And now a Barry interview...
Bristol Evening Post, August 23, 2007
HEADLINE: Stuff and nonsense
Natalie Hale talks to one of Britain's foremost comedy writers and performers, Barry Cryer OBE
Bbc Radio's multi-award-winning antidote to panel games starts its first live tour in 35 years.
Join Humphrey Lyttelton, Barry Cryer, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Jeremy Hardy and pianist Colin Sell at the Bristol Hippodrome next Tuesday (August 28) for an unmissable evening of inspired nonsense.
I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue is the most listened-to comedy programme on British radio. It regularly pulls an audience of about 2.5 million on Radio 4, a figure that would put it comfortably into the top 10 highest-rated programmes on BBC2 or Channel 4.
I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue developed from the long-running radio sketch show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. The writers of this show - John Cleese, Jo Kendall, David Hatch, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor and especially Graeme Garden - found that writing a radio series was a lot of work for little reward, and so happened upon the idea of an unscripted show.
It was decided that this would take the form of a parody panel game with Garden, Brooke- Taylor, Oddie and Kendall as the panellists, with occasional appearances from others. Humphrey Lyttelton, previously well known as a jazz trumpeter, was selected as the host because the others felt that the role played by improvisation would make the new show the comedy equivalent of jazz.
In the first series, Lyttelton alternated in the role of chairman with Barry Cryer, but from the second series he took the position full time, with Cryer replacing Jo Kendall on the panel. In 1974, Bill Oddie was replaced by Willie Rushton, but the line-up remained fairly stable from this point until Rushton's untimely death in 1996.
To this day, nobody has been brought in to replace Willie. Over the past few years, Tim Brooke-Taylor has been partnered by a host of talented comedians, including Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Sandi Toksvig, Bill Bailey, Harry Hill, Jack Dee and of course, the show's most regular non-regular - Jeremy Hardy.
In its remarkable 35 years, the show has picked up virtually every prize for radio comedy going - three coveted Sony Gold Awards, a British Comedy Award for Best Comedy Programme, British Press Guild and Voice of the Viewer & Listener Awards for Best Radio Programme, two Television & Radio Industries Club Awards as Radio Programme of the Year and two Spoken Word awards.
However, the reasons behind the show's success and longevity is something the team spend little time pondering over.
"We try not to analyse it," Barry, 72, informs me. "We're not complacent, but if it ain't broke ... It's just silly, that's all, and that's what people like about it.
"The audiences are a real mix now. There's a solid core of older Radio 4 faithfuls, but there are a lot more young people as well. There's also a lot of Sorry I Haven't A Clue societies and other strange stuff going on at universities, too."
So the fans are certainly in place. But after 35 years, do Barry and the gang still find working on the show as enjoyable as ever?
"Yes. I hope it doesn't sound indulgent, but we just all really enjoy doing it - and we enjoy the fact that so many other people enjoy it.
"I see a lot of our pianist Colin Sell, and I write quite a lot with Graeme Garden, the others I don't see so much of, but when we do get together we just laugh. We have a sort of telepathy going on, which is great."
Growing up, Leeds-born Cryer had no pretensions of becoming involved in show business.
"It was a series of accidents really," he tells me. "Many moons ago, when I was a student at Leeds Uni I did a show, or a rag review as we called it then. A guy came up to watch somebody - not me - perform, and he saw me telling jokes and offered me work.
"I had got my first year uni results at the same time, and let's just say they were not the best. So there was no contest really. I had my poor results in one hand and this chap's offer of work in the other, so off I went."
Barry did some variety work which led him to the famous Windmill theatre in London, a legendary club which showed comedy acts in between nude tableau shows.
"At the time, The Windmill was quite respectable. We did six shows a day, six days a week - that's 36 shows in one week. It was hard work, but a great school to learn your trade.
"Of course, the audience hadn't come to see you, they had come to see the nudes, so you learned to die with dignity. You didn't get heckled or anything - there was no aggression - there was just a lot of silent people waiting for the girls to get on.
"A lot of people started their careers at The Windmill. I once met a lad called Bruce Forsyth there, but I never knew what happened to him."
After his stint at The Windmill, Barry commenced writing for revues before writing and appearing in nightclub shows with Danny La Rue.
"Now you see that was another accident," he laughs. "I had written some stuff for a review for the Fortune Theatre in London, and Danny La Rue came in one night and said 'who wrote that?' So I was introduced to Dan and he invited me to write his nightclub shows. We went on to work together for 13 years."
While working with Danny, Barry met David Frost, who invited him to join the roster on the BBC series The Frost Report alongside an amazing group of writers including the Monty Python gang, Marty Feldman and David Nobbs.
"In those days, being a writer on Frost had a real cache," explains Barry. "It could really open doors for you."
After The Frost Report, Barry moved with Frost to ITV and wrote and appeared in The Frost Programme and Frost On Sunday. He then returned to the Beeb as one of the original writers on The Two Ronnies.
"I'd met Ronnie Corbett from our time working in nightclubs, so I already knew him. Then I met the wonderful Ronnie Barker on The Frost Report. I enjoyed working on The Two Ronnies - it was marvellous.
Barry went on to write gags and sketches for some of the true legends of comedy, including Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery, Dave Allen, Les Dawson, Bob Hope, Kenny Everett, Sir Harry Secombe, Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot and Richard Pryor.
"Yes, I wrote for a whole string of big boys. They were all great. One of my happiest times was writing for Kenny Everett, who was hilarious.
"I rarely wrote alone, though - I preferred to write in partnership. If you have writer's block on your own, you're in trouble - but if there's two of you, not only do you get through it, but you also get to improve on ideas by knocking them about together.
"Us writers tended to get on well. We'd appreciate each other's work and enjoy talking to each other.
"The comedians and performers on the other hand were forever circling each other like tigers in a cage. However nice they were, it was always survival of the fittest."
So did the comedians ever have any input in what Barry was writing?
"It varied. Eric Morecambe was brilliant at coming up with great ideas. He didn't pretend to be a writer, but he was a brilliant ideas man.
"Ronnie Corbett never made any pretensions to be a writer, he just trusted me to get on with it. Ron was also very generous in mentioning writers. Other comedians are not like that - they don't like to remind people that somebody wrote what they were saying."
Today, Barry only tends to write for himself. He recently penned a stand-up show which he is currently performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.
"It's going great," he enthuses. "I'm holding my own and the young ones call me Uncle Baz. One of the young comics told me I was 'clean'. He didn't mean that I don't swear or that I'm a bit too safe, he meant that I wasn't some old racist, sexist comic who does mother-in-law jokes.
"The first time I came to the festival was in 1990 with Willie Rushton. We did a show called Two Old Farts In The Night. The title was Willie's idea - he said we couldn't get done under the Trades Description Act.
"This year I'm doing a solo show. I got very nervous before I went on last Saturday because, at 72, this is my debut as a solo performer at the Edinburgh Fringe. People are saying I should be up for Most Promising Newcomer!
"I've done a lot in my career, but live is always best. No canned laughter, no editing. You're in front of them - now get on with it. That's what I love.
"My life has gone full circle in a way. I started out as a performer, and after many years of writing, I am now back performing again. And I'm enjoying every minute of it."