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 BBC 1's 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. Larry Grayson was born William White and was known throughout his childhood as Billy. At the age of 14 he left school and started out on his career...
From Drags To Riches
The club scene in the Midlands and the north of England in the late 1930s was huge. Until the advent of 'alternative' comedy, the Working Men's Clubs were the cultural oasis for the area. It was always a paradox that the areas with the highest amounts of unemployment always boasted the largest number of Working Men's Clubs.
These clubs were smoky dens typified by the classic TV show The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club. Normally, some pretty dire dog acts and 'singers' would be interspersed with the club comic telling a stream of mother-in-law gags.
Young Billy's first job on leaving school at 14 was in a shoe shop. That job lasted just two days. A neighbour had heard of Billy's plans to leave the shoe shop, and as a gesture he offered to get him a spot at the Fife Street Working Men's Club, where he would be able to perform for a fee. It wasn't exactly the Palladium1, but it was a step up from selling shoes. For the occasion, he decided to wear a white suit and sing a risqué music hall-type song as part of 'The Very Lights', called In The Bushes At The Bottom Of The Garden.
Whatever was at the bottom of his garden certainly left the audience amused, and finally confirmed to Bill that although he may have felt deficient as an individual, as a performer he could be confident and popular as never before.
After a hard day's slog on the northern club circuit, Bill would go to a lovely hot dinner that Flo (his surrogate mother - see Part One) cooked for him. She was always there to make sure he never wanted for anything.
Various other club engagements poured in, and soon Bill was a star turn within the area. Still working in his home town, he began working for clubs in Coventry and elsewhere. He would dress as a woman for the first half, wearing an immaculate shirt and tie in the second. He was always a snappy dresser.
The performance was far from being a drag. As his later manager, Paul Vaughan, said in an interview, his ability to become a woman was so convincing that it could be a total transformation:
Very often, in the first half he would be in drag. 'Britain's Miss-leading Lady' was how he was billed, or 'The Reason The Troops Went East - And West'! And then after the interval he'd come out again in a suit, and a lot of people didn't know it was the same person - but he got two fees for it!
Larry Grayson said in later years, 'I always say it took me 34 years to get out of a dress and into a suit.' That must have been some sticky catch! Bernard Manning (another British comedian on the club circuit) recalled in later years Larry Grayson's emphasis on looking smart. He quoted him as saying, 'To be skint2 is no crime, but to look skint is unforgivable.'
He went on to tour the villages of Devon and Cornwall with a show called 'The Four Blue Pages', complete with drag, sequins and feathers. Little remains in terms of any archive from his act, just personal recollections, but by all accounts he must have been very successful, and was doing a performance similar to what Hinge and Brackett (a peculiarly Upper-class English drag act) would make so popular years later.
By the 1930s, Bill had changed his name yet again, this time to Billy Breen, and he was working with the famous Ralph Reader, whose 'Gang Shows' had been an early training-ground for other comics, such as Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock and Dick Emery. Once again a change of name was seen as necessary. However, from now on Billy Breen would always be known as Larry Grayson. His agent Eve Taylor had suggested Larry, and he chose Grayson after his favourite singing star, Kathryn Grayson.
He continued doing his drag and patter act, in endless tatty Variety Clubs and countless summer shows, for 30 years. Yet despite his reputation on the circuit as a master of comic timing, real success was still eluding him. As if that wasn't enough, in 1969 his health failed and he was admitted to hospital with three burst stomach ulcers. Shortly afterwards he suffered a nervous breakdown. These were dark days - the sort that might cause other performers to succumb to alcoholism and the regurgitation of worn-out routines to ever-dwindling audiences. Not for the first time, then, the odds were stacking against him.
What A Gay Day!
Following Larry's brush with death, he decided that if he was ever going to be a star he would have to pull himself together and make a big effort. He wasn't young any more. Many comedians had became famous in their salad days, but Larry was to prove the opposite of this. However, it was a time of frustration. He always believed that he could make it to the top, yet so far all his efforts to do so had been to no avail. He revealed, later in life, that he had become resigned to the idea that he was too old and would not make it now. However, this made Larry's appreciation of success all the greater, and he always treated success with a respect that many of his peers lacked.
Larry had a booking at a seedy London den called The Stork Club. That night, fate decreed that this was going to be his springboard and the last of the tat, the endless flea-pit clubs, and the hopeless attempts at fame. In the audience that night was Michael Grade, nephew of Sir Lew Grade, the impresario and TV entrepreneur. Michael Grade had been tipped off by a writer and performer, Peter Dulay, about this great comic. Michael Grade would later explain, in an interview regarding his part in the rise and rise of Larry Grayson, that he knew he was good.
On came Larry Grayson, in a suit, with the chair. I think he only did four minutes - that's all they needed from him. I signed him the next morning.
Michael Grade was his agent for several years, and always classed Larry Grayson as one of the greatest raconteurs at parties and social gatherings. He also said he found him a delight to work with. Peter Dulay, who tipped Michael Grade off, would later be Larry Grayson's chief scriptwriter for songs and shows.
