Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Mike Yarwood - This is Him... (Part Two)

In the last part we looked at how Mike Yarwood had become a impressionist and performer, through doing impressions for his family and work colleagues and how television director Royston Mayoh had a direct effect on his career by helping him hone his act both for cabaret and also television.

By the end of the 1960's Mike Yarwood had made his first tentative steps into television having appeared on ABC TV's Comedy Bandbox and also Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which at that point Mike thought that it would give him his big break as had happened to Jimmy Tarbuck before him. In 1968, he had done two series for BBC Two of Three of a Kind with comedian Ray Fell and also Lulu. Though when a third series was going to go ahead without Lulu who had moved onto BBC One with her own series, Yarwood himself thought that he was good enough to had his own solo series and in a fit pique turned down the opportunity to appear in the third series.

At that time in 1968, it seemed that Mike Yarwood had made totally the wrong decision by ignoring his agent Dave Forrester's advice at rejecting the chance to carry on working for the BBC at that time. But it was around then that Yarwood had some luck, Lord Lew Grade was planning a charity gala at the London Palladium to raise money for the British Olympic team so that they go to the Mexico Olympics, the first to be shown by ITV in almost full coverage. One of the main acts who were going to appear on the show pulled out, it was around the time when Eric Morecambe had a heart attack, so it was impossible for Morecambe and Wise to appear at that time. This left gaps to filled, so Mike was asked by Lew Grade to appear at the gala.

Because of the importance of the gala, The Queen and Prime Minister Harold Wilson were to be in attendance, though the climax to Yarwood's act was to be an impersonation of Wilson himself. Though this was to cause problems for Lew Grade as Mike Yarwood recalls in his 1986 autobiography Impressions of My Life.

'What are you going to do in the Harold Wilson part?' asked Lew Grade.
'Oh, I've got a script,' I said vaguely. Lew shook his head 'Be careful. We don't want anything political with The Queen here. Just come on and say good evening or whatever and leave it at that.'

I was in despair. Harold Wilson was the most popular part of my act. I felt sure it would fall flat if I was to leave him out, but what was the point of coming on with the pipe and mac and saying 'Good Evening'? That would hardly leave them rolling in the aisles.

I had a moan to Jimmy Tarbuck who was also in the show. 'Why don't you come on and look down at Wilson and say “Snap”? said Jimmy.

I thought about it. It might work. 'Thanks, Jimmy. I'll give it a try,' I said.”

So thanks to Jimmy Tarbuck it seemed that Mike's act on the night had been saved. When he went on to do his spot, he felt that it as was going well. Then he put on the mac and picked up the pipe to do the climax of his act, so much that because of Wilson being in the audience, there was an expectation of Yarwood was going to do. At this time it is important to remember that politicians were still held with high respect by most people and especially the Prime Minister. The fact that That Was The Week That Was had punctured the pomposity of politicians allowed for performers to get away with more then they had ever done before against the political class. When Yarwood walked to the front of the stage to do whatever dialogue he had lined up and all he did was a double take of Harold Wilson and his wife Mary that he had just spotted them in the audience. With a look at Wilson and after a brief few seconds Mike uttered the words which would bring the house down, he said “And as for you sir, I've got only one thing to say to you... Snap!” then at that point hurrying off stage as if he'd lost his nerve.

It was this performance at the gala which got Yarwood great reviews from critics and Lew Grade spotted that Mike was a performer that he could work with, so he signed up Yarwood for three shows, but there was to be more offered if they went well.

With these new shows for ATV came an appearance at the London Palladium appearing with Cliff Richard, going to rehearse for the ATV shows during the daytime and performing at the Palladium during the evening. With Mike's personal life taking an upturn at that time with his future wife Sandra who was a dancer at that time. In taking the Palladium shows with Cliff Richard, it boosted Yarwood's performing skills even more by doing more larger nightly performances. But it was one remark to Cliff that took Mr Richard aback, when introducing Cliff to the audience, he had quipped to the screaming audience of girls in Frankie Howerd's voice “All right, all right... Don't get you knickers in a twist!” It got such a big laugh that Mike used night after night in his act to introduce Cliff Richard. At that time with Mike performing at the Palladium, in pantomimes and also summer season. His was a talent that was getting noticed, though much like Morecambe and Wise who nurtured their act on ITV and to move to the BBC in the same year. Mike Yarwood's career was helped by ATV such as a contemporary at that time Dave Allen.

