Wednesday, 8 October 2014
Weekly News article by Craig Campbell
Many thanks to Craig Campbell for writing this centre spread for the Weekly News in July 2014. Craig told me, "I loved Freddie as a nipper."
FORGET your Chaplins, Marx Bros and Monty Pythons — for many of us, Freddie Parrot Face Davies is the funniest man we’ve ever seen!
For several decades, Brixton-born Freddie became synonymous with birdies, conjuring up a feather-filled act that tickled adults and had the young ’uns screaming with laughter.
He played a character called Samuel Tweet, and some of his best jokes involved budgies, with many claiming his parrot jokes were behind the famous Python sketch.
Now, Freddie has written a book about his extraordinary life — he is still performing up and down Britain at 77 – and his many wonderful tales show just how massive he was in his heyday.
“Freddie could list huge stars such as Judy Garland, Cary Grant and Cliff Richard among his fans,” reveals Anthony Teague, who has helped him write the book, with a foreword by Freddie’s showbiz pal, Ken Dodd.
Amazing, then, that it all began with a small gig in Dunoon, leaving Freddie so bored that he was on the verge of giving up.
“Freddie had been working at Butlins but took the big leap to become a full-time professional comedian,” says Anthony. “There were just a few drunks and wet dogs – it always rained - to watch his Fun With Freddie show.
“After two weeks of this, he couldn’t stand it and went back to England to do a radio show. With a wife and young son, it was quite a brave thing to do.
“Freddie, while in Scotland, had seen an episode of a show called Opportunity Knocks, didn’t think much of it, but was surprised when they got in touch to ask him on.
“The night he went on, it was shown to an audience of between 17 or 20 million, and from that time he was fully-booked for shows – and all he did was one joke!
“His famous 'Parrotface' routine had come about in a Manchester club. When he performed, he’d ask the audience to shout out joke subjects, and if he couldn’t come up with a joke he’d buy them a drink. Someone shouted out ‘Tell us a joke about a budgie!’
“It so happened he was wearing a Homburg hat, because he had been impersonating someone who wore one on Coronation Street. He did a stupid voice, told the budgie joke, and it went down very well.
“So when it came to Opportunity Knocks, with TV sets in those days being so small, his face with that hat filled the screen and looked great. I think that is why he did so well.”
Before long, his fame had grown so much that he was firmly a part of the British showbiz elite — but with Hollywood superstars hanging on his every word!
“Pantomime 1969-70 was at the Bristol Hippodrome,” reveals Freddie himself. “Halfway through that season, I had a visit from the Company Manager, saying Cary Grant was in the audience with his young daughter, and had asked to meet me after the show.
“Cary was visiting his mother, who was in a home in Bristol, and he came to see the shows at the Hippodrome when he visited.
“I have to say he was lovely to meet. Charming, very natural and absolutely sincere. We chatted about the show and he made some nice comments.
“During pantomime I always feature a scene where six children from the audience come on stage to sing a song with me. I then present all the kiddies with a little hat like mine. On matinees full of pensioners it can be difficult to find six children, but Cary’s six-year-old daughter came up on stage.
“When I asked her where she came from, she said, ‘Beverly Hills, California’ — all the other children had come from districts around Bristol. Skip forward twenty years to the next and last time I saw Cary Grant — it was at a Water Rats Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. The first thing he said was, ‘My daughter still has the hat!’ ”
If the Bristol Hippodrome had given him an unforgettable experience, it was the London Palladium where he formed friendships with another couple of top names.
“In 1974, for a spring season of five weeks, I was fortunate to be on the bill with Cliff Richard topping and packing the venue to the rafters,” says Freddie.
“He has always been a huge draw, and rightly so. He is kind, thoughtful and one of the nicest men one could ever work with.
“Also on the bill were Little and Large, who I had worked with in the pubs and clubs around the North West in my early days. Eddie Large, as he is known, now lives in the West Country and we often correspond.
“All stage performers strive to play the London Palladium and I was no exception. I had done Sunday Night at The London Palladium on several occasions, the last time with the legendary Judy Garland.
“Sadly she was almost at the end of her career. She had moved to live in England and was appearing, or not, at the Talk of the Town, at times refusing to go on and more often than not unfit to perform through drink or drugs.
“On the morning of what was to be her final appearance on television, Judy had read an horrendous review of her performance and vowed never to appear on a British stage again.
“Jimmy Tarbuck, who had been standing by and performing for her at the Talk, was dispatched to the Savoy to persuade her to appear. It was touch and go, but when her six-minute overture finished she did walk on – to a tremendous ovation — and of course stormed the theatre!”
Freddie learned the business by watching his grandfather, music hall comedian Jack Herbert.
As for his “other” careers, however, author Anthony Teague reckons that was all natural talent.
“He would go on to appear in Heartbeat, Casualty, Last Of The Summer Wine, Harbour Lights and many more TV shows, and even a Harry Potter film. At one point, he even directed entertainment on cruise ships.
“He has even acted for the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Ben the gardener in their production of The Secret Garden. As you might expect, birds were involved.
“Freddie actually started as a magician, and at one point in the show he magically produces a little robin and appears to let it fly in the air. One night he dropped the bird instead of concealing it, and it fell onto the stage. The little girl playing opposite him looked down at it and then at the audience, totally at a loss. Luckily Freddie's comedy background kicked in and he said, 'I don't think he wants to go anywhere tonight!'
“Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban came about through Freddie's agent. He plays a talking portrait, so who says he's no oil painting?
“It brought him fan letters from all over the world, although he did say it took several days just to get 30 seconds filmed!”
Another unexpected twist in an extraordinary career — and a whole new generation who think Freddie Parrot Face is the greatest ever.
Buy Freddie Davies's autobiography Funny Bones from amazon (paperback) or direct from Scratching Shed Publishing (paperback or limited edition hardback)
For any Freddie fans who haven't come across it yet, here is the piece I wrote in June 2011 for my personal blog which led to my wor...
John Fisher, author of Funny Way to Be a Hero, biographies of Tommy Cooper and Tony Hancock and the man behind the exemplary Heroes of Co...
This is a slightly abridged version of the above article in the summer edition of The Call Boy , the magazine of the BMHS (British Music ...
As cowriter of Funny Bones I cannot pretend to be impartial, but for those who couldn't make it here are some notes on Freddie's per...
For those who couldn't make it, Freddie was on fine form at the British Music Hall Society's Day By the Sea at the Hippodrome,...
Freddie was interviewed live today by Bob Fischer of Radio Tees - it will be available on iplayer here at some point but in the meantime yo...
To the Palladium today for the Society for Theatre Research's Theatre Book Prize presentation. T hose in attendance included STR preside...
Michael Billington, writing today for the Guardian's "A book that changed me" feature, chooses Kenneth Tynan's He That ...
Not, perhaps, the most obvious chronicler of his doings, but after meeting Freddie on a cruise in 1978 Polly Toynbee came to Hastings ...
In Funny Bones I quoted an advertisement which Freddie's grandad Jack Herbert placed in The Stage. But I didn't provide the context....