Roy Hudd has more stories than the 1001 Nights. Even when he’s not on stage, the veteran comedian and actor is the consummate entertainer and raconteur, leaping from anecdote to anecdote with the grace and panache of an oratorical gymnast. His natural wit is perfect for starring in an Oscar Wilde play, which is lucky as that’s exactly what he’s doing in A Woman of No Importance.
“I was actually interested because of Wilde’s jokes,” he tells me as he rifles through a case packed with papers, song lyrics and music. “Whenever I did Quote… Unquote on the radio, I always guessed the quote was from Wilde and 9 times out of 10 I was right!” he laughs “But the sweetener with this show was they wanted me to do three songs. And they said ‘You can pick the songs you want to do’, so that’s what I’ve done.”
When the Classic Spring production played in the West End in 2017, the first in the new theatre company’s year of Wilde productions, Anne Reid serenaded audiences with a trio of ditties. As it tours the UK following its success in the capital, Hudd has that honour.
When not singing, he plays Archdeacon Daubeny in Wilde’s upper-class comedy about a society house party and a woman with a long-buried secret that needs to be addressed. “It’s old Oscar beating the drum for women of his period,” Hudd explains. “They were all treated like rubbish, so he made them the heroines.”
The songs, performed during scene changes like a holy party pieces at the posh shindig, offer Hudd the opportunity to indulge his love of music hall and variety. He needs very little encouragement to do so, diving into a rendition of his new discovery, entitled The Vicar and I Will Be There, with glee.
Music hall is where it all started for Hudd. Or rather Concert Party. As a kid growing up in Croydon, he needed an activity to keep him out of trouble. “One day the front page of the Daily Mirror had a headline: The Roughest School in England. It was a picture of my mates!” Hudd laughs.
So off to a boys club he went, where he signed up to learn about Concert Party, a style of variety show. “My Gran, who brought me up, always talked about going to see it. She brought me up on an old age pension, but always, whatever happened, took me to the Croydon Empire every week on a Tuesday night because she loved variety.”
If Tom Cooper, the retired variety performer who taught the boys about performing, hadn’t asked Hudd ‘Are you as funny as you look?’, his life, and British entertainment history could have been very different.
Instead, Hudd found himself performing in sketches and parodies, taking part in charity concerts and, on one occasion, earning praise from The Goon Show co-founder Michael Bentine, “which gave me a bit of a spark!”
Fast forward through National Service, sitting next to Winston Churchill at a performance of The Mousetrap and starring in shows compered by a then unknown Benny Hill, and Hudd ends up working as a Butlins Red Coat. But even then this is no ordinary Butlins; Hudd’s team includes the men who would go on to become household names as Cliff Richard and Dave Allen!
“You didn’t even have to be any good,” he laughs, though clearly with that collection of talent, they were. “All you had to do was have a nice smile and cheer everybody up. If you ever did make it, you knew how to behave because if you were a Red Coat you were treated like a star. Everybody knew you.”
If Cooper’s spotting of comic potential was the first turning point in Hudd’s life and career, the second came courtesy of his agent. Without it, Hudd might not be performing in A Woman of No Importance at all. It was he who pushed Hudd towards acting, sending him to audition for a Shakespearean production at Richmond Theatre. As Hudd would be earning less than he did for his variety work, he took some convincing, but the agent was particularly prescient: “He said ‘I’m telling you here and now that variety will be over in 4 or 5 years, so you’ve got to extend yourself and learn to act.’”
Given the length of Hudd’s career and the way he effortlessly collects meetings with other performers, it’s not surprising that he’s starred with a few of the A Woman of No Importance cast before. “I’ve just worked with Isla Blair, we did Casualty together, which was great fun. And Emma [Amos], we worked at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park together, doing a musical called The Fantasticks… Now, that was down to Bernard Bresslaw…”
You could sit and listen to Hudd forever and never get bored. Story follows story follows story and, I suspect, if the stories dried up, his humour and sense of joy would be enough to keep any audience happy for a few extra hours.
“I enjoy doing it very much,” he says, succinctly, of performing in A Woman of No Importance, before, almost inevitably, kicking on: “I did one of the early Call The Midwifes. I played an old soldier who died at the end of the episode. After that, I died in every job I got on television. This role is particularly lovely because I’m alive at the end of it!”
Monday 14 October 2019