Freddie Davies – In Conversation

Born into the world of entertainment as a result of his grandfather Jack Herbert: one of the early 20th century’s greatest vaudeville comedians, legendary comedian Freddie Davies was in absolutely no doubt where his calling lay. Comedy was definitely in his blood and became a lifelong passion which is still thriving today. Therefore after being demobbed from national service in 1958, Freddie decided to indulge his passion and follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.


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The holiday camp phenomenon remains a quintessential British tradition which dates back to the turn of the twentieth century before the arrival of the budget European holiday. Making his professional debut at Butlins Minehead in 1958, Davies found himself alongside fellow entertainers who would go on to define a generation including Jimmy Tarbuck, Johnny Ball and an Irish comedian with the name of David O’Mahony who was a great front of cloth comic. However, it was only a few years later that O’Mahony changed both his style of comedy and more importantly his name and became the comedy legend Dave Allen. Holiday camp style of comedy didn’t suit the sharp mind of Allen who in just a few years would radically change his act, eventually becoming one of the greatest stand up comedians of his generation. But for Freddie and his contemporaries, Butlins provided vital groundwork to cultivate their unique relationship with the British public.


This was the ultimate schooling and was the perfect grounding for a lifetime in entertainment. Freddie has been delighting audiences throughout the country for over sixty years and remains one of the last surviving variety acts of the pioneering generation of stars. But while Tarbuck claimed that ultimate prize of TV domination, Freddie slowly climbed the ranks to become one of Britain’s most enduring and versatile performers in the history of British Light Entertainment.


By the early sixties, Freddie was becoming a regular on the variety circuit and was invited to appear on ATV’s heavyweight Sunday Night At The London Palladium. This was the era of the Merseybeat phenomenon and thanks to four lads from Liverpool, northern England was about to become the epicentre of the world. For any performers from this part of the country, their careers would be panned out for them as their northern lilts were the most desirable thing in the land. Blessed with an extremely rubbery face, Freddie used this to make his act unique and introduced a slapstick element to his act. These were the days of Variety billboards and acts often used a short description to go alongside their name to give the audience a clue as to what kind of performer they were. On one particular occasion, Freddie saw his bill matter which read “Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies”. Having never created this alias for himself, he was a little taken aback but the name stuck with the public and offered him something which made him stand out from his peers.


Such popularity made him an obvious booking on the biggest variety shows of the decade as Freddie became a TV star. Following the success of ATV’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium, the BBC were desperate for a variety format that could rival the ratings juggernaut. This was the era of pop where music stars ruled the world and acting Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton had a plan to combine both elements.  In 1968 the BBC broadcast Cilla which came live from Television Centre showcased her musical repertoire alongside celebrity guests and sketches. As a northern comedian, Freddie was the obvious choice to make regular appearances on the show appearing in stand up and sketches. The Merseybeat phenomenon had fully taken hold of the entertainment industry and Freddie was sure to make the most of it.


This success attracted the attention of American producers who were looking for British talent to take part in a variety show sandwiched together with snippets of the Rat Pack legend Dean Martin. Although entitled The Dean Martin Show, the show was merely a compilation of inserts from comedians which were recorded from England and therefore Freddie and the rest of the cast never actually got the opportunity to meet Martin himself which was a great shame. Despite this, The Dean Martin Show gave Freddie the opportunity for transatlantic success but just not via the method which he originally imagined. In this technology age where people are able to be in two places at once with the help of AI, this situation seems ordinary. Yet half a century ago, this would have been a miraculous feat of science and therefore although Davies didn’t actually meet the Hollywood titan, he can still say that he shared a bill with Dean Martin.


The other Hollywood legend who Freddie collaborated with was the great Judy Garland when she was the subject of her very own Sunday Night At The Palladium. In the midst of her extremely high profile personal battles, Lew Grade had brought her over to star in a very special one woman show. The special show was hosted by Jimmy Tarbuck who was currently arguably one of the biggest stars on British television and the perfect candidate to preside over such a major event. Obviously feeling extremely fragile, Garland refused to come out from her hotel room leaving Tarbuck little option but to go to her hotel room to attempt to coax her out. As the comedian booked for such a special event, Davies was tasked with attempting to hold the show together while there was a serious question mark about whether the top of the bill would actually appear. Luckily, thanks to the trademark Tarbuck charm, Garland eventually delivered a flawless performance and the audience went home realising that they had been witnessing a significant moment in showbusiness. Yet for Freddie, he remains grateful to have been present at such a historic moment.


When Sunday Night At The Palladium closed its doors for the final time in 1969, Freddie’s generation of comics were forced to find another outlet for their talents. In 1974 Freddie secured the title role in the children’s series The Small World of Samuel Tweet. Following the huge success which Johnny Ball enjoyed with the heavyweight Play School, made this generation open to the uncharted territory of children’s television and Freddie saw this opportunity as a way of opening his career to other entertainment areas. The Small World of Samuel Tweet was a sitcom based in a pet shop starring Freddie alongside Colin Edwyn and Prue Clarke which became popular with children of the seventies. Embracing the changing tides of comedy, Freddie was savvy enough to acknowledge the inevitable consequences of this new era.


Yet a born entertainer always has a way of finding an outlet for that unique talent and relationship with the British public. Following the devastation of the Coronavirus pandemic, Freddie organised a one off special variety show in 2021 to commemorate Anita Harris’s sixty years in entertainment. For this, he enlisted a stellar lineup of veteran performers who were already enjoying retirement and assumed their days in the spotlight were over. However, the evening was a success and proved that there was still both an appetite and an audience for traditional British Variety. The nationwide tour Legends of Variety brings together iconic entertainers including Tommy Cannon, Bernie Clifton and Anita Harris alongside Freddie for a quintessential British Variety show and remains hugely popular throughout the country. Masterminded by Davies himself, the show harks back to a simpler time when Variety ruled the world.


So into his seventh decade in showbusiness, the legendary Freddie Davies shows no signs of slowing down and is the absolute personification of the golden age of British Variety. Interviewing him is like delving into an encyclopaedia of the history of British entertainment and his passion for his craft is palpable. In an era when the light on this pioneering era of showbusiness is slowly fading, it’s reassuring that figures of the calibre continue to delight audiences up and down this fair land. It was an absolute privilege to interview the legendary Freddie Davies and with his passion for his craft, I hope he will continue to entertain fans for many more years to come.