2008 Best of British Variety Reviews

The Old Ones Are The Best

by Jane Fryer – Daily Mail, Saturday 6th September 2008

The last half an hour has been eventful. Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball have hugged me, kissed me rather wetly and told me they love me. Frank Carson is on his umpteenth joke – ‘What’s the difference between Frank Carson and the M1? You can turn off the M1.’

The Krankies have shown off a good deal of their deep orange tan and Brotherhood Of Man have wafted around happily in clouds of hair spray and cologne.

Oh yes, and Paul Daniels has just removed two packs of cards and a lemon from his right trouser pocket, stripped off to his black knitted boxer shorts and is now standing – furrier than you’d think – in one corner of his dressing room.

‘Now try not to get over-excited, I’m only getting changed,’ he chirps, pulling on his black magician’s slacks. ‘You’re delightful, where are you from? We’ve got plenty of time – would you like me to show you a card trick?’


‘Lovely. Somewhere in that pack is one card that’s different to the other 52.1 know what it is, but I’ve been using special neuro linguistic conjuring to affect your brain. So, go on, name a card.’

Two of spades.

Welcome to the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth, or, more accurately, backstage at the Pavilion, where a handful of Britain’s oldest and most experienced comedians and entertainers are limbering up (very enthusiastically if rather creakily) for the big moment – curtain up on the Best of British Variety Tour 2008.

Cannon & Ball, the Krankies, Jimmy Cricket, Frank Carson, Paul Daniels…these were the heroes of light entertainment in the Seventies and Eighties who regularly commanded audiences of up to 18million. And, awful though it is to admit, it’s something of a surprise to discover that some are still with us, let alone fresh from sell-out shows in seaside resorts all around the country.

Not one of them is under 60. Carson’s 83 and even teeny – 4ft 5in – Janette Krankie, who’s spent 43 years playing a wee boy in shorts and cap, is 61 and proudly brandishing her bus pass. And music is courtesy of 1976 Eurovision Song Contest winners Brotherhood Of Man.

Not quite your cup of tea? Well never mind – because according to this lot, there are plenty who love them.

‘People love variety – they always have and there’s a massive demand for it,’ says Bobby Ball. ‘Just because it’s not on television any more doesn’t mean it’s gone away. It’s still alive and kicking.’

Certainly, tickets for the 20-date tour have been selling like variety never went out of fashion. And in front-of-house the audience is all of a quiver – rustling programmes, plugging in hearing aids, adjusting generous bottoms in the red velvet stalls and chattering excitedly.

A very jolly sea of neat perms, shiny pates and a spattering of youngsters clutching Union Jack flags and standing to the patriotic strains of God Save The Queen.

Belfast-born Carson – veteran of The Comedians, Opportunity Knocks and The Good Old Days – is compere for the night (‘I’m the real star, but I allow the rest of the cast to come on at intervals – hee hee’) – and kicks things off with a raft of jokes about mothers-in-law, Irishmen, a linguistically challenged oriental gentleman and an African foot doctor:

‘Who said there’s nothing wrong with defeat?’ Wait for it…

‘Nelson Mandela’s chiropodist. It’s a cracker!’

Next up, homosexuals. ‘I went into a toilet and there was a sign saying: ‘Beware of homosexuals’. When I came out there was another one saying the same thing. Then I saw a sign attached to the skirting board. I bent down to read it. It said: ‘You’ve been warned twice already!’

The audience hoot with laughter and crunch through Murray Mints.

Meanwhile, backstage, the glamour quota’s low – peeling paint, fused lights and warm cans of cola. But it couldn’t be cheerier and the chat’s relentless.

Particularly from Cannon & Ball, real names Thomas Derbyshire and Robert Harper – the former Oldham welders, now born again Christians, whose career spans 43 years.

‘Oh hello! Who’s this lovely lady? She’s mine.’ ‘No, she’s mine.’ – ‘Hands off. I saw her first.’ Unofficially top of the tonight’s bill – though no one would dare tell Paul Daniels – they dominated prime time for 13 years, still work 46 weeks a year (‘We can never retire because Cannon keeps having children’) and in 2005 won a whole new set of fans when they appeared on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!

‘Oooh, it was brilliant. We loved it – we’d go back tomorrow, ‘ says Bobby.

