Robert Ross is like a one-man Wikipedia of UK comedy. He has written books on the Carry On films, Fawlty Towers, Marty Feldman, The Goodies, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Sid James, Monty Python – the list goes on and on and on.
“The way the pledging works,” Robert told me yesterday, “is that, for donating £10, you get an eBook version and your name in the back of the book. For £30, you get a hardback copy, an eBook and your name in the back. For £50, you get all that plus I sign the hardback. For £150, you also get invited to the launch party. For £250, we throw in a pub lunch with Barry Cryer and me, which some people have paid for already. And, if you pay £1,000, you can have the forgotten comedy hero of your choice added into the book.”
“Has anyone forked out the £1,000 yet?” I asked.
“Well,” Robert told me, “I have had offers of £1,000 not to write about some people – like Jimmy Clitheroe and Peter Glaze. Someone was very anti-Peter Glaze. But he’s still going to be in the book because I liked him on Crackerjack as a kid.”
“So what is the criteria for getting in?” I asked.
“Well,” explained Robert, “You have to be a professional comic and not had a book written about you nor had the whole TV docu-drama thing or the Unforgettable-type documentary made about you. And you have to be dead. I’m not going to say that a person is alive but hasn’t worked for ten years, so they’re forgotten. You’ve definitely gotta be dead.
“It’s almost like a tightrope. The comedians have to be interesting and justifiable to be remembered but not too famous to have been ‘done’ before. It’s ones I think should have been celebrated more than they have been.”
“Traditional publishers,” I suggested, “must have been wary of a book about forgotten comedians?”
“Well, that’s why Unbound are great as publishers,” said Robert, “because they will take a chance on proven writers and help them do their dream projects. They give writers a chance to take something out of the bottom drawer that no-one’s wanted to do so far. They have authors like Julie Burchill, Terry Jones, Katy Brand, Robert Llewellyn, Jonathan Meades and Hardeep Singh Kohli with books that are very personal to the writer.
“The major selling point of Forgotten Heroes of Comedy – though they are forgotten comedians – is that, if you love comedy, all these people intertwine with Frankie Howerd, Morecambe & Wise and all the greats and each one will be championed by a contemporary comic or comedy writer… so Danny Baker’s going to do an introductory piece on Peter Glaze, Terry Jones will do Ronald Frankau. I’ll write the major article about the comedian, but they’ll do a couple of paragraphs about why they love them so much – Why the fans of, say, Mark Gatiss or Stephen Fry should find out about these people because they made them what they are today.
“The original idea was that the book would include around 120 or 125 comedians and have about 1,000 words per person. That’s gone a bit mad now because, since I started doing it, I’ve written at least 2,000 on some people. I’ll try and preserve the fun thing on the page. And, as I write it, I’m dropping in autobiographical bits about how I remembered them as a kid, things my dad told me about them and stuff like that.”
“How did you first get interested in comedians?” I asked.
“My mum and dad worked out at an early age that I would stop crying if they put me in front of a TV and I fell in love with uncles and aunts like The Two Ronnies and Hattie Jacques and Frankie Howerd. I developed an obsession with comedy. When I was about ten or twelve, I wrote scripts for Tony Hancock who, at that point, had been dead about ten years – just writing silly half minutes.”
“So you wanted to be a comic?” I asked.
“No,” said Robert firmly. “I was just fascinated by comedy. I wanted to write about it. I wanted to be a writer. Around the age of fourteen, I was writing film quiz books on old films – comedies, westerns, old horror films. I loved old films. I was trying to get published at fourteen – very precocious. but I didn’t get published. I started writing my Carry On book when I was sixteen – it wasn’t published for another ten years. In between, I worked for a bit and went to university.
“I graduated in English and Film Studies and got the Carry On Companion published within about six months of leaving university. Ever since, I’ve written about one or two books a year, supplemented with CDs and DVDs and sleeve notes and commentaries for DVDs and radio shows.”
“And the idea for Forgotten Heroes of Comedy first came to you when?” I asked.
“In 1999,” explained Robert. “I was having dinner with Terry Jones – so it was the 30th anniversary of Monty Python. I was having some take-away curry at his house in Muswell Hill – he’s moved now, so you can’t find him there – and he had this 78 record player and he was going through his records.
“He had all sorts of weird and wonderful things like Laurence Olivier reading poetry – and he had this one of Ronald Frankau – a song called Winnie The Worm – a quite double-entendre laden song – and he played this and I said I like Ronald Frankau and he said No-one’s ever heard of Ronald Frankau. He’s one of those forgotten heroes of comedy and then he said, That’s a great idea for a book. I’ll do the foreword and you write it. So I said OK, fine. And that was 13 years ago because, as you suggested, publishers don’t want to do a book about people who are forgotten.
“After that, every time I saw Terry, he said Have you got a publisher yet? and I said No. Not got a publisher yet. But now Unbound have picked it up.
“If people sponsor it by pledging money up-front to get it going,” I said.
“Yes,” said Robert.
“You are only including forgotten recent comedians?” I asked. “Would you do an 1862 music hall act? You presumably wouldn’t do Greek comedy.”
“I’m gonna go back to maybe the turn of the last century, when people were making gramophone records. Maybe back to 1890.”
“So not the first Punch & Judy man in London?”
“No, that’s more a historian job than a comedy historian job.”
“Only British comics?” I asked.
“I’m doing Americans too. British and American at the moment.”
“Americans such as?”
“Who he?” I asked.
“Exactly,” said Robert. “The forgotten third of The Three Stooges. He was the one who came in to replace Curly, the bald one, when he got very ill and died and he was there for a good seven or eight years making lots of films, but no-one knows who he is.”
“At the moment,” said Robert, “Zeppo is in, because Zeppo left early. And maybe Gummo will be in as a footnote to Zeppo.”
“So tell me some awful story about some person without naming them.”
“No,” said Robert. “I might want to use the stories for the book! And, if I tell you a story about some anonymous person, I’ll be hounded with Who was this person? – You’ve got to pay for the book to find out who people are. I’ll slag them off in the book, I promise – if you pay me.”
Here are Robert Ross, Terry Jones and Barry Cryer talking about the book…