Last Thursday, the British comedy fraternity woke to yet another reminder of the ever diminishing light of the golden years of the art when it was tragically revealed when the legendary Barry Cryer had passed away at the age of 86. Respected by his peers and adored by his successors, the accomplished writer and comedian remained at the very forefront of comedy for an unprecedented seven decades and despite rarely taking top billing, became one of the country’s best loved, enduring and influential performers. Over a period of ten years, I was lucky enough to interview him four times and witnessed firsthand both his sharp wit but also his immense humility as a man. Indeed, the figure in question was equipped with an innate ability to make everyone feel comfortable in his company, whether it was an informal conversation or entertaining millions of people over the airwaves.
The first time I was really aware of Cryer’s formidable contribution to Light Entertainment was when he was put forward as the host of BBC One’s Ronnies Night in 1999, reuniting Corbett with Barker for an exclusive evening celebrating the much loved double act. Barry Cryer had previously been a name which I’d been familiar with on entertainment shows from my younger days but I had yet to put him into any context. However, as soon as I immersed myself in the magical and enigmatic world of British comedy, I realised that Cryer was so much more than a comedy interviewer. From then on it was my ambition to explore this world of comedy and quickly realised that Mr Cryer occupied an integral part of the comedy landscape and just wanted to know more.
In the succeeding years, I grew ever familiar and in awe of Barry’s work and the roll call of comedy giants who had benefited from his comedic mind. To me, he grew to represent the absolute epitome of Britain’s comedy heritage and was the embodiment of vaudevillian comedy. He once told me “these young comedians always say “the old man tells jokes” they tell funny stories but I actually tell jokes”, something which he always took as a huge compliment when still managing to write and perform his live show well into his eighties. His innate talent for the construction of a joke enhanced his unique fast paced delivery and made him one of the most innovative comedians of his generation. Here was a performer who wasn’t just fascinated by the art of comedy but how laughter was created and knowing what material would appeal to specific audiences.
When I grew a little older, I began to become increasingly aware of the live comedy scene and discovered that Barry Cryer was an extremely prolific live performer. Part of his Stand Up tour That Reminds Me featured a date at Shanklin Theatre on the Isle of Wight and I felt compelled to purchase a ticket. Accompanied by the acclaimed pianist and star of Radio 4’s Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue; Colin Sell, Cryer treated the Isle of Wight audience to a fun-filled evening of his signature one liners, comedy songs and some of the best anecdotes surrounding his showbiz chums. Part of the joy of live comedy is seeing the performer enjoying themselves and Cryer made his audience have such a feeling as he laughed, sang and reminisced all in his own inimitable style. It was here when I began to realise that Barry wasn’t just part of the history of comedy but an accomplished entertainer in his own right.
Over the succeeding years Barry would make further trips to Shanklin with various stand up shows and delighted the Isle of Wight audience with his unique brand of humour mixed together with lashings of showbiz anecdotes. Through this, the Isle of Wight Radio legend John Hannam interviewed him many times including appearing alongside his great friend Willie Rushden at the Medina Theatre. Equipped with unrivalled eloquence and a never ending supply of anecdotal insight, Barry was an interviewer’s dream and John obviously thrived upon the opportunity to interview these two comedy heavyweights. Yet Barry’s association with the island wasn’t over yet.
Both his tours in the last decade have featured dates at Shanklin Theatre to packed out audiences, desperately seeking to witness the master at work. Fans of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue were excited to see his take on Mornington Crescent while others were spellbound with hearing tales of his experiences with fellow comedy icons: Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper to name but a few. Yet as a comedy student, I was fascinated by the way he got those laughs in the carefully constructed jokes which he was telling. Cryer was far too creative to merely recycle gags for the sake of a cheap laugh. Instead each and every joke was meticulously crafted to fully optimise audience reaction. There was always a slickness to his delivery and he always knew how to make a gag sing. This, combined with warmth of personality made for a formidable formula.
