Barry Cryer at the BFI & Radio Times TV Festival in London, 2017. Picture credit: Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images
Artillery Row

A fond farewell to Barry Cryer

His death is a loss for the English comic tradition

The legendary comedian Barry Cryer, who has died aged 86, was not just asked once what his favourite joke was, but near-constantly. On virtually every occasion, he could reply with a different sally, but he liked to say that his all-time favourite was a gag that he first told when he was a student at Leeds University in the Fifties. “A man was driving down a country lane and ran over a cockerel. He knocked on the farmhouse door and a woman answered. “I appear to have killed your cockerel,” he said. “I’d like to replace it.” “Please yourself,” said the woman, “the hens are round the back.”

Cryer’s death was greeted with sorrow not just from the few peers of his who are still standing, but from younger comedians. David Mitchell wrote that he was proud to have known him and described him as “a brilliant man and a bringer of huge joy who never stopped being delighted by comedy’, and Jack Dee, who worked with him on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue wrote a touching piece in which he described Cryer as “an honorary uncle to countless comics’. A unifying theme in many people’s recollections of the comedian was as someone who would call them up out of the blue, enjoy a chat, tell them a genuinely funny joke and then depart with the valediction “I’ll give you your day back.” 

He may have walked with kings, but he never lost the common touch

That hearing from Cryer would be enough to make anyone’s day, rather than spoil it, was something that was always understood but never remarked upon by his huge number of admirers. In an industry that was known for being full of larger-than-life depressives like Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers — both of whom Cryer wrote jokes for at one time or another, establishing him as the last of a long tradition of gag writers — he was an unfailingly jolly and courteous man, who was as happy chatting to a nervous young newspaper diary journalist (including me, on at least one occasion, before I grew to man’s estate) at a showbusiness party as he was talking to royalty, whether metaphorical or literal. He may have walked with kings, but he never lost the common touch — or the opportunity for a joke about it, either. 

 The list of his collaborators over his 60-year career encompassed everyone from Frankie Howerd to Bob Hope, and his co-writers included the likes of Graham Chapman (pre-Monty Python), Marty Feldman and Reggie Perrin’s David Nobbs. He abandoned any ambition to be a major frontman comedian himself early in his career, believing that he was too haphazard a figure to command an audience (his autobiography was called Butterfly Brain) but he concentrated on perfecting his gags with almost clinical precision. 

Cryer himself was firmly in the Donald McGill seaside postcard tradition of suggestion

He was typically self-deprecating about the respect that he was held in, and would pooh-pooh any idea that his joke-writing had in some sense contributed something of lasting worth to the British comic tradition. It was typical of him that he did not like to be called a comedian or comedy writer, but preferred to be known as an “entertainer’, or simply a “hack’. And if you attempted to call him a national treasure, as some of the more sentimental journalists who were sent to profile him were, then you could expect a pithy riposte. “A national treasure sounds like something that ought to be dug up.” 

Yet, if I am to be allowed an atypical moment of gravity, the passing of Cryer is yet another sad indication that we are, as a nation, increasingly devoid of such professional gag-writers whose talent at times verged on near-genius. There was no such thing as a typical Cryer joke, but what he excelled at was a reversal of expectations, a last twist or fillip that would elevate an apparently standard set-up into a punchline of genius. A typical example is his joke that “Man goes home with an acid tab. Leaves it on the kitchen table. Goes upstairs. Comes back down and it’s gone. Says to his Mum “have you seen my tablet?” Mum says “never mind your tablet. There’s a dragon on the shed.”

I have bemoaned elsewhere the decline of the noble English tradition of bawdiness and Cryer himself was firmly in the Donald McGill seaside postcard/Carry On tradition of suggestion, rather than the Orton-esque vein of more subversive obscenity. Yet his work with Howerd, especially, offered him a chance to expand his repertoire into territory firmly rich with double entendre, as in this peerless example, published in The Oldie, who have a regular section entitled “Barry Cryer’s Favourite Joke’:

“An 82 year old man goes to his doctor. “I want a complete physical examination. I’m about to get married,” says the old man. “How old are you?” the doctor asks. “I’m 82 and she’s 24. I want a complete examination to make sure everything’s working properly,” says the old man. The Doctor said, “24! Well, I’ll do the examination. But it might be better if you also got a young lodger. You know, company for your wife.” “Yes, yes, what a good idea,” says the old man. The doctor meets him again a few months later. “Did you get married?” asks the doctor. “How’s your young bride?” “She’s pregnant,” says the old man proudly. “And, erm, how’s the lodger?” says the doctor nervously. “She’s pregnant, too,” says the old man.”

Cryer noted, as he recounted the joke, that Howerd was not primarily a “gag man’, but instead someone who derived his humour from his appearance and stage presence. But a joke of this nature was too good not to repeat, as were many of the thousands of others that he came up with. It was said of him by his family that, just before he died, Cryer made those who were caring for him laugh with his Archbishop of Canterbury joke, and it would be churlish not to repeat it here:

“A man and his wife are out walking one day when they spot a lone fellow on the other side of the road. “That looks like the Archbishop of Canterbury over there” says the woman.”  “Go and see if it is,” she adds. The husband crosses the road and asks the man if he is indeed  the Archbishop of Canterbury.  “Fuck off,” says the man. The husband crosses back to his wife who asks “What did he say? Is he the Archbishop of Canterbury?” “He told me to fuck off,” says the husband.  “Oh no,” replies the wife, “Now we’ll never know”.

RIP the great Barry Cryer, whose reputation will outlive that of many Archbishops of Canterbury. 

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