Changing attitudes and tastes have confined a number of acts that were huge in previous decades to memories only with minimal repeat time on nostalgia channels. The likes of Benny Hill and Mike Yarwood were the shining lights of their respective channels when in their prime, but largely condensed to occasional clips on the relentless ’50 Greatest…’ style of compilations. Another key player in comedy of days gone by who is rarely spoken of now was a hugely influential performer whose characters are deemed inappropriate now, meaning not only are his shows not repeated, but the work beyond his own show is ignored as well. I’m talking about Dick Emery.
Richard Emery was born in 1917 to showbiz parents who had their own stage act, Callan and Emery. Their marriage was not a happy one and it ended when the pair went their separate ways while Emery was still a youth. His bond with his mother intensified to the point of becoming a significant, if not always helpful, part of his life. Service with the RAF beckoned and when active duty came to an enforced end, Emery began entertaining the troops at home. The seemingly inevitable failed audition at the famous, and infamous, Windmill Theatre followed after leaving the service, and a chain of radio and television bit parts came his way, including guest spots on Educating Archie and The Goon Show.
Emery joined the cast of The Tony Hancock Show in 1957, but like a number of other performers, his time on the show was cut short seemingly owing to Hancock’s insecurities. Clive Dunn later recalled that Emery, ‘…was only in about two episodes and then disappeared from the scene, I suspect because he was too much of a comedian in his own right and considered a threat.’
Emery was struggling to make the breakthrough, and his mental state was suffering. He was rescued though thanks to a now little remembered late night programme called After Hours. Hosted by Michael Bentine, After Hours was part talk show, part sketch show and inevitably with a Goon at the helm, there would be a need for comedy character performers, the list of which included Emery and Dunn. The best of the sketches were combined into a stage show, Don’t Shoot, We’re English, which went on a successful tour. During the tour, Bentine’s hosting duties had to be handed over to Emery briefly as he battled a bout of influenza. It was here that Bentine noticed one of the insecurities of Emery, noting that, ‘Dick found it very hard to be ‘himself’, an odd trait in such a good performer.’ It was a trait that befell a number of others, including Peter Sellers and Ronnie Barker, and Emery would noticeably only really ever appear as characters.
After Hours and the success that followed came at just the right time. Bentine recalled, ‘Dick Emery’s remarkable talents had in the past been so woefully underemployed by television that at one time he had seriously contemplated suicide… he soon emerged as an outstanding member of the team and from then on, his luck changed dramatically.’
When Don’t Shoot, We’re English got to the West End, elements of the show were changed and it bombed within weeks. Shortly after its closure, however, Bentine was approached by Dennis Norden and Frank Muir, who still felt there was more to be done with the content of the show and as comedy advisers at the BBC, they pushed for a pilot programme to be made. From there, It’s A Square World was born, a zany sketch show described by the Radio Times as ‘a mixture of Panorama, Sportsview, The Goon Show and Underwater Adventure.’
It’s A Square World was a huge success, earning a Montreux award in 1963. It represented a huge step up for a number of its cast, but in particular for Emery, who was offered his own show in that same year. So began a remarkable run of success that would last the rest of his days as the nation was introduced to an array of characters that Emery himself became bored with before the public did as 19 series of The Dick Emery Show began.
The Dick Emery Show in many ways paved the way for comedy sketch shows yet to come. Reflecting Michael Bentine’s earlier comments, there was no hosting by Emery…the show piled on into one sketch after another, with its leading star parading as an array of characters that would be quoted across the land for years. With a writing team that included such luminaries as Marty Feldman, David Nobbs, Mel Brooks and Barry Cryer during various stages of its run, success was almost guaranteed and the BBC sat back and watched as the viewers tuned in in ever increasing numbers.
The programme would house a varying range of characters, but certain ones held their fame longer than others. Most notable successes were the Vicar, a buck-toothed clergyman forever quoting the good book to apply to modern challenges and sins of the flesh; Bovver boy Gaylord, a slow-witted and clumsy sidekick to his Dad, played despairingly by the great Roy Kinnear… and perhaps most successfully, Mandy, the amply built blond who always interpreted comments in the most inappropriate manner, prompting her to belt the other member of the conversation in Voxpop sketches as she announced, ‘Ooh, you are awful…but I like you.’
Emery eventually grew tired of his characters and his final two series were an escape from the established format that had served him for so long. Emery Presents saw him venture into crime serial territory. Perhaps both he and the BBC felt the winds of change coming, and with his character acting talents Emery Presents had the potential to be a successful new diversion for its star, an opportunity never given to the likes of Benny Hill, whose show was simply unceremoniously axed. Alas, ill health saw Emery pass away at the age of 67 before the airing of the second series.
Emery’s private life was littered with failed marriages and affairs. It has often been said that his mother had been a dominating presence in his life, to the extent that other relationships fell by the wayside. But whatever the challenges of his private life, Dick Emery paved the way for shows like Harry Enfield’s Television Programme and Little Britain. Lines like, ‘I fink I got it wrong again Dad,’ and ‘ooh, you are awful…but I like you,’ are still quoted more than 40 years on from their last sustained appearance on television, evidence of the reach of Emery’s talents. For all the politically incorrect regulations that restrict any regular repeats, Dick Emery’s successes were almost unrivalled, and its star one of the best comedy character performers Britain ever produced.
Review by Brian Slade:
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on September 10th, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.