So ubiquitous is he in his role as the deliverer of the pop post-mortem, one wonders who will step into the shoes of Paul Gambaccini when the veteran broadcaster shuffles off this mortal coil; within a few hours of a notable musician passing away, there’s Gambo to sum up the significance of the artist’s career on every MSM outlet. As prominent members of the 60s cultural revolution edge towards their 80s – and plenty are already there – Paul Gambaccini must be on permanent stand-by, waiting for the call and updating his pre-prepared obituaries on a daily basis. Mind you, Gambo is not the first such figure on the TV news speed-dial; different disciplines require different spokesmen. At one time, Ernie Wise appeared to be the go-to name to comment on the passing of a comedy great; as the original cast of small-screen comics began to drop like flies in the 80s and 90s, little Ern was always there to pay tribute. I used to wonder who would pay tribute to him when he died, and this was the point (there or thereabouts) when Barry Cryer filled the void. He’s performed that function admirably ever since and yet now the sad news has come that old Barry himself needs someone to sing his praises. What’s telling is that the dozens who are doing so online emanate from every comedy generation of the last half-century, for Barry Cryer’s appeal spanned those generations.
Barry Cryer was the last man standing who had cut his teeth on the post-war music hall variety circuit, present when it finally fell off the end of the pier; but were he some dim and distant Archie Rice character that only your granny could recall, it’s doubtful his passing would warrant more than a footnote. With the recent loss of the likes of Nicholas Parsons, Bruce Forsyth and Roy Hudd, Barry Cryer was the sole remaining link to a Victorian tradition that had enjoyed an extended after-life in the early years of television, when peak viewing hours were filled with comics and entertainers who had relentlessly trod the boards of British theatres, living out of a trunk and honing their craft in a punishing schedule of cross-country touring. Spike Milligan once advertised himself as ‘the performing man’ on variety bills, sharing the stage with magicians, impressionists, animal acts, acrobats – indeed, all of human life was there as such bills struggled to compete with the transformation of entertainment as the 1950s progressed.
Early tours by The Beatles and Stones, with half-a-dozen other acts entertaining the kids before the main attraction topped the bill, were rooted in this theatrical formula, yet if rock ‘n’ roll proved to be the ultimate successor of music hall as far as the nation’s theatres were concerned, it was TV that both finished it off as a live event and gave it the kiss of life as an armchair experience. Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Morecambe & Wise, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Des O’Connor – you name ‘em, virtually every household name with their own show from the late 50s onwards was a graduate of this academy. And it was a tough school; one had to be hard as nails to make it, especially performing at that notorious graveyard known as the Glasgow Empire, which was the comedian’s equivalent of rounding Cape Horn. Those that did make it were the ones whose careers lasted, and Barry Cryer was one of them. But he didn’t simply stand still, pedalling the same old act and selling nostalgia; he moved on and found his niche in the newer mediums, only occasionally pausing to nod to his past with the odd appearance on ‘The Good Old Days’.
Barry Cryer’s career really does read like a biography of British comedy; even though he was only ten years old when the curtain came down on the Second World War, he still played the legendary Windmill Theatre, famous for never closing during the Blitz and infamous for its static naked girls that drew the wearers of macs into the venue. Following the likes of Tony Hancock in the thankless task of performing a comic routine between these artistic tableaus, Cryer seemed set to slog it on the circuit forever until his recurring eczema forced him to scale down his live appearances. Turning to scriptwriting as a means of making a living from comedy that didn’t require him to be on stage every night, Cryer was one of many comic writers recruited by David Frost in his mid-60s role as a TV comedy ringmaster, joining future Pythons and Goodies as well as Ronnie Barker on one of the most talented teams of scribes ever assembled for a series. The series in question was ‘The Frost Report’, now widely recognised as one of the seminal shows of the decade, not just for what it did at the time but how it proved to be a breeding ground for the post-variety school of TV comedy.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 80s, Barry Cryer’s name in the credits of comedy shows seemed as much a perquisite as Ken Morse and his rostrum camera was in documentaries. Often co-writing with actor and comic performer John Junkin, Cryer could be found penning material for old-school comics like Morecambe & Wise and Les Dawson as well as impacting on a younger generation through his work for Kenny Everett. He maintained his relevance to those for whom music hall was something belonging to the history books well into the 1990s by hosting ‘The Stand-Up Show’ on BBC1, a late-night programme serving as a platform for comedians young enough to be his grandchildren. From 1969 to 1974, he was also the host of a pioneering example of the comedy panel show, ‘Joker’s Wild’, and underlined his association with the Python crowd via a cameo in Eric Idle’s unforgettable Rutles special, ‘All You Need is Cash’.
However, it is perhaps radio rather than television for which Barry Cryer’s immense contribution to British comedy will be eternally enshrined. He was in on that immortal antidote to panel shows, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ from its inception in 1972; although he actually chaired several early editions before making way for Humphrey Lyttelton, it was his part as a panellist and his banter with ‘Humph’, Willie Rushton, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor that made this Radio 4 mainstay comedy gold. Cryer later admitted the deaths of both Rushton and the chairman (1996 and 2008 respectively) made him doubt whether or not the series should continue, yet it prospered into the 2010s with Jack Dee at the helm and both Cryer and the two old Goodies still forming the core of the team. Indeed, as the latter trio aged their veteran status proved to be a rich source of comedy itself, with Cryer in particular playing the part of a bewildered dirty old man. Alas, the demands of performing live eventually began to take their toll as younger comics plugged the gap in the occasional absence of the older hands; the irreplaceable loss of Tim Brooke-Taylor in 2020 seemed to suggest the end of era was nigh – and today is sadly the day it officially arrived.
I had the good fortune to see Barry Cryer live on two occasions. The first was ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ around ten years ago. Although this was post-Humph, Jack Dee was comfortably embedded in the chair and the line-up still included Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor as well as Barry; it remains one of the most entertaining nights out I’ve ever experienced. The second time I saw him live was in 2015, one of those ‘evening with’ events, located in the unlikely environs of an old church, albeit one in his hometown. He was a superb raconteur and in possession of a comic sharpness that belied his age. That turned out to be a memorable night for reasons unrelated to Barry himself, though it’s nice to think of him as a positive force pulling strings that enabled certain stars to fall into place. Even today, when I was struggling with something to write about, Barry came to the rescue again. I only wish it had been another subject to inspire me, but I guess I owe Barry once more. Nice one, old pal.
© The Editor