live audience. By then it was too late.
After the recording of Further Up Pompeii Frankie displayed a more devilish side when he said to the assembled crew, 'I thank you all, I enjoyed everyone, well everyone except one!' and he left the entire lot wondering to this day who that person was.
Frankie also recorded his last ever TV series in 1992 for Central Television (ITV) called Frankie's On. This is where he would go to various services in each show and entertain them, while classic Frankie Howerd footage summed the programmes up. The audiences were medical students, Armed Forces, coal miners in Nottingham and fire-fighters in Gloucester.
Frankie was clearly in his element when he played to the Royal Navy, on board HMS Ark Royal. He was more than happy to look out and see wall-to-wall sailors, all laughing at every line of vintage Howerd. One sailor caught his eye and during an exchange he chastised him for, 'Being naughty! Now return to your cabin - alone!'
On the show where he entertained medical students, Frankie's On Call, one young man interrupted his tirade of jokes with a very personal question, he asked him whether he had ever considered having a sex change! Francis was flabbergasted, indeed his flabber had never been so gasted; he replied thus: 'Sex change?! From what to what?! I'll tell you this, any sex would be a change!'
Frankie then took the opportunity to tell the assembled masses about a friend of his that paid lots and lots of money for a sex change, 'Cost him the earth, in the end he came back without a sausage!'
Six programmes were planned but sadly only four were made, due to his ill health and eventual death later that year.
One of the most important programmes of the 1990s was on 1 June, 1990, when Frankie Howerd was the subject of the BBC arts series Arena. Arena - The Frankie Howerd Story was a sixty minute programme which included an in-depth interview and shots of him walking around open countryside, pork pie hat perched on his head, far from the applauding masses. It depicted more than any other piece of film the 'real' Frankie Howerd. It showed him talking candidly about his life, his failures and his new found fan base. It is one of the best biographical legacies of Frankie that we have.
The Final Curtain - Please Yourselves!
Frankie Howerd OBE left us on 19 April, 1992. His legacy however, is one that will be laughed at until humour becomes extinct or until Noel's House Party3 is deemed funny. Frankie may have been mocking Francis when he instructed the audience to laugh at them 'Getting their titters out' and then deny the obvious sexual connotations by a tirade of 'Ooooh noo ahh!', but for Frankie that was his Pavarotti high note, because for Francis nothing dirty or any item of filth would ever pass his lips ('Not on your nelly!') - but it did.
His humour was that of the psychological comic, pandering to the audience's desires and sexual curiosities in a socially conservative age when 'sex' was something posh people put their coal in. These days his humour does last and present itself as funny, for Frankie may have led us to believe that his repertoire was small ('Well it's chilly!') but when it came to it, he was timing every laugh to perfection, so titter ye not!
If you, like many, would like to see repeat runs of Up Pompeii and The Frankie Howerd Show, remember that the BBC is available for e-mail suggestions and postal ones. Feel free to add your support (if no one else is wearing it!).
The Kenneth Williams Diaries, published by Harper Collins
The Complete Frankie Howerd, by Robert Ross
The Carry On Companion, by Robert Ross
A selection of videos of Frankie Howerd are also available from all good bookstores including the titles: Up Pompeii, Frankie Howerd Comedy Greats (BBC Video) and Masters Of Comedy: Frankie Howerd.
Frankie's On, his last ITV series, was released on video several years ago.
Frankie Howerd At His Tittermost, recorded live in 1991, was released on video for a short while.
Frankie Howerd On Campus was previously available on video.
Frankie Howerd At The Establishment was eventually released on LP.