Politically ‘conservative’ gay comedian Jimmy Edwards remembered: Film historian Anthony Slide discusses the subject of his latest book
Jimmy Edwards is a name that rings only a faint bell even in his native United Kingdom. Elsewhere, including other English-speaking countries, Edwards is all but forgotten.
Yet the Surrey-born (on March 23, 1920) comedian is worth remembering for – at the very least – a couple of unusual reasons: his popularity as an alcoholic schoolteacher who took great pleasure in using his ubiquitous cane on the butts of his young, male students in the long-running 1950s BBC TV series Whack-O!, and for the fact that the deeply closeted, politically “conservative” gay actor was publicly outed in the late 1970s.
Enter author and film historian Anthony Slide, who traces Jimmy Edwards’ professional and personal life in his latest book, Wake Up at the Back There! It’s Jimmy Edwards (BearManor, 2018). He has also kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via email) about the Whack-O! star. See further below.
And immediately below is a brief overview of Edwards’ life and career.
Jimmy Edwards’ show-biz highlights: ‘Take It from Here’ & ‘Whack-O!’
A St. John’s College, Cambridge, grad, and a Distinguished Flying Cross recipient for his Royal Air Force service during World War II, Jimmy Edwards began his show business career – on both the stage and the radio – shortly after the end of the war.
In the latter medium, the comedy Take It from Here (1948–1960), co-starring Australian-born comedian Dick Bentley, made Edwards a household name in the U.K.
But his biggest hit was the BBC television series Whack-O! (1956–1960), starring Edwards as a boozed-up, cane-wielding boys school headmaster and featuring Arthur Howard (brother of Pygmalion and Gone with the Wind actor Leslie Howard) as his sometime assistant.
Jimmy Edwards movies
On the big screen, Jimmy Edwards was seen in only a few features – 14 in all, between 1948 and 1972 – usually in supporting roles or cameos. Examples include:
- As hiccup-prone Carol Marsh’s psychiatrist (shades of the Alan Mowbray-Merle Oberon professional relationship in That Uncertain Feeling) in Ralph Thomas’ Helter Skelter (1949).
- As a Paris-visiting Englishman who spends his time in the French capital at a British-style pub in Gordon Parry’s Innocents in Paris (1953), toplining Alastair Sim, Ronald Shiner, Claire Bloom, and Claude Dauphin.
- As an alligator owner – along with a somewhat reluctant Donald Sinden – in J. Lee Thompson’s An Alligator Named Daisy (1955).
- As a left-luggage-department resident (he’d been mistaken for a suitcase) who notes, “I hear the Pope’s allowing contraceptives for all occasions, except during sexual intercourse,” in Richard Lester’s post-nuclear-holocaust romp The Bed Sitting Room (1969).
‘Three Men in a Boat’ & ‘Bottoms Up!’
As a lead actor, Jimmy Edwards’ most noteworthy feature films were:
- John Paddy Carstairs’ Treasure Hunt (1952), in a double role as both the deceased Sir Roderick Ryall and one of his money-hungry heirs – who discover that the only thing left them is a mansion that may have to be turned into a boardinghouse.
- Ken Annakin’s turn-of-the-century-set Three Men in a Boat (1955), with Edwards, Laurence Harvey, and David Tomlinson as the titular characters, and Shirley Eaton, Jill Ireland, and Lisa Gastoni among the women they meet as they head up the River Thames.
- Mario Zampi’s double-entendre-titled Bottoms Up! (1960), a big-screen Whack-O! spin-off starring Edwards as the boozing, horse-race-betting, boy-bottom-caning headmaster at Chiselbury School.
‘Conservative’ politics & closeted gay life
Considering the fact that Jimmy Edwards was both socially and politically reactionary while being sexually attracted to men at a time when homosexuality was seen as a perversion and homosexual acts were criminal offenses in the U.K., it’s unsurprising that – bravery in battle or not – he remained hidden deep in the closet for most of his life.
In public, Edwards took part in fox hunts, ran for office under the Conservative Party banner in 1964, and for 11 years was married to British Overseas Airways London Airport receptionist Valerie Seymour (1958–1969).
Regarding his outing in the late 1970s, John Gielgud and Noël Coward biographer Sheridan Morley recalls Edwards telling him, “Out of the closet? Of course I didn’t come out of the bloody closet. They broke the bloody door down and dragged me out against my will.”
