THERE is something very odd about show business. No one ever seems to pack it in.
Frank Carson was telling gags up until the day he died, so too Bob Hope, George Burns, Tommy Cooper, Eric Morecambe and … well, the list is endless. Ken Dodd and Bruce Forsyth are touring in their 80s.
It’s not like a normal job. Most folk in the 9 to 5 rat-race can’t wait to put their feet up at 65 and spend their afternoons watching Countdown and pottering around in the garden.
Not in showbusiness.
Syd Little, celebrating 50 years in show business, is another example.
Here is a man who, as one half of Little and Large, had a show on prime-time BBC for 14 years from the late 70s to the early 90s.
He has made his money and lives with his wife Sheree in Fleetwood.
But if you thought the 70-year-old would be relaxing and taking it easy, you’d be very much mistaken.
At the end of the month he is heading off on a cruise ship where he’s performing as an entertainer. When he’s not on his travels, he gigs all over Blackpool and beyond and stars in pantomime each Christmas.
The obvious question is why? Why slog your guts out when you don’t have to?
“Showbusiness is a drug, I genuinely believe that,” says Syd. “I heard a story about George Burns, who was performing a show at the age of 90. He was at the side of the stage, a little withered old man, bent double.
“The announcer introduced him and shouted his name and as George walked from the wings to centre-stage, you could see the years fall off him. His stance went upright, he walked tall. That’s what it’s like.
“If I was a plumber and 70-years-old and someone asked me to come and do a job, I’d say get lost.
“But if someone says ‘will you do a show?’, then it’s oh yes. It’s just a drug.”
Syd Little (real name Cyril Mead) was born in Blackpool, by default, in 1942. The war was raging and it wasn’t safe for his mum to stay in Manchester, where the family lived. She was evacuated to Blackpool and gave birth at what’s now the Central Hotel, back then a maternity unit.
Hitler defeated, the family moved back to Manchester, where Syd was raised.
Inheriting a passion for music from his father (a trumpet and accordion player), Syd learned the guitar aged 14 and began playing the local social clubs.
In one audience was Eddie Large, who asked if he could sing a few songs while Syd played guitar.
“I was booked at a labour club in Timperley for £3 - big money because I was only on £2, 10 shillings for 48 hours a week painting and decorating.
“I did my first spot at this club and went down well. Eddie, in the audience with his then girlfriend, asked if he could get up with me in my second spot.
“We did a few songs, a few comedy bits, and we brought the house down.
“The promoter came to me afterwards and said I’d love to have you back, but will you come back as a double act and I’ll give you six quid.
“That was that. We split the money straight down the middle, which we did for the rest of our career.”
The double act then was Syd and Eddie. They turned professional in 1963 (the same year the Beatles started to make it big, and hence 50 years in show business for Syd this year). In 1968 it became Little and Large (Eddie’s idea) and three years later the pair won Opportunity Knocks.
That plus a run of sell-out gigs at clubs and theatres throughout the country led to a chance on TV.
“Thames Television gave us a series but that was a completely different ball game,” Syd recalled.
“We had seven weeks to do seven shows and I’ll never forget arriving at their studios on a Monday morning, all full of ourselves after landing a series, and the producer Royston Mayoh walking in with a load of A4 paper, dumping it on the desk, and saying ‘write your first show’.
“We were horrified because we had no idea how to put a show together but he was brilliant. He helped us, told us what sketches to do and where to put songs.
“It was a real baptism of fire but the results were great - we went from nowhere to 13th in the TV ratings.”
The pair switched to the BBC the following year and spent 14 years on the channel, not that Syd was ever really a fan of the filming process.
“I used to be nervous as hell doing the TV shows. I always much preferred the live shows,” he said.
“As soon as the credits came up, they announced our names and we’d come down the stairs and I hated it. My palms would be sweating and I’d be shaking. Nine times out of 10 we’d have to do it again because I’d fluff my lines.”
The TV show came to an end in 1991. There’s no bitterness on Syd’s part. “Every show has its sell-by date. We were lucky to last 14 years - that’s more than most.”
The pair carried on touring and playing the theatres (including the Opera House, the Grand, North and South piers in Blackpool) until Eddie had to cut his workload due to a heart problem.
In 2000, he underwent a heart transplant.
“I didn’t want to pack it in so I kept going on my own,” says Syd.
“It was hard at first because I was intending to travel round playing Buddy Holly songs on my guitar, but I’d turn up at gigs and hear people say ‘I hope he’s going to be funny’ and I’d think oh no, they want gags. But I’d been next to Eddie, a great comedian, for 50 years so I learned off him. Then people like Johnny Casson and Mick Miller, who I’d meet on the cruise ships, would watch my act and suggest a gag - they actually helped me.
“Now I’ve got this act, two one-hour spots, and it seems to go down great.”
As if all that wasn’t enough - and underlining the fact that people in the entertainment industry really don’t seem to like relaxing - on his days off Syd will more than likely be at The Strawberry Gardens pub in Fleetwood, where he helps his wife run the restaurant.
“She has taken the franchise and we’ve got all my memorabilia on the wall - it’s great,” said Syd, who moved to Fleetwood 16 years ago when his son went to Rossall School.
“To be honest I feel very lucky with what I’ve achieved in my life and I’m very happy. Hopefully there is plenty more to come.”
For a man who seems as fit as a fiddle and is still working like a Trojan, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Last word on the Little and Large front though. Syd admits he and Eddie don’t speak regularly but says that doesn’t mean they aren’t on good terms.
“I’ve loads of friends I haven’t spoken to for years but doesn’t mean I’ve fallen out with them,” he added.
“Eddie lives in Bristol with his wife and son and grandchildren. I’ve got my wife and my family up here, and two granddaughters. There is no animosity - it’s just he gets on with his life and I get on with mine.”