The next time I saw Barry live was when he took his conversational show to the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne near where I was living at university. For the major project component of my Masters, I decided to write a biographical drama surrounding the life and career of former BBC executive Sir Bill Cotton who was the corporation’s Head of Light Entertainment during the halcyon days of the art form. For this research, I required witness accounts from some of the major figures within his department. As a result of Barry’s involvement in The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise; two of the leading products from Cotton’s BBC tenure, I figured that he would have invaluable insight into Bill’s successful leadership. Therefore I contacted the show’s promoter and to my amazement, a phone interview was arranged between Barry, myself and my PA John. This was the first time I had ever interviewed a celebrity and I was sure to make the most of it!
So on a fresh Tuesday morning in early 2010, me and my PA John sat down and waited for the phone to ring. Over the following forty five minutes, I sat in awe as I listened intently to Barry’s emotional and heartfelt tribute to the legendary TV executive. Hearing first hand experience of such a pivotal time in British television was a complete revelation and the affection which he had for Sir Bill was palpable. It was obvious that despite taking his role as writer extremely seriously, Barry thrived upon being within a lively and humorous atmosphere where laughter was a staple both behind and in front of the camera. The conversation ended with Barry’s kind invitation for me to come backstage on the Friday night to meet the man himself which was music to my ears and I could hardly wait to encounter one of my true heroes in person.
Barry was always a man of his word and when Friday night swung around I could hardly contain my excitement. Even at the age of 75 the man was still as sharp as ever with carefully crafted observations on the aging process through songs and masterfully constructed gags which rolled from his tongue like poetry. As expected, Barry brought the house down and received a well earned standing ovation following a successful encore. Yet for me, the show wasn’t over as I knew this signalled my opportunity to meet the great man in person. Backstage, Barry was pleased to see me and asked if the aforementioned interview was helpful…ever modest about his success even when he was helping others. After an exchange of pleasantries, we went our separate ways with me feeling buoyant that I had actually met one of my all time heroes. I assumed that this would be my one and only encounter with the certified comedy legend and was merely grateful to have such a unique opportunity. Yet as fate would have it, my association with Barry was far from over…
Fast forward seven years and I found myself in Bloomsbury Square at the prestigious Museum of Comedy preparing to interview the sitcom heavyweights Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran who were the subjects of a Writer’s Guild seminar. After recording the interview, myself and my PA made our way to our seats and waited for the show to start. Suddenly a booming voice echoed through the theatre corridor as groups of people descended into fits of laughter. Barry then made his way to the auditorium and sat himself directly in front of me as he continued to enjoy healthy banter and chat with those around him. Throughout the show, I attempted several times to attract his attention to no avail as he was vested in making his contributions heard from the floor. This was never done with any arrogance or self entitlement, instead his strong passion for comedy was always so evident that it would have been wrong not to exploit it.
After the show, the audience dissipated into the reception area where I was fortunate enough to catch Barry’s eye and he instantly recognised me from all those years ago. By this time I was just a year into my podcast Beyond The Title and instantly seized my chance to secure a further interview. Ever buoyant and full of life, Barry immediately accepted and within a few weeks, I found myself on the way to Barry Cryer’s house to record a podcast which had been over seven years in the making. To capture over sixty years in British comedy in just one podcast would be almost impossible but I was certainly willing to try .
Born in Leeds on the 23rd March 1935, the young Barry attended Leeds Grammar School before enrolling at Leeds University for an English Literature degree. After failing the first year, Barry realised that a life of education wasn’t for him, while his creativity and passion for comedy had always surrounded him. Down on his luck, one day Barry looked further afield and purchased a train ticket to London with the hope of becoming a performer. After two days of trawling around London’s West End in the hope of finding employment, he began to lose hope and was resigned to the knowledge that Leeds would forever be his home. At 10:30 on his last day in London, Barry secured an audition at the infamous Windmill Theatre with the formidable impresario Vivian Van-Damn. The audition went well and just two hours later Barry found himself on stage entertaining the audience, something which would become the norm for the next six decades.
The Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street in Central London had been home to Variety bills and vaudeville style entertainment since the 1930’s and boasted at being the only theatre that remained open during the entirety of the Second World War. The post-war cultural boom led to the theatre’s renaissance as it found itself on the cutting edge of live comedy. Beyond laughter, The Windmill also catered for an altogether different kind of entertainment in the form of nude women who regularly performed. Barry always insisted that they weren’t strippers, they were nudes and deserved to be as respected for their art, just like the comics who they were sharing the stage with. This illustrated not only Barry’s passion for all forms of entertainment but also his unbiased ideology which arguably set him apart from his contemporaries.
