EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: From child star to a friend of Ken Dodd

 Britain is full of unsung heroes and heroines who deserve recognition. Here, in our weekly obituary column, the moving and inspirational stories of ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives, and who died recently, are told by their loved ones...

My father Earl by Gareth Griffith

My Dad didn’t talk about his job much, but one day when I was 12 or 13 he came home and said, quite matter-of-factly: ‘I was out with Miss World today. She’s a nice girl.’

Dad worked for Lever Brothers, the famous ‘Sunlight’ soap manufacturers who sponsored Miss World at the time, and he’d been charged with taking her on a promotional tour around all the department stores in Leeds and Manchester. You can imagine how impressed I was.

Dad was a legend among soap salesmen, and rose to become Lever Brothers’ national sales manager. 

He was quite modest about it, but once he told us how much soap he’d sold that day: ‘Loaded on to lorries, it would stretch into town,’ he said. He was talking miles!

Earl Griffith, born in Buckley in North Wales and was a legend among soap salesmen

Earl Griffith, born in Buckley in North Wales and was a legend among soap salesmen

 Dad was born in Buckley in North Wales in 1930 and his father worked in the Birkenhead shipyards. 

When, on his deathbed, he apologised to Dad for his ‘poor’ childhood, Dad objected — to him, there’d been nothing poor about it.

His mother kept a box of ‘treasures’ recording his successes, so all the evidence is there; head boy, distinctions in all his exams, and Grade 8 on the piano.

There is a glowing reference from his headmaster when he left school, and cuttings from the Liverpool Echo detailing his days playing for Tranmere Rovers. Dad went on to do his national service as a PT instructor with the RAF, and would hitch lifts in the back of Lancaster bombers to get home on leave.

Dad was multi-talented: we always joked that he could control a football as well as Wayne Rooney, play the piano like Liberace, and sold more soap in a lifetime than any man living or dead.

He was also skilled with his hands, creating magical presents for us — a garage for me, a dolls’ house for my three sisters.

Even so, I’m not sure we appreciated his talents as we grew up. He used to come in and switch off the TV and start banging away on the piano. We just thought everyone played as well as that.

Later in life, when he’d made a bob or two, he bought himself a Steinway Grand.

There was a fair bit of musical talent in the extended family. One of the photographs in the family album is of me at my Auntie Marjorie’s , standing in front of a man who was introduced to me as ‘your Uncle John’. I was told that ‘he’s in a group and they made a record’.

We laugh about it now, because that was John Lennon. His first wife Cynthia was Auntie Marjorie’s sister-in-law.

My mother Gwyneth idolised my Dad. ‘He’s been a good provider and he’s always been faithful,’ she’d say, forgiving even the time he returned from a sales trip, gave her a box of Black Magic, then disappeared for a game of snooker with his mate George.

Dad always insisted all four of his children were ‘mistakes . . . but the best mistakes he’d ever made’.

He gave us the greatest start in life — not by handing out money, but through his support and encouragement.

Dad was always dressed immaculately. I never heard him swear, never saw him the worse for drink. He was a true gentleman and a one-off.

Earl Griffith, born June 30, 1930, died July 7, 2016, aged 86.

My friend Joan by Geoff Bowden

British family comedy acts are a rare breed, but Joan Laurie was the last surviving member of a very special one.

Her mother was the Welsh comedienne Gladys Morgan, who rose to fame on BBC radio’s Welsh Rarebit, a variety show which ran from 1940 to 1952.

She also appeared regularly on Educating Archie and The Frankie Howerd Show.

Joan, every inch her mother’s daughter, was two years old when she made her (unofficial) theatre debut, crawling on stage when she was supposed to be having a nap in the dressing room.

Joan Laurie was a star of the stage and screen who was good friends with the late the late Sir Ken Dodd

Joan Laurie was a star of the stage and screen who was good friends with the late the late Sir Ken Dodd

 The stage manager took a dim view of it, but Joan had the showbiz bug. By the age of nine, she was appearing in sketches and song-and-dance numbers.

During the war, the family toured the country entertaining the troops, sometimes to packed houses, sometimes less so. 

Joan told me the smallest audience they played to was two, when they were taken to a lighthouse and performed to the lighthouse keeper and his assistant!

After the war, the family toured variety theatres for years billed as Gladys Morgan and Company — the company being Gladys’s husband Frank, Joan and, eventually, Joan’s husband Bert Hollman.

In 1961, the family appeared with their friend, singer Frankie Vaughan, for a season at the London Palladium. They headlined at Butlin’s for three years and toured South Africa.

Joan later appeared in cabaret at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair; in variety in Scotland and toured Australia with The Black & White Minstrel Show as principal comedienne.

I first met Joan in 2001 when, as the editor of a music hall magazine, I was researching an article on her mother. 

We became good friends because, quite simply, she was a joy to be around — a tiny lady, but big on the glamour and laughs. It was a shame she never achieved the fame her mother did, because in some ways she was more talented. But she never wanted to be a big star.

In 1958, the family moved to Worthing and struck up an unlikely friendship with playwright Harold Pinter. He’d just bought a property in the town. Gladys and Joan met him in the street, and he invited them to his house-warming party.

In the late Seventies and Eighties, Joan put her career on hold as she nursed first Gladys, who died in 1983, and then husband Bert, who died in 1988. #]

Joan was now alone and wondering what to do with her life. It was the late Sir Ken Dodd who came to her rescue, arranging for her to appear

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