Their names escape us...

Robert Ross ponders why some comics get forgotten

Over the last 15 years or so I've written lots of books on lots of British comedy from the Carry Ons and Benny Hill, to Monty Python and Last Of The Summer Wine. But I’ve had a pet project hanging around since 1999 to write about the forgotten heroes of comedy, and, at last, the unique publisher Unbound are giving me the chance to write it. With a little help from my friends...

Unbound is a brilliant notion. It puts the power back into the hands of the reader. If you want to read the book, simply pledge your money. This way, I won't be writing it without the support of true comedy fans.

The basis of the book is fairly straightforward. I've long been fascinated with the reason why some classic turns like Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd and Morecambe and Wise are repeatedly repeated and still loved and admired by each new generation, while other comedians like Harry Worth and Dick Emery and Charlie Drake seem stuck in neutral somewhere around 1975. Some music hall stars have theatres named after them and even statues erected, while others barely get a footnote mention in the great histories of comedy.

A comedian like Sid Field, for example, was an icon to most of the post-war greats. But dead at 45 in 1950, Sid didn't have the opportunity to get established within his natural home of television and thus, build-up a sustainable legacy. His routines – limply preserved in the all-singing, all-dancing Technicolor film London Town – out-stretch influence to such diverse sitcom characterisations as James Beck's spiv Private Walker in Dad's Army and John Inman's flamboyantly fragrant shop-worker Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? As the drunken dreamer Elwood P. Dowd, Field etched the man's totally endearing belief in an visible white rabbit long before James Stewart immortalised the role on Broadway and in Hollywood. But who celebrates Sid's legacy today?

However, never fear. The book will not be completely obsessed with the dusty but never musty worlds of music hall and variety. Other comedians to be celebrated in the book were certainly more of the Walkman than the ration book generation. Take Hovis Presley, for example. A Bolton-born poet with a relentlessly pessimistic view on the world around him. His delight in the ordinariness of life was not a forced one. Here was a talented comedian who, when faced with fame, baulked at the glare of the showbiz spotlight. He needed to shy away from fame and give back to those studying the art of humour but an early death robbed us of a winning talent. A forgotten hero, indeed.

Through the ranks of stand-ups, character actors, eccentric dancers, joke-tellers, prat-fallers and wordsmiths, Forgotten Heroes Of Comedy will be a lavish fan letter to more than 100 of those who made us laugh and yet, for one reason or another, vanished from the public mind. Each will be championed by a contemporary comedy hero who will delight in sharing their affection for these once glittering talents.

To bring these great comedy talents back in to the limelight, I need your help. A simple pledge – from just £10 to a whopping £1,000 – will make you uniquely involved in the publication process. Please watch the little promo film, read the project pitch at Unbound and give us your money...

Published: 19 Sep 2012

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