Barry Took

Comedian, scriptwriter, presenter

Born: 19 June, 1928, in Wood Green, London

Died: 31 March, 2002, London, aged 73

BARRY Took, who was once described as one of the funniest men in Britain, started his career as a stand-up comic and then developed into one of the best known and most successful radio scriptwriters of his generation.

He was responsible for celebrated series such as Round the Horne, The Army Game, Take It From Here, Educating Archie and Bootsie and Snudge. Not only that: he invented the television hit Monty Python’s Flying Circus and became a master of quiz shows including Radio 4’s News Quiz. Took also wrote and presented the hugely successful TV series, Points of View.

But his life was dogged for years by self-doubt, depression, domestic problems and ill-health. His two marriages ended unhappily and as a child he was overshadowed by his more academic elder brother, Philip, a brilliant student who went on to work for the American space programme before dying as a young man.

In his twenties, Took underwent the old-fashioned in-depth Freudian psychoanalysis, four hours a week, every week for four years. "I could not be the clever one in the family, so I decided to be the funny one," he said.

However, Took was the man who set the nation laughing in the austere postwar years, and few people outside his own set were aware of the problems that beset him.

Born in Wood Green, north London, he was eight when his mother told him he was an unwanted child and that his arrival had put such financial strain on the family that it gave his father a nervous breakdown. His mother’s words shook him to the core and his friends say that his confidence never fully recovered from the shock.

He left school at 15 and worked as an office boy in Tin Pan Alley and a cinema projectionist before doing his two years’ National Service in the Royal Air Force, where he played the trumpet, organised revues and met his first wife, Dorothy Bird. Although the marriage produced two sons and a daughter, it broke up after a few years. He wanted a life in show business. She wanted him to have a nine-to-five job. And he was drinking heavily.

Took started working as a stage hand and comic. In his autobiography, A Point of View, he recalled that he once did 12 shows in Wolverhampton without raising a single laugh.

It was when he was on tour in 1957 that he met Marty Feldman. Together they created and wrote some of the funniest and most successful radio shows of the Sixties. Their output was prodigious. In a typical week they would write two segments of Take It From Here, two-thirds of We’re in Business (a Harry Worth radio vehicle), and an episode of The Army Game. In addition there would be Educating Archie and Late Extra to deal with.

A modern sitcom writer would feel he was doing well to get ten episodes a year on air, but the first series of Bootsie and Snudge was 39 shows. Took and Feldman wrote more than 100 episodes by the end, while Round the Horne ran for over 60 episodes and seldom took more than two mornings to write.

By the time he was 30, Took had hit the big time. "My income shot up from 17 a week to 200."

In 1964, he married Lynden Leonard. The marriage lasted for some 30 years, but finally she left him.

Meanwhile, his partnership with Feldman, who was suffering from manic depression, began to get difficult. Feldman wanted to get back on stage, but Took was not interested. "I’d had my share of fear," he said.

After the partnership ended, Took said: "Writing partnerships are like marriage without the sex. And they rarely last more than ten years."

Although his working life involved a succession of comedians, he once said: "I don’t like comedians very much because I don’t like neurotic people. I think they should go and get cured. I’m mad, too, but I’m as cured as I can get."

Soon after his second marriage, Took was signed up as a consultant by Michael Mills, head of comedy at BBC television. Mills was later to say of him: "The thing about bloody Took is he asks you a question and halfway through you realise he’s giving you a bloody order. Like Baron von Richthofen."

He became known as Baron von Took and that in turn led to Baron von Took’s Flying Circus, which eventually became Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Then he went to America to work on Laugh In. Took became head of Light Entertainment at Thames, but left after a row.

There followed a bad patch when he was nearly bankrupt and developed cancer of the bladder. But he recovered, after numerous operations and by this time was writing film reviews for Punch magazine, doing panel games for radio and Points of View on TV.

One of his producers, Richard Wilcox, said: "Barry mellowed. Writers do get older, and they sort of lose their anger. A comedy writer must have anger to make jokes." It was said of him that Took had enough original talent to become a huge performing star, but he lacked one essential quality: if anyone rejected him, he would not fight back.

A stroke a few years ago left him with speech difficulties and problems with writing. But he was philosophical about his plight - by now he was living alone, having to learn to look after himself at the age of 70. "There are people worse off than me. I’ve had a very long run. I’m fine really. I’m just old," he said.