From The Windmill, Cryer moved to the Soho nightclub Winston’s where he secured a role as a writer on live revue shows. Working with a roll call of future stars including Danny La Rue, Ronnie Corbett and Barbara Windsor offered Barry vital insight into providing material for performers for the very first time. This formula quickly became popular amongst the West End elite and suddenly Winston’s became one of the most talked about entertainment venues in London. When Danny La Rue made the brave decision to open his own club on Hannover Square, the members of his repertory company followed him and helped redefine the British live cabaret scene. This was Barry’s first notable writing job and the opportunity to flex his verbal dexterity and comedic patter.
From the celebrated ballet supremo Rudolph Nureyev to The Beatles, everyone who was anyone wanted to reserve a table at Danny La Rue’s prestigious nightclub. On one particular evening, Cambridge Footlights alumni turned satire pioneer David Frost came to watch a late night performance and liked what he saw. This resulted in him offering Barry an opportunity which ultimately changed his life forever. Fresh from his unrivalled success with That Was The Week That Was, Frost was now eager to create a satirical sketch show which would combine the talents of university revue with traditional values of Variety. To many, Barry was already seen as part of the comedy establishment and mixing these two generational styles together seemed somewhat revolutionary for the time Grouped together with theatrical stalwarts Dennis Norden and Anthony Jay, Barry represented the traditional style of comedy which was a stark contrast to the experimental material of future Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
Such a diverse team would never have gelled without the maverick vision of Frost himself; something which Barry was always quick to reinforce on many occasions. The continuous developing monologue (or Cadbury’s Dairy Milk as it was widely known amongst the writing team) gave a framework for all writers to follow which contributed to the cohesion of the show. Each episode of The Frost Report followed a particular theme whether it was; authority, holidays, love or class which involved the main cast in sketches centring on the weekly subjects. Therefore sketches were submitted to script associate Anthony Jay for him to select the right material based on how well sketches would relate to the theme of the week. This created a vast smorgasbord of material from all areas of the comedy sphere and suddenly Barry found himself collaborating with figures from totally different comedy backgrounds. This success, he forever attributed to Frost’s great flair for comedy and an integral factor in The Frost Report being awarded the coveted Golden Rose of Montreal in 1968.
It seems pertinent here to note that even during the mid 1960’s Barry was considered part of the showbiz establishment and while he was able to collaborate with the likes of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and co, they heralded him as a hero and inspiration. This seems a difficult concept for contemporary audiences to comprehend as Barry has always been closely associated with these fellow pioneers of TV comedy. Yet sixty years ago he was already regarded as an old school writer and performer and it was still unknown how these two generations would merge. His roots in full on theatrical variety added a vaudevillian perspective to proceedings and gave The Frost Report much needed colour. It was here that scripts started coming in from a mysterious writer called Gerald Whiley who apparently lived alone and sent material via his agent. Rumours then began circulating as to his real identity which led to the cast and crew gathering in a Chinese restaurant to meet the estranged Gerald Whiley and end the long running saga. When Ronnie Barker eventually stood up and confessed to be the culprit, it was Barry who uttered the immortal line “No one likes a smart arse” which has become the perfect pay off to one of the most prolific tales in British comedy.
Despite being one of the most prolific television scriptwriters in Britain, Barry never forgot his performing roots and his fascination with every aspect of comedy made him the perfect contributor to any TV show. In 1969 he secured his own ITV panel show Joker’s Wild in which a team of comedians went up against members of the public to achieve ultimate comedy supremacy. In the liberal era of the seventies when smoking was an acceptable part of everyday life, footage of Joker’s Wild would now seem extraordinary to a contemporary audience. Yet the long roll call of comedy stars who appeared on the panel show was in part down to Barry’s position within the comedy fraternity and proved the perfect candidate to preside over the rustic proceedings. Running for a staggering nine series and 147 episodes, Joker’s Wild offered ITV its first successful comedy panel show and showcased Barry’s unique talents as an all round entertainer which arguably became frequently overlooked in favour of his formidable writing credentials.
