Barry Cryer obituary
Quick-witted, inventive comedian and writer who was a longstanding panellist on BBC Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue
As a writer, comedian, radio quiz panellist, chatshow guest and occasional actor, Barry Cryer, who has died aged 86, was part of the backbone of British television and radio comedy for more than 60 years. He wrote for performers including Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies, Tommy Cooper, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Frankie Howerd, Kenny Everett and Les Dawson, and was a member of the ramshackle but hilarious BBC radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue from its inception in 1972.
In the 1960s and 70s comedy writing was, with a few notable exceptions, dominated by men, often working in pairs, and Cryer’s partners included John Junkin, Marty Feldman, Graeme Garden, David Nobbs and Graham Chapman. Lacking a developed attention span (he called his 2009 autobiography Butterfly Brain), he left the basic idea, plot and structure to his partner, then funnied everything up, providing punchlines, gags and retorts. This is known as being a “line man” and Cryer was generally regarded as the best line man in the business.
In looks and offstage manner, Cryer was the kind of nondescript bloke you might find behind the counter at your local DIY centre. He told the story of how, when his face had become familiar through TV appearances, someone came up to him in the street and asked: “Can I have your autograph, Bal?”
“Leave it out,” said the man. “You didn’t think I was serious?”
Cryer got into a taxi and recounted the story. “Oh dear,” the driver chuckled. “Imagine that happening to someone well known!”
This self-deprecation – almost all the stories Cryer told were against himself – began early in his performing career in the late 50s, when he was hospitalised several times for chronic eczema, and retreated from the spotlight into the more anonymous craft of scriptwriting.
He was born in Leeds, to John Cryer, an accountant, who died when Barry was five, and his wife, Jean, and educated at Leeds grammar school. “I’ve been in touch with three of my schoolmates,” he said in 2019, “and it seems that when we were growing up I was the one who tried to make the bully laugh, and to entertain people, even though I never thought of doing it for a living then.”
Cryer went on to study English literature at Leeds University, where an appearance in a revue led to his being offered a week’s work at Leeds City Varieties theatre. He began to think comedy might be a viable career choice, and after doing badly in his first year left university and moved to London, hoping a quick wit and inventiveness would compensate for an almost complete lack of experience. It did – he passed an audition for the Windmill theatre in Soho, which had comedy acts in between nude shows, and started his career as a bottom-of-the-bill comic.
In 1957 he was in the hit stage show Expresso Bongo with Susan Hampshire, Millicent Martin and Paul Scofield. The same year he recorded the novelty song Purple People Eater, a big success for the American actor and singer Sheb Wooley. Contractual difficulties meant Wooley’s version could not be released in Scandinavia, and Cryer reached No 1 in the Finnish charts.
Though his performing career was blossoming, his skin condition made further stage appearances problematical. “Eczema hospitalised me 12 times in eight years,” he told Reader’s Digest. “In those days we were caked in makeup as performers. I thought, ‘I’ve had it, I’ll concentrate on writing’.”
He began writing, mostly for Danny La Rue at the drag star’s nightclub. “I was contentedly employed in the noble and honourable task of writing gags about men’s genitalia,” he said. “That is what I did: I was a cock-joke writer. I was not ashamed of it and I was happy doing it.”
At La Rue’s he came to the attention of David Frost, who hired him to join a writing team that included Chapman, Feldman and John Cleese, for The Frost Report (BBC TV, 1966-67). Swiftly established as a valuable talent, Cryer wrote several BBC Morecambe and Wise shows with Junkin, including the 1972 and 1976 Christmas specials. He went back to performing, but on radio, in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and the sketch show Hello Cheeky (BBC, 1973-79), on which he and Junkin were joined by Tim Brooke-Taylor. There was a TV version in 1976.
In 1962 he married the singer Theresa Donovan, known as Terry, and the couple moved to Hatch End, Middlesex, where they had four children. Cryer explained the secret of this happiest of partnerships: “The key is we’ve never understood each other. We don’t row, but we argue all the time.”
Professionally, his most comfortable partnership was with Chapman, in pre-Python days. They wrote about 50 television shows together, including Doctor in the House (ITV, 1969-70), and several for Ronnie Corbett: No, That’s Me Over Here! (ITV, 1968-70), Now Look Here (BBC, 1971-73) and The Prince of Denmark (BBC, 1974). With other writers he contributed to The Ronnie Corbett Show (BBC, 1987) and Ronnie Corbett in Bed (BBC, 1971), and was also part of the Two Ronnies (1971-87) team.
The other performer he became most associated with was the anarchic DJ turned comedian Kenny Everett. With Ray Cameron he wrote 35 episodes of The Kenny Everett Video Cassette (ITV, 1978-81) and, with Everett himself, 44 episodes of The Kenny Everett Television Show (BBC, 1981-88). In the 70s and 80s he wrote material for Russ Abbot, Stanley Baxter, Bruce Forsyth, Max Bygraves, Jasper Carrott, Tommy Cooper, the Carry On team, Dawson, Ken Dodd, Dick Emery, Bob Monkhouse, Howerd and Mike Yarwood, and for American stars visiting the UK.
Cryer’s greatest professional triumph, this time as a performer, came when he joined Garden, Brooke-Taylor and Willie Rushton in the Radio 4 parody panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, chaired by Humphrey Lyttelton from 1972. The show survived Lyttelton’s death in 2008 and has more recently been chaired by Jack Dee.
With Garden, Cryer also starred in a radio spin-off, You’ll Have Had Your Tea (2002-07), based around two Scots characters from the show, Hamish and Dougal. Another spin-off was a stage show with Rushton, Two Old Farts in the Night, which toured to great acclaim until Rushton’s death in 1996.
Cryer was appointed OBE in 2001 and in 2017 received an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at the University of Leeds.
He is survived by Terry, their daughter, Jackie, and sons, Bob, Dave and Tony, seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
• Barry Cryer, writer and comedian, born 23 March 1935; died 25 January 2022