Anarchic comedian plagued by notorious tabloid headline

Born: January 9 1943;

Died: May 9 2019

FREDDIE Starr, who has died aged 76, was a comedian, impressionist and singer whose act was as volatile as his frequently erratic off-stage life. Starr had considerable natural gifts as a performer – he could be, and for many years was, a successful “straight” singer, a highly accomplished mimic and, many thought, one of the most impressive physical comics ever – but it was, above all, an air of danger and unpredictability which distinguished his performances.

On chat shows, he was liable to impersonate and insult his fellow guests (which, bravely, once included Mohammed Ali, whom he reduced to tears of laughter), to remove his shoe and use it as a water glass (with Terry Wogan), or to wrestle the host into a fountain that formed the centrepiece of the set (with Des O’Connor). Faced with a theatre packed with celebrities for An Audience with Freddie Starr in 1996, he opened the proceedings by flinging handfuls of live maggots at them; this did not prevent him returning for Another Audience with Freddie Starr the following year.

Like Billy Connolly, an admirer, he was viewed with suspicion in the 1970s for the “blue” content of some of his material, but like Connolly he could as easily shine without recourse to smut. When the pair conducted a charity auction together, Connolly recalled, the audience waited with trepidation for them to be “dirty”, but they behaved themselves.

On the other hand, Starr was quite capable of removing his shirt or trousers on prime-time television, and seemed to be rather too fond of dressing up as Hitler – often without any particular excuse. His impersonation of Ray Charles not only focused upon the singer’s blindness as the crux of the routine, but involved him covering his head with a stocking to simulate blackness.

But if judgment was not Starr’s long suit, few doubted his bravery (or foolhardiness). Falling off the stage, often convincingly painfully, was a standard ploy, as was appearing to assault, kiss, or bite unwary fellow performers, or to munch his way through a bunch of flowers while being interviewed.

There was, however, no basis for the story that – to his irritation, as time went on – became his enduring claim to fame. In March 1986, The Sun produced what became one of the most famous headlines ever run by a British tabloid newspaper when its front page screamed “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”.

The paper claimed that, visiting his friend Vince McCaffrey in the small hours after performing in Manchester, Starr had demanded a sandwich and, when it was not forthcoming, grabbed Supersonic (the pet hamster of McCaffrey’s girlfriend Lea La Salle), put it between two slices of bread and eaten it. In his autobiography, Unwrapped (2001), Starr wrote: “I have never eaten or even nibbled a live hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, mouse, shrew, vole or any other small mammal.” In fact, he had been a vegetarian since his teens and – surprisingly, given his behaviour – teetotal. He had, however, a much-publicised struggle with addiction to valium and painkillers that lasted for two decades.

Starr claimed that the hamster story had been cooked up by the publicist Max Clifford; if so, it did him no immediate harm. Tickets for Starr’s tour, which had been selling poorly, sold out so fast that he added a dozen extra dates, estimated to have earned him an additional £1 million. In later years, he demanded a pound from journalists who wanted to know if there were any truth in the story, and then simply answered “No”.

HeraldScotland: Clifford was later imprisoned for sexual offences uncovered as part of Operation Yewtree, which followed investigations into Jimmy Savile’s abuse; Starr was also to be arrested on several occasions between 2012 and 2014 as part of the same operation examining historic sexual abuse. The CPS found insufficient evidence to proceed, but when Starr later sued one of his accusers for defamation in 2015, the High Court dismissed his suit. This period, he said, drove him to the brink of suicide.

He was born Frederick Leslie Fowell in Huyton, bordering the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash. He was one of seven children of a bricklayer who was often out of work, and moonlighted as a bare-knuckle boxer; his mother Hilda was Jewish and originally from Germany. His father was frequently violent when drunk, and once beat Freddie so seriously that he broke both his legs; as a result he developed a serious speech problem and was taken into care for two years when he was six. A trace of a stammer remained for many years. Even so, he idolised his father, and was traumatised by his death when Freddie was still in his early teens.

He attended Sylvester’s Primary, and then Huyton Secondary Modern, and developed a passion for horse racing, constructing a Grand National course in the family’s house in Brookwood Road, round which he would coax the dog. When he was 12, he found a stray horse in a nearby field, and tethered it in the kitchen. This passion was fulfilled when he could afford to own racehorses, including Minnehoma, the winner of the 1994 Grand National.

In 1957, he auditioned for a talent contest, and as a result joined the Young People’s Roadshow. His first job on leaving school aged 15 was cleaning oil drums at an engineering factory, and then a spell at Cammell Laird Shipbuilders in Birkenhead. But he was also a regular on the Northern Club circuit and on the fringes of criminal gangs – he claimed once to have seen a man stapled to the floor with a nail gun. By the 1960s, he was singing with a group called The Midniters (or Midnighters; they used both spellings) who were managed by Brian Epstein and part of the Mersey Beat movement.

Like the Beatles, they toured the nightclubs of Hamburg where, although he was already married with a son, Starr took full advantage of the sexual opportunities; in May 1963, as Freddie Starr and the Midnighters, they released a single, Who Told You, produced by Joe Meek. Starr then moved to London (where he shared a flat in Kilburn with his friend Geoff Hughes, later Eddie Yates in Coronation Street), and joined The Delmonts, a more conventional club act.

Starr stayed with the group for six years, during which they toured Europe and the Middle East; his clowning between songs gradually came to the fore, and one night he sang Tutti Frutti in the style of Vincent Price. Soon a range of impersonations, including Tom Jones, Adam Faith, Elvis and Gene Pitney, were added and in 1967 they appeared on Opportunity Knocks, which they won for five consecutive weeks.

Starr then went solo, but was a surprise booking for the Royal Variety Performance of 1970, where he stole the show, drawing a standing ovation. Through the 1970s, though he continued to release records (he notched up several gold discs), he was increasingly viewed as a comic.

His anarchic stage shows proved tricky to present on television, though persistent attempts were made, notably on Who Do You Do? (1972) and as a panellist on Jokers Wild. A planned series in 1974, however, was reduced to a single special, while Freddie Starr’s Variety Madhouse (1979) on which Russ Abbott was a sidekick, soon morphed into Russ Abbott’s Madhouse. Starr's fortunes were not helped by his struggle to overcome his longstanding addiction to painkillers, something he seemed to have managed by the mid-1980s.

He was, however, a constant presence on chat shows and the live stage, and in the 1980s was one of the highest-earning performers in the country. In the early 1990s, he finally got his own shows, Freddie Starr (1993-4) and The Freddie Starr Show (1996-8), but much of his act – or the attitudes contained in it – already seemed dated, while the energy of his live appearances did not always translate to the small screen.

From around the turn of the century, he was more often on game shows or reality programmes, such as Beat the Crusher (1999), Living with the Dead (2009) and Celebrity Fit Club (2004). Starr, sacked as team leader on the last, turned out not only to be unfit, but seriously unwell; in 2010 he had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. The following year he was hospitalised while filming I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in the Australian jungle, and left early.

His personal life – he was married and divorced four times, and had seven children by five different mothers – remained turbulent. In 1994, there were bizarre accusations when a gardener he had employed, and who was accused of stealing £15,000 of jewellery, claimed it was payment for sexual favours – a claim dismissed when he was unable to tell the court whether Starr was circumcised or not. Then, in 1998, Starr was arrested for punching his estranged son during a meeting to patch things up. The Yewtree allegations cast a shadow over his last years.

Visibly aged, he moved permanently to the Costa del Sol, where he was found dead at home on May 9.

ANDREW MCKIE