Five years ago I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours in the presence of comedy legend Roy Hudd at his home in Suffolk.
Here’s what he told me for a couple of features in TakeOne newspaper.
Roy Hudd OBE has featured on stage and screen in seven decades. Still going strong just short of his 80th birthday, he is putting on a one-man show at Bury St Edmunds in March.
Music hall’s hey-day was from Victorian times until about 1960 but that legendary humour created a virtual mine of laughter, which comedians have been digging into ever since.
Whether you loved Les Dawson and his ilk in the 1970s or fall about laughing to Peter Kay and company in the current era, they can all trace their laughter roots and observational comedy to the giants of the music hall.
And those iconic days are being recreated at Bury’s Theatre Royal on Saturday, March 26, when Roy Hudd’s Very Own Music Hall, a one-man show, hits town.
The Suffolk-based legend is putting on a sparkling evening of songs and stories that will transport you through time as he shares the stories, jokes and monologues, sings the songs and bedazzles you with the secrets and scandals of the great stars.
A raconteur of note, a comedian with perfect timing, and a versatile singer and actor, he will be offering an evening of top entertainment, telling the tale of music hall, with pianist William Godfree.
“Even though it’s about the history of music hall, I still make it topical,” said Roy. “The prize I offered at the opening date at Guildford was a session with Donald Trump’s hairdresser!”
The history of music hall is a passion of Roy’s, whose home in Crowfield, near Needham Market, is a virtual museum to the history of the genre.
“There’s thousands of items here,” said Roy. “It’s a collection of stuff I’ve collected over the past 50 years. There’s loads of posters, programmes, music, song sheets, photographs and records of theatres.
“When music hall started, people would knock the government of the day with topical jokes and comments.
“Even in the 1830s there were gags just as cutting as anything we did on the News Huddlines.”
News Huddlines was the BBC Radio show led by Roy, which ran for 26 years, winning a string of awards.
“Robb Wilton was my hero and Les Dawson took such a lot from him. The Cissie and Ada characters he did with Roy Barraclough were a tribute to Norman Evans – brilliant!”
“Nowadays, Peter Kay is such a great observationalist and makes me laugh. He is a throwback to Robb Wilton, talking about family life, and another of his forerunners was Al Read. There are a lot of similarities.
“We do miss Tommy Cooper, there’s no one like him any more. There are no true eccentrics about. The best we have is Doddy (Ken Dodd). He is still a success with brilliant lines from his machine-like brain. He’s still sharp as a tack at 88 and is original and topical.
“The new comics coming through now do appreciate Doddy’s timing and topical gags and many cite him as an influence but he learned his craft in music halls.”
While Roy recognises the talents of many of today’s comedy stars, he does think many are very similar in style.
“The older comics were all so different,” he said, listing who he would love to have if money was no object and he could recreate a music hall show for today.
“Peter Kay would have to be in it and Paul Merton is a great ad-libber. He’s so quick-witted and I love to watch him.
“Johnny Casson is very old school but it doesn’t matter if his audience is 17 or 78, he’s the complete comic.
“I like what Victoria Wood does. She’s not about knocking others, she sees things that only women see.”
But pride of place would be reserved for Roy’s friend of many years and co-star on the News Huddlines, June Whitfield.
“She had to have three parties for her 90th birthday last year,” said Roy. “If she’d have had one, it would have filled the O2, she’s still so popular.”
Apart from some musical interludes, Roy would not see the need for a compere and admitted only one person could have done that role anyway.
“The only true presenter I had time for was Terry Wogan – a terrifically smashing bloke. He was just so nice, a genuinely lovely fellow; one of the best interviewers ever. He never had notes to work from but always did his homework.
“He’d just encourage you to talk about you and what you liked to talk about. His only desire was to make you talk about something interesting and, if the interviewee couldn’t do that, he’d make them seem interesting. Wogan was a lot wiser than people gave him credit for.”
As for Roy himself, he is still keeping as busy as ever, despite hitting 80 in May. He is entering his 59th year in show business, after starting in 1958 as a Butlin’s Redcoat, working alongside Cliff Richard and Dave Allen – although in those days they were known as Harry Webb and David O’Mahony.
Roy’s passport states he is an actor but he really is an all-round entertainer, who also lists comedian, playwright, author, historian, singer, charity worker and columnist among his other ‘jobs’.
“Like a lot of my peers, I just take work as it comes along,” he said.
“You don’t try to get into all these different things – something comes along and if you’re interested in it you do it – you might not get asked again! I love the variety of different things.
“I came into showbiz at the end of music hall so just did what ever came along.”
And he is still doing that. In recent months he has had parts in TV shows Benidorm and the Dad’s Army Story, and is also still a member of the Coronation Street cast, albeit not having appeared since he made his 117th appearance in the soap opera in 2010.
“They never killed me off so there’s still the chance of a return,” he said of his role as undertaker Archie Shuttleworth.
Roy enjoyed his time on the Street and said the actors there were great comedians as well.
“Anne Kirkbride was such a funny lady, as are Barbara Knox and Eileen Derbyshire.
“At the rehearsal for Mike Baldwin’s funeral, Anne put a fart machine in the coffin, which went off at the most inopportune time and had us all in stitches.
