Faces of Comedy

by Karen Shaw


Photo: John Culshaw as Les Dawson

From Steve Martin to Rowan Atkinson and from Kevin Bridges to Johnny Vegas, northern photographer Andy Hollingworth has snapped some of Britain’s most iconic comedians, creating snapshots that capture the comics who have filled our households with laughter for decades. Not bad for a lad who began his successful career photographing stray dogs. I caught up with Andy to chat about the man behind the lens and his latest exhibition at Blackpool’s brand-new Showtown Museum with his exhibition, ‘I Photograph Comedians.’ This exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the lives of these comedians, showcasing them in a different light.

Showtown, Blackpool’s first-ever museum, has created an all-singing, all-dancing museum right next to the iconic Blackpool Tower, celebrating comedians, dancers, acrobats, and entertainers. Naturally, it was the perfect home for Andy’s images. “It’s been five years in the making,” he reveals.

“The exhibition is a dynamic showcase, featuring comedy greats who have entertained us for decades…”

“I met the team behind it about seven years ago,” Andy recalls with a smile. “We were at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and I was there photographing Ronnie Barker’s glasses! We got chatting over lunch, and they shared their plans for a new museum.”

The exhibition is a dynamic showcase featuring comedy greats who have entertained us for decades alongside portraits of today’s comedy stars. “I always like to keep things current,” Andy explains. “So, I’m still shooting for the exhibition. I photographed someone yesterday, another last week, and I’ll be shooting right up until the deadline!”

Steve Royal

Beyond traditional photographs, the exhibition is a treasure trove of unique items. It includes handmade Polaroid lifts of comedians like Paul Whitehouse and Shobna Gulati, as well as photos of iconic artefacts like Tommy Cooper’s fez.

“Over the last decade, even though I love taking pictures of people, I’ve developed a deep passion for photographing items that belong to comedians,” Andy shares. “I’ve captured five of Tommy Cooper’s fezzes, Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Harpo’s harp, and much more! These artefacts hold not just historical value, but also a personal connection to the comedians, making them truly special.”

Andy loves to evoke nostalgia by posting pictures of old comedy tickets on Twitter. “I’ve photographed 23,000 comedy tickets; many were lent or gifted to me. Some date back to 1890! I have tickets for the Lumière Brothers, Chaplin, Eaton, Laurel and Hardy, all the way to Steptoe and Son recording tickets and Monty Python in the 60s.”

His joy in photographing these items led to a theatre, where the Blankety Blank star’s wife Tracy allowed Andy to photograph his rings, watch and even his teenage diaries. Les passed away in the early nineties, so for the exhibition, Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw stood in to portray the comedian. “Everything about how he portrayed him was absolutely spot on,” Andy smiles.

Sarah Millican

One comedian who holds a special place in Andy’s heart is Charlie Williams, one of Britain’s first well-known black stand-up comics and a trailblazer in professional football.

“I went to meet Charlie just to shake his hand and say thank you. My most vivid childhood memory is my grandad John sitting in his chair laughing at Charlie’s jokes on TV. My mum says I used to sit on the stool at my grandma’s and stare, not at Charlie, but at my granddad because, in my eyes, he very rarely laughed. I took Charlie’s picture as a souvenir. Years later, at the 25th anniversary of The Comedians, he remembered me and said, ‘Hey, lad, I thought you were dead!’” Andy chuckles.

“I think he was genuinely amazing. He broke so much new ground. He was one of the first black professional footballers. He was the first black man on TV, I believe, to front a game show, not to mention all his work in The Comedians. He knew exactly the world that he lived in, and he played it brilliantly to his advantage, and he was such a lovely man!”

Capturing Rowan Atkinson, the man behind Mr Bean and Blackadder, was Andy’s dream come true. “I have contacted him several times to photograph him, but he never responded. Then, while working on the QI Annual for John Lloyd, I did a session with Bill Bailey. “At the end, John said, ‘I’ve got somebody else that I need photographing. Would you be interested?’ I agreed, and just as John was leaving, I said, ‘Oh, John, who is it, by the way?’ He turned around and said, “It’s Rowan.” And then he walked out the door! It was a big deal for me—a really big deal.”

