on July 28, 2009 by Chris Arnot in General Features, Comments Off on A nice Nuneaton boy

A nice Nuneaton boy

published in The Guardian

High-camp TV show host Larry Grayson is gone, but not forgotten. His home town is holding an exhibition to honour its most famous son. Chris Arnot reports

In nearly 200 years, Nuneaton has produced two nationally famous figures.
One is George Eliot, a woman who wrote under the name of a man. The other is a
man who dressed up as a woman for three decades before dropping the drag act and
changing his stage name from Billy Breen to Larry Grayson.

Exhibitions of George and Larry’s lives are both on at the Warwickshire
town’s museum. Only one is permanent. George has a gallery dedicated to her life
and times on the ground floor. Larry is just passing through, like an extended
summer show. There’s something rather end- of-the-pierish about the pink-and
-white set, established, for the time being at least, on the first-floor
landing.

Set designer Anthony James has made ingenious use of Grayson’s catchphrases.
The four ages of Larry are presented behind shut doors. Pink ones. The first is
labelled ‘Seems like a nice boy’. Open it and we learn how our hero was born
William White in Banbury 1923, how he arrived in Nuneaton when he was 10 days
old to be adopted by a mining family, how he was mainly brought up by his
stepsisters, Fan and May, and how he made his professional debut singing In the
Bushes at the Bottom of the Garden at Fife Street Working Men’s Club.

His lengthy trawl through clubland is commemorated behind the door marked
‘Look at the muck in here’, a catchphrase which originated when he used to
follow a bird impersonator called Jonah Moor on to the stage. Behind ‘What a gay
day’ are mementos of his comparatively short spell at the top. Here’s the suit
he wore at the London Palladium in 1979. Oh yes, and the surgical stockings
which, he claimed, impeded his progress and made him seem a lot slower than
Bruce Forsyth on The Generation Game. At least the state of his varicose veins
didn’t stop him from cavorting on a Cornish beach with Janet Street-Porter while
making a programme together in 1983.

You’ll find the photograph behind the door labelled ‘I love you all very
much’, along with a silver salver from Michael Grade and the red book given to
him after his appearance on This is Your Life.

The exhibition of Larry’s life was Lucinda Middleton’s idea. As assistant
curator at the museum, she felt it was high time Nuneaton honoured its favourite
son. When she arrived for her interview in 1992, almost the first person she saw
was Larry Grayson. He was walking down a busy shopping street, smiling and
waving to passers-by. ‘I could never forget his face because he was one of the
first performers on the television who just stood there and was himself,’ says
Middleton. ‘But until that moment I hadn’t realised that this was where he came
from.’

In the early 80s, as a teenager in west London, she had tuned in to The
Generation Game along with 18 million others. Grayson was a camp comedian,
blundering around the stage, making mistake after mistake, reducing a sizeable
section of the population to mild hysteria

Nuneaton’s population came out on the streets in some numbers for his
funeral in 1995. He’d always seemed like a nice boy. What’s more, he’d stayed
with them, rather than disappearing to London when he finally made his name.
Admittedly, he did once retire to Torquay for three years with his beloved
stepsister, Fan. But oh, what a grey bay it proved to be in the winter months.
Larry and Fan returned to live in a bungalow in the middle of their home town.
At the height of his fame they had occupied a big house with a flagpole outside.
Only twice a year was there a flag attached: on St George’s Day and the Queen’s
birthday. A gesture, then, from one old queen to another?

That would be a crude and oversimplistic interpretation. The exhibition
makes no mention of Grayson’s sexuality. ‘Larry and sex just didn’t go
together,’ says his former manager, Paul Vaughan. ‘It’s like thinking about your
mother doing it. I remember when the gay activists tried to out him while we
were recording The Generation Game. They were outside on Shepherd’s Bush Green
making such a noise that the producer sent me out to talk to them. I invited two
of the ring leaders in to meet Larry in his dressing room. He just sat there
with his poodle, Arthur Marshall, and said: ‘Now what’s all this about.’ One of
them said: ‘Mr Grayson, we just want you to come out and say you’re a
homosexual.’ Immediately Larry put his hands over Arthur’s ears and said, ‘Ooh,
you can’t use language like that in front of my dog.”

Eventually the activists left, rather bemused, and the demo broke up.
Vaughan goes on: ‘I was with him once when Kenny Everett came round and
suggested they went to Heaven (the gay nightclub). Larry just said, ‘Oooh, I
don’t go to places like that.’ And he didn’t. The tabloids tried very hard, but
they never found a whiff of scandal about him. He was only naughty on stage, and
even then he only went so far. He wasn’t like Julian Clary who wraps up a joke
in tinsel and shoves it under your nose. Larry would hint at something and leave
the audience to make up the next line. Don’t forget he was brought up by two
strict ladies.’

Only one of his stepsisters married. Fan stayed with him. He claimed he once
rang her, full of excitement, to tell her he was on the bill at the Palladium.
‘Hang on a minute,’ Fan’s voice butted in from the other end of the line. ‘The
coalman’s here. How many sacks do you want?’ When he rang to say he had his own
show on a Saturday evening, she expressed the hope that it wouldn’t clash with
repeats of Dixon of Dock Green.

Fran was keeping his feet on the ground. He might have been driven around in
a white Rolls Royce, but he kept salt and vinegar containers in the glove box so
that he and his chauffeur could enjoy their fish and chips to the full. He might
have been taking a couple of pink poodles for a walk, but he’d just as likely be
seen strolling around town with bulging bags from Tesco and Marks & Spencer.

According to Vaughan, the macho denizens of miners’ welfares loved this camp
comic as much as the old ladies whom he stopped to talk to in the street. They
loved him for bringing a bit of star quality to Nuneaton without getting above
himself. And let’s face it: he gave them more laughs than George Eliot ever did.
Shut That Door: an exhibition of Larry Grayson’s life is at Nuneaton Museum and
Art Gallery (01203-350720) till October 17.

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