Even so, Edwards was quite a bit luckier than other actors outed in the 1960s and 1970s, among them his fellow Whack-O! player Arthur Howard and TV star Peter Wyngarde (Department S), both of whom suffered professional setbacks after being fined for “cottaging,” or “importuning” in a public toilet.
A longtime Fletching, Sussex, resident, in later years Jimmy Edwards spent much of his time in Perth, Australia. He died from pneumonia at age 68 on July 7, 1988, in London. His legacy includes two autobiographies: Take It from Me (1953) and Six of the Best (1984).
More on Anthony Slide
The author of dozens of film books (e.g., The Silent Feminists, Silent Players) and the director of a few documentaries (Portrait of Blanche Sweet; Vi: Portrait of a Silent Star, about early Metro actress Viola Dana), Anthony Slide has taken part in quite a few Q&As for Alt Film Guide. Here are six of them:
- The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville.
- Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine.
- Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama.
- Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players and Stand-Ins.
- Now Playing: Hand-Painted Poster Art from the 1910s through the 1950s.
- A Special Relationship: Britain Comes to Hollywood and Hollywood Comes to Britain.
The Jimmy Edwards Q&A with Anthony Slide can be found immediately below.
More information on Wake Up at the Back There! It’s Jimmy Edwards can be found on the BearManor website.
‘It’s Jimmy Edwards!’ Q&A with Anthony Slide
- For starters, why a book about Jimmy Edwards?
The book is unusual for me in that it is basically a biography, and I don’t usually write biographies. It is also devoted to a British entertainer, totally unknown in the United States and relatively forgotten today in his native England.
It was Ben Ohmart at BearManor Media who suggested the book to me. He is a big fan of British radio comedy and a big fan of Jimmy Edwards. Initially, I was not too enthused with Ben’s idea, but the advance he offered was sufficient to change my mind. However, I must say that as I was working on the book I was beginning to wonder how I got involved in this. There was a tremendous amount of research involved and it was difficult to document Jimmy’s private and family life.
That being said, I do think that Jimmy Edwards is deserving of at least one book-length study. He was once a major British comedian, from the 1940s until his death in 1988 – active on radio, television, the stage, and, less frequently, on screen.
Fresh comic appeal?
- Would you say that Jimmy Edwards’ comic appeal remains fresh? If not, how would explain his appeal to British audiences of the mid-20th century?
There are examples of Jimmy’s radio and television work available for study on YouTube. I don’t think that much of his work has too much appeal today. Where he really shone and his comedy was inspirational was on stage, and I was lucky to have access to footage of his act shot in Melbourne, Australia, in 1966.
I also have my own recollection of seeing him in the 1970s in the farce Big Bad Mouse, in which he co-starred with fellow comedian and ultra-conservative Eric Sykes. Big Bad Mouse was remarkable in that its appeal involved Edwards and Sykes destroying the play as it went along, ad-libbing, criticizing the plot and their fellow actors, and generally doing anything they could to please the audience.
They actually brought the play to America, although it was less appealing to audiences here. And those who saw the play more than once quickly realized that there was little actual ad-libbing. The two men were actually delivering the same, supposed ad-libbed lines, every night. They knew what they were doing and had obviously rehearsed it.
British audiences first became acquainted with Jimmy on the popular radio show, Take It from Here, and then relished his performance as an inebriated headmaster, very fond of using the cane to punish his students, on television in Whack-O! At the time, the comedy was new and original, thanks very much to writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden.
You must also be aware that most of the humor in Whack-O! was politically incorrect, involving the use of the cane on the bottoms of young boys and a celebration of the joys of alcoholism — a joy which Jimmy enjoyed in real life. He was often inebriated when he performed, but he knew just how much alcohol to consume to put over his act to best, comedic effect. He was not at his best with too little or too much alcohol.
June Whitfield remembers Jimmy Edwards
- Did you talk to any of his surviving directors and co-stars? What did they have to say?
I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to communicate with June Whitfield [seen opposite Edwards on the early 1960s TV series The Seven Faces of Jim and Six More Faces of Jim] via email. Truly, she is the Queen of British Comedy. June had played his son’s fiancee, Eth, on Take It from Here, and she had remained a good friend of Jimmy’s. In fact, she and her husband were very supportive of Jimmy when he was “outed” as gay.
