Frank Randle: A star who burned too brightly

Frank Randle, at home in Blackpool, with his pets
Frank Randle, at home in Blackpool, with his pets

This year marks 60 years since the death of a notorious but much-loved comedian, whose influence can still be seen today. KENNETH SHENTON looks at the life of Frank Randle.

Sixty years ago, in 1957, HM Land Registry opened their first office in the area at Lytham, Thornton Cleveleys Cricket Club left their old ground to take up residence at Illawalla, while Stringers opened their new store in Lytham.

Signed photograph of Frank Randle, dated December 1946

Signed photograph of Frank Randle, dated December 1946

In Blackpool, the majestic Shrine of our Lady of Lourdes, built of striking white Portland stone, opened in Whinney Heys Road.

Spending summer on Central Pier were Morecambe and Wise, while occupying North Pier, alongside Ken Platt and Tommy Cooper, was Irish singing sensation, Ruby Murray. While in the resort, she secretly married fellow singer, Bernard Burgess, a member of the close harmony group, The Jones Boys.

She later fell in love with locally-based Irish comedian, Frank Carson. When Carson, then married and a Catholic, refused to leave his wife, Murray sought solace in alcohol, her career taking a nosedive.

That summer also marked the death of a fellow entertainer who, like Murray, fought a long and tortuous battle with the bottle, 56-year-old Frank Randle.

One of Frank Randle's comic creations

One of Frank Randle's comic creations

Described by Gracie Fields as “the greatest character comedian that ever lived”, this one-time lover of Diana Dors could never entertain without a dressing room stocked full of Guinness.

Revelling in his notoriety – as the brash and infamous star of stage, screen and magistrate’s court – he once set fire to a hotel where he received poor service. Today’s tabloid editors would have loved him, yesterday’s audiences certainly did.

Arthur Hughes was the illegitimate son of Rhoda Hughes, a domestic servant. Initially educated at St George’s School in Wigan, he later travelled to Blackpool to rejoin his natural mother who was now married to a former soldier, Arthur McEvoy, whose name he took.

After spells as a waiter, bottle-washer and tram conductor, he took to the stage, joining an acrobatic troupe and renaming himself Arthur Twist. While with another group, The Bouncing Randles, he settled on the name he was to employ for the rest of his career, Frank Randle.

Advert for Palace Theatre show, featuring Frank Randle

Advert for Palace Theatre show, featuring Frank Randle

It was while undertaking many hours training in Harold Gregory’s Rigby Road Gymnasium, a chance meeting with brothers, Harry and Fred Roy, set Randle on the path to stardom.

With the brothers performing gymnastics and Randle supplying the slapstick, they were known as the Roy Brothers and Mac. Their first engagement was entertaining patients at the King’s Lancashire Military Convalescent Hospital, at Squires Gate.

By 1921, the trio had turned professional. But it wasn’t long before they split with Fred going solo, and Randle and Harry spending some time as Oliver and Twist.

A superb acrobat, who learnt to box and wrestle, Randle had his teeth removed so he could pull grotesque faces. To add to the comic effect, he dyed his hair bright red.

Frank Randle, with Diana Dors

Frank Randle, with Diana Dors

It was while appearing at Wigan Hippodrome in 1923, he met his future wife, May, universally known as Queenie. They married in 1924. It was she who encouraged him to develop the comic side of his act. Within a few years, Randle began to tour music halls as a character comedian, becoming a permanent, popular fixture on the northern circuits.

By and large, his act consisted of a gallery of characters – including Private Sans Grey Matter, a broken-down ventriloquist, an inevitable dental charade capitalising on his gummy appearance, together with the popular Vulgar Boatman.

One speciality however, was a spiky geriatric with a pot belly, wispy woolly wig and horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. Another was the gnarled drunken hiker – “Baaa...I’ve supped some stuff toneeet”. Once dubbed “the master of the single entendre”, by The Manchester Guardian, Randle retorted, “I’m vulgar, never filthy”.

While George Formby was the stereotypical image of northern humour in those days, Randle became his darker twin with a much edgier brand of comedy. Sharing a bill together at the Opera House in Shout for Joy in 1935, a big argument developed. When the BBC broadcast highlights from the show, it cut Randle completely.

The next evening, a furious Randle went on stage and announced it seemed, Our George was the only star of importance, consequently he would not be appearing. Their relationship never recovered.

In due course Randle created his own show format, Randle’s Scandals. Interspersed with regular tours, came annual pantomime appearances, alongside regular summer seasons here in Blackpool, and in Morecambe. Supplying the more exotic elements were Ali Ben Hassan’s Whirlwind Moroccans, while operatic snippets and solos came from The Mandalay Singers.

Frank Randle on film

Frank Randle on film

Randle’s regular comic stooges included Gus Aubrey, Irene Mansell and Ernie Dale.

One spending 12 months both as a performer and show manager was local entertainer, Norman Teal.

