Raymond Allen on whether he welcomes the return of his famous character
- Credit: Archant
From a phonebox in Ryde, the man behind the comedy icon Frank Spencer would call the BBC with his latest script for Some Mothers Do Av Em. Peter White caught up with writer Raymond Allen
Wearing his tank-top, raincoat and beret, accident-prone Frank Spencer became one of the most iconic television comedy figures of the 1970s in the huge hit series Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
Frank, played by Michael Crawford, and with his long-suffering wife Betty - the wonderful Michelle Dotrice - starred in 22 episodes and commanded peak TV viewing audiences of more than 25 million.
The series has subsequently been screened in more than 60 countries worldwide, and there have also been videos and DVDs, with show creator Ray Allen admitting: “It has been quite amazing, and in a way it has been a long-term pension for me. I never thought it would happen, and it was quite unbelievable.”
Ray, called Raymond in those days so as not to be confused with the famous ventriloquist of the same name, was born and still lives on the Isle of Wight, and is often seen around Hampshire as a popular after-dinner speaker.
A quietly-spoken man now in his 70s, Ray hit on the name Frank Spencer while working as a cleaner in a Shanklin cinema. He recalls: “‘When I was outside cleaning the steps of the cinema, this strange little local man called Frank Spencer would point to a poster and say ‘What’s that film about... is there any violence in it?’ If I said there was, he would toddle off with his dog mumbling ‘my wife wouldn’t like that that’. I used his name for the character, but I’ve never seen him since.”
After many years of having comedy scripts rejected by TV directors and actors, Ray finally hit on the ‘Some Mothers’ idea almost by accident. He set out to write a script with Betty as the lead character because there was a shortage of female-based comedy shows… but Frank just kept appearing in his mind.
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When you talk to Ray, as I did at his home in Ryde, you soon realise where many of his ideas came from, as he has had almost as many accidents and mishaps as the famous character he created.
He smiled: “I have often been likened to Frank Spencer. I could never really see it, although looking back I realise everything I have been associated with has been pulled down or gone bust - I am accident prone.
“Every school I went to has been demolished, then I worked on an Isle of Wight newspaper that closed down. I even appeared on Isle of Wight television and that closed as well. The only place I ever worked at that had no problems was a hotel in Ryde, but a few years ago even that caught fire.”
Looking back, he recalled: “I was quite depressed because at 31 I didn’t have a proper job or any money, so I sort of identified with Frank. I once sent a script to a TV director and asked him for advice. A letter came back saying ‘to be a comedy writer you need a sense of humour, an ear for dialogue and some talent. Having read your script, you haven’t got any of them’!
“Eventually I wrote the first piece about Frank and Betty, sent it to the BBC, and four months later they replied asking me to write six more episodes. It had taken me four months to write one script, and suddenly they wanted six more inside a fortnight. I did it, but when they sent the scripts to several top comedy actors including Norman Wisdom and Ronnie Barker, no one wanted to do it.
“While I was writing sketches, and trying to get my big break, I did some toilet cleaning at the Shanklin cinema. When I told people at the cinema that the BBC wanted me to work for them, one guy said ‘I would have thought the BBC could get their own toilet cleaners’!”
The ‘Some Mothers’ scripts sat in a drawer at the BBC for two years, and the Corporation even told Ray they would pay him for writing them, but they would never be shown on television because no one wanted to play Frank Spencer…but eventually Michael Crawford took up the offer.
Ray said: “The first time I met Michael he was already into the Frank Spencer character, twitching a bit and with this incredible voice that became synonymous with Frank.
“In one scene of the original series, Michael was in a Morris Minor car dangling over a cliff. Soon after it was shown, my agent phoned me and said a company wanted to produce a Morris Minor limited edition, and if they could use the name ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ on it, they would give me a free car.
“I’ve never owned a car, so I was very excited, and finally I had a call saying they were going to deliver it the following week. I actually put some cones outside the house so there was a space to park it, and when there was a knock on the door, the man said he had come to deliver the car, and handed me a Corgi toy Morris Minor car. It was a bit of a let-down, but I’ve always kept it.
“I passed my test in 1964, but when I was taking the lessons I was so nervous I decided I didn’t want to drive. I’ve kept my licence but rarely driven since. I even had refresher lessons about 12 years ago, but I was so bad that the young guy who was teaching me suddenly gave his notice, and joined the Army. He must have thought serving in Afghanistan was safer than trying to teach me. After that I gave up altogether.”
Ray wrote most of his work in a shed at the bottom of his garden, surrounded by vegetables and flowers, and if he left the shed door open, a chicken would often wander in - typical Frank Spencer stuff.
He said: “I didn’t have a phone at home, so I would go to a phone box in Ryde to contact the BBC. Often there was a queue outside the phone box while I was running a script past an actor or director who was in London. People thought I had gone mad. The phone box was eventually pulled down, something else I used that’s no longer there.”
Generally there was a luke warm response to the first episode of ‘Some Mothers’, with even the late Bill Cotton, then Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, telling Ray to use the series as ‘a stepping stone for something better’.
But between them, Ray, Michael and Michelle turned ‘Some Mothers’ into iconic TV viewing, and went on to complete three series and three Christmas shows.
Michael put some of the stunt work into the episodes himself, including the never-to-be forgotten roller skating scene, hanging onto the back of a double decker bus. The final series ended in 1978, and Ray and Michael had not seen each other for 38 years until earlier this year when Michael, now aged 74, agreed to a one-off ‘Some Mothers’ sketch for Sport Relief. Ray said: “I thought it would be an emotional reunion, but we just saw each other, said hello, and that was more or less it.”
However, he attended the Olympic Velodrome when Michael re-enacted one of his stunts for the Sport Relief episode, again on roller skates, but this time holding onto the back of a cycle ridden by Olympic champion and Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Ray smiled: “It took longer to write that one sketch than it did the entire first series, because Michel is now such a perfectionist. I did the dialogue, and a couple of guys called the Dawson Brothers worked on the stunts with Frank.
“It was good to see the character back on television, but I knew it would only be a one-off. I realised way back in 1978 that the series had run its course, and it had become very difficult to think up different ways of keeping the episodes fresh and entertaining.
“The shows were always recorded in front of a live audience, and I was surprised that some of the stuff that I disregarded as being particularly funny got some of the biggest laughs, and vice versa. By the time I wrote the final series other comedy shows began to appear on our screens, and have continued to do so. I feel comedy has changed over the years, and I’m not sure there would be a place for Frank and Betty now.
“There has been talk of a stage version of ‘Some Mothers’ with discussions still taking place, but there would be difficulties of trying to condense stunts for a theatre production, so I’m not sure it will ever happen.”
After ‘Some Mothers’ ended, Ray continued to write sketches for the likes of Frankie Howerd and Dave Allen, but he had set the bench mark, and never managed to hit such heights again.
He began giving talks about his own career, and revealed: “When Ray Allen the ventriloquist was alive I used to get people phoning me asking to appear at their club or theatre, thinking I was him. I actually got to one venue and they asked me why I hadn’t brought the dummy Lord Charles with me.”
Ray is now working on an autobiography, which he is trying to make ‘a bit different’ from the norm. He already has the book’s title, using one of Frank’s catch phrases ‘I’ve Had A Bit Of Trouble’. Meanwhile, he continues to live off royalties from ‘Some Mothers’ saying: “Every time a clip is shown on TV there is a small something in it for me, which has made sure I never went back to cleaning toilets.”
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