August 29 1974, the Playhouse Theatre, London. A pre-recording of the radio show Does the Team Think?
and yes, dear readers, I was there, thrilled at the prospect of seeing four of Britain's greatest comedians in action: Ted Ray, Arthur Askey, Cyril Fletcher and "Professor" Jimmy Edwards. Pre-arranged members of the audience each asked the team a question which the veteran comics then proceeded to answer, hopefully in a lively and amusing way. This particular edition was finally broadcast over six months later, on March 24 1975, and to be honest it hasn't worn well. The actual recording lasted for over an hour, but the final cut is a thirty-minute programme with - thankfully - much of Edwards' boorish filth edited out. (After one particularly obscene comment he signaled a "cut this
out" scissors-like mime to the boys in the control room.) Edwards, Fletcher and Askey droned on endlessly and, to be fair, occasionally amusingly; Ted Ray could hardly get a word in. But fifty years' experience as a razor-sharp ad-libber had prepared Ted for such situations. He lets the others yap on and then, every now and then, he crackles in with a one-liner:
Jimmy: ...no, well, you see, it would be nice to be perpetuated in some way...
Ted: Well, you can be in Denmark of course !
Cyril: My first professional engagement was to perform to the ladies' night of the Hampstead Lacrosse Club - and I got twenty-five bob.
Ted: Was that net?
Ted's best gags were just there
. Like a virgin birth, from nowhere. No apparent thought process. Here's one from twenty years earlier, quoted in Bob Monkhouse's Crying With Laughter
. The occasion was the warm-up prior to a broadcast of Calling All Forces
, with Diana Dors as the Mystery Guest:
Leslie Bridgmont: We've got a smashing mystery glamour star on the show today, boys and girls, who deserves your applause, so please give her a big warm round.
Ted: Why not? Everything else she's got is big and warm and round.
The audience fell about. Bob wrote that ad-lib down, gave it to Ted in a later broadcast and Ted never realised he'd actually "written it".
Ted Ray was one of my heroes. In the early 70s in Britain he was the Maestro, a frequent guest on radio and TV panel games - such as Jokers Wild
- where he dazzled the audiences with his ready wit. "Give me any key word and I'll give you four jokes..."
"Ted Ray" was actually Charles Olden, born in Wigan on November 21 1905. Note the date, readers; Ted's year of birth is often given as 1909, but the actual date is in Who's Who
for 1955 (in later editions it conveniently disappears!) and in his autobiography Raising the Laughs
he states that in April 1926 he was twenty, which is perfectly correct. Initially he reversed his surname and was Nedlo the Gypsy Violinist; then when he realised that he could be funny as himself
, in an ordinary suit, just telling jokes in between quick bursts on the violin, his new agent George Barclay suggested (insisted!) that he should have a snappy new name to fit his snappy new image. Leafing through his pocket sporting diary he came up with the name of a half-forgotten golfer, the winner of the 1912 Open: Ted Ray. Barclay liked it immediately.
Ted's "bill matter" was also a stroke of genius: "Fiddling and Fooling". As Michael Kilgarriff has pointed out, it tells you everything: Ted Ray is a violin-playing comedian. And it's worth mentioning at this point that although Ted was born in Wigan and brought up in Liverpool, he was never a "north-country comedian", one of those gormless sub-Formbys inflicted on the British public from time to time. Good job too - or we wouldn't be discussing him here.
Ted was successful for several years on the variety circuit. It's been claimed that his first movie was Elstree Calling
, but this was made in 1930, before he was even "Ted Ray". I suspect that Ted's been confused here with Tommy Handley; his movie debut is probably Radio Parade of 1935
, although he barely registers at all. It's about 97% violin and 3% jokes; he's also there under false pretences as his first broadcast wasn't until 1939 - and this was almost a disaster as the recording equipment for the repeat broke down and he had to do the same act again in front of the same studio audience. Fortunately he was crafty enough to let them in on the secret and they reacted appropriately in all the right places.
