Francis Howard (he changed the letter in his surname to be “different”) first achieved fame in the late Forties, after a grounding in the military entertainment service, during WW2.
He quickly became one of Britain’s biggest stars of radio, stage, screen and street-corners, rising to movie star in Val Guest’s 1954 movie, “The Runaway Bus” – a highly successful low-budget comedy thriller.
Frankie had ARRIVED.
And for the rest of the Fifties – then the Sixties and early Seventies – Frankie was one of Britain’s top comedians, balancing a career in films with regular appearances on TV, in both one-offs and a number of highly successful series.
But then it all began to unravel. Still a hugely successful star in the public’s mind, due to repeats of his films and TV series, Frankie’s phone suddenly stopped RINGING.
Most performers whose star has begun to fade resort to theatre, cabaret, cruise ships and the lucrative “corporates” – but Frankie’s oohs , aahs and stumbles were not NATURAL – they were WRITTEN for him, by some of the UK’s top scriptwriters (Sykes, Galton & Simpson, Cryer and Speight).
And while Frankie breathed LIFE into those scripts – he was LOST without them.
It is at this point where The Writer enters this story for the first time. I was working in London as a chauffeur and had Frankie as a celebrity fare.
It was only a SHORT trip, so I had no time to establish any rapport with Frankie and said – merely as an off-the-cuff remark – “Haven’t seen you on TV much, recently.”
Frankie’s naturally-mournful expression deepened and he muttered, half-heartedly, “Oh, I’ve done a few things.”
I immediately realised that my throwaway item of small-talk had hit a NERVE. This had certainly not been my intention, but I had no chance to repair the damage, as we then arrived at our destination.
Only much later did I discover that our encounter – and my casual observation – had occurred during one of Frankie’s “dry” periods, work-wise – and that these periods caused him to sink into deep depressions.
Thus I was delighted when, in the Eighties, Frankie made it BACK.
The person initially responsible for this was a young record producer called Trevor Horn. For ’twas he who spotted the potential of a group who called themselves “Frankie Goes To Hollywood” – a name garnered from a pop art poster depicting a fictitious magazine cover, with that headline.
1984 (the reversal of 1948, when it was written) was a classic book, which was adapted – IN 1984 – into a highly forgettable film.
Starring John Hurt and Richard Burton (who died immediately after its completion) it was a GLUM movie – which Virgin, the film’s financiers, tried unsuccessfully to “spice up” with Eurythmics music.
Thus 1984 was NOT the year of the movie, 1984 – which was bad news for Virgin. It was the year of Frankie Goes To Hollywood – which was good news for ZTT.
Their first release, “Relax” hit Number One – much to the chagrin of the BBC, who had BANNED it (see http://damienatloppers.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/damien-on-aunties-banned-records/ ) – and stayed there for WEEKS.
And it was still around there when their second epic was issued – “Two Tribes” – which was followed in quick succession by their third, “The Power Of Love” (one of THREE hits that year with that title, despite them having no commonality whatsoever – it was just a coincidence).
ALL THREE records made Number One – a feat unequalled by any group since the Sixties (in a number of ways, the Eighties was like a “mini-Sixties” – but that is another story).
After that, their fourth release – “Welcome To The Pleasuredome” – the title track off their debut album, only made Number Two (although the ALBUM made it to Number One) after which, successive singles were progressively less successful, culminating in the dissolution of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and a huge court case between the band and their producer’s label (which the band eventually won).
But 1984 was THEIR YEAR. And when Two Tribes came out, it was accompanied by a massive advertising campaign, which included a range of tee-shirts bearing legends like “Frankie Say War! Hide Yourself” and “Frankie Say Relax Don’t Do It!” – in large black capitals, on plain white material, intended to ape newspaper headlines like the fictitious one the group’s name had been culled from.
At which point, Frankie Howerd re-enters our story.
In 1984, British youth was enjoying the period of “Post-Irony” – this meant that things that were perceived as corny and outdated were suddenly being presented as FAUX-CHIC.
And the humour of Frankie Howerd certainly qualified for THAT. So some wag began having tee-shirts printed – large black caps on white – with legends like “Frankie Says Titter Ye Not” (a catch-phrase from his days in “Up Pompei”) and “Frankie Says Oooh No Missis” – which began to be worn by students everywhere, in the spirit of said post-irony.
And thus it was that eventually, the Oxford Union asked him to give a series of “lectures”.
Now the Oxford Union has been going since 1823, sponsoring lectures, debates and discussions on EVERYTHING. And “speeches” have been delivered there, by people as diverse as Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger and Malcolm X – and Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood and Kermit The Frog.
Plus the Oxford Union is a CIRCUIT of universities – not limited to Oxford.
And given the fact these “lectures” are not limited in any way – and the stature of those who had STOOD at those lecterns (and wandered [or in Stephen Hawking’s case, trundled] around the stage) – Frankie could hardly say no.
Thus it was that, late in his career and LIFE, Frankie discovered a whole new audience. He whittered on (occasionally using old material) in his familiar style, answered questions from the audience (despite usually working to carefully crafted scripts, Howerd had a LIGHTNING wit) and finished with a sketch he could NEVER have done on TV (although one of these appearances was recorded and DID appear on Channel Four).
The reaction from the audience was warm and ecstatic. While the origins of his new fame had been in post-irony – Frankie was a nice bloke.
And while it was now common knowledge he was gay – which (curiously, since he had NEVER actually “come out”) gave him “street cred” – the students never brought it up in the questions.
And so, in those last years of the Eighties, with the British university circuit loving him – Frankie was BACK.
He became a regular on late-night radio, continued what was in effect a one-man-show around the universities – and a number of clubs – and recorded a special called “Superfrank!” (scripted by another top writer, Vince Powell) on the same Channel Four that had aired the recording of his university performance, which had started the whole thing.
Which is where The Writer again returns (albeit obliquely) to this story. I was single at the time, having recently parted (amicably) from the first Mrs Damien and was using a telephone dating service (I have a good voice) which resulted in my getting a LOT of dates.
Unfortunately, the service was NATIONAL – which meant one got calls from all OVER the United Kingdom.
Consequentially, since I drove a company car at that time (which – with a little creative accounting – meant my petrol was effectively FREE) I found myself “servicing” ladies over pretty much the WHOLE of Britain.
So when I got a call from a lady in Edinburgh who, in our chats, turned out to be a big fan of Frankie – I figured why not? I had never been there.
Thus it was that I ended up driving a THOUSAND MILES (almost to the foot) for a weekend date with her.
The lady was charming. And although it quickly became obvious we had no long-term future together, after playing her the VT I had brought with me of Frankie’s Oxford Union appearance – she figured I deserved SOMETHING for my efforts…
…and so I left for the long trip home the following morning – with a memory of a SWEET encounter.
So Frankie got me LAID! Thanks, Frankie.
Oh, and if you would like to SEE the Oxford Union appearance referred to above, go to… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IryFIXuY9RM and hit 480p, fullscreen.
It is in five parts (YouTube only allowed ten minutes per clip when I uploaded it) – although you will have to go to… http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4958136/frankie_howerds_pulpit_routine_90/ (and click the “I’m over 18” feature) to see the LAST one (Frankie’s bare bum is more than YouTube can take!)