I also had “conversations” with others who had worked with him: Barry Cryer, Melvyn Hayes, Mark Winter. Even a couple of the boys from Whack-O! Everyone liked him and all stressed how much he enjoyed his alcohol.
Initially, his family was not cooperative, but eventually a couple of nephews, Roy and Jim, agreed to help me. I met with both of them in the U.K., and they shared not only their memories but also family papers.
- Any idea as to why Jimmy Edwards never became an international name like fellow 1950s British comedy actors Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, and David Tomlinson?
Jimmy actually co-starred with David Tomlinson in the film version of Three Men in a Boat, and he was a bigger star than Tomlinson. I don’t think Jimmy worked very hard at becoming an international star. His humor was somewhat parochial, and his films certainly were not made with an eye to the U.S. market.
Gay closet life
- The politically conservative Jimmy Edwards was gay. Is there much information available about his private life and/or relationships? Or about his feelings regarding his sexual orientation?
Jimmy remained deeply closeted for much of his life. His marriage was probably a sham. He told his wife on their wedding night that he was gay, although her father had earlier warned her, “He’s queer.”
At the time he was “outed” in 1979, the couple was separated. He was “outed” by his longtime boyfriend, a female impersonator. The “outing” hurt Jimmy deeply in that he believed it would destroy his career. It did not.
He also worried that his society friends, with whom he fox-hunted and played polo, would shun him. They did not. “We all did that in India,” they responded. Certainly, it did not hurt his friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh. (Sadly, Prince Philip did not have anything meaningful to tell me about his friend.)
Post-‘outing’ life + gay co-star Arthur Howard ‘importuning’ arrest
- What happened after he was outed? Any changes to his professional and/or personal life?
So, the “outing” did not affect him very much. Except that he was able to take a domestic partner, a young Australian named Philip Aylmore. They remained together for the rest of Jimmy’s life and Jimmy left his entire estate to Philip.
Apart from what his nephews had to say, I do not know much about the relationship. The family was not too enthused about Philip, and they did not invite him to Jimmy’s funeral. Philip refused to talk to me, and that is too bad in that it might have helped paint a more fair and honest picture of him and the partnership.
As it is, one cannot help but wonder why a young, good-looking man should take up with someone old enough to be his father, someone who is very overweight, unattractive, and noted for having quite a temper. Someone, in fact, who would travel first-class while booking Philip into economy.
I should also mention that Arthur Howard, brother of Leslie Howard and father of stage actor Alan Howard, played the deputy headmaster on Whack-O! In 1961, he was arrested for importuning in a public toilet in Brighton. The BBC dropped him from the series. And Jimmy, who should have come to his defense, kept very quiet, for fear that his own homosexuality might become public.
I know I’m a little perverse, but I cannot find it anything but fascinating and decidedly weird that two gay men were starring in a BBC series involving the use of a cane on the bottoms of young boys.
- For those interested in becoming acquainted with Jimmy Edwards’ work, which films best showcase his talents?
I would recommend Bottoms Up!, the screen version of Whack-O! I think it holds up quite well.
Anthony Slide website.
See also: Anthony Slide discusses music hall and radio star Ted Ray, the “greatest standup comedian.”
Jimmy Edwards top image via BBC Radio.
Jimmy Edwards and Vanda Hudson Bottoms Up! image: Warner-Pathé Distributors.
Jimmy Edwards and Terry-Thomas/Prince Philip images: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.
“Jimmy Edwards – Outed ‘Conservative’ Gay British Comedian Discussed: Q&A with Biographer Anthony Slide” last updated in September 2018.
Fond memories of sharing his hot tub with him after his hunting, and yes, I can vouch that he was very interested in spanking young men too!!!! Visited him with my friends Dickie Bird and Jean-Loup Desvignes, sadly no longer with us. I have a great photo of him in his kaftan, holding a tankard. But what a character! Charming, witty, larger than life, just as much a lovable rascal off screen as on.
Do you mean you can “personally” vouch that jimmy enjoyed spanking young men! imagine that; getting 6 of the best from the most famous headmaster in England
I would image that Jimmy was in constant demand to (privately) recreate his on-screen persona of Professor James Edwards MA (applied for)
Is that particular “Dickie Bird” the famous poster designer?