Frankie Titters On! at Arlington Arts, Snelsmore, on Saturday, March 26
HAVING found his place as a cult comedian much-loved by students in the final years before his death in 1992, Frankie Howerd’s 45-year career was described by fellow comedian Barry Cryer as “a series of comebacks”. So not surprisingly, his story, full of showbiz highs and lows, chronic stage fright and hypochondria, makes rich material for this one-man stage show in which Paul Harris brings Howerd back from the afterlife for a look back on his life and career.
From Howerd’s early struggles to become an actor, through his early success and into long periods of ‘resting’ and depression, through which his manager and life partner Dennis Heymer remained a steadfast source of support and love, Howerd came across as a high-maintenance but still likeable character whose self-belief was as delicately balanced as his toupee.
Howerd believed that his periods of critical and popular ignominy were a natural payoff for the salad days of success - for example when the follow-up to his hit television series Up Pompeii! was a flop. Anyone remember Whoops Bagdad!? However, he often brought disaster upon his own career by succumbing to imagined or exaggerated illnesses at crucial moments, or bad decisions made in deference to his wish to be taken seriously as an actor.
Interspersed with tales of fall and redemption were stand-up performances of Howerd’s act, a reminder of how naughty his material was, and how much more open minded audiences of old must have been than we realise, to not be terribly shocked at double-entendres and language which would raise eyebrows among some audiences today. Harris revived Howerd’s turn of phrase, mannerisms and tics fabulously, with Howerd’s childhood stammer always simmering under the surface of his polished performance.
Despite the sadness in Howerd’s life, the show never got too dark - the abuse he received at the hands of his father was only touched upon, not surprisingly as Howerd never liked talking about himself, and even when appearing on the big television chat shows, would insist on seeing the questions in advance so he could prepare thoroughly. Even his long-term relationship with Heymer remained fairly private knowledge until his death, with his on-stage material portraying him as a man with an eye for the ladies.
The performance ended on a particularly cheeky note from Harris that raised an appropriately big titter. Ooh no missus indeed.
- First published in the Newbury Weekly News, on Thursday, March 31, 2011