Billy Dainty: The Black Country's king of variety who was loved by the Queen Mother
You had to have a sense of humour to grow up in the Black Country, said Billy Dainty, disputing the myth that comedians had to be wise-cracking cockneys, cheeky Scousers or dour northerners.
With a career spanning more than 40 years at the top of light entertainment, he might well have had a point.
It is almost 35 years since the Dudley-born funnyman died at the tragically young age of 59, and the chances are if you are much under 40 you probably will not have heard of him. But his legendary appearances at the Royal Variety Performance led to the Queen Mother becoming one of his biggest fans. He was one of the first music-hall stars to see the potential of television, and his nimbleness in adapting to the changing world of light entertainment led to him becoming one of the fathers of modern variety.
Childhood friend John Burgin, who was born across the road from the comedian, remembered Billy’s star quality showing through at a very early age. And he said Billy's mother Florence, or 'Floss' to her friends, was a major driving force.
“Billy’s mother had wanted to be a dancer, but her mother wouldn’t allow her to have dancing lessons,” said John.
John, who was just over two weeks older than Billy, was born at Burgin's news, the newsagents he kept with wife Cynthia until his death in 2009.
William Hooper Frank John Dainty – he was said to become weary of people demanding to know his real name – was born on February 22, 1927, above Hoopers, his parents’ florist shop on the corner of Wolverhampton Street and Southall’s Lane, now the Salon Ice hairdresser.
“Billy lived on the opposite side of the road," John recalled in 2005.
"Because his mother was never able to learn to dance, she made Billy join a class for ballet dancing. He was the only boy in a whole group of girls.”
The youngsters both went to the Wolverhampton Street School a few hundreds yards up the road, and they both learned music together.
“He started, and so did I, at Madame Whiston’s music school, just two doors away,” said John.
Today Madam Whistons is a rather nondescript furniture store, but it was inside these rather bland four walls that Billy finally found himself on the road to stardom – and he got a taste for the limelight at a very early age.
Billy was 12 years old when he got his first real experience of showbiz, when he performed with the dance troupe Dancing Babes. He wrote to his mother, saying: “Dear Mum, I’m crying as I write this letter, so please excuse the tearstains.”
He soon overcame his initial stage fright, and his younger sister Betty also started appearing alongside him, performing with stars including Arthur Askey and Ted Ray.
A big break came in 1942, when Billy was 15, when he and Betty performed in Mother Goose at the Coliseum in London.
John recalled appearing on stage with Billy around this time in a concert party at Sedgley’s Clifton Cinema.
“There were 25 pupils from the music school in it,” he said. “We had also got the Dudley Hippodrome Orchestra performing with us. I played the violin and xylophone, he played the ukulele.”
Billy left school at 14, and went to work as a petrol pump attendant at Broadway Garage in Dudley, but found the work less than rewarding.
"I had a year of that, I wasn’t very happy serving petrol,” he told Express & Star theatre critic Dennis Barker in a 1962 interview.
“Then an artiste who knew my mother very well said that I was wasting my time and that I ought to do some stage training.
“The war was on. It was a big decision to make. But I went to London and started at a dancing school.”
He won a scholarship to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), but wasn't the most diligent of students. He was paid £1 a week at Rada, and quickly found that he could make £8 10s a week playing truant and performing at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where he joined comedian Sid Field and up-and coming comic duo Morecambe & Wise in the comedy show Strike a New Note.
He came to the conclusion that variety theatre was likely to prove more lucrative than acting and quit Rada after just 12 months.
Dainty became something of a star in the world of music hall variety, combining silly walks, comic dancing and hilarious patter and banter with the audience, and established himself as one of the most popular pantomime dames of all time.
But he was quick to spot the changing face of entertainment. The postwar rise of television meant traditional music-hall was on the wane, and realised he was going to have to adapt his act for the new, growing medium. He decided TV could be a suitable vehicle for his act, and made appearances on “Sunday Night at the Palladium”.
Not all his TV appearances were successful. In 1967 he took on the role of cabaret performer Billy Cook in the sitcom pilot That’s Showbusiness, with a supporting cast including June Whitfield and Kenneth Connor, but no series resulted.
In 1968 Dainty took the music hall theme to the small screen when he appeared in the BBC variety series Kindly Leave the Stage. It was a questionable format: Dainty and other comics appeared alongside lesser-known music hall acts, recycling old gags about subjects such as nose-less dogs and slack knicker elastic. The format seemed very dated.
In 1974, he made his first of three appearances at the Royal Variety Show, and went down a storm, and he was said to be a personal favourite of the Queen Mother.
The following year his stand-up show Billy Dainty Esq made it on to the screens, and the programme was much more successful.
He was also a popular figure with children, having made three appearances on The Sooty Show before joining forces with Rod Hull from 1975 to 1980 on the show EBC1: Emu’s Broadcasting Company.
In the 1980s he formed a comedy partnership with Roy Hudd, and also appeared alongside Irish comic Jimmy Cricket on the show And There's More.
In 1983 he returned to his home town for the BBC TV series Comic Roots, something John Burgin remembered well.
Sadly, it would be one of the last times John would see his childhood friend. He appeared in a pantomime production of Aladdin at Nottingham in 1985, but was forced to pull out after being taken ill. He died on November 19, 1986, following a battle with cancer.
“He came to see me just after he was ill, but I never saw him again,” said John.
Billy Dainty was a true comedy legend but, although he cut a swaggering figure on stage, he was surprisingly modest off it.
“I don’t really look upon myself now as a success,” he told the Express & Star in 1962. “A success in this business is a man who can fill the theatre 52 weeks a year, and I’m not one.”
Billy never forgot where he came from, and he said that his Black Country background was a big help in shaping the comedian he became.
The short life of a legend
William Hooper Frank John Dainty on February 22, 1927. above his parents' florist shop in Southalls Lane, Dudley
1942, Billy and his younger sister Betty performed in Mother Goose at the Coliseum in London
1949: made his television debut with a minor role in the movie Her Excellency
Married the actress Sandra Martin when his wage reached £10 a week, and they had one son, Lawrence
1967: Played the lead role in the sitcom That's Show Business. It was not a success
Appeared on numerous children's television shows, including The Sooty Show (1969-75), EBC1: Emu's Broadcasting Company (1975-80) and Tickle on the Tum (1985-86)
Retraced his Black Country childhood for the TV series Comic Roots in 1983
In 1984 Billy made his last appearance on the Royal Variety Performance
November 19, 1986: died at his home, Cobblers, in Godalming, Surrey