Scotsman Obituaries: Mike Yarwood, impressionist whose TV shows were watched by half the nation
Mike Yarwood elevated the art of mimicry from novelty act to mainstream prime-time TV viewing. His 1977 Christmas Day special attracted an audience of 21.4 million, setting a record that stood for 19 years till Only Fools and Horses overtook it.
And Yarwood blurred the line between the real people he impersonated and the impersonations themselves. Did Hughie Green, the presenter of Opportunity Knocks, say “I mean that most sincerely folks?” Or was it Yarwood impersonating Hughie who said it first and created the catchphrase that Green then embraced?
Yarwood’s impersonations were sharp, but also warm and affectionate. Most of his subjects regarded being impersonated by him as a compliment. Certainly Prime Minister Harold Wilson did. Yarwood captured Wilson’s distinctive working-class Yorkshire way of talking, aided by the trademark pipe and the Gannex raincoat.
Wilson would be working away on Prime Ministerial business while his wife Mary watched Yarwood in the next room. “Give us a shout when I’m on,” Wilson would tell her. And then he would join her and chuckle away as Yarwood chuckled away on screen. Wilson made Yarwood an OBE in his 1976 resignation honours.
Princess Diana said she was reduced to tears watching Yarwood impersonate her husband, with his exaggeratedly posh vowel sounds. But, as with so many great comedians, the laughter was something of a front and Yarwood had his inner demons.
He struggled with drink and anxiety. He was so nervous that he would sometimes vomit before performing.
And his alcoholism began to affect his work. His television platform disappeared in 1988 when Thames decided not to review his contract. Without an outlet for his creations he was left with the existential question, “Who is Mike Yarwood – who am I?”
He once said: “Early in my career I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be a star impressionist and then become a comedian and develop my own personality, but it didn’t work because there isn’t really a ‘me’.”
He was born Michael Edward Yarwood in 1941 into a working-class family in Bredbury, a suburb of Stockport. His father was a fitter. A nervous boy, Yarwood mimicked teachers to amuse his school friends and gain acceptance.
He was not particularly academic and left school at 15. He did, however, find another outlet for his energies and talents on the football pitch. He had a trial for Oldham Athletic and he later became a director of Stockport County.
He worked as a dispatch clerk with a mail order company and a trainee salesman with a wholesale clothing company, began performing in pubs and clubs, and found early success as a support act for established entertainers.
He was only 22 when he got his break on television, appearing on ITV’s Comedy Bandbox, followed the next year by a slot on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. By 1968 he had had his own show on ITV. He switched to the BBC in 1971 and stayed there throughout the decade with Look: Mike Yarwood and then the exquisitely named Mike Yarwood in Persons before switching back to ITV.
Harold Wilson was one of his most successful early impersonations, but he did most of the most prominent people of the day, real and fictional, including Ted Heath, Ken Dodd, Brian Clough, rugby league commentator Eddie Waring – “up and under”, Frank Spencer, Alf Garnett and Columbo, mimicking the voices, twisting his own features into those of his subjects and reproducing mannerisms that his subjects did not even know they had.
He arguably helped shape the public’s perception of public figures. Commenting on his impersonation of Healey, the journalist and broadcaster Simon Hoggart said: “Out of this bruising, ferocious, very-pleased-with-himself politician, Mike Yarwood created a lovable pantomime figure.”
Less successful was his impersonation of Jimmy Savile. He poked fun at Savile, in a tracksuit, advertising trains, old, late and expensive, but he did not quite capture the sleaziness of the original.
Yarwood never felt entirely comfortable with stardom, being the centre of attention, and having everyone and everything dependent on him. “My fondest memories are when I was the supporting act,” he said. “When I was doing The Mike Yarwood Show, I’d walk into the television studio and see all these people working on one project, all because of me, and I wanted to run away.”
When he was not working he was drinking, he said, and he blamed his heavy drinking and his lifestyle for the collapse of his marriage to Sandra Burville, a former dancer, in the 1980s.
He struggled after being dropped by Thames and was treated for depression. He finally gave up drink in the early 1990s after a heart attack. In later years he made only very occasional television appearances and more or less disappeared from the public eye. He is survived by two daughters.
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