The Wicked Welsh Wit WYN CALVIN at 94 and still Performing.
August 28th is the 94th birthday of the ‘Welsh Prince of Laughter’.
In 1944, serving with the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC; Run Away Something’s Coming) following the Normandy Landings, he was medically discharged from service with an acute heart problem – and given six months to live.
“It’s been a long six months” he laughs, “so if I couldn’t be with them I’d entertain them and joined ENSA as a juvenile-lead in an Archie De Bear revue playing military and air force bases in the South of England.
The war was still raging when we were told we were to go over to France, Belgium and newly liberated Holland but would have to wear military uniform in case we were captured; In that case we would be treated as military – but in muffti we’d be considered spies and shot. The very day that I was kitted-out in that ENSA uniform Hitler Committed suicide.”
A career of almost 75 years has included 54 pantomimes – half of them as dame. A reputation as the number-one Widow Twankey brought an unexpected request from Hollywood star and Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen. He was to play the dame-role in Aladdin at the Old Vic in the West End – would Calvin advise him on playing the role?
Sir Ian continues to acknowledge the guidance received, remembering his first advice “Keep your padded bra on the radiator overnight”.
As Dame he has been mother to Cilla Black, Sue Pollard, Ken Dodd, Les Dawson, Mr. T from The A Team; “He’s been my mother twice” laughs Roy Hudd.
Leaving the Nottingham Theatre Royal when playing Twankey to Frank Bruno’s Abanazar the stage-door was crowded with Bruno fans. One little girl asked for Wyn Calvin’s autograph offering her programme to be signed. This he did adding a few words of good cheer. The lass looked, screamed and threw it on the floor. “What’s the matter?” asked the startled mum. “He’s scribbled all over my programme” she cried.
As a bill-topper in a long list of summer shows, he did seven in Llandudno gaining the reputation as the most successful comic in the history of the resort. He laughs remembering two local ladies stopping him on the prom to say, in their lyrical North Wales accent “We come to see your show every week and sit in the same two seats – and when you are on that stage it is all my sister and I can do to keep from laughing”.
During four long-running summers as top of the bill at Blackpool’s famed Central Pier Theatre he became, according to Bob Battersby the town’s Publicity and Attractions primo, “our favourite Welsh comedian”.
Billed as the Welsh Prince of Laughter he became King of the Grand Order of Water Rats – the only Welsh performer to achieve that much prized show-business accolade in the Order’s 130 years history. During his reign he introduced 88 year old Bob Hope as the ‘baby rat’ and remained in close contact until Bob’s death. When Prince Philip invited the Order to attend a reception in the Portrait Gallery at Buckingham Palace Calvin was told ‘It’s a large gallery and there is no microphone – so you will make the speech. They will hear you!” It was not his first visit to Buckingham Palace; Charity involvements have been ceaseless – for which HM The Queen presented him with the MBE.
As Vice-President of the British Music Hall Society he delights in the happy task of encouraging the members to enjoy what he calls ‘The future of nostalgia’. For over twenty years BBC Wales made his voice one of the most recognisable in the country. Once, when asked to stand-in for six weeks to present a regular programme while the popular Cliff Morgan was in Australia. The six weeks lasted for six and a half years and Sounds Unforgettable became top listening on a Sunday morning.
One listener’s letter said “I have you in the bath every week”. The programme featured the world’s most memorable music which inspired one listener to become a founder of the company to form the greatly successful Classic F.M.
Despite his assertion that while he has found it easy to make a friend of the microphone he has not been as happy with the TV camera. However, there is an ALFA TELEVISION Series for the BBC scheduled for the autumn recalling the history of Welsh humour, which will feature some of the Calvin memories.
A champion among after-dinner speakers, invitations have been world-wide; from Singapore and Malaysia, Indonesia, Malta, Cyprus and Spain to Washington DC, Connecticut, Cape Canaveral, Houston, Texas (“I’ve even been to Tonypandy!”). In all his meanderings he is happily accompanied by his wife of almost 50 years. Carole was a dancer. They met in a Summer Show and together have proved one of the happiest married couples in entertainment. “We love laughter – come and join us” they grin.