Memories of Roy Hudd: A life on stage, a life in Suffolk
Roy Hudd was a man who lived for the theatre. He was an actor, a writer, a stand-up comedian and one of the nation’s leading experts on the music hall. Here we look back at the best interviews he gave to the EADT
It will come as no surprise to anyone that Roy Hudd was a lovely bloke. He was always up for an interview and professionally helped me out of a hole on several occasions.
One of the regular slots I always dread is panto season. It’s not that I hate panto, but after 30-odd years writing about theatre, it’s hard to keep things fresh and interesting. There are only so many things you can write about men in dresses and lots of water being thrown around the stage.
Then I hit upon a great idea, I’ll phone Roy and ask him to talk me through the history of pantomime: that’ll be something new, something interesting.
I phoned Roy and he was suitably enthusiastic but warned me he was pretty busy preparing for an event at Wilton’s Music Hall: “I can only spare you about ten minutes,” he said. I wasn’t worried, 10 minutes would help me keep the interview on track and reduce the amount of information to manageable levels. I knew from past experience that there was no such thing as a quick chat with Roy Hudd.
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We made arrangements for me to pop round the following day and I was met at the door by his wife Debbie and shown into the lounge where I was greeted by Roy, emerging from his office which as ever was piled high with books, posters and all sorts of showbiz memorabilia.
After a few pleasantries and the arrival of a cup of tea, we dived into the matter at hand, the history and development of the modern panto. We started at Drury Lane with the military parades, pomp and pageantry, the introduction of the Harlequinade, the influence of Commedia dell’Arte, the rise of Joseph Grimaldi as a clown Harlequin, the arrival of the Victorian spectacle and Dan Leno creating the pantomime dame in the 1880s.
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I looked at the clock and, to my horror, I realised an hour had passed. I knew I had more than enough material and apologised profusely for taking up so much of Roy’s time. Roy, clearly on a roll, batted away my apology and carried on talking. Slowly we made our way to the kitchen, I was five steps away from the back door when he urged me to wait a minute and dashed off to his office and after a few minutes came back half buried a pile of vintage posters and photographs he had clearly just plucked from his filing system.
It took another half-an-hour to complete those five steps to his drive way but that was the selfless, hugely enthusiastic man he was. A ten minute interview in the end lasted more an hour and a half.
Roy Hudd had a passion for performing and adored the history of the industry he was wedded to. His particular speciality was the music hall. He loved the interaction with a live audience, the back and forth over the footlights. For him every stand-up performance was rather like a duet.
But, Roy was more than the keeper of the Music Hall flame (although that was incredibly important to him and his collection of memorabilia, song-sheets, posters and playbooks, was one of the largest in the world) he was a versatile actor playing roles in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar, Broadchurch, Midsomer Murders, playing leads in the West End and writing scripts and books galore. He even played Archie Shuttleworth a semi-regular character in Coronation Street for ten years.
But, it was Roy’s love and understanding of the world of music hall and the traditions of theatre that really made his eyes sparkle. Following Roy’s death I have been looking back at my previous interviews with the great man and have pulled together some of his beautiful insights on the world of entertainment.
Roy on comedy:
“I was talking recently to a couple of old comedians at a British Music Hall Society lunch and we were saying that we all went into the profession because we liked entertaining people, we liked to make people laugh. We never thought we were going to make a fortune, in fact I am still surprised that they pay us. It may sound like a corny thing to say but the big reward is actually making people laugh. It’s the most wonderful thing to experience.
“You look at Doddy, he goes on for hours and hours because he’s loving every minute of it. Also, the great joy of working in variety is that you get to refine your act because you are doing eight to 12 shows a week. You learn to judge audiences and you get it right. People come to me and say I want to be a comic. I’ve rehearsed at home and I say that’s no good. You can rehearse in front of a mirror until you are blue in the face – thinking of it if you could turn yourself blue in the face you could make a few bob, there’s a novelty – but I tell them it’s no good doing it at home you have to stand up and do it in front of an audience. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a pub or in a church concert you must have an audience, so you can get some feedback. Are they laughing? Do they like you?
“There’s that thing when radio comedians started doing variety theatres, a lot of them were bloody awful because they had no act. There was a great radio comedian called Al Read but he was terrible on the stage because he had no visual impact whatsoever.
