...And this is me! | Andre Vincent celebrates the career of Mike Yarwood

...And this is me!

Andre Vincent celebrates the career of Mike Yarwood

Comedy in Britain always seems to take an intriguing turn when the Tories are in power. The rise of ‘alternative’ comedy in the Eighties looked like the perfect retort to Thatcher’s government; 20 years earlier, Beyond The Fringe was sending up Harold MacMillan and his Cabinet with such keenness that the comedy troupe responsible for the show are now regarded as the originators of modern British satire.

However, when Labour took charge of the country in late 1964, it coincided with the closure of Peter Cook’s Establishment Club (a hangout for London’s literati), and the termination of David Frost’s acerbic That Was The Week That Was, which had been cancelled by the BBC in order to maintain political neutrality in an election year. In contrast to this apparent demise in ‘cultivated’ satire, comedy in Working Men's Club was enjoying a groundswell of popularity.

Not all comics were of the ‘mother-in-law’ and ‘Guess who’s moved in next to me?’ variety. Ray Martine had his East End Jewish issues; Tom O’Connor constructed routines about his experiences as a teacher; Roy Walker included the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ in his set. But political comedy seemed to be slipping away: satire did not feature even within the fringe theatre or progressive folk circuits.

Then one evening in June 1965 on ITV’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium, Norman Vaughan introduced a young comic to the nation, one who would jump-start public laughter at the country’s party leaders. Audiences had already heard impressionists parodying the Prime Minister on radio, but this performer became the PM right in front of their eyes. He put on a macintosh, pulled out a pipe and transformed his face into that of Harold Wilson. Mike Yarwood became an overnight hit.

’To be referred to by a teacher as ‘the playground Mike Yarwood’…well that was a medal.’ John Sessions

Yarwood had been doing impersonations since childhood. As a lad, he enjoyed making people laugh by lampooning family members, school-teachers and the local priest. His party piece as a young boy was a spot-on impersonation of the actor Gerald Campion as Billy Bunter. Whenever guests were at the house, Yarwood’s family would press him to perform despite the natural shyness that made him initially nervous before an audience.

Born in 1941, Yarwood grew up in Bredbury, Cheshire. When Bridget Yarwood was pregnant with Michael his family moved from Stockport to the countryside, to avoid the dangers of war. As a young child he showed no interest in performing and his only real interest was sport: cricket and football were his passions. Extraordinarily for a boy, he was the owner of a real leather ball, which led to the young Yarwood becoming player/manager of a local lads’ team that met on a field behind his house. The Broadway Rovers played every Sunday afternoon after Church and Yarwood took his managerial role very seriously, transferring one of his players to a local estate team for threepence. With his fee, Yarwood bought liquorice and shared it with the team.

An incredibly sensitive child, Yarwood often burst into loud sobs during showings at the local cinema. His sister eventually refused to accompany him after one particularly notable howling during a Lassie film. Tears were also regularly shed at Yarwood’s favourite place, Edgeley Park, the home of Stockport County FC where his father, Wilf, took him from an early age. His obsession for football extended to requesting books, kit and soccer memorabilia every Christmas and birthday. This love for the game has continued throughout Yarwood’s life and he has performed at, watched and even played in career testimonials and charity matches.

Having left school with very little ambition, Yarwood took up his headmaster’s suggestion that being a salesman could exploit his gift of the gab. His first job was with a mail order company in Manchester, but he was soon moved from office to office for joking with his workmates and not applying himself to work. When the boss discovered that Yarwood was carrying off a perfect impression of him and his own distinctive walk, he gave the lad a week’s notice.

In the late 1950s, work was fairly easy to secure but being sacked was still considered shameful. Yarwood hid the fact from his family and continued his daily commute into Manchester until he found a place at M.A. Jacobs, a family clothing firm. Working in the warehouse, he was quickly up to his antics again – this time, the boss found them amusing, particularly when his mimicry could be used to entertain the wholesales customers.