The Krankies’ dressing room is next door. Otherwise known as Ian and Janette Tough, they met at the Glasgow Pavilion Theatre when they were 17 – they’re 61 now, have toured with their act for more than 40 years, had their own TV show for 12 years, were responsible for bringing us that very irritating catch-phrase ‘fandabidozi’, and in the good old days could fill a theatre twice over in one evening.

But times have changed.

‘We’re the last of the line of the vaudeville performers,’ said Ian. ‘There has been no variety on television for the past ten years, it has just been reality.

What is sad is that people have never seen a juggler or a balancing act. They have never heard the street comic, they might have heard the university comic, but not the comic who learnt his act on the street.’

The Krankies don’t have much truck with reality TV. ‘We were asked to do Celebrity Wife Swap – with Samantha Fox.’

Er, isn’t Sam Fox…?

‘Exactly. She’s a lesbian. It’d be daft…’

‘And I’m not much of a wife – I can’t even cook,’ chips in Janette.

‘They just wanted to cause a sensation – swap a gay couple with the Krankies. People think reality TV’s a quick fix for a failing career, but you’re at the mercy of the editing suite. The only thing that will restart your career is to get out there and make them laugh again.’

And with that, the Tannoy crackles into life and calls 63-year-old Jimmy Cricket to the stage.

The Krankies are lucky. The halcyon days are long gone, but they can still pick and choose their gigs and spend four months a year in Australia working on their impressively orange tans.

‘We don’t do cruise ships any more – too tiring – and we won’t do holiday resorts because there’s no discipline,’ says Ian. ‘Kids can’t just sit and watch. There are too many distractions – I once asked a staff member if I could turn off an arcade game that was making a racket through our act. He said they’d lose £100 an hour if they switched it off.’

It still sounds like pretty hard work. And surprisingly physical – in 2004, Janette was rushed to hospital with head injuries after failing 20ft from the top of Jack’s beanstalk during panto in Glasgow. Today it’s a source of good comedy: ‘They didn’t know whether to put me in the children’s ward, or the geriatric’s ward — heh heh.

Sometimes people ask me why, as a 61-year-old woman, I’m dressed as a wee boy. They just don’t get it. And I have to tell them, it’s an act – I’m only pretending. It’s supposed to be funny.’

They’re a lovely lot – friendly, welcoming and refreshingly unpretentious.

‘We were bought up in the rough working men’s clubs, into night clubs, and then into stag shows, pubs, holiday camps and finally theatres, so there’s no room for airs and graces,’ says Tommy Cannon.They lug their own kit around, drive themselves (Daniels has a Prius, Bobby Ball a Bentley and the Krankies a Jag) and are exhaustingly jolly.’

As Jimmy Cricket puts it: ‘There’s a buzz when we’re all together. It’s good clean fun. I know because I just had a shower.’

Indeed, when they all gathered earlier for a photo, they were almost too much to handle – whooping and yelling, winding each other up and flirting like fools.

‘Come on darling, come and stand next to me.’

‘Ooh it’s a cracker!’

‘Oh-ho! Is that a pack of cards in my pocket or am I just pleased to see you?’ that’s Paul Daniels, if you hadn’t guessed.

Suddenly, Cannon and Ball are kissing – or is it licking? – my cheeks. Paul Daniels is holding my hand. And someone seems to be grabbing me rather tightly round the waist,

‘Rock on, Tommy,’ says Bobby Ball, thumbing his red braces.

Only 70-year-old Daniels seems a touch self-important – apparently, he refuses to have his act introduced by Carson because he needs no introduction.

Though, fair’s fair, he may just be feeling a bit out of sorts after a nasty incident with some wasps last night. ‘I was mowing the lawn and, oh my God, they were all over me – stinging my hands.’

Presumably not ideal for card tricks.

‘Anyway, the reason I took this show is because I never did variety theatre in my day – I always had my own show – so as soon as they told me who was in it, I said yes. I’d never even asked . about the money.’

And the lovely Debbie McGee – his former assistant and wife of 20 years – will she be putting in an appearance?

