I wanted to write about Barry Cryer, the great comedy writer and broadcaster who died in January aged 86.
Most of what I could say about Barry was recalled a thousand times by every comedy star who either worked or came into contact with him.
All of it was true. He was a successful writer and performer across generations of comedy. Initially as part of the post-war variety cabaret scene, where comics like Bruce Forsyth and Danny La Rue honed their skills in bizarre comic interludes between Soho strip shows.
When the young Oxbridge crowd arrived in the early 1960s, he had no trouble gliding into their gilded stratosphere. Later when alternative comedy blew away the old order, he was recruited by the new cohort of performers.
Decades of appearing on hundreds of episodes of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue made him a household name. He was instantly recognisable by that trademark cackle, honed on years of Consulate cigarettes and lager.
You’ll have gathered all this and more from the age range of tributees who talked about him on the media at the time of his death. Learned that many of us thought we were the only ones Barry phoned with the latest joke he’d heard or written. It was mentioned so often you wondered how he had time to do anything else.
It was of course, Barry’s equivalent of saying “Hello x, it’s Barry here.” We didn’t need that information, we knew who it was the moment he opened his mouth, and simply starting the conversation with a gag wasn’t going to take him much longer.
There was less mention in the obituaries of Barry’s prolific output as a comedy writer and performer through the 1960s and 70s. Here he developed his astonishing ability to work with the kind of one-off comedy geniuses who defied pigeonholing.
There were the dozens of sitcom scripts he wrote with Graham Chapman before Python, the reams of sketches and gags he came up with for Les Dawson, and what many believe was his most productive collaboration, with Kenny Everett. (If you’re interested he talked to us in depth about that period on Sitcom Geeks https://www.comedy.co.uk/podcasts/sitcom_geeks/episode_52/ and https://www.comedy.co.uk/podcasts/sitcom_geeks/episode_53/ )
I first came across Barry in my pre-teens, when he hosted the classic Yorkshire TV series Jokers Wild, from 1969 to 1973. This was a panel show where two teams of comics had to tell jokes – that was it. It was created by Ray Cameron (Michael McIntyre’s dad) practically in Cryer’s image. It featured panellists from every era and corner of Barry’s career including Dawson and John Cleese and going as far back as the legendary Arthur Askey.
This show was a revelation. I knew of no comic associations with my hometown, all the comedians on TV were from Lancashire or London. But here was a series recorded in Leeds, with a host who sounded exactly like members of my family. Up until then I had no inkling that it might be possible to “do” comedy and be from Leeds.
Later when I got to know Barry I found out he had been born on the same street as my mum, albeit a couple of years after, and that we went to the same school. Reading his autobiography I discovered he’d had a teacher who also taught me. I remembered Mr Kelsey as an old man close to retirement, in Barry’s book he gets a special mention as a bullying young tyrant.
These are trivial facts which probably don’t mean much to anyone else. But I think there was something about his “Leedsness” that resonated with me. You look at all the people he worked with and can usually place them by region or class, or in Les Dawson’s case, both. Barry was equally at home with northern professionals and southern gentlemen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I started writing novels that are fictional versions of my own career. I called my lead character Barry partly because it’s familiar yet rarely used in comedy. But also in homage to Mr C, who like me came from a town and life with little comic heritage beyond being the historical music hall home of TV’s City Varieties.
I first met Barry, as many of my generation did, thanks to Rory Bremner. He used his numerous sketch series in the 1980s to bring younger comics into mainstream TV. Jeremy Hardy, John Dowie, Ann Bryson and Sarah Crowe featured every week along with improvisation superstars Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen. His writing team ranged from new and untried (including me) to older and successful (Barry and equally prolific John Langdon).
Initially we youngsters who thought we knew everything were wary of the old guard. But we started seeing Barry at our comedy gigs and suspicion gave way to admiration. Barry turned up every August in Edinburgh and followed the scene with all the enthusiasm and energy of a new recruit.
It was obvious he loved watching live comedy but professionally it kept him alert to new developments – and it was partly as a result of this that he developed in my biased opinion his greatest partnership, with legendary rock star and comedian Ronnie Golden.
With John Dowie directing and co-writing, Ronnie and Barry created a series of brilliant rock shows featuring Barry belting out comic classics with Ronnie’s effortless musical backing. For a brief period 20 years ago I tried my hand as a radio comedy producer, and was lucky enough to be the first person to alert Radio 4 to Rock of Ages.
I’m hoping the show will be aired again as a tribute to Barry, but also to give listeners a chance to hear this rarely broadcast side of the comedy superstar.
If you’re starting out as a comedy writer you’d do well to follow Barry’s example: love your craft, be prepared to step outside of your familiar world, and always retain a curiosity about what’s new.