Be Upstanding (Ooh-err Missus!) for the One Hundredth Birthday of Mr Frankie Howerd.
When it comes to puerile innuendo, I like to think that I can hold my own.
I’m aware that the competition is stiff.
If the word “titter” makes you titter, then you have a relationship with Frankie Howerd. If any part of you wants to titter at the word titter, then Frankie Howerd will find that part of you and drag it into the light of day and, best of all, force you to confess to yourself that you’re not the mature adult that you may have claimed to be. In the end we are laughing at ourselves when we laugh at Frankie Howerd – at our own weakness and our own susceptibility.
Ah me. Frankie Howerd is one of those names that you only have to remember to start smiling. That face and those noises. See, I’m smiling right now.
Howerd’s Lurcio is a creature straight out of Plutarch, and it’s no surprise that he starred as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum back in the 60s. Sometimes, Howerd needed the semblance of a plot just to demonstrate his contempt for it. Nobody (except perhaps Oliver Hardy) broke the fourth wall quite as well as Frankie Howerd. Always, when acting in a film with something akin to a story to it, his closest relationship was always with the audience, rather than any other cast member. Frankie Howerd (or the performance of “Frankie Howerd”) always wanted something from an audience, and gave the impression of not knowing quite what that thing was.
When I was a student, Frankie suddenly became cool again. He started playing a bunch of university gigs and modified 1980s Frankie Says tee shirts started to appear with his face on it. This burst of enthusiasm for a septuagenarian comic did not require Howerd to update his act in any way. And nor did he. It turns out people will always want to titter.
But the real reason why I can never forget Frankie Howerd is because I teach Laurence Sterne. And Sterne was very Frankie Howerd, two hundred years ahead of time. I mention Frankie Howerd whenever I give a lecture on Tristram Shandy, and a few of the mature students will smile back at me. Good. Forget the others… so long as some of the older ones smile at the name, I’m happy. Sterne (or Tristram) is very keen on “ooh-er Missus”. He is constantly addressing his female readers as “Madam” and begging them not to get the wrong idea, while doing his darndest to ensure that the wrong idea is firmly planted and not to be extinguished. The more he insists that he’s just talking about noses and not about anything else, the more the something else rears its ugly head. Ooh err. Sterne and Howerd both knew that embarrassment is key to the enjoyment of sex, and that smut needs innocence, especially outraged innocence, if it is to flourish. Like Howerd, Sterne knew that the secret of innuendo is complicity, to force the reader/audience to join the dots, and then to protest with fake self-righteousness when the joined dots add up to a rude picture. Sterne and Howerd understood the blush – and the impossible dilemma which blushes impose on “respectable women”. If you fail to blush – are you innocent or are you dead to shame? And like Howerd, Sterne was always complaining that he needed to get back to some notional central narrative.
Frankie Howerd is in Digressive Heaven now. With Laurence Sterne and Ronnie Corbett.
Frankie Howerd was fifty years old when homosexual activity was partially descrinalised and never came out, refusing to identify as gay even in what we’d regard as completely safe and supportive situations. His most revealing on stage admission consisted of the melancholy and oft used one liner “I don’t care what people get up to, so long as they leave me along – AND THEY DO!”