Nov25

November 25

1971

He was 78.  Still working.  Still in demand.  During rehearsals he went ‘to have a little sit down’ until they might want him back on the set and he dozed off.  When they called him, and called again, and went to give him a respectful nudge they realised that Billy Russell was dead in his chair.

Billy lived just round the corner in Star Road.  We weren’t aware that he had died until reading of his funeral at the local crematorium.  We were later to become friends with Beryl Perry who had moved into his old house and she gave us a poster she had found in his attic, twice nightly at the Palace for ‘The One and Only Billy Russell “On Behalf of the Working Classes” Book Now, 9d to 3/-’

The Chronicle made no mention of large show-biz turnout for the funeral but did feature photograph of a wreath from Gracie Fields for ‘Ole Bill’.

‘Old Bill’ was the persona Russell assumed throughout his successful career in what we now call stand-up, his solo variety act.  Originally created by Bruce Bairnsfather, old Bill was the walrus-moustached infantryman of ‘Well, if yer knows of a better ‘ole, go to it’.  Lieutenant Bairnsfather was a veteran of Mons and Ypres (where he’d been gassed) and, diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock, he was given the job of training new cannon-fodder on the Isle of Wight where he created his WWI icon.  In a fashion that would never be tolerated by modern artists the name was appropriated wholesale and Old Bill was featured in numerous sketches and plays, on souvenir mugs and holiday postcards, and is even considered by some to be responsible for one of the less acerbic sobriquets of the police force because of the ‘Old Bill Says’ series of posters instructing or informing the populace of wartime regulations or restrictions.  Sergeant Russell was in the South Staffs regiment and served in the Middle East as well as France and Belgium and was wounded three times; in an interview for The Blackcountryman (he was born in Dudley and you can’t get more Black Country than that), he said ‘I was the Trench Philosopher during that war.  I got to thinking what will the lads be doing when they come out.  I saw a navvy repairing tramlines.  That sparked off the idea’.  That Bairnsfather was not all incommoded by this can be affirmed I think by the fact that our Palace poster features a small cartoon by him of Old Bill (and pipe) in civvies.

A couple of recordings of Billy’s act survive.  There is something of the championing of the worker in his material but a least as much at the expense of ‘my old woman’.  (She’s) ‘All right in her place.  She ain’t there yet… (Laughter) but I will say this for her, she’s one in a million, one in a million, if you saw her you’d think she was won in a raffle.  You never saw anything like it.’

He would begin with his song The Poor Old Working Man and then muse a little on his fate ‘What do they do for the working man?  What do they do?  Promise ’im everything, give ’im nothing and before ‘e gets it they take it orf ’im.’  Discuss the shortcomings of ‘muni-pissle’ housing, ‘you can ‘ear the woman next door change her mind.’

There are topical references too.  To the ARP warden who, when told there’s no lights shining from Old Bill’s winders, responds that the offence is a light shining under his door.  ‘Oh blimey, you don’t expect they’re coming on their ‘ands and knees, do yer?’  And many years earlier, when the Soviet Union, aping Robespierre, banned Kings and Queens from playing cards, ‘interfering with the working man’s innocent amusements...  now, if yer want to go nap, yer’ve got to ‘ave four town councillors and a sanitary inspector.’

Russell told The Blackcountryman (‘never had a gag writer in my life’) that the old music hall was not vulgar which either meant he had no ear for the double entendre which cannot be or that it entirely eschewed bad language which is rather charmingly illustrated when he got a laugh in 1939 by not actually using the word ‘jerry’: ‘…goes and knocks the ‘andle off the j... off the jug (you’re a bit ahead of me, aren’t yer?)’.

As did everyone who succeeded in variety he did a long apprenticeship behind, in front of and on the stage (on which he had already appeared, aged seven, when ‘they wanted a child’ at the Theatre Royal Gloucester where his father was painting the scenery).  Between the wars and beyond, his act was a great success, topping the bill in theatres all over the country, on the radio in Henry Hall’s Guest Night, graduating to television and Sunday Night at the London Palladium and one of a select few who played three Royal Commands before three different monarchs..

In 1957 he was 65 and, naturally, retired.  Then it all began again of course.  He hardly ever ‘rested’ in the next quarter of a century.  It’s a fact that if you cannot act you cannot be a successful comedian and he became a much-used character actor (and not always as Old Bill).  On television he appeared in his fair share of soaps and sitcoms.  I well remember his starring as and in Keith Waterhouse’s The Old Contemptible with Arthur English; we hoped it might be developed into a series but it wasn’t, and in the David Kossoff vehicle A Little Big Business.

In his seventies he was in even more demand.  He was in the star-studded 1968 Cold-Comfort Farm with Alistair Sim and Faye Compton and many others.

The following year we followed him up to the smoke to see him in The Contractor at the Royal Court.  It was a rather slight affair but with lovely ensemble playing by Philip Stone, T.P.McKenna, Jim Norton, Bill Owen, Martin Shaw and others and it was nice to see the old feller in action.  A gang of guys are putting up and taking down a marquee.  What I remember is the silly applause when it went up which smacked so much to me of a middle-class reaction, ‘thank goodness, one did rather wonder, what with the caterers coming tomorrow, they hardly seemed up to it.’  On behalf of the working classes, I thought ‘stuff you’.

I doubt whether Billy had any such thought.  From whatever I heard locally over the years and from all that I’ve read, he seemed a thoroughly decent, good-natured and friendly blackcountryman abroad.

 

of November 25th, 1971

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