- Little known outside the U.K. (and perhaps Australia and New Zealand), for more than four decades the small, frenzied, bespectacled comedian Arthur Askey was kept busy on the British stage, radio and TV, and, less frequently, in films.
- Film historian and author Anthony Slide has written the first book-length Arthur Askey biography, I Thank You: The Arthur Askey Story.
Film historian Anthony Slide on Arthur Askey: Once popular ‘Big-Hearted’ British comedian finally gets full-fledged biography
In the last six decades or so, Liverpool has been chiefly associated as the birthplace of The Beatles. But a few decades earlier, at least some in the United Kingdom likely associated the industrial port city as the birthplace of another, radically different pop culture celebrity: Small, frantic, and bespectacled comedian Arthur Askey (1900–1982), a vaudeville, radio, and later television star – “Big-Hearted Arthur, that’s me” – who entertained (at least segments of) the British public from the late 1930s to the late 1970s.
Unlike many Hollywood comics of past and present – e.g., Charles Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Abbott & Costello, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler – or, for that matter, British talent like Monty Python, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Absolutely Fabulous’ Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, Arthur Askey never became an international name. His movies and TV shows were geared to British (and, with luck, Australian/New Zealand) audiences.
It gets more obscure. Big-screen titles like Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt, The Ghost Train, Back-Room Boy, and Ramsbottom Rides Again are now all but forgotten. In fact, these days Arthur Askey – made a Commander of the British Empire in 1981, the year before his death – is poorly remembered even in his native country.
I Thank You: The Arthur Askey Story
In an attempt to rectify that matter, film historian Anthony Slide has written the first book-length Arthur Askey biography, I Thank You: The Arthur Askey Story (website), covering the comedian’s life from his early Liverpool days to his years as a radio, stage, cinema, and TV personality.
Among those mentioned in I Thank You are Askey’s fellow Liverpudlian Paul McCartney, George Bernard Shaw (whom Askey impersonated in the mid-1940s musical comedy The Love Racket), screenwriter-director Val Guest, and performers Gracie Fields, Shirley Eaton, Jean Kent, Googie Withers, David Niven, Herbert Lom, and Absolutely Fabulous’ June Whitfield, who affirmed in her autobiography that Askey “was one of the few comedians who was as funny off screen as he was on.”
Slide, whose books include Incorrect Entertainment, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine, Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama, and a biography of gay British comedian Jimmy Edwards, has agreed to answer (via email) a few questions about Arthur Askey. See below.
Arthur Askey Q&A with biographer Anthony Slide
First of all, how would you introduce Arthur Askey to 21st-century audiences/readers?
How to introduce Arthur Askey to the 21st century?
Well, he was unlike any comedians that we have today either in the U.K. or America. He was a diminutive, frenetic comedian, often dancing around the stage as he talked, who began his career entertaining at beach resorts in the 1920s — concert parties as they were called.
Bespectacled and far from handsome, he had a natural enthusiasm for his act, for his audiences and for the many jokes in his repertoire. “Big-Hearted Arthur” was how he described himself.
He would often apologize to the audience for laughing in advance at a joke, but, as he said, he knew the punchline. He would also call his audience “Playmates,” and he introduced a large number of catchphrases that remained famous in the U.K. until fairly recent times, most notably, “Before Your Very Eyes” and, the title of my book, “I Thank You.”
What was Arthur Askey’s appeal to the British public?
Arthur Askey became a major British star thanks to the radio series Band Waggon [no connection to the 1953 Vincente Minnelli musical The Band Wagon], which was first heard in January 1938 and continued until December of the following year. Askey co-starred with Richard Murdoch as two comedians who lived in a flat on the roof of Broadcasting House.
The show was so popular that it became a stage production and a 1940 film. It was claimed that after the royal family and Neville Chamberlain, Arthur Askey was the most famous man in the country.
He recorded innumerable comic songs, most notably “The Bee Song,” starred in eight feature films between 1940 and 1943, and later enjoyed a successful television career.
How ‘British’ is ‘too British’?
Any idea as to why Askey never became an international name? Too “British”? If so, how was he any more “British” than, for instance, international stars like Danny Kaye or (the British-born) Bob Hope or Adam Sandler were/are “American”?
I don’t think he worked very hard at being an international star. I get the feeling he knew that his humor was more appealing to British audiences. He was, of course, popular in Australia, and from 1949/1950, he appeared on stage there and had his own television show.
I suppose one might argue that the only impact he had in the United States was his discovery of the buxom, dumb blonde Sabrina, who came to America and, in fact, died in semi-poverty in North Hollywood.
And you seem to be forgetting that comedians have to adapt their humor for different countries and different audiences. When Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, say, played the London Palladium, they would have British comedy writers on their team. When Dame Edna Everage toured the U.S., it was very obvious that she added “local” humor – references to “local” subjects – to her act.
You had to work on appealing to audiences, and perhaps Arthur Askey enjoyed recycling much of the same humor. He is not alone. Ken Dodd is the greatest of all British comedians, and he has never played the United States and never showed any interest in appealing beyond British audiences.
I suppose in a way comedians know how to “work” an audience and might find it difficult facing an audience that is not already familiar with their act or persona.
Miss London Ltd.
Any Arthur Askey vehicles – TV or film – that you would recommend?
Luckily, there is a vast archive relating to Arthur Askey available on YouTube, including many of his feature films. Do listen to him sing “The Bee Song” with its composer Kenneth Blain at the piano.
I think the best of his feature films is Miss London Ltd. American singer Evelyn Dall shows how talented she is here, and her all-too-brief impersonation of Jessie Matthews is worth the price of admission.
Also worth watching is I Thank You, largely because of its opening musical number, “Hello to the Sun,“ which Arthur sings on a London subway platform, providing a great record of what it must have been like to sleep at night in an underground station during the blitz.
Arthur Askey in the 21st century
What would be Arthur Askey’s relevance/appeal today – nearly half a century after his final TV appearance, more than four decades after his final big-screen role?
Hard question to answer.
What relevance do most, if not all, entertainers of the past have? Perhaps they show us that acts from the past are often better and more entertaining than acts today.
I also find it interesting that comedians in America today seem always to be liberal or left-wing. Arthur Askey was born into a working-class family, like his colleagues, and yet all of them became conservative in later years.
Why? I don’t know. What I have tried to do is present Arthur Askey’s life and career here in informative and readable fashion. I Thank You: The Arthur Askey Story is the first book-length biography of a great British comedian, and will, hopefully, introduce him and his humor to new audiences around the world.
It is then up to the reader to decide if it was worth my effort in writing the book and his/her effort in (hopefully) buying and reading it.
And if you like this book, please keep a look-out for my next volume from BearManor which will be a biography/critical study of another British comedian, Ted Ray, who is even less known and remembered today than Arthur Askey.
“Arthur Askey Q&A” endnotes
Arthur Askey Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt image: General Film Distributors.
“Arthur Askey Q&A: Old-Time British ‘Everyman’ Comedian Gets Biography” last updated in September 2021.