Howerd's way

Review: Frankie Howerd: Stand-up Comic by Graham McCann

By the end, Frankie Howerd was almost a parody of himself, the awkward, arched stance and unconvincing Brillo pad hairpiece as much as an overexposed trademark as his rambling high camp delivery, all ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and ‘titter ye nots’.

This is how he will be remembered. Well, this and perhaps his reputation for being a predatory homosexual in an age when such practices were not only unmentioned, but illegal.

There was obviously more to Howerd that this. And biographer Graham McCann has looked at the man behind the mannerisms to argue that, in fact, he was a genuine groundbreaker –the first stand-up comic in the modern mould who broke accepted, cast-iron rules to forge a distinctive  new branch of comedy.

Howerd, he asserts, was the first comic to be a real person, albeit an exaggerated one, rather than a slick professional. A flawed, moaning, gossipy Everyman standing uneasily alongside the assured, polished one-line merchants the music hall produced.

Today, we expect our comics to show some character, but Howerd had a tougher time of it.

One of his problems was that he was never a natural performer, and was often crippled by stage fright. On a defining day in 1933, a sixteen-year-old Howard, as his real name was spelt, attended an audition to get into RADA.

As fear gripped him, he clutched his packed lunch to his chest for reassurance and stood in front of the panel, rooted to the spot, motionless apart from his left leg, which was involuntarily quivering.  Trying to calm it, he suddenly slammed his right hand, which was still holding his cheese sandwiches, onto his left knee, showering food everywhere.  He eventually managed to splutter out Hamlet’s soliloquy, but the shame of such an embarrassing panic left him desolate, contemplating an alternative career in the Church.

But after spending two hours in a field sobbing, he gave himself a stern talking-to, finding from somewhere the strenght determination to overcome his shyness and perhaps, turn away from being a dramatic actor to comedy. Even so, the path to fame was not to be an easy one.

McGann’s book is splendid in its evocation of these early years, through his eventful time in the army as he struggled to make it even as a concert party entertainer and into his early days in London.

But success did eventually come, and after the war Howerd was to become one of the biggest and best-paid stars in the country, thanks to his command of the radio and his talented team of writers. But with changing taste, and bad management, the work began to dry up by the end of the Fifties, and Howerd looked for all the world like he was washed up for good.

It was Peter Cook who saved him, offering this unfashionable has-been an unlikely spot at his trendy Establishment Club, directly after a typically controversial season by Lenny Bruce. With a sharp, knowing script by Alf Garnett creator Johnny Speight,  Howerd stormed it, and was firmly back on the comedy map.

Then followed a run un the West End musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the sitcom that unsubtly ripped off the same idea, Up Pompeii, and then work with the Carry On team.

It is this lascivious,  double-entendre-dealing Frankie we remember now, and who was ironically adopted as an icon by Eighties students, even though this was a comic at the dog-end of a long, rollercoaster career. It is this turbulent professional life that McCann covers so well, comprehensively and empathically charting the ups and downs without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

The author concerns himself less with Howerd’s personal life, however, and in the inevitable  epilogue,  passionately argues that the ‘sewage stream of sensationalistic exposes’ are irrelevant when it comes to appraising ‘the most distinctive, intelligent, influential and courageous stand-up comedian of all time’.

So while he touches on the insecurities and depressions that led Howerd to a nervous breakdown, he skates over them, especially in his later life. ‘Frankie Howerd’s sadness was not the key,’ he asserts, though any amateur psychologist might think otherwise. And Howerd’s legendarily boldness in making passes at almost every man he worked with is barely mentioned, even though most his ‘victims’ seem to have taken – and rejected - the advances in good grace.

These omissions might mean this book falls short of being exhaustive; but they don’t stop it from being a compelling read. McCann has brought the same painstaking research, attention to detail and skilful writing to this subject as he did to previous definitive books about Morecambe and Wise and Dad’s Army, and this subject is equally fascinating, if not more so.

There have been books about Howerd before, at least half-a-dozen by Amazon’s reckoning, including a less-than-frank autobiography,  a publishing cottage industry that indicates the strength of impact he had on the comedy landscape.

But McCann’s is the authoritative work, essential reading for anyone interested how comedy got to where it is today.

Frankie Howed, Stand-Up Comic is published by Fourth Estate at £18.99. Click here to order your copy from Amazon at £13.29

Steve Bennett
November 24, 2004

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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