WHEN I was a child, one of the highlights of the week was the family gathering around the radio listening to The Clitheroe Kid on the BBC Light Programme. This was a vehicle for the comedian Jimmy Clitheroe, who was able throughout his career to play an 11-year-old schoolboy because his voice never broke and he stopped growing at 4ft 3in.
Most of the humour was based on broad adult observations and cheeky insults delivered in the squeaky voice of a child. The show, which ran from 1956 to 1972, was wildly successful and sold around the world via vinyl discs. There were TV spin-offs and Jimmy became a very rich lad.
Yet his was a sad life. He never had a girlfriend and was slavishly devoted to his widowed mother, with whom he shared a bungalow in Blackpool. When she died aged 84, he was bereft. On the day of her funeral he took an overdose of sleeping pills combined with brandy. The perpetual schoolboy was dead at 51.
The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1921, when James Robinson Clitheroe was born at his grandparents’ home in the Lancashire market town which shares his surname. It was a forceps delivery and the infant suffered damage to the thyroid gland which would restrict his development for life.
His childhood was spent in the mill village of Blacko, near Nelson, and he attended the same junior school in Barrowford as my father, although their paths did not cross because Jimmy was ten years his senior. (I spent four happy years at the school between 1962 and 1966).
Jimmy’s first stage appearances came in Sunday school concerts at the Methodist Chapel. Leaving school at 14, he was unable to join his parents James and Emma working in the mill because he was too small to reach the looms. He found a job at a Nelson bakery but was soon able to give it up and join a touring variety troupe under the name ‘Little Jimmie’.
In 1938 he appeared in pantomime alongside ‘Two-Ton’ Tessie O’Shea, playing Widow Twankey’s disrespectful son Wishee Washee. He moved into films from 1940 and radio from 1954, initially on the BBC’s regional Home Service North, then on the nationwide Light Programme, later to become Radio 2.
His catchphrases included: ‘Don’t some mothers ’ave ’em?’, ‘I’m all there with me cough drops’ – a Lancashire expression for being quick on the uptake – and when in trouble ‘Ooh, flippin’ ’eck!’ Here is a sample episode of The Clitheroe Kid.
His age was a well-kept secret and he always wore school uniform on stage, even for radio performances before a studio audience.
He owned a racehorse, a hotel and a chain of betting shops, and he drove a Mercedes with blocks on the pedals so he could reach them.
His inevitable move into television was not a great idea because by now his face was beginning to show his age. There were two ITV series based on the radio show, That’s My Boy and Just Jimmy, in the latter of which his mother was played by Mollie Sugden, later of Are You Being Served? fame as Mrs Slocombe. (Insert your own pussy joke here). As with Nearest and Dearest, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, the acting was generally dire.
Jimmy Clitheroe died on June 11, 1973 after relatives found him in bed unconscious. He had lost his mother five days earlier. Hundreds of fans attended his funeral.
Beside Clitheroe Market is a café which for many years was known as Jimmy Clitheroe’s and featured memorabilia of the local star. For reasons best known to the proprietors it is now named Blueberries. Such is progress.
Old jokes’ home
Whenever someone says, ‘I don’t believe in coincidences,’ I say, ‘Oh my God, me neither!’
A PS from PG
(Anatole, the French chef at Brinkley Court, is not happy after a face appears at his bedroom window).
‘Hot dog! You ask me what is it? Listen. Make some attention a little. Me, I have hit the hay, but I do not sleep so good, and presently I wake and up I look, and there is one who make faces against me through the dashed window. Is that a pretty affair? Is that convenient? If you think I like it, you jolly well mistake yourself. I am so mad as a wet hen. And why not? I am somebody, isn’t it? This is a bedroom, what-what, not a house for some apes? Then for what do blighters sit on my window so cool as a few cucumbers, making some faces?
‘Wait yet a little. I am not finish. I say I see this type on my window, making a few faces. But what then? Does he buzz off when I shout a cry, and leave me peaceable? Not on your life. He remain planted there, not giving any damns, and sit regarding me like a cat watching a duck. He make faces against me and the more I command that he should get to hell out of here, the more he do not get to hell out of here. He cry something towards me, and I demand what is his desire, but he do not explain. Oh, no, that arrives never. He does but shrug his head. What damn silliness! Is this amusing for me? You think I like it? I am not content with such folly. I think the poor mutt’s loony. Je me fiche de ce type infect. C’est idiot de faire comme ça l’oiseau . . . Allez-vous-en, louffier . . . Tell the boob to go away. He is mad as some March hatters.’
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves