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Crying with laughter

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Barry Charles Cryer, OBE (23 March 1935 - 25 January 2022)

A legend of British comedy who wrote for some of the great performers of the century and also sustained a prolific career as as a stand up who became famous for his performances on BBC Radio 4's "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" was always very coy about revealing the secret behind his success.

"Analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog," he once said. "Nobody laughs and the frog dies."

Cryer was born in Leeds, Yorkshire. His father died when he was just five years old and his elder brother was away with the Merchant Navy, so Cryer was raised by his mother. He attended Leeds Grammar School and went on to study English literature at the University of Leeds. His dedication to a rather impressive social life with female students led to a disastrous round of first year exams and he quit his course. Cryer had appeared in the University revue and was offered a week working at the Leeds Variety Theatre. His work there caught the attention of impresario Vivian Van Damm and he travelled to London to perform a the bottom of the bill at the Windmill Theatre in a comedy variety show interspersed with nude tableaus.

Unfortunately during this time he developed severe eczema and he was released from his contract. While in hospital he began writing comedy and unable to perform, he started to to realise this could provide the income he needed.

He began work as a scriptwriter at Danny La Rue's nightclub where he became friends with Ronnie Corbett and met his future wife, Theresa, known as Terry, who was a dancer there. "I met my wife and Ronnie Corbett on the same day," he once quipped. "I tossed a coin and married her." They tied the knot in 1962.

In 1957, Cryer became an unlikely music star after recording a novelty song with the cast of the musical Express Bongo. The song, The Purple People Eater, originally written and performed by Sheb Wooley had a contractual issue regarding release in Scandinavia so Cryer's version was released instead and topped the charts in Finland.

It was on one of his occasional appearances at Danny La Rue's nightclub that he was spotted by David Frost who invited him to join the writing team on The Frost Report which was first broadcast in 1966. He was then working with names that were to become universally known in the world of comedy - John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Ronnie Barker and Marty Feldman. Cryer actually appeared as the waiter in the original 1967 TV performance of The Four Yorkshiremen sketch.

Cryer was a superstar writer throughout the seventies. His talents were highly sought after and the chances are, if you are a fan of seventies British comedy, you have almost certainly laughed at one of his jokes. He wrote for the Morecambe Wise Show and by this time was an established part of the writing and performing team on Radio Four "I'm Sorry I haven't A Clue". His material was employed by Dave Allen, Les Dawson, Frankie Howard and Kenny Everett, amongst others. He was also one of the main writers for The Two Ronnies. Throughout his career, he would also go onto write for Billy Connolly, Russ Abbot, Bobby Davro, Dick Emery and Jasper Carrott.

As young and emerging talent preferred to use their own material, Cryer returned to the stage to tour and even had success as the presenter of ITV quiz show Jokers Wild and starred in the 1978 mock documentary All You Need is Cash about Beatles spoof band The Ruttles. His touring show Two Old Farts in the Night with comedian Willie Rushton continued until Rushton's death in 1996. His autobiography You Won't Believe This But...: was published that same year.

His work on "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" is possibly serve as his greatest legacy, a timeless and delightful English sense of humour. Surreal silliness at it's best. The "game" of Mornington Crescent has mystified foreigners for generations.

In 2001 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and in 2013 he was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Arts by Leeds Metropolitan University. In that same year, the Yorkshire Post asked him for his favourite joke. He responded : “A man drives down a country lane and runs over a cockerel. He knocks at a nearby farmhouse door and a woman answers.

“‘I appear to have killed your cockerel,’ he says. ‘I’d like to replace it.’ The woman replies: ‘Please yourself – the hens are round the back’.”

Cryer's family released a short statement :

“It is our sad duty to inform you that our dear dad Barry (or Baz to his mates) died on Tuesday afternoon at Northwick Park hospital, in Harrow. However, we’re pleased to say that he died peacefully, in good spirits and with his family around him. He was 86.

“Dad was a talented comedy writer and comedian in a particularly golden vintage. Incidentally he never really liked the terms ‘comedy writer’ or ‘comedian’ instead preferring hack and entertainer, and always thought the term ‘national treasure’ meant he’d just been dug up. He was, in his words, arrogant in his humility …

“Baz was, firstly, a loving husband to Terry for nearly 60 years and a gentle father to Tony, David, Jack, Bob. He was a friend to their partners Jayne, Matt, Garry and Suzannah. As a grandfather Ruby, Tom, Evan, Archie, Hope, Martha and Connie all loved him and more recently, Ruby’s daughter, Isobel, had the good fortune to spend time with him as a great-grandfather.”

Cryer insisted “I haven’t had a career, just a series of incidents. I’ve been dogged by good luck all my life.”

Enjoy an introduction to Barry Cryer's best bits here:

If you are not familiar with "I'm Sorry I haven't A Clue" there is an impressive playlist of shows compiled on YouTube here. A truly wonderful example of the surreal and rapid wit that is so quintessentially English you would think it is a parody of itself. A timeless and wonderful gift of laughter.

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