Monday, 7 December 2015

A Reg Varney story you won't know

Young Reg Varney - a musician before he became an actor, and an artist, and a writer!  

The fascinating story of Reg Varney’s life – from East End to West End, and then from TV stardom to a quiet retirement in Budleigh Salterton – is only partly told in his autobiography The Little Clown

The book was supposed to have a sequel, but somehow that never happened, and the reader is left just as the star of The Rag Trade and On the Buses is called up to serve in World War Two.

So I find myself absorbed in completing the story of his life for visitors to Fairlynch Museum’s 2016 exhibition. It will be called Our Little Clown and will be published in the New Year.

Like many other well known names from the world of entertainment – Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Benny Hill – to name just a few, Reg Varney honed his skills as a comedian by entertaining the troops. 

A young Benny in 1947. He looks quite nice after all 

For a time in the post-war period, Benny Hill was his comedy partner but was clearly ill at ease with live theatre. That was cruelly demonstrated with a disastrous episode at the Sunderland Empire Theatre in 1951 when Hill was slow handclapped off stage. ‘I could have cried for him,’ Varney said.   

Hill is generally thought to have been more far-sighted than most entertainers of his generation in spotting the potential of television, in which he was highly successful.

Reg’s letter may not have gained him an audition but it was kept by the BBC

But the ‘cheeky chappie’ from Canning Town, who went on to become one of the world’s best known bus drivers, had his own ambitions to get ‘on the air’ as early as 1935. Nowhere in his autobiography does Reg Varney mention his appeal for an audition that he addressed to the BBC from his home on 21 March 1935, at the age of 18.

Varney mentioned in his letter to the BBC that he had played with the Jan Ralfini band, one of the top bands of the 1930s, but that 'owing to expences it did not pay me.' 

'I don't think you will regret it after you hear my act', he wrote. ‘I can see by my own eyes that its cheek you want, to get on in this world. It has been my only wish to be on the air so that I can make a name for myself.’  

Varney explained that his act was ‘songs at piano & songs at accordian — also hot syncopated selection of Tiger Rag.’  He mentioned also in his letter that he worked ‘cinamars’, but that, he boldly stated, ‘is not big enough for me.’

For a boy who’d left school four years earlier, it’s a remarkably cocky and confident piece of writing. It’s interesting to consider whether the stuffy BBC clerk who received it would have passed the letter to his superiors had it not been for those misspellings and grammatical errors.

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