Goodbye old friends

This week we lost two comic greats, one I knew and the other I felt I knew.

I started working at BBC Radio Wales during my student summer holidays in 1979.  The BBC in Llandaff was full of broadcasting giants I had grown up listening to. 

Alun Williams always smiling…

There was Alun Williams, the broadcaster who could commentate on a Coronation as easily as Olympic swimming or International Rugby.  He was also a gifted musician who would always lead the BBC Wales Christmas Carol concert in the foyer on the last Friday before the big day.

Vincent Kane giving someone a grilling.

There was Vincent Kane who held politicians to account as fiercely as any Jeremy Paxman and there was Carwyn James.  Carwyn, the legendary rugby coach who was always dressed immaculately, three piece suit and brogues and a voice that made you feel he was always talking to you and you alone.

Wyn Calvin on Workers’ Playtime

And then there was Wyn Calvin, The Clown Prince of Wales.

Wyn was a gentle man who managed to make you smile without seeming to try at all.  There are so many things he said that are stuck in my head and still make me chuckle.  He said he came from Narberth, a town so associated with Pembrokeshire new potatoes that underneath the town’s welcome sign it said, ‘Narberth – Twinned with Pomme De Terre’.

It was back in March last year that Johnny Tudor and I got to chat to Wyn for our podcast ‘The Mal & Johnny Show’.  Johnny’s family connections with Wyn went back many years as his mum and dad had starred in Panto with Wyn at the Grand Theatre back in the 1950’s.

Wyn had been brought up in a strong chapel family something that was reflected in his stage name.  His real surname was Thomas, but he took one of his middle names ‘Calvin’ to help differentiate him professionally from all of the other Welsh Thomas’s.

I’m sure he could have been a preacher, but the war changed all that.  Wyn started entertaining the troops as part of ‘Entertainments National Service Association’, ENSA.  As he told me, he felt that decision probably helped to end the war because he joined ENSA on the day Hitler committed suicide.

After the war Wyn went into weekly repertory theatre. During the evenings they performed one play, during the daytime they rehearsed another. Radio was a big break for Wyn, and he told me he was such a regular guest on ‘Workers’ Playtime’ that he became known as the ‘Workers Plaything’. 

These were the days before television and millions of people tuned in to every show.  Wyn made some really interesting observations. Radio created big stars but before the introduction of TV the only way you could actually see these stars was in the theatre. This led to the golden days of twice nightly Variety.  That all changed with the introduction of television. 

Radio filled the theatres, television emptied them!

Wyn soon settled into the yearly entertainment cycle and started in pantomime playing male roles like the Baron or Humpty Dumpty.  As he came to the end of one season his producer said, ‘Wyn, next year I want to see you in skirts’.  Wyn protested and told the producer he didn’t feel the least bit feminine.  That, said the producer, was the reason he would make a terrific Dame.  Wyn went on to explain that for him the best dames were so transparent that even a 3 year old knew that it was ‘a bloke in skirts’.

Wyn with Frank Bruno

Wyn had played mother to everyone from Frank Bruno to Mr T from the ‘A’ team.  If he needed any affirmation that he was the finest Dame of his generation, when Sir Ian McKellen finally accepted the invitation to play ‘Widow Twanky’ at the Old Vic, the person he called for advice was Wyn Calvin.

Wyn and Sir Ian McKellen – Two Grand Dames

There have been so many memorable moments in Wyn’s career, but it was easy to see that one of his achievements that he was most proud of was being named King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats.  The Water Rats were established in 1889 as a fraternity and charitable organisation and previous King Rats have included Roy Hudd, Nicholas Parsons and Les Dawson.  In all that time there has only ever been one Welsh King Rat…Wyn Calvin.

Wyn as King Rat

This week, Johnny Tudor and I were getting ready for our weekly podcast chat when I got the news that Wyn had passed away after a short illness.  Johnny told me he had spoken to Wyn a few weeks earlier and he was on good form.  In the end we decided to re run last years interview with Wyn as a tribute.

This week we also had the sad news of the passing of Barry Cryer.  Again, I had grown up with Barry Cryer hosting the ‘Joker’s Wild’ show on ITV.  Although I never met him I was genuinely saddened to hear of his passing because he seemed like a good, decent and very funny human being. And then I kept hearing stories about Barry that reminded me of Wyn Calvin.

As I scrolled through twitter reading reports from comedians such as Rob Brydon, David Mitchel,Stephen Fry, Omid Djalili and Arthur Smith, so many recalled Barry Cryer calling them up on the phone to congratulate them, or check up on them, or to tell them a new joke.  Many said it could be that he simply liked one line on a radio show. They all said that when Barry Cryer called them to congratulate them it was like receiving a comedy knighthood.

It was the same with Wyn Calvin.  After Johnny and I interviewed Wyn last year he would occasionally ring me.  At the start it was to let me know someone from a distant part of the world had watched our podcast and really enjoyed the show.  Once he called to say he had seen me on Songs of Praise. At other times he called just to see how I was getting on because he knew that lockdown had stopped me from performing.

Wyn and Barry were from a different generation I know, but there’s no reason we can’t learn from them.  Not just learn how to be great at the job of entertaining but also how to be great at being human.  How to be generous of spirit, how a phone call can make someone’s day. How a compliment or encouragement can help someone starting out feel special.

They made us laugh but they also made us better people too.