Frankie Howerd

Stand-Up Comic

Graham McCann
Fourth Estate. London. 2004.
Hbk. 369 pages.  Index.


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Oooh Er, Missus, Francis Alick Howard was born in York on the 6 March 1917. When he began his career as a stand-up comedian he changed his name to Frankie Howard and knocked 5 years off his age.

At an early age his family moved to Eltham, London, and encouraged by his mother, Francis attended Sunday School at the Church of St Barnabas. The shy boy enjoyed the activities at the church and he read a page from the bible every night before going to sleep. He cultivated thoughts of a spiritual life and had ambitions of becoming a saint. By the time he was 13 he became a Sunday School teacher at St Barnabas.

At the same time he was captivated by theatre, cinema and wireless shows. He created a puppet show for his mother, which he called Howard's Howlers, and he went on to perform Saturday Matinees for local children in his back garden. The lure of entertainment took over to the extent that he used his Sunday School sessions to regale his charges with stories about Robin Hood and the like rather than stories from the bible.

As a teenager he got involved with amateur dramatics and at a drama evening class he came under the wing of Mary Hope. She encouraged him to enter for a scholarship at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). Despite much rehearsal his audition with them was a complete disaster, and it was to be the case that throughout his career auditions were a very painful experience for him. The main problem was that he needed an audience to work with and respond to, and in the conditions of an audition he just fell apart.

After graduating from Shooters Hill school in 1935 he was employed in a variety of menial office jobs but he still carried on with entering talent shows and participating in amateur dramatics. Stage fright often struck him and he was often humiliated by his performance, but he still could not stop going before an audience.

In World War Two he was conscripted and given the rank of Gunner. In the Army he got the chance to entertain the troops and to blossom as a performer in front of an enthusiastic audience.

After the war his career was boosted a dodgy agent called Scruffy Dale. Dale had unsavoury personal habits who conducted much of his activities in bed with a fag hanging out of his mouth. He helped launch Frankie Howerd's career. As McCann puts it Howerd was outstanding at the time because he was not a slick professional stand-up, he wasn't a joke machine instead the audience laughed at Howerd's stammering delivery that sidetracked and fluffed the delivery of a straight-forward punchline. He made a career out of being a mixed-up, pretentious, pompous twit who sent-up his own act and the performances around him. Though despite appearances his sidetracked stories and expressions were carefully rehearsed and scripted.

He came to national attention when he regularly appeared on the BBC radio show, Variety Bandbox. Quickly running out of material, the young and untested Eric Sykes came to his rescue with a flow of surreal scripts peppered with Howerd's verbal idiosyncrasies.

By the 1950s Howerd established himself as a radio star but as he tried to bring his act to television, films and serious theatre he went into a steady decline. Things were further compounded by the discovery that Scruffy Dale had inappropriately 'invested' his earnings into his own pockets. By 1961 Howerd was thinking of retiring. An offer from Peter Cook to appear at his theatre club - the Establishment - revived his career and brought him a new audience.

By 1965 he was regularly appearing on television and in films. In that year he recorded a ten minute scene as Sam Ahab with The Beatles for their film Help!. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions, it ended up on the cutting room floor.

In 1964 and 1966 he made a series of Frankie Howerd shows scripted by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (who will always be best remembered for their Tony Hancock and Steptoe and Son scripts). His most memorable series started in 1970 on BBC 1. Up Pompeii! was the perfect vehicle for Howerd's character. He played the part of Lurcio, a slave, who introduced the randy goings-on of his Roman masters. In this role it gave him the opportunity to comment on the story, straight to camera and the audience, and to enter into the story itself. He was able to mock the thin story-line, his fellow actors and even the jokes themselves. The two series of Up Pompeii! spawned a film of the same name (1970) and two spin-off movies Up the Chastity Belt (1971) and Up the Front (1972) all of which were directed by Bob Kellett.

By the end of the 1970s Frankie was increasingly difficult to please or to direct, he had achieved most of his career ambitions and he was feeling that he was no longer as witty and sharp as he was in the past. Throughout his life he was a serious and introverted person off-stage, who was interested in philosophy and metaphysics. Like many others of his period he had to hide his homosexuality, though in later life he gained a reputation for leaping on any man who came within his orbit. McCann admits that Frankie could be promiscuous but that several of these stories have become exaggerated over time and re-telling. Frankie's stage fright became stronger and he often resorted to drink and drugs to get him through his performances. It was also at this time that he no longer kept a bible at his bedside and he seemed to abandon his old religious beliefs. 

In the 1980s there did not seem to be any room for his distinctive act on television and he saw that the likes of Barry Humphries and Larry Grayson were taking over elements of his act. He was particularly upset when the much camper Larry Grayson took over as the host of The Generation Game in 1978. 

Despite his weariness a new crop of student followers, whom he called 'Frankie Pankies', attended his shows and enjoyed his catchphrases. Frankie was pleased to get any new fans, though McCann thinks they were too smug and self-regarding to really appreciate him.

After a short illness Howerd died of a heart attack on 19 April 1992. To paraphrase his autobiography he did not become a saint but neither did he acquire a monopoly of sin. For McCann, Frankie is worthy of appreciation as a skilled stand-up who was much more than a saucy entertainer with a string of saucy catchphrases. 

Nigel Watson
 
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