Barry Cryer, the grand-daddy of stand-up, scriptwriter for the big old names in TV and radio comedy, celebrated after-dinner speaker, panellist on Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and name-dropper extraordinaire, is in full, glorious swing.
Sitting in a squashy armchair in his surprisingly beige living-room in north London and sucking on the first of a series of Consulate cigarettes, he's giggling his head off while relating an
anecdote that involves Bob Monkhouse, prostate cancer, and Michael Parkinson. Without stopping for breath, he follows this with a joke about a blind parachutist and his guide dog. He liberally litters his conversation with the famous names he's worked with over the years and in the space of just five minutes he's mentioned Eric and Ernie, Tommy Cooper, Denis Norden, Kenny Everett, Stanley Bax-
ter, Bob Hope, Frankie Howerd, Clive Dunn, Jimmy Logan, Denis Norden and Frank Muir, in no particular order.
It's like listening to the sound of a roller-coaster that can't stop and, while highly amusing, it's also a bit exhausting. My guffaws begin to sound horribly fake. ''Are you sure you wouldn't like a drink?'' he asks me solicitously for the third time. I ask weakly for a coffee, but feel we should really move to the pub, his preferred milieu. Wearing jeans, comfortable old slippers with holes in the toes, and an open-necked shirt that reveals the chest scar he received from heart surgery a couple of years ago, he somehow looks a little out of place in his smart suburban home. The family photographs that surround this grandfather of four, and the sheets of hymn music at the piano, speak of a different life altogether, and one that is far removed from the male camaraderie that has shaped his outstanding career in comedy both as a scriptwriter and as a performer.
The man can't help it. He amiably refers to his own banter as a ''stream of unconsciousness'' and admits that even his friends (and he has hundreds of them) get mad with him
for always seeing a connection between one story and the next. ''When I say 'Oooh, that reminds me,' they groan and tell me to shut up,'' he says happily.
Now 68, Cryer looks younger in real life than he does in his publicity photographs. He has dispensed with his trademark horn-rimmed spectacles for our interview, saying that he doesn't need them anyway and that they're just for show. Without them he looks kinder, softer, and more youthful. Yet he's been working (you could say partying) non-stop for more than 50 years. How does he manage to remain so frisky?
''Well, it's certainly not down to daily exercise, so I suppose it's because I'm a people-aholic,'' he answers after an uncharacteristic pause. ''I'm very gregarious and I do love meeting new people, plunging into new worlds. I don't drive and always walk to the tube or the train and get talking to people there. Also, I mix with a lot of young
people. I enjoy being with friends my own age and I love talking about the past, but I don't want to live there. Do you know what I mean?''
He adds that he ''hates people of my own age who knock the young ones almost on principle'', and quotes Martha Gellhorn's tenet that one of the great treats in life is meeting someone new and starting to laugh immediately. ''That instant rapport you get with people is a wonderful feeling. It's a very nice way of making a living, actually,''
Among the ''young ones'' he admires are Jimmy Carr, Ross Noble, and Steve Coogan, even though he does not write for them. ''Ross is quite simply the best I've seen for years,'' he declares, having befriended him when they were doing a charity gig together. ''People say he's the new Billy Connolly, but he is just himself. I've never seen anybody improvise like Ross can. I'm sure he must rehearse, but he makes it seem like he's playing everything off his audience.'' He loves the fact that both Connolly and Noble laugh while performing. ''I don't find that indulgent or egotistical at all,'' he says. ''They laugh because they're suddenly struck by some stupid situation or thought and basically because they enjoy what they're doing. I'm the same. I couldn't do it if I was faking it.''
In addition to touring with his one-man show, Cryer now delivers up to three after-dinner speeches a week, and explains his own modus operandi. ''The way I see it, we are all we've got. I love all the raw
material that's out there. I'm a terrible eavesdropper and I'm shameless in the pub. If I hear someone saying something funny I'm leaning in for a listen immediately.''
Does he see a difference between male and female humour? ''Very few women are joke-tellers,'' he says. ''It's not that they can't, it's just
that they don't want to. Women like
Jo Brand and Jenny Eclair prefer talking about life. Actually, none of the young male comedians tells jokes either.''
Mark Thomas is another friend. ''Mark tells me that what I do is so old it's new and that I mustn't change it. I tell jokes, anecdotes, do lines. The younger comics love it, but they don't do it themselves.
''They all call me Uncle Baz, which I love. Mark says that if I ever say **** on stage he'll never speak to me again because that's what
Cryer's own name derives from the Norman French crier, to shout, as in town crier, and is one of the old Yorkshire trade names like cooper, fletcher, and baker. ''Cryer means big mouth, so it's quite appropriate for me, eh?'' he jokes. Yet despite all the name-dropping (an accusation he bats off amiably with the retort that he is not name-dropping, he's just old), he confesses to an obsession with anonymity.
