‘Shut That Door! Larry Grayson at ITV’: ’70s British comic, master of the double entendre

What a gay day! Hey listen, now that that guy down the street doesn’t have to bake your cake, you can always pop in one of Network DVD’s discs from the Region 2 collection, Shut That Door! Larry Grayson at ITV, an exhaustive 3-disc look at the beloved 1970s camp TV comic’s work for England’s ITV Channel Television. You can find the out-of-print disc at Amazon here, if you’re lucky.

By Paul Mavis

Too often “British TV comedy” is defined in the States as, “Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Office, and um….”, so it’s great to see something “new” over here…even if it’s 45-odd years old. If you’ve memorized Paul Lynde’s oeuvre, and you actually enjoy the endless repeats of Charles Nelson Reilly on Match Game (I know I do…), you’re a good match for Shut That Door! Larry Grayson at ITV. I doubt Grayson is known by too many TV comedy fans here in the States…but he should be.
Featuring the sole surviving episode of Shut That Door, Grayson’s first starring series, as well as both seasons of the hour-long The Larry Grayson Show, Shut That Door! Larry Grayson at ITV also includes several documentaries covering the late comedian’s “overnight success” story and subsequent super-stardom on the telly. It’s a delightful surprise for fans of British humor, and a terrific introduction to the comedian.

I certainly was one of those British comedy enthusiasts who had never heard of Larry Grayson prior to buying this three-disc set some years back. Better-known (here in the States) contemporaries of his in British gay camp humor, Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, were certainly familiar names to me, though (Williams’s snooty, superior queen was my favorite character from the Carry On gang). However, from the early 1970s to the end of that decade, Grayson had them both beat, reaching a level of audience popularity with his various variety and game show appearances that was staggering when one realizes that prior to his “overnight” success, he toiled in anonymity for over three decades on the comedy and “working man’s” club circuits.

It took one lucky break—a sweaty, nervous, but hilarious appearance on the show, Saturday Variety, in 1971—to catapult him into the national limelight, a true showbiz rags-to-riches story that Grayson had been preparing for all his life…but one he had all but given up on prior to that televised appearance. Born in 1923, Grayson’s formative years were marred by illegitimacy, adoption and confusion over who his real mother was (he never knew his father), leading to Grayson leaving school at 14 to perform a drag act in the rough-and-tumble working man’s clubs circuit that threaded through the UK. His high-camp act, honed to perfection in these unforgiving venues, acquired a layer of toughness beneath the fey tone that one can see quite readily in his later TV appearances. Grayson may have played it limp-wristed, but he was hysterically funny (the most obvious and important hurdle for an act like his in those kinds of settings), and apparently, he gave as good as he got with withering comebacks to unruly audience members.

However, by 1971, Grayson had apparently resigned himself to a life led on the fringes of show business. According to one of the documentaries included on the Shut That Door! set, in ’71 Grayson was booked at rundown Stork Club, the kind of down-market nightclub where Grayson could very well have ended his days, had not a friend and writer tipped off Michael Grade, the nephew of Sir Lew Grade, the legendary producer and owner of ITV, that Grayson was appearing there that night. Evidently Grayson “killed” within minutes of his set, and was booked the next day for a small spot on one of Grade’s TV variety series, Saturday Variety. And the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

That particular introduction to the wide British TV audience has either been lost or was deliberately “wiped” (a horrific erasing practice during the days when British TV networks shortsightedly valued then-expensive video tape over the actual content recorded on them), but Sir Lew himself saw Grayson and issued orders for him to be scheduled immediately for several more guest spots. Public response to Grayson was enormous, and he eventually earned his own series, Shut That Door, followed by several other series, including two seasons of The Larry Grayson Show, which are included on this disc set. Grayson’s biggest success came when he jumped ship from ITV to the bigger, more lucrative BBC network, where he hosted the long-running The Generation Game, in 1978. Never more popular with audiences (upwards of 18 million a week tuned in—an impressive number for the smaller British TV market), Grayson made a calculated error when he left the show in 1981, due to dipping ratings. Grayson thought new series offers would be forthcoming…but they weren’t, and he soon went into semi-retirement, living in a small, modest house with his sister, making occasional forays onto television until he died in 1994 at the age of 71.

