'He was the comedian that comedians wanted to be'
In a new series honouring underrated comedy heroes, stand-up Andre Vincent pays tribute to the great Mrs Shufflewick
“If I’m not in bed by eleven, I’m going home.”
In the early Sixties, nobody could gather the whole family around the television like Mrs Shufflewick. She could provoke a grin from the grumpiest in the room, and all generations loved her comedy. Yet this celebrity, a sell-out at countless variety halls, summer seasons and large-scale theatres, the star of so many successful radio shows and the winner of countless TV awards, is virtually forgotten today.
This was a performer who played every circuit: music hall, concert party, gang show, variety, pantomime, gay, drag, working mens’ club, and was present at the birth of the New Wave alternative comedy scene. She stormed every one of those gigs with their wildly disparate audiences, but in just 50 years went from national treasure to oblivion.
Night after night for three decades, Rex Jameson performed as Mrs Shufflewick. The character was a ruddy, tipsy cockney woman settled in the snug of her local pub, The Cock & Comfort: ‘A lot of comfort, but not much of anything else.’ Here, she drank port and lemon, seated primly in her flowery hat and shabby fur stole, her ‘genuine untouched pussy’. She confessed to bawdy, boozy shenanigans and the various scrapes that she got herself into: ‘A sailor came up to me and said “What would you like?” I said “A very large port” and he came back ten minutes later with a picture of Southampton Docks.’
Rex wrote all his own material, and was praised for his immaculate timing and delivery. Not only was he the comedian that comedians watched, he was the comedian that comedians wanted to be.
Rex was presumed to have been born June 1924 in south-east London, since he was found abandoned on the steps of Trinity Hospital, Greenwich. His adoptive parents, George and Mabel Costar, raised him in Southend-on-Sea where he spent a mostly uneventful childhood, despite being picked on for being a puny ginger kid. As a result, he spent much of his time alone, making lone trips to the cinema or to the many other local entertainment venues such as the The Kraal, The Southend Hippodrome and Wilby Lunn’s Concert Party On The Pier.
In 1938 the family moved to Holloway in London. For the quiet teenager who had grown up among the innocent and childish delights of the seaside, living in wartime London was harrowing. There were also fewer places to escape to, since Blitz conditions meant the closure of cinemas and theatres. A few remained open, notably the Finsbury Park Empire:
‘When I was fourteen I went to the Empire every Monday night. I paid 6d in the gallery. That really put me on the road to showbusiness because I saw all the stars there. They really were stars in those days. I loved the whole atmosphere of it.’
Rex was called up to join the RAF in 1942 and was able to join Ralph Reader’s RAF Gang Show. The list of comedians who came from the RAF Gang Shows is a mixed bag of British comedy including Peter Sellers, Frankie Howard, Terry-Thomas, Ian Carmichael and Spike Milligan. Rex toured North Africa, Italy and Cyprus with the forces’ shows. A Flight Sergeant was placed in charge of each unit: for Rex, this role was filled by none other than Tony Hancock:
‘When we were in Cairo and we had time off, Tony and I would head for the nearest bar and drink ourselves stupid all day. There wasn’t much beer so we drank Scotch. All the other men went to the brothels but it wasn’t for me.’
After the war Rex decided to turn professional. The existence of a popular broadcaster, Sam Costa, meant that Rex needed a new surname to avoid confusion: he took Jameson, after the whisky. In 1947 he joined The Bryan Michie Happy Hour and toured with them for two years and while on the road, honed his many comedy characters, one of them being a drunken cockney charlady.
When a light entertainment producer, Bryan Sears, asked him to audition at this time for the BBC, Rex chose to present his strongest live character, a comedy vicar act. However, the vicar’s comment that his congregation could all ‘flock off’ was deemed unacceptable and Sears advised Rex to return instead with his charlady character, who still needed a name. Mrs Brandyshuffle and Ethel LaPlunge were considered, but on May 4, 1950, it was Mrs Shufflewick who premiered on Variety Bandbox.
Rex’s rise to fame in light entertainment was fairly swift. With such a novelty act, the work came thick and fast. He was constantly on the radio in programmes such as London Lights, Midday Music Hall and Workers’ Playtime and in his first professional year, could have been heard regularly on ten different radio shows. The popularity of fifties radio stars of the time led to audiences also wanting to see their best-loved performers live on stage, so Rex signed with variety agent, Joe Collins.
Rex’s first tour was opening early evening for the erratic Dorothy Squires, after which he would perform at late-night cabaret spots in venues such as The Astor, The Embassy and The Talk of the Town. The Shufflewick act was still in its early stages: the character outwardly prim and proper, offering a smattering of saucy tales, and always ending with a sentimental monologue - half spoken, half sung.
The act caught the attention of Vivian Van Damm, who ran the notorious Windmill Theatre. It had a programme of continuous variety running daily from 2.30pm to 11pm. Shows included singers, comics, showgirls and specialty numbers who would perform between the ‘tableaux vivants’ - nude statues - and they became a training ground for many young comics including Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Bruce Forsyth, Tommy Cooper and Barry Cryer. Van Damm (or VD as he was known amongst the comics) asked Rex to audition for a possible six-week season:
‘I was terribly nervous standing there in front of him. The Windmill rehearsal room was like a dead garage. But for some reason he liked my act and gave me the contract. As I was leaving he said “It’s a lovely act Rex, but get yourself some double entendres.” I hadn’t a clue what he meant. I thought he wanted me to stick something to my costume.’
