Frankie Howerd reinvented his act many times during his career, but his most important moment came during a bleak period in the early 1960s .
At The Establishment & At The BBC,
Decca LK 4556,
Born in York in 1917, Francis Alick Howard was never the most comfortable or natural of performers, and yet from an early age that was really his only ever ambition. If ever anyone was unsuited to a showbiz lifestyle though it was the comedian soon to be known to a nation as Frankie Howerd. He lacked, in all honesty, almost everything that any competent performer usually needs to build and sustain a successful career.
A writhing, squealing mass of nervousness, anxiety and stammers, Frankie Howerd was never confident performing. Success eventually came when Howerd embraced his nerviness and fear, moulding all of his various tics and curious nervous quirks into a unique persona that became the essence of his act for almost fifty years. For every well scripted gag delivered in Frankie’s stage show, there would be a dozen more exasperated sighs punctuated only by raised eyebrows, groans, gasps and nagging admonishments to the audience.
Rejected by RADA and a failure in numerous amateur talent shows as a struggling youth, like many people of his generation, it took the advent of the Second World War and the need for troops to be entertained for Frankie Howerd to really make a mark. Frankie was conscripted in early 1940 and immediately applied for ENSA, the army’s entertainment organisation which did their best to amuse troops across all theatres of war. But, with an abundance of talented performers who had more than a string of failed auditions and amateur dramatics on their résumé, he faced yet more rejection as ENSA announced they would not require his services. For Frankie, rather than a showbiz tour of military hotspots he would have to settle for life in the Royal Artillery defending the coast of Essex from the Luftwaffe.
Not to be deterred by his posting, Shoeburyness Barracks soon saw Gunner Howard of B Battery organising and starring in weekly concert parties. It was in these Sunday night frivolities that he learned to make the most of his nervousness, honing it and taming it to form the basis of an act. Essex also witnessed the first appearance of a deaf apathetic pianist in Frankie’s act. The first time in Southend it was for real, for the next five decades it was usually a carefully rehearsed but always hilarious act.
When he left the army in 1946, Frankie brought his uniquely hesitant and incompetent delivery to the top BBC Radio show of the time, Variety Bandbox. Initially Frankie Howerd floundered in this new medium and his confidence ebbed with each passing week as his co-host Derek Roy garnered the praise of the audience and the admiration of BBC bigwigs. A chance meeting with a writer, the young and newly demobbed Eric Sykes, while in panto at the Sheffield Lyceum would rescue Frankie’s career and propel him to new heights.
Through many tortuous turns and failed forays into film and TV, by 1961 Frankie Howerd’s career in comedy was all but over yet again. Work was thin on the ground and his reputation as a ‘difficult’ cantankerous individual was making gigs ever harder to find. In his mid-forties, reasoning that he had enjoyed a long and fairly successful career and despairing at ever finding decent work or mass acclaim again, Frankie had determined privately to quit showbusiness for ever and invest what little money he had left in a London supper-club.
Committed to a summer season and a pantomime after that, Frankie resolved that once those dates were fulfilled, his career would be over. During the final days of his pantomime appearances in Southsea, an offer came in which Frankie found intriguing. He had been invited to present the 1962 Evening Standard Drama Awards at the end of January in London’s Savoy Hotel. Feeling that his career deserved to reach its conclusion in an atmosphere a little more dignified than a seaside production of Puss In Boots, he accepted gladly. It was another chance meeting with a young writer, much like that one some 16 years earlier, that would change Frankie’s mind about abandoning showbusiness and propel him on to greater fame and acclaim than he could possibly have imaged in those cold dark days in panto.
Buoyed by a lack of concern about his career (and quite a lot of gratis booze) Frankie lit up the awards show with a vintage tour de force, polishing old material and slipping in newly scripted gags with ease. In the audience that day accepting numerous awards were the young geniuses behind the ground-breaking new revue, Beyond The Fringe. Impressed by the veteran performer’s compering, Peter Cook was one of the first to congratulate Frankie after the awards dinner. Cook extended an invitation to Frankie to perform in his newly opened Establishment Club in Soho, then by far the most fashionable comedy club in the land frequented by each night by an eager audience of university educated satire fans.
As usual, it took much gentle coaxing and much more forthright nagging to persuade Frankie Howerd to attempt to launch his career anew. The masterstroke in Howerd’s renaissance was to come from the fruitful mind of Johnny Speight. His simple idea was not to reinvent Frankie for a hip new audience, used to the edgy satire of Lenny Bruce and the studied wit of Peter Cook, but to present Howerd as he was; a washed up, embittered vaudevillian totally at odds with his rarefied surroundings. Stepping on to the stage of The Establishment on the 26th September 1962, Frankie Howerd was reborn for a new generation of comedy fans and his legendary status was confirmed.
Thankfully, due to some remarkable foresight, that monumental moment in the career of Frankie Howerd was preserved forever by Decca Records. Bolstered with a choice script fashioned by Johnny Speight along with Galton and Simpson at the height of their powers, the triumph of Frankie Howerd still sounds remarkable. Full of self-deprecating humour and camper than ever before, the ‘humble music hall comedian’ Frankie Howerd is as swift to put down and ridicule his own career chairing Billy Fury tours as he is to criticise the shabbiness of the venue and the ambitions of the Beyond the Fringe players themselves, urging them all to consider the need to ‘turn professional’. It is a remarkably mature and swaggering performance by a comedian who has tasted fame and success as well as failure and ridicule. With nothing to prove and relieved of the desperate need to succeed, Frankie Howerd delivers the routine he always wanted to, a confident domineering performance that captivates and enthrals an audience.
The routine preserved on this record saw Frankie go on to further polish his satirical skills on That Was The Week That Was but he did not remain long with the hip young things of the satire boom. Frankie Howerd would have many further moments of doubt and uncertainty again over the years, but his major triumphs all lay ahead of him. He would succeed on stage in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, on TV with Up Pompeii! and at the cinema with appearances in two Carry On films and various adaptations of his TV work.
That comedy fans (me included I am pleased to say) were still able to see Frankie performing well into the 1990s is largely due to the wonderful fanciful reinvention contained in just one vintage LP recording. Here then is how it all began second time around for Francis Howerd, titter ye not: