History Hero: Arthur Askey (1900–82)

"As soon as I heard him, I realised he was different to most comedians. He sounded as if he was improvising... and very often he was. He wasn't girded to the script": Barry Cryer tells York Membery why Arthur Askey is his history hero...

British comedian and actor Arthur Askey at the London Palladium, February 1968. (Photo by David Cairns/Daily Express/Getty Images)

This articles first published in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Arthur Askey was a comedian famous for catchphrases such as “Hello playmates!” and “I thank you!” Born in Liverpool at the turn of the 20th century, he found national fame in 1938 after landing a starring role in the BBC radio comedy series Band Waggon. He went on to appear in a string of postwar television shows such as Before Your Very Eyes, The Arthur Askey Show and the ITV talent show New Faces (as a panellist). He also recorded a number of popular novelty songs, like The Bee Song, and played many a panto dame. He was married with one daughter.

When did you first hear about Arthur Askey?

I first heard him many years ago on the comedy radio show Band Waggon which he appeared in with Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch. The duo came from different worlds but hit it off immediately. The comedy was conversational – it was a complete ragbag of jokes, puns and one-liners – and while scripted, didn’t appear scripted.

It just sounded as if they were both having a real laugh and was a breakthrough at the time. No one had ever done that kind of comedy before on the BBC.

What kind of person was he?

I was lucky enough to work with him way back and I can honestly say he was the most warm, convivial man – unlike some comedians. He was only 5ft 3ins tall, but was known as ‘Big-hearted Arthur’. Small man, big heart! He had what they call ‘funny bones’. You can’t analyse it; he was just a naturally funny man and would love to deflate a serious situation. He was also very self-deprecating and didn’t seem to have any ego. He was very kind to me personally when I started out in the business. I’ve never forgotten that.

What made Askey a hero?

His relaxed, informal comedic style. As soon as I heard him, I realised that he was different to most comedians. He sounded as if he was improvising… and very often he was improvising. He wasn’t girded to the script. Eric Morecambe, who was a big fan, once told me that he himself adopted one of Arthur’s trademarks: that of turning to a camera and talking to it as if he was talking to you, the viewer, at home. A comedian who does the same thing today is Stewart Lee… and it all started with dear old Arthur. He was the man – but he’s sadly been rather forgotten now.

What was his finest hour?

Career-wise, he stayed on top for years after first finding fame with Band Waggon. He went on to appear in a number of films and also had a very successful career in television. But for me, Band Waggon all those years ago was an absolute peak – although I’m not for a moment suggesting he went downhill afterwards. Having done his apprenticeship in the provinces, that first radio show was a real high, and it was also an important morale booster during the war, in the days when radio was king.

Can you see any parallels between Askey’s life and your own?

Well, we’re both from the north of England. I’m from Leeds and he was from Liverpool. I’m fascinated by the fact that Liverpool in particular has produced so many great comedians, be it Arthur, Doddy or John Bishop. I think it’s something to do with it being a port and the mixture of cultures.

What do you think Askey would have made of today’s comedy scene?

I remember him once saying: “Every generation is the same – a load of crap and a few brilliant people!” And he was right. But I think he would have tut-tutted at some of today’s more graphic comedy. His humour may have occasionally been suggestive and featured the odd double entendre, but there was no swearing.

If you could meet Askey, what would you ask him?

I’d ask him if he realised that he set the scene in many wawys for today’s comedy world, and was the role model for many modern comedians who consciously or unconsciously copied him.

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Barry Cryer is a writer, comedian and regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which is currently touring. Look out for his forthcoming book Hercule Parrot’s Cagebook. Find out more at barrycryer.co.uk.