In entertainment there are many different areas of performance from the musicians to the magicians and the ventriloquists to the comedians, but one area for the sheer skills of the performer stands above all, that of the impressionist. From the earliest days of the music hall, impressionists have passed off the great and good of the day rising to become some of highest paid entertainers of their day with the ability to impersonate a famous person.
Most people can attempt mimicking people that they know or anyone within their own social circle, but when it comes to ones with a specialised skill to combine the art of taking off a person with comedic lines to heighten a character, that is all too rare and not many performers have been able to do that and claim there place in the higher echelons of light entertainers.
One such man made this his career, from the 1960's through to the late 1980's when the public were asked the question 'Name me a famous impressionist..' they would usually say the name of one man, Mike Yarwood. Yarwood, the man could be a complex one but also he was the first to have a prime time Saturday night entertainment show just dealing in impressions. Where as The Comedians had forged a new path for stand-up comedy, Yarwood made his name through appearances in both summer season and on television during the 1960's. By the start of the next decade, he was to be one of the biggest new stars to come out of the BBC's entertainment factory at BBC Television Centre under the guidance of Bill Cotton Jnr.
Yarwood himself was born in Bredbury, Cheshire in 1941. His father was a fitter and his mother was a nanny looking after many children, Mike himself was a war baby with his mother finding out she was pregnant, his family moved to Bredbury which was in the countryside of Cheshire. But as he grew up he discovered that he had a talent for mimicry for his family and close childhood friends as he recalls in his 1986 autobiography, Impressions of my Life.
“It seems I have been doing impressions practically all my life. Apparently from an early age I imitated my Irish Uncles, the people in my street, the teachers at my school and even the priest at my local Catholic church. On Sunday mornings when we go back from church I draped myself in my mother's embroided table cloth, put on a cardboard mitre on my head and clutching a brass bell and few shiny items from our fireside set. I conducted 'mass' in the back garden. I strutted up and down solemnly chanting in 'Latin' and sprinkling the congregation with holy water from the fireside brush which I'd held under the tap just before the service.
My family and friends just fell about laughing. 'Mrs Yarwood', our neighbour Mrs Jenkins would say, 'He'll be on the stage one day, you'll see'. And my mother laughed and shook her head.”
This showed Mike's need to perform for people in a small way and by making them laugh he showed he had a talent for it, but as he entered the world of work starting off at mail-order firm J.D. Williams as a junior despatch clerk, it seemed that it was a world away from where he would end up but even at this early stage that nerves were affecting himself, the nerves which were later to turn into stage fright, as he recalls in his 1986 autobiography.
“I felt sick. I'd been up very early to allow plenty of time to catch the eight-thirty from Bredbury to Manchester London Road (now Manchester Piccadilly), and I hadn't been able to eat a thing. It was my first train journey on my own, my first day at work and I was very, very nervous. 'This is it', I kept telling myself. 'You're out into the big world now. You've got to get on with it.'”
But as time went on, with Mike impersonating one of his managers and his work performance not improving, the company eventually let him go, though eventually after searching he got a job with M.A. Jacobs' Wholesale Gowns and Mantles as a trainee rep, eventually with the idea of travelling the country showing off the companies wares to potential customers though with Mike failing his driving test on several occasions led him to being stuck in the company's office, but it was here where he started doing impressions for his workmates and bosses, even with them using him to keep customers by allowing him to do impressions to able to help a sale by cracking the ice with a potentially tricky customer.
Though after a while to trying to try out for football teams around the North West and continuing working for M.A. Jacobs, in his spare time that he was part of the Rock and Roll scene in the Cheshire area with a local group 'The Drum Beats' as a drummer, but this dream soon faded like his dream of becoming a profession footballer. There was one key element to all of these thing, that was they were all a form of performing. By age of twenty-one, having failed his driving test again and seemingly was to be stuck in the office of M.A. Jacobs as a trainee rep without the ability to move up the ranks and earn the higher wages that it would bring for doing so. It was at this point that Margaret Fairley, a colleague made that suggestion that Mike should be in show business after seeing his impressions at work. Fairley herself knew the business as she had been a former Tiller Girl herself and had spotting something in Yarwood. Thinking about these words and consider his future at just working in the office, that he should give it a go and see where it would take him.
