In the midst of the back to back coverage of the worldwide Coronavirus outbreak, on Monday 16th March, the comedy world suffered yet another blow as news broke of the passing of the legendary comedian and historian Roy Hudd. Rory Bremner led the tributes to the evergreen entertainer, describing his death as a “great loss”. The comic passed away on Sunday 15th March following a short illness and in an era where so many of Britain’s original generation of stars are slowly vanishing, Hudd’s death possibly marks the end of an era for traditional variety. Making his television debut on the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was in 1964, Hudd went from Butlins red coat to one of Britain’s best loved comedians in a career spanning over half a century.
Born in Croydon on 16th May 1936 to Evalina “Evie” (née Barham) and Harry Hudd, the young Roy quickly learned the serious side of life when his father left the family home soon after the end of World War Two. This would have tragic consequences for his mother resulting in her sadly taking her own life when he was just ten years old. Roy was then brought up by his maternal grandmother and attended Tavistock Secondary Modern School in Croydon where he would spend the majority of his childhood. Following the obligatory stint of national service in the Royal Air Service, Roy studied commercial art at Regent Street Polytechnic before securing a role as apprentice under the artist Harry Beck. Yet a love of comedy superstars Max Miller and Dan Leno would in time help the novice artist realise his true calling.
Making his theatrical debut as a comedian on 27 October 1957 at the Streatham Hill Theatre, Roy quickly made an impression on the impresarios of the day and was promptly signed up by Billy Butlin as one of the infamous Redcoats. Forming a double act with childhood friend, Eddie Cunningham as Hudd and Kay, offered perfect grounding for the young comedian and while his comedy peers were thriving in theatres and clubs, this unusual route would in time serve him well. By the end of 1958, Hudd was an experienced entertainer and found himself sharing variety bills with the cream of UK talent including Cliff Richard and Dave Allen. Yet it would be a few more years until Roy tasted nationwide success for himself.
The satirical boom of the early 1960’s would surprisingly unite the exciting new talents of university revue with traditional variety which was spearheaded by David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was. Making his television debut on the heavyweight programme in 1964, Roy delivered a successful routine and was asked to return on producer Ned Sherrin’s follow-up venture Not So Much a Programme…More a Way Of Life as a regular contributor and joined a cast including John Bird, John Fortune and Cleo Laine who would all go on to dominate Light Entertainment for the next two decades. Surviving for just one series Not So Much a Programme…continued the satirical legacy of TW3 and established a definite formula for the satirical sketch show.
Beyond television success, it was clear that Hudd’s first love was radio. Making his debut on the BBC’s In Town Tonight, Roy became a regular contributor to the heavyweight variety series Worker’s Playtime in 1959, he starred in the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1978. Yet arguably his biggest radio triumph came in 1975 when he secured his own satirical sketch show entitled The News Huddlines alongside Chris Emmett and Alison Steadman. The series was an instant hit and when the legendary actress June Whitfield joined the show in 1984 it began a union which would last for the next two decades until the show’s climax in 2001. Forever reflecting and celebrating the biggest stories of the day, The News Huddlines became a radio comedy juggernaut.
Hudd’s partnership with June Whitfield would in time transcend the medium of radio and make it on to television in the 1994 comedy drama Common as Muck. Cast as pensioner bin man John Parry who was at the centre of a formidable campaign over the privatisation of the refuse service, this gave Roy the opportunity to flex his acting pedigree. Surviving for two series on prime time BBC1, Common as Muck offered the public the opportunity to see Hudd in a discipline that he’d not tried before. The series came to echo the social climbing culture of the mid nineties and today rightfully earns its status as a cult classic.
In the same year, he once again teamed up with June Whitfield for the ITV panel show What’s My Line. Chaired by TV presenter Emma Forbes, Hudd and Whitfield made up the all star panel alongside impressionist Kate Robbins as they relied upon clues to work out the professions of selected members of the public. Running for two series until 1996, What’s My Line once again reminded the audience of Hudd’s incredible flair for engaging with an audience. The studio audience themselves played an important role in the show, giving applause as a guide for the panel’s guessing. For this to reach its ultimate success, the show required a figure who had the unique ability to engage with an audience on multiple different levels and Roy’s unique relationship with the public made this possible.
Just six years later, Roy found himself stepping on the infamous cobbles of Coronation Street as the eccentric undertaker Archie Shuttleworth. Approaching his seventies, Roy assumed that his days of being considered an eligible lothario were over. However, being the subject of sexual desire from both Blanche Hunt and Audrey Roberts, Archie proved a wise and reliable shoulder to cry on for the Street’s most formidable matriarchs. As an undertaker, Archie also was involved in some emotionally touching scenes which once again showcased Hudd’s talents as a straight actor. For the now veteran comedian, Coronation Street was just another landmark in a career which contained so many.
Despite being one of Britain’s best known faces, Roy was also one of this country’s most renowned and respected Variety and Music Hall historians. Consistently contributing to books and documentaries surrounding the history of British entertainment, Roy became a recognised authority on all things vaudeville. In 2011 he teamed up with long time friend Michael Grade for BBC Four’s The Story of Variety. This was shortly followed by a cameo in the BBC’s dramatisation of the beginnings of the much loved wartime sitcom Dad’s Army entitled We’re Doomed: The Dad’s Army Story, playing the part of wartime entertainer Bud Flanagan who was hired to sing the unmistakable theme tune which Roy delivered with great authenticity.
Sadly this was one of Roy’s last major TV credits despite remaining a regular contributor to TV documentaries surrounding Light Entertainment and Variety. Revered by the younger generation of comedians and adored by legions of fans throughout the country, Roy had now reached legendary status and continued to personify the glory days of Light Entertainment. At the top of his game for over half a century, Roy Hudd was part of the fabric of British popular culture for generations. His death in March 2020 sent shockwaves around the showbiz fraternity as another member of the pioneering generation fades away. Yet with a formidable career in entertainment behind him, it’s clear that Roy Hudd may be gone but never forgotten.