As for Grayson’s act…well, it’s delicious camp. Not really outrageous camp—no drag, no feather boas, no makeup or wigs, as he had done before on the stage—but it is the kind of “faux-stealth” 70s gay TV humor that today would enrage humorless gay/P.C. activists thugs who are interested only in muzzling the free artistic expression that differs from their rigid political agenda. Trying to find a contemporary comedian here in the States, to give you an idea of how Grayson operated, the obvious choices would be Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly, the two most prominent gay comedians of 1970s American television.

Like Grayson, neither of those performers ever actually “came out” on television. Despite revisionist writers today (who love to think that straight, Midwest Americans at that time were clueless dolts), Lynde’s and Reilly’s humor was such that anyone with half a brain understood their orientation (and significantly—didn’t care), and yet the teasing nature of their double entendres and the sometimes effeminate manner (in Reilly’s case) were just naughty enough for mainstream audiences to up the titillation factor in their humor. Grayson works in much the same manner, but he’s far more “camp” in his physical approach than Reilly and certainly Lynde (who looks positively butch by comparison to the British comedian).

Significantly, like Lynde and Reilly, Grayson never comes off as “weak” in his obvious-yet-unstated gay orientation (a goofy, totally off-the-mark charge gay activists make all the time). Whereas Lynde’s and Reilly’s humor could be wickedly sarcastic and snarky—thus giving them a measure of power over anyone fool enough to verbally tangle with them—Grayson’s is much more gentle and observational, while employing far more feminine mannerisms in his act than either of the two American comics. Conversely, Grayson’s double entendres are much more explicit than anything Lynde or Reilly could have gotten away with on the puritanically-minded American networks.

Interestingly, Grayson gets away with them (and indeed, gets the audience on his side), by projecting, at the same time that he’s suggesting randy wishes for gay sex, a disdain for the actual physical act itself (according to some on the docs, Grayson was celibate in real life). Grayson therefore had his cake and ate it, too: his double entendres made a name for him, safely getting across his sexual preference while mildly shocking the delighted audience, but at the same time he could project a mock horror at the actual gay sex act, which let him off the hook, so to speak, with mainstream British TV audiences who in the 1970s weren’t ready for an aggressively “out” comedian.

Grayson’s act can be broken down into three areas. First, he’s a brilliant monologist, discussing his imaginary group of friends like Slack Alice (“You eat like a canary…you need some meat inside you.”), Brenda Allcock (“…and her fat whippets.”), Everard Farquharson (“He loves music…he knows The Chocolate Solider backwards.”), and the postman, Pop-It-In-Pete (“You’ve got a big bundle there!”), pausing for dazzling effect after each and every double entendre, giving the audience time to catch up with his constant asides that pin the joke squarely within a gay context. Here Grayson shows his perfect timing—honed, no doubt, from over three decades playing to live (and often initially hostile) audiences—as he sets up each joke and then milks a second laugh out of an aside or merely a well-placed glance away.

Second, he’s quite a funny physical comedian, even though that aspect of his act is limited by his wordplay. Grayson isn’t above pirouetting or doing his trademark glare at someone laughing off stage, before in mock horror and exasperation, disdainfully rolling his eyes and turning his shoulder away from the unseen, “common as muck” offender. And third, his reliance on painfully inventive double entendres, forever referencing imagined rude acts as well as suggesting where Grayson’s true proclivities lie, is probably the most memorable element in his act. Such throwaways by Grayson are too numerous to mention here but among my favorites include the name of his planned autobiography (“It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time“); his credo as an actor (“I for one will not bend over backwards to get a meaty part.”); Grayson on snooker (“Anyone chalks my cue, they’ll be balls everywhere,”); his past acting experience (“I was in A Christmas Carol, played Tiny Tim…miscast, of course.”); and Grayson as truck stop counterman (“Try a fairy cake; you’re just the type.”). These lines may read as obvious, but when Grayson delivers them in the existential guise of an exhausted, slightly bitchy housewife who both craves and abhors men, they’re paralyzingly funny (I hit the floor when Larry, as Sir Francis Drake, is informed that “the entire Spanish Navy has turned the other way,” to which Larry responds with his best catchphrase, “What a gay day!” Absolutely, hysterically priceless).

