Frankie Howerd (1917-1992)

Plaque at 53 Hartoft Street, York YO10 4BN

Comedian, Radio and Television

Frankie Howerd was born Francis Alick Howard in York on 6 March 1917. His father, Francis Alfred William Howard, was a regular soldier and his mother, Edith, née Morrison, worked at the Rowntree chocolate factory. For his first two and a half years, Frankie lived in a terraced house, 53 Hartoft Street, in what he described as ‘a poorish area of the city near the River Ouse’. He later said he had only one memory of living in York and that was of falling down the stairs, an experience which left him with a life-long dread of heights. With relatives in York, however, he returned on many occasions for family holidays and, later in life, spoke of his fondness for the city.

An actor’s life

His father was posted to Woolwich and the family settled in Eltham, both in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, where a brother, Sidney, and sister Bettina (known as Betty) were born. At the age of 11 Frankie won one of two London County Council scholarships to the newly opened Shooters Hill Grammar School where his best subject was mathematics. He attended the local church regularly and, at the age of 13, became a Sunday school teacher and joined the Church Dramatic Society. In one of its productions he made his stage debut and felt then that he wanted to become an actor. Always nervous and shy and with a stutter he fought hard to overcome, he plucked up the courage to also take part in school plays and eventually decided he would audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Overcome with nerves, he failed the audition miserably but realised that his future might lie in comedy. He appeared with local concert parties whilst earning a living taking small clerical jobs, hiding scripts among his papers to learn lines whenever he could.

Wartime concert parties

War intervened and, in 1940, Frankie was called up to serve in the Royal Artillery. He was stationed at Shoeburyness, Essex and soon became very popular as an entertainer with his fellow service personnel. Later in the war he had success with a civilian concert party called the Co-oddments, touring the Southend-on-Sea area and hoped to continue his burgeoning career when he was posted to Germany. He tried auditioning for concert parties there but to no avail until he was seen by Major Richard Stone who was to become a leading theatrical agent after the war. The Major liked Frankie’s routine and he found him a position with a concert party to entertain the troops. He now changed the spelling of his surname thinking that Howerd would catch the eye as a possible misspelling, even if he were bottom of the bill!

Radio comedy

After he was demobbed in1946, Howerd appeared at the Stage Door Canteen in Piccadilly Circus, a popular meeting-place for allied troops. Here he was spotted by theatrical agent Stanley ‘Scruffy’ Dale, who worked for Jack Payne, and was put under contract. He auditioned for the BBC radio comedy and music show Variety Bandbox, making his first broadcast on the show on 3 December 1946. Howerd was an instant success and quickly became one of the most popular entertainers in the country, broadcasting regularly and touring the music halls. However, because Jack Payne had manipulated his initial contract to his own advantage, Howerd received only a small percentage of his fees. Ten years later, after a long court case, he was able to free himself from this contract and retrieve some of the money he had earned. Stanley Dale, having left Payne, now became Howerd’s personal manager.

By 1951 Howerd and Dale, joined by Eric Sykes, who wrote most of Howerd’s radio scripts, had formed F. Howerd Scripts Ltd which later became Associated London Scripts. The directors’ list, which included the best known of the scriptwriters of the time was: Dale, Howerd, Sykes, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Johnny Speight, Tony Hancock and Spike Milligan. However Dale, following in the footsteps of his former employer Payne, was found to be pocketing money to which he was not entitled. He was ejected from Associated London Scripts and had no further dealings with Frankie Howerd.

