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Britain has been laughing at Barry Cryer's jokes for 50 years. He talks comedy with Chris Titley
Barry Cryer is the funny man's funny man. He's worked with the best - Eric and Ernie, Tommy Cooper, Bob Hope - and has a fund of stories about them all, not to mention a bank balance brimming over with jokes. So he's very rarely short of something to say. But he was stumped by one interviewer when it came to his native county.
'We were talking about Lancashire and particularly Liverpool, which has produced so many comedians, and the woman interviewing me said "what star comedians have come from Yorkshire?" 'I had to stop. This is my home county. Can you name one? It's weird isn't it? There's a great sense of humour around this big county. I'd never thought about it and it just baffled me.'
He did eventually come up with the name Ernie Wise, like Barry born in Leeds, but no other Yorkshire comedians came to mind. 'It's very rich in writers, the great Alan Bennett and JB Priestley years ago, my old friend Keith Waterhouse, but comics - I couldn't work it out.'
There's no shortage of Yorkshire audiences for comedy though. Barry was talking before going on stage with his Still Alive show at the Theatre Royal in Richmond, the wonderful playhouse which dates from 1788 and was superbly renovated five years ago.
'It's a beautiful little Georgian theatre. Usually we do one night with a show. But dear old Richmond, it's sold out for two nights. It's like a warm bath. I'm coming home.'
Are Yorkshire audiences different to others elsewhere in Britain? 'No, that's changed. When I started all those years ago, comedy was very regional. A southern comedian might have a problem coming up north. Television changed that.'
He doesn't believe there's a specific Yorkshire sense of humour either. 'Funny is funny,' he said. And no one knows funny better than Barry. He's been performing and writing comedy since his teens, and he's 73 now. He didn't plan his career - 'I've been dogged by good luck,' he says.
His father died when he was five, and with a brother nine years older than him and in the merchant navy he felt like an only child. He'd no intention of leaving his home town. But after appearing in a Leeds University revue he worked backstage at the old Empire for the magician David Nixon, who urged him to go to London.
'What was I going to do in London? I had a 17-day rail return ticket and the day before the ticket ran out I got an audition for the Windmill Theatre in London, six shows a day. I auditioned at half past ten in the morning and they put me on at half twelve.' Before long he was not only performing his own jokes, but writing for other comedians including Morecambe and Wise.
'Eric had the quickest brain I ever worked with. He worked every line, every syllable. He used to get a bit annoyed with Ernie who was a slow learner.
'But Eric never fluffed a line, except once. They're in front of the camera, Eric and Ernie, and he's talking about the bosses at the BBC, and he said: "there they are, walking down the powers of corridor". And Ernie said "pardon?" and he said "backwards, of course..."'
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Eric's death from a heart attack. 'He was a great worrier. They were the classic double act, the more placid one and the worrier. It happens all the time, to the present day - Little Britain's Matt Lucas is the worrier and David Walliams all laid back. And the Two Ronnies, Ronnie Barker worrying and Ronnie Corbett on the golf course saying "oh Ronnie will sort that out".'
One man who didn't spend a lot of time fretting was Kenny Everett. 'Working with Everett was a joy. He was up for anything. He's a sort of Russell Brand without the problems. 'We had very happy days at Thames Television just recording all day in the studio. No audience - if you heard any laughter it was the crew. They loved it; they fought to get on the shows.'
Barry Cryer spans the generations of comedy, from old-style variety to the new breed of stand-up. How does he manage to stay fresh and funny? 'You go along with each generation. I trained under David Frost and we were writing a show that was going out that night; you were reading all the papers and watching television, listening to news on the radio, everything. And you learned - it was sort of seamless.
'I've never been conscious of moving along with each generation. It was the same atmosphere with different people.'
He doesn't like to scrutinise humour too closely - 'somebody once said analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies' - but he sees the joke as George Orwell did, each one a 'little revolution'. Laughter is often a way to deal with horrible situations, he said. That's why socalled sick jokes appear within hours of tragedies like the 9/11 attacks.
Chatting over breakfast after a gig one day with a writer friend, Barry said he was fascinated how humour emerges from horror. 'I said I swear there are people in Zimbabwe doing Mugabe jokes, looking over their shoulder. And he went away to his computer and he came back with three pages of Mugabe jokes. 'Can you imagine those poor souls living under that monster - but human nature needs some relief.'
He has few no-go areas when it comes to comedy. He's never done racist jokes which are 'born of fear and hatred' and more quirkily won't touch the subject of people who stutter or stammer. 'In theory there are no taboos. People talk about everything now. It's to do with the performer and the attitude. A really good comedian, man or woman, can talk about the most awful things, terminal illness or something, but make you laugh because of the humanity of the way they say it.'
Straightforward silliness is a big part of Cryer's appeal, which he has been demonstrating on endearingly daft BBC Radio 4 panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue since 1972. Last year much-loved chairman Humphrey Lyttelton died and it was feared the show might be over. But Barry says it will return with guest hosts: they have a list a mile long but he won't mention any names. 'I think a woman would be a good idea, so as not to be compared directly to Humph, or somebody young taking the ... out of the old men!'
In the meantime Barry will continue to work as he has always done, somehow plucking jokes out of thin air. 'I confess to you I write on cigarette packets. I get back and look at the note and think "what's that?" And then I remember why I jotted it down,' he said. 'My cigarette packet never crashes. It's utterly reliable.'
For current shows at the Georgian Theatre Royal Richmond, see www.georgiantheatreroyal.co.uk