I think we readers can always appreciate a book which has become lifeblood for its author. Although this writer and television producer has gone on to write other works, which have largely spun off from this title this will always be his special project and his feelings for this work and the individuals who provided the reason for the work are only too apparent.
It was first published in 1973 as a record of Fisher’s heroes from the world of comedy and variety, the latter still then playing a part of the entertainment industry of the day, but nowhere near as prevalent as it had been in decades past. This is the 40th anniversary edition of the book, which has been reworked and added to with lucid and involving afterthoughts at the end of most chapters. The big difference here is that 40 years on most of the artists accorded their own chapter had died and since publication of this edition six years ago they have all departed, the last survivor being Ken Dodd who left us last year. Of those mentioned in passing I think only a couple of the young pretenders Jimmy Tarbuck and Roy Hudd remain. This makes this work an even more important historical record of what are fast becoming lost days than it was on first publication.
Over 32 chapters Fisher shines the spotlight on those individuals who shone brightest from the Victorian performer Dan Leno (now best known as a title character in a Peter Ackroyd novel and its 2016 film adaptation) to the comedy stars of the 60’s and 70’s who attracted huge television audiences. This book is weighty and is a quality production through and through full of sumptuous photos, often over a whole page and many of which come from the author’s personal collection.
The earliest performers will nowadays mean little to the reader (although it is interesting to note the source of some of the catchphrases still in modern parlance). If there is a central character than that is perhaps Max Miller, a comic I know by reputation only. The performers seem to fall naturally into a pre and post Miller division. Comedy is very much of its time. I wonder if anyone today will find Arthur Askey laugh-out-loud funny, some of the artists here remained at or near the top until their (often premature) deaths, some found themselves having to diversify somewhat (eg: Max Wall into serious acting, Max Bygraves into singing and quiz shows) and others found their stars waning (eg: Benny Hill) as tastes changed.
Fisher is very good at including personal anecdotes of a lifetime both of admiring many of these performers on the stage and working alongside them in TV production. His first contact with a celebrity was aged 11 in 1956 when he won a competition to meet Norman Wisdom during the interval of “Aladdin” at the London Palladium. This was the encounter which set the seal on Fisher’s future interests. Wisdom was charming and relaxed. How easily it could have gone the other way with an 11 year old descending during the valuable interval minutes for a performer on what was the first night of the run! Many stars both past and present would not have been as accommodating!
The focus is on comic performers from variety rather than comic actions so no Carry On Gang (apart from Frankie Howerd and “Carry On Teacher” star Ted Ray), no Alastair Sim etc, although he certainly does not ignore film performers, in fact some of these took their stage characters to become some of the top domestic stars of their day, credited with keeping the British film industry afloat- so take a bow Will Hay, George Formby, Gracie Fields and Norman Wisdom.
Obviously the reader is going to seek out their own favourites. One who certainly predated me but who could silence the near-riot atmosphere of Saturday morning pictures when I was really quite young much better than the more contemporary Children’s Film Foundation offerings was Arthur Lucan, better known as Old Mother Riley. As a young child I was equally thrilled and scared to death of Jimmy Edward’s headmaster character in the TV revival of “Whacko!” In real life he was a man whose struggles with his sexuality led his brother to say after his death in 1988 aged 68 “It all got on top of him at the end.” Later on, my comedy heroes became Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies and I defy anyone who was around at the time to read the chapters on both Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper without hearing the voices and laughing out loud throughout. (Why do I find Cooper’s “Glass, bottle! Bottle, glass!” still so funny?) I’ve actually discovered I have another book by John Fisher on my shelves, unread, his biography of Cooper, so when I get round to it I will certainly have a treat in store with this full-length expansion of the chapter here.
It’s worth noting that the world of comedy and variety at this time was very male-centric and this is certainly represented here with only Rochdale’s Gracie Fields getting her own chapter. There is another section which groups together women who rose to as near the top as they could get in a difficult profession and here I found another real favourite, Hylda Baker, probably the Queen of the Catch phrase.
Thank you Mr Fisher for his real blast of nostalgia I found lurking on the public library shelves. It brought back the excitement of knowing there was a new Morecambe & Wise, Benny Hill or Two Ronnies show on TV that night and it also taught me a lot about those I dimly remembered or knew just as names from previous generations of comic fun.
This edition of “Funny Way To Be A Hero” was published in 2013 by Preface.