Entertainment Comedy

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Obituary: Freddie Starr

Comedian, impressionist and singer known for his manic unpredictability and outrageous antics on stage and off

CONTROVERSIAL: ‘The Sun’s’ famous front page (left) and the follow-up last week announcing comedian Freddie Starr’s death
CONTROVERSIAL: ‘The Sun’s’ famous front page (left) and the follow-up last week announcing comedian Freddie Starr’s death

Freddie Starr, who died in Spain last Thursday aged 76, was the comedian immortalised by a newspaper headline of March 13, 1986: "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster."

Lea La Salle, the model who owned the rodent (called 'Supersonic'), claimed that the comedian had come in late one night and demanded that she cook him supper. When she refused, La Salle alleged, the Liverpool-born impressionist put Supersonic in a sandwich, and started to eat him.

This account was published in The Sun newspaper. Although Starr denied it in his autobiography Unwrapped (2001) and the story turned out to have been concocted by the notorious publicist Max Clifford, it was an indication of the public perception of Starr's mercurial character that the tale was widely felt to have the ring of truth.

Starr's live act sometimes verged on the manic, and his air of unpredictability, combined with a boyish grin, endeared him to audiences, as did his impressions of Max Wall, Elvis Presley and Adolf Hitler among others. Starr, who began his professional career as a singer, was especially proud of his "Elvis".

Although only 5ft 6in tall, Starr sometimes tipped the scales at more than 12 stone, and on stage there could be something of the boxer about him. Off-stage, he burned on a short fuse: he once attacked Peter Glaze, compere of the children's show Crackerjack.

Starr's immoderate behaviour, enthusiastically documented in the tabloid press, intensified in the early 1980s when he developed a voracious appetite for Valium and cocaine - recreations which he renounced in the middle of the decade. He rarely drank, however, having grown up with a violent alcoholic father.

Though he was widely praised for his generosity to charitable causes, such as those supporting disabled people, Starr was not universally loved by his fellow performers. At Great Yarmouth in 1983, for example, the singer Lisa Stansfield (then aged 17) was, she said, "distressed" and "humiliated" to discover that Starr, in an impromptu accompaniment to one of her romantic ballads, had "crawled on stage in shorts and cocked his leg up like a dog". Starr explained: "I was trying to help the girl out."

In August 1980, it was reported that he had been throwing donkey droppings at his fellow performers. "I'm looked down on because I'm working class," Starr said. "I don't speak all la-di-da and have a big entourage."

He was born Frederick Leslie Fowell on January 9, 1943, the youngest in a family of five, and grew up in Huyton, near Liverpool, where he was educated at the local secondary modern school. At 15 he had a small role in Violent Playground, Basil Dearden's ambitious film about a Liverpool probation officer who falls in love with an arsonist's sister. Starr's first major notice in the national newspapers came in The Sunday Telegraph in 1963, when he was performing at the Liverpool Beat Festival as Freddie Starr and the Midnighters. The Telegraph's reporter found Starr indulging in The Stomp - "a gentle leaping about in which the arms flap wildly".

Having failed to break into the big time with various other musical incarnations, such as Howie Casey and the Seniors, Starr decided that his true talent lay as an impersonator. His first success came when he appeared at short notice in the Bachelors' Victoria Palace Show as a stand-in for Dick Emery. "Next thing I know," Starr said, "I'm on tour with Max Bygraves."

In 1970, he was chosen by Bernard Delfont to entertain Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the Royal Variety Performance. Starr, who stole the show with his impression of Mick Jagger, described the experience as "a bloody sight better than the Prenton Dell Brickworks" but added, in an uncharacteristically philosophical moment: "I know we've got to have bricks."

He established himself on television in the show Who Do You Do?, which began in 1972. Meanwhile, in his theatre shows Starr (inoffensive by the standards of Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning) developed something of a reputation for "blue" material. In 1973, when he performed at Chelmsford Prison, there were complaints that the show was "sacrilegious" and that one member of the audience had "taken his trousers down and urinated in a bucket".

Starr left Who Do You Do? in 1975, by which time he had acquired several Rolls-Royces and a five-bedroom house in Berkshire with a swimming pool. He declared that he was thinking of leaving for the US, complaining that he was being "driven out by high taxes".

At the end of the decade, he began to complain of stage fright and claustrophobia, and was prescribed sleeping pills and tranquillisers. His summer shows, performed to predominantly family audiences were increasingly dogged by problems.

There were arguments with his fellow professionals, among them the singer Barry Hopkins ("Sure, I punched him," Starr said. "It was explained to him very clearly that he would have to do what is called a throwaway number so that I could come in and do my Hitler impression. But Mr Hopkins has been complaining that I have been ruining his act.") The contretemps with Peter Glaze came when Starr accused the veteran entertainer of stealing his dressing-room furniture in Oxford. "I grabbed him by the throat, pinned him up against the wall, and threatened to smash him up," Starr recalled.

Accounts of his erratic behaviour proved a powerful disincentive to television producers. In 1980, his leading role in LWT's Variety Madhouse show was given to Russ Abbott, and in the years that followed, Starr was to be best known for his appearances in the tabloids.

In 1980, he revealed, in the Daily Star, that he had had a "nervous breakdown", while his attempts to give up tranquillisers caused him to suffer convulsions, headaches and hallucinations. He returned to television in 1983 with The Freddie Starr Showcase, but seemed badly affected the following year when his friend Alan Lake, Diana Dors's widower, shot himself following his wife's death.

In 1986, dressed in a Nazi uniform on Blackpool beach, Starr announced that he was retiring from showbusiness. He became increasingly involved in business deals involving cars, land in Spain, domestic property and racehorses - he owned Minnehoma, which won the Grand National in 1994.

In the late 1980s, he devoted most of his energies to his restaurant in Maidenhead, though he returned to make a successful appearance in the 1989 Royal Variety Performance.

Between 1996 and 1998, ITV broadcast The Freddie Starr Show, and in 1996 he appeared in An Audience with Freddie Starr, followed a year later by Another Audience with Freddie Starr. Thereafter he was seen principally in reality TV shows.

An enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment, Starr got coverage in the popular press by making intemperate statements: advocating, among other things, castration for a range of offences.

In 2012, when the late entertainer Jimmy Savile was exposed as a serial paedophile, Starr strenuously denied claims that he had molested a girl in Savile's BBC dressing room when she was 14.

Following a three-year romance, Freddie Starr was married for a fifth time, in January 2013, to Sophie Lea, whom he met while she was working as a singer on his stage tour. The couple broke up in early 2015. He is survived by six children.

© Telegraph


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