What's so funny about East Anglia? 20 comedy stars linked to the area
PUBLISHED: 10:00 28 July 2018
East Anglia is known for its rich comic heritage, stretching from the Singing Postman right through to current alternative comedians like John Kearns. Here is a look at 20 comedy stars with links to the region.
Griff Rhys Jones
He might have a Welsh name and have been born in Wales, but Suffolk has been the adopted home of TV star Griff for many years. Since rising to fame as a star of classic sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News, Rhys Jones has cemented his success as a comedian, TV presenter, actor and writer. His successes have ranged from his head-to-head sketches with the late Mel Smith through to presenting It’ll Be Alright on the Night. With a home on the Shotley peninsula, he supports many causes in the area and has often appeared at local events. He joined in a marathon reading of children’s classic We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome at Pin Mill last year, to mark 80 years since the book was published. A great supporter of local waterways, he is also vice president of the River Stour Trust.
Best-known for his role as Moss in hit comedy The IT Crowd, Richard Ayoade grew up in Ipswich. His varied career as a comedian, actor, director and writer has included directing feature films The Double and Submarine, co-starring in sci-fi comedy The Watch and presenting cult series The Crystal Maze. In 2015 Ayoade took part in an arts festival at his old school, St Joseph’s College, doing a workshop with pupils and speaking about the process of writing and what it was like to work on film sets. This year he appeared at the Latitude Festival, discussing movies with film critic Mark Kermode.
One of the most famous comedy names linked to East Anglia is actor, writer, director, presenter and comedian Stephen Fry, whose career has included everything from A Bit of Fry and Laurie to QI, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and much more. Fry grew up in the village of Booton near Reepham, Norfolk, and still has a home in the county. He is also one of Norwich City’s most famous supporters, and gave up his seat on the board in 2016 to take on a new position as club ambassador. Earlier this year, Fry lent his support to the “Love West Norfolk” campaign, claiming it had, “Beauty, hills, character, glorious towns, villages and countryside, hills! country pubs, funny, fabulous people, hills, seaside, lavender, hills. Ok, I lied about the hills. But there are slopes and rises to the ground that almost amount to hills. Truly.”
Mention East Anglia and comedy in the same breath, and Alan Partridge will be one of the first names to spring into most people’s minds - even though he is a fictional charater! Steve Coogan, creator of Partridge, has admitted that he hadn’t spent much time in Norfolk before making Norwich the home town of his most famous creation. “When we were writing Alan Partridge we looked at a map of Britain for somewhere that looked slightly isolated,” he explained in a past interview. However, he has certainly got to know the area since, with many Partridge shows set locally. The film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa was also famously filmed on location in Norfolk, and had its premiere at Anglia Square’s Hollywood Cinema.
‘Allo ‘Allo actress Vicki lives in Essex, and has appeared at events in the area including the annual strawberry-picking race at Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree. She is best-known for her role as Yvette in David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd’s long-running comedy series, which was filmed in Norfolk despite being set in France. but has also appeared in many other TV series, including the soap Emmerdale, and in stage shows.
The University of East Anglia in Norwich has a number of top comedy talents on its list of alumni, including Fast Show stars Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse, who met as students in the 1970s. Higson was a member of a punk band, Right Hand Lovers, before going on to write comedy for Harry Enfield’s TV series with Whitehouse, and then for The Fast Show. Higson is also a successful actor and writer, with his books including the Young Bond series about 007’s schooldays. Higson has maintained close links with UEA, and in 2016 the university established the Charlie Higson Archive, including Fast Show scripts among a host of drafts, manuscripts and correspondence.
Like his Fast Show writing partner Charlie Higson, Paul Whitehouse was a student at UEA in the 70s, but Whitehouse dropped out after a year. He and Higson then shared digs with Harry Enfield in London while becoming comedy writers. Whitehouse has been involved in many successful shows as a writer and actor, and most recently appeared in hit black comedy film The Death of Stalin. He recently returned to Norfolk with fellow-comedian Bob Mortimer for the first episode of their show Gone Fishing, which saw the pair camping in Weston Longville. Renowned Norfolk angler John Bailey sought out some great fishing spots for the pair. and they also visited The Fox pub at Lyng near Dereham while filming at nearby Lenwade Lakes.
Yet another Fast Show star who studied at UEA is Simon Day, whose most famous characters included pub bore Billy Bleach and Competitive Dad. After university, Day made his name as a stand-up comic, and he has also appeared in many TV shows. Day returned to Great Massingham in Norfolk when filming a spin-off series, Grass, which saw the Billy Bleach character go into witness protection. He was also back in Norwich last year with his one-man show In Character at Norwich Arts Centre, revisiting the Billy Bleach character.
One of the best-known comedy talents of all time from East Anglia was Norfolk’s Singing Postman, who had a top 20 hit in the 1960s with his song Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy? The novelty song also won him an Ivor Novello award. Smethurst grew up in Sheringham, before he became a postman, singing on his rounds in his Norfolk dialect. At one time in 1965 he was selling more records than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in this region. Another dialect hit was A Miss from Diss. Norfolk writer and broadcaster Keith Skipper wrote a book telling the story of his life, appropriately entitled Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy.
Although Julian Clary grew up in Teddington, on the outskirts of London, he has family roots in Norfolk, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by UEA. His mother comes from Stoke Ferry, near Downham Market. He visited his grandparents there as a child and still has friends in the county and holidays there. After starting out in the alternative comedy scene, the flamboyant camp comedian rose to fame via TV’s Friday Night Live, where he appeared under the name the Joan Collins Fan Club, with his pet Fanny the Wonder Dog. He won Celebrity Big Brother in 2012 and has presented many TV shows, as well as touring the country with his comedy shows. In addition to his links to Norfolk, Clary also has another link to East Anglia, as he has revealed that he was conceived in Clacton, Essex.
