Monday, 4 April 2016

"Look at the muck on here!"

"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."

From the h2g2 site:
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's comedy was gossipy, slightly bitchy and served up with generous helpings of innuendo and eyebrow-raising remarks... 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!"

Taking his stage surname from the Hollywood star Kathryn Grayson, the former William Sulley White was a stalwart of British post-Music Hall/Variety light entertainment, a master of the style of picture-postcard-innuendo camp comedy that dominated television from the early 1970s onward - in the company of the likes of Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, Dick Emery and John Inman, his was a mincing and effeminate act that the public loved.

Yet (as with all of his ilk) the audience of the day still refused to accept that their favourite "family entertainers" were anything but celibate actors, with nothing going on in their bedrooms. The penny never even dropped when - in a camper-than-camp move - he and (lady lesbian) Noele "Nolly" Gordon (matriarch of top soap Crossroads at that time) announced their "engagement" as a joke...

Even by the mid 1970s, despite his ostensible "closet", more militant elements had him (or rather, his position as "token gay" on the BBC) in their sights. However, he managed to disarm them, as this rather touching tribute from one of the protestors against him at the time makes clear:
It was 1974 and Lewisham Campaign for Homosexual Equality were picketing his show at the local theatre. We had already written to him pointing out he was not the object of our complaint, it was rather that the media only allowed one image of a gay man - his - to appear on screen, therefore distorting the reality of our lives. Please remember this was long before gay characters in soaps or openly gay entertainers of any sort. When we arrived at the theatre we were met by his manager who invited us to meet with the man himself after the show.

He was a kind, gentle man with a fine intelligence and sharp wit. It was the days of Gay Liberation and the first thing I needed him to affirm was in fact that he was gay. This he did with no hesitation – a point that many who knew him well still refuse to believe. He was thoughtful in the discussion that ensued, saying he was, after all, only an entertainer, what after all could he do?

Well actually, had we only seen it then, he had already been doing it for many years. In the late fifties and early sixties he performed a highly controversial and, to many, difficult act through the theatres and workingmen’s clubs of Britain. When Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick created their Julian & Sandy duo in the safety of a radio studio in London, Grayson had already taken stronger characters to the people years before. And it wasn’t always a happy meeting of minds! Yet he continued, honed his many comedic skills in a very testing forum and eventually achieved a glimmer of fame...

The prejudice of the time took its toll and he never had a gay relationship, remained unsure of his place and lacked confidence and self-esteem. This left him open to exploitation and abuse. Yet through it all his kindness and warmth shone...

I never thought I would have become one of Grayson’s champions. But I am, and proud to be so!

With such conflicting memories of the man in our minds, so it was that John-John and I ventured to the unknown territory that is Kentish Town last Friday (before I broke my foot) to see a brand new play about him by Chris Mellor at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre (which is also run by Mr Mellor).

We were so glad we did!

The play "tells the events of the three days leading up to what would be Larry’s final finale, when the ageing camp comedian befriended a spiritual healer to help him get his three minute act together" [that particular "three minute finale" being the Royal Variety Performance in 1994, a mere three months before his death]. A very clever premise - and very revealing, for not many people (us included) knew anything about his crippling lack of confidence nor his strong belief in fortune-telling, psychics and the spirit world.

Larry was brilliantly portrayed by founding member of "Four Poofs and a Piano" Ian Parkin, managing to capture the great man's facial tics and his faux-"offended" fastidious mannerisms to a tee. Played entirely as a two-hander on a very minimal set, he had an excellent "foil" for the expositions necessary for the story in Lee Peart (erstwhile host of Manchester Gay Pride and stand-up comic) as his spiritualist and mentor "Mark", brimming with confidence yet with hidden secrets of his own.

Between them they managed to capture the essence of Mr Grayson - his rise from being a fostered child largely brought up by his "sisters" May and Fan, to touring as a drag queen, to his meteoric rise to fame when he was in his 40s - together with some clever attempts to introduce his favourite (and always invisible) characters including "Everard", "Slack Alice", "Pop it in Pete" the postman, "Self Raising Fred" the baker, "Apricot Lil" from the jam factory, "Non-Stick Nell" and "Once a week Nora".

Despite all his self-doubts, Larry Grayson's appearance at the Royal Variety Performance - which he did without the agreement or the involvement of his manager, as the plot revealed - was a genuine crowd-pleaser, and a suitable epitaph for a genuinely wonderful entertainer:

...and Mr Parkin recreated this whole routine, word for word, and action by action.

It was a sight to behold - and an excellent evening!

The play Three Days and Three Minutes With Larry is currently on tour, hitting such salubrious venues as Rotherham, Rhyl and Chesterfield, before returning to London (briefly at the Bloomsbury Museum of Comedy) and then jetting off again around the provinces. A bit like the man himself, really.

Larry Grayson (31st August 1923 – 7th January 1995)

More Larry over at my other blog Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle


  1. Thanks for the fab review / tribute. Wish I could have gone too

    1. I wish you could have been there, too! Jx

  2. A great read, glad you enjoyed my play, we hope to bring it back soon. Chris

    1. Thanks, Chris. It was superb - and I do hope it returns; I have friends who would love to see it! Jx


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