Roy Hudd: ‘I decided I should really have a go at a dame before I snuff it’
If you could bottle Roy Hudd’s energy and sell it over the counter, we’d all live to be 120. Interviewing the convivial 79-year-old actor-writer-comedian is like trying to board a high-speed train after it has left the station, such is the rapid outpouring of his anecdotage.
In the space of five minutes, I’m treated to a whistle-stop ride on the Hudd Express, taking in memories from playing Fagin in Oliver! and comedy timing according to the great Ted Ray, to Marcel Marceau’s one-man version of A Christmas Carol, the young Spike Milligan’s turn at the Croydon Empire and his old friend Billy Dainty’s advice about playing, or rather not playing, a dame.
“Never go into skirts, son,” Dainty apparently told Hudd on a number of occasions. “If you’re halfway decent, you’re stuck with it for life.”
So when Frances Mayhew, former director of the newly renovated Wilton’s Music Hall, invited Hudd to write and star in the venue’s first ever pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, what role did he choose for himself? You guessed it.
“I decided I should really have a go at a dame before I snuff it,” he explains with a chuckle. The director, his wife Debbie Flitcroft, younger by 22 years, gave him the go-ahead. “She was confident I’d be able to handle it. I’m very fit, you see.”
He is quick to point out that this Dick Whittington will definitely not be not be a bells-and-whistles affair with a succession of evermore elaborate costumes. “My role model for Sarah the Cook is Mrs Shufflewick, for those who remember her. My favourite dame of all time, Jack Tripp, never bothered with all those fancy costumes, so I shall just have one or two changes of costume. It saves on the washing, love.”
In an illustrious career spanning more than half a century, panto was a regular fixture for decades and more often than not he partnered Jack Tripp’s dame, playing Idle Jack, Buttons or the equivalent role. “I just loved appearing on stage with Jack, he was the greatest. He had a direct line to the music hall. I learnt so much from him. We rejigged a lot of the routines he had learnt in his youth for a new generation.”
Q&A: Roy Hudd
What was your first non-theatre job? A window dresser in Bromley.
What was your first professional theatre job? Appearing in a variety show at the Nuffield Centre, a social club for the forces.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Not to spend all the money I earned, to save more.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My gran, who loved a laugh.
If you hadn’t been an entertainer, what would you have been? A commercial artist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Yes. I have to have a photograph of Dan Leno on my dressing-room table.
That connection to the past, and in particular to music hall, has informed so much of Hudd’s work over the years, from recreating performers such as Max Miller and Bud Flanagan on stage, to such television roles as Archie Shuttleworth, the undertaker, in Coronation Street, and Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
He owes his lifelong love of comedy performers to his grandmother, Alice, who took the young Hudd along to the Croydon Empire to see variety greats such as Max Miller and Randolph Sutton, as well as the up-and-coming comics such as Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers.
“We could only afford to sit up in the gods,” he recalls. “My gran adored the comics. Max Miller was the greatest with the audience. He was so charismatic. I remember her pointing out to me when he walked on stage that the first thing he always did was to look up at the gods and address his opening remarks to us. I doubt I would have gone into showbusiness if it hadn’t been for my gran’s enthusiasm for it. Her approval was always terribly important to me.”
Hudd’s grandmother, who died soon after he left school, was the one saving grace of an otherwise wretched childhood in which his father absented himself not long after he was born, his mother later took her own life, and he was bullied at school for being “skinny and weird”.
As a young adult he found solace and strength in the company of actors and performers, being part of a company.
“I got into performing through a boys’ club who put on concert parties run by an old professional, Tommy Dennis, a bit like the Gang Show. I worked up a double act with a pal of mine. I learnt an enormous amount from Tommy, tricks of the trade, things like facing towards the audience even when you’re talking to your double-act partner.”
It was playing banjo and singing with an RAF jazz band during his national service that set Roy Hudd on the path to becoming a professional. While working at Butlin’s in Clacton, Essex, in the mid 1950s, one of his fellow Redcoats was a nice-looking lad with a fashionable quiff named Harry Webb, whose career took a turn for the better when he changed his name to Cliff Richard.
Hudd gave up a safe job as a window dresser and commercial artist to become a full-time entertainer in 1960, appearing in a long-forgotten TV sitcom, Tell It to the Marines, and then the higher profile Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, doing comedy sketches.
In the mid-1970s he switched from TV to radio and The News Huddlines, a topical sketch show that ran for 26 years, enabled him to tour the country in a variety of stage shows – and pantomimes – when it was off-air. He was also able to indulge his love of music hall and variety, accumulating one of the most extensive collections of Edwardian songs, music and memorabilia in the country.
He first heard about Wilton’s from the writer Charles Chilton when they were working on Roy Hudd’s Vintage Music Hall together for radio in the 1970s. “I went to have a look round and it was full of pigeons. I fell in love with it, even though it was falling apart. After I mentioned it on the radio I received a letter from the Wilton family enclosing a picture of the founder, John Wilton, which now hangs in the office at Wilton’s.”
When he played Fagin in a revival of Oliver! in 1977, Hudd organised the first ever fundraising show for the restoration of Wilton’s at the Albery Theatre (now the Noel Coward Theatre).
Looking around the handsomely restored building today, he marvels at the transformation that has happened in recent years. “I’m so pleased they haven’t Disneyfied it,” he says, referring to the many original architectural and ornamental features that have been lovingly preserved.
Putting on a pantomime in the main auditorium has clearly been a challenge for Hudd and his wife, since there are no flies, precious little wing space and no proscenium. “It’s a proper music hall, not really intended for traditional theatre,” he says. “Luckily we have a terrifically inventive designer on-board, Mark Hinton, who has done wonders with the space. I’m not sure what the critics will say, but one or two are bound to ask, ‘Where’s the spectacle?’.”
Does he have any professional regrets? “I’d love to have done Scrooge in the musical version. I was up for the stage show but the composer, Leslie Bricusse, wanted his old friend Anthony Newley because [Newley] was down on his luck financially, and he needed the job. I couldn’t really argue with that.”
Born: Croydon, 1936
• The News Huddlines (1975-2001)
• Underneath the Arches (1982)
• Lipstick on Your Collar (1993)
• Common As Muck (1994-97)
• A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1999)
• Coronation Street (2002)
• SWET award (now Olivier award) for best actor in a musical for Underneath the Arches, 1983
• OBE, 2004
• Honorary doctorate from University of East Anglia, 2007
• Honorary doctorate from University of Westminster, 2010
Agent: Derek Webster at Associated International Management
Dick Whittington and His Cat runs at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, from December 1-31
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