For a programme that purported to be about one of Britain’s most unique comedians, this profile did the best it could to dehumanise him.
Stories of his uncontrollable sexuality were recounted by Rory McGrath and Paul Ross, who said that “Ninety per cent of people who worked with Howerd were propositioned by him”. And in propositioning Ross, Frankie made it clear he couldn’t have been very fussy as to whom he approached.
Meanwhile, sanctimoniously smug psychologist Geoffrey Beattie, the most irritating Big Brother expert, clumsily applied Frankie’s complex life to some tedious behavioural patterns, robbing it of any intriguing individuality. Both these salacious tales and ham-fisted analyses impeded the fascinating story of Frankie’s colourful career, particularly as a number of the stories were repeated.
The best parts of Frankie’s history were told mainly by his biographer Graham McCann, who painted a sympathetic picture of the comedian. Growing up in a poor household with an inattentive father Frankie suffered very low self-esteem. Despite this, he found the courage to seek a big break in the entertainment industry and was crushed by rejections from RADA. Even when he failed at auditions, he opened himself up to more pain by asking for advice on how to further his career. The advice was unanimously damning – give it up.
It was while in the army that Frankie discovered his niche through regaling the troops with a hilarious comic routine that gave him his confidence back through achieving what he most desired in his professional life – acceptance from an audience. And it was these areas of Frankie’s life that made the most interesting viewing rather than his private life – to find out why he acted as he did rather than descriptions of the actions themselves.
After leaving the army, Frankie won a role in Variety Bandbox on BBC Radio and quickly became the star of the most popular show in the country. Frankie found that his new won fame also enabled him to pick and choose his sexual partners. Even though homosexuality was still illegal, he couldn’t curb his urges and got involved with a young man.
After surviving a career slump that coincided with the rise of television, Frankie enjoyed a second wind with Up Pompeii where he played the camp Lurcio. Even then he guarded his private life – either by deflecting away probing questions on chat shows with humour or, later in his life, pretending that his lover Dennis was anything but, including his chauffeur or manager. It was clips such as Frankie’s appearance on Parkinson where he quite aggressively disrupted Parkinson’s line of questioning that illustrated his need to keep his private life out of the public gaze.
The programme captured a captivating portrait of Frankie through the evidence of McCann and other friends, but the tabloid ambience – from the title of the profile to the stories of his errant sex life – somewhat spoiled it.