I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't play an instrument. But I've done everything from school nativity plays to the London Palladium.
- Larry Grayson, 1923 - 1995
Larry Grayson dominated a niche of British comedy in the 1970s by utilising his highly successful personality and natural comic timing, honed by years of practising his craft around endless theatres and clubs. 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.
His manner, style and charisma endeared him to several generations, and influenced many of today's performers. He could get a laugh merely by flicking a wrist and saying 'Look at the muck on here!' - or by touching his head and saying 'Must wash my hair, it's gone all limp!'
Larry Grayson's world revolved around a myriad of peculiar characters and comic situations - like a repertory theatre played-out for the imagination. Larry often gave exposure to characters such as:
Apricot Lil, who works in the jam factory
Pop-It-In-Pete, the postman ('The things I've had through my letterbox!')
Self-Raising Fred, the baker
And not forgetting the enigmatic and proudly-named...
Everard, Larry's 'close friend'
Larry's comedy was gossipy, slightly bitchy and served up with generous helpings of innuendo and eyebrow-raising remarks. His routines would often involve stories of people with their legs wrapped in tin foil who he thought would never see Easter, and Slack getting drunk down the 'Cock and Trumpet,' sprawled-out over the bar with her legs in the air like two bolsters, and him predicting that 'She'll have her red hat on tonight!'
Hypochondria was Larry's forte too, and was primarily used in his act to gain sympathy from the audience. Thus he was constantly feeling 'As limp as a vicar's handshake,' and 'coming over all queer.' On one or two occasions he complained of stiffness, and getting it 'all down this side.' Glancing at the audience, he would say, 'You suffer from it too, don't you, sir? I can tell the way you're sitting!' Then he would let us know he has to use 'this ointment'; he would normally use Fiery Jack but 'I've lost his number!'
Grayson flourished in an age that would forever be associated with brash fashions and big hairstyles, when platform shoes were so high they came with an oxygen tank and when hot pants and large earrings became essential evening wear - and that was just for the men. This was an age when sexual politics and militancy were replacing the rather old-fashioned ideals of post-War Britain, when 'equal opportunities' meant letting the girl buy her own lager-and-lime. It was a time when disco ruled, Abba were the monarchy and when polyester sweaters with diamond segments were stretching back the boundaries of fashion and good taste.
This era cried out for camp like a disused tent - and a uniquely talented entertainer was elevated to fill the void, a man who would dominate the comedy landscape, leave behind a thousand happy memories - and yet never truly reveal the private man that was so publicly on show.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we present - Larry Grayson!
Banbury is a small market town on the northern border of Oxfordshire, UK. The town made its money from the farmers' markets and cattle fairs held in the small market square every week. Under the burning rays of an English summer sun, or the frozen snowfall of a bitter winter, the farmers would be there to trade their animals and sell the produce of their hard toil. Sheep would look on from their pens, chickens roam about the market-place. Women would display their newly-made jams and preserves, while the men huddled round in sly groups inspecting the quality of yet another herd. Banbury was a rural agricultural town influenced by the land around it. In this setting it came about that an illegitimate child would spend his first few days of life among these country folk, and years later look back on this period with a wry smile. Larry Grayson was not going to be here long.
He was born William White, in Banbury, on 31 August, 1923. For his mother Ethel this was not an entirely joyous occasion, since the father had steadfastly refused to marry her. Thus she would be breaking a major taboo in the society of that time, in having a child 'out of wedlock'. The shame which society would heap on her for bringing into the world an illegitimate son was immense. The word 'b*****d' was still a common description for such children, and this meant that very soon the baby, or the mother, would have to leave. As for the father, a factory foreman, his son would never meet him or hear about him ever again. This was society in the pre-Second World War period; the constraints and powerful Christian morals of this generation would not disappear until well after 1960.
So already the baby had been marked out by society as an outcast, an unnatural result of his mother's 'loose morals.' Baby William White was therefore seen as different right from his birth, with the odds stacked against him from a tender age. William would prove himself different in many other ways later on, and may have looked back at this period as the source of the feeling that he was deficient in some way, never destined to fit in or be 'average.'
Ten days after the birth, William White arrived in the Midlands mining town of Nuneaton to meet his adoptive family. Nuneaton is just outside Coventry. At that time, still sheltered in its own community, Nuneaton had not yet been swallowed-up by the mighty industrial towns that would later eclipse it. It was an old-fashioned, close-knit place, with its roots firmly in working-class manual labour. Not 'up north,' but not 'down south' either, it was part of the powerhouse of England called the Midlands. Birmingham, with its mighty industries and vast canal network, was also part of this urban workhorse that had spawned factories and terraced housing like there was no tomorrow. It was a far cry from rural Banbury; but also a different planet to the glitz and glamour of showbusiness.
To his new family and friends, the Hammonds, he would be known from now on as Billy White. Alice and Jim Hammond already had two daughters of their own, Flo and May. Alice, his adoptive mother, died when Billy was six years old, and the task of looking after him fell to her eldest daughter, Flo.
Flo was, by all accounts, an amazing woman. She made sure that Billy never went hungry, and always had a pair of decent shoes on his feet. Although the family were on the poverty line, Flo made certain that Billy would be different, and not have to suffer as they had. It was not until Billy was eight years old that he discovered that the mysterious Aunt Ethel was in fact his natural mother, and that Flo was not. His love for Flo, however, was that of a son, regardless of 'blood'. To him she would always be 'Mum,' as well as his number one fan and friend.
The terraced housing of Abbey Green, Nuneaton, ensured that neighbours looked onto neighbours, women could gossip over the fence (with the occasional silent mouthing to indicate a particularly sensitive piece of dialogue), and all the toilets (shared, of course) were outside in a block. Next door were wash-houses, where the laundry was boiled in large 'coppers' - oh, the beauty of a Hotpoint washing machine!
All of this meant that Billy sat and listened to the quirks and oddities of the Nuneaton dialect, and later, (when he was better known as Larry Grayson) would imitate what he had heard, to great comic effect. Years later, he explained in an interview the benefit of listening to the characters that inhabited the area:
I listen to people. I mean, I'm out a lot and ladies come up to me in the street and say 'Hello Larry, how are you, how's your sister?' I'd say, 'Oh, she's fine, how are you going on?' And she'd say, 'Well I've had this terrible pain...' I'd say, 'Well, there's an 'r' in the month... you'll get it!'
Billy developed a tendency to show off, and would put on small productions in the wash-houses for local friends and neighbours, where they would pay in cigarette cards for the privilege of seeing him give his all for theatrical posterity. During an interview in the 1970s he explained the story to Michael Parkinson (a British TV chat show host from Barnsley, South Yorkshire):
I used to get home from school at night, and have concerts in the wash-house, and I used to have children see these concerts, like An Evening With!
His thirst for acting and performing had now begun in earnest, fuelled by performances in school, the great acts in the back yard, and showing off to amused aunts and uncles. When he left school aged 14 he took a job in the local shoe shop, but knew this wasn't for him. Two days later he left the job and announced he was going to be a star!
Part Two of this entry charts Larry's early years as a performer, and his rise to stardom on commercial television.
Part Three of this entry is an appreciation of The Generation Game and the peak of Larry's career.