My childhood days were the best ones and adulthood hasn’t been as vivid somehow. Saturday nights were brill. We’d sit on the bendy couch in front of the fire and play with toys while watching television. I can remember playing with my Matchbox and Dinky cars while The Generation Game was on television. Larry Grayson was the hub of the show and he was one of the few people I knew on television who was homosexual (I thought there were probably about 20 in England - possibly 35.) Now I’m older I’d guess he was more asexual than anything.
Coming back from Edgbaston I decided to see if I could find his grave. Even though I had a Sat-Nav I struggled to find the cemetery just off the centre of Nuneaton. It was raining as I entered the cemetery and I wasn’t gladdened to see if was fairly large. The clouds wept buckets and I was soon so wet I decided to just carry on walking up and down the paths with the soggy photograph I gad of the grave. After a wet hour I found it and realised I had walked passed the grave fifty minutes ago. I was so wet I brought the car into the cemetery and changed into dry clothes while sat on the back seat (I never thought that one day I’d be sat in my underpants next to Larry Grayson’s grave.)
Larry Grayson isn’t a name sprinkled with stardom it’s better than William Sulley White which was his real name. He was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire in 1923, his mother travelling there from Nuneaton due to the stigma of having a baby out of wedlock. It wasn’t a fortuitous start - he never met his dad and, just ten days old, his mum arranged for him to be adopted by adopters Alice and Jim. Alice died when Larry was six though he wasn’t alone as he had two adoptive sisters, May and Flo. Flo was the eldest and brought Larry up. Larry had an "Aunt Ethel" but he later found out she was the mother who had given him up.
Perhaps a lack of a father figure made him deliciously camp. He made a living from it straight way after leaving school at 14 supporting a drag act on the comedy club circuit. At the time his stage name was Billy Breen. He didn’t have to join the army as a weak heart exempted him although he did entertain the troops.
It took three decades of performing in canteens, pubs and seaside shows for stardom to find him. He toured the UK from top to bottom in drag and variety shows working in working men's clubs, regional theatres and London. The first act would see him dressed as a woman, the second as a man (often he’d get a fee for each.) A stand-up act emerged and the women’s clothes went. The fictional characters he gossiped about- Everard, the Gay Gordons, Apricot Lil and Slack Alice - would find their way into future television shows.
What an odd comedian - he didn’t tell jokes or do tricks or play an instrument or perform magic. His comedy was camp observational gossipy unthreatening across-the-garden-fence stuff which was never rude or crude, just ticklish. This probably stemmed from Larry overhearing his neighbour’s conversations as he was the only person on his street who had a telephone (used to get bookings.) All he needed was a spotlight and an audience – there was no stage dressing, props or foil.
His most famous phrase “Shut that door” was born at a performance at the New Pavilion Theatre in Redcar (now the Regent Cinema.) A side door allowed a stiff breeze off the sea to waft across the stage. Other phrases were “Seems like a nice boy” and “What a gay day” but it’s unlikely these came from his love life as there didn’t appear to be one. There were no Sunday morning News Of The World headlines showing Larry falling out of a nightclub at 4am with a couple of sexy gazelles. The limp-wristed king of camp never referred to his sexuality; the pocket python probably remained limp as he was asexual. There was no partner or “personal assistant” who lived with him or “beard” who accompanied him to social functions. If he was lonely there was no sign of it. If sex existed in his mind it was probably so low priority it wasn’t worth the sweat. People loved him for his lack or artifice, especially older women. He was the same person off camera. He was always well turned out and thought being poor wasn’t a sin but looking poor was.
Though content going round the comedy circuit he was spotted in the 1970's by television guru Michael Grade, an agent at the time. A contract was drafted up and he passed through a portal into television land. His flouncing mincing act was considered outrageous at the time; there was nobody on television like him except John Inman in Are You Being Served? A star ascended and he was part of the television furniture after thirty years of smoky working men’s clubs. Besides The Larry Grayson Show there were appearances on The Good Old Days and the Royal Variety shows. Ever a one-night-stand comedian in a well-cut suit he was probably as happy working in a working man’s club in Scunthorpe than the grander venues.
The Generation Game on Saturday was the peak and 20 million television sets were often tuned into to see him doing everything wrong. Despite the success Nuneaton remained home. He lived a simple life in a bungalow not far from where his bones are now laid. He’d bought a huge house with its own flagpole but it didn’t last long. The only largesse was a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce (with salt and pepper pots in the rear for chip shop stop-offs.) The Rolls Royce was as white as was his poodle that travelled with him.
In later life he appeared on various TV and radio shows but went into semi-retirement. For two years he moved to Torquay in Devon with his older sister Flo but they returned home to Nuneaton after two years having missed friends.
His last public appearance was in December 1994 at the Royal Variety Performance. In this he referred to his break from television with, "They thought I was dead!" Shortly after he was. On New Year's Eve 1994 he was rushed into hospital with a perforated appendix. He was allowed to return home but died on 7th January 1995 aged 71. I’m not sure what he died of but he’d suffered from ulcers and nerves for most of his life.
I can remember his funeral on the television news and some old dears touching his coffin as it passed through Nuneaton. Crowds turned out and the church service was relayed to folk outside. Here I am by the grave which Larry occupies with his mum, sisters and adoptive parents.
Looking for Larry in the rain…
Reunited with this sisters and mum…