Another new obsession, since The Clitheroe Kid, the radio show which made half-pint-size – he was 4ft 3 – Jimmy Clitheroe famous in the fifties and sixties is being re-broadcast on BBC7, and there are some episodes hanging around in an online archive. I remember loathing them when they were first broadcast, only because there was something I thought grating about his voice at the time I first heard it.
But the shows I’ve listened to are positively surreal, because of the odd mixture of voices. There’s Clitheroe himself, who always played a schoolboy up to no good, in a distinctive and high-pitched Clitheroe accent – amazingly, he was born just outside Clitheroe in Lancashire, although it was his real name (as if I had been born Bill Sunderland); and there is his sister ‘Susan’, who, with a perfect lack of logic, has a cut-glass accent, even though his mother is from Oldham, and his grandfather is Scots. Most of the performers, including Susan’s gormless boyfriend Alfie, also Lancastrian, seem to have depended on the show for their livelihood, and to have dropped out of sight when the show ceased.
It’s sometimes said that the phrase ‘Some mothers do ‘ave em’ was popularised by a version of it used in the radio show, but I think that sound very suspect. It must go back decades and decades. In the first Coronation Street episode in 1960, Annie Walker, the landlady of ‘The Rover’s Return’ says it to Ken Barlow of Dennis Tanner, son of Elsie. While it is true that the character (the actress was called Doris Speed) at that time affected a fairlypronounced Mancunian accent, dropped for a rather posh one once the serial was well under way, I don’t think the idea was that Jimmy Clitheroe influenced her.
Clitheroe, restricted to the height of a ten-year-old boy, did what his public somehow expected – dressed as one in all public photographs. There’s a biography I’d like to read which will doubtless tell me more, but the fact that he overdosed on sleeping pills, at the age of 43, on the day of his mother’s funeral, suggests that he was caught in a tragic trap.
The radio show is a kind of cartoon version, a sort of secondary modern version of (‘Just’) William Brown. It’s interesting because there is no pretence in the show that any of the characters have any money, or even any great prospects. Shows from the same era, even Hancock, don’t come so close to the real world – the premise of Hancock seems to change all the time. He’s an unemployed star who is able to afford a secretary, and whose mates are respectively a spiv and an idiot. The whole thing hinges on Hancock’s strange persona – glum, misanthropic, caustic. By contrast, Jimmy Clitheroe plays an upbeat and innocent trickster, the lovably naughty boy, a sort of Northern Artful Dodger. But he exists, however peculiar his family’s accents, in a recognisable world, where the wrestling is on the telly, and you have to scrape a few coins together to buy sweets.
I am not 100% sure that coming over all intellectual about Jimmy Clitheroe is a good move. But there you are.