By the time of the Royal Variety Performance of 1968 and the ATV show going well, meaning as with all royal shows that the comedians shared the one dressing room, Mike was used to having small dressing room but on this occasion he was sharing the star dressing room with Frankie Howerd. But this was to lead to ructions between Mike and Howerd over Yarwood's impression of him.

The only thing that slightly marred that evening was Frankie's disapproval of my impression of him. Strangely enough in all these year she's the only person who's ever admitted to my face that he didn't care for being mimicked.”

Howerd himself thought that Mike's impersonation was effeminate, though it was the style of delivery which Frankie did himself which was more gossipy than anything else, though this showed even in the most talented and adept performers that self-doubts of themselves could be there although they never showed it whilst performing. Something that Yarwood was to know more about by the end of his career. The fragility which can dog a performer, all through that time. Though in performing during the Royal Variety Performance meant that Mike was in demand, the new up and coming talent who was now starting to move up the Showbiz Set. Just as his home life was settling down, 1969 was to start with a bump with his ATV contract not being renewed after three television shows for Lew Grade. The same reasons for Yarwood not taking a third series of Three of a Kind with the BBC, had come around again. It was seemed that the management thought that he was too big-headed, thought it might have seemed Mike's showbiz career had stalled at this time his agent kept him going and negotiated for him to do summer season in Bournemouth with Frankie Vaughan.

Around this time Mike had proposed to Sandra, but this was to have unwanted effects when working with Frankie Vaughan. During one of the summer season shows with Yarwood, he had a spotlight turn around and shine on Sandra announcing that Mike and her were going to get married much to Sandra's embarrassment though she was in the business herself, it showed that even if people were in show business that a moment when being caught off guard could be embarrassing even if the sentiment was meant to be caring. But in looking at Vaughan's performance, Mike learnt even more in how to work a crowd with the movements and the style he used in his act. The most valuable lesson that he learnt from Frankie was that if you wanted to be a star, you had to be a star all of the time and not just on stage.

Just at this time when everything was going right in Yarwood's own personal life with marriage to his fiancée Sandra and finding out they were going to have a baby together, the same could not be said for his career. Work was plentiful and he was still appearing on other performers own shows, it seemed that although still working, the actual direction he wanted his career to go in was going in a straight line. Though for this somewhat feeling that he had come as far as he could, in his work snobbery was coming through. Questioning his venue for summer season in Blackpool and also his place on the bill, when he should be higher up having made television appearances and top the bill at club one-nighters. In this impetuousness, his agent Dave Forrester kept his feet on the ground, trying to save Mike from rushing too far ahead of himself as almost a case of too much, too young. In his thinking, Forrester wanted the best for Mike and for him to have a lasting career.

Though the Summer of 1970 was to prove, a lucky period for Yarwood. After one performance, Yarwood stepped off the stage and went back to his dressing room to find the BBC's Bill Cotton Jnr. waiting there to meet him. As Yarwood explains

'We'd like you to do a series, Mike' Cotton said after the polite preliminaries. Then, seeing my face, he added, 'Yes, its going to be your show, although you will have someone with you.'”

That offer of a show was to become Look – Mike Yarwood, which gave him full range to try out new material and new ways of performing it as well.

Mike was joining a family of entertainers at the BBC, who after many years were looking to regain viewers away from ITV's dominance of light entertainment programmes up to the late 60's. With Morecambe and Wise coming from ATV, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett from LWT and Bruce Forsyth being given the chance to present a new game show. It was Bill Cotton Jnr's foresight to be able to find performers, put them into the right shows with the best writers and also the best production teams. Yarwood was to be another cog in this smoothly run engine, as the television industry produced some of the most memorable programmes of this time.