At this point when putting together a routine of impressions to be able to audition, that simple detachable collar was to lead him telling his mother what he wanted to.
“I don't know how long I wrestled with the damn thing but in the end I lost my temper. I tore off the collar, tore off the shirt and ripped into shreds and when I finished I burst into tears. I wept and wept until eventually my mother came up to see what was wrong.
'What's on earth's the matter, Michael? Why are you so upset?, she asked, putting her head around the door. 'I can't get this bloody collar on!' I'd intended to say, but for some reason it came out as 'I want to go into show business!'
I think I was as surprised as she with my answer. 'Oh well love, you'll have to forget about that,' she said gently. 'You'd be hopeless at that.'
'But its all I've want to do', I insisted. My mother sat down on the bed and we talked it over. She wasn't happy about the idea that people in show business lived highly immoral lives but when she saw how serious I was she said 'Well if you really want to go into show business I suppose you'd better give it a try.
I think she was worried that I'd be led astray and also that I'd get hurt because she felt I was far too shy to go on the stage, but nevertheless she supported me.”
Mike took that chance and it was a piece of luck which helped him onto the first rung of the show business ladder. First of all meeting Wilf Fielding, Fielding was a friend of one of Yarwood's work colleagues, he was a businessman working for an asphalt company but with a mutual interest in show business himself, when finding out how much Yarwood wanted to make onto the stage, Fielding went out of his way to help him achieve this. But it was another mutual person to do with Wilf Fieling that would help Mike make it to television. Fielding's secretary Linda was dating, some who worked in the television industry and through her, they though it was good idea for Mike to meet him. The man in question was a cameraman working for ABC Television at the time and eventually with the idea of show this man Yarwood's act. He was Royston Mayoh, at that time he had written scripts for the BBC Children's programme Crackerjack and also material for Mike and Bernie Winters. Later to become a television producer himself, producing many programmes for ABC and later Thames such as Opportunity Knocks and also The Kenny Everett Video Cassette, Mayoh had never be a professional performer himself, but he had the quality to get the best out of performers and it was here that Mayoh was going to this to help Yarwood improve his act and make a better performer of him.
It was a case when Mike went to Royston Mayoh's house to view what potential Yarwood had, from briefly performing in front of him, Mayoh himself saw something in these few impressions though it may have not as described as professional performance, it caught Mayoh enough to take him under his wing and help him. The one key factor was Yarwood's ability to change his face with each impression, most impressionists of that time could do voices which was good for radio and for variety theatres. When it came to impressionists making the next leap to television, the facial movements and ticks were most important. In the sixties, the United States had Frank Gorshin famous for playing the Joker in the 60's version of Batman. But his ability to transform his face to take on the characteristics of the person he was taking off seemed effortless.
In Yarwood's advantage, he would impressions of politicians which at that time the politicians were held with due reverence. But by shows like That Was the The Week That Was, allowed people to hold government account by comedy and also making the point that politicians were fame game now. Although Mike's humour with those in power was more poking fun rather then making cutting remarks, it was the first time that these figures could be seen to be almost as human as anyone watching.
With that it was onto Yarwood developing an act with Mayoh with eventually the goal getting onto television, almost every spare time was spent with Yarwood learning his stage craft and sharpening up his act, right at the beginning Yarwood didn't know what a microphone was, so Mayoh's mother's carpet sweeper was good a substitute for one. This may have appeared basic to some, from just a start of learning microphone skills was the first part of the performance. More importantly was Royston Mayoh's approach to teaching Mike the basics, practising faces in the mirror over and over again, the walk on and off the stage, camera positioning and most importantly sticking to the script no matter what happens.
Through the practising, frustrations came for Yarwood but it was his determination to pay back in performance all the advice Mayoh gave him to play the perfect set each and every time he went on stage or appeared in front of the cameras. Seemingly to his mother, it was pushing Yarwood too hard but the one thing that Royston Mayoh always said to Mike's mother would ring true in the years to come
“I'll take him as far as The Royal Command Performance and then I'll be no use to him...”
It make have appeared as a joke between Mike and Royston at that time, but if it was for the training and practise then maybe Yarwood's impressions would have never seen the light of day other than to friends and family. Whilst doing this training, Mike's father has been asking around to see if there were any spots which Mike could and by luck his father heard about an opportunity via a person at his workplace who used to perform as a singer in a pub in Dukinfield, Cheshire for any ideas about openings for Mike to perform. His father broached the subject one night as Yarwood explains.