‘I worked as a pro for 20 years before Debbie,’ he says a trifle stiffly. ‘It’s always been my act. She came and joined me on the television show and our marriage grew out of that. Anyway, she’s busy hosting a radio show on Radio Berkshire – she has a very good life.’

And then there’s Brotherhood Of Man – Nicky Stevens, Sandra Stevens, Martin Lee and Lee Sheridan – the UK’s answer to Abba.

It may be 32 years since their triumph in the Hague with Save All Your Kisses For Me, but they’ve notched up a staggering 26 platinum, gold and silver discs and have been going ever since.

‘People ask what we’ve been doing for the past 30 years, but we’ve never stopped – we do a lot of TV in Germany and France,’ says Sandra.

‘People tend to knock the Eurovision in Britain – I don’t understand why,’ adds Martin. ‘But we got a chance to bring back a gold medal for our country – like athletes in the Olympics.’

Suddenly, it’s the interval and Frank Carson bursts in and treats us to two of his favourite impressions – a wildebeest being attacked by a crocodile and a drunkard with terrible wind. It shouldn’t be, but somehow is, very funny.

And today’s comedians – what do they make of them? . ‘Ooh I love Al Murray – the Pub Landlord – he’s very funny,’ says Bobby Ball. ‘And Peter Kay, and Lee Evans – though his dad’s funnier.’

Frank Carson is more prosaic: ‘I hate them all. Lee Evans is a very funny boy, but I don’t like him. I can’t, because he’s younger than me. They’re young.’

None of them thinks much of TV these days, not even Britain’s Got Talent – the closest thing we’ve got to a mainstream variety show – or the X Factor.

‘It can be very mean. It’s not proper variety – they just line these people up to be cruel to them. And it’s not about* real talent. It’s giving kids the illusion you can just turn up and become a star-forget the training or the hard work.’
Speaking of which, why are they all still at it? After all, they’re far from young.

‘Of course, it’s partly for the money, but I need something to get up for in the morning. If I wasn’t working now I’d be at home, sitting on the sofa with the clicker going through the channels,’ says Bobby.

Frank Carson, who’s had several heart attacks, has a pacemaker fitted and currently works about 240 days a year, agrees:

‘I can’t stop – it’s magic. I find it very difficult not to entertain – not to make people happy. As the great Abraham Lincoln once said: “A day without a laugh in your life is a day in your life lost.”

‘The only thing that would make me stop is ill-health. I’ve got to have an operation in the next few weeks, but once that’s over I can’t see me retiring – it’d kill me.’

Out front in the stalls, the audience are laughing so hard at the Krankies, they can hardly breathe. ‘What do you find in Ancient Greece? Ancient chips.’

It’s pretty basic stuff, but it seems to work. So what’s the attraction? ‘We’re talking proper laughter – belly laughs,’ says Bobby Ball.

‘And there’s none of that effing and jeffing in here. It’s not mean, or nasty – it’s just warm family entertainment.’

‘Though I’m not sure that everybody would say it’s politically correct,’ adds Janette Krankie. ‘But, then again, the folk that we’re getting in the audience aren’t really that bothered about everything being PC. . I don’t think people are that easily offended.’

The British Variety Show is never going to be accused of being highbrow, or sophisticated, or subtle or, least of all, politically correct. But the audience couldn’t give a fig. They’re loving it – clapping along and whooping with laughter.

‘This is our bag – live entertainment,’ says Tommy Cannon. ‘We’re just hoping that this tour heralds the return of variety because for us, this is the real deal.’

And cheesy though it is, the old guard are pros – their timing is immaculate, the magic is great (naturally, my two of spades turned out to be the only card in the pack with a red back), they send themselves up beautifully, and, you may not believe it but some bits are actually really very funny.

Barrel of Laughs!

by Emma Clayton – Bradford Telegraph and Argus, Wednesday10th September 2008

With red, white and blue sticks of rock piled up in the foyer and a jolly rendition of Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside playing in the auditorium, there was a distinct end-of-the-pier feel at St George’s Hall last night.

This line-up of stellar old-school entertainers brought a slice of seaside special to land-locked Bradford. And the audience loved it.

“Rock on Tommy!” someone shouted into the night as we made our way out.

Long before the age of ice-dancing, bug-eating, ballroom-dancing celebrities, these acts dominated prime time TV schedules, providing family entertainment with a cheeky twinkle in their eyes.

