Over his 75-year career, Calvin has performed in 54 pantomimes. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about advising Ian McKellen, rejecting a career in the church for theatre, and initiating Bob Hope into the Grand Order of Water Rats
When Ian McKellen made his pantomime debut as Widow Twankey in 2004, the person he turned to for advice was Wyn Calvin – generally acknowledged to be the best Widow Twankey in the business.
Now 95, Calvin has long since given up pantomime – he appeared in 54 over the course of his astonishing 75-year career – but he continues to venture out from his home in Cardiff every so often for charity events and will do so for the British Music Hall Society’s annual Day By the Sea in June.
Even a one-to-one audience with Wyn Calvin, usually billed as the “Welsh Prince of Laughter”, feels like a performance. “I wouldn’t start telling you this story unless there was a laugh at the end,” he says.
A former King Rat in the Grand Order of Water Rats – founded in 1889, this men-only Masonic-style organisation for entertainers donates to recognised charities and supports its members in times of hardships – his showbiz connections are legion, and his relationship with The Stage dates back to the 1930s. “I used to buy The Stage when I was still at school when it cost fourpence,” he says. “It was an important part of my education.”
Calvin is descended from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. He says: “It was assumed by my family I would go into the church but I had other ideas. My road-to-Damascus moment was going to the pantomime in Cardiff as a boy and seeing all this activity and music and laughter on stage and thinking: ‘That’s the world I want to be part of.’”
While his classmates were hurtling around a football pitch on a Thursday afternoons, the young Calvin was off to the Prince of Wales Theatre for a matinee. “Ever since I was a small child I have studiously avoided all sports and physical activity,” he proclaims in his Welsh baritone.
After being invalided out of the army in 1944 – “I was told I had an acute heart problem and that I had six months to live” – he joined Entertainments National Service Association and played to army and air force bases in the south of England, before travelling to Germany to entertain the British troops.
Still in his early 20s, Calvin did five years of weekly rep – Manchester, Oldham, Motherwell, Torquay and Lytham St Anne’s – playing everything from teenagers to grand fathers. “I found the more dramatic or romantic the role, the bigger the laughs I got,” he recalls, “So I decided, with a face like mine, I was probably destined to do comedy.”
‘Roy Hudd called me the butchest dame he’d ever worked with. I played his mother on three separate occasions’
Having served a long apprenticeship in rep and summer season, Calvin became a stalwart of the Combined Services Entertainment, performing for the British armed forces all over the world. He also became a regular on the BBC radio favourite, Workers’ Playtime, for many years.
His career in “the weird and wonderful world that is pantomime” – as he puts it – began with the cheeky-chappie roles such as Idle Jack, Buttons and Wishee Washee, progressing to a dame in his 40s.
So what was his advice to Ian McKellen? “I pointed out that a pantomime dame is not a female impersonator, it’s a fella in a frock. I was always reluctant to play the dame because I didn’t feel feminine, but that’s precisely why I made a good dame. Roy Hudd called me the butchest dame he’d ever worked with. I played his mother on three separate occasions.”
A close friend for more than half a century, Hudd says of Calvin: “He has been a great adviser to me on everything connected with the business we both love so much. He is the person I talk to all the time, and he is all the things I admire in a fellow professional. Best of all, he makes me laugh.”
One of the highlights of Calvin’s career was in 1991 when he enrolled the great British-born US comedian Bob Hope, whose mother was Welsh, into the Grand Order of Water Rats. “I’d met Bob a few years earlier when he was doing a one-man show in Cardiff and he asked about the Water Rats badge I was wearing. We held a reception at the Park Lane Hilton for his enrolment and it was the biggest attendance of any Water Rats function.”
By his side on that occasion, as on every occasion, was Calvin’s devoted wife of 45 years, Carole, a former dancer. They married when Wyn was 50, Carole 27.
She says: “We go everywhere together, and we still enjoy each other’s company. He is such good company, and he is the most positive person I know. I absolutely adore him.”
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