Sunday 21 June 2020

On Frankie Howerd

Last night I dreamed of Frankie Howerd again.

Frankie Howerd!

We share a birthday (March 6th) and, to a degree, a sensibility - or at least a weakness for innuendo. It was Howerd as the gossipy slave Lurkio in the 1970s BBC television comedy Up Pompeii! who delivered the ripest of all doubles entendres when, faced by a giggling cluster of sexy Vestal Virgins said, by way of salutation: "It is a great honour that you do me", before turning to the audience, aghast at their laughter, scandalised by their lewdness. It was, I think, Talbot Rothwell who wrote the show, the man behind so many lamentable 'Carry On' scripts.

One remembers Frankie Howerd fondly as a filthy performer, but he was really nothing of the kind - the audience provided the filth, he the pretext. He was, if anything, rather prim. I saw him only once on stage, at the Southend Cliffs Pavilion in the early 1980s. It was a matinee, and the house more than half-empty (not quite the same thing as less than half full). He wore a terrible tan suit, a wig like Weetabix and his yellowish camel-face had sagged into a permanent bilious glare. He shuffled on stiffly, looked into the audience with distaste, licked his chops, adopted a characteristic posture (left hand on hip as if massaging a bad back, right hand raised, elbow pressed to the other hip, hand splayed in a camply emphatic rhetorical gesture) and he was off. The whole first half of the show consisted of a rambling explanation of how he came to be here "in this posh garage", as well as several unsuccessful attempts to sing "Three Coins in a Fountain" accompanied by an elderly pianist ("She's deaf, poor thing, stone deaf"). We all laughed helplessly, and constantly. "Give us a smile missus. Show us your teeth. No - don't hand 'em round!". All the trademark oohs and aahs were delivered in a kind of ripely eldritch shriek while the Brezhnev eyebrows did their thing; he made us imagine we were capable of any manner of wickedness. Excellent. 

When he said, as I expect he was contractually obliged to: "I was flabbergasted. My gast has never been so flabbered!" we all howled and clapped and even whistled. He  pursed his lips and looked dismayed.

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