Interview with actor and comedian Roy Hudd
PUBLISHED: 15:31 17 March 2020 | UPDATED: 15:31 17 March 2020
Geraint Lewis / Rex Features
Katie Jarvis spoke to much-loved actor/comedian Roy Hudd about music-hall songs, variety theatre, the genius of Ken Dodd… and finally finding each other
“Ooh!” says Roy Hudd’s lovely wife, Debbie, apologetically. “Did you ring a couple of minutes ago? I’m so sorry - bit of a mix-up. I answered it at the same time as Roy and put it down.”
She hands the phone over to her husband.
“Hello!” says Roy Hudd; same warm voice – permanently on the brink of a chuckle - as broadcast the News Huddlines for over 26 years on the crest of the Radio 2 waves.
“Oh, I’m so glad I’ve managed finally to get you!” I say, relieved.
“We’ve got each other now,” Roy Hudd reassures me, “and I’ll be leaving the wife tomorrow.”
Croydon Empire, early 1950s. A pint-size Roy Hudd is sitting in a seat in the gallery with his Gran – squeezed in under the roof - ready for the 6.15 show. “Any higher and I’ll get a nosebleed,” his Gran always says. Today – quite possibly – she’s gone without a meal to scrape the money for a ticket. But, even if she hadn’t quite managed those few coins, they’d have stood at the end of the alley, just down from the theatre, ready to watch glamorous performers – ‘heavily made-up ladies and handsome camel-haired overcoated, brown trilby-hatted men’ – exit the stage door. (Though none earns as much praise from Gran for their outfits as the lads from the drag shows.)
She’s a shrewd audience, is Gran. Loves the comics more than anything: “I don’t want miserable singers singing about all the terrible problems they’re having. I want to come out smiling!” Gran predicted early on the success of Max Bygraves, Frankie Howerd and Harry Secombe. Roy knew a comedian had made it whenever she bestowed on him her highest praise: “Silly sod,” she’d say, fondly.
It was Gran who brought Roy up after his mum mysteriously disappeared. Other kids would yell, “Your mum – put her head in the gas oven, didn’t she?” and Roy and his brother Peter would scarper, not wanting to think that she had.
It was Gran who first sang him the songs of the music hall - like The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom:
My ambition’s to go on the stage
And now you can see that I’ve got on.
In the pantomime I am engaged
To play the elephant’s bottom.
Those are the songs that not only entertained her grandson, but helped nudge him into his own entertainment career. Songs that inspired him to become an expert on music hall; president of the British Music Hall Society.
It’s funny, really. The play that’s bringing Roy Hudd to Cheltenham this month – Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance - well, it seems to combine so many elements of Roy’s own life.
Family secrets. Things not said. Incredibly strong women.
And music hall songs. Roy even gets to sing a bunch of them during the performance.
“It’s an interesting one,” he muses, “because I’m not a mad-keen fan of Oscar. A bit smart-arse, you know. But someone sent the play to me to read and I thought, ‘That’s quite something. It’s him taking the side of Victorian women.’ Almost like #MeToo.”
He pauses. “I’ve always been on women’s sides, really.”
Which isn’t surprising. His Gran had already brought up a son and four daughters on her own before starting all over again with Roy. Her husband, Tom, had disappeared in Canada after the youngest was born, ready to welcome them all to a new pioneering life. He sent a few letters home, full of hope and excitement. And then… nothing.
“They tried everything to find him: the Salvation Army - all the usual methods - and they eventually came to the conclusion that he’d been murdered on one of the farms. So it was very sad. But Gran raised those kids on bugger all. They never got any allowances. Well, you wouldn’t because they didn’t even know if he was alive or dead.”
That’s some story.
In fact, that’s the story that made me think again about the old music hall and variety acts of yesteryear. About people like Gran sacrificing a meal to go and see them. Understandable, really, when you think about it.
“Because these people really needed that entertainment, didn’t they?” I say to Roy. “It wasn’t just a special occasion that took them out to the theatre; it was a need to see beyond the grimness of life itself.”
“Well, that’s absolutely correct, love,” he says. “They wanted somewhere to escape all that sort of stuff. And that’s why those early variety theatres, particularly, were such palatial places. They lived in one-up, one-down, most of them. But they’d go to the theatre and there it was: lovely carpets and chandeliers; it was terrific; took them out of themselves.”
In Roy’s book, a Cavalcade of Variety Acts – A Who Was Who of Light Entertainment, the glory of those acts is detailed. And they’re terrific: full of whackiness, inventiveness, mind-numbing skill. Jack Kodell with his pigeons; at the end of his magic routine, 50 pigeons would fly from the back of the theatre and follow him off stage. Or the Betty Hobbs Globe Girls: a female troupe who’d walk on huge globes. And the extraordinary Baston and Andrée, whose nude revues were so tasteful, they shocked no one. Hundreds of acts.
“There was room for everything on a variety bill. And it was great because we’d go to the Croydon Empire; somebody would come on and we’d think, ‘Oh gawd! Get off!’ – though you’d never shout that because it wasn’t badly behaved. But he’d only be on for about 10 minutes and then somebody else came along.”
