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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 17:57 GMT
Titter ye not - it's Frankie's pad
The home of the late comic Frankie Howerd is being opened to the public over the summer - Newsnight's Stephen Smith was given an exclusive sneak preview.

By Stephen Smith
Culture Correspondent, BBC Newsnight

Outside Frankie Howerd's bedroom window, hailstones the size of macaroons were pinging off classical statuary.

Frankie Howerd
Frankie Howerd left behind a showbusiness treasure trove
Beyond the hoary greensward, beyond the fig tree which had been reared from a sprig of Winston Churchill's mature plant, were the darkling Somerset downs.

"I can still see him out there, taking one of his walks," said Chris Byrne, fondly stroking the houndstooth topcoat which the late comedian had favoured on his constitutionals.

"People would see him marching up the lane with a piece of paper and a walking stick. He was learning his lines. What they didn't know was that the walking stick was hollow - he used to get them to fill it with gin in the pub!"

Wavering Down

Frankie Howerd died 14 years ago, but his shambolic presence still haunts his old country home, where Byrne lives as carer to the entertainer's elderly former partner, Dennis Heymer.

Would you like to be the first television programme to see inside Frankie Howerd's cottage?
Wavering Down, the comic's very Frankie-Howerd-sounding pile, has been completely pickled, and I use the term advisedly. Byrne is candid enough to admit that the place was left untouched while he was battling alcoholism. But then he woke up one morning and realised that he and Dennis were sitting on a showbusiness treasure trove.

They are opening the house and grounds to the public over the summer, with all proceeds going to charity. An entirely sober Byrne placed one of the more unlikely calls which has ever been taken in the Newsnight office:

"Would you like to be the first television programme to see inside Frankie Howerd's cottage?" he wondered.

'Teetering chaos'

The critic Kenneth Tynan, an admirer of Howerd, described him as "the subtlest clod" he had ever seen, and a sense of teetering chaos is captured in the fixtures and fittings of his home. Glossy stills of the young Richard Burton, of Frankie kissing Liz and Frankie squeezing Elton, jostle for space on the cottage walls with fond wishes from cardinals on Vatican notepaper, and the arcana of ancient Egypt.

Barry Cryer
Barry Cryer describes Howerd as one of Britain's post-war comedy greats
The latter knick-knacks and gee-gaws signify Howerd's triumph in classical roles - who can forget his Lurcio in Up Pompeii? - but they also reflect a belief shared by the comic and his partner that they had trodden the sands of antiquity together in another life.

In the country, Howerd enjoyed rambunctious sets of tennis, a game at which he anticipated John McEnroe with his racket-smashing peevishness.

In a quieter mood, he would steal by himself into the parish church, a favourite, resonant spot for mastering those apparently ramshackle routines.

Home life

Barry Cryer, a long-time Howerd collaborator and no slouch himself as a turn, brackets Howerd with Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper as Britain's post-war comedy greats.

Frankie Howerd as Lurcio in Up Pompeii!
A bibulous home life still allowed for a nip of Gordon's after a hard day's shoot
"People didn't just laugh at them, they loved them," says Cryer. "Other comics have been huge while they've been around but then been almost completely forgotten." Matt Lucas and David Walliams, riding high with Little Britain, first bonded as struggling comedians over a shared love of Frankie Howerd impressions.

The star of Carry On films and countless radio and TV appearances enjoyed a bibulous home life. After a hard day's shooting, it was Frankie's custom upon returning to Wavering Down to place his hand on a Bible in the hallway, mutter a word of thanks to the Almighty for sparing him from the Labour Exchange for another day, and then pour himself a nip of Gordon's.

But not for Frankie any old optic - his shot of Mother's Ruin ran out from a mannequin of an old drunk naked but for the rain barrel he was hiding in. Best not to ask where the spout was.

June Whitfield, a regular visitor, told us that she would often see Frankie knocking back several doubles or even trebles as a sharpener before an evening out, though he'd then abstain for the rest of the night.

Toupee talk

June Whitfield
He was obviously worried about his toupee coming off - I'm afraid it hadn't occurred to me
June Whitfield
And what of Frankie Howerd's trusty hairpiece? June Whitfield recalled working with the comedian on one of his earliest television shows. She was playing the part of his date, who became amorous and planted a kiss on her reluctant beau.

As she took him in a fond headlock during rehearsal, he cried, "Would you mind putting your hands a little lower, please!" June says, "He was obviously worried about his toupee coming off: I'm afraid it hadn't occurred to me."

Bette Davis advised Howerd to place his rug on a hot teapot, so that the steam would keep it in shape. He was never seen in public without it, though he inadvertently wore it at a jaunty angle from time to time.

"He used to scratch the back of his head when he was talking to you sometimes," says Cryer, "and the hairpiece would go up and down like a pedal bin."

Oh, please yourselves!

Stephen Smith's report was shown on Newsnight on Thursday, 16 March, 2006.

Howerd memorabilia auctioned off
13 Dec 05 |  Bristol/Somerset
Howerd's OBE raffled for charity
06 Apr 05 |  Somerset


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