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Larry Grayson on The Generation Game
|Birth name||William Sulley White|
31 August 1923|
Banbury, Oxfordshire, England
|Died||7 January 1995
Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England
|Medium||Comedian, TV presenter|
|Notable works and roles||The Generation Game|
Larry Grayson (31 August 1923 – 7 January 1995), born William Sulley White, was an English comedian and television presenter who reached the peak of his fame in the 1970s and early '80s. He is best remembered for hosting the BBC's popular series The Generation Game and for his high camp and English music hall humour.
His unique stand-up act consisted mainly of anecdotes about a cast of imaginary friends, the most famous of which were 'Everard' and 'Slack Alice'. He is often cited as one of the first openly gay entertainers to have enjoyed mass appeal, although he never made direct reference to his sexuality. He was devoted to his hometown Nuneaton, where a museum display relating to his life and work and a memorial have been established.
Grayson was born William Sulley White in Banbury, Oxfordshire, in 1923. His parents were unmarried and he never met his father. When Grayson was ten days old, his mother, Ethel White, arranged for him to be adopted by Alice and Jim Hammond in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. He had two adoptive sisters, Flo and May. His adoptive mother Alice died when he was six years old, and he was brought up by his eldest adoptive sister, Flo, with whom he lived for much of his life. It has been reported that his birth mother stayed in touch with the family and was known to Grayson as "Aunt Ethel" throughout his childhood, until he discovered her true identity in later life.
Grayson left school at the age of 14 and began working professionally as a supporting drag act on the comedy club circuit. He initially used the stage-name Billy Breen, but changed it to Larry Grayson in the 1950s on the advice of his agent; (He was still performing as Billy Breen in August 1962) BBC TV's "The One Show" reported on 27 November, 2012 that the name "Grayson" was taken from the American singer Kathryn Grayson, but the origin of the name "Larry" is unknown. Over the next thirty years, he toured the UK in male revues and drag shows, as well as in variety shows at venues including working men's clubs, regional theatres and the Metropolitan in London. He also added stand-up comedy to his act and developed a unique and very gentle anecdotal style of comedy. It was usually based around his various imaginary friends such as Everard, Apricot Lil, Slack Alice and the postman Pop-It-In Pete. A lot of his material was observational. In his early years, Grayson's family owned the only telephone in the street, and his inspiration came from overhearing his neighbours using it.
An early TV appearance in the 1950s had led to complaints about his act being too outrageous, and Grayson had resigned himself to a career off television. Then in the early '70s his club act was seen by TV impresario Michael Grade, who immediately signed him for ATV. Following a hit run of guest spots on ATV variety shows, he was rewarded by Lew Grade with his own show, Shut That Door!, in 1972 and the eponymously titled Larry Grayson Show.
He also made two cameo appearances in the Midlands-based soap opera Crossroads, as a flouncing, difficult customer at the Crossroads Motel and as the chauffeur at the wedding of Meg Richardson (played by his close friend Noele Gordon). In real life Grayson could not drive. He also made a number of guest appearances in variety shows, chat shows and panel games.
Grayson was one of the first television comedians to suggest an openly gay persona and many of his catchphrases, gestures and anecdotes were certainly suggestive, although he never publicly discussed or made direct reference to his sexuality, and was never known to have a partner.
The Generation Game
Grayson's popularity peaked when he was hired by the BBC to present the Saturday night show The Generation Game in 1978, as replacement for Bruce Forsyth. The show became hugely successful, attracting audiences of up to 24 million each week, and the title of the show was changed to Larry Grayson's Generation Game to reflect his popularity. Grayson was assisted by his co-star Isla St Clair, whom he always referred to as "my lovely Isla".
Despite its huge popularity, by 1981 The Generation Game was being overtaken in the ratings by ITV's rival show Game for a Laugh. Grayson decided to leave The Generation Game in 1982 while it was still relatively successful. The BBC decided he could not be replaced, and the show was cancelled, although Jimmy Tarbuck was approached to take over the show & turned it down. It was only resurrected eight years later when the original host, Bruce Forsyth, returned to the BBC.
