The Larry Grayson Show

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Larry Grayson is another performer who exists in my mind, and perhaps in modern pop culture, more defined by other people’s impressions of him than his actual self; an entire historic essence boiled down into the catchphrases “shut that door” and “what a gay day!Mike Yarwood and co drained a great many hours of mileage from Larry, sucking in their cheeks and cocking their wrists, but outside of clips, the man himself is a bit of a blank spot in my knowledge base. It’s time to rectify that. Sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it? Like ‘rectum’? Please yourselves.

Grayson’s fame came during the period when you could be both super gay on TV, but also not actually gay at all. Comedy of the seventies was loaded with homosexual characters, albeit mincing comic grotesques (see Carry On Girls‘ Cecil Gaybody), along with those made palatable to, shall we say, less-enlightened audiences, by being couched in labels like ‘confirmed bachelor’ and ‘light in the loafers’ or hidden behind sexless mummy’s boy archetypes. Sexuality escaped via relentless innuendo and campery; a hangover from when just being yourself as a gay man could get you locked up, and your life — let alone reputation and career — utterly destroyed as a result, famously exemplified by Round the Horne‘s Julian and Sandy, and their use of Polari.

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Though people loved to laugh at/with gay characters, if any had kissed another man onscreen, or even confirmed that’s what they did in real life, punters would have burned the studio down. Although even today, a certain brand of idiot are still having conniptions at the first same-sex dance coupling on Strictly. When The Larry Grayson Show first aired in 1975, homosexuality had only been decriminalised in the UK for eight years. To put that in perspective, it’s currently eight years since Thatcher died and Jennifer Lawrence tripped up the stairs at the Oscars. I’ll be starting my watch with episodes from that first series.

Larry came to success later in life, aged 52 at the launch of his solo series. This gives me hope, now in my 40s and still yet to host a revival of Fortean TV or be identified as ‘mystery hunk’ in a tabloid photo of Anna Kendrick coming out of Superdrug. Its opening is the purest, most powerful of 70’s variety glitz, with Larry’s name appearing in a literal golden shower of sparkles, etched onto a starry sky, before emerging in a suit so dazzlingly white against the fuzzy period cameras, the resulting flare surrounds him in an angelic glow. To a big band soundtrack of trumpets; chandeliers hanging from the ceiling; he saunters down a blue-lit marble staircase, lined by men doffing their top hats as he passes, with such a tumbling cascade of dry ice, it looks like the building’s on fire. As the curtain drops, he takes his place centre of stage, alone, with the single chair that would become one of his many trademarks.

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The opening monologue really establishes the time period, its attitudes, and the comedic style which arose, with anything even vaguely suggestive eliciting peels of shrieking laughter, setting the audience off with mere mention of making a tea cosy. This is 1970’s high campiness that could make a double-entendre out of anything, perhaps in part due to the general public’s lack of understanding of that mysterious species, The Gay, and what they even got up to. It’s this which renders a seemingly harmless statement like “which hole shall I put the side for the spout?” (potentially) absolutely disgusting. Coming out of Larry Grayson’s mouth, anything could be rude, getting laughs from whelks, winkles, rhubarb tarts, and the act of riding a bicycle. But he also nails that perfectly constructed innuendo; “I shall miss the doctor, he gave me something to cling onto. [looks straight down the lens, inferring it was his penis] I’ve been under him for years.

Larry’s stock in trade is rambling whimsy, like a gay Dave Allen, regaling us with the doings of an unseen cast of acquaintances and neighbours, like Apricot Lil, Slack Alice, Everard, Brenda Allcock, Non-Stick Nell, Pop-it-in-Pete the postman and Rodney Ramshaw the retired navel stoker (who comes out when Everard’s boiler goes funny). The delivery is absolutely impeccable, a note-perfect mix of faux innocence and knowing looks, peppered by weird little asides. The neurotic character of Larry is constantly distracted by drafts and dust, by dirty microphones and the state of his hair; attention span wavering to minor medical issues like verrucas, with the recording of a television show taking second place to life’s niggling minutiae. Who else would stop a pianist mid-song to ask “did you post that letter for me?