Despite presenting success, scriptwriting remained at the heart of his career and in the same year as recording the first series of Jokers Wild, Cryer reunited with David Frost and co for ITV’s At Last The 1948 Show. For this, he submitted scripts alongside a formidable writing team of future comedy heavyweights including Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese and Michael Palin mixed with established talents of Marty Feldman and Barry Took. Not just content with making a formidable contribution behind the camera, Barry also made a cameo in possibly the most prolific sketch from At Last The 1948 Show in which he played a disgruntled waiter forced to listen to the marathon of outdoing each other in the classic sketch ‘The four Yorkshiremen’. This showcased his versatility as an actor which would gradually be increasingly recognised in the years to come.
When David Frost became the major shareholder in the newly formed broadcaster London Weekend Television in 1968, it opened an endless market for TV comedy. Frost On Sunday reunited the talents of Ronnies Corbett and Barker alongside Josephine Tewson for a weekly sketch show loosely based on its former BBC self. Yet Frost On Sunday struggled to live up to its predecessor which left the longstanding team facing an uncertain future. Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton would then play a dominant role in the next chapter of Barry’s career following witnessing an impromptu performance by Corbett and Barker at the Bafta Awards which ultimately resulted in The Two Ronnies being BBC bound.
One of the main issues facing Barker and Corbett was that they were never a double act in the truest sense of the term and despite their unrivalled chemistry in sketches and quips, they were never able to interact with each other as themselves. This gave producers a big problem when attempting to create a beginning to the show as they both knew they would be unable to generate the same natural flowing patter as Eric and Ernie. In a frustrating production meeting at BBC Television Centre, when it looked like inspiration was lacking, Barry uttered the words “News At Ten” and a TV institution was created. From that moment on The Two Ronnies had a formidable formula which was the bedrock of the show for the entire sixteen year run.
Corbett and Barker weren’t the only double act whom Barry had a dominant role in preserving. Together with his frequent writing collaborator John Junkin, Barry submitted material for Morecambe and Wise’s early triumphs on ATV and BBC until Eddie Braben was appointed as the show’s main writer. Yet in 1978 Barry and John Junkin were reunited with Morecambe and Wise following their high-profile move to Thames. Reliable, established and more importantly creative, producers forever realised that Barry was a safe pair of hands and despite opting to spend the majority of his career as freelance, Barry was universally recognised as a trusted face.
This proven reputation made him the perfect fit for upcoming talent and in 1978 joined the writing team on The Kenny Everett Video Show alongside fellow variety stalwart Dick Vosborough. Barry forever insisted that Everett wasn’t a comedian and as a performer was totally unique but developed an understanding with him which would last until Kenny’s untimely death in 1995. As his lead writer, Barry would accompany Everett to each and every television appearance including when dragging up for the Parkinson Show as his suggestive alter-ego Cupid Stunt. Barry always recalled with much satisfaction, the moment when Parky realised the obvious innuendo and the fear of making the inferred mistake. Although spending most of his career at the heart of the entertainment establishment, Cryer still thrived upon the art of anarchy and Kenny Everett helped to fulfil the rebellious quota of his repertoire.
Despite being one of Britain’s most prolific script writers of the latter half of the twentieth century, Barry’s flair for performance was never in doubt. On Boxing Day 1972 Barry featured on a radio panel show hosted by his jazz hero Humphrey Lyttleton. After the show, all contributors decamped to a nearby pub where they vowed never to record another episode. Unbeknown to the entire cast, this would be the start of the BBC Radio 4 juggernaut series I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue which Barry remained as a regular panellist for a staggering forty-nine years. From Mornington Crescent to his many signature songs, Barry became an integral part of the show and saw it develop from a schedule filler to theatrical phenomenon. This was always something he was always proud to be synonymous with and along with Graeme Garden was Clue’s longest serving member. Live shows and special editions kept coming, yet this never halted Barry’s passion for the show.