Grayson went into semi-retirement, enjoying time on his own at his bungalow with his beloved dogs, although he did return to television to present the game show "Sweethearts" for ITV in 1987. He made a number of other TV and radio appearances, especially on the Tom O'Connor hosted TV quiz show "A Question of Entertainment", where he was one of the team captains in 1988. Grayson moved with Flo (his adoptive older sister) to Torquay, Devon as part of his semi-retirement, but moved back to Nuneaton after just a couple of years.
Grayson's final public appearance was on 3 December 1994 at the Royal Variety Performance. During this performance he referred to his hiatus from television by commenting to the audience, "They thought I was dead!".
On New Year's Eve 1994, Grayson was rushed into hospital. He was found to have suffered from a perforated appendix. After being allowed home from hospital, Grayson died on 7 January 1995 in Nuneaton, at the age of 71. He is buried alongside other members of his family in his home town of Nuneaton.
Memorial in Nuneaton
The possibility of erecting a monument to Grayson was discussed at a meeting of Nuneaton town council during Grayson's lifetime. One councillor is supposed to have objected and used homophobic language in doing so. Grayson is reported to have been incensed, and he asked his family to ensure that no memorial to him was ever to be erected there. However, a permanent tribute to Larry Grayson was opened in April 2009 at Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery, with a display of personal memorabilia and items relating to his career. The exhibition, in the ground-floor Local History Room, includes his trademark gold bentwood chair, a plaque from the star dressing room at the London Palladium, trophies, gifts and souvenir programmes.
A new Lloyd's Bar was opened in May 2010 in Nuneaton, named the William White, Grayson's birthname.
Journalist Suzi Pritchard wrote in The Guardian:
"His camp, deliciously naughty humour was never crude or vulgar. The gentle ambivalence of his humour made him attractive to an extraordinarily diverse range of people. But his real appeal was that of a valued neighbour perceptively observing the details of everyday life and commenting on it across the garden fence, creating an emotional intimacy in a society starting to fragment."
Ken Dodd, comedian, said of Larry Grayson's appeal and warmth:
"He loved everybody and he wanted them to love him in return and yes, they did, they all loved Larry".
- Slack Alice
- Vinegar Vera
- Sterilised Stan, the milkman
- Apricot Lil, who works in the jam factory
- Pop-It-In-Pete, the postman ("The things I've had through my letterbox!")
- Self-Raising Fred, the baker
- Everard Farquharson, Larry's "close friend"
- Top-it-Up Ted, the petrol station attendant
- Saturday Variety — 1971 — television show appearances.
- The Leslie Crowther Show — 1971 — television show appearances.
- Shut That Door! — 1972–73 — television show host.
- Crossroads — 1973 — guest appearance on the Boxing Day episode as an irate customer.
- The Larry Grayson Hour of Stars — 1974 — television show host.
- Look Who's Talking — 1974–75 — television show host.
- Crossroads — 1975 — guest appearance as the chauffeur of the wedding car in the episode when Meg married Hugh Mortimer.
- The Good Old Days – various appearances in televised music-hall variety show.
- Larry Grayson's Generation Game — 1978–81 — television game show host.
- At Home with Larry Grayson — 1983 — television show host.
- Late Night Larry — 1983 — radio music show host.
- Sweethearts — 1987 — television panel game host.
In 2009, Network DVD released a 3 disc set Shut That Door – Larry Grayson At ITV, which features material from his ITV days, including the one existing episode of his series Shut That Door and both series of The Larry Grayson Show.
- Larry Grayson – h2g2, Look at the Muck on 'Ere! – Part One
- Larry Grayson – h2g2, Look at the Muck on 'Ere! – Part Two
- Larry Grayson – h2g2, Look at the Muck on 'Ere! – Part Three
- Knitting Circle – Larry Grayson biographical article
- BBC Coventry article – Shut that door with Larry Grayson
- Shut That Door! Larry Grayson at ITV, DVD review and biographical background
- Larry Grayson at the Internet Movie Database
- The Larry Grayson Collection is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre and Performance Department.
|Host of The Generation Game
Bruce Forsyth (in 1990)