They say that good things often come in small packages, and for the world of entertainment as a whole and early British television comedy in particular, one especially small package came to embody bright, fresh, anarchic laughter on a huge scale. The name of that small but shining star of early small screen comedy was Arthur Askey.
Arthur Bowden Askey was born in Liverpool on 6th June 1900. After being educated at the Liverpool Institute and singing in the Liverpool Cathedral choir he entered the Liverpool Education Offices as a clerk. At the age of 16 he gave this up and began to learn a new trade as an entertainer around the local clubs and soon began to emerge as a true all-rounder in the grand tradition of the British music hall. During the First World War he joined the forces he soon began performing at army shows. Following this, Arthur spent 14 years honing his skills working the concert party circuit before landing a part, in 1938, on BBC radio in a new series called Band Waggon. The show was the first weekly comedy/variety series to be broadcast in Britain on a fixed day and also the first to feature a resident comedian. However, the first few episodes were not very well received and the series was almost cancelled. But by the third programme Arthur, his partner, Richard Murdoch, and writer Vernon Harris came up with a better-received format and the idea that led listeners to believe that the duo lived in a flat on top of the newly opened Broadcasting House. The public suddenly caught on to the pair's particular brand of anarchic humour and 'Big-Hearted Arthur' and 'Stinker Murdoch' became huge stars.
Arthur quickly became famous for his catchphrase "Ay-Thang-Yew" (the first of many to be associated with the him), and his boast that it was the "daddy of all catchphrases" was given credence almost 60 years later when Mike Meyers used it again for comic effect in the successful Austin Powers feature films. "I did not realise at the time I was saying anything particularly comic," said Arthur, in 1951. "But in no time those words were on everybody's lips and the phrase passed into language."
Band Waggon was quickly adapted for both a stage production and a feature film (1939) and Arthur went on to star in a number of other successful features for Gainsborough, including Charlie's Aunt, Ghost Train, I Thank You, Back Room Boy, King Arthur Was A Gentleman, Miss London Ltd., and Bees in Paradise. Askey's persona was that of a hyperactive schoolboy and he would often perform skipping around the stage or incorporating an energetic song and dance into his act. He was also the master of the ad-lib. Although they were distinctly different in style, Arthur claimed to be influenced by the great American comedian Jack Benny. "I am an out-and-out admirer of Benny - he's terrific." He wrote in an article for The World Radio and Television Annual of 1951. He wrote; "The tendency on this side of the Atlantic is for characters to be eccentric, even grotesque. Jack Benny, whatever strange happenings he lets himself in for, is himself and nobody else." Arthur said that Band Waggon was the first show of its kind on British radio to steer away from eccentric characters. "I was myself and Dickie was himself -and millions of listeners believed in us and our flat." To such an extent in fact that listeners sent in hundreds of letters a week addressed to that make-believe address.
After the Second World War Arthur remained as popular as ever although his first TV series in 1952, Before Your Very Eyes! (another of his catchphrases), was only moderately well received by critics and public alike, until the introduction of the completely dumb voluptuous blonde, Sabrina (Norma Sykes), whose fondness for tight fitting dresses turned her into British TV's first sex-symbol. Although he was constantly seen on television throughout his career, his own starring vehicles were not that kind to him. In 1957 writers Sid Colin and Talbot Rothwell revived the Band Waggon format for Living It Up, a series that reunited Askey and Murdoch after an absence of 18 years. (The flat they shared was now on top of Television House). The first show was panned by critics.
But Arthur the irrepressible came back the following week with some unrehearsed remarks directly to the camera. During the opening sketch he suddenly broke off, walked up to the camera and peered inside as if looking at the TV audience. "So, you didn't enjoy the show last week?" he said. Then in the middle of another scene he went up to the camera again and shaking his head he remarked, "Can't understand why you didn't like it, really I can't." In the end only 9 shows were made and Arthur returned to live performing as the end-of-the-pier comedian par excellence.
There were other TV series, the best of which was Arthur's Treasured Volumes, but in the main Arthur would be content as the special guest star or topping the bill at the Palladium. The diminutive comedian (he was 5 foot 3 inches) who had coined the catchphrases "Hello Playmates and "Doesn't it make you want to spit?", continued to work into his eighties and in 1980 he made one of his last appearances at The Royal Variety Show. Following this he suffered from circulatory problems in his legs, which ultimately led him to having both amputated. Arthur Askey died on 16th November 1982.
Although small in physical stature, the genial, superbly honed comedic talent and lovable persona of the big hearted, cheekily grinning comic lad from Liverpool will forever ensure that Arthur Askey's trademark brand of quick-fire humour and masterly use of the ad-lib will continue to elicit big bouts of appreciative laughter wherever and whenever vintage British television comedy is screened.
Published on February 20th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (December 2002) for Television Heaven.