Through the annals of British Light Entertainment, Mike Yarwood remains an intriguing enigma and a possible example of the devastating effects of fame. Rising through the ranks of the relatively new phenomenon of working men’s clubs during the 1960’s, Yarwood didn’t follow the traditional showbiz variety route like many of his peers. Instead he could be found at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club during the late 1960’s performing Stand Up segments interspersed with impressions. Of course this wasn’t his first brush with entertaining audiences as in 1967 he starred alongside Lulu and Ray Fell in Three Of a Kind. Sadly little footage remains of this show, yet the grounding which it offered to the young Mike Yarwood was invaluable.
Following a string of moderately successful ventures on ATV including The Real Mike Yarwood and Will The Real Mike Yarwood Stand Up, in 1971 the BBC promoted Yarwood as he became a vital part of Bill Cotton’s supreme Saturday night lineup. For over a decade, Look – Mike Yarwood first broadcast on BBC1 and became appointment to view television and set the benchmark for TV Impressionism for years to come. Following six series of Look – Mike Yarwood, the series transformed into Mike Yarwood In Pieces which ran from 1976 to 1983. This saw Mike through undoubtedly the peak of his career as he took TV Impressionism to areas where it hadn’t been before. After a while, aspects of political satire started creeping into the show as Mike found himself impersonating the likes of James Callahan and Harold Wilson which proved vital to the evolution of the genre.
In 1978, just like his showbiz pals Morecambe and Wise, Yarwood made the somewhat difficult decision to move from the BBC to Thames in what was considered an extremely financially powerful career move. It was here that Steve Nallon met and worked with his hero on a series of sketches for the new look Thames version of Mike Yarwood In Pieces. Yet sadly by this time, traditional TV Impressionism had started to wain as a result of the revolution of Alternative Comedy which by now had given the public its own version of Impressionism in the form of ITV’s Spitting Image. This combined with Yarwood’s frustrating inability to echo the powerful voices of the new era made him appear slightly outdated and phoney. For a figure who had been so dominant and televisually potent just five years previously, this was a devastating blow.
His 1987 Christmas show would sadly be his last on British television. Unlike many of his showbiz contemporaries, Yarwood didn’t crave comedy nor fame and had accepted that the halcyon days of TV were over. After his theatre show had too gone out of favour with audiences, he decided to call it a day on a career which had spanned over a quarter of a century. Following the 1993 Royal Variety Performance, he chose to avoid the spotlight altogether and only make appearances on extremely special occasions. The last being what would become Bob Monkhouse’s last gig at the Albany Club in Central London where he gave a frank interview to his good friend and comedy peer. In this interview, Mike talks candidly and honestly about the trappings of fame and his life after comedy. Sadly, this remains Yarwood’s last TV appearance and despite being a mere 79, Yarwood has rarely appeared on television again.
The story of Mike Yarwood remains somewhat unique within the comedy fraternity as it’s very difficult to find another popular performer at the top of his game who has been willing to give everything up. Consequently Yarwood remains a fascinating subject to discuss and it was an honour to talk to Steve Nallon about one of the true heroes of British comedy.