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It’s also plump with that brilliant comedy of specificity — as put to great use by Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett, and The League of Gentlemen — all gypsy creams and sitting in front of the immersion heater, or being given “an umbrella with an unusual handle.” As you can probably tell, from the off, I’m fully onboard. I’ve become accustomed to almost all comedy from this period being a horror show, but Larry’s one of those wonderful surprises, and at points, I’m shaking with laughter, having to pause to gather myself. He’s such a joyful performer, it’s impossible not to get swept along.

One thing people loved back then was seeing gay behaviour in decidedly ‘normal’, non-gay settings, like a sketch on a building site, where Larry saunters in with his brolly to a bunch of gruff builders in flat caps. He’s dancing his way up a plank like Mary Poppins, he’s making scones in a cement mixer; just wishing them “good morning, lovely day!” gets massive laughs. The thing that really takes me aback is a barely-bleeped “what the fuckin’ hell’s been going on here, then?” from an enraged foreman. Episode six will have him at army training, struggling to shoulder his rifle — “mine’s pointing back and theirs is pointing forward!” — handing a fashion mag to a solder who asks for another magazine, and falling off the rope swing, though we only see a splash, as he clearly didn’t want to go in the water for real. Also, there’s this exchange as they lay in wait.

     Larry: “Why did you join the army?

     Soldier 1 “To get away from the wife.

     Larry: “Why did you join the army?

     Soldier 2: “To get away from his wife.

     Soldiers 1&2 (to Larry) “Why did you join the army?

     Larry: “Please, we have a family audience!

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This is endemic of how the subject of Larry’s sexuality is tip-toed around in a pair of hobnail boots. Comedically, it’s the flirty couple at the office, both enjoying the frisson of an unspoken mutual attraction, which will be ruined the moment one of them comes right out and says it. Back to the studio for a Treasure Island sketch, Larry’s dressed as a pirate, on one wooden leg (that’s nailed to the floor), a crutch that’s too short, and no parrot. “I wish I were dead,” he mutters, before his promised bird comes out from the wings.

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The indignant Larry is the perfect Emu foil, flinching from its bucking head, which, with a tilt, seems to gesture to Rod “ooh, get her!” Of course, they all end up rolling round on the floor like they’re doing UFC, a tangle of limbs and blue raffia, with the audience in absolute mania as a beak rises between Larry’s legs and a floor manager runs on to get Emu’d in the knackers. Honestly, it’s better than anything I’ve seen on current-day TV in the last 12 months.

There’s a requisite News at 10 sketch about a lost explorer, where intrepid reporter Lawrence Grayson is “up the amazon” in a pith helmet, swishing at flies. “Where are we staying? ‘Montezuma’s camp’. Well, I can’t help that…” I suppose your enjoyment will depend entirely on your tolerance of innuendo, because that’s it, that’s the act; only, it’s the best-delivered innuendo of all time; Olympic standard suggestiveness straight from God’s pouting mouth. The unrelenting barrage of double-meanings reminds me of my late grandad’s favourite anecdote, from back in 1949 when he was working on the bins, and sliced himself open on a broken toilet at the rear of a lady’s house. He’d tell it with a twinkle in his eye, always trying — and failing — to keep the corners of his mouth from curling, to play innocent on what he’d written on the council’s accident form. “I cut my hand up Mrs. Geer’s back passage.

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Incredibly for something from the seventies, there’s almost nothing that would get Larry a pre-titles warning of “this show reflects the attitudes of its time” were it repeated today, with the only slightly questionable moment when a shirtless black man runs on dressed as a Zulu (in South America). Grunting and waving a spear, Larry quips “he comes from the Isle of Wight,” though a bit where he says the Zulu’s been watching him through the flap of his tent gives the fabulously evocative line “I haven’t been able to have an all-over wash for the last two days!