Another big deal for Andy was photographing the icon, Steve Martin. “You often find that the more famous the person, the more delightful. He’s the kind of person who would walk into a room and go, ‘Hello, I’m Steve’. In your head, you’re thinking, yeah, everybody on the planet knows that. But the amount of dignity and respect, you know, that’s such a lovely thing to say. There’s no presumption, and immediately, you think, oh, you’re smashing!”

Craig Cash

A true northerner, his favourite sitcom is, of course, The Royal Family. “Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne observe people from the north perfectly. At that point, it was the first sitcom that captured working-class, normal people and how they were. This photograph of Craig was taken at the Manchester production of Early Doors. When the photo was taken, we’d just been talking about Caroline, and you can see that in his eyes – their working relationship was such a loving thing, and the work that they produced together was incredible. The feelings that he has for Caroline can be seen on his face.”

“Comedy is like music—the gold is always there; you have to find it.”

It’s no surprise that Andy is a big fan of iconic comedians like Charlie Williams and Rowan Atkinson. But what does he think of comedy today?

“Comedy has definitely evolved,” Andy says thoughtfully. “People often complain, saying, ‘Oh, comedy isn’t as good anymore, it’s all woke nonsense.’ But I don’t buy into that. Comedy is like music—the gold is always there; you have to find it.”

He continues, “People don’t get to where they are without being genuinely funny. Sure, there are comedians I find funnier than others, but if millions of people love them, they must be doing something right!”

Johnny Vegas - Andy Hollingworth

Johnny Vegas

Andy’s photographs reveal a unique connection with his subjects, capturing their true personalities. “I focus on the person rather than the equipment,” he explains. “I love photographing new comedians as much as those who’ve been in the industry for decades. Getting them to relax and showing what’s funny about them is key.”

Growing up in Holmfirth, Last of The Summer Wine country, Andy started photographing stray dogs before people. “I was shy and didn’t want to ask people to take their photos, so I followed a dog pack around the council estate one summer. That’s how I started.”

Andy is self-taught, having never taken a photography course or joined a camera club. “A friend gave me amazing advice when I was 18. He wrote, ‘Shoot what you love,’ and that’s what I’ve done. That was the best piece of advice ever.”

In homage to his love of comedy, Andy has created a documentary, ‘Laurel & Hardy: Last Dance of The Cuckoos,’ screened alongside the exhibition. It follows Laurel and Hardy’s last tour in 1953 when they arrived in a sleepy Irish town of Cobh expecting to go unnoticed, but a local paper had printed the passenger list of the boat they were on.

“Hearing that Laurel and Hardy were coming, the local schoolboys revolted and demanded to see them, pushing the headmaster against the wall!” He explains. “They ran down to the dock, followed by the whole town. The bank was left unattended, and the local chemist took photographs. When the ship arrived, hundreds of people were waiting for them!

“Before Laurel and Hardy reached the shore, their theme song rang out from St. Nicholas Cathedral. They asked to meet the bellringers and found a man and his 10-year-old son who had played the tune – the same boy who had kicked off the revolt. Laurel said it was the greatest day of his life.”

Andy Hollingworth Laurel

Stan Laurel’s hat

“For the film, I borrowed Stan Laurel’s hat, flew it to Ireland, and took it up the Cathedral’s bell tower, and the son of the Carillon player played the tune one last time. We found the chemist’s grandson, got his camera, and recreated the original photos. We even took the hat to the Dublin Olympia Theatre, where Laurel and Hardy performed, and lit it in the exact same spot. I had to look after the hat for four days. I put it on for a photo but was very careful with it. It never left my hand and was stored under my bed in the evenings!”

Harry Hill by Andy Hollingworth

Harry Hill

The documentary, narrated by the hilarious Harry Hill, has garnered rave reviews from comedy greats like Ade Edmondson, Count Arthur Strong, and many others. It beautifully captures the magic of that historic moment and the enduring legacy of Laurel and Hardy.

“Andy’s photographs reveal a unique connection with his subjects, capturing their true personalities.”

‘I Photograph Comedians’ launches on the 13th July as part of the Blackpool Comedy Festival. Entry is free with admission to Showtown.

A programme of events exploring comedy and laughter will complement the exhibition through February 2025, including a series of exhibition talks and tours with Andy as he shares anecdotes about each act and examines what it means to be famous and funny.

Andy is looking for classic comedy tickets. If you have any available, please don’t hesitate to contact him via his website andyhollingworth.com

NorthernLife June/July/Aug 24