Meet the Yorkshire-born Larry Grayson biographer who had 'most hilarious meal ever' with the comedian

Yorkshire-born Tony Nicholson has written a biography of the late comedian Larry Grayson, who he worked with on many occasions. Phil Penfold speaks to him.

He can remember the very first joke that he sold. And it earned him a tenner.

Tony Nicholson recalls that “it was for The Two Ronnies, and they used it in that slot at the end of the show, when they were behind their newsdesk. It was all about Little Jack Horner, and his encounter with Miss Muffet. On paper, it would look a bit daft, but the pay-off line was that she had her Whey with him……sorry.

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“Actually, thinking about it today, it turned out to be a nice little earner, because writers back then were given added fees when the shows were repeated, or sold elsewhere in the world, and in the end, I think that I got about sixty-four quid for it, which, in today’s terms, and with a little bit of inflation, isn’t too bad at all.”

TV star Larry Grayson with one of his young fans in Leeds in 1979.TV star Larry Grayson with one of his young fans in Leeds in 1979.
TV star Larry Grayson with one of his young fans in Leeds in 1979.

Ilkley-born Tony will be 70 in a few weeks’ time, and to celebrate, he and his wife Jackie are off on a much-anticipated safari, which is about as far away as you can get from a boyhood spent in West Yorkshire, then at Leeds University, and after that, in Hunslet – where his first job was for a dyestuff manufacturer. At night, he’d more than likely be found on stage with the amateur Ilkley Revue Group.

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“Mum and dad, as with all parents of their time, wanted me to get that vital University degree, and to do something special with my life. I’m sure that a lot of people of my era will identify with that. Well, I was rather good at chemistry when I was at school, so that was an obvious path to explore.

“And yes, I really enjoyed it. But deep down, I was fascinated by the world of entertainment. Actually, ‘fascinated’ is probably too mild. ‘Besotted’ would be a better word.

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Tony Nicholson, who has written a biography of Larry Grayson.Tony Nicholson, who has written a biography of Larry Grayson.
Tony Nicholson, who has written a biography of Larry Grayson.

“It must have started quite early on, and when I was taken to theatre performances, it was always the comedians, the ventriloquist acts and the conjurers that I loved. The dancing lasses and the acrobats did nothing for me. And those were the days of early television, when the BBC seemed to have all the huge variety shows in their Saturday night schedules.

“Who today remembers the Billy Cotton Band Show? It featured all manner of star ‘names’, and a lot of up-and-coming acts, people like Tommy Cooper, and even back then you could see that he was a complete one-off, someone special.

"My mum and dad would often go out on a Saturday night, and I’d go over to my maternal grandmother’s home, and we’d watch all these amazing shows, which all seemed too colourful and vibrant, but which were all in black and white.”

He held down the dyestuff job, but started to send off gags to the comics of the time. “Not with a great deal of success”, he admits, “because I just didn’t realise that the joke, the one-liner was in itself, not enough, you had to tailor it to the style of the specific individual. It was a lesson that took a long time to learn.”

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But he made his Ronnies breakthrough, the wheels were in motion, and Tony became a full-time researcher on TV programmes, and then a much-respected producer in his own right. He now lives on the south coast, but he still has a lot of affection for the north. “My roots are still there”, he says.

Now, he’s turned his very versatile skills to writing. He delivered the first authorised biography of Sir Ken Dodd (The Squire of Knotty Ash and his Lady) after gently persuading the widow of the late master of the tickling stick that an account of the much-missed comedian would be appreciated by his millions of fans.

“Anne was very generous indeed”, he recalls, “and she allowed me access to all kinds of material. The first thing to remember is that a biographer must feel empathy with the person about whom they are writing.

"For myself, I would find it nigh impossible to spend time getting a book together on someone that you didn’t like. So yes, there some ‘names’ who have been suggested to me, people who might be biographical subjects, but…..well, let’s just say that the ideas won’t be progressed.”

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He did, however, find that special bond with Larry Grayson – with whom Tony worked on many occasions - and Shut that Door! has just been released in paperback. It is an unrestrained account of the life of a man who was the epitome of ‘camp’, but who never openly discussed his sexual orientation.

It’s a compelling read, a story of an incredibly determined, driven, but also a very vulnerable man, who came from a complex background, was adored by his audiences, and who was at times betrayed by his behind-the-scenes team. “His was no ‘overnight success’”, says Tony, “far from it, for he spent decades plugging away, never achieving the success that he craved. But he had determination, and it paid off.

“I knew I’d struck gold in my research when I came upon Larry’s notes for an autobiography that he was obviously considering, but which he had never followed through. There it all was, the details I needed by the man himself. Yes, it is indeed what you could call ‘warts and all’, because it tells the truth, but (I hope) in a sympathetic way, and without ‘dishing the dirt’.

“I talked to one of Larry’s friends, who gave me a great deal of background – but I only had his word for some of the stories, and I felt that it would have been unfair to use them without corroboration. A biographer has to walk a very difficult tightrope on occasion.”

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Tony recalls that some of his happiest times in the production process were spent when he was involved with A Question of Entertainment, the BBC’s showbiz spin-off of A Question of Sport.

“I suggested that Tom O’Connor should be in the chair, and that the pair of regular team captains should be Larry, and Ken Dodd. I had three lunches with each of them in turn. All were very successful, but in their own way, and the one that I had with Larry turned out to be the most hilarious meal that I’ve ever had in my life.

“It was just a never-ending stream of arch gossip, laughs, and side-splitting fun. In the end, we were ejected from the hotel dining room, because we had been there for five hours, and the staff needed to re-set the tables for the dinner service.”

Who today would he love to take for a long lunch? “Two people who I met for a very short time, in very different circumstances, but whom I liked very much, and where we really got along,” he says, “Billy Connolly and Paul McCartney. A pair of extraordinary men.”

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Tony has another book coming out next month. The New Messiah is a fictional – and very perceptive – thriller set in the world of celebrity, deception and politics, and what happens when the trio explosively collide.

“It is very much about today”, he says, “and it’s all about ‘What if?’. You hear so much on the news where reality is ‘fact’, and celebrity is make-believe, but then the two seem to be welded together so tightly that you just cannot slip the slenderest of knives between them…..”

Shut that door! and A New Messiah are both published by Great Northern Books. Details at