Who is he?
Frankie Howerd is a totemic figure in twentieth-century British popular culture. As a performer in variety and music hall; radio; musicals; cabaret, television; and film, he is a familiar and much-loved part of our comic landscape. It is easy to forget, when his catchphrases and style have become so familiar, how radical and disruptive Howerd's approach was in the early years of his career. In fact, as his biographer Graham McCann has said, Frankie Howerd changed the face, construction and interpretation of comedy in the UK. What is perhaps less well known is the fact that Frankie was born in York, and that’s why we’re delighted that his archive has finally ‘come home.’
Howerd was born Francis Alick Howard on 6th March 1917, at the family home in Hartoft Street, York. His father, Francis Alfred William Howard, was a regular soldier stationed in the city, whilst his mother Edith worked at the Rowntree’s chocolate factory. Howerd spent the first two and a half years of his life living in the terraced house on Hartoft Street, before his father was posted to Woolwich and the family moved to Eltham, London. He is known to have retained his fondness for York, however, as his mother’s family were still resident in the city. As a result, he returned on multiple occasions for family holidays.
Mark Addy unveiling the Frankie Howerd plaque in Hartoft Street (credit: York Civic Trust, 2016)
Howerd faced a number of set-backs during his professional life which enabled him to move between styles of comedic performance and remain relevant throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. A star on both radio and TV by the mid 1950s, an acrimonious breakup with his agent was the catalyst for a decline in fortunes that very nearly brought an end to his career. A new phase as a satirical comedian, with successful appearances at Peter Cook’s ‘Establishment’ club and on ‘That Was the Week That Was’, led to a resurgence in fortunes and another boom in Howerd’s fortunes. In the later 1960s and early 1970s, Howerd was in demand for stage musicals (‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’); film (including ‘Carry On’ appearances) and new TV ventures, including ‘Up Pompeii’. At the end of his life in 1992, he was in another period of renewed popularity as an elder statesman of comedy, selling out performances at the Oxford Union and national theatre tours.
Howerd’s significance, then, comes in how he changed how we laugh. On his arrival on radio, comics were rapid-fire gag merchants. Howerd broke that mould, developing a performance style now familiar to us - bringing the audience in and making them, and their participation ostensibly a part of the show. On TV, he pioneered and perfected the art of breaking the fourth wall. To the viewer, Howerd was not just a performer, he was one of them; the outsider looking in, crystallising that very British sense of understatement, critique and levity. Comedy is often illustrated by the loss of, and attempts to retain, dignity. Howerd did that more than any other comic. Without Howerd (and his team of top-class writers), we would not have the comedy we have today.