But with the new series came other things, for the money Mike was making by doing the shows for the BBC, it seemed like the money he was earning was going out the door quicker then it was coming in. On occasions, this seemed harmless enough with the odd purchase or an item which he was determined to get whatever the cost. It was fine on the luxury items, but when it came to smaller almost trivial items, it seemed like it was almost like a compulsion to buy things, most things could be quantified but some things were almost strange even to Yarwood. In needing a dinner jacket for summer season, Mike purchased six because if Tom Jones always ordered six at a time, then it was good enough for him. In being a performer, it was important to look the part so high-quality ties were bought four at a time. These things may have been quantifiable in Yarwood's own mind, it did show that with money, came the responsibility to go with it.

The seventies were one of Yarwood's best periods as a performer meeting the great and the good and also topping the television ratings regularly with his shows, but off screen things were turning out differently. The first incident was a indication of those who do not have fame recent others with it, whilst appearing in summer season in Scarborough and at a low ebb missing his family when going through fan mail to pass the time away in-between performances. When being met with a piece of writing paper and unfolding it came a chilling message inside.

As Yarwood takes up the story himself,

'We're going to get you, Yarwood' I read, 'and by the time we've finished with you, you'll be unrecognisable...' and so it went on, threatening to kill me and injure my family. It was signed 'The Angry Brigade'.”

Having read this, Yarwood thought this should be dealt as police matter as having believed this was a genuine threat to himself and his family. When Special Branch eventually looked at the letter, they dismissed it as a hoax. To put this into context, with terrorism on the mainland of Britain from both sides of divide to do with Northern Ireland's Troubles and threats sent to venues and warnings as well by various groups, it was a very high alert time for people. In his own thinking when it was suggested that the letter maybe from someone who was jealous of Mike's success with the undertone of the group claiming responsibility would not issue a warning as to what they were going to do. If it had the sole aim of scaring Yarwood, it had done.

With this Yarwood was ordered to take out of his schedule for rest and recuperation, with the theatre management understanding of the situation and giving him as much time as he needed to do so. But although in taking the time off, the doctor who was treating him gave him a remark when he had told him to rest. The thought was that Mike had started to drink too much, almost pushing 'The Angry Brigade' letter and this other remark to the back of his mind in quantifying that he was doing as much as anyone else would have been around that time. In the time earned, it was just that he should spend it relaxing in the BBC Club or in the pub. But Yarwood's drinking was to become a problem in his personal life though he did not let this show in his performances, delivering show after show for ATV, BBC and later on Thames Television. In doing this, the Dutch courage was used to cover up stage fright and allow him to go on perform, relaxing himself so he could do a good show as always. Though as the 1970's went along, even with this Mike was trying quantify this as he explained to Channel 4's 2001 documentary 'The Showbiz Set'.

I would at least drink half a dozen stiff vodkas, just enough to get a buzz on, just enough to feel no pain. But the thing is you get to the theatre sluggish and you need a pick-me-up and I would have a couple of vodkas and tonics before a show.”

Just as he was becoming one of light entertainment's biggest stars and his home life was settled, the drinking was having an effect on him. The pressure of delivering a good performance time after time was seeming to take it toll, though this was to change on his personal life as he continues.

It make me cringe just to think about it, the drinking became more important then anything else and I spent less and less time with the children because when I wasn't in the pub, I was at home sleeping it off. I missed my first daughter's, first birthday because I was too hungover, that's the saddest thing I can think of actually. It makes me very sad to think about it actually.”

By trying rationalise away the drinking, it seemed that it had its place in Yarwood's performing and personal life. Though when filmed for a Thames Television documentary in 1984 about himself and the making of one of his television specials. A seemingly throw away line is used between Yarwood and the late John Ammonds, his producer at both the BBC and Thames might have let on more then the public had thought at that time.

Mike Yarwood impersonating John Ammonds : “Have you been drinking lately?”
Ammonds to Yarwood: “Not recently...”

Though as John Ammonds explained in 2001 about working with Yarwood whilst he was drinking.