“Then, when the ambulance came to take Maxine Peacock away to give birth to her baby, the fire brigade were flooding the other end of the set ready for the next scene. As soon as Anne saw what was happening, she said ‘Ay oop, it’s too late, her water’s have broken already’.”
But it is The News Huddlines that offer the fondest memories for Roy.
“It was open to anyone to send in jokes and many great talents came from that initial gag we used. It was a route into comedy script writing that no longer exists and that is a real shame.
“The likes of Dougie Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Andy Hamilton and Peter Spence (To The Manor Born) started with us.
“Some of the jokes were submitted on the day of broadcast. Listeners would sometimes say I laughed too much when I was reading them but it genuinely was quite often the first time I had heard them!
“Laurie Rowley, a plumber from Leeds, was a perfect example. He sent us one joke, we commissioned some more and he went on to write for the Two Ronnies and Not The Nine o’Clock News.
“He wrote some great one-liners for us and once asked me if he should give up his day job to concentrate on comedy.
“Ever the cautious one, I told him it was best to keep it on and to do the jokes as a nice little sideline. But when he got his first royalty cheque for Not the Nine o’Clock News he told me it would take years for him to earn that kind of money from ballcocks, so went full-time.
“Huddlines delivered real belly laughs. It was a great adventure and so close to real music hall humour. It’s a shame the BBC decided not to keep it going.”
But now, Roy is looking forward to treading the boards again and said: “It’s a little while since I’ve toured but the good things about this tour of one-night stands is that every night is opening night and gets a different audience every time.”
Next up is his first appearance at the Theatre Royal in Bury since he closed it down.
“The last time I played there, I really did close it. It was shut the next day for refurbishment!”
Life in Suffolk suits veteran entertainer Roy Hudd just fine
He is one of several stars of screen and stage who have made their home in the TakeOne circulation area and become part of their local community.
For Roy, that is Crowfield, near Debenham, where he is happy to namedrop that he bought his house 11 years ago from Roger Moore – no, not that one – and Sir Alf Ramsay’s niece lives nearby – yes that one!
“We’re very happy here and Crowfield is a lovely community,” said Roy, who lives in a home converted from three cottages, with his wife Debbie, two dogs – Joan and Bella – chickens Arthur & Martha, Girt & Daisy, plus numerous ducks and squirrels.
“The people here are so friendly and really go out of their way to be helpful.
“When we first moved in, we were asked if we wanted to do a display for the church flower festival. To be honest, we didn’t have a clue what they were on about and politely declined.
“However, when we discovered what it was all about, people arranging flowers to a theme and filling the church with delightful blooms, we thought we’d join in.
“Unfortunately, we were too late to get an official slot and our flower arranging skills aren’t the best.
“The theme that year was ‘my favourite book’. So, we got the largest terracotta pot we could find, put in three huge stakes and carried the whole thing up to put in the vestibule the night before the festival started. In the middle of the pot, we put the tiniest plant and our sign read ‘Great Expectations’. That seemed to go down well!”
Roy is now an integral part of village life and said: “I heard they were short of funds for a village sign so put on my show in the village hall to help raise the rest as a thank-you for the way we’ve been accepted.”
Roy also ensures the village fete always has a celebrity to open it.
“I’ve been a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, for 40 years so knew I had a few friends I could call on.
“I did the first one and since then we’ve had June Whitfield, Melvyn Hayes (It Ain’t Half Hot), Graham Cole (The Bill), Freddie Jones (Emmerdale – also Toby’s dad), Rick Wakeman, Pam Cundell (Dad’s Army), Lynda Baron (Open All Hours), Charlie Haylock and Steve Hewlett, the ventriloquist on Britain’s Got Talent.”
But Roy confesses Suffolk was not his first choice for home – or even on the couple’s list as they had never been to the county before seeing the house.
“We’d had some nice holidays on the Norfolk Broads and looked round there for somewhere to live but it was just a little bit too far to London for shows.
“But the area kept coming back as a place to live and I got talking to Percy Edwards, a fellow Water Rat. He knew I loved wildlife and animals and said we should go and visit Suffolk – it would be right up my street.
“Then Debbie found this place on the internet.
“We came to look and all I saw was two and a half rooms before I said I could live here – I’d not even seen the pond and the moated woodland behind!
“It is perfect for us – well, it is now that Debbie has sorted out the building work and alterations that needed doing.”
The idyllic setting, just off the beaten track that is the A1120 Tourist Route linking Stowmarket with the A12 near Southwold, has distant views to the front with a pond, woodland and church behind.
It also means the Hudds can still enjoy holidays to Norfolk.
“We still love to holiday on the Broads, especially out of season. Some of the boats are amazing – one had a four-poster bed in it!”
As for Suffolk, they are still discovering much about their adoptive county.
“We’re still exploring and will often turn off a side road and there’ll be something delightful to find,” said Roy.
“We use the village shops in Coddenham and Stowupland and for the big shop pop into Tesco at Stowmarket.
“We’ve really got into the laid-back way of life here.”
Roy’s own Suffolk Huddlines:
Orford – boat trips on the Lady Nightingale, delicious food cooked in the tiniest galley.
Woodbridge – Love the cinema there.
Stowmarket – The Regal Theatre is excellent
Aldburgh – It is a delightful town
Beccles – The Public Hall has got so much character
Needham Market – The town has everything but isn’t spoiled by big shops and I love walking the dogs at the lake.
These features first appeared in TakeOne newspaper