Their Saturday night telly days are behind them but, judging by the warm response last night, variety is far from dead. The stage was flanked by a huge Union Jack with ‘Best of British’ emblazoned across. And our funny bones were well and truly tickled by a slick line-up from the four corners of the British Isles.

The gags came thick and fast from compere Frank Carson whose booming delivery proved it’s the way he tells ’em. There was the one about the Englishman, Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman granted a last wish. “The Welshman asked for 400 Taffs singing There’ll Be A Welcome In the Hillside, the Scot asked for 400 Scots singing The Northern Lights of Aberdeen and the Irishman asked for 400 Irish folk doing Riverdance,” beamed Frank. “The Englishman said ‘Shoot me now!’”

Cannon and Ball held the audience in their palms, teasing each other with the ease and timing that comes with being one of the nation’s biggest double acts. Snapping his red braces, Bobby Ball was delightfully daft as Tommy reined him in with the skill of an accomplished straight man.

Some of the biggest laughs also went to the Krankies. With flawless comic timing, impressive physical comedy and warm spontaneity, it was like watching a pair of polished music hall entertainers. Wee Jimmy’s looking a bit long in the tooth for a cheeky schoolboy, so the nod to alter ego Janette Tough’s age was a nice touch. She even whipped out her bus pass!

Magician Paul Daniels mesmerised generations on TV and it was a treat to see him in action. Combining quickfire comedy with slick magic skills, he hoodwinked two audience members using a lemon, an egg, a nut and a £10 note. Jimmy Cricket, wearing his trademark Left and Right wellies, treated us to an impression of an Elvis look-alike lollipop man and a gag about a turkey being signed for Manchester United. Yes, there was a ‘Foul’ joke involved. As Jimmy says, “There’s more.” My favourite was: “I was in a shopping centre and there was a power cut. I was standing for hours on the escalator.”

And Brotherhood of Man, looking barely a day older than in their Eurovision glory days, sounded fab. I found myself singing along to Figaro, Angelo and, yes, Save Your Kisses For Me.

Variety is alive and well, thanks to this line-up of accomplished, likeable entertainers.

Best of British Variety: save your kisses for the Krankies

By Dominic Cavendish – The Telegraph, 3rd September 2008

A new touring show that bundles together half a dozen household names from days when households didn’t possess even video recorders sounds like a tacky embarrassment, a shower of showbiz scraps thrown over the side of a cruise ship.

Whose idea of entertainment heaven is a medley of Frank Carson, Jimmy Cricket, the Krankies, Paul Daniels, Cannon and Ball, plus Britain’s feeble answer to Abba, the Brotherhood of Man? Not mine.

Quite overturning my cynical instincts, though, Best of British Variety left me constantly fascinated and curiously stirred.

As often as it moves you to remedial guffaws of laughter, this heroic cavalcade of golden, silver and tarnished bronze oldies, all of them refusing to give up the ghost, forces you to wonder what happened to “variety” and to mourn “Britishness”, as it used to be felt in the bones of collective innocent enjoyment.

Best of the bunch are the Krankies, who’ve been in the business long enough for the nippers who once watched them on Crackerjack to become parents in turn. Spurned by today’s TV execs, husband-and-wife team Ian and Janette Tough seem, perversely, fresher than ever.

The Scottish pair’s banter as wee Jimmy Krankie and his disapproving dad has a glorious first-day-of-term mischief about it, and everything is now undercut by a saving sense of their own delapidation: “Why don’t you go to school?” Jimmy is asked.

“Because I’m 61 years of age,” (s)he retorts. The sight of pretend infant Janette being manhandled like a marionette, face scrunched up in helpless delight and mock distress, is worth the price of admission alone.

Elsewhere, Northern Ireland’s Cricket and Carson remain great gagsmiths both. Cricket: “I went to the solicitor and said, ‘Can I make a will?’ He said, ‘Leave it to me’. I said, ‘I hardly know you.'” Carson: “I got these shoes in Taiwan. They have a label on the back: Made Round the Corner.”

Of the English contingent, the less said about the leaden Cannon and Ball the better; were Tommy and Bobby ever funny? Magic-fingered Paul Daniels continues to flabbergast, conjuring an audience-member’s £20 note from the inside of an acorn.

