2019-05-10 20:10:36 UTC
Freddie Starr obituary
Hugely popular entertainer in the 1970s and 80s who first won fame through Opportunity Knocks
Fri 10 May 2019 08.32 EDT
When the comedian Freddie Starr, who has died aged 76, was a little boy, his father, a bricklayer and part-time bare-knuckle fighter, asked him to jump from a table. “I’ll catch you,” he said. Freddie jumped; his father took his arms away, and the boy fell to the floor. “He picked me up and stroked my hair and said, ‘Never trust anybody in your life. Not even your own father.’”
Starr related this story in his 2001 autobiography, Unwrapped. He had, he claimed, a “strict but fair” upbringing in wartime Liverpool. He later changed his account: in 2007 he told a reporter that his father had broken his legs when he was six, the culmination of physical abuse that led him to be taken into care for two years. “My father wasn’t a very nice man. I don’t like to speak about it at all. You put things like this in the past and try to make something of yourself.”
Starr did so and was, for a time, a hugely popular entertainer. In the 1960s he won the talent show Opportunity Knocks six times, then achieved even greater fame at the Royal Variety Performance in 1970. “Within 30 seconds I had the audience helpless with laughter,” he recalled of that night, adding that he got the first encore in 47 years of the show with his impersonations of Adam Faith, Billy Fury and Mick Jagger.
His later routines begged many questions. Did Hitler (whom he regularly impersonated) really wear shorts with swastikas on each knee? With wellies? During Starr’s sung homage to Elvis (another favourite turn), why did he keep breaking off to impersonate a frog?
In the decade and a half that followed that Royal Variety Performance, little Starr became a big star. From 1972 he featured in TV series such as Who Do You Do? and Jokers Wild, later hosting his own show. He had a hit single, It’s You, in 1974 and later released an album, After the Laughter (1989). In the 1980s he became one of Britain’s highest-paid entertainers, earning £1m a year. He owned Rolls-Royces and racehorses, one of which, Miinnehoma, won the 1994 Grand National.
Starr, like Benny Hill, Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning, achieved success with a pre-cerebral, unrepentantly sexist, often racist comedy that was rendered overwhelmingly obsolete by the late 1980s, thanks to comedians like Ben Elton and shows such as Not the Nine O’Clock News.
The impact of his brutal early childhood seems best to explain the cocktail of neediness and hostility that underscored much of his comedy. In 1997, for instance, at the Britannia Pier theatre, Great Yarmouth, he coaxed a young woman on stage to take part in his routine. “Have you ever felt my balls?” he asked her. She blushed. “Would you like to feel my balls?” he said. She shook her head. He put his hand in a pocket and produced two rubber balls dangling on a rope. Pure Freddie Starr: a queasy comedy of embarrassment in which the audience’s hysterical laughter surely veiled fear.
When ITV recorded An Audience With Freddie Starr in 1996, he threw maggots at guests invited to pay tribute. When he did Another Audience with Freddie Starr the following year, he whacked eggs into the audience with a golf club. “I had this devilment in me all the time,” he said. “I asked it to go away, but it wouldn’t.” His shows became so ramblingly self-indulgent that at the interval for one televised show an executive told him: “You have to focus, Freddie, focus.” “What, all of you?” Starr replied.
He seemed capable of anything, so that, in 1986, when the Sun splashed with the headline Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster, the story seemed plausible enough. The paper reported that he had returned to the home of a friend with whom he was staying and asked his girlfriend to make him a sandwich. She refused, so he put Supersonic the hamster between two slices of bread and bit in.
It was later disclosed that the story had been concocted by Starr with his agent, Max Clifford, as a practical joke. In his autobiography Starr wrote: “I have never eaten or even nibbled a live hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, mouse, shrew, vole or any other small mammal.” Decades after the headline appeared, he was still repeatedly stopped in the street to be asked if the story were true.