He never got really plastered lying on the floor like that, but it did interfere with the concentration. I think he would agree now, it did interfere with his work and made him more worried then ever. In fact, when of course he thought drinking would have the effect of taking away the worries, but it never does.”

As this was going on Yarwood was still able to make some of the finest shows seen on British television with a rota of characters that everyone could recognise. Thanks to the political landscape, apart from a few changes that the party leaders of the Labour Party in the shape of Harold Wilson and later Jim Callaghan and on the Conservative benches Ted Heath, along with union leader Vic Feather led to them becoming stock characters besides with the big personalities who had big personalities them such as David Frost, Patrick Moore and Brian Clough linking back to his love of football.

With starting the 1970's with Look – Mike Yarwood and also a radio series Hear – Mike Yarwood as well, made one of most popular entertainers and one of the most highly paid ones as well. It seemed like success was breeding success with a special show at the Talk of the Town, London showcasing his live cabaret act for BBC2's 'Show of the Week' strand. By the mid-70's not only the political landscape was changing as well as his BBC show. At the start of 1976, he was awarded the OBE in that year's New Year's honours list by Harold Wilson showing that he even by doing an impression of him that even politicians could have a laugh at their own expense.

His political material was never hard hitting satire much like Rory Bremner's in later years to come, but it made for the politicians and union leaders who dominated the 70's, could have otherwise been anonymous to the public at large. It gave them another platform on which they were recognised on, even later on Rory Bremner and other non satirical impressions would admit that Yarwood was their biggest influence in starting to imitate people both famous and around them leading more of a periphery of impressionists from the mid-70's onwards and into the new decade.

In 1976 his show changed title to Mike Yarwood in Persons and became a more variety based show welcoming other guests on to perform but always with Yarwood showing his talent for signing at the end with the inevitable phrase 'And this is me...' Starting with two specials, one in May and other under the 'The Mike Yarwood Christmas Special' title in December to start the Mike Yarwood in Persons period when finally the first series of which was broadcast fortnightly between January and March 1977. Though the series its self had a who's who of big name light entertainment producers amongst them future BBC head of light entertainment Jim Moir, John Ammonds who worked with Morecambe and Wise during this period as well plus future big name Alan Boyd, the man who brought Blankety Blank to the screen as well when in the ITV system a number of shows for LWT including Game for a Laugh and later to work for Television South.

But coming into 1977 saw a new personality come to the fore which was to even to test Yarwood's material, the rise of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader taking over from Ted Heath in 1975. This caused some problems for Yarwood, as most of his impressions were men and very rarely he did dress up as female characters. But to be relevant to his ask he had to keep Thatcher in there with references to her, even trying to impersonate her. Though after a while it was clear that this was not going to work as a on-going thing. So how exactly to solve the problem? Well, Mike and the producers didn't have to look too far, on ITV in this same period was 'Who Do You Do?' and one of the pop female impressionists was Janet Brown who was a part of that show.

The producers of Mike's show decided they wanted Janet to come on board the show to impersonate Mrs Thatcher, so it was possible to Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher or Robin Day and Thatcher doing a double-headed sketch together thus expanded the range and also the way that sketches could be performed without the need for lengthy filming of Yarwood doing a whole range of impressions and have them superimposed in a sketch using a technique called colour separation overlay.

But the use of C.S.O. was always important to Mike to be able to have several of his impressions in the same place at the same time, as the technology got slowly better it allowed him to play around more with it. Though during filming these sketches, because for eye-line levels, it meant there would have to be someone standing where another character would be in the final piece and most times it would be one of the crew but when John Ammonds was producing the show himself, he would be the stand-in and helping to prompt Yarwood by mouthing the lines to him so he knew what to say and when in the sketch. These techniques may seem like a long drawn out process, but it allowed Mike to be cutting edge in something that hardly no other performers had done to that point.

Come the end of 1977, with the BBC's biggest night of the year on Christmas Day. The corporation had rolled out the red carpet for their biggest shows on that evening with a schedule unmatched ever since including Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game plus Morecambe and Wise with their Christmas Special. On that night Mike found himself in between the two shows but never the less in a key position of that night's schedule to keep the viewers with BBC One. With an excellent viewing figure on that night, little did he know that he was to become the BBC's big Christmas Night star next year.