''I'm absolutely fascinated with the idea that somebody well known to the public can walk down the street and not be noticed,'' he says. ''It's a kind of gift, I think. Alf Garnett, one of the most famous faces on television, has it. As Warren Mitchell he has a beard and wears a black leather jacket and is virtually invisible. He looks like a twinkly-eyed older Jewish boy. I went to see Steve Coogan, who I think is brilliant, and he was playing to a big house of 2000 people, in wigs playing Alan Partridge and in drag as Pauline Calf, and God knows what. The crowd were roaring, loving it. He invited us for a pint after the show and 10 minutes later he's walking into the pub a pale, smallish man with a baseball cap. Nobody recognised him at all. I just love that.''
Cryer is often described as self-deprecating. ''It's a Yorkshire thing,'' he concedes. ''Terry, my wife of 41 years, says I should stop it. The children tell me that when they were young they hated it when they asked what I'd been doing all day and I said something like, 'Oh, the usual old rubbish'.'' His three sons and one daughter hated hearing their father saying he did rubbish for a
living - as did Terry, a professional singer who in her heyday performed in all the big American musicals in their original London productions, such as Damn Yankees, Pyjama Game, and Carousel.
''But I do think it's a racial thing,'' he continues. ''Yorkshire people have an ingrained horror of people getting too big for their boots. I'm not good at handling a compliment and tend to undercut it when people say something nice to me. I should just learn to say 'thank you' and move graciously on.''
He's had to learn how to move on since the unexpected death of Willie Rushton, his dear friend, fellow panellist in I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and partner in the touring stage shows Two Old Farts and Two Old Farts In The Night they devised together when it was becoming clear that writing material for other comics was no longer as lucrative as it used to be. ''Oh, I miss him terribly; it's like losing an arm,'' he says. ''But the upside is that I can't think of him without laughing. Denis Norden told me that he still goes to ring Frank Muir, who he'd been with for hell of a long time, every morning for a gossip even though he's been dead for years. I do that with Willie.
''We weren't a double-act as such. I told jokes and did lines while Willie had this weird imagination that just spiralled off. We were so
different, but the chemistry was somehow right.
''I was very touched to be told by his wife Elaine that one of the last things he said was, 'Tell Bazza he's too old to do pantomime'.''
It was the Scots comedian, Jimmy Logan, who gave the young Cryer his first break as a comic scriptwriter. Cryer - who left Leeds University before completing his English degree and debuted as a stand-up at the famous Windmill Theatre in 1957 - had been out of work and a producer friend suggested they submit material for Logan's TV series. They wrote four under Cryer's name and all were accepted. He hasn't looked back , and says he will never forget Logan.
The other Scots comics he has written for include Stanley Baxter and Billy Connolly. Baxter and Rikki Fulton's two old ladies are particular favourites. He perfectly mimics Baxter's famous line: ''Mrs McGregor, gloves!'' before collapsing in a mirthful cackle.
''I'm a fraudulent Scot,'' he suddenly declares. ''I remember as a lad I was a Caledonian Scout and wore a kilt in the Cameron tartan. Now I'm doing a radio series called Hamish and Dougal for Radio 4 with Graeme Garden. What goes around comes around, I suppose.''
In the six-part series, a spin-off from the sketches from I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue called You'll Have Had Your Tea, Cryer plays Hamish, who's not too bright. ''They're mysterious,'' he explains. ''You don't know whether they're two old queens or what. They don't live together but they share the same housekeeper, Mrs Naughtie [played by Alison Steadman]. You don't know what they're about. They're old friends, and live in a village.
Jeremy Hardy plays the laird at the big house. He has that pukka English accent I find very strange about the aristocracy in Scotland. We got the houskeeper's name from Jim Naughtie, of course. Place names include Ben Kingsley, Loch Krankie, and Glen Close. We've already recorded two programmes.''
Radio has been good for Cryer. I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue has been running for 31 years and regularly attracts an audience of two million listeners. ''A lot of TV producers would kill for figures like that,'' he says with just a hint of pride as he climbs slowly back upstairs to his study, fag still in hand, and toes poking perilously through his slippers.
He can cultivate the curmudgeon all he likes, but Barry Cryer is not fooling anybody.
- Barry Cryer's book of memoirs, Pigs Can Fly, is published by Orion on Thursday.
- Hamish and Dougal is due for transmission on BBC Radio 4 in February 2004.
Born: Leeds, March 23, 1935.
Education: Leeds Grammar School; one year at Leeds University (''BA Eng Lit - failed'').
Marriage: 1962, to Theresa Donovan. Four children.
Career: 1957: started as stand-up at the Windmill, London. 1958: performing debut in musical Expresso Bongo. Started writing for Jimmy Logan. 1964: panellist on Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. 1990-1996: Two Old Farts In The Night, with Willie Rushton. 2002, 2003: You'll Have Had Your Tea, Radio 4, with Graeme Garden. 2004: Hamish and Dougal, Radio 4, with Graeme Garden. Made an OBE in 2001.
Highs: Being married for 41 years. ''You never hear about that.''
Lows: The unexpected death of friend and colleague Willie Rushton in 1996.