Obituary: Barry Cryer, writer and comedian

Barry Cryer, who has died at 86, was responsible for some of the biggest laughs on TV during the second half of the 20th century – whether delivered directly or by one of the top-line comics for whom he wrote.

Barry Cryer
Barry Cryer

Barry Cryer, who has died at 86, was responsible for some of the biggest laughs on TV during the second half of the 20th century – whether delivered directly or by one of the top-line comics for whom he wrote.

During a seven-decade career, his list of clients was a veritable showbusiness encyclopaedia – from Morecambe and Wise to Bob Hope, with Kenny Everett, Tommy Cooper and the Two Ronnies in between.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

At the same time, he was a household name in his own right, hosting TV shows like Jokers Wild and appearing on the perennial Radio 4 panel game, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

“I haven’t had a career – just a series of incidents,” he was fond of saying, “I’ve just been dogged by good luck all my life.”

Born in Leeds in 1935, he was the son of John Cryer, an accountant, who died when Barry was five, and his wife, Jean. It was she who steered him towards Leeds University, but he dropped out after a year, having misspent his time, he freely admitted, chasing girls and propping up the bar.

He had already acquired a taste for comedy by making his mates at Leeds Grammar laugh, as a bulwark against bullying. And after leaving university – where he also appeared in revue at the old Leeds Empire Theatre – he set off for London to see if he could make a living at it.

He impressed the impresario Vivian Van Damm enough to secure a booking on the bottom of the bill at the Windmill Theatre, where the comedians punctuated the nude tableau shows. But Cryer’s chronic eczema, which resulted in several periods in hospital, cut short his performing career and forced him to concentrate on writing and ensemble work.

He joined the cast of the musical Expresso Bongo, with Susan Hampshire, Millicent Martin and Paul Scofield, and began writing for the TV shows of Jimmy Logan and other star comics of the day. He also became head writer and an occasional performer at Danny La Rue’s cabaret club, where Ronnie Corbett was second banana.

It was there that he and Corbett were spotted by David Frost, who asked them to work on his upcoming variety special, A Degree of Frost – Cryer as a writer, along with most of the future Pythons, and Corbett as a performer. The show’s success led to a series, The Frost Report, which ran from 1966-7 and introduced John Cleese to the nation. Frost used Cryer on a number of subsequent shows, including a sitcom for Corbett called No That’s Me Over Here, which he wrote with Graham Chapman.

At the same time, he was hosting Jokers Wild for the new Yorkshire TV franchise in his home city, with Cleese and Les Dawson among the main panellists. It was a genre Cryer was to make his own, and he went on to appear on such other panel shows as That’s Showbusiness, Blankety Blank, and What’s My Line? He also co-starred with John Junkin and Tim Brooke-Taylor in the sketch show Hello Cheeky on radio and TV, the latter version again made in Leeds.

This was while penning material for the most recognisable names in British comedy, including Mike Yarwood, Billy Connolly, Russ Abbot, Bobby Davro, Jasper Carrott, Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery, Dave Allen and Frankie Howerd.

Cryer also had a bizarre addition to his CV with a surprise number one record. The novelty song, Purple People Eater, had already been popular in 1958, but a cover version by Cryer achieved sudden success in the Nordic countries, becoming number one in Finland.

It was another serendipitous success – but Cryer’s long career was not sustained without talent and effort.

Giving advice to young comic writers, he said: “You’ll get knocked back when you start, but keep coming back. Dust yourself down and pick yourself up.

“We all had it to start with and it will happen. But the good ones survive.”

Barry Cryer is survived by his wife, the singer Theresa Donovan, known as Terry, and by their daughter, three sons, seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.