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Ronald Hugh Wyndham Frankau (22 February 1894 – 11 September 1951) was an English comedian who started in cabaret and made his way to radio and films.
Frankau was born in London, the third child of Arthur Frankau, son of Joseph Frankau, a German Jew who came to London from Frankfurt in the late 1830s and started a cigar trading business. His mother was Julia Davis Frankau, who would later become a celebrated writer of satirical novels. His mother's siblings included Henry Irving's mistress Eliza Aria and theatre critic and librettist Owen Hall, whilst their sister Florette was married to architect Marcus Collins, a brother of Drury Lane Theatre manager Arthur Collins. His brother Gilbert Frankau, in his memoirs, states that it was "obscure" why their mother "tacked the stage-famous 'Wyndham' onto the 'Ronald Hugh'" in Frankau's name.
Frankau's siblings were Gilbert, Jack and Joan. Gilbert went into the family cigar business (living and working in Germany throughout 1902 to learn something of the trade) until the Great War, was a war poet and subsequently a novelist, while his daughter Pamela Frankau would also become a novelist. Jack was killed leading his platoon in the Third Battle of Gaza in November 1917. Joan married the historian Henry Stanley Bennett and, as a Cambridge don in her own right, Joan Bennett was one of the defence witnesses in the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960.
Ronald Frankau had several children including TV producer John Frankau, father of Nicholas Frankau. He had two children with the actress Renée Roberts – Roberta and Rosemary. Rosemary Frankau pursued a career in acting, appearing in many series of the TV sitcom Terry and June as June's best friend Beattie. Rosemary's son, Sam Bain, became a comedy writer and co-created the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show.
Frankau worked as a chorus boy at Daly's Theatre in London in 1911 and joined the army in 1914 to fight in the Great War. During that time he continued his music and comedy ambitions, organizing his own concerts in Africa and the United Kingdom.
After the war he worked in night clubs and hotel lounges as an entertainer with both comical song and dance. It was then that he met performer Montë Crick, who was to be his pianist in many subsequent performances and recordings. Ronald Frankau formed various concert parties in the early 1920s, of which the most successful was The Cabaret Kittens.
In 1925, he started broadcasting saucy jokes on the radio in an Etonian tone for the BBC, but is actually better known these days for what he was never allowed to broadcast. Frankau recorded a number of songs and skits on Parlophone, some of which, like "Winnie the Worm" and "Everyone's Got Sex Appeal For Someone" (October 1933), were banned altogether. Despite, or because of, this flavour in his songs, Frankau sold over 100,000 records in 1932. In 1934, Frankau began a comedy duo with Tommy Handley that they called 'Murgatroyd and Winterbottom'. The two had originally met performing in Liverpool before the Great War.
Like most comedians, he often commented on the current events of the time, often in satire. A heavily ironic recording of March 1939 was There's Absolutely Nothing Wrong At All. Among his many Second World War recordings were "Heil Hitler! Ja! Ja! Ja!" (October 1939), "Fanny's Been Evacuated Now" (October 1940) and "The Jap and the Wop and the Hun" (April 1942). Despite his dangerously naughty tones off the air, he was able to keep his jokes clean enough for some of the toughest censors of British broadcasting at the time, including Baron Reith.
In 1994 Jeremy Nicholas presented a programme on BBC Radio 2 to commemorate the centenary of Ronald Frankau's birth, featuring – amongst others – an original July 1940 gramophone record of "Uncle Bill Has Much Improved", still bearing a BBC label marked "NOT TO BE BROADCAST UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES". On 7 November 2006, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a review of one of his acts – "Mr Murgatroyd and Mr Winterbottom" – 'The story of Tommy Handley and Ronald Frankau, a comedy partnership which had its heyday in the 1930s world of radio. There was no straight man, so the partnership was a rare one. Tommy was a fast talking Liverpudlian, while Ronald in contrast was upper class and Eton-educated. Presented by Nicholas Frankau, actor and grandson of Ronald.' http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/pip/cqry9/
Ronald Frankau died at Eastbourne on the Sussex coast – as had his father half a century before.
Frankau published a children's book, Oh, Dear, Dear (Frederick Warne & Co., 1929), poems from which were also set to music by his pianist Montë Crick and released on Parlophone.
"If you'd like to hear a story of many years ago, Then gather round, good children, and I'll tell you all I know. It's all about a princess who couldn't quite behave, And how a naughty ogre took that princess to his cave, And how the little princess was rescued by a prince, And how they've been so very very happy ever since.
Extraordinary! Wonderful! Fascinating! Queer! Marvellous! Incredible! Oh dear, dear!"
His other publications include Crazy Omnibus (Grayson & Grayson, 1933) and two Wartime books of morale-boosting humorous verse, both illustrated by Laurie Tayler and published in the early 1940s by Raphael Tuck & Sons: Diversion and He's a Perfect Little Gentleman, the Swine.
- (1947) Dual Alibi
- (1947) The Ghosts of Berkeley Square
- (1945) What Do We Do Now?
- (1942) Much Too Shy (credited as screenwriter)
- (1939) His Brother's Keeper
- (1935) Radio Follies a.k.a. Radio Parade of 1935
- (1932) Bridegroom for Two
- (1932) The Other Mrs. Phipps
- (1931) Potiphar's Wife
- (1931) The Skin Game
- (1931) Let's Love and Laugh
- Todd M. Endelman, "The Frankaus of London: A Study in Radical Assimilation, 1837-1967", Jewish History Vol. 8 Nos 1-2, 1994
- Aryeh Newman, "From Exile to Exit: the Frankau Jewish Connection", Jewish Quarterly Vol. 34 no. 4 (128) 1987
- Richards, Jeffrey, Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and his World, Hambledon & London 2005 pp41,158
- Gilbert Frankau, Self-Portrait, Hutchinson 1940 pp33-34
- Mrs Aria, My Sentimental Self, Chapman & Hall 1922 Chh. VII-XI passim
- Gilbert Frankau, Self-Portrait, Hutchinson 1940 pp. 112-113
- Mrs Aria, My Sentimental Self, Chapman & Hall 1922 pp15-22
- Gilbert Frankau, Self-Portrait, Hutchinson 1940 p41
- Gilbert Frankau, Self-Portrait, Hutchinson 1940 p. 33
- Gilbert Frankau, Self-Portrait, Hutchinson 1940 pp. 66-75
- Gilbert Frankau, Self-Portrait, Hutchinson 1940 p234
- Marianne Colloms and Dick Weindling, The Good Grave Guide to Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green, Camden History Society 2000 pp. 17-19
- Geoff J. Mellor, They Made Us Laugh, George Kelsall 1982 p35
- Geoff J. Mellor, They Made Us Laugh, George Kelsall 1982 p34