Veteran funnyman and actor Roy lives near Debenham, and is a supporter of many local causes. The comedian took the first steps on his showbiz career 60 years ago as a Redcoat at Butlins in Clacton in 1958, where he coincided with two other legends at the start of their careers, fellow-comedian Dave Allen and singer Sir Cliff Richard. Hudd is best-known for his long-running radio show The News Huddlines, as well as many other radio, stage and TV shows, including Coronation Street. He is an expert on music hall and presented an amazing collection of music-hall songs to Suffolk New College in Ipswich, creating the Hudd Music Hall Archive Project, Hudd also held a free show to raise funds for the village sign in Crowfield in 2013, and unveiled the sign the following year.
Top comedy writer and film producer Richard Curtis has a home in Walberswick, Suffolk, and shares a love of the area with his partner, broadcaster Emma Freud. His love of the county has been in the news over recent weeks, as he and director Danny Boyle have been shooting their new Beatles-themed film in the area, with thousands of extras taking part. Curtis said he considered the title ‘Suffolk Lad’ but didn’t think Americans would be able to pronounce the county’s name. In an interview with Screen Suffolk, he said: “The amazing thing about Suffolk is just how it looks. It’s such a beautiful county. If you live here you get really used to the unbelievable beaches, the curve of the land, the beauty of the villages.” Highlights of his amazing career include writing films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, as well as TV shows such as Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley.
Leading director Gurinder Chadha has made a big impact on film comedy with feature films like Bend It Like Beckham and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife. She graduated from UEA and then became a TV news reporter, before directing documentaries and then moving into feature films. She was one of the famous alumni to receive an honorary doctorate at UEA’s 50th birthday celebrations.
Ventriloquist, comedian and actress Nina Conti is one of the many top comedy names to have been a student at UEA, where she gained a first-class degree in philosophy in 1995. She has retained her linked with the university, appearing at its 50th birthday celebrations in 2013 and being awarded an honorary doctorate in 2015. Conti started out as an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company before changing tack to become a comedy ventriloquist. Her best-known puppets include Granny and Monk, a monkey. She has just been carrying out her biggest tour to date and is about to appear at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Arthur Smith was yet another student at UEA in the 1970s. His career really started there, as he was chairman of the poetry society and contributed sketches for a student revue, before the university troupe took a show to the Edinburgh Festival. He went on to become one of the first alternative comedians, and his successful stand-up career developed from there. As well as touring the country, he has appeared in many TV shows, including Grumpy Old Men and The One Show. He has often returned to East Anglia on his tours, and took part in the UEA’s 50th birthday celebrations in 2013, as well as receiving an honorary degree in 2015.
The Nimmo Twins
Two comedians who are proudly rooted in the local area, Karl Minns and Owen Evans base most of their comedy on Norfolk people and Norfolk life. They have been a local institution for more than 20 years, known for their “Normal for Norfolk” sketch show. The pair were this week taking part in the opening gala for Laugh in the Park in Chapelfield Gardens, Norfolk. As well as their annual sell-out shows in Norfolk, one of the pair, Karl Minns, also wrote for Russell Howard’s Good News and now writes for Have I Got News For You. The other “twin”, Owen Evans, was chosen to play Bottom with an RSC touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when it visited Norwich in 2016.
Canadian-born Tanyalee Davis, who lives in Norwich, has appeared around the world. The 3 foot 6 inch stand-up comedian spent six months performing her one-woman show just off the Las Vegas strip, and has appeared on shows like Live at The Apollo and The John Bishop Show. Davis moved to Norwich after becoming involved in an anti-bullying campaign based in the city, called GR8 AS U R, and has been going into schools in the area. She now loves Norfolk and is involved in the local comedy scene. The comedian recently hit the headlines when she told how she was left humiliated after a member of staff insisted she should move her mobility scooter from the disabled space on Great Western Railways. Then, in another incident, she was left trapped on a train from Peterborough to York when a ramp was not brought.
It wasn’t just back in the 1970s that a number of future comedy stars were students at UEA. Acclaimed stand-up comic John Kearns attended the university in 2006, where he appeared at Tom Moran’s Laugh Out Loud comedy nights alongside fellow student comedians Pat Cahill, Jon Brittain and Joz Norris. Kearns worked as a guide at the Houses of Parliament for a time. He is currently touring with his Don’t Worry, They’re Here show, which visited The Garage in Norwich earlier this year.
Globe-trotting Monty Python star Michael Palin has had lifelong links with Suffolk, since famously meeting his future wife, Helen, on holiday in Southwold as a teenager in 1959. He later used the story as the basis for comedy-drama East of Ipswich, which was filmed in and around Southwold. Palin’s parents retired to the nearby village of Reydon in the 1960s, and Palin has maintained links with the town over the years, including relaunching the Electric Palace Cinema there in 2012. The much-loved comedian, actor, writer and broadcaster has also taken part in other events in East Anglia over the years, and on Thursday, August 2 he will be the guest at Film Feast Suffolk at the Riverside Theatre in woodbridge, a
Best-known for his role as the permanently grumpy Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, veteran Scottish comedy actor Richard Wilson has spent a lot of time visiting Essex over recent years. After becoming a patron of Frinton Summer Theatre, he also became a patron of the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, and hosted a gala dinner in May, in the town’s Moot Hall.