Barry Cryer is an incredibly popular entertainer, raconteur and a writer, but don’t you dare call him a legend! Martin Walker talks to the great man himself about David Frost, Kenny Everett, John Cleese, Michael McIntyre, Susan Calman, Eric Sykes and Ken Dodd. But first they talk about Twittering On, the show he’s performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Colin Sell.
“It’s the first time Colin and I have done the Fringe together for years, since the 90s. I’ve been doing it for twenty years on and off. I did eleven or twelve years on the trot with Ronnie Golden…
Twenty years is a long time.
“I’m in my anecdotage.
“I’m going to start the show like a lecture about one particular joke that went around America in the 1920s, but me being me, there are lots of diversions. I’ll wonder off in various directions.
“The joke actually came from Roman times. The formula to some jokes go way, way back. You hear a current joke now about Nigel Farage and you think, hang on, I’ve heard that before about somebody else.”
I was just re-reading your book. You Won’t Believe This But.
“I hated that title. I gave the publishers six other titles but they went with the one I didn’t like. The book was republished as Chronicles of Hernia.
In the book you write about he questions that you’re always asked at interviews. I’m going to try an avoid them.
Do you believe in God?
“I believe in something, I’m not sure what it is, I believe in some force…
“As I you know, I write in the book about an interviewer who did ask me that once. I said ‘you really threw me with that one’. It certainly woke me up.
“Interviewing isn’t easy. And there are very few who do it well.”
Your old pall David Frost could do it couldn’t he?
“The great David Frost, the Brit who brought down an American President.
“Frostie was the best. He interviewed presidential hopeful, Michael Dukakis once. Frostie told people later that he said he was losing to live, he was so dull, and part way through the interview he asked him – what makes you laugh? And there was complete silence, the man couldn’t think of an answer, and it was left like that on television. And that was just brilliant. One deadly question.
“John Major said that being interviewed by David Frost was like being in a warm bath and waiting for the cold shower. He was a very warm, genuinely affable, friendly man, David, I knew him, I worked with him a lot, he relaxed his interviewees, he enjoyed their company, but he sussed them out.
Didn’t David Frost give you your first break in television?
“Yes, working with him was my first really regular TV stint. I was at Danny LaRoux’s night club, and I was writing the shows, so was in with them. Ronnie Corbett, was also there and a message came round one night saying David Frost would like to have a drink with me and Ronnie. You can’t plan that sort of thing, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. And as a result Ronnie got into the Frost Report met Ronnie Barker. And I became a Frost writer.”
Apparently he was a very powerful man.
“There was a joke we used to do, it wasn’t mine, and I can’t remember who first did it.
“David Frost had an open top convertible car. If it started raining, David Frost had a button on the dashboard. When he pressed it, it stopped raining.
“There is no real equivalent of him at the moment, if there were a parallel to Frostie now, I would acknowledge it, but I don’t think there is.”
You went on to write with Michael McIntyre’s dad didn’t you?
“Yes, Cameron and I wrote the Kenny Everett show together.”
And you both wrote the cult Kenny Everett movie Bloodbath at the House of Death?
“That’s a co-incidence! I was talking about that movie just last night. Hardly anyone remembers it. We were chatting about a scene were we got John Fortune going down a corridor to sinister music, only to walk in on Kenny Everett on the toilet with his trousers round his ankles playing the cello.
“The fact that anybody remembers it. I’m thrilled.
“Michael McIntyre had a small part in the film doing a voice over. He was only eight years old.”
Michael describes you in his book as a ‘bona fide comedy legend’.
“Oh legend? Oh dear. It’s such an overused no isn’t it? It’s like national treasure… I mean oh my god. Awful.
“I get interviewed a lot being old. I’m sometimes referred to as a comedian. And I say, I’m not a comedian, I’ve spent my whole life working with comedians, men and women. The good ones are imaginative and off the cuff. They can create something out of nothing. I tell stories and sing songs. Call me an entertainer, I’d be quite pleased with that. Or a raconteur and yes, a writer.
“I was a performer before I was a writer. I got into writing by accident. I’ve been dogged by good luck my whole life.”
So how did you get started?
“I started off by doing stand-up, although it wasn’t called that back in 1957. It was at The Windmill in London, run by Vivian Van Damm – who ran a very tight ship… They had strippers, and in between they’d have variety acts. We used to do six shows a day, 6 days a week. That’s 36 shows in one week. There’s nothing like that around now. A hell of a school.
“I learned to die with dignity. The audience had come to see the strippers, not me.
“On the first day, I auditioned at half ten in the morning and I was on stage at half past twelve. I used to get summoned over a tannoy ‘Barry Cryer to Mr Van Damm’s office.’ And he’d rewrite my act – in between the fish tank and the desk. He’d say, ‘I don’t like that joke. I like that one. That one you tell too early do it later..’ And he changed my whole act in one day.
“I met a comic there called Bruce Forsyth. I never found out what happened to him. Very sad isn’t it?
“It all came to an end at when the law changed and the strippers were actually allowed to move. The Windmill faded away. Paul Raymond arrived and Soho became over run with strippers who did little else but move.
“So for a while the Windmill became a TV studio. It was taken over by Granada and a guy called Derek Jameson did a chat show, which I was on. I remember looking around the studio and a voice behind me said, ‘Hello Barry, I killed this place didn’t I?’ And it was Paul Raymond. Fascinating.
I came across an episode of Jokers Wild from the 70s on YouTube recently. It holds up pretty well.
“I loved presenting that panel show. I used to call Jokers Wild being paid for a day out.