And you’d need a heart of stone not to mist up at Brotherhood of Man’s canter through their greatest hits, including their 1976 Eurovision winner Save Your Kisses For Me, which brings all our carefree yesterdays flooding back.

To borrow Daniels’s catchphrase, you’ll like this – not a lot – but you’ll like it.

I’ve been meaning to ask is British variety best off dead and buried?

By Micky Noonan – The Metro, Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Believe it or not, several dates on the Best Of British Variety Tour currently doing the rounds are sold out. This is surely a shocking misuse of the adjective ‘best’, with a line-up featuring Cannon & Ball, The Krankies, Jimmy Cricket, Paul Daniels and Frank Carson.

It’s a list that’s best read out loud with rising incredulity. Oh, and there’ll be some tunes from Brotherhood Of Man, who – lest we forget – won Eurovision with Save Your Kisses For Me all of 32 years ago. Vaudeville is a marvellous concept and the reappearance of old-school music-hall qualities in contemporary acts is welcome, but it’s hard to see the relevance of these old dinosaurs. It would seem nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Best of British Variety Tour

By Mark Ritchie – The Stage, Friday 8 August 2008

A huge union jack backcloth and the playing of the national anthem heralded the first night of this touring show in front of a sell-out crowd at the Embassy.

Comedian Frank Carson, acting in a comedy compere role, links the show together and gives us his accomplished hilarious blarney-filled banter between the other acts.

Although it would have been nice to see a variety show-style walk-down at the end, this production provides a platform for those on the television missing list to remind audiences that they are still very much alive and kicking.

Comedian Jimmy Cricket is one of the great front of tabs comedians, whose gentle family humour and letters from his mammy still prove irresistibly charming.

The Krankies are the real surprise package. A great performance here and the act still looks so fresh. Although this is, of course, not the first successful comedy schoolboy act – remember Jimmy Clitheroe?

Brotherhood of Man closed the first half and showed the type of stagecraft and pizzazz that was learned during the great days of the variety clubs.

With so many comedy acts on the show was always going to over-run, but Paul Daniels, who opened the second half, clearly needed no introduction. A quite superbly polished performance here from a man who makes appearing personable, likeable and skilful simultaneously look oh so easy.

“We’re bringing back variety,” exclaims bill-toppers Cannon and Ball. Some people may reply, “If only”, after a performance which showed this much-loved double act at their most surreal, with the odd dab of pathos thrown on to the comedy canvas for good measure.

Prime time telly again for this lot? I doubt it, but wouldn’t it be nice!

Let’s not do the time warp

By Veronica Lee – The Observer, Sunday August 10 2008

Anyone under the age of 40 probably associates the word ‘variety’ with pick’n’mix at the sweet counter: for anyone older, it’s vague memories of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. This tour aims to revive a quintessentially British art form, a mixed bill of comedy, music and speciality acts, and the first few dates are in seaside towns before it moves to city theatres.

In front of a huge Union flag, MC Frank Carson came on and set the standard depressingly low with a lazy, racist joke about Robert Mugabe that he fluffed. Fellow Irish comic Jimmy Cricket read his ‘letter from Mammy’ for the zillionth time in his career: it still isn’t funny, but it’s still shockingly racist.

He was followed by the Krankies, doing the same routines they’ve been doing for 40 years, but here with repeated references to Janette getting her bus pass while still dressed as a naughty schoolboy. The first half was closed by Brotherhood of Man (winners of the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest) performing their hits to a backing track, and leading an audience singalong. After the interval, Paul Daniels raised the bar with the best set of the night, one that appeared fresh. Cannon and Ball finished the evening, again trotting out material they’ve been doing for decades.

The Wii generation simply wouldn’t understand this show, but then it’s not aimed at them. The Skegness audience wasn’t entirely silver-haired – although I did make it first to the bar for a much-needed drink at the interval – but there were more thirty- and fortysomethings than I had anticipated. Most of those, though, had tattoos and looked like they suck air out of car tyres each morning.

They loved it. I sat in amazement that this borderline sexist and homophobic material is being performed in 2008. It’s as if alternative comedy, New Labour and civil partnerships never happened. No wonder variety died.