Barnsley comedy star Charlie's many talents

Often it is said 'when one door closes, another one opens.'

Friday, 4th March 2016, 1:30 pm
Updated Friday, 4th March 2016, 1:36 pm
Charlie Williams surrounded by comedy stars who paid tribute to him on This Is Your Life

That was certainly true for Charlie Williams as he neared the end of his footballing career at Doncaster Rovers.

He formed the Jeffrey Trio with fellow Doncaster Rovers player, the Boy Wonder Alick Jeffrey, and Alick’s father, already known as a clubland singer.

Barnsley comedy star Charlie Williams meeting Princess Margaret

This gave Charlie a glimpse into the showbiz world that was to bring him fame and fortune in later years.

The trio played at supporters’ club functions and proved to be quite popular, singing hits of the day and cracking jokes between numbers.

They were offered their first professional gig at a pub in Armthorpe, Doncaster.

In Britain, during the late 1950s, it was quite unusual for a black man with a strong South Yorkshire accent to reel out gags and Charlie quickly saw this could work very much to his advantage.

Barnsley comedy star Charlie Williams meeting Princess Margaret

Initially he considered himself to be a singer not a comedian - although his catch phrase “good evening my flowers” was used very early in his career.

With his Doncaster Rovers career over in 1959, Charlie moved to Midland League side Skegness Town.

He joined up with Alick Jeffrey, then trying to rebuild his career after breaking a leg.

Taking a cut in salary from when he played at Doncaster, Charlie supplemented his income as a delivery driver for A. Haywood & Sons, the confectionery manufacturers of Skegness rock.

It was a company owned by the Skegness club president.

Charlie was an immediate success, enjoying his football and the sea air, eventually becoming club captain.

Charlie and Alick renewed their singing activities and on Sundays entertained at the Working Men’s Club, Cleethorpes.

This lasted until February 1960 when Alick emigrated to Australia to continue his football career.

Charlie was not retained by Skegness in 1962 and this was not long after he had unsuccessfully applied for the job as club manager. He also lost his part-time position with the confectionery firm.

Unfortunately, the period afterwards was one of extreme disappointment and he desperately looked for another career door to open.

He continued his football career at Denaby United, but found it hard to land a job sadly because of the colour of his skin.

A lifeline was engineered for Charlie by Alick, basking in popularity in Australia, and enjoying a good life. He recommended to his club manager that Charlie would make a good player/coach.

Everything was arranged for Charlie to emigrate, but once Australia House saw his passport picture, they blocked the move.

A major furore was whipped up by both the English and Australian press to such an extent that Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies allegedly intervened.

Charlie received another offer from the Australian club but turned it down.

Charlie’s nightmare was unemployment and he admitted that those times of queuing in the labour exchange were amongst the worst of his life.

He attended numerous interviews but they came to nothing.

During an interview for a delivery driver with a bakery firm the manager told him: “Our customers might be funny about a coloured bloke delivering bread. It might put them off and I can’t afford to lose trade.”

Charlie left Denaby United and went to play for the Grimethorpe Colliery football team at £3 a game.

After nine months on the dole, he found a job with local scrap dealer Ernie Sykes.

It was hard, dirty work, reminding him of his days at the pit - but there were few other opportunities available.

In his spare time, he performed sporadically at weekends as a singer in clubs and left his job with the scrap merchant after around two years.

He found other work in the equipment repair room back with the NCB at Shafton.

Then, over the years, the musical element of his act fell by the wayside and he became a fully developed stand-up comedian.

His jokes were taken from everyday life, told in language that everyone could understand and this broke down any barriers.

Sadly, in reflection, we can see the reinforcement of his audience’s prejudices and negative race stereotypes was perhaps a necessary product of the environment and time in which he began his comedy career.

He performed in many varied places including pubs, church halls, community centres and working men’s clubs.

He often went to places where no comedian had gone unscathed previously and gloriously won over audiences.

Between 1965 and 1970, his popularity was immense and he had to make some bold decisions.

He left his full time job and appointed the Joseph Brothers, running ATS Casting of Leeds, as his agents.

Stanley and Michael Joseph had no doubt about Charlie’s talents and that he was a highly marketable commodity.

Stanley recalled: “He had all the discipline of one of the great comics, but he had a feeling for the audience and they for him, and it was in live entertainment that he really shone.

“In Charlie’s case he played the role of Charlie Williams playing himself and at that he had no equal.”

Charlie’s next big break was when Johnny Hamp, controller of light entertainment at Granada Television in the early 1970s, booked him to appear on the a new programme, The Comedians which was to be enjoyed by millions.

Said Johnny: “Apart from his excellent timing, his broad Yorkshire accent combined with his black face really caught the imagination of the television audience.”

The show catapulted Charlie to national fame and found him work far beyond his own locality but meant him seeing less and less of his family.

More successes were just around the corner.

His extraordinary career made him a predictable candidate for This Is Your Life in 1972.

In the same year ,Bernard Delfont selected him to appear in the Royal Variety Command Performance.

After the Royal show, Charlie cheekily asked Prince Philip for his autograph.

Surprised by the request, Prince Philip turned to his aide and quipped: “I say, what do you think of this? We’ve got a right one here.”

He laughed and shook hands with Charlie and moved on.

Also in 1972, The Comedians had a six-month season at the London Palladium.

In the following year, Charlie had his own show on the BBC as well as hosting ATV’s The Golden Shot from 1973 to 1974.

His autobiography “Ee - I’ve Had Some Laughs” was published in 1973.

Following a ‘twilight tour’ organised by Neil Crossland of Stagewear Unlimited, Charlie retired in 1995.

Four years later, he received an MBE for his charity work and in 2000 was given a lifetime achievement award at the Black Comedy Awards.

It was recognised that he had ‘broken down barriers’.

In 2004, Charlie was voted Doncaster Rovers’ ‘all-time cult hero’.”

He died on September 2, 2006. He married twice and is survived by his second wife Janice.