For any aspiring writer and television historian like myself, the ultimate treat would be to spend a few moments with an icon of the art of comedy scriptwriting. Barry Cryer has been on the cutting edge of British comedy for over sixty years and has worked with many of the prominent figures in British Light entertainment. Born in Leeds in 1935, Barry quickly realised that his aspirations for the world of comedy would not be satisfied within the Yorkshire community. After failing an English literature degree at The University of Leeds, Barry uprooted to London where he auditioned at the infamous Windmill Theatre. Astonishingly, in a matter of minutes after that audition, Barry found himself on stage entertaining an audience and over sixty years on, Barry is still entertaining audiences all over Britain.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
From the Windmill Theatre, Barry honed his talent as a scriptwriter when he became the resident writer at the Winston’s nightclub penning sketches for Ronnie Corbett and Danny La Rue. It wasn’t long before the club generated quite a cult following among showbiz circles and promptly the great and the good wanted to be in the audience of this late night show. One evening in particular the great Rudolph Nureyev was in attendance and was so impressed by the performance that he booked the club for a private performance. For Cryer, this was just one high in a career that has spanned generations.
It was at Winston’s that Barry met an influential figure in his career. David Frost had just set the comedy world on fire with his satirical series That Was The Week That Was but now wanted to create a programme which combined the talents of old school Variety with university review and take a satirical but yet irreverent look at significant themes of British life. Today television comedy is packed with writing teams that assist in the development process but forty years ago this approach was revolutionary for its time. The continuing developing monologue (CDM for short – also known as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk!) was put in place to give the writers focus and structure to each episode. At eight thirty each Thursday evening, The Frost Report was broadcast live from the BBC and made stars of Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese who was new to the art of television.
The Frost Report survived for just one series on the BBC before David Frost, or “The Practicing Catalyst” as Barry refers to him, moved the team to LWT. Frost On Sunday perfectly united the talents of Corbett and Barker for just one series until Bill Cotton did a deal with David Frost, following an impromptu performance at the Baftas, meaning that Corbett and Barker or The Two Ronnies as they were now known, were BBC bound. Nevertheless, Barry remained a vital part of The Two Ronnies writing team right up until their eventual sign off on Christmas Day 1987.
Corbett and Barker were not the only comedy heavyweights who Barry had a hand in developing. Anarchic DJ turned darling of Light entertainment Kenny Everett had an interesting transition following a controversial exit from Radio 1 and required a team of experienced comedy writers to make him relevant for the fast paced world of television. It was Cryer who refined the highly dubious female character of Cupid Stunt who appeared on The Parkinson Show originally as the one word Cupid but when asked by Michael Parkinson to supply a full name so that he could give her a proper introduction, Barry replied “Cupid Stunt!” Consequently, Parky promptly was forced to heavily rehearse the introduction to avoid making the obvious mistake. Barry remained one of Everett’s main writers throughout his television success on both the BBC and Thames and developed a strong friendship which lasted until Kenny Everett’s untimely death in 1995.
Alongside his substantial writing credentials, Barry remains one of three surviving members of the formidable Radio 4 comedy series I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue along along with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden. Beginning as a “filler” within the 1972 Boxing Day schedule, the impromptu panel show currently attracts an average weekly audience of 2.5 million listeners. In 2008 the show tragically lost its versatile chairman Humphrey Lyttleton at the age of 86, covering the show in a cloud of doubt. However, when the dry-witted Jack Dee was appointed as ‘Humph’s’ replacement, the show continued to entertain audiences up and down the British Isles. Today Clue is as popular as ever, with live episodes filmed on location around the country. As Barry says “next is the O2!”
It was an honour to spend the morning with a comedy icon and if I have just half the career that Barry Cryer has had, I’ll definitely die a very happy man!