For a time Freddie Starr, who has died suddenly at the age of 76, was the most popular comedian of his day. A constant fixture on television from the early 1970s through to the late 1990s, he was capable of packing out theatres on tour after tour, where his cheeky unpredictability on the small screen was given full reign and transformed into something more provocative.
Audiences loved him for the manic energy he brought to his live performances and for the near-the-knuckle naughtiness that pushed at boundaries of propriety with its provocative discussions of sex, race, class, religion and politics. It was an increasingly controversial identity that soon bled off stage and into his personal life, tabloid headlines lighting on one controversy after another.
Born Frederick Leslie Fowell in Liverpool on January 9, 1943, Starr’s childhood was marked by regular beatings from his drunken, part-time bare-knuckle boxer father leading to a spell of trauma-induced muteness at the age of six when he was taken into care.
Encouraged by his mother to perform from the age of 12, he worked local pubs and clubs before spending five years with the Hilda Fallon Roadshow touring community halls and hospitals.
He made an early appearance on film in the 1958 teenage drama Violent Playground before becoming lead singer with the Merseybeat-era the Midniters. Despite the involvement of two legendary British music figures – producer Joe Meek and the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein – the group had scant success. It left Starr a frustrated vocalist whose adoration of Elvis Presley would become a mainstay of his television and theatre shows.
His comic skills caught attention in 1967 in the Hughie Green-hosted talent show Opportunity Knocks as the frontman for Freddie Starr and the Delmonts, winning the popular vote for six consecutive weeks. Success there led to an appearance in the 1970 Royal Variety Performance, where his impression of Mick Jagger opened the door to wider exposure on the small screen in the impressionists-led Who Do You Do? and comedy panel show hosted by Barry Cryer, Jokers Wild.
He was, said The Stage at the time, “not so much an impressionist as a clown with a refreshingly clear-cut brand of humour. He is a born comedian”.
In 1974 he was given his first headlining show on television, Ready Freddie Starr, the planned series reduced to a single ‘special’ after increasingly rancorous disputes with the creative team and producers, London Weekend Television. It was a harbinger of worse to come, Starr regularly locking antlers with his collaborators, often coming to blows with them for imagined slights. At the end of the decade, another mooted series, Freddie Starr’s Variety Madhouse, was abandoned after a violent altercation with the producer, whom Starr claimed had made a sexual advance towards him.
Undeterred, Starr’s ego habitually compensated for knock-backs and disappointments with what became an increasingly anarchic and dangerous persona on stage. He became known for his comic impersonations of Max Wall and Adolf Hitler, garbed in comic Nazi uniform, his tributes to Elvis and the blunt directness of his treatment of gender and race issues, then coming to the fore of Britain’s fast-changing sense of itself.
As a guest on television talk shows, he invariably shredded the nerves and manicured decorum of his politely genial, convention-bound hosts by causing unscripted mayhem, much to the delight of an increasingly large and loyal audience.
For all the anarchic glee of his television appearances, it was on stage, where Starr was less confined by small-screen mores, that he became a more unfettered force of nature, working audiences with a mischievous disregard for personal boundaries. It earned him a place alongside his controversial high-profile peers Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson and saw him in demand on the live circuit where he regularly broke box office records in one-night stands and summer-season runs.
Seldom away from the stage – Starr would later boast that he had performed for 350 nights each year for three decades – his relentless schedule began to take its toll in the 1980s. After becoming addicted to tranquillisers and suffering a nervous breakdown, his confidence began to suffer and in 1986 he announced his retirement from showbusiness.
His one last hurrah was a now infamous front-page splash in the Sun that claimed “Freddie Starr ate my hamster”. Although the story was later revealed as a publicity stunt by the notorious PR guru Max Clifford, it remained stubbornly prominent in the comedian’s tarnished public image.
Over the next decade he invested the considerable fortune he had acquired in various business and property speculations and in racing, winning the 1994 Grand National with his horse, Minnehoma.
He returned to television in 1993 with his own show and again in 1996 with The Freddie Starr Show (which ran until 1998) and An Audience with Freddie Starr, in which he performed in front of a celebrity audience. In 1997, Another Audience With Freddie Starr marked the zenith of his career.
A later run of appearances on reality television programmes including his fractious participation in Celebrity Fit Club (2004) and a petulant spat with former model Samantha Fox in Celebrity Wife Swap (2008) did little to rehabilitate his image. In 2011, he again hit the headlines when he was forced to withdraw from I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! after three days when the grisly bushtucker trial triggered an allergic reaction.
The following year he was back in the tabloids, accused of molesting a teenage girl in the disgraced DJ and presenter Jimmy Savile’s BBC dressing room in 1974. Arrested several times on the charge, the case was dropped due to insufficient evidence, although Starr lost the defamation case he took against his accuser at a High Court ruling in 2015.
He published an autobiography, Unwrapped, in 2001.
Married five times to four wives, he had difficult relationships with his seven children, all of whom survive him. In later years he lived in Spain, where he died on May 9.