Margaret Fairley was an ex-Tiller girl who worked at the clothing company with Yarwood in 1962. By now, he had a stock of impressions that he could reliably put to use, and she would badger him constantly to try breaking into showbusiness. There were remarkably few impersonators in the entertainment world at the time: the most successful was Peter Cavanagh, a radio performer billed as ‘The voice of them all’, but whose career never really extended into television.

That Christmas at M.A. Jacobs’ works party in the Whisky-A-Go-Go, Manchester, Yarwood met agent, producer and comedy writer Wilfred Fielding. Yarwood mentioned a regular local talent contest that he felt too self-conscious to enter, but Fielding convinced him to sign up. Yarwood came third, still too low for prize money, but the win encouraged him to return, and the following week the addition of a Steptoe & Son routine to his set won him second prize. He walked away with 12s 6d, and the offer of an engagement at the Salvage Hotel.

Fielding introduced Yarwood to Royston Mayoh, who became the biggest influencer in Yarwood’s career. Mayoh was a comedy writer for Mike and Bernie Winters, and also wrote scripts for the highly popular kids TV show, Crackerjack. He went to see Yarwood perform at The Salvage, saw his potential and took the 21-year old under his wing, encouraging him to hone his voices and facial expressions, and to tighten his gags and routines. Mayoh also taught him microphone technique and how to move around the mic stand while dipping into a hatbox: they would rehearse for hours in Mayoh’s front room using his upright carpet sweeper as a substitute stand.

Yarwood started to pick up club work around the Manchester area; with Mayoh in tow he also began to shape his talents. Overjoyed to secure a week at the prestigious Prince’s Theatre Club in Chorlton, Yarwood arrived at the main entrance only to be escorted through the building to its less upmarket sister venue, The Ponderosa Club. He was told he’d actually been booked to entertain the gamblers between their casino games: not quite the dream engagement he’d expected. Typically nervous and uneasy, Yarwood began to tremble: his hands were too unsteady for one gag that involved gripping the mic stand and this made Mayoh laugh out loudly. The ice broke in the room, the crowd joined in and Yarwood regained his confidence. He remembered this moment himself as a memorable induction into professionalism: ‘Soon I found I was enjoying myself…I finished the act without disgrace.’

Within six weeks, Yarwood was out playing decent cabaret spots in the Manchester area. The bookers loved the originality of his act. He was an outstanding impressionist but in addition, those that he mimicked were not the usual targets. Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson were certainly in the public eye, but his parodies of the more obscure Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Boothby were also adored by the audience. Yarwood soon found himself back at the Whisky-A-Go-Go, but this time on the stage. Standing in for the regular compere, Ray Cameron (some years before Cameron fathered one Michael McIntyre), Yarwood stewarded a wide range of nights: extravagant variety shows, stag shows and even curry hotpot and comedy shows all gave him invaluable experience in crowd interaction.

He started to play extensively across the north in one-off variety nights, Yorkshire working men’s clubs and every cabaret bar between Wigan, Westhoughton and Bolton. It wasn’t long before a London agent booked Yarwood for a week at the Caribbean Club in the Edgware Road. He didn’t like the capital – ‘It was so big and fast, and I felt lost, lonely and very frightened’ – and during rehearsals he suspected the staff didn’t care for him or his act. Yarwood’s assumption that his northern accent was the problem exemplifies his paranoia, since his set was actually composed of an assortment of regional accents. On the night of his first show, he stopped at the venue entrance, turned around and walked straight into the pub next door. He stayed there for the entire evening.

The following day, Yarwood was summoned by the London agent who was furious. After having been told in no uncertain terms that he should return to the clothing business, Yarwood then called Roy Mayoh. His advice was to go back to the club and offer to complete the rest of the engagement for free, which Yarwood did. The manager was appeased and Yarwood ended up having a very successful week. The manager even paid him – despite what could have been an uncomfortable situation when his Christine Keeler joke about the highly topical Profumo affair got a huge laugh, just before Miss Keeler herself walked in and joined the audience.