Royal Variety appearances

Over the years Frankie had many successes and was a great favourite of the royal family, particularly of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, appearing at Royal Variety Performances eight times between 1950 and 1978. He was conspicuously untidy in appearance and wore a very unflattering toupée. His long sagging face with unkempt eyebrows, mournful eyes and pouting lips was sometimes likened to that of a bloodhound, sometimes to a camel. He adopted an “over-the-garden-wall gossip” type of performance with many a conversational innuendo, a constant banter addressed to the camera or to individual members of the audience, full of risqué double entendres. He would feign complete surprise that anyone could possibly find in his “innocent” comments anything remotely funny. Seemingly always floundering and fussy, his delivery was punctuated with carefully rehearsed ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and catchphrases with which the nation soon became familiar, among them: ‘the best of British (luck)’ and ‘titter ye not, missus’.

Television personality

There was a period of several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Frankie Howerd’s career seemed to have dipped and he was offered little work but his friends, Eric Sykes, Marty Feldman, Johnny Speight and Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, stood by him even writing scripts for him without fee. A lifeline was extended by Peter Cook, who, having recently opened his nightclub, The Establishment, booked Frankie Howerd to perform there and liked his act. This led to him appearing on the pioneering satirical television programme That Was The Week That Was where he was an instant success with such topical remarks as, ‘David Frost: you know, the one who has his hair on backwards’ and ‘Robin Day: hasn’t he got cruel glasses?’ This one television appearance rocketed Frankie back to the top once again where he remained until his death. He was awarded an OBE in 1977.

Private life

It was not until after he died that the public became aware that Frankie was gay. His mother was apparently unaware and, as active homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales until 1967, his career could have been ruined had the news leaked out. His partner for the last 35 years of his life was Dennis Heymer (1929–2009), a waiter at the time they met but later Frankie’s manager.

Howerd died in hospital of heart failure on 19 April 1992, still working on a series of one-man shows for Central Television. He was buried in the churchyard of St Gregory’s Church, Weare, near his Somerset home on 29 April. A plaque to his memory was placed on his London house in 1993, unveiled by two life-long friends, Cilla Black and June Whitfield. It was proposed that a similar one be added to his Hartoft Street home in York, but funding did not materialise until 1999 when the Comic Heritage Charitable Trust organised a weekend of celebrations including a black-tie dinner hosted by York’s Lord Mayor. Former colleagues and friends and sister, Betty, came to York for the weekend of 27 and 28 March 1999 to pay tribute to Frankie and to raise money for charitable causes. A blue plaque was placed not in Hartoft Street but on the Cumberland Street entrance to the Grand Opera House where it was thought that the general public was more likely to see it. It is still there and reads quite simply ‘Frankie Howerd OBE 1917-1992. Son of York’.

Subsequently, on 26 July 2016, a York Civic Trust plaque was unveiled at 53 Hartoft Street, Frankie’s childhood home, by York-born actor Mark Addy and York’s Lord Mayor, Councillor David Taylor.

A selection of a few of Frankie Howerd’s many successes:

Radio

Variety Bandbox (1946-50)

The Frankie Howerd Show (1953-6)

Television

The Howerd Crowd (1952 and 1955, script by Eric Sykes)

Nuts in May (1953, script by Eric Sykes)

That Was The Week That Was (1962, script by Galton, Simpson, and Speight)

Up Pompeii (Two series 1970, script by Talbot Rothwell)

Film

The Runaway Bus (1954)

The Lady Killers (1955)

The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

Several Carry on films.

Up Pompeii (1970)

Stage

Pardon my French (1953-4), a revue at the Prince of Wales Theatre

Charley’s Aunt (1955-6), a farce at the Globe, Shaftesbury Avenue

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic (1957-8), Frankie played Bottom

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963–5), a musical at the Strand Theatre

 

References

Barry Took, ‘Howerd, Frankie (1917–1992)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004; online edition, Sept 2014, accessed 2 April 2016)

Frankie Howerd, On the Way I Lost It, an autobiography (London, 1976)

John Fisher, Funny Way to be a Hero (London, 2013)

Graham McCann, Frankie Howerd (London, 2004)

Yorkshire Evening Press 20 April 1992, 5 April 1993, 25 February 1999, 29 March 1999

 

© Dinah Tyszka