With Morecambe and Wise leaving the BBC at the end of 1977, this meant that the prime position was up for grabs on Christmas Day night in 1978, with Bruce Forysth moved to LWT and placed on Christmas Eve, Morecambe and Wise had gone to Thames Television and ITV had scheduled them for their prime slot during the evening. But the BBC had either The Generation Game with Larry Grayson, The Two Ronnies or Mike Yarwood to go head to head against Eric and Ernie. So it came down to Mike to take on what would be seen as ITV's scheduling juggernaut. Added to this there had been industrial action by unions at the BBC just before Christmas and had seemed that the BBC might have had to offer only a limited Christmas Day service. Eventually when the two shows played out Mike was at 8pm and Eric and Ernie at 9pm on ITV, the outcome was surprising though in the least. Morecambe and Wise had grabbed a substantial audience themselves but when the final ratings had come out, Mike had beaten them. Justifying the BBC's faith in him that for 1979 and 1980 he was given a prime slot on Christmas Day and his own stand-alone series had grown. By 1981 though he had been shifted off the big day for a slot on Boxing Day, after what had happened with Morecambe and Wise in 1977 maybe the BBC did not want a repeat. So, subtly the show was moved to the day after Christmas already in the knowledge that he'd moved to Thames Television.

Once again in 1981, his act was changing to compensate that the fact Janet Brown was impersonating Margaret Thatcher on her own show, Yarwood moved into the mimicry of the Royal Family especially Prince Charles and after his Royal Wedding in 1981 to Lady Diana Spencer, he used the same trick as he had done with Janet Brown by getting Suzanne Danielle to play Princess Diana in the sketches and later on impersonating Prince Andrew to Kate Robbins' Sarah Ferguson. Though it did seem a few small changes to allow new impressions, that some of the impressions were getting dated in having Harold and Albert Steptoe in his act after their series had finished a number of years ago on the BBC. Plus also Harold Wilson who had been out of power for five years by that point, but with the election of President Ronald Regan in the United States allowed him to use the same gentle political humour as he had done for Wilson but also use Regan's old show business connections to have sketches including the like of Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr., all of which Regan had worked with during his Hollywood career.

Around this point, though still popular with the viewers and also having great material from such writers Barry Cryer, John Junkin, Eddie Braben, Colin Edmonds and with script advisor former Morecambe and Wise writer Dick Hills, the shows started to feel dated. Though this could be said to be an effect of the rise of Alternative Comedy and its style of more barbed political humour and faster paced-delivery as well. By the end of 1983, Mike had completed the first series of his Thames shows and was about to have a special broadcast over Christmas of that year. 1984 however was to bring something which totally changed the landscape of what he was doing when Spitting Image brought a new edge to impressions and in particularly political satire.

Though as the worry about his shows and his increasing stage fright lead to more drinking than ever, leading to him admitting he was an alcoholic. But just like the BBC and Thames had done for Eric Morecambe to reduce the worry and also strain of working by only doing specials once or twice a year, it gave more worry by doing less television shows. With the removal of the alcohol as his crutch in performing, it seemed to have a major effect on his performance, the worry and stage fright was seemingly getting too much for him. His final special was shown by in December 1987, by that time he was doing very little television apart from the odd appearance on other shows and also gala performances for various causes. Later on Mike appeared on Have I Got News for You as a guest, allowing him to perform but also be himself following on from this there was a plan to bring him back to television as a adviser to the public wanting to do impressions in a planned BBC show called 'Taking Off with Yarwood' but he politely refused to do it.

It came as no surprise when he finally gave up performing in 1994 for his own health and well being finally giving alcohol for good allowing himself time to spend with his children who had by then had their own children.

The legacy of Yarwood lives on with most impressionists who worked during the 80's and 90's stating that it was Mike's influence which got them started in impressionism in the first place by having seen him performing on the television and as he would at the end of every show 'And this is me....' and I hope these two articles have given you an impression of the man himself.