Karen Shaw interviews Barry Cryer
by Karen Shaw
Cryer with Laughter
Exclusive interview By Karen Shaw
With over 50 years in showbiz (including a number one song in Finland), comedy writer Barry Cryer OBE has written for the very best comedians in British entertainment including Bruce Forsyth, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, The Two Ronnies, Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, to name but a few!
Born and bred in Leeds, this Yorkshire lad left Leeds University with a failed degree in English Literature. “I left Leeds when I was 21 and went down south as there wasn’t much work for me in Leeds. I got an overnight train and headed to London.
“I go back to Leeds a lot. My family aren’t there now. The older ones popped off, and the younger ones moved away. You can always tell in your home town when it doesn’t feel right. You look out the window at City Square and you think ‘I used to walk along that looking up at the towers, thinking what’s going on in there?”
After that overnight train to London: “I had no plan. I’ve been dogged by good luck all my life. I fell into the business by accident.”
Despite failing a BA in English Literature I was awarded an honorary doctorate. So that’s my CV. BA, Eng. Lit, failed, honorary doctorate. A guy saw me and took my work, and I fell into the whole business. I haven’t had a career; I’ve had a series of incidents.”
Barry began his career at the Windmill Theatre, which showed comedy in between nude tableau shows and he later began to focus on writing with his first credits on The Jimmy Logan Show which he co-wrote with Douglas Camfield.
He was later spotted by Sir David Frost, which led to a role writing on variety special A Degree of Frost and The Frost Report.
I wondered how if him being a Yorkshireman had any bearing on him being a revered comedy heavyweight and if him being a Yorkshireman had any bearing on his successful career.
“It’s absolutely crucial to have the ability to laugh at life. I think it’s part of the makeup of the best people. Humour and jokes aren’t the most important thing in life, but life is pretty awful without them. I mean, I’ve no evidence for it but there are people in Zimbabwe doing [Robert] Mugabe jokes. Looking over their shoulder! Just for a laugh in their misery. It’s human nature.
Somebody said to me, Lancashire and Liverpool have produced a basketful of great comedians, but there’s not many from Yorkshire. There was Charlie Williams and of course Ernie Wise.”
That leads me nicely into the rerelease of Morecambe and Wise: The Christmas Specials which he wrote alongside John Junkin.
“We wrote a lot together for Eric and Ernie. Their other writer Eddie Braben changed their whole image.
Eddie said to me: ‘I wasn’t even a great fan when I first met them but I could see they had a great chemistry between them. They’d known each other since they were boys.’”
“Eddie saw Ernie as the little effervescent song and dance man, and Eric had a drier type of humour.
“When they started, Eric told me they modelled themselves on Abbot and Costello; the orthodox funny man and the straight man. Ernie was the straight man, and in their earlier days, he used to smack Eric’s face. But Eddie Braben changed all that. He changed the mood and feel of it.
“Eric had a lively mind. Obviously, he’d come up with a remark or an idea, and you’d remember it. One or two of their shows had additional material by Morecambe and Wise at the bottom of the credits. And in fun, we used to say, ‘We resent that strongly, we’re real writers’, and all that went on.
“Eric and Ernie didn’t make any claim of ever writing their own material. Anything to do with the scripts, Ernie would say ‘Talk to Eric’, and anything to do with money, Eric would say ‘Talk to Ernie.’
“With the very good comedians they have an indefinable quality. They’ve got the timing, they’ve got the personality, but they’ve all got something you can’t quite analyse. You almost don’t want to know. It’s a magic ingredient, and Eric and Ernie certainly had it.
“The Two Ronnies weren’t the only orthodox double act. They were two very talented men. The chemistry was immediate. Ronnie Barker was a brilliant actor with a flair for comedy, and Ronnie Corbett was a comic who was a good actor. You couldn’t plan that. It just took off almost immediately; these two were just made for each other. Eric and Ernie were big fans, and the Two Ronnies were big fans of Eric and Ernie. The Two Ronnies could both be the straight man one minute, and not the next. They weren’t in the same mould as Eric and Ernie.
“One of the happiest times of my life was when I was writing for Kenny Everett. I always say ‘we’ because I never wrote alone. I wrote the Kenny Everett shows with the late Ray Cameron, father of Michael McIntyre.
“When you’re writing on your own, you’re in big trouble. But if there are two of you, you can bounce ideas about. There’s a lovely story in the business; you’ve got to have the right word in the right place and everything, it’s got to be immaculate. And the writer’s sitting down and he’s got a mental block, and he’s trying to think of the right word for two weeks. Then he thinks ‘Fortnight’. That’s it!” he laughs.