As Barry Cryer turns 85, he tells Harry Mount about working with Max Miller, Spike Milligan, Morecambe & Wise and the Two Ronnies
‘As somebody once said, analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies,’ says Barry Cryer.
In fact, Barry is a master of comedy analysis, as you’d expect from someone who’s been in the business since 1957. And, what’s more, someone who’s written for everyone from the Two Ronnies to Bob Hope.
Together with John Junkin, he also wrote for Morecambe and Wise, including their 1972, 1976 and 1978 Christmas Shows.
‘Ernie was very similar to his character,’ says Barry. ‘Eric was quite serious. He wanted to talk about football and politics. And then a member of the public would turn up and he’d do the trick with his glasses. “We owe it to them,” he’d say.’
Still, Barry often saw off-duty Eric Morecambe being funny.
‘I once heard a man sounding off to Eric, saying, “To be in showbusiness, you must have three things.”
‘Eric, sucking on his pipe, says, “If you’ve got three things, you should be in a circus.” ’
Morecambe also occasionally dreamt up ideas for Barry and John Junkin. In the 1972 Christmas Show, starring Vera Lynn and Glenda Jackson, Morecambe suggested that Vera Lynn should feign not wanting to sing.
As Barry remembers, ‘Ernie says, “How can we get her to sing?” and Eric says, “Short of starting another war, I’ve no idea…” ’
To write the shows, says Barry, ‘We’d sit in a room, and John was Eric Morecambe.
‘It’s often true with two comedy writers: there’s a sitter and a walker. One of you’s prowling round the room and the other one’s tapping away. I’d be sitting there typing and John would be walking around the room, twiddling his glasses, being Eric Morecambe.
‘You’re like tailors making suits. You’ve got to see them in your mind’s eye and hear their voices when you’re doing it.’
Barry insists that Eddie Braben was the ‘A team’ writer for Eric and Ernie.
‘Eddie told me he wasn’t even a fan when he started writing for them,’ he says. ‘And then he met them. He saw how they bonded. He turned them into Eric and Ernie, not Morecambe and Wise.’
Barry locates the charm of Morecambe and Wise in one great quality: ‘Eric and Ernie were two grown men being silly.’
The word ‘silly’ is one of Barry’s greatest compliments.
‘A lot of brilliant people now are doing what I call serious comedy,’ he says. ‘The great Humphrey Lyttelton said, “Never lose touch with silly.”
‘I love adults being utterly silly – you relax. Tommy Cooper was a brilliant magician playing silly. Harry Hill does wonderful silly.’
Barry has such a range of references because he’s from what he calls ‘a bridge generation’ between the Tommy Cooper generation, born in the 1920s, and the Ben Elton generation, born in the 1950s.
Barry turns 85 on 23rd March – and he’s firing on all cylinders. He stars in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. He’s presenting a Channel 5 programme on Christmas Shows. And he’s MC at Oldie lunches at Simpson’s in the Strand, where he delivers his trademark parrot jokes.
‘My longevity is due to cigarettes and lager,’ he says. ‘I can’t account for it. It’s just a number. I don’t know how long I’ve got left. I don’t even buy green bananas.’
Barry knows thousands of jokes and improvises new ones. At an Oldie lunch this year, a speaker apologised for forgetting his name. ‘Don’t worry,’ Barry fired back. ‘The name’s Brad Pitt.’
His evergreen career owes much to his friendliness. Gyles Brandreth says, ‘Only people over 80 use a landline nowadays. Whenever the phone rings, I say to my wife, “It’ll be either Barry Cryer or Nicholas Parsons,” and it always is.’
In a business of big egos, Barry is unusually modest. He doesn’t consider himself a great comedian. ‘ “Entertainer” is a nice word [for me],’ he says. ‘I’m not remotely original. I tell stories and jokes and sing songs. The Erics and Ernies and the Tommy Coopers had an indefinable element – funny bones.’
Born in Leeds in 1935, Barry is struck by how few comedians are from his native Yorkshire. ‘My dear home county – the biggest in the country – has produced great writers: J B Priestley, Alan Bennett [a friend of Barry’s, also from Leeds and just a year older], Keith Waterhouse,’ he says. ‘Try and name a major comedian from Yorkshire and it’s difficult.
‘Ernie Wise was from near Leeds, yes, but then you get Lancashire and Liverpool – bristling with comedians.’
At Leeds Grammar School, Barry was ‘the cliché – the one trying to make the bully laugh’. But, still, he didn’t have any ambitions to be a comic: ‘I had a half-baked idea of being a journalist or writer of some description.’