The innuendo keeps coming thick and fast [glance to camera], with a sketch at a computer dating office, where the manager promises “I’m going to show you my supplementaries,” and a look off Larry that leaves me choking on my own spit when asked “how long is it?” (since he first applied) Where has this show been all my life?! Each week’s finale is a closing song, with our boy accompanied by the piano. The tragic clown archetype is overplayed when discussing the offscreen lives of dead comedians, but there’s something undeniably melancholic about these closers, with Larry in a tux, singing Patsy Cline’s Have You Ever Been Lonely, and lyrics that plead “take me back in your heart” to a backing troupe of comically surly men in top hats and tails who turn their backs on him, with one peeling away quickly when Larry threads his arm through his — “how can I go on living, now that we’re apart?

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With routines based around a roster of imaginary friends, and the double-entendres of a swinging dandy about town, in truth, Larry had no close romantic relationships, spending his final years living with adoptive older sister, Flo. By all accounts, the love of his life had been an old schoolfriend, killed in battle during WWII, a loss from which he never recovered, carrying a poem about him written by the chap’s sisters in his pocket at all times. But this is telly, and the whole thing’s infused with his comedic beats and deft physicality; a clumsy twirl back to the piano leaving him dizzy. By the end of the song, he’s won them over, with an upbeat key change, and being lifted into the air for the big finish where the men kneel before him adoringly. Larry only truly drops the act to say goodbye, with a sign off of “I love you all very much,” where it’s obvious that he really means it.

A later episode in the first series opens with the words “what a gay day!” before he’s forced to sit down because “my legs are swelling.” Just from his mannerisms, when asking if we’ve had a nice week, a woman can be heard pissing herself, and every scene’s filled with that high pitched “wooohf!” noise by old ladies that used to permeate television tapings like the mating call of a garden bird. With audiences now skewing far younger, no longer comprised solely of coach trips from the clubs, it’s become a sadly extinct sound, like old British police sirens, or a politician’s apology. Series two will give a rare over the shoulder shot, with a glimpse into the seats, and even shrouded in darkness and neon purple lighting, it’s a sea of identical white perms; the rounded heads of elderly ladies laying before him like a cotton field. The enamoured audience give us two brilliant solo reactions for our collection, one after the other.

There’s more joy in that twenty seconds than you’ll find in most entire series, and more smutty allusion packed into the following line than in a Carry On box set. “I’m going to camp. And they told me to rise early, be prepared for anything, and three cheers for the Queen.” Lovely stuff. A chunk of the episode’s taken by a variety act, in a French outdoor cafe set, with Larry in a stripey shirt and beret, pushing on a bike that’s draped in onions. Credited as Yvonne Michel & Erik, it’s uncomfortable entertainment in 2021; a mixture of dancing and domestic violence lucha libra, where they slap each other about, and he shoves her across the studio floor. At points, he’s dragging on her hair and kneeing her head, while she kicks him in the face, slapping the thigh for impact noise like a WWE wrestler. For that full 90’s Hardcore Title vibe, there’s even a headshot with a drinks tray; with Larry catching it in the temple when she rears back, occasionally getting pulled into the fray, and lifted into an aeroplane spin by the muscular male dancer. It ends with them shooting each other dead, while Larry reapplies his beret with a “I never asked them if they wanted any onions!

He brings out his own group for the closing song — The Takeaways; a pair of glamorously dishevelled old ladies and statuesque drag queen Jean Fredericks — with the audience howling the whole way through. There’s not a fraction of a second free of the sounds of people dying, with uncontrollable laughter from the bleachers, and even his band gone, their shoulders shaking. Skipping forwards to series two, the runtime’s been doubled to an hour, and there’s a change of format to full-on variety. Larry’s opening monologue takes in a Christmas morning cramp, before a drink down at the Cock and Trumpet, where someone stood on the landlord’s Brazil nuts, and there was a raffle to “raise something for the vicar.”

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He’s interrupted by magician David Nixon, who does a trick involving a flying banana, presumably because it’s the most willy-like of all the fruits.“I like to do it the hard way,” says Nixon, while Larry scalds a laughing audience with a look that reads “don’t be so disgusting!” Unfortunately, the other acts see him pushed to the side-lines, with singing slots from Vicky Carr and another trick from Nixon (accompanied by an out-of-character Ali Bongo), where Nixon talks about “half inch slots” and a load of spikes you could get poked with, and Larry’s nowhere to be seen. It really is the living end! Incidentally, the trick’s some real Hellraiser shit, wielded by the bald and bulky Nixon who resembles a dress rehearsal Pinhead. He ends up sticking Carr inside the box, and not the audience volunteer, but judging from the massive Cuban heels under his flares, he wouldn’t have fit anyway.

