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Larry Grayson dominated a niche of British comedy in the 1970s. His act became synonymous with English music hall humour, and was the personification of high camp. Through television shows, most notably The Generation Game, Larry found a mass outlet where he could expose his whims and strut his unique personality.
Part One of this Entry deals with the circumstances of his childhood and upbringing, from birth to age 14, when he left school and started out on his career.
Part Two charts Larry's early years as a performer, and his rise to stardom on commercial television.
But How Gay... ?
By the time Larry Grayson made the move from commercial television to the BBC he had become one of the most prolific of the high-camp comics. John Inman, Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd may have been camping it up in equal measure, but it was Larry, with his instant national fame and the overtly sexual material in his act, who attracted more speculation and gossip regarding his sexuality than most other performers of that type. Larry had also perfected the double entendre in a way that was much more direct and matronly than other such comedians, who were more 'schoolboy smut' than 'matriarchal.'
His family always claimed that Larry was 'a very private man,' and it's true that he never had any open relationships with men or women. During the 1970s he was a regular visitor to a gay-run pub/hotel in Thame, Oxfordshire, called The Jolly Sailor. The pub was run by a man called Jack Smith, an old dancer friend who had opened the establishment when he had retired from the theatre. On many occasions Larry would serve behind the bar, as part of the fun. Whether this meant he was gay is of course debatable, but he obviously enjoyed the atmosphere of the place and also the theatricality of actors.
Larry himself never discussed his sexuality in public, and always found the conjecture 'amusing.' He classed himself as 'sexless' and confirmed this in an interview with Terry Wogan about sex on TV:
I can't bear all this getting into bed with everybody. Well, it frightens my dog! But I don't like things like that - perhaps it's because I'm getting older. The doctor said to me, 'Laz, when you're 39 you'll find that you've changed!'
In performance, Larry made no secret of his 'gay' leanings. In one episode of The Generation Game Larry is being instructed by this big soldier to stand in line. After Larry's complaints at his shouting, the soldier then asks more softly. Larry looks him straight in the eye and says, 'Ooh right, by the way, don't forget to write! He's a very nice boy!' To the audiences of blue-rinsed older women that such performers tend to attract, Larry was just a fey boy and no more than that.
To them his campness never represented anything other than homely sweetness. To many young gay men growing up in that period (such as Julian Clary) Larry Grayson represented a role model, a high-profile example of how some gay people acted and made their sexuality clear without necessarily having to state it. In this respect such performers, whether or not they were actually gay, had a positive impact on how gay people were perceived. They helped break down prejudice and discrimination by allowing greater understanding and gained respect from all groups in society.
As part of a hoax, in 1973 the press reported the engagement between Larry and his good friend Noele Gordon. It was a joke they would tease people with for years. Larry and Noele remained just good friends - this was one area where there would be no crossing of roads.
In 1993 the Museum Of The Moving Image, as part of its 'Gay and Lesbian' season, honoured Larry's 70th birthday by showing some wonderful clips of him. The great man never commented, and would always remain private and dignified on areas that he would see as personal. The truth, alas, would always remain closeted.
Larry Grayson's Generation Game – 18 Million Happy Families
The Generation Game was an institution of Saturday night viewing. Most people in the UK have watched at least one episode of what is a rather strange game show. The format has various families competing for prizes by undergoing tasks, following a quick demonstration by an expert - for example, sausage-making, or icing a cake, and often dance routines. The prizes were of secondary importance, as the game itself was good harmless stuff that poked fun at people's inability, in most cases, to get anything even remotely right.
Bruce Forsyth (a British comedian and game show host) had steered The Generation Game to success for many years. In 1978 he decided to quit. Following someone who had made the show their own would be like scaling the north face of Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, in stiletto heels. So when Larry Grayson was offered the chance to host the BBC TV show he was more than a little unsure, though as manager Paul Vaughan explained in an interview, he was fully supported by friends: 'He rang a lot of people and said "Should I, or shouldn't I?" and I can't remember one that said "Don't." They all said "You'd be marvellous at it."'
Larry accepted the offer, knowing that this was a remarkable offer and justified all those hard club days - though as Larry's nephew Mike Mallon explained, Auntie Flo (Larry's surrogate mother: see Part One) was a little wary. 'It didn't mean a single thing to Auntie Flo. She said "We never watch that. You know we always watch All Creatures Great And Small on the other side!"'
For the shows, Larry was teamed up with Isla St Clair, a rather unglamorous Scottish lady who nonetheless worked well with him. They produced some great chemistry, as well as another catchphrase, 'What are the scores on the doors, Isla?'
When it came to transmitting the first show, Larry couldn't bear to watch it. He walked the streets of Nuneaton instead, and looked into people's windows. His face lit up when he saw that everyone was watching him in the first show! After the show was broadcast the phone rang constantly with people congratulating him. It was a success - and no one was more surprised than Larry.
Larry became an instant hit, though he still remained 'himself' in performance terms, mothering the contestants where Bruce Forsyth had flirted with them, and flirting with the men where Bruce had mothered them! Larry also knew that his great strength was in the warmth and ease he radiated, so that contestants always felt comfortable and calm in his company. He would even join in the demonstrations of cakes etc, and nearly always end up making a mess of it by allowing the cake to fall to the floor, or the pottery wheel to spin hopelessly out of control. He also became a clown when it came to reading out the contestants' names, more often than not mispronouncing or getting the cards mixed up - like the occasion when he read out that a man was married to Edwin, he then turned to the audience and said 'We all make mistakes!'
