My memories of working with Barry Cryer and his legacy of laughter – David Behrens

They say you should never work with your heroes, because they seldom live up to your expectations. Barry Cryer was an exception.

Barry Cryer
Barry Cryer

I don’t think there was anyone in showbusiness who didn’t like him, and the feeling was mutual. He had written shows for Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and almost every other headline act from the 1960s to the 80s, so it would have been easy for him to look down on each new wave of performers. Many of his contemporaries did just that.

But to Barry, age was just a number. You could be funny at 19 or 90, he said, and he knew instinctively who was and who wasn’t.

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Lunching with him at his local in Hatch End was a masterclass in comedy. When he spoke, you listened – not because he was overbearing but because there was nothing you could possibly say that was more interesting. He was an inveterate name-dropper but every name was from the pages of his own life. Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, JB Priestley – he’d worked with them all. When he died this week, a link to that era went with him.

Barry Cryer

Barry was about as old as I am now when we met in the 1990s, yet his CV was already a Who’s Who of showbusiness. He’d dropped out of Leeds University to go onstage at the Windmill Club in the West End, where the comics played second fiddle to the strippers. But Peter Sellers had cut his teeth there, and that was good enough for Barry. He went on to write for David Frost and to collaborate with the Pythons on shows for the Two Ronnies, before another successful partnership with Kenny Everett.

I pumped him for anecdotes about them all, and he had plenty – yet he seemed as interested in the handful of TV shows I’d made as I was in his.

It taught me an important lesson about fame: those who achieve it are often more insecure than those of us who don’t. Barry didn’t attempt to conceal this; he had always collaborated with others when he wrote – with John Junkin, David Nobbs, Graham Chapman – and he knew he’d be at his best only if they were, too.

He and Junkin once took Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise to lunch to apologise for the Christmas show they had written for them at Thames TV. “Eric and Ernie made it funnier than the script deserved,” he said.

Perhaps this collaborative streak was why he indulged me. I was his director and co-writer on a comedy quiz series called Cryer’s Crackers, in which comedians and others were shown clips from ITV’s local news archive and asked to guess what was going on. Barry’s name was in the title but he knew its success depended on teamwork.

It was the same with every other new project. He treated people he didn’t know as equals, even when, as in most cases, they were patently not. It wasn’t business acumen that made him do this; he just liked people, and people liked him back.

This was nowhere more apparent than at Yorkshire TV in his native Leeds. He’d been almost a permanent fixture there in the early 70s, when he and David Nobbs were Les Dawson’s main writers. And Barry presented the panel show Jokers Wild there.

He hadn’t been back for nearly 20 years when Cryer’s Crackers began, yet he still knew many of the people on cameras, in the offices and the costume department. They treated him as a friend, and he was. Some of them would join us at Maxi’s Restaurant, behind Kirkstall Fire Station, where Barry ate the same meal of wonton soup after each show and regaled us with stories of punchlines past.

He told us that the first gag he’d got on television, written in his London bedsit, was a one-liner for Dick Emery. “He’s sitting watching TV and his wife comes in and says there’s a man here who says he fought with you in the war – and Hitler walks in.”

Lines like that were TV’s bread and butter, and Barry could turn them out by the dozen. Yet he’d never had a plan, he insisted; he had just been dogged by good fortune.

“I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time once or twice,” he said. “If you met David Frost in those days – was that lucky, or what?”

It was false modesty, of course, though he insisted otherwise. Most of us are lucky to ever be in the right place at the right time. I know I truly was only once, and it was when I signed on to work with Barry Cryer.

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