“There were six comics behind a desk, a performance space with a mic, and I’d press a button and a card would pop up on whatever subject the comics would have to perform on. We had a real mix of funny people.
“John Cleese did it. We travelled by train to Leeds or Newcastle, we did it in both cities. There were all the other comics chatting away over breakfast in the dining car. But John said he was too nervous to talk, so he sat the whole time with his hands over his ears reading a book. So I said, ‘Do that on the show.’ And it worked a treat. I’d press the button. The card would come up, and I’d address him as Mr Cleese. He’d say, ‘What?’ so I said, ‘your subject is mothers in law’ and he’d say, ‘what?’
“So he’d put a bookmark in his book, and say, ‘Oh alright.’
“I went to see the Pythons show at the O2.”
Yes their last ever performances. Mind you, you’ve had your last ever tour and carried on haven’t you?
“Performers don’t retire, it’s just that the phone stops ringing. I enjoy performing so much. The Edinburgh Fringe is special. And Karen Koren always has me back at the Gilded Balloon. I love the Balloon. I’m very happy there. To me the Gilded Balloon is the centre of Edinburgh during the Fringe. It’s a terrific place. The bars at the Gilded Balloon are were performers from all the other venues go.
“Bristo Square is very funny. Us old hands will relax and have a drink whilst some of the youngsters march around with a mobile phone and a bottle of water – trying to participate in five shows a day.
“I like to see a few shows, hang out with my mates and be, literally, laid back.”
I’ve spoken to lot of comedians and very roughly speaking they tend to fall in to two camps. The alternative comedy set and the more mainstream. You are the only entertainer I can think off that garners respect from both camps.
“Les Dennis apparently told a friend, and I wasn’t there so I don’t know word for word, he said I was Kofi Annan from the United Nations. ‘Old Baz,’ he apparently said, ‘if there’s a do with old school and new school comedians, he hangs out with both of them. In the middle.’ I loved that comment.
“There is talent in every generation of comedy.”
You hear some of that talent on I’m sorry We Haven’t a Clue.
“Susan Calman did a couple of shows with us. She was absolutely brilliant. She felt like one of the team. And she enjoyed herself. She can come back any time. A very, very talented woman.
“I was asked by the producer to approach Peter Kay about doing it. So I phoned him and he was quite frank. He said that he loved the show but that he wasn’t a team player. ‘I’d stick out like sore thumb’ he told me. Very self-aware and honest. I respected him when he said that.
“We do a stage version of it. And we’re like an old rock band. And we do get fans of comedy from across the board. Young and old as they say.”
I’m not a comedian, but I wouldn’t want to go on Clue either. Or to be honest even see it live. It would spoil the illusion a bit.
“Yes. I know what you mean. Radio is a great medium. And It’s designed for the radio.
“Jack Dee has been fantastic as chair. When Humph died we thought, ‘that’s it’ and we didn’t do it for a while. But the BBCwanted us back so we did six shows. Two with Stephen Fry as chairman, two with Rob Brydon and two with Jack Dee. We all said, ‘it’s got to be Dee.’
“Of course, on the show Jack risks losing his image every week because he laughs a lot. But its radio so no one can tell. He told me that he hadn’t done much radio until Clue came along. Then in the middle of a recording he said to me, ‘Baz your dressing gown is hanging open.’ A great radio joke isn’t it?
“During another recording a member of the audience shouted out loud, ‘It’s not the same without Humph is it?’ To which Jack replied, ‘Oh Humph. I wonder where he is now? I envy him.’”
So who would feature on Barry Cryer’s Comedy Roadshow?
“Ross Noble, Susan Calman, Victoria Wood, Jo Brand, Bill Bailey, Mick Miller and Ken Dodd.”
Oh Doddy, the original alleged tax avoider. He invented it didn’t he?
“Oh I remember Doddy’s trial. George Carman QC defended him. He could have got Hitler off. They had Roy Hudd and Eric Sykes as character witnesses. So Doddy did get off as you know…
“A year later my wife went for lunch with Eric Sykes. You know he had terrible problems with his eyesight and congenital deafness but we was still doing plays… amazing man. He used to have a minder in the wings because of the dark, telling him when to go on and where to be and so on.
“So Doddy turned up at this lunch. He’d been driven over from Liverpool and he was looking like an unmade bed. I thought, ‘I like you, you’ve come down for Eric because he helped you out a year ago’. So later Doddy stood up pointed at Eric and exclaimed, ‘this guy is amazing! He’s deaf and he’s blind and he does plays!’ Eric replied, ‘We’re a lovely couple. I don’t know when to go on and you don’t know when to come off.’
“The other day I heard someone tell a joke about Doddy. He said that he went in for an operation and when they opened him up, they found three thousand quid inside him.’”
Sounds like a true story
“He did to have to have an operation which meant he had to miss two gigs. He was really upset. But his surgeon turned up on television and he said, ‘I went into the theatre to operate on Mr Dodd, but I didn’t come out for nearly four hours.’ I thought, ‘You’re good’.”
I’m really looking forward to seeing you up in Edinburgh. Yours is the very first show I’m going to review. I’m seeing you then I’m off to see Jim Davidson.
“Oh yes, Jim’s going to be up isn’t he? I’m fascinated to see how that goes.”
Do you know Jim?
“I’ve known him since he was eighteen. Sleeping in his car between gigs…
“He does have a tendency to say some unfortunate things. I can’t be objective about him because I’ve known him for so long. An enormously likeable man, but let’s be honest, a bit of a male chauvinist.”
Thanks for your time Barry.
“You know I had a car come and pick me up the other week. The driver said, oh hello, Are you the former comedian? So that’s my new billing I think.”