‘Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper, Sid James.’ I read the names off the notepad sitting on the table in front of Harry Oakes. It was a bit cheeky, but here he was, sitting on his own in the pub. I’d discovered him while making my way to the loo, abandoning a bunch of bright young things gathered on the other side of the room. Their testosterone had been overpowering. We had come together for a conference entitled ‘Alternative Comedy through the Ages’, which had been officially opened earlier that evening. We’d had our Cava reception then listened to the opening keynote before dispersing, ready for tomorrow’s full day. The speaker was an American professor, an expert on the psychology of humour, who argued that all humour was, by its nature, ‘alternative’.
“Well, duh!” as one member of the young set had commented. He too was an academic, but many of them were impossible to distinguish from the stand ups, and a few of the delegates combined both jobs. But, for all their versatility, after a few drinks this bunch were about as alternative as sliced bread. It was as though they’d all walked too far along the seafront at Blackpool — the venue of our conference — and the ubiquitous tang of stereotypes had overpowered them.
But hark at me! The conference virgin. I guess I was feeling out of my depth amongst all these confident young things (and me in my late thirties).
That’s why I was so pleased to discover Harry, although he must have been in his sixties by then. He was one of the main reasons I’d got involved in the comedy business. I had fond memories of going, with my Dad, to watch Harry. I always thought it was a great shame that he’d had given up performing to concentrate on writing.
Anyway, when I saw that Harry Oakes, a neglected legend, was one of the guest speakers at this conference, I was overjoyed, and paid good money to attend. And here I was, not only in the man’s presence, but actually chatting him up. I felt like a groupie confronting her rock god.
As I finished declaiming that trio of comics, Harry looked up. Despite his grizzled hair and sunken cheeks, his eyes were still alert. “Isn’t that the height of bad manners,” he said, his Lancashire accent as strong and sarky as ever, “reading over someone’s shoulder?” He gestured to the empty chair opposite. My heart was pounding.
“So,” I said, having refreshed our drinks, “what have those three names in common?”
“You tell me,” he challenged.
“They’re all comics,” I said.
“You’ll have to do better than that!”
“They’re all from the North.”
“Sid James were born in South Africa!”
“Got it!” I exclaimed. “They all died on stage.”
“Impressive,” he said. “But there’s more to it than that.” I shrugged. “I wrote for ’em all,” he announced.
“The kiss of death, eh?” I joked.
“Aye,” he agreed, but in earnest. “And there’s been others, too.”
The tumbleweed seemed to roll around for a while before I dared break the silence.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Have you ever heard me joke?” he quipped, adding, after a beat, “Some big names even paid for me not to write for ’em.”
“You’re winding me up,” I said, then asked, “Would anyone pay me, too, notto write for them?”
He gave an appreciative chuckle before becoming serious again. “Remember Dickie Henderson?” I nodded. “When he died, they found a script of mine on his desk. That’s when a few agencies got together and paid me a retainer,” he paused, “on condition I didn’t write for their acts.”
As he talked, I kept thinking of the Monty Python sketch where a gag writer creates a joke so funny that it kills its author, the joke itself being deployed against the Germans in the War. Did Harry Oakes really see himself in this light, comic grenades blazing?
He then told me it was all in his “boook” (his pronunciation gave the word extra vowels). It had been due to be launched at the conference but there had been some legal problems to straighten out, to avoid “getting’ sued” (or “soood”).
Harry shared a few juicy anecdotes before we moved on to lighter topics, reminiscing about the good old days when theatres up and down the land were packed “twice nightly”. He painted such a vivid picture that, as we left the pub, I felt as though we were going back to some shoddy boarding house where a stroppy landlady would ambush us, wielding a rolling pin.
Instead, we found ourselves in the salubrious Premier Inn, where we enjoyed a nightcap in the lounge. A few of my former companions from the pub were there. But, I was relieved to see, they didn’t invite us over.
Probably wise, for Harry was getting heavy again, returning to his preoccupation about his material being the kiss of death. I had the feeling I needn’t have been there either. His sounding board was his upended glass.
I slept peacefully till 5.00am, when I found myself wide awake, turning over Harry’s stories, especially his crazy idea that he was responsible for decimating fellow comics.
Eventually I gave up on sleep, showered and went for an early morning walk to clear my head. Visiting Blackpool was quite a pilgrimage. In the old days, this place had been a Mecca for entertainers, and a lot of them had died here, too — not in Harry’s literal sense but as performers pushing themselves way past their sell-by dates. The town was now a shadow of its former self, the glitter and tinsel all ragged and threadbare.
