BBC televisions longest running sketch-show, running as it did from 1963 until 1981, was one that introduced some of the mediums most memorable and enduring comedic characters, skilfully brought to life by an undisputed master of his craft.
Richard Gilbert Emery was born on 19th February 1917 at the University College Hospital in St.Pancras, London, and was probably destined for a life in show business. His parents were a double-act known as Callan and Emery that performed around the country at various music hall venues throughout much of Dick's childhood, a fact that deprived the youngster of a formal education. However, his parents divorced in 1926 and Dick went to live with his mother who, realising her son had inherited a talent for entertaining, insisted that he perform whenever possible. This led Emery to admit later in life that although he adored his mother he was also frightened of her.
During the Second World War he joined Ralph Reader's Gang Show entertaining the troops. However, like many others with an ambition to go into show business at the end of the war, he found work hard to come by and struggled through many auditions only to be (more often than not) turned down. In 1948 he managed to secure an engagement at London's famous Windmill Theatre, and appeared there around the same time as another new and generally unknown comedian, Tony Hancock. In the 1950's Emery began getting regular work on BBC radio and in 1955 established himself on Jon Pertwee's show, 'Pertwee's Progress'. It was at this time that he began developing one or two regular characters including a doddery old man by the name of Lampwick. He had already made a number of TV appearances (the earliest being in Kaleidoscope on 13th June 1952) when he, Pertwee and his cousin Bill Pertwee joined forces with Lupino Lane for five 60-minute entertainment specials broadcast once a month between October 1955 and March 1956. Following this Emery turned up on a variety of shows with great regularity and his face soon became well known to the viewing public. In the 1960-61 season he turned up as Private 'Chubby' Catchpole, a regular character in the popular comedy series The Army Game.
Dick Emery continued to divide his time between TV and radio (in fact he continued to do so throughout his career), but in 1963 the BBC offered him his own TV series. Drawing on many of the characters he'd developed over the years and benefiting from scripts written by US comedy writers such as Mel Brooks and Mel Tolkin, Emery quickly established himself as a class act. His characters were some of the best remembered on British television and included the breath-catching First World War veteran, Lampwick, the old codger who would connive to get his own way and cause trouble between his daughter and son-in-law. Hettie, the frustrated spinster, the toothy Vicar, the 'bovver boy' Gaylord, and his dad (played by Roy Kinnear), the effeminate swinger who referred to everyone as 'Honky Tonk', the upper-class tramp, College, and most famously Mandy, the brassy blonde who always misunderstood the street interviewer (a feature that opened the show until 1975), and interpreted his question to have a suggestive meaning so that it would lead her to slap him on the shoulder as she announced, "Ooh, you are awful - but I like you!" It became a national catchphrase and was so popular that it also became the title of Emery's full-length feature film in 1972. The series also attracted the talents of many of Britain's top comedy producers, the longest serving of whom was Harold Snoad (who produced on more than 30 British comedy series including Dad's Army, Are you Being Served and His Lordship Entertains-to name a few).
In 1979, following fifteen successful years with the BBC, Emery decided to switch channels to Thames for The Dick Emery Comedy Hour. There were two more comedy specials for ITV before Emery returned to the BBC in 1982 for two series of comedy thrillers (Emery Presents) in which he played Bernie Weinstock, the boss of a private detective agency. However, in the latter years of his life Emery was plagued with ill health as well as bouts of depression and periods of insecurity, and before the second series of Emery Presents could be shown he passed away on 2nd January 1983. The second series, which was due to air on 13th January, was held over until later in the year.
Dick Emery entertained the British public for the best part of thirty years, and in the process left behind a legacy of comedic characters that will be enjoyed for years to come. In his lifetime he won countless awards, national fame and more importantly the hearts of an adoring audience. In terms of quantity his creations were unrivalled by any of his contemporaries, in terms of quality they were, like the man himself, in a class of their own.
Published on December 7th, 2018. Written by Humor for Television Heaven.