Never mind name dropping, after a few moments with comedian, writer and raconteur Barry Cryer you feel you’ve been crushed by a celebrity steamroller. In a nice way.
I’m warned in advance that my face-to-face interview with Barry is going to be short. He’s about to go on stage at the Gulbenkian Theatre at the University of Kent in Canterbury and the PR has told me he can spare 10 minutes, tops, after he’s appeared on the local TV news. The live broadcast overruns and I feel even more pressure on my interview time, but press on regardless.
As he relaxes in the front row of the empty theatre to chat about his long showbusiness career, Barry is charming and easy to talk to. He’s dressed immaculately – crisp pink shirt with blue, gold and red tie, grey trousers held up by scarlet braces, his trademark heavy-rimmed glasses and crimped white hair completing the distinguished look.
I ask if he’s been to the Gulbenkian before.
Looking around the auditorium, he says in his instantly recognisable Yorkshire accent: “It’s bigger than I remember, but it was quite a long time ago.” I soon realise I’m not going to get a serious answer to any of my quick-fire questions. Barry is a joker in the old-fashioned sense of the word. No subject is off-limits for comedy, as he proves in the show.
So why is he here in Canterbury?
“I’m giving the Linda Smith memorial lecture, although it’s really more a series of anecdotes about her and other brilliant women comedians I’ve known and worked with,” he says and begins to trot out the first in a series of celebrity names that drop easily from his lips.
About Linda: “The evening honours her, of course. She was a mate and a trailblazer for women comedians. I appeared with her on the News Quiz and several other shows and it was always a great laugh.”
Jo Brand: “The first time I saw her I said ‘your material is filthy’. She looked at me in that straight way she has and said ‘I’m a woman, Barry. I have to be noticed.’ And it was true. These pioneer women comics had to do something different to get themselves known.”
Victoria Wood: “What talent! She was a one-off. She honed every word and was very strict with her actors, wouldn’t let them change anything. And you realised when you saw it performed that she was absolutely right, it was all perfect. What a tragedy that we lost her.”
Caroline Aherne: “Another one gone too soon. What comic timing she had.”
- Barry aims to get a parrot joke into every stand-up performance.
- Of his childhood: “I was brought up in Leeds and I remember my dad coming home covered in coal dust and washing in a tin bath in front of the fire… I don’t know why. He was an accountant …”
- On Bob Hope: “By the time I worked with him, he was rather a sad figure, who realised the younger generation didn’t appreciate him”
- On name-dropping celebrities: “Catch them, someone!” he calls to the audience, then sings a song called “Name drops keep falling on my head”, to the tune made famous by Sacha Distel
- He is a favourite team member of the anarchic radio quiz “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” and describes his appearances on the show as “sheer joy”
It’s not just British women performers that Barry remembers working with: “Phyllis Diller [the American actress and stand-up comedian]. She was so smart off stage, then appeared in the show with her hair all standing on end and her outfit twisted. I asked what went wrong and she told me ‘I’m a woman performer, I have to do something to be noticed.’ Joan Rivers – what an on-stage personality, rude and cutting. Off stage, she was charming. It was all an act.”
By now, my head is beginning to spin at the sheer brilliance of Barry’s long memory for the stars of stage and TV, but he’s on a roll. “When acts like French and Saunders came along, I realised ‘here’s talent, here’s something different’. There really weren’t many women doing stand-up or comedy acts when I first started in the business, although there had been in the music hall days, of course. Look at Marie Lloyd [1870-1922] or Gladys Morgan [a Welsh woman known as the Queen of Comedy 1898-1983].”
The list of names Barry has written for, or worked with, in his almost 60-year career is astounding. In no particular order they include Danny La Rue, David Frost, Marty Feldman, Ronnie Corbett, Graham Chapman of the Monty Python team, Morecombe and Wise, Dick Emery, Stanley Baxter, Frankie Howerd, Billy Connelly and Jasper Carrot.
In his early days, he also wrote jokes for Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Phil Silvers, the internationally famous American stand-up comedians of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He was a close friend of lugubrious British comic actor Tony Hancock.
Our time is rapidly coming to an end and I feel the PR’s eyes on me to call a halt to the interview. Thinking of the number of huge stars and comedy writers Barry has worked with and who have now gone to appear on the great variety stage in the sky, I pose the question: “Do you sometimes feel you’re the last man standing?”
Quick as a flash, he answers: “I’ve got a season ticket for funerals and memorial services,” but he is serious for a moment as he shares his excitement at working on the Edinburgh Fringe, despite being old enough at 83 to be the grandfather of some of the acts. This year’s show, with Ronnie Golden, is called “Historical Objects” and runs from 13 to 14 August.
“I love it. It’s great to be around young people and to see new talent coming up. Fantastic!”
With that, the interview is over. Barry gives me a peck on the cheek and thanks me for coming, then elaborately miming taking a puff from a cigarette, he says he’s “just going to get some air” before the show.
“Give ’em up, Barry”, I call cheekily, which he answers with a smile “stop nagging”… and disappears outside.
Picture: Matt Wilson/University of Kent