Plain English: The life and times of a comedy legend

Arthur English Blue Plaque

Arthur English is quite probably Aldershot Football Club’s most well-known celebrity fan. And as a fan of the sitcom Are You Being Served and with his passing being almost a quarter of a century ago, I wanted to find out more about the comedy legend and publish it here on Calling The Shots for fellow fans to read.

Because while he may be best known for Are You Being Served?, English starred in many other childhood staples of those now fifty years and more – Dad’s Army, Bless This House, Doctor At Large. In Sickness And In Health – even Follyfoot!

Arthur English was not a born Cockney, despite the excellent accent. He was born in Aldershot in 1919 and, after doing some local shows in his spare time away from a building site, he took the plunge into professionalism.

He bought a day-return to London and walked into the Windmill Theatre, nationally known as the home of new comedians. Anyone who could make the raincoated all-male audience laugh out loud between the nude ladies was considered good enough.

The Windmill was known primarily for its near-naked dancing girls, but it also spawned some of Britain’s most talented post-war comedians, such as Benny Hill, Jimmy Edwards, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Tony Hancock. English’s audition act was a hit and by that afternoon he was the star comedian of the theatre’s daily variety show, Revuedeville. The next morning, the Daily Express newspaper announced “A star is born!” and that was the end of English’s job as a painter and decorator. Instead, he became the Windmill’s resident comedian, performing six shows a day.

Arthur English
English as the fast talking “spiv”.

English had written his own act and he continued to refine it when he began his next job, working for the BBC radio series, Variety Bandbox, where he portrayed a radio version of the character that had gone down so well at the Windmill; a thin-mustached, wide-tie wearing “spiv” (a petty criminal dealing in the sale of illicit goods, which in post-war England were many as goods were still being rationed). English’s long wide ties were made by his wife Ivey out of garish curtain material.

They came down to his knees and although the Variety Bandbox producer disapproved of visual jokes on his radio series, one of the show’s biggest laughs came the time English unbuttoned his jacket, from out of which rolled a huge flowery tie which came down to his knees. “Keeps me knees warm in winter!” quipped English, much to the delight of the studio audience. Along with the ties, English’s extra-wide shouldered suits were also made to elicit laughs, and the audience loved it when English told them “I ‘ad to come in the swing door sideways.”

English’s spiv act, which he wrote himself and delivered at top speed in full motion, partly out of nervousness, had Vivian Van Damm, the Windmill’s proprietor and producer, rolling in the aisles. It was the morning of 16 March 1949, and when the Windmill’s show Revuedeville opened that afternoon, the star comedian was Arthur English.

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Roy Plomley’s castaway is actor and comedian Arthur English

English had two older brothers: Walter (born 1910) and John Edgar (born 1912). All three boys were born in their parents’ bedroom in Lysons Road and all three were baptised at Holy Trinity church. He attended West End Boys School in Aldershot (now the West End Centre) from the age of 5 to 14.

His first stage appearance was aged 10 when he joined a group from Gale & Polden called the ‘Five O’clock Follies’ as an acrobat. On leaving school in 1933 he briefly worked at Fisher’s Hotel in nearby Farnham before becoming an errand boy in a local grocery shop.

After serving in the British Army in World War II with the Hampshire Regiment and the Royal Armoured Corps, reaching the rank of sergeant, English worked as a painter and decorator in his native town and in the evenings worked as a semi-professional entertainer in various local venues polishing up his comedy routines. He married Ivy Ruth Martin in 1941; it was she who made his enormous kipper ties out of brightly coloured curtain material at the beginning of his stage career. They had two children, Ann Faith (1942–1999) and Anthony (born 1947).

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In 1949, while still employed in Aldershot as a painter and decorator, English and his then stage partner Jonny Carrol unsuccessfully auditioned at the Windmill Theatre in London. On a second, and this time solo audition with Vivian Van Damm, English became resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre at the same time compering a show for Bob Potter. English stayed at the Windmill as the principal comic until August 1950.

His early professional career was as a stand-up comic in the persona of a stereotypical wartime “spiv”, and he became known as “The Prince of the Wide Boys” dressed in a trilby hat, a white jacket and padded shoulders with a pencil-thin moustache set off with a flamboyant kipper tie four feet wide

Never one to lose the chance of publicity for his little theatre’s latest discovery, Van Damm phoned the papers. Next morning it was all over the Daily Express: “A star is born!” English never went back to his job as a house painter. Six shows a day remained his regular stint at the Windmill for some time, then it was radio with Bandbox residency, and the variety theatres, first in his spiv act, then in a full show built around him and named after his closing catchphrase, Open the Cage.

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Frank BarrieArthur English, and Sean Flanagan in The Ghosts of Motley Hall (1976)

Catchphrases were always important to English. He now opened his act with “Mum, mum, they’re laughing at me again!”, and always closed with a high-speed tongue-tripping gabble that wound up with, “I dunno what the devil I’m talking about – play the music! Open the cage!”

His variety career was capped early by an appearance in the Royal Variety Show of November 1951, but curiously he never had a television series built around him. It was not until he was cast in supporting roles in Till Death Do Us Part and the department-store sitcom Are You Being Served? that viewers made his acquaintance, more as a comedy actor than a comic.

English was not the first to caricature the spiv on stage. That honour belongs to the great Sid Field, whose West End wide boy, Slasher Green, is immortalised for all time in the film London Town (1946). But where Green’s overcoat was long enough to reach his snappy shoes, it was English’s kipper tie that brought the house down. Early in his act he would unbutton his jacket and out would roll a flowered affair that would end around his knees.

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It was made by his wife out of some eye-dazzling curtain material, and caused one of the biggest laughs ever heard on Variety Bandbox on radio: “Keeps me knees warm in winter!”, laughed English, much to the annoyance of the producer, who didn’t approve of visual gags.

It was English’s first broadcast (17 November 1949), and in no time at all he was added to the long list of resident comedians who had found fame on that famous radio series: Hal Monty, Derek Roy, Frankie Howerd, Reg Dixon, and all the way to Al Read. David Jacobs, who introduced the then new comedian, explained to listeners that English had to have three microphones – “because he just can’t keep still”. Hence English’s first catchphrase, “Watch the boy!”

Following the death of his wife Ivy (1919–75) English began to drink heavily. In 1977 English married a young dancer, Teresa Mann (born 1955), whom he met while they were performing in a pantomime together at Wimbledon, and in 1981 the couple had a daughter – Clare-Louise English, the partially deaf actress who runs the Hot Coals Theatre which specialises in plays for the deaf.

The performers John Inman and Jack Douglas were the child’s godparents. The couple separated in 1986 and the marriage was dissolved in 1987. The last four years of his life were spent in Devereux House, a care home in Farnborough.

Arthur English died in 1995 at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey as a result of complications from emphysema. After a funeral service at St Michael’s church at which fellow Water Rat Jimmy Perry read the oration his body was cremated at the Park Crematorium in Aldershot where his ashes were later interred in a plot with those of his first wife.

CREDITATION

Dennis Gifford (The Independent)

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