Towards the end of 1963, Yarwood landed a TV job sought by many comics: warm-up man for Comedy Bandbox. Within a few weeks of securing the same gig, Jimmy Tarbuck had been performing on Sunday Night At The London Palladium with the result that comedians considered it to be a likely route to the best variety show on television. For Yarwood, it led to an immediate booking to perform in front of the Comedy Bandbox camera. Mayoh helped him to make novel use of the available technology: he suggested placing the cameras at different heights so when Yarwood acted out his Steptoe & Son routine, he could turn on the spot to appear short or tall for either character.

Yarwood was on his way and in demand, with a diary of club dates the length and breadth of the country and a summer season in Great Yarmouth lined up. At the end of 1964, just before he was due to perform with Ken Dodd in Liverpool, Yarwood landed a TV slot on the show Club Night, which came with two lucky breaks. Firstly, it was filmed at The Palace Theatre Club in Offerton, just three miles from Yarwood’s home: the proximity drew friends and locals along to the recording, forming a studio audience who willingly showed their appreciation to one of their own. Secondly, it was aired during a general election to a public who had never yet seen Alec Douglas Hume and Harold Wilson lampooned. Yarwood had been spending time in the House of Commons public gallery in order to study MPs’ mannersisms, and the show’s success confirmed that his research had paid off.

‘He does me better then I do myself…’ Harold Wilson

The Liverpool run took an interesting turn. It was hard enough for a Manchester comic to do well in Liverpool but with Doddy – the ultimate Liverpudlian - on the bill, Yarwood feared the worst. However, thanks to Club Night, audiences were booking to see Yarwood himself. The reviews were also great and the local papers were highly supportive of the Stockport lad. He knew that he was stealing the show but also feared that success might make him over-confident. Developing his performer’s self-belief without becoming egotistical was a balancing act which Yarwood struggled with throughout the rest of his career.

In the summer of 1965, Yarwood was booked to open for Bob Monkhouse at Blackpool’s Central Pier – a 20-week run with a weekly fee of £60-plus. Since his only outgoings were a few pounds for digs, the sudden rise in income gave him the opportunity to become something of a playboy and he spent lavishly on clothes and accessories. And life was about to get even better: the yearned-for call from Sunday Night at the London Palladium finally came. The show was drawing to a close after ten years of broadcasting, but on the last episode of the season (transmitted June 13, 1965) the host, Norman Vaughan, launched Mike Yarwood to the country: ‘We’ve got a fellow who’s going to come on and do the Prime Minister.’ This was a first, and Vaughan made his introduction with genuine awe.

‘He could put on a hat, turn, pull a face and you were laughing: that is something, I think, the others didn’t have.’ Neil Shand

Yarwood was becoming a household name and also quite a socialite, often found drinking at late-night clubs and partying until the early hours. He had even started dating the 1964 Miss World, Anne Sydney. Some criticised this new, extravagant way of life but perhaps none more harshly than Yarwood himself. He felt undeserving of his success and continued to question its validity. Throwing himself into work, he accepted contracts for summer seasons, pantomimes and any club, television or radio job offered.

Then in 1967, BBC2 selected him to work alongside Lulu and Ray Fell in a series called Three Of A Kind. This proved to be a great training ground for the young impressionist, giving him an unprecedented opportunity to write and perform extensive impersonation sketches as opposed to simply grabbing a hat out of a bag as a stand-up. Ironically, Yarwood never actually saw the shows: he was performing in Great Yarmouth at a time in broadcasting history when Norfolk could not receive BBC Two.

