Art and culture can sometimes make for unlikely bedfellows like, for instance, Barry Cryer’s friendship with the great JB Priestley.
As Cryer explains, it was a friendship born out of happenstance and perhaps not surprisingly for a man dubbed an “anecdote jukebox”, it comes with a story.
“I was working with Graham Chapman and we were having a very good lunch one day and he said, ‘you’re a bore on the subject of JB Priestley.’ I apologised and he said, ‘ring him,’ and I said, ‘what are you talking about, I don’t have his number.’ Then I remembered a woman called Wendy at Yorkshire Television had done a documentary with him and it all clicked into place.”
He got the number and rang Priestley’s home. “A woman answered the phone, I later found out it was the cleaner, and I said ‘is Mr Priestley in?’ There was utter silence and then a few moments later this voice said ‘hello, who’s that?’ I said ‘my name’s Barry Cryer.’ ‘Is it indeed, I’ve heard you on the wireless,’ and I floated away on a pink cloud.”
Cryer asked if he and his friend could meet him for tea. “He said ‘who’s your mate?’ And I said ‘Graham Chapman’ and straight in he said ‘Monty Python?’ It turned out he was a big fan of Monty Python and he said ‘next Monday and I’ll have you know I’m giving up me walk.’
“The night before at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, Python were doing their very first stage show and I was going and Alveston outside Stratford-upon-Avon, where the Priestleys lived, wasn’t too far away so we booked a car and John Cleese came along too. Priestley greeted us quite warmly and he and Graham started about tobacco because they both smoked pipes, and we talked and talked. Then this dummy bookcase opened and Jacquetta his wife came out. She’d been listening just in case they were being stitched up for This Is Your Life,” Cryer says, with a chuckle.
He and Priestley became friends and remained so until the Bradford-born writer’s death in 1984. “Meeting an idol can be very worrying because the fear is they won’t live up to your expectations but he certainly did.”
Leeds-born Cryer is back in Yorkshire this weekend when he will be discussing Priestley’s legacy at the Ilkley Literature Festival with Sophie Fyson, the daughter of Rosie Batten who was Priestley’s personal secretary for the last 16 years of his life.
As with their first encounter, Cryer’s admiration for Priestley’s books came about by chance. “We were on holiday years ago in St Ives and I was in a bookshop and bought a copy of The Good Companions. That was the holiday gone. I just sat on the beach and devoured it and from then I bought his books wherever I could find them. I must have his complete canon in my study.”
It was Priestley’s characters that he, like many readers, was drawn to. “They run with the plot and you’re taken along with them, he was superb at creating characters. And it’s not just his novels, his plays were equally astonishing,” he says, “Some critics could be quite sniffy about him saying he was too popular, as if a popular writer couldn’t be that good.”
Cryer was born in Leeds and brought up by his mother. “My dad died when I was five and my brother was in the Merchant Navy so it was just the two of us for most of the time,” he says.
A bright child, he went to Leeds Grammar School before going on to study English literature at the city’s university. By this time he was involved in student shows which revolved around song and dance routines with a scattering of jokes thrown in for a laugh.
He initially wanted to get a job in newspapers and applied for a job at The Yorkshire Post. “I had some half-baked idea of becoming a journalist and I had an interview with Linton Andrews, who was the editor at the time, and he was delightful and we talked and he said words to the effect, ‘We want someone in the office making the tea and learning the game on the inside, and we also want somebody who’s been out in the world and got some experience, and you’re stuck in the middle. And I walked out his office thinking ‘oh boy I’ve failed.’”
He went down to London with a 17-day return rail ticket hoping to get a job in showbusiness. “I thought I’d be going back to Leeds with my tail between my legs and the day before the ticket ran out I got an audition at the Windmill Theatre. I auditioned in the morning and got the job and I was on stage doing my routine by 12.15.”
It was a gruelling schedule. “I was doing six shows a day, six days a week. What a school that was. I met a man called Bruce Forsyth – he was top of the bill and I was bottom of the bill and we became mates.”
He then got a job writing for Danny La Rue which, in turn, led to his big break. “David Frost came in one night and I met him afterwards and that’s how I got to write for The Frost Report. That was a big deal because writing for The Frost Report opened doors for you.”
It certainly did for Cryer who has worked with some of the biggest names in British comedy. “I’ve been dogged by good luck all my life,” he jokes.
Cryer and his writing partner John Junkin went on to write for Morecambe and Wise and cherishes the memories. “You were like a tailor making suits and you had to fit them to match the clients. We always say there’s a sitter and a walker if there’s two writers and John would go round the room wagging his glasses being Eric and I’d sit scribbling or typing at the table.
“My favourite memory with them was when the great Vera Lynn was a guest. Eric Morecambe said to John and me, ‘it would be funny if Vera doesn’t know we want her to sing,’ and walked away and left us with the idea. John came up with it not me and it worked a treat. Ernie very effusively introduces ‘Vera Lynn’ and the audience applaud. ‘What are you going to sing for us?’ and Vera played her part perfectly. ‘Sing? I thought I was just a guest?’ Ernie’s in panic mode now and Eric says, ‘come here, sunshine’, and they go over to their camera, ‘what’s going on?’ Ernie says, ‘Vera doesn’t know we want her to sing. How can we get her to sing?’ And Eric replies, ‘short of starting another war, I’ve no idea…” says Cryer, laughing.
Despite working with such comic luminaries, he says he didn’t feel the pressure of expectation. “I was really enjoying it and you’re not alone. I always wrote in partnerships so you had someone to bang ideas about with. There was a whole gang of us and I had some great partners.”
Even now at the age of 83, Cryer still heads to the Edinburgh Fringe each year and is a regular guest on radio panel shows like I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. “I couldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I was up in Edinburgh and groaning about the journey and then you get on the stage and you perk up. Ken Dodd said towards the end of his life ‘when I get on the stage I feel like I’m 32’... and I know what he means.”
Barry Cryer will be discussing JB Priestley with Sophie Fyson at Kings Hall, Ilkley, on Sunday at 2pm. Tickets cost £14. For further details, visit www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk