There are several comedians who have had the privilege of performing in front of Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal family. The majority of these appearances were at the Royal Variety show. An annual event first started in 1912 to raise money for artistes’ charities.
Cream of the crop
The Royal Variety Performance always boasts a star-studded line-up of acts, and some big names. Over the years various monarchs have watched the cream of British and international talent. Queen Elizabeth attended a staggering 39 times during her reign. The last being in 2012.
Video: The Royal family arrive for the 1969 Royal Variety Performance
Top comedians are normally paid handsomely for TV shows, corporate events, awards hosting, tours and personal appearances. However, on the Royal Variety show no one gets paid. Apart from some expenses. It is the honour to perform in front of Royals and support the Charity. The organisers have no problem getting together the very best talent from around the world. All want to meet the Royal’s.
The 100th Royal Variety
I have been to four Royal Variety shows. The one that stands out was at the Royal Albert Hall (2012). It was the 100th Royal Variety show. That night many comedy legends from the past returned. It was also one of Jimmy Tarbuck’s favourite. It included old friends Bruce Forsyth, Ronnie Corbett and Des O’Connor. Although the four had worked separately together for years. Jimmy said ‘We all worked together for the first time. I just said to the lads, as we go on the finale, let’s take our time on it. Because we’ll never get this chance again to be together.’ It was a evening full of memories from past shows. Tarbuck said ’It was a wonderful occasion because the crowds in the Albert Hall just gave us such welcome.’
The Queen’s wit
Jimmy Tarbuck recalled in a different year the Queen asking him ‘How many have these (Royal Variety shows) have you done now?’ He said, ‘Four more than you’, and she said, ‘It certainly seems like it tonight’. And moved off. Tarbuck said “Tom Jones was next to me, and he said, ‘Well, thank you very much, I just got the handshake.’ The pair started laughing
The Queen Mother
The Queen Mother attended the variety performance as a royal guest of honour on 26 occasions. One of her favourites, was said to be Billy Dainty and his comic dancing.
Video: Three Royal Variety performers (Dickie Henderson, Max Wall & Billy Dainty) mix their styles of comic dance.
Max Miller & Jack Benny- 1950 Royal Variety Show
This show bought great controversy. As Max Miller deliberately ran over his time. The problem was Jack Benny had been allocated longer on stage than him. Not unreasonably as he had travelled all the way from America. He was a huge box office draw. But so was Max Miller.
Tensions grew a few days before the 1950 show (the 22nd Royal Variety Performance) – organisers, Val Parnell and Harry Marlow threw a party for the artistes (and press) at London’s Cafe de Paris. In his amusing speech, American comic Jack Benny, who had flown from the States, recalled when he stepped off his flight Mr Parnell said to him, “You have four minutes on Monday, and don’t you overdo it!” Benny told the audience he was only concerned about his expenses! When Mr Parnell spoke, he said he couldn’t add to what had previously been said. “Yes, you can, you can add another six minutes to my time!” interrupted Benny, to much laughter.
On the night Jack Benny was storming it. He went well over his time. In the wings Max Miller was getting more and more frustrated. Talking to artistes around him. One being Max Wall who recalled. He threatened to abandon the material he did in rehearsal. ‘I’ll do the blue book. I will.’ Said Miller pacing around.
When Max Miller eventually came on to loud cheers. He looked up to the Royal Box and said ‘What do you want the blue book or the white book?’ Back came the cry ‘The blue book!’ The audience loved it, but, being well over his allotted time. He was pushing the accepted protocol of ‘royal shows’ that timing should be stuck to. Charles Henry was standing in the wings calling “Come off Max” In a quiet moment his loud whisper was heard. Miller turned to him in the wings. ‘What do you mean come off’ Max shouted. ‘The Yanks have had a go, now give us Brits a chance.’ The audience applauded and screamed in agreement. Lapping up Max’s performance.
