Interview: Robert Ross
Ever heard of Charley Chase? What about Jake Thackray, Gladys Morgan or ‘Monsewer’ Eddie Gray? You don’t remember them, do you? As many of their contemporaries continue to receive the nod of recognition from comedy fans around the world, they have been lost in the ether – until now. In an affectionate salute to the forgotten heroes of comedy, comedy historian Robert Ross pays tribute to some of the funniest, most fascinating and forgotten names in comedy.
But Robert’s book, Forgotten Heroes of Comedy, is so far unwritten. He needs you to contribute and support the project financially, with the help of a revolutionary publishing house that puts the power back in the hands of the writer – and their audience. “Unbound are dealing with known writers,” says Robert, “and if you love your comedy, I hope the chances are you have at least one of my previous books.”
As contributions continue to rise, Andrew Dipper sits down with Robert to find out why Giggle Beats’ readers should dig deep, and remember the Forgotten Heroes of Comedy.
AD: Hey Robert. How’s it going?
RR: It’s going really well, thanks! How nice of you to ask. Or do you mean with the book? That’s going great guns too. Lots of interest. Lots of fun.
AD: What can you tell us about yourself? You’ve written quite a few books about comedy, haven’t you?
RR: We worked out, including paperbacks and re-issues, that my new book will be my 25th. It could turn out to be my silver nemesis – one for the Doctor Who nerds there – but let’s see. Yes, I had a passion for comedy for many years but my very first book was ‘The Carry On Companion’ which was published by B. T. Batsford – now sadly defunct – in 1996. Ever since then I’ve turned out one, two or three books a year on post-war British comedy including ‘The Goodies’, Terry-Thomas, ‘Monty Python’, Frankie Howerd, ‘Steptoe and Son’ and my latest biography on Marty Feldman which was published by Titan Books last year.
AD: Where has your passion for comedy come from?
RR: My parents were both into comedy, particularly my dad. He was a very funny bloke. He wrote Milligan-esque scripts and short stories for fun. I suppose at an early age they realised that I would stop crying if they put me infront of a telly. People like The Two Rons and Sid James and Eric Sykes and Eric and Ernie became sort of surrogate Uncles. They had faces you warmed to. I was brought up with them. In turn I wanted to write – something. Be it quiz books – which I tried, scripts – ditto, or celebration books. I feel very fortunate that I’ve managed to turn that childhood love of comedy into a career of sorts…
AD: What can you tell us about your latest idea then?
RR: The latest book is basically a long over-due fan letter to those comedy people who have not been celebrated in the way they should have been. Some of the greats from the post-war comedy pool have – quite rightly – been extensively written about, had documentaries made about their life and work, even seen their foibles turned into television dramas. There are others, who were equally famous and funny at the time, who have not had this continued adulation and interest. People like Arthur Haynes and Harry Worth and Charlie Drake. They have, for all intents and purposes, been forgotten. That’s the point of this book.
AD: Do you have any recommendations for comedy anoraks reading Giggle Beats? Who are your personal comedy heroes?
RR: Well, my absolute heroes are people who everyone – I would hope – would remember. The likes of Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd and Stan and Ollie are the ones I turn to most frequently. I suppose by its very nature the greats of the music hall aren’t as remembered as they should be. Max Miller, Brighton’s favourite son, is a favourite of mine but hardly forgotten. Going further back, people like Gus Elen are a revelation. It’s a world of booze and poverty. Elen embraced the depression and saw the funny side of it. His songs are still relevant.
AD: As someone who’s spent time studying comedians old and new, what would you consider to be the major changes in the industry in the past, say, 40 years?
RR: The last forty years, like the forty years before that just seems to go round and round in circles and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. You can crack jokes now that you could not have cracked twenty years ago but that you could – in a slightly modified tone – have cracked twenty years before that. Comedy has to reflect social. That’s what it does. It is the buckled wheel. The carnivalesque. In terms of political satire, ‘The Thick of It’ seems to be writing the manifesto before the actual government does it. It’s almost like what ‘Punch’ was doing a century and a half ago. Nothing really changes. That’s quite reassuring.
AD: The publishing house you’re working with to release the book, Unbound, adopt a similar policy the Free Fringe, don’t they? If you like the book you pay towards it…
RR: It’s the future! Basically, if you like the look of a project, you put your money down. It’s that simple. For a scale of price pledges you get everything from a kindle version and your name in the back of the book to dictating to me a particular Forgotten Hero of Comedy you want included. I become your writing puppet for a grand! It’s a fabulous system and really puts the reader in touch with the process of being an author.
AD: Finally, why should our readers dig deep and throw their money your way?
RR: Unbound are dealing with known writers. If you love your comedy, I hope the chances are you have at least one of my previous books. Basically, if you liked it the last time, now is your opportunity to actual make the next project happen. It’s going to be a fun celebration of over 100 of these unfairly forgotten comedy favourites. Lots of contemporary comedians and writers will be involved. It really is the new thanking and remembering the old and in that respect it will be an important book. Not weighty and professorial but affectionate and enjoyable. You have the power, though. Without you, it simply won’t happen. It’s all rather exciting.
Since the interview, ‘Peep Show’ and ‘Fresh Meat’ writer Sam Bain and the grandson of Frankau are now supporting the book. For more info, see: unbound.co.uk.