CHRISTOPHER STEVENS looks back at the life of Tim Brooke-Taylor

The comic legend who really was a Goodie: He missed out on Monty Python but found fame on 1970s TV and as a panellist on the radio. As he dies aged 79, CHRISTOPHER STEVENS looks back at the life and career of Tim Brooke-Taylor

Tim Brooke-Taylor was a patriot right down to his red, white and blue underpants. 

With his thumbs hooked into his Union Jack waistcoat, he loved calling a halt to manic proceedings in The Goodies so that he could stand to attention for Land Of Hope And Glory.

‘Timbo’ adored the Royal Family, from the Queen to the corgis, and the royals loved him back.

Prince Charles himself once wrote to the three stars of The Goodies, the BBC’s wildly popular, anarchic Seventies comedy series, to say: ‘I remember guffawing like a drain at your antics, to the point where my sister, HRH The Princess Anne, was quite short with me.’

Tim Brooke-Taylor (pictured with his wife Christine Wheadon) was a patriot right down to his red, white and blue underpants

So it was a perpetual surprise to fans meeting Brooke-Taylor – who died yesterday aged 79, after contracting coronavirus – that he wasn’t an arch-nationalist at all. With a keen appreciation of the silly and the absurd, he regarded flag-waving as nonsense.

In fact, he rarely took anything in his career too seriously… least of all his own talent.

His fellow Goodies played versions of themselves: Bill Oddie, the explosively short-tempered rebel with a head full of pop hits, and Graeme Garden, the caustic wit and former doctor with an IQ bigger than the national debt.

But the character Brooke-Taylor played was just that… a made-up role. ‘With a name like mine,’ he remarked, ‘no one would believe I was a revolutionary.’

Instead, he emphasised his upper-class accent and played the Establishment gent. ‘I don’t think I’m really such a good comedian as people might think,’ he said modestly, ‘but I’m probably a better actor.’

With his thumbs hooked into his Union Jack waistcoat, he loved calling a halt to manic proceedings in The Goodies (pictured) so that he could stand to attention for Land Of Hope And Glory

For a man so dismissive of his own comic gifts, Brooke-Taylor enjoyed an exceptionally long and successful career, including a run of almost 50 years in the Radio 4 pun-fest I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.

Born in Buxton, Derbyshire, in 1940, his talent was obvious to everyone but him from childhood. In his last year at Winchester College, his form master wrote to his mother, suggesting that if Tim failed his A-levels, he could probably find work as an actor ‘or a musical comedian’. If that was meant to be a criticism, it was also prescient.

By the mid-Sixties, he was part of the lunatic committee that became Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and co-wrote one of their most popular sketches – the Four Yorkshiremen, competing to brag about who had endured the most deprived childhood.

With John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman all puffing cigars and quaffing champagne, Brooke-Taylor listened to their boasts of overcrowding – 26 children in a room with no furniture and a hole in the floor.

Brooke-Taylor joined Garden and urbane jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton for a Radio 4 show of quickfire wordplay, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (Pictured. Left to right: Tim Brooke-Taylor, Humphrey Lyttelton, Graeme Garden and Barry Cryer)  

‘Room?’ he scoffed. ‘You were lucky t’have a room. There were over 150 of us living in a small shoe-box in middle of t’road!’

The Pythons were still doing that routine when they played the O2 stadium in 2014. Brooke-Taylor commented mildly that it was a good thing they’d kept going so long, because they had finally conceded that they owed him royalties for the sketch.

When Monty Python went ahead without him in 1969, he showed no rancour. ‘The timing wasn’t right for me,’ he said. The reality was the troupe had room for only one genuinely nice, kind-natured performer, and Michael Palin was already on board.

While the ambitious comics around him sweated and competed, he was content to enjoy the ride and concentrate on what mattered to him: Derby County FC and his family. He married his wife, Christine, in 1968, and they had two sons.

By the mid-Sixties, Brooke-Taylor (centre, with Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie) was part of the lunatic committee that became Monty Python’s Flying Circus

The Goodies, which mixed silent movie slapstick with topical satire, suited him much better than the edginess of Python. He was the good-looking one of the trio, a sort of overgrown choirboy who was easily excited and even more easily hurt. Female fans swooned over his golden locks and innocent nature.