“ 'Michael' said Dad suddenly one evening as were eating our team 'there's a fella I work with sings in a pub where there's a talent competition on Thursdays. He says you're to go along this this Thursday and they'll put you on.'
It was short notice but I got in touch with Wilf and Roy and on Thursday night we presented ourselves at the Albion in Dukinfield.”
From this performance Mike didn't win finishing third, but in suffering a bout of nerves before going on Wilf and Royston helped out on the stage. But in those few minutes and only finishing third out of half a dozen fellow performers gave Mike confidence, so he decided to enter the next week finishing second that time. It was afterwards when Wilf and Mike were getting a drink, a man with a pint in his hand approached Yarwood offering him the chance to perform at the Salvage Hotel, Collyhurst in Manchester, giving him two spots on a Friday night, with Mike explaining that he had really got an act as such they gave him the chance to do both spots and see how they went. This was Mike's first professional booking and over the next period would see him playing clubs throughout the North West gaining more and more experience leading to a week's booking at a night club in Manchester – The Ponderosa. The booking itself had been got by Mayoh, but on the first night he had invited Billy Scott from ABC Television's Light Entertainment department.
Although that first night was nerve bound, with certain moments involving interruptions not of his making but he stuck to Roy's well trodden advice of sticking to the script no matter what happens, at one moment when talking to a waiter and doing a visual gag that he had apparently swallowed his spoon, he tried to pull his neck to look like he had done. But with trembling hands, he could not do this. To the audience this was confusing but to Roy he gave his approval with roaring laughter. It was enough to impress Billy Scott as well to give him a gig doing warm up for an ABC programme called Comedy Bandbox featuring the top comedians of the day plus new and up and coming talented performers as well. That gig had been a successful one for previous incumbents which led them to appearing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Peter Dulay, the producer of the show liked what Mike had done and invited him to appear on the next week's show. Finally Yarwood had made it to television and on 21st December 1963 made his first appearance on the programme for his and his parents nerves, they were naturally pleased that first performance went so well. Afterwards, it was like a bump to earth for Mike, for other who had used the show as stepping stone to super stardom for Yarwood it was only a pebble. For the kudos of being able to put on posters 'As Seen on TV' was a positive but it was back to the clubs for him at that stage.
Though an appearance on a show like Comedy Bandbox could be the making of a performer's career, but the number one variety show was Sunday Night at the London Palladium. For any performer on the way up this was the key show to get into to get national exposure and to perform in front of an audience of many millions at home. It was whilst in Summer season one night that Mike had a visitor in his dressing room at Blackpool's Central Pier. He was Alec Fyne from the programme itself, this was the big time at last where so many had performed on. With the help of Royston Mayoh, he advised Mike to keep his act but get a script-writer to write a new script especially for the show.
That taste of performing had given Mike a taste for the big time, with The New Palladium Show taking over from Sunday Night at the London Palladium led to Yarwood appearing several more times as well as working with The Bachelors, but through the up and downs of this period of more variety theatre performances with the like of Max Bygraves, pantomimes came in 1967 a major television series for the BBC called Three of a Kind, working with Lulu and comedian Ray Fell. At that when it was broadcast in 1967, Mike was doing summer season at Great Yarmouth which lead to a new series of the programme in 1968 which Yarwood did, when it came to a third which was already planned but without Lulu who had left for her own new show on BBC 1. But in Mike's mind this wasn't good enough for him and his own words he was getting big headed as he recalls.
“Three of a Kind went down well and we did a second series, but by then I was getting unbearable. A third series was planned. Now this would have been good news but for the fact that this was to go ahead without Lulu because she was getting her own show. I was jealous. I wanted my own show and in a fit of pique because I wasn't offered one, I turned down the new series. I was in no position to refuse anything that that stage of the game, as my agent tried to warn me, but I wouldn't listen. I was too big-headed to believe him.”
It had seemed that Mike Yarwood's career may have been gone off the path that he thought it should be on but thanks to one impresario and a man who would guide many of television's biggest careers, it got a second chance and as we'll find out in part two. How being the at the top can be good, but it can have its downside as well.