Tuesday, 28 May 2013

British Comedy Giants: Larry Grayson

Larry Grayson (1923-95) is fondly remembered in the UK, as a stand-up comedian on TV and television presenter whose career was based mainly on "camp" humour.

William Sully White, later to become famous as UK stand-up comedian and TV star Larry Grayson, was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire on the 31st August, 1923. 

Early Life
Being born out of wedlock, the young William grew up in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in the English Midlands, under the care of foster parents who were friends of his natural mother. 

At the age of 6 when his adopted mother died, his eldest adoptive sister, Florence (known as Fan), became the major influence on his early life and after that time he always thought of and referred to her as his mother.

From birth, he remained in contact with his natural mother however, who was a regular visitor to the house. Known to him as Aunt Ethel, he discovered her true identity when reaching the age of 8. He never knew his natural father.

Early Career

Being very much an extrovert and show-off in his early years, he liked to perform to family and friends on any possible occasion. Upon leaving school at the age of 14, he started work as a sales assistant in a shoe shop. He lasted 2 days in the job and went on the stage to act and sing with a locally based concert party.  

 His stage career continued throughout the 2nd World War, where he entertained the troops after he had been exempt from service due to health reasons.

After peace was restored, he changed his professional name to Billy Breen and performed as a drag act, wearing women’s clothing. He continued to tour the country with his limp-wristed act, playing the ultimately critical English northern club circuit, where he soon acquired the necessary toughness for these unforgiving, harsh venues. 

In the 1950’s, an early TV appearance was followed by numerous complaints from viewers that his act was far too controversial and outrageous. After this setback, he resigned himself to not becoming a TV star and resolved to continue on the club circuit for the rest of his career. 

Around the same time he again changed his stage name, taking the surname Grayson (from US singing star Kathryn), and preceded it with Larry, as suggested by his agent.

Grayson’s act evolved into the gently delivered, anecdotal antics of an imaginary group of “friends”, such as Everard, Slack Alice, Apricot Lil, Self Raising Fred (a baker) and Pop-It-In Pete (the postman). 

Loosely based on real people, he kept these so-called characters in his act for the remainder of his stage and, soon to follow, TV career. 

He also created and used many catchphrases. Such utterances as, “what a gay day” and, “look at the muck on ‘ere” were synonymous with Grayson, along with the most memorable of them all, “shut that door”. 

There are a few conflicting stories as to the origin of the latter catchphrase. They all agree that he coined it when feeling a sudden draught when on stage one day, but the locations of the said performance differ.

Early Television Career

In the early part of the 1970’s, after high profile appearances in London and pantomime in Brighton with comedienne Dora Bryan, Grayson was a guest on the Leslie Crowther show on TV, followed by a very nervous appearance on ITV’s prestigious Saturday Variety show. 

In 1972, the head of ATV in Birmingham was so impressed; he commissioned a 16 part comedy show starring Grayson, entitled “Shut That Door”. This was followed by “The Larry Grayson Show” which aired in 1975.

The Generation Game

In 1978, the BBC’s flagship Saturday night show “The Generation Game”, was looking for a new host. Incumbent star Bruce Forsyth, who had built up a regular weekly viewing audience of 21 million, had decided to jump ship and had signed for London Weekend Television to present what became a short lived variety show called “The Big Night”.

There were many suggestions as to who should be his replacement, but the BBC, in a controversial move that would prove to be a master stroke of genius, decided to change the look and feel of the show and signed Grayson to take over the reins. 

Over a 4 year period, until he decided to quit for semi-retirement, Grayson managed to raise the audience to 25 million. He presented the show in a style of total incompetence, giving the impression he had no clue as to what was going on. This was of course, totally contrived, but to the delight of the British public who had fallen for his sheer charm. Grayson had them eating out of the palm of his hand and was now becoming the biggest star on British TV.

He fronted another game show in 1987 which flopped and his last TV appearance was at the Royal Variety Show in 1994 – performance footage available at http://www.astabgay.com/KingsOfCamp/LarryGrayson.htm

Larry Grayson’s Death

On New Year’s Eve 1994, Larry was rushed to hospital suffering from a ruptured appendix. After being allowed home, he died on 7th January 1995 at the age of 71. He is buried in  Nuneaton.

By all accounts he was a very kind, gentle, albeit unhappy man who had a razor sharp quick wit. There is a tribute dedicated to him, containing memorabilia and items from his career, at the Riversley Park Museum in his home town.

In the 1970's he used to perform a song on TV, that contained the following lyrics:
Shut that door, shut that door, it's freezing cold in here. Shut that door, shut that door, I'm feeling rather queer!

At that somewhat homophobic period in the UK, it could only be Larry Grayson who could ever get away with it!

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