I walked along the front, watching the noisy gulls arguing over the detritus of last night. Soon, I imagined, the conference delegates would be squabbling in a not too dissimilar fashion.
By the time I got back, delegates were drifting in, though there was no sign of Harry. I joined them, nodding to those I recognised from last night. Schmoozing, that’s what it was all about. Forget the talks.
Sitting there, I studied the programme in detail. It was only now that the title of Harry’s keynote leapt out at me: “Dying for a Laugh”. Its double meaning was obvious, and I felt deflated, realising that I hadn’t been singled out as Harry’s confidant last night. I’d simply been the passing guinea pig he could practise on.
The papers that morning were a mixed bunch. Some were little more than comic routines. Others, at least, tried to address more substantive issues: humour and minority groups, comedy and religion, the limits of laughter. I resolved there and then that this would be not only my first conference but my last, regardless of schmoozing.
I slipped out before the final paper of the morning, still looking out for Harry. I even checked the bar, early though it was. He was nowhere to be seen. Rather than go back into the centre, I took another walk, this time around the town. Had it not been for an allegiance to Harry, I’d have abandoned the conference altogether. As it was, I was intrigued to see how the audience would react to his crazy contention. Did he really believe it himself, in fact?
I had lunch in town then treated myself to a tram ride back. I was just in time for Harry’s talk. There he was, up at the front on the podium, looking quite dapper in a brown three-piece suit. He gave me an appreciative nod as the chairman began his glowing introduction.
“The postprandial session,” he said, parodying the style of the MC on The Good Old Days,on which Harry had occasionally featured, “is often known as the graveyard slot. But there are no fears of that today in the capable — nay, prestidigitatious — hands,” a few knowing members of the audience cooed in mock appreciation, while most of the younger ones looked bewildered, “of our next speaker.”
“And speaking of graveyards,” went on the chairman, “our keynote was hoping to launch his autobiography: Dying for a Laugh. Unfortunately, the lawyers don’t think it’s quite ready. So, remember it for your Christmas stockings! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the one and only … Harry Oakes!”
Harry had looked quite uncomfortable during this introduction, especially at the mention of graveyards. But he now shook off any notion of nervousness. I guess he’d been working audiences before most of us were born.
He delivered his opening line in a confidential whisper, telling us what a dangerous writer he was. We giggled, almost in spite of ourselves. Then, when he insisted it was all true, the laughter swelled.
Just as Harry seemed to be finding his rhythm, he broke off, clutched his chest, and lurched into the table on which his notes lay (though I hadn’t seen him refer to them once). Audience members initially thought it was part of the act, especially given the title of his talk. What a card! Here he was, performing some of the old slapstick for us. However, when the decanter of water smashed to the ground, silence fell. Into that silence Harry also fell, less gracefully, his body catching the edge of the podium. The laughter morphed into cries of shock.
After what seemed a prolonged hiatus, the room erupted. Several people sitting at the front leapt up and hovered over Harry’s prone form. I was further back so remained seated — stunned, I guess. Someone then announced that he was still breathing, and there was a communal sigh of relief. Eventually, some hotel staff came in with a stretcher and removed him.
I felt strangely calm as I tuned in to what was being said at the front. Should they bring forward the afternoon break? No, too soon after lunch, it was thought. Then a suggestion came from someone in the audience, “Couldn’t someone else read Harry’s paper?”
The chairman picked up Harry’s notes and frowned. After a brief consultation he addressed us: “The suggestion that someone else finishes Harry Oakes” talk is a good one, and I’m sure he’d approve, but …,” and here he held up the notes, “I think they’d struggle.” This also raised a laugh – Harry had warmed them up expertly.
Suddenly, someone pointed at me: “She’ll do it. She’s a mate of his.” The audience shifted its focus. Before I could protest, others joined in, endorsing this suggestion. I decided not to argue. Besides, something inside me was quite buoyant. I got to my feet and made for the front.
“I think I heard the gist of Harry’s talk last night,” I started explaining to the chair. “So,” I turned to the delegates, “with a bit of guidance from these scribbles, I might manage something.”
This brought a spontaneous round of applause, such that the chair didn’t bother with any introduction. He simply waved me towards the mic. I let the audience quieten as I ran my eye over Harry’s notes. They were little more than prompts but, reading again those three names at the top — Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper, Sid James — I was filled with confidence.
Even if I say so myself, the talk went exceptionally well. I began exactly as Harry had done the night before, asking the audience what the three names had in common, and then it all tumbled out. Fortunately, Harry had provided me with enough anecdotes to talk for the whole afternoon, though I rounded things off as soon as the chair began signalling.
