Frankie Howerd 1917 – 1992
It was 30 years ago today, we lost a comic legend!
Ooh, Aah, titter ye not, it’s wicked to mock the afflicted. All catchphrases we associate with legendary comedian Frankie Howerd.
For almost sixty years Frankie Howerd made us laugh with his live performances, many sitcoms and film appearances, it can be said that he was truly one of The Great British Comedians, alongside people like Ken Dodd, Bob Monkhouse, Tommy Cooper to name but a few. Fellow comedian Barry Cryer was once said to have described him as as “a series of comebacks”
Born Francis Alick “Frankie” Howerd the son of a soldier in the city of York on the 6th March 1917 (Howerd himself had often stated he was born in 1922).
Educated at Shooters Hill Grammar School in Woolwich, London. His first appearance on stage was at age 13, however any early hopes of becoming a serious actor were dashed when he failed an audition for RADA.
He joined the army during World War 2 and it was here he got into entertaining, despite the fact he suffered from stage fright.
Frankie Howerd was a pratising Homosexual, a fact he constantly tried to hide from both his Mother and his audiences during his early career, as it was considered to be able to destroy careers at the time and the fact that acts between consenting males being illegal in England and Wales until 1967 and illegal in Scotland until 1981.
However to many of his aqaintences and colleagues it was no secret as backstage, Howerd was notoriously bold in his advances and was known for his promiscuity.
In 1955 he met waiter Dennis Heymer, who later became his manager. Heymer was with Howerd for more than thirty years, as lighting operator, manager and partner, until Howerd died. Howerd lived for the last 20 or so years of his life in Wavering Down, a house in the village of Cross, Somerset by the Mendip Hills.
During a Christmas trip up the River Amazon in 1991, Howerd contracted a virus. This lead to him suffering respiratory problems at the beginning of April 1992, when he was rushed to London’s Harley Street clinic, but was released at Easter to enjoy his last few days at home. On the morning of 19th April 1992, two weeks after being released from the clinic Frankie Howerd collapsed and died of heart failure he was 75 years old.
Only two hours before he died, Howerd was speaking on the telephone to his TV producer about new ideas for his next show.
Howerd died one day before fellow comedian Benny Hill. News of the two deaths broke almost simultaneously and some newspapers ran an obituary of Howerd in which Hill was quoted as regretting Howerd’s passing, saying “We were great, great friends”. The quote was released by Hill’s agent, who was not aware that his client had died.
After leaving the army Frankie Howerd continued entertaining. He began his professional career in the summer of 1946 in a touring show called For the Fun of It. Soon he began working in radio, making his debut at the start of December 1946 in the BBC Variety Bandbox programme with a number of other ex-servicemen.
He built his fame steadily throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (aided by material written by Eric Sykes, Galton and Simpson and Johnny Speight).
In 1954, he would make his big screen début opposite Petula Clark in a low budget film called The Runaway Bus, that had been written specifically for his comic talents, but he never became a major film presence.
The film was so low-budget that they could not afford scenery, background etc, instead they used a fog generator so that little was visible behind the action. The film was an immediate hit.
Howerd became a regular feature during the 1950’s in the popular comic book: Film Fun. However as he began experimenting with different formats and contexts, including stage farces, Shakespearean comedy roles, and television sitcoms, he began to fall out of fashion.
It was after suffering a nervous breakdown at the start of the 1960s, that he began to recover his old popularity, initially with a season at Peter Cook’s satirical Establishment Club in Soho in London. He was boosted further by success on That Was The Week That Was (TW3) in 1963
and on stage with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963–1965), which lead into regular television work.
In 1966 and 1967, he did a 90-minute Christmas show called The Frankie and Bruce Christmas Show with Bruce Forsyth, that featured many of the top acts of the day.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, he made a number of shows for both the BBC and Thames Television (as well as Frankie Howerd Reveals All for Yorkshire Television in 1980). Ray Galton and Alan Simpson wrote for him from 1964 to 1966 when he worked for the BBC and also for a one-off show for Thames, Frankie Howerd meets The Bee Gees, shown on 20 August 1968.
He was perhaps most famous for his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks to the audience, especially in the show Up Pompeii!.
His television trademark was to address himself directly to the camera and littering his monologues with verbal tics: “Oooh, no missus”, “Titter ye not”, or so we believed. However years later in a sale of his scripts it was shown that the seemingly off-the-cuff remarks were all planned. Another popular feature of his humour was to feign innocence about his obvious and risqué double entendres while mockingly censuring the audience for finding them funny.
In the later years of his career he had gained a cult following with University students, this lead to his televised address of The Oxford Union
and subsequently to his final shows just before his death Frankie’s On…
Frankie Howerd was awarded the OBE in 1977