An Interview with Bernie Clifton
By @Roger Crow
The last time I chatted to showbiz legend Bernie Clifton, it was at Hull New Theatre, where he and Anita Dobson had just brought the house down. Obviously there’s been a major theatrical hurdle to overcome since that panto, but he’s soon back at City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds, for the show which helped launch his TV career. We discuss that; honing his skills in Yorkshire; the role Les Dawson played in his career, and how Eric and Ernie almost landed him in hot water.
Hi Bernie. Tell us about your latest performance in ‘The Good Old Days’.
Well I haven’t been on stage now for 18 months. I’m thrilled to come back in what is absolutely a perfect environment to do what I do. Coincidentally, when I go out on stage on the 17th September, it’ll be 50 years to the week that I stepped out on those boards and did my first television appearance on The Good Old Days, 1971. It’s going to be such a hoot with the people on the bill. Apart from Jan Hunt, who I presented Crackerjack with; Jan is co-producing it, I’m also in the company of Judith Hibbert, who I first worked in panto with 35 years ago, and is the mother of that Poldark girl, Eleanor Tomlinson. The Chairman is Richard Gauntlett, who I’ve got enormous admiration for. He’s a proper turn. And Andy Eastwood, the virtuoso banjo player. It’s a fantastic bill. I can’t wait to get up there.
Take us back to the start of your career.
Well I was a turn at the clubs. From being a plumber in Saint Helens and then doing my National Service, it was pure fate. From a plumber they turned me into a radar mechanic to work on the equipment that was designed to drop bombs on Russia. This is like 1957. Instead of being sent out to the Vulcan base somewhere in the wilds of Suffolk or Scotland or anywhere, I was sent to RAF Lindhome in Doncaster; that was the bomber command bombing school. And we only did a five-day week – Monday to Friday. Doncaster at the time was the explosion of the core of northern clubland. It all elevated from Donny. Every Sunday morning I used to borrow the Flight Sergeant‘s bike; cycle into Doncaster; hide the bike behind a church somewhere, and then get on the bus to some miners’ welfare or a club in one of the pit villages. And that was me making my way in clubland.
How did you get your big break?
Eventually Barney (Colehan, the BBC TV Producer who masterminded The Good Old Days) saw me at Batley Variety Club. At the time I used to run on stage and say, “I’ve just seen a man outside with a cabbage on a dog lead”. I said, “What are you doing with a cabbage on a dog lead?” He said, “Oh, I thought it was a Collie”. Barney was in the audience and he said, “Where have you been?”. I said, “Well I’ve been in the clubs for the last 10 years”. Anyway, he booked me for The Good Old Days. And topping the bill was Les Dawson.
“He became a mentor for me”
Did Les offer any advice?
Les took me to one side and he said, “You’re all right son, but you’re only doing these jokes that hundreds of other comics are doing”. It was the year of The Comedians on TV. He said, “Why don’t you find your own style? What do you like doing?” I said, “I love mucking about with props.” He said, “Why don’t you go out and be a prop comic?” His very words were, “Plough your own furrow”. And I did. I just took him at his word; I’ve got so much respect for him. And that’s the road I went down. Everything had to be visual. Actually he became a mentor for me. Over the years he used to say, “I put you right back then didn’t I?” And it all took place in Leeds at the City Varieties. And here we are. We are back.
My first memories of you were on Crackerjack.
That’s right, it was around about 1976. It was a great experience. Because we did it as live. We used to go in at the beginning of the week, rehash the script and rewrite it and then go and do it. “It was Friday, it was 5 to 5”. And it was a great school because if you made a mistake it was every chance it would go out.
Were there any near disasters?
We did one sketch the week Morecambe and Wise had left the BBC to go to ITV. Peter Glaze played Logie Baird, the inventor of television, and I was his hapless assistant. He said, “What are you doing here? Where’s the rest of them?” I said, “Oh, they’ve gone to Thames with Eric and Ernie”. And when the powers-that-be found out, it was too sensitive a topic. I actually had to stand in front of a microphone in the transmission studio at the BBC, and when the line came up there were two faders; I was faded up, the programme sound was faded down. And instead of the line going out, “They’ve gone to Thames with Eric and Ernie,” the actual line I said was, “They’ve gone to the game to watch Everton play Burnley”. It was a fantastic time. I was very grateful for it.
Bernie Clifton headlines the opening weekend of The Good Old Days at City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds, on September 17 and 18