Tragic end of Blackpool comic genius

FIFTY years ago, May 5, 1958, began one of the most popular radio programmes ever broadcast, The Clitheroe Kid. Running 14 years and attracting audiences in excess of 10 million, the series brought national and international recognition for its diminutive star, Jimmy Clitheroe.

Throughout his long career, he made his mark on every aspect of showbusiness, numbering among an outstanding generation of entertainers the resort was proud to call its own.

James Robinson Clitheroe did actually come from the town of that name. Born in Clitheroe on Christmas Eve, 1921, the only son of two Lancashire weavers, damage to his thyroid gland meant that he never grew taller than 4ft 3in.

Spending his formative years in neighbouring Blacko, after leaving school, too short to work in the weaving sheds, he joined a bakery in Nelson.

Initially intent on joining the circus, Jimmy cut his showbusiness teeth as a member of the local Methodist church concert party.

At 14, he toured the provinces as Little Jimmy, the only male member of the famous troupe of juveniles called The Winstanley Babes. He played xylophone, piano accordion and clarinet as well as doing female impersonations.

Bit parts in low budget films made in Manchester led to theatre. Supporting variety stalwarts Arthur Lucan (Old Mother Riley), Jimmy James, Albert Whelan, Albert Burdon and Frank Randle, he found a natural environment for his talents.

Treated as an equal, a very fine comedy actor, he began to shape and nurture the naughty boy character that would come to serve him so well in later years.

Jimmy made his Blackpool stage debut just prior to the outbreak of the second world war. Over the next five decades, he would regularly perform at almost all its major venues and set a record for seasonal appearances.

His 1963 season alongside Peter Butterworth and Danny Ross at the Grand Theatre remains a particular highlight. In Frying Tonight, specially written for Jimmy by John Waterhouse, he starred as the son of chip shop owner Mollie Sugden, out to thwart the compulsory purchase order on the premises.

He was one of the last comedians who had come up through the variety halls to headline those star-studded spectaculars that once made the resort the summer season capital of Britain.

Away from the bright lights, Jimmy made his home on the Fylde coast. Moving here during wartime with his formidable widowed mother, Emma, the couple lived quietly and modestly in a semi -detached bungalow on Bispham Road.

Often in the company of his old schoolmate, Blackpool entertainer and impresario Tommy Trafford, he would enjoy a quiet drink and game of snooker in his nearby local, The Squirrel.

A keen greyhound enthusiast and follower of the turf, he owned and ran a very popular betting shop, based in Springfield Road.

Moving into radio in the 1950s, Jimmy caught the public's attention in Call Boy, a 1957 variety show, produced by James Casey.

He was cast in the title role, as a stagehand assisting stage manager Eddie Leslie, introducing guest stars and getting them on stage. Its success gave Casey the idea of building a future series around Jimmy to be called The Clitheroe Kid.

Initially reluctant to sanction the idea, BBC bosses relented and allowed a brief pilot series to be made, broadcast only in the northern region. Taking part were Bispham’s own Violet Carson as Jimmy’s mum, Judith Chalmers as his sister, and, not least, a very young Bob Monkhouse.

Such was its winning appeal that in May 1958, the BBC gave the green light for The Clitheroe Kid proper to hit the national airwaves.

Co-written by Casey and local scriptwriter, Frank Roscoe, at its peak, a quarter of the entire population would tune in every Sunday lunch to hear more of the teenage boy and his strange kinfolk.

Although it was radio, Jimmy performed the show in costume – short trousers, schoolboy cap and blazer. As he was so fond of repeating, I’m all there wi’ mi’ cough drops.

Scottish variety veteran Peter Sinclair, The Cock o’ the North, played Jimmy’s grandfather while Patricia Burke succeeded Rene Houston as his mum.

Diana Day replaced Judith Chalmers as “scraggy neck,” elder sister Susan, while local favourite Danny Ross, the butt of endless jokes, joined later as motorbike mad, daft Alfie Hall.

Brian Trueman, Tommy Trafford, Tony Melody and Peter Goodwright were invaluable in support as was The Northern Dance Orchestra, conducted by Alyn Ainsworth.

Actress Sugden, having played Jimmy’s mother on stage, joined the radio show for the eighth series in 1964.

Both she, Jimmy and Danny Ross also transferred their often familiar domestic difficulties to television for two brief series made by the ill-fated ABC franchise for ITV.

In the wake of the 23 episodes of Just Jimmy came a companion venture, That’s My Boy. However, the Peter Pan of showbusiness was now in his 40s and beginning to show his age.

In 1966, Jimmy made an unexpected return to the cinema screen, playing General Tom Thumb, among a galaxy of star entertainers cast in the British sci fi comedy caper, Rocket To The Moon, which bombed at the box office.

Cutting a dapper figure off stage, for many years Jimmy drove a most elegant Mercedes with blocks on the pedals so his feet could reach them.

Appearing to be an under age driver he could seldom complete a journey without coming to the attention of the police.

He advertised for a chauffeur and general assistant – and Sally stepped into the role and his life. For once needing to escape the all-pervading attention of his mother, he totally abandoned his legendary “carefulness” with money.

Purchasing The Fernhill at Park Lane, Preesall, he rapidly spent a small fortune, sparing no expense on turning it into an idyllic love nest.

However, his happiness was short-lived. Following an argument between the two, Sally was tragically killed in a car crash.

Still reeling from this blow, worse was to come when after almost 300 programmes, in August, 1972, the BBC summarily cancelled The Clitheroe Kid. Utterly devastated, the final hammer blow followed in June with the death of his beloved mother.

Jimmy was found unconscious at home on the morning of her funeral, and died in Victoria Hospital that day of barbiturate poisoning and alcohol. He was 51.

A sad end for one whose whole life had been so completely focussed on spreading happiness.

Ironically, even in death, this magical quality did not totally desert him. Having willed his considerable fortune to his mother, her death along with the vagaries of the legal system, meant that cancer research became the grateful recipients of his lifetime of thrift.

As he himself never tired of telling us, Don’t Some Mothers ’Ave ’Em?

l Don’t miss Seaside Stars in Memory Lane tomorrow and every Tuesday – a weekly look at entertainers who have thrilled visitors and locals alike in Blackpool.