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How Barry Cryer became an Oldie star – and my hero. By Ben Tisdall

Blog | By Ben Tisdall | Jan 13, 2022

Barry Cryer and Ben Tisdall
Barry Cryer and Ben Tisdall

Barry Cryer helped out the Oldie when it was in trouble – and became a great friend to Ben Tisdall

On Spike Milligan’s gravestone, written in Irish, is the epitaph ‘I told you I was ill’. A joke the great Barry Cryer, no doubt enjoyed. However, if it had not been for Spike being ill one day, Barry’s long friendship and involvement with The Oldie, may never had happened.

It was the late nineties and Spike was due to be a speaker at one of the first of the magazine’s literary lunches, at Simpsons-in-the-Strand. Barry Took, was another speaker, and as the organiser, one of my tasks was to think of suitable top-table guests to invite. Cryer had spoken at a lunch a couple of months before, and had made a joke about often being mistaken for his name-sake. It seemed a fun idea to have them both there, and in fact they both arrived together for the pre-lunch drinks.

Unfortunately, I then got a phone-call that any event organiser dreads.

Spike, our ‘star’ speaker, was not well, and would not be attending. My heart sank as I watched the expectant guests, throng into the Smoking Room bar, overhearing the chatter about what the Goon might say, and seeing the piles of Spike’s books dwindling and guests snaffling up copies eager to get a rare signature.

It was, of course, Richard Ingrams, inspired idea, to suggest that Cryer step in and he sent me off take Barry to the upstairs bar for a quiet word. What happened next was fairly breath-taking, but something I later came to realise was part of the man’s genius.

No sooner had he agreed to step in, than over a quick half a lager, he jotted down, in less than five minutes, ten words or phrases, on the back of a card. These it turned out were some of his ‘Spike’-related jokes, that at the end of our stodgy lunch, he rattled off to the glee of the assembled audience.

It will not surprise you to learn that he was a tremendous success, and certainly no-one left feeling they had missed out. ‘Oh no!’ apparently Spike would exclaim ‘Its Barry Cryer – you can take my money but please don’t take my jokes!’

It was fair to say, that neither Richard or I really knew Barry back then, but upon realising that (a) we could really do with a ‘super-sub’ at our lunches and (b) he was simply brilliant at ad-libbing on the spot, I was despatched off a week later, to have lunch with Barry to talk him into a mutual deal. He could attend every future lunch for free, and if we ever had another author drop out, then he would step in.

This was the start of well over twenty years of monthly lunches, and regular readers will know that for the last eight ‘Baz’ as everyone came to know him, chaired the lunches, adding his generosity of spirit, friendship and, of course, humour to those events.

In fact, to say we at The Oldie got the better end of the deal, would be a huge understatement. He was always on hand to calm a nervous author, greet unknown readers, as if they were long-lost friends, and subtly skewer the occasional crashing bore who attended the lunches.

I was lucky that I soon struck up a good friendship with Barry, and it became code in the office that if I was ‘in a meeting’, this would probably mean Barry had found himself in Soho and wondered if I fancied a quick drink? I’d probably meet him once or twice a week like this, often after he had filmed a radio show or done one of his many TV talking heads, extolling the virtues of the many famous comedians he had written for or worked with.

How could it not have been a joy to sit there, listening to his latest jokes or just gossiping about the news? He was always waiting in the corner of the pub. I remember him mostly in a standard uniform of white trainers, blue jeans, a yellow polo-neck and white carrier bag, always stuffed with newspapers. He drank only lager and smoked (indoors in those days) menthol cigarettes, always with a smile and always a story of where he’d been that week. Often it was some strange commercial dinner he’d been booked for, perhaps the Undertaker of the Year. He would never tell ‘undertaker jokes’ (they’d heard them all); but always did a poem at the end of his speech, which would include references to people there, perhaps pricking the pomposity of the management.

Baz would often quote his great friend Willie Rushton, remembering a particularly arrogant chairman at such an event: ‘I hope you are going to be funny tonight, Mr Rushton, we are paying you a lot of money’. ‘Yes’, replied Rushton ‘and most of it is for having to sit next to you.’

The other delight in being invited, ad hoc to the pub, with Barry, was that on occasion wonderful people would also be there. Often friends would walk past, spot him, and pop in for ‘just the one’. I remember a fascinating afternoon with the actor and stunt-man Pat Roach, and another when Galton and Simpson (recently reunited after a long feud) sat with us for over an hour, before either bothered to mention to me who they were.

However, as much as Barry loved a pub and a story, you didn’t need to be well-known to enjoy his company or yours his. Around the turn of the century, he was suddenly rushed to hospital where he had a major heart operation. His Christmas card that year showed him in a hospital bed, with a drip being fed from a very large vat of Carlsberg. I soon after, visited him at his home in Hatch End, and discovered that every Saturday lunchtime he’d visit his local pub, and was as happy chatting with the local plumber or car mechanic than with the more glamorous friends, of whom he counted hundreds.

