‘I remember playing a place in Liverpool once. They are all great hecklers in Liverpool and they can give you a bit of stick. I was on stage saying there’s a lot of crime about and someone shouted, Yeah! and how much are you getting?’
Col Howarth of Stand Up For Comedy met living legend and national treasure Jimmy Cricket on the eve of his 50th year in the business.
The closest I’d been to the role of comedy promoter so far in my short time doing stand-up. Friday 26th June 2015. I’d made the link with a fantastic venue: the beautifully restored Art Deco Penarth Pier Pavilion.
The remit was to put on their first comedy show since opening just over a year ago, and mid-Wales-based promoter Owen Griffkin had recommended the legend that is Jimmy Cricket having hosted a couple of recent events with him in Powys.
For the venue, it was a no-brainer. The local audience would know exactly who the great man was, and that the venue was situated on a pier made it especially fitting, bringing with it connotations of family holidays by the seaside and a welcome air of nostalgia. With myself as MC and the amazing Dan Mitchell in support, such an event would hit a personal milestone.
When I was a kid, Jimmy Cricket was a television staple. He was one of the biggest names in entertainment. He was the John Bishop, the Michael McIntyre, the Peter Kay of his day. He achieved all the things that so many aspiring comics dream of and then do at their peak: at the very least, success in their chosen field, but at best, filling out theatres up and down the country time-and-time again, and doing television work by the bucket-load.
Jimmy had a four-series run of his own show And There’s More between 1985-1988 (the first series gave Rory Bremner his TV debut). He appeared on numerous Royal Gala and Royal Variety Shows and had his own BBC Radio 2 series Jimmy’s Cricket Team.
In 1987, age 42, he appeared on This is Your Life thus cementing his status as a national treasure in the eyes of the British public. 2016 will mark 50 years since Jimmy took to the stage as a Red Coat at the age of 19 at Butlins in Mosney, County Meath in Northern Ireland.
‘I grew up in Belfast so I was doing talent competitions. I was doing a mime act actually when I started out. I had a couple of friends and we had an old Grundig tape deck, and we did lots of 60s things like Mick Jagger and My Boy Lollipop. Anything that was on the minute. We put them together and spliced them so we did a bit of a mime act.
‘Then I went to Butlins to become a Red Coat in Mosney. There was a theatre show every week. I’d be like Uncle Jimmy with the kids, and then you helped with sports and then you organised games and quizzes, but when you did the Red Coat show they gave you five minutes, and that was very very important. Your first five minutes in a big theatre with an orchestra. It was great.’
In 1967 Jimmy worked at holiday camps in England, doing more live shows, learning his craft as he went, and taking his inspiration from the performers around him. From Clacton in 67/68, he then did the (Butlins-owned) Grand Metropole Hotel in Blackpool in 1969.
‘That was around the time the troubles started in Ireland so I was back and forth a lot. But as I built my name in the clubs I used to go over and do pantomime which I did throughout the troubles. Northern Ireland has been a great place for me. I recently went over and did a (BBC Northern Ireland) Stephen Nolan television show (Nolan Live), and next month we’re going back.
'Next February I’ll do a tour with some of the comics that are still famous in Northern Ireland. Frank Carson, Roy Walker and I actually came over, but there are some great comics that stayed. There’s three comics I actually tour with and everybody knows them and loves them there. They probably couldn’t travel as they are very parochial. One is John Linehan who does this Belfast housewife act. It is quite broad so it might not adapt.’
In fact the You Must Be Joking tour, which reunited Jimmy and John with William Caulfield and Gene Fitzpatrick, kicked off at a sold out Grand Opera House in Belfast. Jimmy’s influences include the likes of Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and a host of other comics that he grew up watching at the London Palladium.
‘I also liked a lot of the American comics at the time. Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin. A lot of my idols I actually know now. Cannon and Ball are big friends. Ken Dodd’s a big friend. I’m going to see The Krankies who have done a lot of good stuff. I did a pantomime once in 1999 in Glasgow, and I was Jiminy Cricket would you believe! Jeanette played Pinocchio with the nose, and Iain was Geppetto!’
So these influences came out of a scene that we wouldn’t be so familiar with now. The circuit has changed a great deal. Did Jimmy have to work the club scene? What was it like?
‘It was still your standard, traditional gag, one-liner gag stuff.
‘Those clubs spawned a lot of good comics: Gary Wilmott, Joe Longthorne, Johnny Carson, Stan Boardman. A lot of guys who are still going strong. It was a great era. Obviously it tapered off and things move on, but if you still love what you do then there’s still a market for you.’
So what keeps you doing it 50 years on?
‘I just love the buzz. I just love to hear them laughing. As Mrs Cricket says I was just zapped for it really. I love working on it. I’m a ham. I rehearse and write all the time. It’s an ongoing thing. I try to keep things exciting for them. And it’s changed a lot for me. Really good shows mean you can book back. It’s a repeat order. It’s building hearts and minds so that you can go back.
I’m playing Pontins tomorrow night and it will be the third year, and then I’m doing a tour with the Osmonds who are coming over to do a Christmas Show in December. You need a clean comic for them. That’ll be 15 dates all over the country so I’m really looking forward to that. Panto‘s a good time for me as well.’
Jimmy also has a DVD Pull Your Seats Forward, recorded live at the Royal Court Theatre in Bacup, of which he has sold thousands of copies.
‘That was all my own work and my own company. When you do your own thing, and you write it. In fact, I actually sold my own tickets for the thing. But I said, once I’d paid for the cameras, anything left over would go to a hospice. So we paid £3000 for the cameras and still had £2000 to give to the hospice.’
Having met Jimmy on the night of the show, this would not appear to be an isolated example of his generosity. In fact, it is fair to say that Jimmy and his wife May (married for 42 years) are entirely generous souls. Both chatted with the audience before and after the show, thanking them for being there. He posed for as many photos as his audience wanted, and on the night, whilst he was booked to perform 45 minutes tops, he stayed on for a further 30!
His audience loved him, and by the end of the show they were whooping and cheering for him. Pun for pun, his set was packed as he delivered a masterclass, informed by all of those 50 years’ experience. Then he sat patiently with me and reminisced about his career, without once calling time. And all that following a killer 8-hour crawl through horrendous traffic to get to Penarth in South Wales, from his home in the North West of England.
So what‘s next for Jimmy?
‘I’ve written a couple of musicals and that’s an exciting thing. I’m hoping to get one away which will be a good vehicle for me. The music would come in, you’d have actors around you, you would act a role, and I’d be playing a comic, so pretty much an excuse to do stand-up as well.
‘You’ve always got to have fresh ideas. This one is called Maloney’s Big Moment and it’s a true story I read about ex-pats in a town in Spain. They elected one of their own to be a councillor and when the mayor of this town was actually caught taking bribes, he was relieved of his duties. Then they found out the deputy was too, and then another three or four councillors. So he was the last one there and he ended up becoming mayor. I think its teeming with comic possibilities. I’ve workshopped it in a nice theatre and I’ve got friends who are actors who just come and do it. We did a profit-share. We did three nights in a theatre. We split what came through and I just didn’t want to lose out. But I ended up losing because I forgot about the VAT! So they got me!’
For more information, news and show dates visit: www.jimmycricket.co.uk
Col Howarth and Jimmy Cricket
Penarth Pier Pavilion