- In his latest book, Just a Regular Bloke: The Ted Ray Story, film historian Anthony Slide delves into the life and times of the now largely forgotten music hall, radio, television, and, sporadically, movie comic whom he labels “the greatest standup comedian.”
Author Anthony Slide remembers music hall and radio star Ted Ray, Britain’s ‘greatest standup comedian’
Never an international star, Ted Ray (born Charles Olden; 1905–1977) – a music hall, radio, television, and sometime movie performer from the 1930s to the 1970s – has been all but forgotten even in his native United Kingdom. If you do an online search for “Ted Ray,” you’ll mostly find articles about (and images of) the early 20th-century British professional golfer of the same name.
And yet Ted Ray the entertainer – who, as it happens, was also an avid golfer (one whose artistic moniker was inspired by the professional golfer) – is the subject of Birmingham-born author and film historian Anthony Slide’s latest book, Just a Regular Bloke: The Ted Ray Story (website), which sheds light on the life and career of the man Slide calls “the greatest standup comedian.”
For those (in the U.K.) with long memories and British radio history fans, Ray is best remembered as the star of BBC Radio’s Ray’s a Laugh (1949–61), a domestic comedy with musical interludes – Ted Ray (who also cowrote the show) played the “everyman” husband, Australian import Kitty Bluett played the wife – that is notable today for having given a boost to the career of an up-and-coming Peter Sellers.
But besides his performances on the radio and on the music hall circuit, Ray was also seen on television – though never as the star of his own show – and was featured in a handful of movies.
Two big-screen highlights
As a film actor, two of Ted Ray’s most notable efforts are comedies from the 1950s: Anthony Pelissier’s Meet Me Tonight (1952), consisting of three segments from Noël Coward’s 1936 playlet collection known as Tonight at 8:30 (the film’s U.S. title), and Gerald Thomas’ Please Turn Over (1959), from Basil Thomas’ 1954 play Book of the Month. (The movie director and the playwright were apparently not related.)
In the former, Ray – somewhat dismissively labeled “a variety star” by revered critic C.A. Lejeune – is seen in the segment “The Red Peppers,” playing a less successful version of himself and half of a bickering theatrical duo. (Kay Walsh is the other half.)
In the latter, Ray and Jean Kent are the small-town parents of a bored teenager (Margaret Lockwood’s daughter Julia Lockwood) who unexpectedly becomes a literary sensation after penning a (purportedly autobiographical) Peyton Place-like novel.
(Author Slide also includes John Gilling’s 1953 crime drama Escape by Night, in which Ray has a supporting role, as another movie career highlight.)
Just a Regular Bloke: The Ted Ray Story
Anthony Slide’s Just a Regular Bloke: The Ted Ray Story covers Ted Ray’s life and career, from his early days growing up in Liverpool (Ray was actually born in Wigan, Lancashire) to his rise to music hall and radio stardom, in addition to his movie roles and television appearances, right-wing politics, problems with alcohol addiction (which led to a serious car accident in the 1970s), and a brief history of British standup comedy.
Found in the pages of Just a Regular Bloke are Danny Kaye, “the American star who had the most influence” on Ray; Ray’s a Laugh recurring player Peter Sellers, who credited Ray “with teaching him much about acting and timing”; Valerie Hobson, who was indirectly responsible (via her producer-husband Anthony Havelock-Allan) for getting Ray to costar in Meet Me Tonight; and the liberal-minded Miriam Margolyes, who got into a heated political argument with Ray on the early 1970s radio program The Betty Witherspoon Show.
Also discussed are Ted Ray’s sons Robin Ray (1934–1998) and Andrew Ray (1939–2003). The former was an actor (I’m All Right Jack), broadcaster, and musician; the latter was a (politically liberal) film, TV, and stage actor (The Mudlark, Twice Round the Daffodils) who, as the book explains, may not have been the comedian’s biological offspring.