It wasn't until 1949 that Ted got his own series. Tommy Handley, beloved star of ITMA
, had died and Ted got Tommy's Thursday night spot. Another stroke of genius: Ted's pal, producer Sidney Smith, came up with the most perfect title of all time - Ray's a Laugh
. With its catchy theme tune and an ITMA
-like cast of crazy characters including many played with quite unnecessary integrity and realism by Peter Sellers, they were off to a good start; the first series ran for a record sixty-five weeks straight through. But there was only one problem...
"Ray's a Laugh
really is crap" writes Roger Lewis in The Life And Death of Peter Sellers
; and I
hate to admit this, readers, but it's true. The four episodes issued in the BBC Radio Collection in 1990 prove it. Apart from Ted's opening monologues, and the brief sequences where Sellers brings his cardboard characters to vivid life, it's uninspired, witless and a bit desperate, clear evidence of hack writers forced onto a weekly treadmill. The show improved a bit when the ghastly musical interludes disappeared and Ted's domestic sketch with his "wife" Kitty Bluett was expanded to the full half-hour, but even this now sounds irritating and restricted, far from either the naturalistic downbeat realism of Hancock or the fantastic extremes of the Goons. But it was popular enough to run for twelve years. Ted's finest hour was still to come.
He was always loved by the public, and for a brief moment in the early 50s he was a genuine movie star, although his film career never really took flight. The "Red Peppers" sequence of Noel Coward's Meet Me Tonight
has Ted at his best - and in Technicolor - in a vignette about a broken-down song-and-dance team; but Ted's most frequently-revived movie is Carry On Teacher
. The final scene, when headmaster Ted decides to relinquish his new job because he realises how much his pupils love him ("See you next term...") is genuinely moving and real, the most heart-stopping moment in all the Carry Ons
because Ted plays it absolutely straight; pure sincerity and warmth. He could have been a fine dramatic actor, but apart from one more quickie for Peter Rogers - Please Turn Over
, a nice little movie, but no classic - that was it. Sid James got the Carry Ons
and Ted went back to radio.Ray's a Laugh
and its successor Ted Ray Time
ran until 1961; surviving bits of his TV series from the mid-50s show him in fine "fiddling and fooling" form, but by the 1960s he'd slipped a bit. Fortunately the nostalgia boom of the 70s and the celebrations of "fifty years of the BBC" helped the British public to realise how good he really was. It's a recurring trait of this nation not to appreciate national treasures until it's almost too late. On Jokers Wild
he held his own against the up-and-coming new talent, and on Does the Team Think?
he outclassed his contemporaries, when they were gracious enough to let him, with beautifully-crafted ad-libs.
Sadly Ted was involved in a drink-related motor accident in 1975, at which point his wife Sybil inadvertently revealed his carefully-hidden True Age: "He's too bloody old to drive - he'll be seventy in November." Ted was badly injured and it sent him into a period of deep depression. He'd partly recovered from this and seemed to be bouncing back - he was on great form at a tribute lunch for Jimmy Jewel - but he died on November 8 1977, aged nearly seventy-two. The London Evening News gave him the full front page. They called him "the computer comedian" because of his astonishing ad-lib facility, but this is a bit unfair. Ray's a Laugh
may have been mechanical but Ted never was. In his autobiography, Ted generously speaks of Robb Wilton's warmth: "Robb Wilton has it in greater measure than any living comedian"; but these words could equally be applied to Ted himself.
One more example, from the Playhouse Theatre, August 29 1974. Mr. John Harvey asked the team if they thought there should be a marriage test
before a marriage license
Jimmy Edwards: No, you see, both sides...both sides of the happy couple, the male and the female, should have separate tests because, I mean...
Arthur Askey: Well, you can't go in the room together. It'd be rude!
Jimmy: [ignores this altogether] They're required in the marriage to do different things, like you'd have an egg-boiling test for the lady...
Ted: Three minutes hard?!
That was Ted Ray, England's finest stand-up comedian. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, goodnight.