Yarwood wanted his own TV show. Lulu had landed Lulu’s Back In Town following Three Of A Kind and he wanted something with his name in the title. His agent suggested performing at the Royal Gala Show for the British Olympic team because its producer was ATV’s big cheese, Lew Grade. Two things resulted from the benefit: Lew Grade did give Yarwood the show he craved - Will The Real Mike Yarwood Please Stand Up?; and he met his future wife, Sandra, at the gig. Becoming a husband and a father – the Yarwoods had two daughters – ended his wilder days. A second TV series, The Real Mike Yarwood, was commissioned in 1968, but he chose to use it for mostly straight comedy rather than his unique impressionisms, and the show proved to be less popular with the public.

In 1971 Yarwood returned to the BBC, this time accompanied by a couple of friends from earlier shows, the writers Eric Davidson and Neil Shand. For ten years this partnership formed an important part of BBC TV’s light entertainment output: Look - Mike Yarwood ran from 1971 to 1976 (running in parallel with his BBC radio show, Listen – Mike Yarwood); Mike Yarwood In Person ran from 1976 to 1981. His Christmas specials were so popular that a rumour emerged concerning the royal family: they had apparently moved dinner back by an hour just to watch his programme.

His 1977 Christmas Day special followed Morecambe & Wise, whose 28 million viewers that evening have since assumed the status of forming British TV’s largest-ever audience. However, it was the show that followed, Yarwood’s show, which deserves this ranking, since it attracted an additional two million viewers. It is notable that Yarwood - modest as ever – makes no mention of this in his autobiographies.

The television audience genuinely loved Mike Yarwood and the reason was simple - his impressions gave a human face to the political and celebrity figures of the time. Yarwood’s popularity soared, to the extent that catchphrases which he had created for his impressions - Max Bygraves’ ‘I wanna tell you a story’, Hughie Green’s ‘I mean that most sincerely’ and Danny LaRue’s ‘Isn’t that right, Jack?’ - were demanded by audiences as part of the stars’ own patter. MP Dennis Healey was considered to be an aggressive bully, but once Yarwood gave his character the ‘Silly Billy’ mantra, public opinion turned.

’My daughter was in the kitchen and she thought I had come in, she had the TV on and Yarwood was doing me - he was quite extraordinary.’ Dennis Healey

In 1982 Yarwood signed for Thames TV, where he made two series of Mike Yarwood In Persons, and several specials. It was the Thatcher era and Yarwood found that impersonating her was beyond his abilities. He turned instead to the royal family for inspiration, another first in the entertainment world, but the move away from the BBC also marked a downturn in his fortunes.

Overworked and away from his family, Yarwood’s anxieties began to get the better of him and his abuse of alcohol increased. The good-natured ribbing that Yarwood gave his subjects had begun to seem dated in comparison to the newer, more strident topical shows such as Spitting Image.

After The Mike Yarwood Show Special on December 15, 1987, his contract with ITV was not renewed. A planned chat show never materialised, and before even having reached 50, he was reduced to making occasional appearances on variety shows and Comic Relief segments, never again achieving the success he had enjoyed in the 1970s. It was Mike Yarwood who paved the way for the impressions of Rory Bremner, Phil Cool, Stella Street and of course, Spitting Image, but which in return also made him obsolete.

Mike Yarwood wanted to entertain families, and entertain he did, superbly, but audiences in the late eighties were looking for a level of bite and spite beyond his repertoire. Unlike other impressionists and satirists of the time, Yarwood never resorted to ranting, offensive language or sexual connotations. He was old-school. He was a product of a gentler age. He just wanted to make people happy. That, and finish with a song.

‘People say “Mike, you’re not on telly any more” No, but the important thing is, I’m sober and I’m happy…if I never step on stage again, I’ve had a wonderful life..’ Mike Yarwood.

Andre Vincent is hosting a series of live events around his Mislaid Comedy Heroes at London’s Museum Of Comedy. It starts with Marty Feldman on October 6. Tickets.

Published: 10 Sep 2014

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