Vivat Rex! Standing up for comedy’s forgotten heroes

Those of a nostalgic bent should prepare for a Proustian rush as long-forgotten comics are revisited in Robert Ross’s latest book, writes Stephen Griffin

Thursday, 10th March — By Stephen Griffin

Mrs Shufflewick_Rex Jameson

Rex Jameson as Mrs Shufflewick

DID you know that the word “flux” originally meant dysentery? Or that “silly” meant pious? Yes, lots of words have changed meaning over the years.

Take the word “celebrity”. It used to mean someone who was at least vaguely well-known, now it appears to mean any old Tom, Dick or TikTok influencer. Few are the reality TV shows without the word “celebrity” appended to them, most accompanied Chez Griffin with a querulous: “Which one’s the celebrity?” And unless you’re fully conversant with the Mail’s sidebar of shame or the neon-headlined women’s magazines at the supermarket checkout I’ll wager you’re the same.

There was a time – ie, before Zsa Zsa Gabor – when a modicum of talent and a lifetime’s application was necessary to obtain celebrity; nowadays you only have to take selfies of your lip fillers after your appearance in a docu-drama to attain celebrity status.

Ah, but fame is a delicate bloom and a capricious mistress. One minute you’re Mr Saturday Night, the next you find yourself up to your epiglottis in marsupial genitalia in an attempt to secure a panto in Reading.

So how come some comedians are recalled fondly while others languish in the clammy recesses of our subconscious – if they’re lucky. How come we remember Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper yet have forgotten – or at least mislaid – the likes of Harry Worth and Arthur Haynes?

Luckily for them, comedy historian Robert Ross has looked down the arm of his metaphorical sofa and in a bid to restore their reputations has published a great doorstop of a tome, a real labour of love entitled Forgotten Heroes of Comedy.

Although subjects hail from both sides of the Atlantic, it’s the local heroes that held most interest for this reader. From Avril Angers to Mario Zampi (the Italian-born director of The Happiest Days of your Life and The Naked Truth), the breadth is impressive, as is the research.

Ross is clearly a comedy enthusiast. Prone to hyperbole, in the past he’s been a tad too enthusiastic and therefore a stranger to criticism. In short, he loves everyone and everything, even managing to find kind words for the later Carry On films. This book – comprising a potted biography introduced by a celebrity champion and a pointer to the subject’s most accessible work – is his best by far.

Some brief, some lengthy, the champions’ choices are interesting in themselves. We all know Anthony Hopkins is a great Tommy Cooper fan, but who’d have thought Samira Ahmed would take such delight in Dick Emery? Or Simon Callow in Bill Fraser and Alfie Bass?

The quondam A-listers (Worth, Haynes, Charlie Drake, Jimmy Clitheroe, Jimmy Edwards etc) rub shoulders with second bananas (Rita Webb, Patsy Rowlands, Alec Bregonzi, David Battley etc), the latter often the more interesting.

Of course everyone’s going to come up with their own omissions – I was surprised Sid Field does not get a segment whereas his straight man Jerry Desmonde does – but that’s inevitable.

And we could argue forever about who’s forgotten and who’s not – it’s very much a personal view.

Are John Wells, Roy Kinnear and Dickie Henderson really forgotten? To me they aren’t but I can understand that to others they are.

On the whole though, Ross has got it right, and it’s really nice to have memories of Dustin Gee, Deryck Guyler or Ken Goodwin rekindled.

The essays are also a reminder that tragedy often comes hand in hand with comedy. I don’t know why we expect comedy practitioners to lead a life filled to the brim with joy and laughter when in reality it would appear that often the opposite is the case. Take our very own habitué of Camden Town’s Black Cap, Rex Jameson.

A friend of fellow imbiber Tony Hancock, Jameson’s stage name was a nod to his favourite tipple but the name by which he was best known was that of his alter ego – Lily Savage with mange – Mrs Shufflewick.

As far from RuPaul as it’s possible to get, Mrs Shufflewick was an increasingly lewd raddled old cockney soak who made Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough’s Cissie and Ada seem like Grace Kelly. With a neat line in bar-room patter (“I’m broadminded to the point of obscenity”), Jameson’s creation was perhaps a bit of an acquired taste, eventually far more at home in a smoke-filled gay pub than a glitzy TV studio.

After a flirtation with fame – surprisingly he/she was named TV Times personality of the year in 1962 – too many Babycham and liniments took their toll and saw “Shuff” shuffle down the showbiz firmament, dying of a heart attack at the age of 58 in 1983 having just performed at the Black Cap. If you’re interested in a little comic archaeology, Ross thoughtfully steers readers in the direction of an old vinyl album The Amazing Mrs Shufflewick – Live! at the New Black Cap recorded in 1972.

If your cockles are warmed by the mere mention of those named here, this book is for you. If, however, they leave you cold perhaps you’d be better off investing your pennies in seats for the next Stewart Lee gig.

Forgotten Heroes of Comedy: An Encyclopaedia of the Comedy Underdog. By Robert Ross, Unbound, £35

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