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When it goes to some hand-bell ringers and Larry’s still nowhere to be seen, I’m ready to riot. Literal bell-ends being waved about! Shiny clangers! But then, sing Hosannah, there he is, telling the leader he seems like a nice boy, with a “very few people know that I’m a campanologist...” And we’re back, baby! Straight into my top 10 sketches of all time, it’s a delightful masterclass in withering looks and coy aspersions, with Larry holding up his bell to reveal it’s tiny with a floppy handle, complaining that he can’t hear his “tinkle,” and demanding to be given a big one, which he can’t even lift off the table. In a moment I never saw coming, as he takes a bow, a gigantic bell falls from the ceiling and crashes down over him. Five stars, get it on Netflix.

More variety breaks come in the form of a tumbling act called The Veterans, vaulting over an old pommel horse like in PE, to a raucous soundtrack of slide whistles and cymbal crashes. It’s the Grumbleweeds if they took up gymnastics instead of music. There’s a sketch starring a young Vera Duckworth, and Nixon does another trick, involving the loading of a blunderbuss with the remains of Larry’s favourite broach before firing it at him — “the only thing left to do is cock it.” — a request which gets this look.

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I know Oliver Hardy was doing it first, and that culturally, the straight-down-the-pipe reaction shot has since been claimed by both versions of The Office and its many gifs, but let’s acknowledge the absolute master, who perfected the artform decades ago. The final number, wearing a suit the colour of summer skies, is Irving Berlin’s All Alone — “all alone, I’m all alone, and there’s no-one else but you…” Constantly interrupted by a ringing phone — wrong numbers and perverts — Larry segues into Berlin’s What’ll I Do, aka the theme to Birds of a Feather, with a fantastic bit of business where he hops on the piano but can’t get up unassisted, having to slap away the handsy pianist who heaves him up.

We end on Larry’s head framed in a spotlight against the encroaching darkness, wondering aloud “if you are all alone too.” Knowing of his life, and the abrupt end to his career, there’s something unspeakably sad about these musical numbers, and as he earnestly thanks — at length — each of his guests, and everyone involved in the show, signing off with another “ta-ra, and I love you very much; ta-ra, I love you,” I don’t know if it’s just this Hell-world we’re trapped in, but I’m fucking sobbing.

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The following year, Larry would land the plummest role on the box, as host of The Generation Game, after Bruce jumped to LWT for his own disastrous variety show. When the pair went head to head, Brucie got trounced by his successor’s wildly popular run, but in 1981, Larry quit too, citing a desire to go out on top and not wanting the show to become stale. But by then, the march of alternative comedy had broken over the horizon, and his winking allusions were considered old hat. Depression set in as the work dried up, limited to little more than a few scattered guest spots, pantomimes, and in 1987, a failed ITV gameshow titled Sweethearts, which was sacrificed in a death-slot against the juggernaut of EastEnders.

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Two months before he died, Larry made one last appearance, at the 1994 Royal Variety Performance. Now seventy, emerging from the wings with the trademark chair, his opening line is a catty and self-effacing “I thought I was dead!” Sadly, history recalls this as a bad performance, which fell apart and played to silence, but that doesn’t bear out from watching it. Yes, his timing’s not quite what it was, and he loses his place a couple of times, but it’s all there. The rambling whimsy; the intentional disarray; there’s a mention of Slack Alice, and asides about “my leg’s giving me ‘ell,” moaning about a draft, and getting fixated on something he’s trodden in. As the short routine comes to a close, he jokes (or not) that “I’ve only come out so you can see i’m still alive,” and that he’s doing it for all the letters he gets, “from the lovely people at home. I’m alright, you see. So here I am. It’s lovely being with you.” And with a “shut that door,” blowing kisses to the audience, Larry Grayson’s final “I love you” is almost lost; drowning beneath the applause.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on February 7, 2021.

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