In 2008 tragedy struck the Clue family as the legendary Humphrey Lyttleton passed away leaving a cloud of uncertainty over the show’s future. How could anyone replace the genial chairman Humphrey Lyttleton? Yet such a beloved show as Clue deserved to at least be given a chance with a new presenter at the helm and when Jack Dee was recruited, Barry and the team welcomed him with open arms. The live tours continued right up until the start of the pandemic in 2020 and Barry was always so overwhelmed by the love and affection which fans had for the show. In his words “It’s the O2 any minute”. Sadly Barry never made it to the O2 but if they ever do, surely he will be there in comic spirit.
The eighties was a very difficult period for the post war generation of comedy stars as they slowly adjusted to the revolution of Alternative Comedy. Many of Cryer’s contemporaries were thrust aside to make way for comedy’s punk era. Yet Barry’s ear for a gag would once again force him to reinvent himself for a brand new audience. In 1988, satirist and Impressionist Rory Bremner recruited him as part of the writing team for his prime time BBC1 sketch show. In the era of huge division, Barry proved that when it came to comedy, age is irrelevant and comedy writers were still a much needed tool in the inner workings of entertainment television. Embracing this, Barry opened the door on a whole new audience and suddenly he was accepted into this new dawn of entertainment.
As the nineties dawned, Barry had reached legendary status amongst the comedy fraternity. His live show alongside his fellow writer and comedian Willie Rushden entitled Two Old Farts In The Night toured the country to rave reviews and packed out theatres until Rushden’s death in 1996. Yet this didn’t halt Barry’s creativity and while he was still a favourite in the comedy clubs, he could still use his relentless repertoire of material to entertain audiences. Performing the club circuit gave him the opportunity to mix with the next generation of comedians which he enjoyed immensely. He once told me “I love talking about the past but I don’t want to live there” and this was very much his philosophy for his career. Very few entertainers reach Cryer’s level of fame while still feeling the need to support live comedy but Barry took a responsibility to maintain his presence within the live scene and could always be found at bespoke clubs around the London area up until the beginning of the pandemic. Such was his love for hearing this buzz of laughter which forever dominated his long career.
As the new millennium dawned, Barry was still playing an active role in TV comedy. By this time, entertainment from the sixties and seventies had taken on huge significance as a historical record and was pivotal to helping contemporary audiences understand and appreciate comedy of the past. Barry remained the perfect candidate to pass comment on such issues as a result of his direct knowledge and insight of his legendary contemporaries. As a writer at such a pivotal time for British comedy, he had unrivalled insight and accounts of stories which had now become part of Britain’s cultural psyche. He had been present at almost every landmark of British comedy and not only knew about the background, history and legacy of the art, but had the academic ability to analyse it. This was something he always took incredible pride in and was always prepared with a fascinating anecdote or two. In short, a retrospective cultural TV documentary was never complete without an appearance from Mr Cryer.
In 2018 just when Barry was contemplating taking life easier, he accepted an invitation from Sky Arts to present a series celebrating his heroes of laughter. Alongside friend and fan Tony Hawks, Barry presided over some of his favourite comedy stars with help from celebrities and journalists. Celebrating comedians from either side of the Atlantic including Laurel and Hardy, John Cleese, Phylis Diller and Bob Hope to name but a few was a great passion project for the ever learned student of comedy. Unfortunately this proved Barry’s last credited vehicle as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold. Yet he still remained a regular contributor to TV documentaries surrounding Light Entertainment which always felt like the unofficial seal of quality with his unrivalled insight delivered with utmost eloquence and reverence.
With such a formidable career laid out in the above celebration, it seems impossible to find the perfect way to sum up his formidable contribution to British entertainment which has spanned seven decades. The simple answer is that it’s totally impossible. It’s difficult to find another performer who has had such a dominant contribution to a wide range of different stars, programmes and eras. An ever present creative and prolific writer and performer whose career spanned the very rise and popularity of British television, Barry Cryer was a hero to all ages. Yet the recent outpouring of love and affection which has dominated all mediums has illustrated that Barry might be gone but never forgotten.
To listen to the unedited podcast with Barry recorded in 2017 please click the link below: https://www.beyondthetitle.co.uk/portfolio/barry-cryer/