On the 60th anniversary of his major breakthrough, local historian Kenneth Shenton looks back at the career of funnyman Jimmy Clitheroe – a man who stayed loyal to his Lancashire roots
Sixty years ago, on May 5, 1958, began one of the most popular radio programmes ever broadcast: The Clitheroe Kid.
Running for 14 years and attracting regular audiences well in excess of 10m, its 16 series brought both national and international recognition for its diminutive star, Jimmy Clitheroe.
Throughout his long career, he made his mark on every aspect of show business, being numbered among that outstanding generation of entertainers of whom the county was proud to call its own.
By a bizarre coincidence, James Robinson Clitheroe actually came from the town of that name. Born in Clitheroe on Christmas Eve, 1921, the only son of two Lancashire weavers, damage to his thyroid gland meant he never grew taller than 4ft 3ins.
Spending his formative years in neighbouring Blacko, after leaving school, being too short to work in the weaving sheds, he joined a bakery in nearby Nelson.
Initially intent on joining the circus, Jimmy cut his show business teeth performing as a member of the local Methodist church concert party. Aged 14, he began touring the provinces as Little Jimmy, the only male member of the famous troupe of juveniles called, The Winstanley Babes. At that time, he played xylophone, piano accordion and clarinet as well as doing
Bit parts in a varied selection of low budget films made in Manchester led on to extensive theatre work. Here, supporting variety stalwarts Arthur Lucan (Old Mother Riley), Jimmy James, Albert Whelan,
Albert Burdon and Frank Randle, he found a natural environment for his talents. Treated not as a midget but as an equal, a very fine comedy actor, at that time he was beginning to shape and nurture the naughty boy character which would come to serve him so well in later years.
Jimmy Clitheroe made his Blackpool stage debut just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Over the next five decades, he would regularly perform at almost all its major venues and, in the process, set a record for seasonal appearances.
Among many local outings, his 1963 season alongside Peter Butterworth and Danny Ross, at the Grand Theatre, remains a particular highlight. In Frying
Tonight, a play specially written for Jimmy by John
Waterhouse, he starred as the son of chip shop owner, Mollie Sugden, determined, as always, to thwart the compulsory purchase order on the premises.
Historically, he also proved to be one of the last of the comedians who had come up through the variety halls to headline those star studded spectaculars which once made the resort the summer season capital of Britain.
Away from the bright lights, like many stars of his era,
Jimmy made his home on the Fylde Coast. Moving there during wartime in the company of his formidable widowed mother, Emma, the couple lived quietly and most modestly in a semi-detached bungalow on Bispham Road.
Often in the company of his old schoolmate, Blackpool entertainer and impresario, Tommy Trafford, he would regularly enjoy a quiet drink and a game of snooker in his nearby local pub, The Squirrel. A keen greyhound enthusiast and follower of the turf, for many years, he owned and ran a very popular betting shop, based in Springfield Road.
Moving into radio in the 1950s, there Jimmy particularly caught the
public’s attention in Call Boy, a variety show, produced by James Casey. As the young man of the title, he was cast as a stagehand assisting the stage manager, Eddie Leslie, introducing the guest stars and getting them on stage in time. Running from January to May 1957, its success gave Casey the idea of building a future series around Jimmy but now to be called The
Initially reluctant to sanction the idea, eventually BBC bosses relented and allowed a brief pilot series to be made but broadcast only in the northern region. Taking part then, were Bispham’s very own Violet Carson as Jimmy’s mum, Judith Chalmers as his sister, and, not least, a very young Bob Monkhouse.
Such was its winning appeal that, in May 1958, the BBC finally gave the green light for The Clitheroe Kid proper to hit the national airwaves. Co-written by Casey and local scriptwriter Frank Roscoe, at its peak it was said every Sunday lunchtime a quarter of the entire population would tune in, eager to hear the everyday stories of a teenage boy and his strangely assorted kinfolk.
Although it was only
radio, acutely aware of his need to maintain the illusion of youth, Jimmy always performed the show in costume – short trousers, schoolboy cap and blazer. As he himself was so fond of repeating, ‘I’m all there wi’ mi’ cough drops’.
Scottish variety veteran Peter Sinclair, The Cock o’ the North, played Jimmy’s grandfather while Patricia Burke succeeded Renée Houston as his mum. Diana Day replaced Judith Chalmers as scraggy neck, elder sister Susan, while local favourite, Danny Ross, the butt of endless jokes, joined later as motor bike mad, daft Alfie Hall.
Brian Trueman, Tommy Trafford, Tony Melody and Peter Goodwright were always invaluable in support as was The Northern Dance
Orchestra, conducted by Alyn Ainsworth.
Actress Mollie Sugden, having regularly played Jimmy’s mother on the stage, joined the radio show for the eighth series in 1964. Both she, Jimmy and Danny Ross also transferred their often familiar domestic difficulties to television for two brief series made by the ill-fated ABC franchise for ITV.
In the wake of the 23 episodes of Just Jimmy came a companion venture, That’s My Boy. However, the transition to television proved slightly more problematical, particularly in relation to close-ups. After all, the Peter Pan of showbusiness was now in his 40s and beginning to show his age. In 1966, Jimmy Clitheroe made an unexpected return to the big screen. Playing General Tom Thumb, he was among a galaxy of stars cast in the British sci-fi comedy caper movie, Rocket To The Moon.
Sadly, this somewhat unusual blending of elements of Jules Verne with the real life exploits of Phineas T. Barnum proved too much for the critics. Somewhat prophetically for Jimmy’s future prospects, the whole enterprise sank without trace.
Always cutting a dapper figure off stage, for many years Jimmy drove a most
elegant Mercedes with blocks on the pedals so his feet would be able to reach. In latter years, appearing to be an under-age driver, he could barely complete a journey without coming to the attention of the police. To offset what became a mounting frustration, he very uncharacteristically advertised for a chauffeur and general assistant.
Stepping into this role and increasingly into his life came Sally. Now, for once, urgently needing to escape the all-pervading attention of his mother, he totally abandoned his legendary ‘carefulness’ with money. Purchasing The Fernhill at Park Lane, Preesall, he very rapidly spent a small fortune updating the property, sparing no expense on turning it into an idyllic love nest.
Sadly, however, his happiness was short-lived. Following an argument between the two, Sally was tragically killed in a car crash.
Still reeling from this grievous blow, more bad news followed when, after almost 300 programmes, in August 1972, the BBC cancelled The Clitheroe Kid.
Utterly devastated and at times struggling to cope with life, a final hammer blow came the following June with the death of his beloved mother. Found unconscious at home on the morning of her funeral, Jimmy himself died in Victoria Hospital later that day, a victim of the combined toxic effects of barbiturate poisoning and alcohol. He was aged only 51.
It proved a sad end for one whose whole life had been so focussed on spreading happiness. Somewhat ironically, even in death, this magical quality did not desert him. Having willed his considerable fortune to his mother, a combination of her untimely death allied to the vagaries of the legal system, meant cancer research became the grateful recipients of his lifetime of thrift. As Jimmy
Clitheroe himself never tired of telling us, Don’t Some Mothers ’Ave ’Em?