When the three of them leapt aboard their three-seater trandem, it was Tim at the front, pedalling like mad. Graeme took the centre saddle, grumbling, and Bill lounged at the back with his feet up.

In reality, it was Graeme and Bill who wrote the plots, with Tim polishing the lines and lobbing in a few gags when the scripts were ready.

The Beeb was never quite sure what to make of them. While Monty Python was definitely post-watershed, scurrilous comedy for the university crowd, The Goodies seemed to attract audiences at any time in the schedules.

Their visual comedy appealed to all the family. When they were chased around a maze by a gigantic Dougal the Dog from the Magic Roundabout, or were divebombed by geese dropping bouncing eggs like dambuster bombs, the effect was hilariously surreal. Stoned students loved it, but so did six-year-olds, and adults who grew up on the Goons.

These jokes travelled well too. Australia especially took the Goodies to their hearts, screening their shows nightly for decades.

Pictured is Tim Brooke-Taylor holding his OBE, the comedian and actor died after contracting coronavirus, his agent said

And international comedy judges were also impressed: In 1972, the episode Kitten Kong won the prestigious Silver Rose of Montreux television award, with a spectacular monster movie spoof.

It featured a score of BBC stars in cameos, as a baby cat the size of an elephant ran amok in London. Three years later, the Goodies won again with a send-up of early Hollywood. They were so popular with a young audience that they had a string of pop hits – Funky Gibbon (which reached No 4 in the charts and saw them dancing on Top Of The Pops), The Inbetweenies, Wild Thing and Black Pudding Bertha.

At around the same time, Brooke-Taylor joined Garden and urbane jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton for a Radio 4 show of quickfire wordplay, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. The pilot episode in 1972 went so disastrously that afterwards, in the pub, ‘Humph’ made them swear never to try it again. But they relented, and gradually the game show became a cult favourite, with the addition of regulars Willie Rushton and Barry Cryer. Much of its success lay in Brooke-Taylor’s refusal ever to strain for laughs – if a joke fell flat, or a punchline was mistimed, his shrug was almost audible. As a performer, he was always generous, letting his team-mate Rushton (and later, Jeremy Hardy) deliver the pay-offs and then basking in the laughter.

With Humph as the ringmaster, the show became a series of well-worn challenges. There were new words for the Uxbridge English Dictionary (‘Cardiology – the study of knitwear’, ‘Monogamy – celebrating New Year in Scotland by yourself’), and a round of announcements for imaginary guests at silly parties (such as the Naturists Ball… ‘please welcome Mr and Mrs Gleebits and their son Dan: Dan Gleebits’).

One favourite was the fiendishly complicated Mornington Crescent, a game that involved shouting out Tube station names that other players greeted either with applause or derision.

Tim’s speciality was a round called ‘one song to the tune of another’. He could sing the grim words of Girlfriend In A Coma by The Smiths to the tune of Tiptoe Through The Tulips. It had to be heard to be believed.

Garden said yesterday: ‘Tim was a class act. Working with him on radio, stage or TV was always fun, and when we were on stage together it was great to see him go into one of his brilliant set pieces, when I could just sit back and enjoy his performance from the best seat in the house.

‘I don’t think we ever had a row – we disagreed about things at times, though I can’t remember about what, which I suppose shows how unimportant they were!’

The two had worked together since meeting at Cambridge in 1961, where Brooke-Taylor was studying law and performing in the Footlights, the university’s revue club. Here too he met Cleese and Oddie, and three years later they debuted a radio sketch show called I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.

It ran till 1973, on and off, with Brooke-Taylor best known for his creation, Lady Constance de Coverlet, a shrill-voiced aristocratic man-eater. That led to TV and a sketch show called At Last The 1948 Show.

All his life, he insisted he was only ever as good as the people around him. ‘At college, I got to know like-minded and really good people, but at that time I didn’t see it as a serious way forward,’ he explained two years ago.

‘Certainly in my case it was the people I was with who got me doing my best work. I would never have done it on my own.’

There’s another way to look at that. Without Tim Brooke-Taylor’s easy-going temperament, his amiable charm and universal popularity with fellow comics, much of the greatest comedy of the Sixties and Seventies simply wouldn’t have been possible.

But he was far too self-effacing ever to say so.

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