Slide, whose works include Incorrect Entertainment, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine, Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama, The Silent Feminists, and biographies of two other British comedians, Jimmy Edwards and Ray’s fellow Liverpudlian Arthur Askey, agreed to answer (via email) a few questions about Ted Ray. See below.
Ted Ray q&a with biographer Anthony Slide
First of all, why a book on Ted Ray? Is he still a name in the United Kingdom?
A good question for which there is really no definitive answer. I have reached the age when I write what I want to write.
I had written on two once-famous British comedians, Jimmy Edwards and Arthur Askey, and I was looking for another to devote my spare time and energy to. I didn’t want to write on someone who is already the subject of a biography, so that meant I couldn’t discuss the life and career of [music hall entertainer] Ken Dodd [1927–2018], of whom I am a big fan.
Ted Ray was of interest because he was once such a big star, so admired by his contemporaries, and yet unknown outside the U.K. and pretty much forgotten there if truth be told. Because of a lack of modern source materials, it meant that researching him was a little harder — and that is what I enjoy, in-depth research. So Ted Ray it is. And I only hope this interview will encourage your readers to get hold of the book.
Hard-to-find former music hall and radio star
How would you introduce Ted Ray to international 21st-century audiences/readers? What would be his appeal?
Another good question and a difficult one to answer. He was once famous and he is now forgotten. His standup comedy is still relatively amusing. If you had the opportunity to see and hear him, you might have a chuckle or two.
But the problem is that there is extremely little available to see. YouTube has almost nothing of him. The best is an interview which he and Kenneth Williams did with David Frost. The two comedians have such a good rapport, despite their lives and comedic styles being so different.
And, of course, as you watch this interview, you might wonder who was David Frost, as he is pretty much forgotten today. Kenneth Williams is perhaps the best known of the three thanks to the publication of his often outrageous diaries and because of a brilliant [BBC] bio-film from 2006, Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, starring Michael Sheen.
Interesting, by the way, that Michael Sheen also played David Frost in Frost/Nixon. You know, that guy is really a great actor!
‘Regular guy’ appeal
What was Ted Ray’s appeal during his decades as a music hall and radio star?
I think perhaps because he was a “regular guy” on stage or radio. The audience could empathize with him. He was one of them.
He was casually dressed, usually with a jacket and tie. No grotesque makeup. No silly costume. Just a guy who it seemed had wandered on stage and was telling a stream of jokes, some topical and some old favorites.
And audiences really liked their entertainment to be familiar. It didn’t really matter if they had heard the jokes before. They knew what was coming next and looked forward to it.
The real ‘regular bloke’
Your book is called Just a Regular Bloke: The Ted Ray Story. How was Ted Ray different from other “regular blokes” like Jimmy Edwards and Arthur Askey, the subjects of two of your most recent books, or from George Formby or Will Hay?
Well, I think you have to read the book to understand.
Jimmy Edwards and Arthur Askey, whom you mention, are not regular guys. Jimmy Edwards is a blustering buffoon, usually playing a character other than himself. Arthur Askey is basically a silly guy, rather than a regular one.
I would not consider George Formby or Will Hay as “regular blokes.” They are both best remembered, if at all, for their comedy films in which they played specific characters – although I will agree that Formby’s characters were always pretty much the same.
Conservative British standup comedians
How did Ted Ray’s “conservative working-class” politics influence his comedy?
As I mention in the book, some of the greatest British comedians of the past were conservative voters: Jimmy Edwards, who actually stood for Parliament as a Conservative candidate, Arthur Askey, Erik Sikes, Ken Dodd, and others. Today, most comedians in the U.K. are left-wing. Their political values are generally part of the act.
But the earlier conservative comedians did not force their political views on their audiences. They were conservative in private life. I think the only time one comes across politics intruding is when they embrace what they believe in.
For example, Erik Sikes and Jimmy Edwards had no problem in visiting and entertaining Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), when Actors Equity had banned its members from visiting the country because of its racist standards.
Truly ‘the greatest’
In your book you call Ted Ray “the greatest standup comedian.” Why would you say that?