Larry made sure that his favourite characters - Slack Alice, Apricot Lil, and Everard - were all mentioned too. During one comic monologue, after a contestant expressed a wish to try working as a pantomime horse some day, he told of a time he had done just that himself:
Well it's a strange ordeal, because I've played the back and the front of a pantomime horse. When I was the front of the horse I never said one word to the fellow at the back and he never said a word to me. And when I was the back, him at the front never said a word to me and I never said a word to him. Yet it's strange, as I had the feeling I knew him very well...
The show was becoming a runaway success, so much so that it was retitled as Larry Grayson's Generation Game, and his pay rocketed to £100,000 a year. 18 million viewers regularly tuned in to watch the show, and Larry became a national treasure and its true star. Routines from that show became comedy classics - like Larry dancing as John Travolta to Saturday Night Fever, an episode where Larry enjoys a dance round the maypole, and the look of anger on Larry's face as he is upstaged by a Morris dancer smacking him with an inflated pig's bladder!
Isla St Clair recently gave her opinions as to why the show was such a success:
There was a charm, and you wanted to protect him, and I think the audience felt like that. They felt very loving towards him.
Despite all the success, Larry was not happy to stay in London long for the filming of the show. The first thing he would do after shooting would be to return back home to Nuneaton, to the people he loved. He would always be more interested in what they had been doing than in discussing his work on The Generation Game. It was also a sure bet that when he got home Flo would be there with a hot dinner and plenty of gossip to update him with.
The Generation Game had given Larry all he wanted - fame, fortune, and love from the public. In return, he had taken over a hugely successful show and made it even better than before, just by the sheer warmth of his personality and the interaction between him and the contestants. When he decided in 1981 that he was going to leave the show, the main reason was that he had really enjoyed himself and knew he was going to leave on a high while the show was still successful.
Later that year he paid an emotional farewell and bowed out. The show has never been the same since, and Larry would always look back on it with tears of joy.
The audience loved it all, and it was fun. Oh it was such fun, and some of the happiest years of my life were with that programme.
Shut That Door!
Larry Grayson had achieved all he wanted to, and was more than financially secure. He moved with Flo to Torquay, Devon as part of his semi-retirement, but moved back to Nuneaton after just a couple of years - there were no Apricot Lils and Slack Alices to be found on the 'English Riviera' (as the ad-men optimistically call the Torquay area). He still performed in local theatres, always packing 'em in, and was still the ideal pantomime turn, although sticking to the script was not his strong point.
He gave back to his community even more when he became patron of the local hospital radio. It was these various engagements that filled his time and energy during the 1980s, a time when the gentle comedy of Larry Grayson had been replaced by the more crude and offensive type of humour that reflected the changing attitudes of 1980s Britain, as Mrs Thatcher the Prime Minister battled with the miners' strikes, and individualism became king.
Larry still made television appearances, on shows such as Wogan and the music hall programme The Good Old Days, where he was ideal as the Victorian seaside comic, offering his 'nudge nudge, wink wink' humour to an ever-grateful audience.
Then in 1987 he became a panellist on ITV's Sweethearts show, a dismal programme that soon folded. This left Larry without much in the way of TV work, and ended any hopes of a comeback. His advancing age and failing health meant that he was becoming more prone to illness, and was beginning to look like a 70-year-old.
His last public appearance was on the 1994 Royal Variety Show, where he was applauded warmly when he came on in an immaculate suit, accompanied by his old chair. The voice was slightly different, more breathy than before, and the wrists had become shrunken and thin as sticks. He now wore glasses which couldn't entirely disguise the old familiar face, even if time had etched the years onto it without mercy. It was a sad sight, and as you can tell from the very short appearance, it wasn't to do a comedy routine. It was a last goodbye to all those who had meant so much to him:
For all those lovely people at home that I get letters from all the time, saying 'Where is he, what's he up to?' - well, I'm alright, you see! I can walk without a frame, still got my hair, face hasn't been lifted, so - well - here I am! It's lovely being with you, and before I go, for all those people at home I must just say at once: Shut that door!
On New Year's Eve 1994 he was rushed into hospital - odd timing, as Larry always disliked New Year's Eve. The diagnosis was that Larry had suffered from a perforated appendix, a very painful condition that can be hard to detect in the elderly, but can be fatal in the over-60s age group. He was operated on and then released home.
On 7th January 1995, a few days after his hospital release, Larry Grayson died. Tributes poured in from all over the country, and much of his home town was in mourning. The funeral was held in Nuneaton and was certainly the biggest the town had ever seen, with the press showing much interest in the occasion.
Of all the obituaries, perhaps the most revealing and the most perceptive was from Suzi Pritchard in the Guardian newspaper, who wrote:
His camp, deliciously naughty humour was never crude or vulgar. The gentle ambivalence of his humour made him attractive to an extraordinarily diverse range of people. But his real appeal was that of a valued neighbour perceptively observing the details of everyday life and commenting on it across the garden fence, creating an emotional intimacy in a society starting to fragment.
Ken Dodd, another great comic, summed up Larry Grayson's appeal and warmth:
He loved everybody and he wanted them to love him in return and yes, they did, they all loved Larry.
Larry Grayson was a unique entertainer who worked his way up from the lowest spectrum of the entertainment sphere and finished on the highest - a man who always enjoyed life, and gave us a gift more precious than any sum of money, more valuable than the most priceless of diamonds; the gift of laughter and fun. It is with this that we remember him with love, warmth and thanks.
He seemed like a nice boy - and so he was.