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Frankie Howerd

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Post  eddie Fri May 04, 2012 1:47 pm

Comedy gold: Frankie Howerd on Campus

As an exemplar of how to rule an audience with laughter, Howerd remains as good as comedians have ever got

Leo Benedictus, Thursday 3 May 2012 16.12 BST

'The mannerisms give him absolute command' … Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii in 1973. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Frankie Howerd British-comic-actor-Frank-008
Title: Frankie Howerd on Campus

Date: 1990

The set up: Can there be a more demeaning fate for an old comedian than to be ironically "rediscovered" by a younger audience? It must be truly miserable to find that lightly mocking laughter is the only kind available. Yet in the 1980s, when a student following began to gather around the musical-hall throwback Frankie Howerd, they were serious. And they were right to be.

Frankie Howerd Oh-Please-Yourselves...-Fran

A Howerd performance is as unvarying and identifiable as a Bogart or a Groucho Marx. Though his roots are clearly somewhere in the camp tradition, the wildly mannered stage persona he developed was his own, and he lived off it – with varying success – for half a century. In this performance for a hall full of Oxford students, recorded for London Weekend Television when Howerd was 73, there are, as always, the many catchphrases ("Please yourselves", "Titter ye not", "No, missus", "Shut your face" and so on), the array of little tics and noises, the hands on hips, the lunatic eyebrows, the exaggerated mood swings, and the rather too obvious toupée.

Funny how? Being a comic of the old style, most of Howerd's jokes were written for him by doughty hands such as Galton and Simpson, Johnny Speight and Barry Cryer. Today, some bits are so stale you wonder if he bought them with a ration book, but actual content has never been the point. With Howerd, it is all about the marginalia.

Nobody would ever have assembled his range of eccentricities deliberately, of course, but they served a purpose. He was notoriously prone to stage fright, yet the mannerisms give him absolute command – it just seems impossible that real anxiety could lurk beneath such a rococo simulation of it. And throughout this show, which is the only full-length standup gig of his still available on DVD, he uses those mannerisms to reverse and re-reverse our expectations about whether he is being serious or silly, crude or proper, closeted or out.

So, complaining of tiredness, he says: "I should be in bed." Then: "Anyone?" Then: "They were about to surge forward." Then: "What do you think I am?" Then, warning us: "Oh, you dare …"

Unlike the firebrand comics who followed, it is as if he crafted his whole act out of the censorship that surrounded him, and other performers, when his career began. And as a closeted gay man – alternately tormented and insatiable – he was practised in the art of not quite saying things. Indeed, he was so innocent when he started out that he often told filthy jokes without realising they were filthy. Or so he later claimed. With Howerd, delightfully, you can never absolutely tell.

Despite being a figure of sufficient stature to have hour-long BBC films made about him, Howerd will eventually be forgotten once again. His body of work is too piecemeal, too lacking in memorable big splashes (I think we can exclude Up Pompeii!), and too unlikely to influence other performers (how could one aspire to be like Frankie Howerd?). Nor did he make much impact abroad, or attempt it; to most people outside Britain, he must already be obscure indeed. Yet as an exemplar of how to rule an audience with laughter, he remains as good as they have ever got.

Comic cousins: Kenneth Williams, Paul O'Grady, Tommy Cooper, Amy Schumer

Steal this: "I'd love to be a toy-boy. Trouble is, when you get to my age you don't find so many openings."
The Gap Minder

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