Frankie Howerd

Frankie Howerd

Date of birth: 06-03-1917

Known for his rambling, innuendo-laden style, and cheeky admonishments to the audience, Frankie Howerd had a roller-coaster career spanning six decades.

Born in York but raised in London, Howerd spent his youth reading books and performing in plays. As a child he aspired to be a Hollywood star, but a rejection from RADA put paid to his straight acting ambitions.

He began to entertain while on national service, and on demob in 1946, toured Britain in a show called For the Fun of It in 1946; and his profile rose when he was asked to appear on the BBC radio show Variety Bandbox.

Howerd's gossipy and camp style, and catchphrases such as 'Oooh no missus' and 'titter ye not', gave him a distinctive style. Against the fashion for slick comedians, he was happy to admit when a joke had gone wrong or whether he’d simply forgotten it – and would dare to tell them audience to stop laughing so he could finish his stories.

Howerd started to diversify in the Fifties: appearing in comedy plays, including playing Bottom in Midsummer Nights Dream, and films such as The Runaway Bus, and 1962's The Cool Mikado, starring Tommy Cooper and directed by Michael Winner. Howerd described the latter as 'the one production in show-business that I'm positively ashamed to have appeared in'.

He fell out of fashion in the Sixties, and was hit with financial problems. But after a successful comeback cabaret performance at Peter Cook’s fashionable Establishment Club in Soho, Howerd was soon booked on new satire programme That Was the Week That Was.

With jokes about politicians growing acceptable, Howerd grew popular again as he teasingly lampooned important public figures of the time. Howerd soon became a national treasure, appearing in TV shows and films such as Up Pompeii, Up the Chastity Belt, The Howerd Confession, and a number of Carry on films, including Carry on Doctor, and Carry On Up the Jungle.

Though he was off the screens in the early Eighties, he found another new outlet in student crowds who were discovering the new alternative comedy, and saw Howerd as something of an iconic figure. He even addressed the Oxford Union in 1990.

Howerd was gay, but publicly hid his homosexuality, which was illegal until 1967, for fear it would harm his career – although backstage he was known for making bold advances. In 1955, he formed a relationship with waiter Dennis Heymer, who later became his manager.

He died in 1992 in his Somerset home of Wavering Down after suffering respiratory problems, linked to a virus he contracted during a trip up the Amazon the previous year.

In 2008 a BBC biopic about his life, Rather You Than Me, was broadcast, based on interviews given by his Heymer. Howerd was portrayed by David Walliams.

For a man who loved innuendo, he would be pleased to hear that in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups, broadcast in 2010 and voted for by the public, he was placed at number 69.

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Don't mock the afflicted!

New play to explore Frankie Howerd's life

A new play about Frankie Howerd’s turbulent life has been announced today, what would have been his 100th birthday.

Howerd’s End will cover the comic’s roller-coaster career, the sexuality he had to keep secret, and his unlikely use of LSD – as well as reproducing some of his stand-up routines.

Although this is only the latest in a spate of plays about dead comedians, and has been made with the blessing of the Frankie Howerd Trust, producers Climar Productions insist this is ‘no hagiography’. 

It will, they say, portray Frankie and his long-term lover Dennis Heymer as ‘they really were: insecure, passionate, lost, funny and very, very human’.

Howerd’s End has been penned writer and actor Mark Farrelly – who previously wrote about another radical gay icon in Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope – and is told from Heymer’s point of view.

Howerd and Heymer

Frankie met Heymer, a wine waiter, in 1958 at the Dorchester Hotel while dining with Sir John Mills. Howerd was 40 and Heymer was 28. Heymer would go on to become Howerd’s manager and partner, but their relationship was kept secret from the public, not least because homosexuality was illegal.  

The play explores whether Heymer truly was happy playing second fiddle to such a big personality, suggesting he was left ‘yearning to hear how much he was appreciated, and wondering if the love into which he had deeply fallen was, in truth, unrequited’.

Set in  the living room of Wavering Down, the couple’s Somerset home, Howerd’s End uses flashbacks to explore how the comic developed his unique style of stand-up. Although most famous for his roles in Carry On films and Up Pompeii!, Howerd is credited as being the first stand-up to dispense with conventional punchlines and slick patter, instead crafting stumbling, surreal streams of insecurity, based on his inadequacy and disappointment.

The play will get its world premiere at Greenwich Theatre on September 12 and run for two weeks. This will be followed by a short UK tour, whose dates have not yet been announced.

Casting has not yet been announced, either, but both actors will be required to play their characters over a wide age range, from youths,to septuagenarians.

Howerd died on April 19, 1992, aged 75, and Heymer died on May 15, 2009, aged 79.

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Published: 6 Mar 2017

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