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14 June 1941 |
Bredbury, Stockport, Cheshire, England
|Occupation||actor, comedian, impressionist|
Mike Yarwood, OBE (born 14 June 1941 in Bredbury, Stockport, Cheshire) (Christened Michael Edward Yarwood) is an English impressionist and comedian. He was one of Britain's top-rated entertainers, regularly appearing on television from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. He left Bredbury Secondary Modern School in 1956 and worked as a messenger and then salesman at a garment warehouse. In his youth he was also a talented footballer, and almost pursued a professional career.
Yarwood was one of the stars of British television in the 1960s and 1970s, with his own prominent shows, which changed between BBC and ITV (ATV and Thames Television) based on high profile financial deals. Though he had made a short appearance with Tony Hancock in Hancock's Half Hour in 1961, Yarwood owed his initial success to the Sunday Night at the London Palladium variety 'spectacular', on which he first appeared in 1964. His appearance coincided with the senior political career of his most famous 'character', Labour Party leader and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Topping the TV ratings
At its height, Yarwood's BBC TV shows, which were based on a variety mix of comic sketches, guest musicians, and a closing song sung by Yarwood (introduced by the line, "and this is me", which became the title of his first autobiography), regularly attracted 18 million viewers.
Among the prominent British personalities he portrayed were Eddie Waring, the famously impossible to understand rugby league commentator; Brian Clough, the controversial football manager; Robin Day, the then top political interviewer on the BBC; Magnus Pyke, the eccentric TV science presenter; Alf Garnett, the lead character from Till Death Us Do Part originally portrayed by Warren Mitchell; the fictional American detective Columbo; Frank Spencer, the comic creation of sitcom actor Michael Crawford; and Wilson's Conservative Party rival Ted Heath.
Using the then-new technology of chroma key, Yarwood frequently staged set-pieces in which he appeared as several characters at the same time using pre-recorded segments. An example of this might be a panel game or discussion featuring his versions of Robin Day, Harold Wilson, Brian Clough.
It was Yarwood's performance as Harold Wilson that ultimately became his instantly recognisable trademark. He briefly caused some controversy by including the Prince of Wales as one of his regular impressions.
It is a long-held popular myth that the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, which attracted 28 million viewers (around half of the total UK population at the time) was a record for a single light entertainment broadcast in Britain. The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show, which immediately preceded Morecambe and Wise on Christmas Day 1977, actually received a slightly larger audience. This means that Yarwood, not Morecambe and Wise, holds the unbroken record for a single light entertainment broadcast in the UK.
Yarwood's characterisations also created catchphrases which came to be identified with famous figures, even if they never actually used them. The two most famous were "silly Billy", as spoken by his caricature of British Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, who actually did use the phrase to describe strikers and "I mean that most sincerely, folks", which his caricature of Opportunity Knocks presenter Hughie Green used so often people believed that the real Hughie Green actually said it. In reality, Green never did.
Part of the Cotton Crew in the BBC
Yarwood's career peaked during the 1970s when he was one of a stable of stars under the BBC Light Entertainment impresario Bill Cotton, alongside Bruce Forsyth, Dick Emery, Morecambe and Wise, Val Doonican and The Two Ronnies, all these performers having started their careers on ITV during the preceding decade. By the late 1970s some of them left the BBC and returned to independent television. Both Yarwood and Morecambe and Wise signed up with Thames TV, with mixed results; Morecambe and Wise fared better than Yarwood and their ratings remained relatively high. Forsyth signed to LWT and suffered a terrible start when his Big Night series was cancelled. However, unlike Yarwood, Forsyth bounced back and enjoyed a huge success with Play Your Cards Right.
Yarwood later defected to Thames Television but saw his career go into decline in the early 1980s. Most of his most famous subjects, such as Heath and Wilson, retired from public life or died and he was unable to master new prominent figures, most significantly, the country's first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (she was played on his show by Janet Brown). Also with the emergence of alternative comedy in the '80s which took a far more mordant and satirical attitude towards politicians (Yarwood saw himself as an all round family entertainer rather than a satirist), his career never recovered and the loss of some of his most loved characters and its fragility was directly linked to the politicians he impersonated. In addition, his battle with alcoholism and stage fright further affected his career, making him unreliable, temperamental and affecting the quality of his output. It also contributed to the break-up of his marriage in 1985.
His Thames TV show was cancelled at the end of 1987, and he concentrated on stage work. However, subsequent attempts to resurrect his television career failed, as a new generation of sharper political satirists made Yarwood's lightweight look-who-I-can-do style of comedy seem dated and weak. However, he did make an appearance on the satirical show Have I Got News for You in November 1995.
In the mid-1990s, Yarwood had the chance to return to the stage as prime minister John Major, but failed to re-establish himself before Major's premiership ended. He claimed that one of the difficulties in impersonating John Major and Tony Blair was that they were "nice guys".
In July 1990 Yarwood suffered a mild heart attack. The following year, 1991, he gave up alcohol. He has been teetotal ever since. In October 1999, he underwent treatment for depression at the Priory Clinic, Roehampton.
Yarwood's most famous shows
- Three Of A Kind (BBC) (1966–67)
- Will the Real Mike Yarwood Stand Up? (ATV) (1968–69)
- Look: Mike Yarwood (BBC) (1971–76)
- Mike Yarwood in Persons. (BBC) (1977–81)
- The Mike Yarwood Show (Thames) (1982–87)
- And This is Me (1974)
- Impressions of My Life (1986)
- Mike Yarwood Confession Album (1978)
- Guardian review which mentions British television comedy in the 1970s
- Mike Yarwood at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- Mike Yarwood on Show Us Your Titters
- Mike Yarwood in pantomime at the Coventry Theatre, Coventry, 1968–69