At the end, the questions were legion, the audience assuming that I must be a close collaborator and know all the answers. “Is it true, then?” they asked. “Was he really a jinx?” “Did he really get paid not to write for people?” “Did Eric Morecambe’s widow really try to sue him?” And, perhaps most disturbingly, given Harry’s sudden affliction, “Aren’t you worried about delivering his material?”
I must say, I hadn’t considered that at all. Last night I had been very cynical about Harry’s curse, and was suspicious about the extent to which he believed in it himself. I suspected it was just some publicity stunt to boost sales of his “boook”. But now, standing in Harry’s place as a result of his indisposition — clearly, not an act — I felt quite fragile, quite exposed. Was I about to keel over? Would a rogue tram flatten me?
Fortunately, following this more fatalistic question, the chair intervened. He gave me a belated introduction — an outro-duction, perhaps — and called on the audience to show their appreciation for my impromptu performance. I’d helped them live up to the old adage, he said, that the show must go on. The audience was noisily appreciative.
“I’ve also been informed,” the chair went on, “that Harry Oakes is comfortable in hospital. Clearly, his material couldn’t finish him off after all!” This got a big laugh and rounded things off.
I decided I’d cut and run, visiting Harry before leaving Blackpool. However, I wasn’t yet off the hook. Suddenly I was the most sought-after person at the conference, with last night’s pub crowd now deciding that I was their special buddy. Talk about schmoozing! I was promised at least three jobs in stand up and gag writing.
Finally, I managed to escape and headed off in a taxi to see old Harry, the cause of my good fortune. A curse, indeed!
By the time I got there he had been moved from A & E to Cardiology. He’d had a stroke but was conscious and, despite the drugs — or perhaps because of them — was quite upbeat.
“Told you so,” were his opening words. “My material’s a killer!”
“Hardly,” I said, “you’re not in the morgue yet! And,” I added, “nor am I.”
“You?” he queried. I told him about delivering his keynote. He became quite distressed. “Perhaps you should reserve a place here too.”
“Two things,” I said. “First, your notes were entirely illegible, so I never actually read your talk. I improvised around our chat last night.” He agreed that this was a plausible loophole. “Second,” I said, “and more importantly, your theory’s a LOAD OF RUBBISH!” I could see heads turning in the ward. “Has it never struck you that most of those performers were old codgers anyway, doing a highly stressful job fuelled on fags, booze and crap cuisine?”
Harry ignored me, as though I were some random heckler. He pressed on: “I think there might be another reason for your survival.”
“It’s ’cos you’re a lass.”
“Rather a sexist response,” I admonished good-humouredly. “Good job I’m not disabled, too — unlike some!”
“Seriously,” he fixed me with his audience-arresting gaze. “My jinx only affects men.”
“Yes, the weaker sex, of course! How many female comics did you ever write for anyway?” That shut him up. “In fact, rather than a curse, your material has been the opposite. It’s been a godsend! I’ve got about five jobs lined up!”
I exaggerated slightly, but it was almost true. That conference gave my career a huge boost. Suddenly I was the most sought-after stand up and gag writer around. And it was not only my career that benefitted, either. Harry’s revived, too, thanks to his widely reported collapse. He couldn’t have planned better publicity for his forthcoming autobiography, which appeared just in time for the Christmas market.
I still maintain that the book was mistitled, and it became increasingly so the longer Harry was around to promote it. Aside from returning to stand-up, he also became a regular on chat shows and even did his stint at literary festivals. He looked healthier and more sprightly than ever, although I suspect many of his audiences turned up hoping to see a swansong, to witness the jinx come true.
It didn’t happen. Harry died only recently, in his sleep, at the age of 82. Regardless of this, the press still made out that it was the curse that finally carried him off.
Why am I putting all this on record now? Well, as Harry himself might have said, a funny thing happened on my last tour, “One Foot in the Gravy” (don’t even ask!). I really did manage to “break a leg” and was forced to cancel a few shows. There was nothing spooky about the accident. I simply fell off the stage (sober too). Of course, the press thought otherwise and immediately resurrected “The Curse” of the recently departed Harry.
So, if you’re out there Harry, somewhere up in the gods, please send me a sign, one proving definitively that this curse is A LOAD OF RUBBISH. Just something you invented to resurrect your moribund career.
Not that I believe a word of it, of course. It was just unfortunate that, immediately before I fell, I happened to be doing one of my most popular routines. The one about Harry Oakes and his crazy ideas.