“Tony Hancock was lousy on stage. He was the principal comic on the pier at Clacton. The Ocean Review. He couldn’t do an act. He was good in the sketches but he couldn’t be a stand-up. He was a brilliant actor but that wasn’t enough.”
Roy’s Comic Heroes:
“There are two (names) that stand out for me: Cary Grant and Frankie Howerd. Cary Grant because he was superb comic actor, blessed with faultless timing – he made it look easy; that’s the secret of comedy – and Frankie Howerd because he was an actor who became a stand-up.
“Everyone thought he busked it as he went along but every word was scripted. Every ohh every ah. And that is a great acting performance. It was only one step away from himself but it was still an acting performance. We knew each other reasonably well, he was a naturally funny man., and he would get upset about things and I could never keep a straight face. It was like watching him doing a routine.”
Roy on his Music Hall Archive:
““There’s thousands of items here. It’s a collection of stuff that I have collected over the past 50 years – ever since I first started. There’s loads of programmes, music, song sheets, photographs, records of theatres.
“My proudest possession is a whole run of a weekly newspaper called The Performer which started in 1905 and finished in 1957.
“It really is a complete history of everything to do with light entertainment during that period. The Stage, the actors’ newspaper, started even earlier than that but The Performer was the official newspaper of the Variety Artists Federation, which was the forerunner of Equity.
“It dealt with everyone who worked in music hall and variety – until it was decided that we all had to join Equity. The newspaper then ceased publication. “Suddenly we all became act- tors.”
Roy on variety being the spice of life:
(When this interview was conducted Roy was about to play the role of The Photographer in JB Priestley’s When We Are Married in the West End. A few years earlier he had played the strenuous role of Pseudolus in Stephen Sondheim’s Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had asked him if he could ever envisage himself retiring.)
“No, people keep giving me interesting things to do. I have always wanted to be on the stage. I have always wanted to be an entertainer but I also wanted to be an actor, I wanted to do Shakespeare, I wanted to do musicals, I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to work on radio, I wanted to do television, I wanted to be in films, I wanted to do it all and fortunately I have been given a chance to have a go at most things.
“I loved doing The News Huddlines, which ran for 51 series from 1975 to 2001, an amazing achievement and I think it served as a finishing school for writers. Oh, it was fantastic. We had Janet Brown to start and then Alison Steadman – oh what an actress – she used to change shape when she played a character it was marvellous to watch – and then when she left we replaced her with June Whitfield, who was amazing.
“It was a great series to do because it was completely topical. We got through material like nobody’s business, so we had to have a great team of writers supplying us with material which could be changed right up to the last minute.
“I also loved the chance to be on Coronation Street. I always know when someone’s contract hasn’t been renewed because I’ll get a call: ‘Can you come up and do a couple days work?’ I know that they’ll have someone for me to bury. Variety really is the key to a happy life and now I’m back in the theatre.
“My gran used to take me to the theatre, well, she used to take me to the variety theatre but one week there was a dirty play on at the Croydon Empire, so she took me to the local rep theatre instead and we saw When We Are Married and I was just blown away. I didn’t know that proper plays could be so good. I remember coming back home and saying that the best part in the show was The Photographer and do you know what part I am playing in the show? The Photographer! How about that? It was meant to be.”
Roy on moving to Suffolk:
“To be honest things were getting hairy in Clapham. Debbie had been mugged on a couple of occasions and it just wasn’t safe there anymore. It was time to get out, time to find somewhere else to live.
“I was evacuated to the country during the war and I loved it and I have always harboured a secret desire to come back to the countryside. War in the country was fun for a young lad. All the bombing and all the suffering seemed a long way off we just went mad and ran across fields for three or four years.
“There was a German bomber crashed once and we went about collecting wreckage but that was as close as the war got.”
“Originally we were looking to move to Norfolk – somewhere close to the Broads as we had enjoyed many lovely holidays in that area – but properties were both scarce and expensive and then this Suffolk cottage came up.
“We only saw two rooms, the kitchen and the lounge but I knew immediately. I said to Debbie: ‘I could live here’, and that was that. I hadn’t seen the rest of the house, the grounds, the stream or the fact it has its own wood – something I love. I’ve always wanted Hudd’s Wood. And I didn’t even know that was here when we made the decision to buy it.
“It was just perfect. It’s quiet and it’s close enough to Stowmarket to catch the train to London. If I’m in a play I can commute now. I can be out of the theatre by 10.30 and back at home by midnight. You couldn’t do that in Norfolk.”