1971 was looking to be a great year for Larry Grayson. His first television appearances were lined up: Sir Lew Grade's ATV (Associated Television) had signed him for a four-minute spot on three Saturday variety shows. During these shows Larry came on with his trademark wooden chair. When he needed to lift the audience he'd say, 'Let's have a change of scenery', and he would move the chair from the left side to the right. He also started impregnating the national psyche with his catchphrases. 'Shut that door' was one he used more than once. Then he'd look at the chair, run his fingers over the top as if inspecting it, and say with contempt, 'Look at the muck on 'ere!' The audience were in hysterics. After that he'd gleefully use his most tongue-in-cheek catchphrase, 'What a gay3 day!'
Larry explained to his new audience how he got this job, and began telling them of his showbiz triumphs:
I've walked miles to get here, and my legs are killing me, they are. I'm riddled with arthritis, but I'll tell you this: Shut That Door! No, the thing is, you see, now I'm here [he feels his nose] I've got the worms! No, the thing is, now I'm here I thought I'd get a job with this lot, I can do it... I can do all this chorus work very well, I've done it all before, yes I have, I've been going around for years in musical comedies, I have really, I've done the Quaker Girl, I've done Rose Marie, I've done the Maid Of The Mountains, I've been very busy! I did the Vagabond Queen - I refused the Chocolate Soldier!
Everyone was talking about this enigmatic and very funny man. They all thought he was an overnight star - little did they know the truth. Lew Grade was so impressed by this new talent that he extended the Saturday Variety slots to six shows, then 12, and eventually to 16. Larry Grayson also appeared on the Leslie Crowther Show (Crowther was an actor, singer and quiz show host), until eventually Larry got his own show, called Shut That Door.
Shut That Door
Shut That Door was a 30-minute show of Larry doing what he did best: comedy and sketches. Here, he finally had a platform from which to talk about his friends 'Slack Alice' and 'Everard', and of course mince to a grateful audience of several million. He also read out a letter from a rather strange viewer in a part of the show he called 'Get It Off Your Chest':
My husband is an explorer, and he came home this morning after 25 years in Borneo. He was looking for the Ha Ha tribe, but didn't find them. He has changed slightly. He now has a long white beard and a bone through his nose - our dog won't go near him. And all he wears is his handkerchief - one at the back and one at the front. I just dare not send him shopping! He's been home five minutes and he wants to play games with me. He has got a blowpipe and some darts, and he wants me to stand near the shed with an apple on my head!
Larry would also keep up the banter in these shows by going on endlessly about a brooch that he claimed had gone missing in circumstances he never elaborated on, but which involved Jack Parnell, an ATV music director. Whether these activities involved his baton, too, was never disclosed! Larry also abused the pianist by looking at him and saying, 'You look as though you're embalmed - I can smell the ferrets from here!'
He often finished the shows with a song, and a heartfelt, rather emotional message to the viewers - 'I love you all.' It was always entirely genuine and sincere.
As if to confirm the fact of Larry's popularity, in 1972 he was voted the TV Times magazine's Funniest Man. He also recorded comic songs based on his catchphrase, and topped the bill at the London Palladium. The Queen Mother was a great fan of Larry's.
He moved from his home in Clifton Road to a more exclusive part of Nuneaton, into a house he named The Garlands, after his idol Judy Garland. His next big investment was a white Rolls-Royce, in which he kept handy a container of salt and a bottle of vinegar for his chip suppers in the back seat!
In a rare foray into serious drama, Larry appeared in Crossroads, a cult ITV soap opera, in 1973 and 1975. He acted alongside Noele Gordon, the star of that particular series and his great friend.
To satisfy public interest as his public profile increased, Larry was invited onto the Michael Parkinson show, where Parkinson (a British TV chat show host from Barnsley, South Yorkshire) asked him about the characters, and specifically how real and observed they are:
Oh I know they are. I mean, Everard's a mess! You know his names are Everard Farquharson? He's a drip, but he's very faithful, you know. Whenever he used to travel with me on tour he always stood at the side with my cocoa, 'cause he's got a friend called Michael Bonavenci. I don't see a lot of him now ... they do a lot of potholing!
It was true that all these characters were genuine, and existed. Everard was a real lad whom Larry got introduced to by his landlady's mother in Bolton (Lancashire). Larry later said, when he heard the name, 'He won't thank you for that when he's 18, I'm sure!' And Slack Alice and Apricot Lil were modelled on the women that Larry would see in Nuneaton. To him the town had a comic side that he loved.
Larry continued working for ITV for around six years. He also recorded shows for London Weekend Television. These included the eponymous Larry Grayson Show, a show that capitalised on his slick stage style by having a set that consisted of a large marble staircase with dry ice drifting around the foot of it like a great London fog. These were the last shows he would make for ITV. Larry was going to join Auntie Beeb (as the BBC is still sometimes affectionately known) - and in the process reach the pinnacle of his career.
Part Three of this Entry is an appreciation of The Generation Game and the peak of Larry's career.