Why “Parrotface” is back to Tweet again
Freddie Davies’ appearance on Opportunity Knock changed the comedian’s life. As a new autobiography charts his career, he tells Anthony Teague of the influence of his music-hall-star grandfather and how necessity is the mother of reinvention
On August 1st, 1964, comedian Freddie Davies shot to fame on TV talent show Opportunity Knocks, seen by around twenty million viewers. For the next two decades his spluttering "Parrotface" character was a regular presence on television.
As his autobiography explains, however, Davies' heart has always been in the theatre. His family lived just around the corner from the Salford Hippodrome, where young Freddie watched his grandfather, comedian Jack Herbert, from the wings. Over time the silly walks and other bits of business were absorbed by Freddie in what he now recognises as an invaluable apprenticeship. By the time he was 10 he had no doubt that he was going to be a comedian himself.
He still hadn't quite worked out how to break into the business by the time he left school for a job at the local Co-op, though he was developing the rudiments of a comedy/magic act in local charity shows. By the time of his demob from National Service in 1958, however, the way was clear. While in the army he had approached the young Des O'Connor at a stage door and received the same advice Max Bygraves had given Des: “Go to Butlins and get some experience.” He worked summer seasons at the Skegness camp, appearing in the weekly Redcoat shows in the large Gaiety Theatre and learning from future star Dave Allen, who became a close friend.
But the real challenge was to come over the next few winters, when he tried - and frequently failed - to win over unforgiving audiences in the tough working men's clubs of the North East. With poor facilities and punters more interested in socialising than in the hapless turns, he struggled to learn his craft. While conceding that these clubs were a great training ground of sorts - “You learnt to cope with failure, became more resilient” – Davies remembers that some performers became locked into the club style of performing and could not adapt to television or theatre. Opportunity Knocks was not a gateway to success for every young hopeful.
The smarter cabaret clubs, subsidised by gambling, which sprang up in Manchester in the early sixties made things a bit easier, and in 1963 Freddie left the security of Butlins, where he was now employed all year round, to become a full time comic. Soon afterwards a chance remark by an audience member caused his "Parrotface" character to splutter into life – and Freddie found the distinctive comic identity he'd been seeking.
A few months after that came the appearance on Opportunity Knocks which made him famous overnight. For Freddie, however, its real significance was that it opened the door to theatre work, including many summer seasons on the same bill as pop group the Bachelors.
Davies credits his success during this period to his earlier experience in the Redcoat shows: “I immediately felt at home on those large stages and put everything I'd learnt into practice.”
More television and theatre work followed, working with major stars such as Judy Garland and Cliff Richard. An unexpected visit from Cary Grant, who came to see him in panto at the Bristol Hippodrome in 1970, seemed to set the seal on his success.
As the seventies drew to a close, however, it all started to get a bit samey. Freddie knew he was becoming complacent and needed another challenge but he couldn't identify what it might be. A poorly attended 1978 summer show represented his first major setback since achieving fame. He asked himself: had he been flogging the parrot a bit too much?
Davies now feels he ought to have made more of a conscious attempt to develop new characters in the early seventies. But comedians had less power on TV in Freddie's heyday, and companies invariably wanted Davies to do the hat routine - rather like the old stipulation, “Act as known.” It was difficult to find something strong enough to follow Samuel Tweet, but there was also a Catch 22: audience members might mutter about seeing Tweet yet again but they were equally likely to complain if he didn't make an appearance.
Luckily a new challenge appeared just as it was most needed, and Freddie moved into management, staging his own shows and dealing - not always with unmitigated success – with the tantrums and egos of fellow performers like Russ Conway.
But when a dream of staging ever more spectacular pantomimes came crashing down with the bankruptcy of a business partner, Freddie was forced to reinvent himself yet again, taking to the high seas as a Cruise Director on an American ship. “This was in the late eighties, before the cruise explosion with huge 5000 passenger ships,” Freddie recalls. “Actually, there was a bit of an air of Butlins-on-Sea about it, so it wasn't that difficult to adapt.”
Performing for American tourists who knew nothing of Parrotface had its advantages. Liberated from Samuel Tweet, Freddie threw himself into this new line of work and developed an entirely new, laidback persona for his standup act.
He returned to the UK a few years later for the long-cherished film project Funny Bones. Davies had given its director, Peter Chelsom, his first job as assistant stage manager on a pantomime and the film had been inspired by tales Davies had shared of his grandad Jack and his own thoughts on comedy. The film failed at the box office but is now a cult favourite.
It led to a new career for Freddie as a straight actor on television and the stage, with appearances including the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Secret Garden. Recently, however, he donned his trademark homburg again for a variety tour, and is currently planning a one man show, complete with Samuel Tweet, to help promote his autobiography, published on the 50th anniversary of that life-changing appearance on Opportunity Knocks.
Buy Freddie Davies's autobiography Funny Bones from amazon (paperback) or direct from Scratching Shed Publishing (paperback or limited edition hardback). You can read an extract here.
Tuesday, 30 September 2014
Why “Parrotface” is back to Tweet again: full page article in The Stage
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