Rex’s initial contract with VD was extended to six months, and was then continually renewed over the next three years. Six shows a day, five days a week. He became one of the most successful acts to play the Windmill: earning the substantial amount of £50 a week he became a personal favourite of Van Damm. The comic Bill Pertwee remembers Mrs Shufflewick at the Windmill as being ‘impossible to follow - his delivery and timing were superb’”.
In between shows at the Windmill, Rex would frequent the Bear & Staff public house in Charing Cross Road, a famous haunt for theatricals and gay men. It was something of a discreet refuge at a time when homosexuality was both illegal and actively pursued by the police.
Having gotten into the habit of wearing his full drag costume beyond the theatre bounds, Rex always wore it to the pub and even to BBC radio recordings. He was enthralled by the drag world and its clubs, and befriended a young drag artiste called Danny Carole who was working in a revue called Men Only at the nearby Irving Theatre Club. Danny did well and later changed his surname to LaRue.
In 1955, Rex’s career was at its height. He had been reunited with his mentor, Ralph Reader, for a TV show called It’s A Great Life (which also starred a young Terry Scott) and for which Rex was awarded TV Mirror Personality of the Year. He also co-starred in a successful new radio show, Pertwee’s Progress, with Jon Pertwee, but the crowning jewel of that year was Rex’s summer season at the Winter Garden Blackpool, which at the time was every comic’s dream booking.
A Granada TV producer saw his performance and paired him with the great Norman Evans for a TV show. Norman was famous for his Over the Garden Wall character, Fanny Fairbottom, and Rex was a fan:
‘Norman was a wonderful person. He was so easy-going and a brilliant comic. You would have thought that the two of us clashed, two drag characters, but he was unique and no-one else could do his routines. We got on very well together. It was northern and southern comedy on TV together, and it just merged.’
In variety, everyone was aware of the differences in regional humour. Rex had cracked this with Mrs Shufflewick and was able to play successfully both north and south of the country. For the next four years, Joe Collins had him booked in everywhere. It was even reported that audiences found him funny at The Glasgow Empire, a renowned death-pit for southern comics. But the constant touring meant that Rex was rarely at home (a room rented from the comic, Hylda Baker, and shared with her monkeys) and he was spending increasingly more time and money on alcohol and gambling.
MRS SHUFFLEWICK LIVE AT THE BLACK CAP:
It is claimed that the death of variety took place on April 12, 1962 with the closing of the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road. ‘The Met’ was London’s most famous music hall and performers came out of the woodwork to be on the final variety bill, but it was TV Times Personality of the Year and theatre legend, Mrs Shufflewick who closed the night. Rex too was on the way out. Within the month he had been declared bankrupt which meant more touring and inevitably, more betting and boozing.
By the end of the Sixties Mrs Shufflewick had become less genteel, less innocent and a lot more tiddly. Performing ‘under the influence’, Rex’s material was turning a little blue and uncouth which did not sit well in a seaside special at The Winter Gardens, Margate.
But Rex had found a new audience. By the late Sixties, the rise of clubland and the growth of the working mens’ circuit had established an alternative crowd. Northern clubs like Batley Varieties in Yorkshire, the Civic in Barnsley and of course, The Embassy Club in Manchester were forging ahead. Rex’s initial reluctance to work the clubs quickly disappeared when Mrs Shufflewick proved to be the perfect act for a raucous atmosphere. On most nights he was more drunk then the crowd.
‘I've had one or two concerts secretaries who thought the act was near the knuckle. I don't think I've had any complaints from the audience, only once or twice in Wales. We get a lot of those chapel people. Women respond even more than men, they laugh louder and applaud longer. I never look a clubland audience in the face. I look above their heads into space. I think if you were looking at their faces and they were a bit glum, it would put you off.’
In the early seventies, Rex’s homosexuality became public knowledge and the working-class club audiences were noticeably hostile towards him. His alcohol dependancy increased at the same pace as his persona and stage character merged into one, both being known as ‘Shuff’.
Fortunately for him, the London gay circuit was beginning to emerge at this time, and Rex appeared regularly at The Black Cap in Camden, The Vauxhall Tavern and The Skinners Arms in Camberwell. Additionally, he was performing every Sunday night at the Theatre Royal, Stratford in a show called Pure Corn to a younger, politically-aware audience. Each week he would present a new set, some collaborative sketches and introduce young up-and-coming comics such as Michael Barrymore, Bobby Davro and Hale & Pace.
On Sunday March 5, 1983, aged 59, after a show at The Black Cap, Rex Jameson died of a heart attack. His funeral - much like his life - was out of the ordinary. A few people were expected to gather at Golders Green Crematorium but on the day, more than 500 people gathered for the service. Actors, drag queens, fans and comedians were crammed into the tiny chapel, and a loud sing-a-long of Rex’s signature tune My Old Man Said Follow The Van was said to be a magical moment.
Some performers, however, thought this to be too little, too late as Roy Hudd’s comment indicates: ‘What a pity they didn’t show their affection in more tangible forms while he was still with us.’
Conceived in variety, born on radio, grown on television and ripened in live entertainment, Mrs. Shufflewick was a unique creation.
Published: 6 Nov 2013