At Leeds University, he ‘blew it’: ‘I’m BA Eng Lit (Failed) – I was chasing girls and in the bar.’
In 1957, aged 22, he made his way to London’s Windmill Theatre, famed for its naked ladies, forced by the Lord Chamberlain to stand still.
Working at the Windmill was a brilliant comedy training. Barry appeared six times a day for seven months – over a thousand shows. And he ‘had to compete with the ladies’ attractions’.
‘You learned to die with dignity at the Windmill,’ he says. ‘They hadn’t come to see you telling jokes. They would climb over seats to get nearer the front. It was known as the Grand National.
‘There was a loud-speaker announcement: “Patrons are requested not to climb over the seats” – which was drowned out by the noise of patrons climbing over the seats.’
Barry began meeting the galaxy of stars he has carried on bumping into over the 60 years since.
‘In the Windmill canteen, I met a man called Bruce Forsyth – I never found out what happened to him,’ he says.
Forsyth’s career was stalling. He told Barry, ‘I’m going to pack it in and open a little shop – a tobacconist’s.’
By 1958, Forsyth had started compèring Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Barry asked him, ‘What’s happened to the tobacconist’s?’
‘Postponed,’ said Brucie.
In 1958, Barry had a Number 1 in Finland with Purple People Eater, a previous hit for the American singer Sheb Wooley in America and Britain. For contractual reasons, it wasn’t issued in Scandinavia – thus Barry’s version.
‘I got the call, “You’re Number 1 in Finland,” ’ he says. ‘I think they gave away a car with each record.’
In 1958, Barry appeared on a radio programme with Max Miller – whom his mother had taken Barry to see as a boy (Barry’s father died when he was five).
‘The great Miller wore his full stage costume: white hat, smart suit,’ Barry remembers.
‘I can’t work in ordinary clothes, son,’ Miller told him.
Barry remembers the joke Miller told that day: ‘This bus breaks down. Driver says to the conductress, “I’ll fix this, love.” He’s got his head under the bonnet. Ten minutes go by. Passengers getting restless. Conductress goes down and says, “Do you want a screwdriver?”
He says, “No. We’re ten minutes late already.”
Barry owes a lot to David Frost. ‘I call him the practising catalyst. He was superb with people. He’d spotted that Graham Chapman and I had become mates. Frosty put us together and we subsequently wrote over 50 shows. John Cleese would say to Graham, “Are you being unfaithful to me with Baz?” ’
Barry began writing for his idol, Jack Benny: ‘He played a mean, conceited person. But he was a lovely, warm man to meet.’
Soon after, he met Ronnie Corbett: ‘I met him the same day I met my darling, my wife Terry. Tossed a coin and married her.’
At one stage, Barry was a warm-up man for Spike Milligan. ‘There I was, doing the warm-up when Spike walked on and said, “Van Gogh was Jewish.”
“Well, in that case,” I said, “the rabbi must have had a terrible sense of direction.” ’
Barry was once in the green room of a chat show, when Spike jumped up, spread- eagled himself against the wall as if he was being searched, and said, ‘Cryer’s here. Take my jokes – don’t hurt me.’
In fact, rather than taking other people’s jokes, Barry happily gives his away.
‘Barry is the most generous of all performers,’ says Gyles Brandreth. ‘He’s happy for you to use any of his lines. “They’re only on loan to any of us while we’re around,” he says.’
George Burns, Stanley Baxter, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Frankie Howerd, Richard Pryor… The list of greats Barry has worked with reads like an encyclopedia of 20th-century comedy.
The only comedian Barry could never get the hang of writing for was Larry Grayson. ‘We were mates,’ he says, ‘but I could never quite capture the style. We did a show on ITV and I was hired as one of the writers. It was the only time in my life I asked if I could have my name taken off the credits because I hadn’t written a single line. I could never capture Larry Grayson.’
Barry shuttled from his double act with Willie Rushton, Two Old Farts in the Night, to writing for Kenny Everett.
‘Dear Everett – he was wonderful,’ he recalls. ‘In the old days, your gay mates didn’t come out. They’d been ruined. They’d gone to prison. Dear Ev was flamboyantly camp. He always called me Bar, which was where he normally found me.
‘He said to me one day, “Ooh, Bar, you’ve been married for 30 years with four children. What a smokescreen!”’
Then, in 1972, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, devised by Graeme Garden, started – and never stopped; thanks to silliness.
‘It’s a silly game show that doesn’t need fully scripting. We’re like an old rock band now. Grown men being utterly silly.’
Long may dear Barry remain utterly, brilliantly silly.