sun 23/06/2024

Roy Hudd: 'I was just trying to make 'em laugh' | reviews, news & interviews

Roy Hudd: 'I was just trying to make 'em laugh'

Roy Hudd: 'I was just trying to make 'em laugh'

The most traditional of entertainers, who has died at 83, harked back to a vanished age

'Once I got to that boys’ club and I heard laughs coming up out of that audience… stick cannabis, mate, that’s the stuff that gets you going'

Roy Hudd, who has died at the age of 83, was the last link to the age of entertainment before television. Born in 1936, he entered the business just as music hall and variety were dying out. But he knew the luminaries of that era: Gracie Fields, Max Miller, above all Chesney Allen, who asked him to play the late Budd Flanagan in a stage revival of the songs of Flanagan and Allen.

Four years ago he impersonated him one last time in the BBC drama We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story as he sang the famous theme tune.

Associated with a bygone age, Hudd was the first person his friend Dennis Potter had in mind for the lead role in Pennies from Heaven, but when Potter rang Hudd's agent incognito he discovered he was not available. “I said to Dennis, ‘You bastard, you could have bloody well rung me, I’d have soon made myself available!'” Potter subsequently had him playing a lecherous pipe-organist in Lipstick on your Collar in 1993 then three years later as a spoonerising literary agent in his last drama, Karaoke.

Roy Hudd was perhaps most beloved for The News Huddlines which last on Radio 2 for 26 years and gave a first break to many a celebrated gagsmith. When I interviewed him in 2008 he told me, "I get letters every week saying, ‘When is it coming back?'" It never did, and nor will the era that Hudd championed with such natural charm and good cheer. This is a transcript of that conversation.

JASPER REES: You’re a great fan of music hall but when you started it had already been killed off. What was the attraction for you?

ROY HUDD: With music hall it is the fantastic songs. My gran brought me up and she was a great singer of music hall songs. Not pro but she knew loads of little snatches.

She brought you up because…

My dad was in the war and he never came back from the war and my mum died during the war so my gran brought me up. Best day’s work I ever did was to get her to bring me up. She took me to the Croydon Empire to see variety every week when she could afford it. She also knew loads of little snippets of music hall songs that were always in her head.

Would you say you were effectively taken back a generation in terms of your cultural inheritance?

Could be, because we saw the last knockings of the variety theatres, don’t forget, which was the thing that followed on to music hall. My gran was the one who absolutely loved live theatre, you see, so it really made a huge influence on me and I wish to God she’d seen me go into the business. All she’d seen me do were amateur shows. But she would have loved it because she loved comics.

How soon did you know you’d go into the business?

I think not until I joined a boys’ club to play table tennis. You had to sign for two activities. One for fun and one was supposed to be an improving activity. The fun bit was playing table tennis and the improving activity was a long list of stuff like metal work, car maintenance and all that, which I wasn’t in the least bit interested in. But the bottom of the thing it said, Concert party. So I joined that. I was about 13, 14. The guy who ran it – him and his wife ran it – were both ex-performers who’d retired. Well it was like having a crash course in show business.

So you knew that early…

He persuaded me.

Did you need persuading?

Not really I suppose. Once I got to that boys’ club and I heard laughs coming up out of that audience, my God it’s the most wonderful bloody… stick cannabis, mate, that’s the stuff that gets you going.

When did you get your first pay cheque?

My first pay cheque was when I was in the RAF doing National Service and we had a trad band and we played in Newmarket in a pub and we got 30 bob apiece. Six of us. I played the banjo. That was my first proper money.

When did you first go onstage and do comedy?

Really in those boys’ club days. We did revues and then we did a panto and collections of sketches. The first time I did a proper act was with my pal. We did a double act. So we did them at Edgware Road and Finsbury Park Empire and quite a few places all over the country but he got pissed off. He said, "I’d sooner starve than I would on the road," because as we played the theatres they closed the next week. So we did a lot of favours for variety in this country.

You were very much at the end of an era.

Yes it was. It was like the death of the dinosaurs. I remember working in the Opera House, Manchester, and there were leather armchairs but they were all bursting and all the mirrors were cracked and fly-blown. It was sad. It was very like The Entertainer.

Have you tried to keep traditions alive?

Not particularly no. I never have. The only thing is the great music hall thing to me is the songs are so brilliant. And we never had songs like that, probably not until the Beatles came along, that commented on what was happening in the particular time and era. The guys who wrote those music hall songs would be the guys making a fortune writing television commercials now. They really would. They were brilliant. The amount of output and the way they told a story and their songs that any performer can get hold of and make their own. They’re little plays almost, little dramas, even if they’re funny.

