The best work of Barry Cryer, who has died aged 86, was in two different ways unseen. He wrote jokes for generations of comedians from Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise through the Two Ronnies to Rory Bremner, and much of his professional pleasure came, like that of a demolition expert, from appreciating carefully engineered explosions from a distance. A lot of the big laughs he received personally came on radio, where he was a chairman during the 1972 first series of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue before becoming a pivotal and consummate panellist for the rest of his life.
While his TV appearances were much more infrequent, Cryer was immediately recognisable, partly due to to a distinctive look – prematurely white hair offset by big, thick, black-framed spectacles.
Although he often wrote or collaborated with Oxbridge-educated comics – Monty Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor of the Goodies – Cryer was shaped, in attitude and language, by successive tiers of Yorkshire education.
A native of Leeds, he was a grammar school student and a contemporary of Alan Bennett – both did their homework in Leeds city library, and remained forever friends. But, when Bennett went to Oxford University, Cryer read English literature at Leeds University.
He worked there on a college comedy revue with fellow students Wole Soyinka and Tony Harrison, who both became major poet-playwrights. The men remained friends. Cryer’s own plan had been to become a stage and screen actor, but repeated recurrences of the severe skin condition eczema limited his availability and visibility and, as public anxiety can be a factor, encouraged him towards writing and what was then called the wireless.
The illness had first occurred in childhood. Bennett’s published journals record Cryer’s story of spending much of his early years swathed from scalp to toe in emollient bandages “like the Invisible Man”. Always a sharp social observer, Cryer was astonished that all the 1930s and 40s Leeds folk he encountered were too kind and polite ever to mention this mummification, focusing on the eyes peeping between the white crepe and commenting on the weather.
A running gag in Bennett’s journals is a sudden phone call from Cryer to deliver a single comment, followed by the terminating observation: “I’ll let you get back to your life!” These interventions reflected Cryer’s deep commitment to wit – he was almost always working on or trying out a new gag – but also an abiding kindness: Bennett notes that the calls often came when a friend was in trouble with life or work. They quickly cured gloominess. In a posh London shop, Cryer has overheard a mummy telling a daddy: “Remind me to tell Austin that there was no main verb in that sentence!” Or he has just heard about “the man who swallowed liquid Tipp-Ex instead of Viagra – he woke up with a massive correction!”
Cryer belonged to a generation of English male comic talent reluctant to leave a meaning undoubled. The house speciality of I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, predecessor to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, was the canny linguistics of clever deadpan punning (often turning on the disguised inclusion of words actually banned from the airwaves) that sneaked sexual meanings past the stiff blue pencil of BBC bosses. Cryer took this aural sex even further in a spin-off from the radio franchise, You’ll Have Had Your Tea, which was additionally daring in featuring him and Garden playing stereotypes of Scottish tightfistedness.
Comics of Cryer’s longevity had careers bracketed by two cultural puritanisms: initially a quasi-Christian morality emanating from the political right wing and latterly a policing of personal offence that is most connected with the left. His response to the first wave of censors was coming up with filth too clever for them to detect; to the current tut-cutters, he remained unapologetic, sharing Cleese’s view that a “woke joke” is an impossibility. It was striking that the final credit of his lifetime, Now, Where Were We?, a recently recorded podcast with his son Bob, featured a majority of guests (Miriam Margolyes, Stephen Fry, Danny Baker) who have tested the edges of humour.
A writer and comedy performer whose closest contemporaries, collaborators and friends included some of the biggest figures in comedy, theatre and literature might be seen by outsiders as the inferior cultural achiever. But they would acknowledge that Barry Cryer, as much as they did, put his particular talents to maximum impact and public entertainment.