At the age of 72, Paul Elliott, better known as one half of comedy duo The Chuckle Brothers, is sporting his first ever ponytail. And while a long line of celebrities, including Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Reynolds, are similarly trying out the “Tiger King” look during lockdown, this is nothing new for the spiky-haired British comedian.
“I’ve always rocked a mullet,” says Elliott speaking over the phone from his home in South Yorkshire, where he’s been isolating for six weeks after recovering from mild symptoms of coronavirus. “It’s just got a bit unruly lately, so my wife Sue bobbed it in a scrunchie while we were chatting to friends on Zoom the other night,” he continues with a wry chortle.
A decade after Elliott’s popular children’s entertainment show ChuckleVision ended, he still retains the clowning spirit that made the BBC sitcom, which aired 297 episodes over a 23-year period, a success with small and big kids alike.
“For the last four years, it was on three times a day, seven days a week. It was a phenomenon that we never thought would happen,” says Elliott.
Now, however, he is one of the latest batch of celebrity pensioners on the new series of the BBC’s The Real Marigold Hotel, where Elliott joins a group of ageing stars in India to see whether retirement would be more rewarding there than in the UK.
This time, cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, singer Barbara Dickson, EastEnders actor John Altman, Coronation Street’s Susie Blake, Dragon’s Den entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne, fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and former Bond girl Britt Ekland head to Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) in southern India.
“None of us felt like pensioners,” Elliott explains of the rather eclectic bunch. “In this industry, you don’t feel as though you’re old, you just know it because of the creaks. And no one really wants to retire.”
He echoes the thoughts of Blake, who remarks in the first episode that “we actors die on stage”, when referring to brother Barry, who died from cancer in 2018 while the pair were working on their comeback series Chuckle Time on Channel 5.
“I miss working with Barry. He made me laugh at the drop of a hat,” Elliott says of his older sibling.
“When Barry died, he wanted me to carry on, so I did about 15 clubs that November. They probably wanted to see me before I popped off too! But, really, I wasn’t sure how I’d ever work again without him. I was the feed and he was the comic. I was the Ernie Wise to his Eric Morecambe,” says Elliott fondly.
“Barry didn’t tell me he was poorly with cancer. Most of the family knew, and if I had, I would have forced him to have chemo. But he didn’t want any treatment and he didn’t want any sympathy.”
While contemporaries such as The Krankies, Rod and Emu, and Bodger and Badger fell into obscurity, the Chuckle Brothers very much retained their cult status, continuing to tour and regularly playing to sell-out audiences around the country at theatres, nightclubs and student venues.
In 2014 the Chuckles recorded a charity single with, unfathomably, grime artist Tinchy Stryder. Titled To Me, To You (Bruv) based on their iconic catchphrase, it had three million downloads and led to the duo playing the Big Top at 2015’s Bestival. “They were 10-deep from the front of the stage and crowd surfing and all sorts,” recalls Elliott.
The success, however, has never made him rich. “A recent Sun article said they expected I was worth £20million. I just don’t know where they get those figures from. I’ve not worked since February. It’s the not knowing that’s worrying. And you know what they say - it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor... It’s just always better to be rich!”
He has, however, gained a new-found popularity thanks to Twitter, where he currently posts a charming mix of self-deprecating photos and gentle-humour videos of his daily garden discos. “I’ve got something of a second life, because I’m appearing all over the place, DJ-ing and things like that. I love doing the meet-and-greets,” he says.
The brothers came from a family of entertainers. Their mother, Amy, was a dancer and father James a comedian who, after 500 broadcasts for the BBC, was banned from the corporation in 1938. “He finished a joke live on the radio with the line: ‘And it was as smooth as a baby’s bottom!’,” Elliott explains. “How things have changed, eh!”
The job didn't much matter. War would soon break out and James Elliott was given his own Gang Show to entertain the troops in India and Burma. A 19-year-old Peter Sellers, who was also a member of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), became his drummer.
“Dad took him on as another son. He’d take him out for a drink and found him really funny, so he took him off the drums and put him out front telling jokes,” says Elliott.
“My dad was a character actor and very visual. A lot of the characters that Peter came out with in his films, like Inspector Clouseau, were very much Dad’s style. Barry and I could see our dad so much in Peter.”
“We never met Peter ourselves. But his mother was putting on a show in the West End starring Peter and my dad. She asked Dad not to do any other work or sign other contracts while they waited for Peter to be demobbed from the war. But Dad had five kids and a wife to look after, so they went their separate ways. To think that could have been our dad out there…” he trails off.
Paul and Barry worked together for more than 50 years after catching their own big break winning ITV talent shows Opportunity Knocks in 1967 and New Faces in 1974.
“For some reason, the people that run TV nowadays think that we don’t want variety shows on TV anymore. But people absolutely love Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly,” says Elliot in response to the death of the song-and-dance format.
“That older type of entertainment, well, people miss it. Porridge reruns gets good ratings not because it’s nostalgic, but because it’s funny!” he says.
Given the chance, would Elliott go on any of the current crop of talent shows? “I don’t think I could keep up with Strictly. I’d be alright with the ballroom dancing, but not the Latin. I can dance around my garden, for sure, but only for 25 seconds!"
“Six or seven years ago, Barry and I were both asked to do Dancing on Ice, but I nearly broke my back!” he recalls. “They asked me again last year so I went up to Manchester, but they didn’t think I was physically strong enough to skate. A blessing in disguise, I’d say.”
While in India for the Marigold Hotel series, Elliott found himself trying a more gentle form of exercise. “I look a real lazy sod in the first episode. In the first shot I’m on my bed talking to my wife, next I’m in bed ill, and then I’m on a hammock talking to Duncan Bannatyne!”
Indeed, Henry Blofeld nicknames his fellow traveller “Lazarus” as he is absent for the first few days of the trip due to a stomach bug, but Elliott features more prominently in later episodes when the gang travelled to Rishikesh, where the Beatles went to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. There, Elliot also found himself taking part in a yoga class.
“Nothing like bending yourself in half, just relaxing,” he assures. “Henry was with me and was snoring within minutes!”
Yoga classes and drinking tea for a living is a far cry from Elliott’s former years messing about on screen with ladders, buckets and custard pies, but was still “good for a chuckle” he remarks reflecting on the experience.
“Really, time doesn’t mean anything, it’s the memories that count.”
The Real Marigold Hotel starts on Thursday on BBC One at 9.00pm