When were you first on telly?

The first one I did was a show on ATV called Bid for Fame – myself and my pal were on it – which was like a Hughie Green thing, and we didn’t win.

Many of your older contemporaries, including Hughie Green, became the subject of television dramas. Could you foresee what a drama about you would be like?

I think it would be pretty boring, I really do, because I’m not a great comedian. Great comedians, people like Frankie Howerd and Les Dawson and Spike and people like that, whatever gifts they were given were given with one hand and they were given a bloody cross to bear with the other. They were either drunks or they were wooftas or some bloody thing or they can’t bear their own company. Have you read Kenneth Williams’s diaries? A torture of a life. I do think to be a really good comic you’ve got to be lumbered with something like that. Where did I go wrong?

You’ve not been lumbered?

No I haven’t.

Did you feel you were part of a great generation?

Probably the most exciting time that I was involved with was the satire shows with Ned Sherrin. Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life, which I was involved with for a long time, and it was three nights a week live on television. Real mould-breaking stuff. I was getting involved in something good then. It was quite fun because it was all a university set-up via Ned and I was about the only one who couldn’t hardly read. It was quite interesting because they didn’t treat me terribly well, the university guys when I got there but I didn’t treat them very well either until we found that by both totally different methods we could get laughs and then we started to admire each other a bit.

You didn’t have a chip on your shoulder.

Not at all, no. I was happy because from my side of the business if you’re got a full day booked you’re a happy pro. They were trying to tell people things. I didn’t. I was just trying to make ‘em laugh.

Of all the people you’ve worked with over the years, who were you professionally closest to?

I think at one stage probably Max Miller who was a huge hero of mine. Years and years ago they did a show on television, a 50th anniversary of the RAF, a concert at the Victoria palace. Tom Sloan was the had of the BBC at the time and he said, get him on to do Max Miller. I said, I’ve never done Max Miller in my life. He said, "You do it in my bloody office every time you come in." That’s when I thought perhaps I am a bit like him. I wish to God I had his talent.

What was his cross?

I think it was an odd marriage to a lady who became like a religious manic. Max was the great crumpet merchant supposedly, that was the image he gave. I knew him towards the end and he would always get the last train back to Brighton. Always, that’s where he lived. I don’t think he ever strayed. It was quite funny that on a Saturday night they used to run the trains to Brighton earlier so he always finished the first half on the Saturday night and that’s always the top of the bill spot which he did every other performance and by the interval he was gone and so were the audience. No one stayed for the second half because he was the great man. He was a terrific performer.

How well did you know Bud Flanagan?

I admired him tremendously. My gran used to take me to the shows at Victoria Palace. Chesney Allen was a terrific fella. We did the show Underneath the Arches which I wrote and Ches was terrific helping that. He’d always been trying to get a show away about the two of them. Eventually it worked out we did Parkinson together, myself and Ches. He rang me up about two or three days before we were going to do the show – we weren’t on together, we were on separately – and he said, ‘They want me to do a couple of Flanagan and Allen songs. Would you do them with me?’ Would I? So we got there and we rehearsed and he taught me all sorts of little things that Bud used to do. He used to sing a little bit like a cantor and also Ches said he was always just a heartbeat behind the beat. We did it on the television show and the bloke rang up and said, ‘Would you be interested in playing Bud Flanagan?’

What was the appeal of the act?

I think the songs were the appeal and don’t forget when they were an act they were dead topical. The lasting thing is their wonderful bloody songs. They were great at picking winners. The only names that are really remembered from the history of show business are people who had good songs. Marie Lloyd was one. Sinatra is one. And Gracie Fields is one. The argument people use is if Marie Lloyd was here now she wouldn’t have a cat in hell’s chance. I say she would be a star because you can’t take away what she had and she would have had songs written for her that were absolutely smack on for today. She knew exactly what her public wanted. She wouldn’t have done “My Old Man Said Follow The Van”. All that history is long gone.

Do you think of yourself as a custodian?

People do say, the great historian. I say I’m an enthusiast, I’m not a historian at all. I would love people to keep the songs alive. The songs are too good to lose and they’re very British.

Did you ever think about having your teeth done?

It’s part of who I am and it’s very similar when you think about it. Freddie Flinton always had a gap, who did the Dinner for One sketch. Tarbuck’s always had the gap. Terry-Thomas did famously. Dentists have said to me, “Would you like me to close it up, Roy?” And I’ve said, “No, it’s part of me, it’s part of being a comic.”

I say I’m an enthusiast, I’m not a historian at all

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