Over the summer we are repeating this series recalling BBC radio programmes from the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the corporation was a much-loved institution broadcasting material the listeners wanted to hear. This article was first published on June 9, 2019.
RAY’S a Laugh was one of the BBC’s most popular radio shows for 12 years, but like ITMA it has not really stood the test of time with its reliance on funny voices and catchphrases. Still I’m sure many will remember its good humour with fondness.
Ted Ray was born Charlie Olden in Wigan in 1905, but grew up in Liverpool, home of many comics. His father, a small-time comedian, told him: ‘If you learn the violin, you’ll always have a living even if you have to play in the streets.’ He took his father’s advice and in his teens joined a dance band which entertained cinema audiences during the interval between films.
Later he toured in musical revues as Nedlo the Gipsy Violinist (Nedlo=Olden backwards), wearing a sash made from an old table runner and with brass curtain rings dangling from his ears. His act was a mixture of violin playing and joke telling, which he called ‘Fiddling and Fooling’.
When he started getting bookings in London he acquired an agent, who urged him to take on a new name. As a keen golfer he chose Ted Ray, after a player who won the 1912 British Open. He worked his way up the billing and into larger theatres, making his debut at the London Palladium in 1932.
His gags relied less on spontaneity than a prodigious memory and virtuoso timing.
‘Every night, hour after hour,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I would stand in front of the mirror in my bedroom, grimacing, smiling and winking, with the idea of getting the most effective expression for putting over a joke. I was determined that if hard work and ceaseless rehearsal would help, no trouble on my part would be too great.’
In 1939 Ray was awarded his first weekly wireless show, entitled Just Fooling, but the outbreak of war put an end to its run after only one episode.
During the war he entertained the troops, and it was not until 1949 that he got back on the radio. Ray’s A Laugh was devised by BBC producer George Inns (who later co-created The Black and White Minstrel Show), and written by Eddie Maguire who went on to write Here’s Harry for Harry Worth. Early programmes were based around the Cannon Enquiry Agency and consisted of Ray’s short introductory stand-up routine followed by a domestic scene with Ted, his wife Kitty played by Kitty Bluett, who had just arrived from Australia, and her brother Nelson, played by Fred Yule. Finally came the adventures of ‘George, the Man with a Conscience’, featuring funny voices and catchphrases reminiscent of ITMA (which ended the year Ray’s a Laugh started). Musical interludes were provided by The Beaux and The Belles and sibling harmonists Bob and Alf Pearson (‘We bring you melody, from out of the sky – my brother and I’).
Other cast members included Patricia Hayes, later known as Edie Grimthorpe in The Benny Hill Show and Mrs Cravatte in Hancock’s Half Hour, and 23-year-old Peter Sellers, then an aspiring impressionist. He appeared as a small boy called Soppy and a woman called Crystal Jollibottom. Sellers said later: ‘Whatever I know about timing I learned from Ted.’
The animal impersonator Percy Edwards played Gregory the chicken.
By 1953 the show had metamorphosed into an uninterrupted half-hour sitcom. In later series the focus moved to Ray’s new career as a reporter for the Daily Bugle and the musical items were dropped. Peter Sellers left after the sixth series to pursue his film career and most of the funny voices were taken over by future Carry On star Kenneth Connor.
Here is an episode from 1954.
Ray’s a Laugh ended in 1961 after 12 years.
In 1959 Ted starred as the headmaster in the third Carry On movie, Carry On Teacher.
Producer Peter Rogers hoped that Ted would become a regular in subsequent Carry On productions but a contractual issue made it impossible, so Sid James joined the series instead.
During the sixties and seventies Ray was a stalwart of Does The Team Think? devised by Jimmy Edwards as a comic alternative to Any Questions? Asked to supply his own obituary in a 1971 edition he suggested: ‘Ted Ray died peacefully in his sleep at 95 years of age in a Brighton hotel. A blonde is helping the police with their inquiries.’
In 1968, for some reason Ray and Kenneth Williams were interviewed by David Frost.
By the 1970s he was appearing regularly as a panellist on Jokers Wild
In 1975 he had a bad car accident on his way home from a boozy day of golf, and was in hospital for three months. He was fined for drunk driving and was unable to play golf again. According to his grandson Mark Olden this robbed him of his zest for life, and two years later, aged 71, he had a fatal heart attack. He was always keen to leave with a good gag – accordingly a card was found in his top pocket with the instructions: ‘Cremated, and ten per cent of ashes to be scattered over my agent.’
In 1933 Ray married dancer Sybil Stevens, and they had two sons.
Robin Ray (1934-1998) became a TV personality and was the first chairman of Call My Bluff.
He was also a regular on the BBC TV programme Face The Music. I can find only one episode on YouTube and there is no date, but I believe it is from 1973.
He was married to the TV presenter Susan Stranks. He died at the age of 64 from lung cancer.
Andrew Ray (1939-2003) was a child actor, his first big role being in The Mudlark when he was ten.
His son Mark wrote a memoir in The Oldie magazine in 2012 in which he recalled his grandfather and his father.
Of his father, he wrote:
‘Then, following the arc of so many child stars’ lives, came the fall: he blew his earnings, which his dad had prudently placed in a trust, as soon as he got his hands on them, wrote off two sports cars in succession and was rushed to hospital after overdosing on sleeping pills. His agent stopped calling and the work dried up. Penniless, he faced the ignominy of being caught stealing groceries from a supermarket. The newspapers no longer covered his latest triumph, but his latest crisis.
‘There followed a wild, often drug-fuelled journey through the 1960s, a spiritual epiphany in India, which inspired him to give away his possessions and later move to the English countryside with dreams of living off the land. He was tailed by Special Branch in racially segregated Rhodesia for declaring that black and white should be equal, and eventually forced out of the country. And his career revived with a steady stream of TV and theatre work.’
With his life back on track Andrew visited a literary agent to discuss writing a family memoir. He talked for 20 minutes with barely a pause, then sat back as the agent started to outline how the book might work. She noticed his eyes were closed. He had died of a heart attack, also aged 64.