His relationship with Clifford soured, like so many in Starr’s life. Clifford later said: “The only person Freddie Starr has ever loved or cared for is Freddie Starr – Freddie was a nightmare because he had no discipline. He got to the stage, as so many do, where he thought the world revolved around him. He got to be a monster.”
He was born Frederick Fowell in Liverpool, to Hilda (nee Bradford) and Richard Fowell. His twin brother died at birth. “Mum was the one that encouraged me into showbusiness,” he said. “She used to send me off to dance lessons, but I hated it. ‘I’m not going,’ I would say. ‘There’s only girls there.’ My dad used to say, ‘She’s paid half a crown for that lesson, get down there.’”
At 15 he appeared in the Liverpool-set film Violent Playground (1958), with David McCallum and Stanley Baker. In the early 60s, he sang for a band called Howie Casey and the Seniors, which played the Cavern club in Liverpool and toured Hamburg with the Beatles. Later he sang for a Merseybeat pop group, the Midnighters, put together by Brian Epstein. But the relationship with the Beatles manager, surely fatefully for his musical career, ended badly. In his autobiography, he claimed Epstein cornered him in a car. “He pushed his face towards mine and tried to kiss me full on the lips ... I didn’t send a wreath to his funeral.”
Starr married his childhood sweetheart, Betty Simpson, when he was 17, and they had a son, but divorced after 12 years together. In 1975 he married Sandy Morgan, a dancer in his Blackpool pier show, and they had three children before divorcing in 1994. During the marriage he had an affair with his personal assistant, Julie Dicker. Sandy alleged that their children were so afraid of their father during the marriage that they kept knives under their beds, a claim Starr disputed.
During the protracted divorce he had another relationship, with his one-time manager Trudie Coleman, with whom he had a daughter. He admitted in his 2001 autobiography that neither of his former wives nor any of his children were by then prepared to talk to him.
In 1999, Starr was fined £45 for slapping his son Jody. “I am guilty of slapping my lad,” he told reporters at the time. “But he is also guilty of having a bad attitude and showing disrespect to his father.” In an interview in 2011, though, he was repentant, realising perhaps he had visited the sins of his father on his son: “I can see what I’ve done and I am very sorry.” In 1999 he married his secretary, Donna Smith, with whom he had a daughter. The couple divorced in 2002 and remarried a year later.
In his later years he became a reality TV show recidivist, trying to revive a career that had dwindled to 25 dates a year at smaller theatres around Britain. In 2004 he appeared on Celebrity Fit Club but was demoted as team captain for not taking the format seriously. In 2008 he made the unwise decision to take part in Celebrity Wife Swap. He and Donna exchanged with the former page 3 model Samantha Fox and her partner, Myra Stratton. When the programme was broadcast he claimed that the experience had wrecked his marriage, since it made his wife realise how grimly unreconstructed he was. They divorced in 2009.
In 2011 he enrolled as a contestant on I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! In one of the show’s bushtucker trials, he suffered an allergic reaction to the selection of insects and animal parts, including a camel’s toe, that he was invited to eat. After hospital treatment he withdrew from the contest and returned home to seek consolation with his partner, Sophie Lea, whom he married in 2013.
In 2012 he was arrested by police investigating allegations of historical sexual abuse. After spending 18 months on bail, he was told in 2014 he would not be prosecuted. The following year Starr lost a claim for slander and libel against his accuser, who claimed he groped her when she was a teenager, in 1974 on the set of the BBC programme Clunk Click, hosted by Jimmy Savile. Following the high court ruling, which left him facing a substantial legal bill, Starr moved to Spain. He told the Mail on Sunday he had not moved “to deliberately get out of paying” and had planned to emigrate to the Costa del Sol regardless of the outcome.
Starr was divorced from Sophie in 2015. He is survived by six children, Carl, Tara, Stacey, Jody, Donna and Ebony.
• Freddie Starr (Frederick Leslie Fowell), comedian, born 9 January 1943; died 9 May 2019