He later described his time in the company as a ‘real scary eye opener’, once witnessing an irate Randle hang the diminutive comedian, Jimmy Clitheroe, by his braces from a hat peg for upsetting him. Clitheroe was somewhat luckier than the promoter Randle threatened with a loaded gun, or the one he pursued the length of North Pier when brandishing an axe.

Wild drunken rages, fights with fellow performers, insulting behaviour to those in authority – particularly theatre managers, and smashing-up dressing rooms, all became common-place.

His near-knuckle material frequently landed Randle in court and Blackpool became his regular battleground.

Throughout this time, the police would invariably be standing at the side of the auditorium waiting to catch him out. He fought a running battle with Harry Barnes, the straight-laced local Chief Constable. Well-known for removing his false teeth and throwing them into the audience, on one famous occasion, to get back at Barnes, he hired an aeroplane to bombard the Town Hall and Tower with toilet rolls.

In 1952, the Director of Public Prosecutions served eight summonses against him for performing his Central Pier season show, Randle’s Summer Scandals, before it had been licenced by the Lord Chamberlain under the Theatres Act of 1843. Twenty one amendments and deletions had been demanded before it could be staged.

Randle completely ignored the instructions, once again police officers found themselves buying tickets for a show they were taking to court. Between opening night and the eventual court hearing, an estimated 150,000 paying customers had seen the show – and not one complained.

Playing to full houses for many years earned Randle in excess of £1,000 per week.

It was when he attempted to conquer London, Randle enjoyed his least success. He had played the capital’s Alhambra in 1935 and flopped.

It took 17 years for him to return and fail again in one of Jack Hylton’s more bizarre creations. The following week however, filling a last-minute gap at the Metropolitan, Edgware Road, his brand new 1952 Scandals Show, enjoyed critical success and played to packed houses.

A long-standing friend was Irish singer, Josef Locke. Together they caroused, brawled and lost a fortune on horses, and as regulars at the old Palatine Hotel and The Dirty Duck (The Swan) in Bank Hey Street, their long liquid lunches became the stuff of legend.

Randle once demolished a theatre box office with his car, before smashing into what he claimed was a dangerously driven oncoming vehicle – which turned out to be a stationery tram. He was banned from driving for a year and fined £25.

Subsequently driven around the resort with a crate of beer on the back seat of his Rolls Royce, Randle remained on intimate terms with his solicitor, John Budd.

Randle’s comedic approach paved the way for controversial comics such as Freddie Starr and Roy Chubby Brown. Les Dawson’s many facial contortions were clearly inspired Randle’s repertoire. It’s not too fanciful to believe had Randle been born 10 years earlier, he may well have gone on to achieve the Hollywood eminence of such as Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin

Having failed a medical to join the RAF at the beginning of the Second World War, he subsequently served in the Home Guard.

It was now that Randle moved into films, joining with John E Blakeley’s Mancunian Film Corporation. Operating out of a converted chapel in Dickinson Road, Rusholme, later a BBC TV studio, in all Randle made 10 highly successful films.

The best remembered are the Somewhere series made between 1940 and 1948. In the first three, Randle was joined by fellow Blackpool resident, Harry Korris, famed for his later Happidrome radio show.

While ignored by the national press, at that time Randle became a bigger cinematic draw than Errol Flynn.

Against a regular military background which subsequently became the template for ITV’s later successful Army Game series, each low budget offering consisted of a series of improvised sketches. In his final outing, It’s A Grand Life, made with Diana Dors in 1953, the plot involved a deserter who runs away in a jeep. Then just beginning to emerge as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, Dors and Randle would often be found enjoying a rather leisurely lunch at the Boars Head pub in Standish.

While Randle and his wife had no children, there was, however, allegedly an illegitimate son, Arthur Delaney. Born in 1927, his mother was a fellow stage performer, Genevieve Willis.

Alongside a fleet of top of the range cars, Randle owned a succession of luxurious homes dotted around the resort. Away from the stage, he enjoyed the high life. A huge animal lover, his many pets included a Welsh sheepdog named Betsy and a black French poodle called Fifi.

However, by the 1950s, as variety was increasingly overtaken by television, like many showbiz stars of the time, Randle was increasingly pursued by the taxman. He lost everything when, in 1955, he was declared bankrupt.

As one of variety’s greatest exponents of the comic potentiality of old age, sadly Randle would never know it himself.

Years of excess, not least his copious intake of alcohol while smoking 60 Woodbines a day, began to take their toll. Collapsing on stage at the Queen’s Theatre in November 1956, the onset of both tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver saw him confined for a time to Devonshire Road Sanitorium.

Attempting to make a comeback, he died on July 7, 1957. His gravestone in Carleton Cemetery is inscribed with a verse later found tucked in his wallet:

“I got nothing that I asked for,

But everything that I had hoped for,

Despite myself my prayers were answered,

I was among all men richly blessed.”