I call Ted Ray “the greatest standup comedian” because he was, and because that is how his peers viewed him.
Actually, at the end of the book, my last chapter – or perhaps a supplemental chapter – discusses the history of standup comedy in the U.K., something which I do not believe has been much examined before.
Ted Ray was a major radio star in the U.K. Why didn’t he transfer his talents to television? He was on TV often, it seems, but not as the star of a popular show like his radio hit Ray’s a Laugh.
It took quite a while for Ted Ray to be persuaded to become a radio performer, but once he did, he embraced the medium wholeheartedly. He loved radio, the faithful listeners who tuned in each week to his show, and, above all, the manner in which radio could be heard anywhere, in any room in the house, in any country of the world, at any time.
Television he described as “a one-eyed thing demanding undivided attention.” In his 1952 autobiography, he actually wrote that television would never take the place of radio.
Ted Ray’s big-screen highlight
What about the movies? How come Ray was seen in a mere seven big-screen titles? Which one would you most recommend?
Without question, the best of Ted Ray’s feature films is Meet Me Tonight, released in the U.S. as Tonight at 8:30. Actually, Ted Ray appears in only one third of the film — the “Red Peppers” sequence — opposite Kay Walsh. The couple play two second-rate music hall performers whose career is definitely in decay. They are quite brilliant together, and the film also provides Ted Ray with the opportunity to sing and dance.
The best of the rest is probably Escape by Night, a British film noir. It is also important in that Ted Ray plays the father of his own son, Andrew Ray, who had become quite a major British screen and stage star. Andrew made his debut in the title role of The Mudlark , opposite Irene Dunne as Queen Victoria – who was a terrible casting choice!
You have not asked me about Andrew Ray, and I must mention the only “scandal” involving Ted Ray. And that is that Andrew Ray may not have been his biological son. He does not look anything like his “father.” You will have to read the book to discover more.
And I should also mention that I was lucky in that Andrew Ray’s son helped me with the book and provided some of the unique photographs you will find therein.
The Peter Sellers connection
Ted Ray and Peter Sellers worked together on Ray’s a Laugh. How did they get along?
Peter Sellers was heard on the first six series of Ray’s a Laugh, playing a variety of characters. The two men were good friends, taking vacations together with their respective families.
Peter Sellers always credited Ted Ray with teaching him the importance of timing. And, of course, it is timing that makes a standup comedian great. You have to know your audience, how to time your gags, and how to leave sufficient spacing for the laughs.
Next project: Rediscovering faux female ventriloquist Bobbie Kimber?
Lastly, is your Ted Ray biography the final entry in a Male British Comedians trilogy, or are we to expect a fourth title, perhaps on Will Hay, George Formby, or Will Fyffe?
It would be nice to do another volume. But I am very much aware of my age and how it has become more and more of an effort to spend time writing and researching.
Also, I have a problem finding a British comedian about whom to write. I will say that someone who fascinates me is Bobbie Kimber, a female ventriloquist from the 1930s, who was really the only woman ventriloquist around and who amazed her audiences with the deep voice of her dummy, Augustus Peabody.
In the 1950s, she was exposed as a man, who had become female on stage because there were too many male ventriloquists around. The weird thing was that Bobbie Kimber started to become more and more female in real life, growing and perming his hair, and going out in public in female attire. At one point, he started wondering exactly what/who he was.
I have all his papers that I purchased from his daughter, and I am really quite fascinated by him. The only major problem is that while Ted Ray can be seen in a few clips, there is absolutely no extant footage of Bobbie Kimber.
“Ted Ray: ‘The Greatest Standup Comedian’ Discussed” notes
The q&a above was lightly edited for clarity.
Just a Regular Bloke: The Ted Ray Story cover image: BearManor Media.
Ted Ray, Jean Kent, and June Jago Please Turn Over movie image: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors.
Joan Plowright and Andrew Ray A Touch of Honey Broadway production image via Wikipedia.
“Ted Ray: ‘The Greatest Standup Comedian’ Discussed” last updated in August 2023.