Let’s put the record straight once and for all. It’s remembered, much-loved and frequently quoted. It’s up there with the Dead Parrot sketch and it is simply, and undeniably, one of the classic comedy sketches of all time. But if you ask who first brought it to life, most people would say Monty Python. Right?
Wrong. The Four Yorkshiremen, each trying to outdo each other’s miseries and hardships was actually first seen in an edition of At Last the 1948 Show, in the late Sixties. And the performers were Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Marty Feldman and Graham Chapman.
“None of us,” says Brooke-Taylor with a wry grin, “were Yorkshiremen!” All contributed to the writing, to a greater or lesser degree, as did Leeds-born Barry Cryer, who, in the original TV outing of the skit, plays the part of the wine waiter. And doesn’t say a word.
It’s a lovely sunny afternoon, and the location is Tim’s home, just down the road from Cookham, in leafy Berkshire. We’ve got past the niceties of an initial cup of tea (made by Tim’s wife Christine – they’ve been married now for nearly 50 years, and have two sons and several grandchildren) and we’ve got to the point where he’s pouring himself a second glass of chilled rosé wine, and I’m still savouring a very agreeable large vodka and tonic. All very civilised. By the time Tim gets to appear at the York Comedy Festival, where he’ll be performing the Yorkshiremen parody once again, he’ll have turned 75. But he’s spry, chipper and working as hard as ever.
He’s just back from a series of recordings for the new strand of Radio 4’s ratings-topper I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue (one of which was before an excitable packed-out audience in Sheffield’s City Hall) he’s playing alongside Christine in a charity golf match on the day after we meet, and later in the week he’s doing an opening for a branch of Relate, and speaking at a prize-giving at a local school. Let’s get that Yorkshire sketch settled then – does it rile him that it is wrongly attributed? “Oh good God, no. I’m amazed and delighted that it has had such a long shelf life, to be honest with you. That others have done it, and embellished it a little, and that people still find it funny, that’s amazing. I’m hugely grateful. And even more grateful that, when the Python team did it again at their O2 gig recently, they even paid me a small royalty for the privilege. It won’t pay for a cruise around the world, but it might buy a few more bottles of rosé! And they also gave me a credit, as well, which was even more gratifying.”
The bizarre thing is that, given the huge popularity of At Last the 1948 Show – it dominated the evening’s viewing – nearly every telecine tape of it was wiped clean. “They just wiped it, cleaned it all off, and used the tape again,” says Tim. “Rather ruthless recycling, don’t you think?” Fortunately, and with a lot of detective work, some copies, and parts of the shows, were found in various archives around the world, and you can still see the original in its restored black and white glory.
Tim’s career in comedy – as a writer and a performer – has always been as part of a team. “I love group comedy,” he says, “always have done. I think that one of my earliest memories was listening to Take it From Here, which I found really funny, and brilliantly observant. I like hearing people bouncing off each other with their ideas. I’m now a huge fan of BBC Radio 4 Extra, which relies almost entirely on archive material from the BBC’s comedy and drama vaults. And some of the comedy – shows like Round the Horne – is as fresh and as funny today as ever it was. It still has me in tucks. To the point where if I’m shaving in the morning and it’s on, I simply cannot continue safely, I’m laughing so much.
“I’m not, if I’m honest, that engaged by a lot of today’s stand-up comedians. But every now and then I see something that is truly original, and someone who has the ‘wow factor’. One of the many reasons why I still love doing Haven’t a Clue – we started that in 1972, can you believe it? – is that it is such a team effort. People who were tuning in 40 years and more ago are now bringing their children and grandchildren with them to the recordings. I think that we’re up there with Desert Island Discs, The Archers and The Shipping Forecast as one of Radio 4’s longest-runners. People know what to expect. And, hopefully, we deliver it to their satisfaction.”
He lets the cat out of the bag – a little – when he reveals that yes, the teams do know something about the subjects that chairman Jack Dee will throw at them.
“But it is only a little something,” he says. “You do prepare – and that’s the hardest slog of the lot. The thing is that you have a little list in your mind of your answers, but if one of the others has thought of the same thing, and they get there first, you are well and truly scuppered. It is, literally, living on your wits.
“But I love it, because it takes us to different towns and cities, and you meet delightful people, and we all have a very convivial meal afterwards….what’s not to enjoy?”
Tim was born and raised in Buxton, and his family have both Derbyshire and Yorkshire roots. But it was not, apparently, an auspicious educational start for the young Tim Brooke-Taylor, who was expelled from his primary school.
“I wasn’t even six years old, for Pete’s sake, and my friend Robert and I were the only two boys in an all-girls school. And they didn’t know how to handle lads. When it was time for the school’s Brownie pack to turn out on a Thursday, we were Brownies as well. It didn’t help that one of our teachers was called Miss Mellon, which Robert and I turned into ‘Miss Smellon’, which was very naughty of us, but which we thought was the epitome of humour. When we were ‘asked to leave’, as I prefer to put it, I think Robert was the one who got the biggest stick from his parents – his dad was the head of the local grammar school.”
That minor early setback didn’t hinder Tim’s progress through Winchester College and then on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read economics, politics and law.
“I was far more interested in what was going on in the Footlights drama club. That was the fork in the road of my life,” he says. One of their revues was so successful that it transferred to the West End, and then toured to New Zealand and Broadway, and from there it seemed to be an effortless glide into radio, starting with I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, in which, more often than not, Tim played the screeching harridan Lady Constance de Coverlet. Then in 1970, came The Goodies, in which Tim, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie rollicked their way through surreal adventures. Who can forget that indelible image, of the King Kong kitten hanging on to the top of the BT Tower in central London?
The Goodies lasted for nine series and 76 programmes in all – very few of which have ever been repeated. Which is a sore point for each of the trio.
“If they have been screened again, they’ve been at something like midnight on a Christmas Eve, and the BBC then say ‘Really poor ratings, chaps…’ What on earth do they expect? I think Australian TV had the right idea. When they ran them over there, they put The Goodies on at tea-time, back to back with Dr Who. Result. Ah well….”
He’s been Rector of the University of St Andrews, toured with hit plays, appeared many times in successful West End runs, he’s written books, made several well-received sitcoms, and he even made a film with the legendary Orson Welles.
“Actually,” Tim corrects gently, “there were two. The first was called One Man Band, which was never completed or released, and the second was called The Thirteen Chairs, which we made in Rome, with a lot of Italian film stars.” He even had an albeit uncredited cameo in the film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“It’s amazing, the places I pop up”, he chuckles.
And so we go on. Story follows story, anecdote and observation. May I go to the loo before leaving? Of course. And in the downstairs facility you find all Tim’s awards, gold records, citations and the rest. “Well,” says Tim, as he drives me back to the local station, “You have to find a space to put them somewhere, don’t you?”
• Tim Brooke-Taylor will be in conversation with Robert Ross today as part of the Great Yorkshire Fringe in York. For more details visit www.greatyorkshirefringe.co.uk