Freddie Starr: A star has gone out
Freddie Starr was a very talented comedian, impressionist, singer and actor with an extra ordinary self-destructive side which was often present in his performances but even more provolant in his personal life and on occasions dealing with professional staff and showbusiness executives.
He was born Fredrick Leslie Fowell in Liverpool, a carpenter’s son. But first began entertaining by mimicking teachers at his secondary modern school, which got him into trouble. His first break came as a child actor in the film ‘Violent Playground’ (1958). He claimed when he went home, he found out his parents had taken his fee. It was a tough upbringing with his father a former boxer, physically abusive to him.
In the early 1960s, Starr was the lead singer of the Merseybeat pop group ‘The Midnighters’. They recorded three singles, each produced by Joe Meek (‘Telstar’ fame). The singles received promotion from Brian Epstein, (manager of the Beatles), but they all failed to enter the charts. During this time Starr performed in nightclubs in Hamburg, spending time with The Beatles, who were also working there before hitting the big time.
The northern club scene quickly became a place where he could express his talent for comedy. But it was not until he appeared on ‘Opportunity Knocks’ as part of comedy/beat act Freddie Starr and the Delmonts, did TV producers and audiences take notice. This was further followed by a massive success as a solo act on The Royal Variety Performance 1970 where he impersonated Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones) bringing the house down and stealing the show.
Video clip: Royal Variety show 1970 – Mick Jagger impression
Television career takes off
Further Television success followed as he impressed as one of the main performers in the television series ‘Who Do You Do?’ (ITV 1972-76). He impersonated Adolf Hitler wearing Wellington boots and Maxwall, although it was his Elvis Presley act, along with the white sparkling costume that was often admired. Bobby Davro claimed ‘he was the funniest man I have ever seen.’
Music was always part of Freddie Starr’s comedy. He loved to sing wearing his Teddy Boy suit and creped shoes, often mixing his ability for voices, music and comedy in one. As with his famous ‘Vincent’ routine. Starr packed theatres up and down the country, constantly touring. Les Dennis said he was ‘so exciting to watch live.’ He guested on many TV shows such as ‘Jokers Wild’ ‘Des O Connor Tonight’ ‘Parkinson’ along with having his own show in the seventies and eighties ‘The Freddie Starr Show’ (ITV 1976) ‘The Freddie Starr Variety Madhouse’ (1979), The Freddie Starr Show’ (ITV 1983) However, Television executives were wary of him.
Video: ‘Vincent’ routine (Visual comedy)
There was a darker side to the man, that many found unpalatable. Widely regarded in the business as highly talented he could be wild, difficult and unpredictable. Though extravagantly generous to friends and acquaintances. Some of this outrageous behaviour he documented in his autobiography Freddie Starr: Unwrapped (2001) – but some he left out. He once supposedly threw a gold Rolex watch worth £6,000 into the Thames, saying. ‘Baubles mean nothing to me.’ He spoke of his loyalty to Queen and country in one breath then boasted of his criminal friends in the next. TV Presenter Ann Diamond said of Freddie ‘An incredible and unique talent. I remember being in a TV green room with him at Elstree studios and became exhausted with laughter at his repartee. Always difficult and awkward to interview but always worth it! Loved him.’
Video clips: Selection of TV comedy routines
Freddie was the subject of one of the most famous headlines in tabloid newspaper history.
‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster’
It appeared in ‘The Sun’ on 13 March 1986. The story began: ‘Zany comic Freddie Starr put a live Hamster in a sandwich and ATE it, model girl Les La Salle claimed yesterday.’ The model alleged that Starr was staying with her and her boyfriend, Freddie came in late one night and demanded a sandwich. ‘Get it yourself,’ she said, whereupon: ‘He put my hamster between two slices of bread and started eating it.’ The hamster’s name was Supersonic.
Freddie denied it from the start; the fact that it was published spoke volumes for his reputation. People believed this madcap comic could do such a thing. In later years it was admitted by disgraced Press Publicist Max Clifford (1943-2017) he had placed the story which was indeed false. Whatever the truth it gained Starr a lot of publicity.
For 20 years, from 1974, Starr developed an addiction to Valium. The chat show host Michael Parkinson wrote that it ‘addled his talent and confused his personality’, eroding ‘a virtuosity equalled by only a very few entertainers’.
Video clips: Freddie Starr on various variety & chat shows
A different comedy scene
Although still popular with some audiences Starr’s humour stayed the same, but not the ever changing comedy circuit which had moved on leaving him behind. Stuart Jeffries (Guardian obituary) wrote that his act was ‘pre-cerebral, unrepentantly sexist, often racist comedy that was rendered overwhelmingly obsolete by the late 1980s.’ Although, TV had not given up totally on him. He appeared in The Freddie Starr Show (1993–94 ITV) produced by former Benny Hill producer Dennis Kirkland (1942-2006), containing much of the same dated style of humour.
On LWT’s ‘An Audience with Freddie Starr’ in 1996, he controversially threw handfuls of live maggots at the audience. Never the less, ‘Another Audience with Freddie Starr’ followed in 1997. This time he hit eggs with a golf club into the assembled celebrity crowd. Starr was always trying to recreate on television the often chaotic atmosphere of his live shows, without the same success. TV and Theatre performances are different.
Freddie was married five times, twice to the same woman Donna Smith (1998-2003 & 2006-2010). His divorces and off spring left this once wealthy man working on. His racehorse ‘Miinnehoma’ won the 1994 Grand National, unfortunately other commitments prevented Starr from attending. He was due to tour in 2010, but the tour was cancelled when he suffered a major heart attack in April 2010, resulting in quadruple heart bypass surgery. Freddie participated in the 2011 series of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here, but withdrew for health reasons. He retired to Spain
In 2012 Freddie Starr was investigated by Operation Yewtree, for an alleged sexual incident behind the scenes on the Jimmy Saville show in the seventies, which he denied. There was insufficient evidence to charge Starr. However, he decided to take his accuser to court for libel. The judge suggested the allegation was credible, leaving Starr’s image further tarnished and his bank balance depleted. He became an increasingly lonely figure, with his wife Sophie Lea some forty years younger, leaving him in 2015 and filing for divorce which was never completed. He died alone in his one-bedroom Spanish apartment.
Video: Freddie Starr on ‘Parkinson’ with Muhammad Ali co-guest
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.