When Miller eventually did come off the stage, Val Parnell, the owner of Moss Empires made his way to his dressing room. He opened the door and aggressively shouted to the comedian. ‘Miller! You’ll never work in one of my theatres again.’ Max who was about to hang his hat on a peg turned saying “Val, You’re sixty thousand pounds too late”
All the cast, comedians and entertainers for the evening. Meet the Queen in the traditional line up at the end of the show. The Royal protocol is to speak when spoken to. However, at the 1964 Royal Variety Show. Legendary comedian Tommy Cooper broke the rules. He asked the Queen. “Did you think I was funny Ma’am?” She replied politely “Why yes Mr Cooper.” Tommy asked again. “Thank you, Ma’am. You really thought I was funny?” The Queen answered “Yes we all thought you were funny.” Cooper then says “Thank you. Now can I ask you a personal question Ma’am?” Everyone in the line who heard stiffened. The Queen quietly said “Very well, Mr Cooper. As personal as I will allow.” “Do you like football?” he said. “Not particularly.” Replied the Queen. ‘Good!’ came Tommy ‘s’ reply “Could I have your Cup Final tickets?” Everybody roared laughing. Including her Majesty.
Comedy duo Cannon and Ball (Bobby Ball & Tommy Cannon) first met the Royals back in 1987. Apparently, a week before Bobby first met the Queen, he was at a function. At the top table was the Duke of Edinburgh. Both he and his comic partner Tommy were late. They were told to introduce themselves to the Duke. Tommy said ‘Hello sir’ then Bobby went ‘hello Cock, how are you?’ Afterwards he told his wife. She recalled “He realised the mistake he made and was a bit upset.’
The following week was the Royal Command performance in front of Queen Elizabeth II. In the line-up which was the pairs first encounter with the Queen, Her Majesty said to Bobby ‘Well you are obviously Northern, you’re very jovial.’ The Duke of Edinburgh shortly followed behind and said to Bobby, “Hello Cock, how are you?” They all fell about laughing.
Further Royal invites
Jim Tavaré has appeared on three Royal Variety Shows (1992, 1994, 1998). He went on to perform at several private functions for the British Royal Family; including a private party for HRH Prince Charles at the Ritz and a Gala held at Highgrove, in front of Her Majesty the Queen and thirteen Crowned Heads of State.
Ken Dodd was another Royal favourite having been knighted by Her Majesty. He appeared in many Royal Variety shows as well as entertaining the Royal family at the Palace.
Prince Charles (now King Charles III) was a great fan of ‘The Goon Show’ (BBC Radio 1951-1960). He became very friendly with the cast members Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. Often meeting up joining in with the voices of the shows characters.
Queen’s taste in TV Comedy
According to ‘The Telegraph’(12/09/2022). The Queen was a fan of ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Last of the Summer Wine.’ Which she watched in her youth. She never took to ‘alternative’ comedy of the eighties such as ‘The Young Ones’ or Ben Elton. However, ‘Fry and Laurie’ as Jeeves & Wooster (1990-93) she enjoyed being brought up on PG Wodehouse by the Queen Mother. She also liked seventies sit-com ‘The Good Life’ (BBC).
Journalist Phil Jones (BBC) believes her favourite sit-com was ‘The Kumars at No 42’ (A British Indian family). She was even able to “recite some of the one-liners from the grandma character” Jones said. Who was a former editor on The Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2.
Video: Queen’s own sense of humour
Pushing the comic boundaries
At the Royal Variety show 2007, held at the Liverpool Empire theatre. The Queen was the subject of a good-natured joke or two. Comic Russell Brand said “everyone mistaking you for Helen Mirren”, a reference to the actress who played The Queen in the then recent Oscar-winning movie. But no matter how polished and rehearsed the format was, there were comedians who tested the frontiers of protocol. American Joan Rivers blurted out the F-word and Brand announced himself “sh***er of the year.” (Liverpool Echo)
The London Palladium has played host to the Royal Variety show longer than any other theatre. In recent years this prestigious event has toured other major theatres in cities such as Cardiff (millennium centre), Liverpool (Empire Theatre), Edinburgh (Festival Theatre) and Manchester (The Lowry, Salford Quays).
The majority of names for the Royal Variety are well established. There is always room for new artistes. Who have impressed leading bookers. Such exposure, especially if the act goes down well can boost a career. This happened to Freddie Starr in 1970.
Video: Freddie Starr’s 1970 Royal Variety performance
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’s lectured at 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.
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