Roy Hudd

HE HAS enjoyed a career of contradictions. Comedian Roy Hudd is a showbiz traditionalist with a deep love and encyclopaedic knowledge of music hall and variety.

Yet every week hundreds of young writers send him gags and sketches in a bid to break into the cutting-edge of the modern comedy world.

Not that he'd swap places with them. "A lot of comics are also writers, so I get to see them working the clubs and, frankly, I just think 'Thank God I didn't have to go through that'," admits 65-year-old Hudd.

"There's so much hostility. They get on the stage and the first thing the audience does is tell 'em to 'eff off'. Blimey, I couldn't have handled that."

However Hudd, who's heading to Bournemouth next week for a summer season with the comedy drama Theft, sees those clubs full of beer-fuelled hecklers as just another kind of proving ground.

"It's like the situation in the northern clubs a few years ago," he says. "You just have to go out there, grab 'em by the throat and hold them.

"The northern clubs produced people like Jimmy Tarbuck and the alternative scene produced characters like Ben Elton. They have both had their place. But I can tell you, neither of those environments would have worked with someone like, say, Tony Hancock - someone who needed to take his time over things.

"I'm equally sure that I couldn't have dealt with it either..."

Hudd, of course, has been making jokes since he began his career as a Butlins Red Coat back in the 1950s.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has managed to nurture his abiding interest in the history of light entertainment alongside a career that sees him fronting the ever-topical BBC radio show The News Huddlines.

The show celebrated its 400th episode last year and it is here that the wannabe gagsters of the future send their material. Roy reckons they receive at least 1,000 jokes a week.

No wonder, though. Anyone can send a joke in and, if it gets in the show, they get paid. What's more they get a name check at the end.

Hudd seems very slightly surprised to find himself regarded as an elder statesman of the British entertainment scene. It's easy to see why. Time slips by easily when you're having a good time and Roy has kept working, apparently effortlessly, through more than four decades.

It's not that simple, of course. This is a man who cut his entertainment teeth watching the tail end of music hall in the late 1940s. It made a huge impact.

"My gran used to take me to the local variety theatre in Croydon where I grew up and I saw these incredible people...the last of the music hall acts.

"Then when I eventually came into the business I did actually manage to work with a few of them - people like GH Elliot, Randolph Sanders and Hettie King. They were amazing, they always seemed so in control."

Hudd lapped up their stories, listened to their songs. He didn't realise it, of course, but he was learning a style of stage-craft that would be lost to many of his contemporaries.

He sees nothing odd in this, saying: "Whatever job you're in surely you can't help but be fascinated by how it got to the stage that it's at now. I mean, if you're a pilot I suppose you're going to want to know about Alcock and Brown."

Roy Hudd was to go on to work with many pioneers in his chosen profession and crossed paths over the years with a number of future household names.

As a Red Coat at Butlins he occupied the chalet next to another aspiring entertainer, a young pop singer called Harry Webb.

Unknown to Roy, in between knobbly knees and glamorous granny contests, young Harry was in the process of recording his debut single.

It was a nifty little rock 'n' roll number called Move It. He was also negotiating to change his name to Cliff Richard.

Hudd fully admits he failed to spot the star potential of his neighbour, saying that he was far more fascinated by the Red Coat who lived in the chalet on the other side of him - a crazy Irish comic called Dave. "We all thought that he was the man who possessed the star material," he says.

Irish Dave didn't disappoint his old mates. He disappeared to Australia and came back a fully-fledged TV performer. But something had happened. The Irishman was reborn as Dave Allen and his act was unrecognisable.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Hudd. "Most light entertainers have acts that are really just an exaggeration of themselves, but with Dave...

"As a Red Coat he was completely frenetic, shouting and screaming, like Jerry Lewis on speed. Yet when he got back from Australia he was just as we know him today, really laid-back."

Hudd has lots of time for those he considers to be classic performers, including Bournemouth's own Max Bygraves - "one of the truly greats".

He says he rates Bygraves as offering perhaps the perfect example of total composure on stage. "At the end of the day that is what show business is all about. And I suppose that's my one sorrow, that the current crop of mainstream entertainers, good as they are, often don't get the chance to learn those skills.

"It's a damn shame but big money and lucrative TV deals take them away from live audiences."

Which is, of course, the reason why Roy Hudd is happy to play a summer season at the end of Bournemouth Pier.

It keeps him in touch with live theatre and theatre-goers - the lifeblood of the business he loves.

"The only way you can learn to handle an audience is by getting out there in front of one," he says. "You can learn to act to a certain degree without one but you'll never succeed as a comic."

Hopefully audiences at the Pier Theatre will be far more plentiful this year than they were last summer when the ageing farce No Sex Please We're British was unceremoniously ditched a few weeks into a disastrous run.

Hudd is optimistic. He points out that Theft is not only a brand-new piece of theatre but was written by Eric Chappell, who was responsible for such TV classics as Rising Damp and Only When I Laugh.

"It's a great piece, beautifully-written, well-directed and we've got some good people on board. How can you go wrong?" he asks.

Co-starring with Roy Hudd in Bournemouth will be Leslie Grantham, Juliet Bravo actress Stephanie Turner, Peter Alexander from Emmerdale and Sandra Payne from Waiting For God.

* Theft opens at The Pier Theatre on Monday and runs until Saturday August 25.

© Jeremy Miles 2022