The man who stood huddled in a shop doorway, coat collar pulled up around his face, was not identifiable as the nation’s new high priest of high camp.
Any TV viewer spotting him there on that October night in 1974 would have struggled to recognise the star who had them doubled up at outrageous caricatures such as his imaginary ‘close friend’ Everard Farquharson, whose speciality was dancing the Gay Gordons.
Or Apricot Lil, ‘the broodiest girl in town’, from the local jam factory. Or Slack Alice, the coalman’s daughter and barmaid at the Cock and Trumpet. Or Pop-it-in Pete, the postman with something too big to put through the letterbox. Or Self-Raising Fred, the baker from a pub called The Friend in Hand.
Shut that door! Larry, the king of high camp, was a huge hit with the public
Could this middle-aged man sheltering from the rain really be that master of the double entendre whose catchphrases reverberated throughout the land — ‘What a gay day!’ ‘Seems like a nice boy’ — then, running his fingers fastidiously over a surface: ‘Look at the muck in ’ere!’. And the most repeated of all: ‘Shut that door!’
It was cold, dark and wet on the street, but the man in the raincoat didn’t care. Like his idol Judy Garland, the movie star who had seen his act and laughed until she cried, he was somewhere over the rainbow.
He just stood transfixed, staring across the street. He was 51 years old and since the age of 14 had been battling his way up from the obscure lower reaches of showbusiness. Now suddenly, unbelievably, he had made it to the top of his profession.
Facing him across that rain-drenched street was the facade of arguably the most famous theatre in the world, the London Palladium. And up on a 12ft-high sign was his face with the words in giant letters: Larry Grayson in Grayson’s Scandals.
Success: Larry with Generation Game co-host Isla St Clair
Last year, a new play by Chris Mellor, 3 Days And 3 Minutes With Larry, opened in London before a nationwide tour.
At times hilarious, at times moving and at times shocking, it told of the tense and dramatic encounter between the ageing and panic-stricken star (played by Ian Parkin and best known as one of the Four Poofs And A Piano featured on TV’s Friday Night With Jonathan Ross) and a young psychic healer, Mark (played by 25-year-old stand-up comedian Lee Peart).
The plot was fictional, but had a keen ring of authenticity.
It recounted how the young psychic, whom Grayson clearly found attractive, prepared the 71-year-old star, whose health, memory and confidence had all ebbed away, for the ordeal of his final public appearance — only a month before his sudden death — in a surprise and unscheduled three-minute spot in the 1994 Royal Variety Performance at London’s Dominion Theatre, with Prince Charles up in the royal box.
Now Larry Grayson’s story has been dramatically transformed by the discovery in a warehouse in Malvern, Worcestershire, of an unfinished autobiography by the late King of Camp.
It reveals that the hitherto unnamed love of his life was a schoolfriend, Tom Proctor, who died in the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II.
Starstruck: Young Grayson in a publicity shot from the 1940s
Television scriptwriter and producer Tony Nicholson has completed the book based on the newly discovered handwritten memoirs and his own extensive knowledge of Grayson. The result, published this week under the title Shut That Door: The Definitive Biography Of Larry Grayson, is deeply revealing and moving.
Nicholson says: ‘Larry and Tom were at school together, having bonded from the age of five. They hated sport and woodwork and anything that involved getting their hands dirty.
‘Neither of them was academically inclined, preferring to giggle in class and discuss the latest Hollywood gems — they were both film-mad. The pair left school at 14. Tom got a mundane job and Larry went straight into showbusiness.
‘It would be pure speculation to say their relationship became sexual in any way, but it seems likely they experimented in their teens, as they remained extremely close.
‘Both were called up for National Service when World War II broke out. Tom was taken into the Army, but Larry failed his medical. Tom was killed at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944, towards the end of the war, and Larry never really recovered from the loss.
‘Tom’s sisters wrote a poem to commemorate his death and Grayson carried it around with him all his life. He would read it to himself at the back of churches, especially on Remembrance Day.’
I was well aware of Grayson’s almost total reliance on spiritualist mediums, clairvoyants and psychics because he discussed this aspect of his life with me every time we met.
He reached the zenith of his fame and success in 1978 when he was signed by the BBC to take over as host of The Generation Game, following the departure of Bruce Forsyth. Under Grayson the show reached its greatest popularity, with audiences of up to 25 million every week. So I was astonished to learn in 1982, when we met at a BBC reception, that he was leaving.
Larry Grayson’s story has been dramatically transformed by the discovery in a warehouse in Malvern, Worcestershire, of an unfinished autobiography by the late King of Camp
He told me mysteriously: ‘I have to leave before it’s too late. I’ve had a message. I’ve been warned.’
‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘A message from whom?’
Eventually, he admitted the advice had come from a young psychic.
‘But he may be mistaken,’ I said. ‘Why not consult a doctor? It seems crazy to walk out on success.’ But walk out he did, and his decision inaugurated a period of long, slow decline in his life. For all his talent, fame and huge popularity, there was an inner fragility about Larry Grayson that made it difficult for him to cope with the pressure of stardom.
I always felt this frailty, and his lack of self-esteem, was rooted in the upheavals of his childhood.
‘I’m a bastard from Banbury,’ his character in Chris Mellor’s new play says — and it was true. He was an illegitimate baby, born William White in Oxfordshire on August 31, 1923.
When he was just ten days old, his unmarried mother, Ethel, fostered him out to a Nuneaton