'I'm proof the old ones are the best' At 99, Jack Woodward is Britain's oldest comedian
22:30 GMT, 20 July 2012
22:30 GMT, 20 July 2012
The raucous laughter from the audience of 3,000 confirms comedian Jack Woodward is going down a storm at London’s Hammersmith Apollo.
Joke after joke hits the mark and when his routine is over he leaves the stage to rapturous applause.
In his dressing room five minutes later, Jack sits surrounded by flowers and champagne and has a broad grin on his face. ‘That was magical, a dream fulfilled,’ he says.
At 99, Jack Woodwards is Britain's oldest comedian
‘I never thought I’d get to appear at the Apollo and now I have.’
None of the above is particularly exceptional, until you realise Jack has just celebrated his 90th birthday. He is – to use the title of the documentary that celebrates his life and his appearance on the same bill at the Apollo as Irish funnyman Ed Byrne – Britain’s Oldest Stand Up.
‘Now I want to do more,’ says Jack, buoyed by the audience’s reaction. ‘Charity gigs, more TV work… who knows what this might lead to’
One thing it won’t lead to is another stab at Britain’s Got Talent. Amid all the post-gig euphoria, the Chelsea Pensioner, former BBC warm-up man and stalwart of the northern club circuit in the 60s, hasn’t forgotten his last attempt at making it big.
Bouncing back from disappointment has been a major part of Jack’s life
It wasn’t a happy one. ‘I auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent in 2007, got to the third round and those stupid bu**ers [Amanda] Holden and [Piers] Morgan wouldn’t put me through,’ he growls, the smile gone from his moon-shaped face. ‘I don’t think Simon [Cowell] understood their decision. He may come across as nasty but he was good to me. At least he gave me the chance to tell another gag before I was voted off.
‘And I’m sure he would have done something about the conditions under which I had to audition, had he known about them. There I was, 85 years old, waiting from 7.15 in the morning until 3.30 in the afternoon in this hall near the venue, without even a cup of coffee on offer. It was terrible. But I didn’t let any of it put me off, you have to bounce back, don’t you’
Bouncing back from disappointment has been a major part of Jack’s life.
His first wife, Bobbie, became pregnant by another man and when Jack and Bobbie separated, he lost touch with their daughter Pat. ‘My wife having an affair hurt my heart – losing touch with my daughter broke my heart,’ says Jack, who was reunited with Pat, who lives in America, after she had the first of his two grandchildren.
Even meeting the woman he says was ‘the love of my life’ didn’t bring lasting happiness. The marriage to Kay, his third wife, was cut short when she died due to complications with diabetes.
He had to put his ambitions on hold to look after his mother, who had severe rheumatoid arthritis. And even when he was finally able to devote more time to his career, success always seemed just out of reach.
Jack has been on stage for most of his life, after inheriting his love of showbiz from his father. ‘Dad was a song and dance man, part of an act called The Graydon Brothers,’ remembers Jack.
‘He knew the business inside out. I’d watch him from the wings when I was a kid, and that’s where I caught the bug.’ Jack entertained British troops in the Far East during 22 years service in the Army, but when he returned to civvy street, fame eluded him.
In the 50s he worked as a warm-up man on the BBC’s The Dave King Show and in the 60s he was a regular on the northern club circuit. One of his lasting memories of this period was having coal hurled at him on stage at a nightclub in Gateshead on Tyneside. ‘The trick was to keep moving,’ he says.
‘That way it was more difficult for the audience to hit you.’
Jack has been on stage for most of his life, after inheriting his love of showbiz from his father
Jack gave up on the northern clubs in 1968 but never gave up on stardom. Even after his attempt on Britain’s Got Talent, he continued to perform in pubs near his home at The Royal Hospital in Chelsea, hoping someone would see him and give him another shot.
That someone turned out to be Clair Titley, director and producer of the documentary. ‘She arranged a meeting with a comedy writer called Les Keen.
He liked what he heard from me, promised to talk to his contacts and, lo and behold, this fellow Ed Byrne said he wanted me to appear with him at the Apollo. I could hardly believe it.’
The documentary shows that preparing Jack for his big night wasn’t entirely plain sailing. Les Keen discovered that Jack’s act hadn’t been updated since the 60s.
And as he’d undergone a triple heart bypass in 2007 he had to have an extensive medical examination before being allowed to go on stage. But he passed and, in the best showbiz tradition, everything was all right on the night.
‘I think I warmed the audience up nicely for Ed,’ says Jack, tucking into a post-show prawn and lettuce sandwich. ‘And tomorrow morning, I’ll do the act again in front of the mirror so I’m ready for my next gig. There will be one – and then hopefully another after that. I’m not established in London yet, but I will be. You mark my words.’
Jack's joke book
‘I still do a daily workout. Every morning I have to work out who I am and where I am.’
‘I’ve still got what it takes to get a lady into the bedroom…a stairlift.’
‘At my age, the biggest problem with stand-up comedy is trying to stand up.’
‘I took my labrador to the cinema and it started laughing at the film. The man next to me said, “That’s amazing.” I said, “You’re telling me. He hated the book.”’
Britain’s Oldest Stand Up is on Monday 30 July, at 10pm on More 4.