Friday, 30 March 2018

Britain is a country which once made and now says "Goodbye" to an old actor called Bill Maynard

Bill, who has died at the age of 89 and who, in his long career on stage television and radio, had given so much pleasure to millions, was born Walter Williams in Surrey in 1928. before moving to Leicestershire where he was brought up in the 1930s.

He recalled : "I was born in Heath End, a little village in Farnham, Surrey. My dad was from Ullesthorpe. He was in the Army. He wanted to come home. We settled in South Wigston in a place called Lansdowne Grove, or rat alley as everyone called it. It was opposite the tip. There were rats everywhere. We were poor. I didn’t go to school for a while because I didn’t have shoes."

"Every Saturday night, we went to South Wigston Working Men’s Club. One night, the turn didn’t arrive so they had what was known as a “free and easy.’’ I went up and sang George Formby’s 'Leaning on a Lamppost.' I was eight. I went down a storm. The very next day, I was struck down with scarlet fever. I was in quarantine for 16 weeks in a sanatorium in Woodhouse Eaves. No-one could visit me, so my dad bought me a ukulele and a book on how to play it and for 16 weeks, that’s all I did. When I came out I learned the guitar, the mandolin, I had singing lessons, dancing lessons. By the age of nine, I had an entire act."

A bright lad, he passed the 11+ exam and attended Kibworth Beaucham Grammar School, Leicestershire and after leaving school started his stage career as a variety performer and got his big break at the age of 25 in 1953, with his first television broadcast on 'Henry Hall’s Face the Music' for which the BBC had asked him to change his surname and, as he was walking around London, he saw a poster with 'Maynards Wine Gums' written on it so he said to himself "That'll do."

The new 'Bill Maynard' got himself "a good agent" and he : "worked at Butlins with Terry Scott. We had a double act. I was getting paid £9 a week. I sent £8 home to my wife, Muriel and kept £1. I didn’t need much. I had my digs and food paid. I didn’t drink, not back then. I just drank Vimto. After a tour of army camps with Jon Pertwee, I had a steady stand-up slot at a strip show in London called The Windmill. All the BBC talent scouts came there. They knew if you could make people laugh at The Windmill, you could make them laugh anywhere."

He said his tv double act with Terry Scott, 'Great Scott – It’s Maynard' : "turned me into a superstar. I couldn’t go anywhere. I was a sex symbol. I was treated like royalty. I used to go to watch Leicester City and they gave me free tickets, drinks, a parking space right outside the ground."

By 1960 he a household name. He had it all : TV shows, magazine interviews, top hotels, adoring fans, loads of money - earning £1000 a week, but, as he said : "I went from that to doing local rep theatre, earning £9 a week. Why? Because I has this silly idea that I wanted to be a serious act-or."

It had been a traumatic experience and when he was back on his feet he said to Muriel : “Just promise me one thing, my darling. Never make me go back to the clubs again.’’  With understatement he confessed : "It was a mistake. First, it nearly ruined me. I was paying tax a year behind my earnings. So when I was bringing home £9, I was paying tax on £1,000 a week. I had to sell my house, three cars, everything I possessed in Hampshire. I went back to working the clubs. I was heckled. People called me a has-been. It was awful." 

Part of his recovery involved appearances in a series of 'Carry On' films in the early 1970s : 'Loving,' 'Henry,' 'at Your Convenience,' 'Matron' and 'Dick' as well as serious roles in Dennis Potter's tv play, 'Paper Roses' in 1971 in which he starred as a reporter, Clarence Hubbard, on the last day of his life and Colin Welland's tv play, 'Kisses at Fifty' in 1973 in which he led as Harry.

Bill returned to centre stage with a comedy based on Sapcote Working Men’s Club and in particular, the man who ran it. As he recalled : "I came back to comedy. I enjoyed it, and what took me a long time to realise is that not everyone can do it. I did 'This Is Your Life.' I wrote my biography : 'The Yo-Yo Man.' And I had this idea. I wanted to do something about my local working men’s club, especially this larger-than-life character called Peter Wright. He was a gregarious chap, full of life. Everyone loved him. He loved everyone. Peter became Selwyn Froggitt."

After a pilot episode in 1974, he starred in the Yorkshire Television sitcom 'Oh No, It's Selwyn Froggitt!' over four series from 1976–78 and with viewing figures over 20 million and was followed by 'The Gaffer' which ran from 1981 - 83 and who he described as "a grumpy old so-and-so who hated the world" and was a "good contrast" to Selwyn and "was so well-written, full of great lines: “It’s not what you know or who you know – it’s what you know about who you know.” "

Personal tragedy now struck with Muriel's death from cancer and Bill went on the road performing with actor pals and drinking buddies when he got a call from a tv director who said : “There’s this roguish character. I don’t know if you’re right for it, he’s called Claude Greengrass.” Bill played the lovable old rogue in 'Heartbeat' from 1992 -2000 and its spin off series, 'The Royal' until 2003 when he was 75.

He recalled that : "Greengrass was little more than a walk-on part, but they offered me a nice fee for the first episode so I did it. I worked on him. I gave him a bit of humour. They hadn’t planned that, but they liked it. I did the first episode and you know the rest. I was there for nine years. He put me back on top."

His tenure are Greengrass in Heartbeat was cut short by a stroke : "I spent 16 weeks in Leicester General Hospital. I thought I was buggered. It took my left side, but not my speech and not my marbles, thankfully" and "When they did 'The Royal', a spin-off of Heartbeat, they wanted Greengrass to play a bigger role. I wondered how I’d do that, after my stroke, but he was in hospital, so that was ideal. I went from one hospital bed to another."

In 2003, Bill began work as a presenter on BBC Radio Leicester, where he had last worked in 1968 and his show, 'Bill of Fare', aired every Sunday afternoon for nearly five years, until he was dismissed without notice on 5 February 2008.

According to Bill all went well until a new head of radio was appointed : "She wouldn’t let me play my own choice of music. They moved my time slot around. They didn’t want me talking to the traffic girls. I had to stop being so controversial. I knew what they wanted. They wanted me out. But I said to them: “I won’t leave – you will have to sack me.’’ They did eventually. It took them three years, though. “I hope you’re not going to be too bitter about this Bill,’’ the boss said when I left. I knew what she meant. But I rang the Mercury the next day.”‘I’ve got a story for you,’’ I said. “Radio Leicester sacks Greengrass.’’ And that was the headline the next day."

Bill, who, like many who find their forte by generating laughter, was at heart a serious man and once said :

"I wish, when I was younger, I didn’t have so much fear. Fear stops you doing things. I read a brilliant self-help book once which said you should do something you are afraid to do every day. I did that. Then I did two things, then three. Then I found I was living my life without fear. That’s the key to a good life."

Bill sings 'Heartbeat'

1 comment:

  1. I've never forgotten Kisses at Fifty. I'd love it if they repeated it. Bring back Play for Today, I say!