Scotsman Obituaries: Barry Cryer, British writer and comedian

Barry Cryer OBE, writer and comedian. Born: 23 March 1935 in Leeds. Died: 25 January 2022, in London, aged 86
Barry Cryer was a familiar face on British TV for more than 50 years (Picture: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)Barry Cryer was a familiar face on British TV for more than 50 years (Picture: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
Barry Cryer was a familiar face on British TV for more than 50 years (Picture: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

Barry Cryer started cracking jokes professionally in his teens and he was still cracking jokes on his death bed in a London hospital almost 70 years later.

In between times he provided material for such legendary figures as Morecambe & Wise and the Scottish entertainers Ronnie Corbett, Stanley Baxter and Jimmy Logan, as well as serving as a panellist on the radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue for half a century.

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A statement released by his family said: “It'll be of no surprise to those that knew and worked with him that he was telling an Archbishop of Canterbury joke to a nurse not long before he died. That was one of his gifts, making strangers feel welcome. Making them laugh.”

Although Cryer was born in Yorkshire, he regularly adopted the persona of a stereotypical Scotsman called Hamish on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, with Graeme Garden as his equally stereotypical friend Dougal. The characters even got their own show called Hamish and Dougal: You’ll Have Had Your Tea. It ran for three series on Radio 4 between 2002 and 2007.

Cryer was also a frequent visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe – despite a petition to stop him, according to his marketing for his 2010 show at Gilded Balloon Teviot.

Although he claimed to have been born outside the village of Wedlock, he was in fact born Barry Charles Cryer in the city of Leeds in 1935, the son of an accountant, who died when Cryer was only five. He went to Leeds Grammar School and then to Leeds University, but dropped out after his first year, later styling himself as Barry Cryer BA Eng. Lit. Failed.

An appearance in a student revue led to an engagement at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds. Encouraged by this early success he headed for London and was hired by the Windmill Theatre, where comics filled out the bill between the famous nude acts.

He also enjoyed unlikely pop success with the novelty song The Purple People Eater. Although American singer Sheb Wooley had a big hit with the tune in the UK and US, Cryer’s version topped the charts in Finland.

He suffered from serious eczema, which was exacerbated by stage make-up. It was so bad that he was hospitalised 12 times in eight years and Cryer decided to concentrate on his writing.

He met his future wife, Terry Donovan, a singer and dancer, and Ronnie Corbett when they were all working on Danny La Rue’s nightclub show.

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David Frost was in the audience one night and in the 1960s Cryer became one of the regular writers for Frost’s TV shows. He was part of a team that included Graham Chapman and they established a regular working partnership, writing for Ronnie Corbett and for the sitcom Doctor in the House.

Cryer generally liked to be part of a writing team, a “sitter” and a “walker”, so there was always someone to bounce ideas off.

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Although Cryer had moved away from performing and was focusing on writing he can be seen as the waiter in the original version of the legendary Four Yorkshiremen sketch in 1967 on At Last the 1948 Show, with Chapman, John Cleese, Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor trying to outdo each other with nostalgic reminiscences about the good old, bad old days.

The list of comics and comic actors for whom Cryer wrote reads like a Who’s Who of British comedy and includes Rory Bremner, Jasper Carrott, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Kenny Everett, Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan, Mike Yarwood and Bruce Forsyth, who was his contemporary at the Windmill Theatre.

He provided material for Bob Hope when Hope was in England and he was part of the team on The Two Ronnies. He tailored jokes very much to the style of each performer. And he considered himself old school. “I tell jokes and stories, the younger performers don’t. Their comedy is observational, they talk about life and themselves,” he said.

And he clearly loved the telling of those jokes and stories and appeared happy in himself. Denis Norden once said that Cryer “defied the conventional wisdom that you have to be neurotic to be a comedian”.

Cryer began his long association with I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue when it began in 1972. He was briefly the chairman on the show before becoming one of the regular panellists. It bills itself as “the antidote to panel games” and much of the comedy depends on quick wittedness and clever wordplay.

With more comics writing their own material, Cryer started performing more himself. He and fellow panellist Willie Rushton launched a two-man show in Edinburgh in 1991 and toured together until Rushton’s death in 1996. Cryer later toured solo and would challenge the audience to give him a subject and he would respond with a joke or anecdote.

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Cryer wrote several books, including an autobiography, You Won’t Believe This But… He was made an OBE in 2001. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, by four children and by hundreds of jokes, from one-liners to lengthy anecdotes.

They include that joke he told the nurse about a couple out walking when they see a man on the other side of the road whom they think might be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The wife says: “That looks like the Archbishop of Canterbury over there. Go and see if it is.”

The husband crosses the road and asks the man if he is the Archbishop of Canterbury. “F**k off,” says the man.

The husband crosses back to his wife who asks “What did he say? Is he the Archbishop of Canterbury?”

He told me to f**k off, says the husband.

“Oh no,” says the wife, “Now we'll never know.”


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