The format for Grayson’s various shows doesn’t vary too terribly much (at least for the shows gathered on this set), anymore than his tried-and-tested jokes and catchphrases do (perhaps a hold-over from his stand-up days). After an opening monologue, a filmed insert follows with Larry put in some situation where his unspoken orientation is cause for humorous situations (my favorite is where Larry, as a bin man, wrestles with another swearing co-worker over a garbage can, only to have Larry wearily exclaim, “Men!” before toddling off). Next, a musical guest or a variety act (tumblers, magicians) give Larry a chance to interfere, before another comedy sketch (frequently Larry encountering some stuffed-shirt official, allowing Larry to make many outrageous double entendres about what he needs), before it’s song time.

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I particularly like those ending segments where Larry sings, because it shows that genuinely sincere, joyful part of his personality that’s such an obvious connector with the audience. Apparently, Grayson’s idol was Judy Garland, and one can certainly see the influence she had on him when he begins to self-consciously ape some of her mannerisms. But there’s no faking the genuine kindness and joy that comes through when he starts to uncertainly warble a tune, and that unaffectedness carries through his entire act. I would imagine that’s why he was such a big TV star; the nature of that medium invites intimacy with performers we like, that we connect with on an emotional level. When his theme song wells up (what else? Garland’s The Man Who Got Away), and he bids, “Ta-ra!” to the audience with an added, “I love you,”…you believe him.

For the Shut That Door! Larry Grayson at ITV set, in addition to the two full seasons of hour-long The Larry Grayson Show, the first disc features quite a few extras devoted to exploring the comedian’s legacy. First, the sole surviving episode of Larry’s first starring series, Shut That Door is included; ironically, it’s the last episode in the series, and Larry has a terrific interview with British bombshell Diana Dors. She’s entertaining and articulate, and you can just tell that Larry loves having her on (audiences can tell a fake a mile off). Next, a very brief interview with Grayson from July 2nd, 1973, during the full blooming of his career, is featured (he looks so relieved to be famous). Next, there’s an episode of another Grayson series, The Larry Grayson Hour of Stars, where Larry interviews a bemused Michael Crawford (who marvels at the excesses of Hello, Dolly!), and a lovely Anna Neagle, from Irene and No, No Nanette.

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Next, from 1983, At Home with Larry Grayson features Janet Street-Porter interviewing Larry, taking him back to his old home and school (watch that kid mimic Larry’s fluttering hands), and even one of the old working man’s clubs he played (he sings Tangerine—it slayed me). We get to see his modest, modest home, as well (you would not believe a bona fide television superstar lived there), as well as a peek at his beloved sister. The best moment has to be when Street-Porter asks Larry if there was any reason why as a kid he wanted to dress up in drag and act silly, to which an amused Larry asserts with a laugh, “No!” (I’ve got one, dearie…). It’s a terrific “backstage” look at the comedian.

The Unforgettable…Larry Grayson, from 2000, features quite a few of Larry’s business associates and friends discussing his life and career. I particularly liked the inclusion of some clips from Larry’s most popular show, The Generation Game (there’s a hilarious bit where his co-star, Isla St. Clair, is shown blowing a huge Alpine horn…to which Larry ad-libs, “You know, she hasn’t been well all day.”). Finally, there’s a clip of Larry’s earliest surviving ITV appearance on Saturday Variety, from January 22, 1972. What makes it so funny is Grayson’s obvious nervousness, and what makes it so fascinating is the clear indication that Grayson knows that this is it. This is his one, last chance at the brass ring. And he grabs it.


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