My tale this week is a one-off. It was a night that I didn’t expect a great deal from, but was one I will never forget.
Whilst in the sixth form at Roundhay School we started venturing further afield for our entertainment. We still attended Leeds Polytechnic and University for rock concerts, but we dabbled at more varied fare. I can’t remember who it was, but one of my friends in the lower sixth, I think, organised an evening at Batley Variety Club.
Now at this point in time I had never been to Batley and knew nothing other than it homed the world renowned Batley Variety Club. The club was built by James and Betty Corrigan (fairground family) in early 1967 and was sited on top of a disused sewage works on Bradford Road in Batley. The club had quickly built up a reputation for hosting the bigger stars, both national and international. Morcambe and Wise, Shirley Bassey, Johnny Mathis, Ken Dodd, Eartha Kitt, Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney, Louis Armstrong, Cilla Black and a host of others performed there to sell-out crowds. Now none of the types of stars that performed there were particularly of interest to us, but on the night we were booked for it was Freddie Starr. This would have been at the very start of the 1970s and Starr was at the height of his fame. He was a great comedian, singer and entertainer and had appeared on TV. He had started as a singer and was managed for a time by Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, but he had failed to get success. He had built up a reputation as a manic comedian and performed on the Royal Variety Show in 1970, where he impersonated, Elvis, Mick Jagger and Adolf Hitler and so we were to see him as he was reaching his stardom.
Even after saying this, I can’t say that any of us expected much of the night, but we were interested to see the famous venue and thought it would be a great night out. I don’t think the tickets were more than a pound or two and a minibus was arranged to take us and bring us back. I don’t think that we were all eighteen, but depending exactly which year, I might just have been. This never seemed to matter at this time and not one of us was asked our age. I think this was a boys’ only night out, which was unusual for us and I think it was mid-week. I can’t think that we would have gained much of an education the next day, but I digress.
We were picked up, I think from Oakwood Clock and there was the drive to Batley. It was dark and it was difficult to see what was happening through the windows. I think two of my closest friends at the time, John P and Chris M were there and possibly Nigel C, but I can’t be sure, but there were about ten of us. The night was rainy and I saw a sign for Batley and we entered what appeared to be an industrial area and it didn’t seem a particularly inviting place to find a famous theatrical venue. Suddenly there were some bright lights and the large illuminated sign displayed: Batley Variety Club, Appearing Tonight, Freddie Starr. There was a largish carpark, nothing special, but there were a number of coaches dropping ticket-holders off. The building was single storeyed and had nothing to show it was anything but the usual 1960s-70s working-men’s club.
This was not the auspicious start that I had hoped for, but I thought that surely it must have something special about it. We piled out of the minibus and made our way on the wet night to the door. We all had our tickets and they showed a specific table. We entered and again, it was not overly impressive, but was certainly better inside than it appeared from outside. It was a large venue arranged around a low stage and the audience were seated at tables. Some of the tables were largish for groups and curved in an arch facing the stage with padded-backed benches, but some tables were for couples. I seem to remember that you went up a few steps as you entered and when inside it sloped slightly downwards to improve the view. The ceiling was low and the lighting was low, but colourful and this created atmosphere and probably covered up a multitude of sins: stained carpets, cracked and smoke-stained paint. The place was fairly busy when we arrived and was packed within a short time. Music was blaring and there was an ear-throbbing cacophony of chattering, mixed with the odour of stale beer, cigarette smoke, cheap perfume and aftershave. I think the aftershave was ours and Brut was well represented.
We were shown to our table and I believe it was waitress service. Drinks were ordered and payment made when they arrived. I don’t think there were such niceties as tabs and settling at the end. The other clientele were exactly what I would have expected. They were mainly middle-aged, dressed in their finery and determined to have a good time. That meant a lot of drinking and eating, and they would expect a lot from the entertainment. I can’t believe that any northern audience would ever be an easy one to win over. The really big stars such as Shirley Bassey and Roy Orbison had their own fan base and they would only need to appear to win the audience, but Freddie Starr was one of those newcomers who had a growing reputation, but many in the audience would only have seen him, like us, on television. We were waiting to see what he was made of and whether he was as good as his TV performances suggested. I must be honest, I had never seen a comedian live and I was much more into music, but I was enjoying the night and the drinks were flowing, the chatter was animated and fun and the experience was a totally new one for me. I believe that my parents had been once or twice. I think they went with Mr Waites, the driving instructor friend of the family, and they may have seen Shirley Bassey on one of the occasions.
There was no warm-up entertainment that I can remember and by about eight-thirty, Freddie appeared. We knew it was starting as the lights dimmed even more and the small stage lit up and the band took their places. Freddie Starr appeared in a whirlwind and continued in a manic, frenetic pace for at least two and a half hours. I have to say that he won the audience over within minutes, and every part of the performance rested on his shoulders. He was funny, told brilliant jokes, had a great rapport with the audience, whom he played with, made fun of, involved them and reacted to them. His show was interspersed with songs and in particular he showed his love of Elvis Presley. He had a surprisingly good voice, was a brilliant mimic and threw himself about the stage in a way that would have injured most. His was a very physical performance and his solid, short-legged frame, sweated its way through contortions, abuse and great dance moves. The crowd loved every minute. He knew what the audience wanted and he gave it to them. The applause and laughter was rapturous, and the crowd drank more and more, and became livelier and livelier.
The club must have loved him and I am sure that he deserved every penny he was paid. Beer and food sales must have skyrocketed. The time went by in a blur and when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. He took the audience on a ride. You learnt about him, his loves, his background and there were periods of pathos amongst the act, but just before it took the audience down, he would flip and take them back up with his wit, impersonations and crazy show.
Since this time, I have only seen a couple of good comedy shows. One was Spike Milligan a couple of years later and again he was a very pleasant surprise, and the other was Dame Edna about three or four years ago, here in Perth, Western Australia.
At the end of the night we all had had a great time and Freddie finally left the stage after several encores. The crowd poured out of the club doors and onto the awaiting coaches and we found our mini bus and closed the door, our ears ringing, and the driver headed back to Leeds. The whole evening was so organised and ran like clockwork. Within a short time we were dropped off and headed back to our homes and then were up early for school the next day.
I thought about Freddie Starr afterwards. It was one hell of a way to earn a living. I believe he was one of seven children and he had a hard upbringing. His father was abusive and broke both Freddie’s legs when he was drunk. Because of this, Freddie Starr didn’t ever drink, but he did become addicted to Valium. We saw him in his prime and he continued to perform for many years, with a number of TV shows. He died in May 2019, in Spain, at the age of 76 and despite the famous headlines, Freddie Starr claimed that he never did “eat her hamster”. It was obvious from the manic way he performed that he was a complex character. It appears his life consisted of great highs and lows, but on that night he was brilliant.
Oh, what a night!