Despite these frequent pub escapades, I only ever saw Baz worse for wear once. He seemed to have an almost super-human capacity to drink lager, like some of us breath air, and it had little noticeable effect on him. In fact, as most of us drink more and think we get funnier, but in fact the opposite is true, with Baz this was the reverse.

The occasion it did catch up with him once, was after an Oldie lunch organised at the Millennium Stadium was opened in Cardiff. The afternoon had already been a long one, but made especially fun as the two other speakers were the Oldie’s then agony aunt, the fabulous Mavis Nicholson and former rugby-player and broadcaster Cliff Morgan. Because of the latter, we some-how found ourselves in a pub after the lunch with Barry John. Not only is he acclaimed as possibly Wales’s greatest ever fly-halves, but also, he would probably make it in the principalities top ten boozers. Train after train got missed, and it’s fair to say Barry admitted he was ‘feeling no pain’ by the time we got back to Paddington.

Another occasion was less enjoyable for me. We had organised as part of the Bath literature festival an Oldie lunch at the Assembly Rooms, where Jane Austen had once danced. At nine that evening Barry and I were to appear at an event to promote the magazine. Clive James, was believe it or not, our warm up act. The format was that I would interview Baz for an hour and then after an interval he would tell stories of jokes picked from words put in a bucket by the audience.

Barry and I had both drunk during the lunch. We then decamped to a near-by pub. We then moved on the well-stocked green-room. It’s fair to sat that the Bath Chronicles review was accurate when it glowed about Barry’s ability to conjure up jokes from simply a word or a name, but said I had been ‘a lot less effective’ – words that were to teach me that trying to drink like Baz before going on a stage simply was not to be advised in the future.

What was mesmerising though, that evening, was to observe the way in which, what he described as his ‘Butterfly Brain’ flitting from topic to topic and was able to be funny about almost anything. I would sometimes try and challenge him in the pub by finding something really obscure for him to tell a joke about. He always won.

We had a code-word that if I had heard a joke before I was supposed to say ‘Banana’ but I rarely said it, as it was such a delight to hear the good ones, again. He rated Tommy Cooper very highly, while relishing in his meanness – ‘Have a drink on me’ he once told a cab driver, placing a tea-bag in his hand.

He told me of a time that he went round to Frankie’s Howard’s house to try and write with him, and how the be-wigged Carry On star let his dressing gown slip open in an unsubtle overture. Once our hero made it clear he was not interested in anything amorous they had a fruitful writing session, with Howard insisting on every ‘Ooo’, ‘Ah’ and pause being written into the script.

Kenny Everett, although clearly a unique talent, also benefited from the experience of having Barry’s less anarchic joke-writing style and by contrast it was clear Barry enjoyed the license to create characters like Cupid Stunt, and have no parameters to his writing.

Baz also was a great promoter of young comedians and wrote a piece for the magazine about up-and-coming stars like Peter Kay and Ross Noble, long before they were household names.

Strangely, as it was what he was best known for, Barry rarely talked about I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. He clearly loved it and was proud of it, but more than anything, he seemed baffled that after decades of the show, and despite being close friends with all the regular panellists, he still did not have Humphrey Lyttleton’s phone number.

This was important to Baz, as Barry was a very enthusiastic and regular ‘phoner’. I used to imagine him sat at home, having opened his post, calling round possibly dozens of people in a row to thank them for some kindness, or simply tell them a funny story he had read, or his latest joke. It was rare if you wrote to him that a call didn’t follow that week. In lock-down he, of course, called me to bemoan the fact that all the pubs were shut.

I know my story, and friendship with Barry was not unique. There are probably hundreds of others out there who shared similar pleasures. He was a ‘networker’ before the term had probably ever existed. I never heard anyone say a bad word against him. People’s faces lit up when his name was mentioned. A friend of mine once described half an hour in Barry’s company as the equivalent to a warm hug.

His obituaries largely concentrated on his radio work and the more famous comedians he wrote for. However, Oldie readers, who attended lunches, will know he was so much more than that. In my opinion his obsession with words was a literary talent, as much as a comedic one. It was almost a compulsion he could not help. He simply could not resist, interrupting you, if you had mentioned a word, that caught his imagination. You could see his memory ignite and eyes sparkle, as a joke rushed forth.

We luckily are left with a lot of recordings of Barry and for those that need a laugh, and want to recall his talent, I would direct you to his recent podcast, with his son, Bob, ‘Now where we?

In 2005, I was back at Simpsons, helping organise Barry’s 70th birthday. This time it was an evening event with music and dancing. The guest list was a real mixture of family and friends and the aforementioned Bob gave a speech that must go down as one of the funniest I have ever heard, showing the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Late in the evening, during the speeches I noticed a small figure, in coat and scarf shuffled into the back of the room. It was Alan Bennett.

‘Are you here to celebrate Barry’s birthday?’ I checked. ‘Yes of course’ He replied ‘After all, not only is he one of the funniest men, but he is also a great man’.

And he was.