When we lost the music hall – when we lost true live variety - we lost more than those acts. We lost the art of being entertained communally, Roy says.
“Even now, if we put on a variety bill somewhere, older people can’t wait to come along and sing; they can’t wait to join in; they can’t wait to nudge each other.
“As they used to say about the great Victorian comedian Dan Leno: An opening night with Dan Leno is a poor affair until he’s had time to collude with his audience. What a great phrase - collude! Because he’d try the gags – like we still do today – and when the gag doesn’t work, ‘Oh dear!’ The next night comes and you drop that one and try something else.”
What an absolute tragedy: that his Gran never lived to see her own grandson rise to such heights. He was still in his teens – just started work as a commercial artist – when he came home to find her lying on the ground. “She’d been cleaning the windows. It was awful.”
You can hear it in his voice after all these decades.
“It’s so sad because she really was a belter. She always took on the lame ducks. She always did, you know.”
And yet she had nothing herself.
“She’d got NOTHING herself, but she used to laugh a lot. She really did use to laugh an awful lot.”
She did see her grandson perform, though. He was in a pantomime at the Boys’ Club and begged her to come along. “What do I want to come and see a lot of amateurs poncing about for? I’m not going,” she harrumphed.
But she did go. “And, as we were walking home, I said to her, ‘What did you think, Gran?’ She said, ‘You silly sod!’
“It was the greatest moment of my life.”
It wasn’t just the audiences who had experienced the grimness of hardship and deprivation, of course. Many performers had experienced life at the sharp end. Terry Thomas fell into entertaining as a child, trying to bring together his warring, alcoholic parents.
Max Miller – one of Roy’s heroes – came from the dregs of Brighton. “People today think Brighton is upmarket but there were really rough areas there.” Max once invited Roy to the theatre bar for a drink; every time Roy tried to mention the drink, Max talked over him with advice. Eventually, some admiring fans arrived and asked Max what his poison was. “I’ll have a large gin and tonic,” he replied. “And what will you have, Roy?” And Roy got his drink.
“Well,” Roy says, forgivingly, “they were all notably mean, and usually the main reason was they came from such poor backgrounds.”
Like the time Ken Dodd came to see Roy as he performed at the Theatr Clwyd in Mold. The stage manager told Roy, “There’s someone to see you in the bar.”
“I said, ‘Who’s that?’
“He said, ‘Ken Dodd. He wants to buy you a drink.’
“I said, ‘Well, that’s not Ken Dodd, then. Must be a lookalike.’”
But it was Ken, who’d travelled to Wales to ask Roy to give evidence in his upcoming tax trial. It was in 1989, aged 61, that Ken was tried on eight counts of tax fraud at Liverpool Crown Court.
“I said, ‘How can I give evidence! I don’t know if you’re a bloody crook or not! But I’ll come and do a character witness, if that’s any use.’
“’That would be marvellous! That would be marvellous!’
“He said, ‘Now, I said I’d get you a drink, if you’d help me. What would you like?’
“I said, ‘A bitter, please.’
“And he shouted out to the barman, ‘A half of bitter for this young man!’”
Roy and Eric Sykes were the two show-business pals who agreed to stand witness for Ken. Partly because they were good pals; and partly because Ken was Ken.
“To me, there was only one great comedian that any of us alive today remember and that was Ken Dodd. He was the BEST EVER.”
Everyone loved Ken. Even the prisoners at Liverpool’s Walton jail, who hung a sheet out of their cell window with ‘Coming soon - Ken Dodd!’ written on it.
“Only Liverpool would do a gig like that. It even made Ken laugh, and he was scared stiff about going in.
“Thank god that Ken was innocent.”
Don’t know what this says about Roy Hudd – well I know what I think it says about him – but he rarely talks about himself, during our conversation. It’s a constant singing of everyone else’s praises. Ken Dodd. Eric Sykes. His great pal, Billy Dainty. And back to Ken each time: “He was at the top all his career.”
The only time Roy Hudd really mentions Roy Hudd is to lament losing £100,000 for charity on The Chase. “Think about all that money for charity! I used to wake up screaming in the night.”
He doesn’t need to scream. He’s raised a bob or two for good causes in his time, as past King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats; auctioning some of his personal music-hall memorabilia for a leukaemia fund; standing up for friends like Ken when others turned the other way.
He’s not slacking now, either, despite having earned his ‘services to entertainment’ OBE way back in 2004. He’s successfully done it all: radio and TV, theatre, crime drama, Dennis Potter scripts, musicals. Even Coronation Street, playing the undertaker Archie Shuttleworth.
“I used to get all these letters from undertakers, saying, ‘Will you come and talk at our dinner.’ I had to say yes to the undertaker who signed himself, ‘Eventually yours’!”
He might be in his 80s, but Roy Hudd is looking forward all the time; ever on to the next challenge; ever onto the next bit of fun. Like Cheltenham and A Woman of No Importance.
“Great old stomping ground of mine, Cheltenham; I did my one-man show there a lot over the years. I used to love doing that. Good audiences, too.”
Will Debbie be going? Will they be making a few days away of it?
“Rath-er,” Roy Hudd says. “I’ve no idea who she is, but she will indeed.”