It was as much a part of Sundays after the war in Britain as roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and the Sunday Express.
For 15 years, from 1957 to 1972, as many as a quarter of the nation’s households tuned in on Sunday lunchtime to hear the latest adventures of The Clitheroe Kid, a popular radio sitcom starring Jimmy Clitheroe.
The 4ft 3in Lancastrian comedian, who stopped growing at the age of 11 due to a medical condition, enchanted the nation with his school darling persona.
But the little clown who brought joy and laughter to millions, and who paved the way for other performers like The Krankies, died a sad and lonely death from an overdose of sleeping pills on the day of his beloved mother’s funeral.
It came after a series of devastating personal blows that were hard for anyone to bear.
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The story of Clitheroe Kid begins appropriately enough in the town of Clitheroe in Lancashire. Clitheroe was Jimmy’s family name but also his birthplace.
His parents were weavers in a cotton mill, but Jimmy, born on Christmas Eve 1921, was too short to reach the loom.
He worked for a while in a bakery, but the lure of variety proved too great.
“The theater was just for him,” his cousin Irene recalls.
While the talented musician could play a number of instruments, he decided to major in comedy. In 1936 he made his debut on the Blackpool stage and appeared there every year until 1971, setting a record for consecutive summer appearances.
In 1938, he starred in his first pantomime and would still delight Bantu audiences, usually as Tom Thumb or Studs, until the early 1970s. He worked with all the stars in Northern Entertainment, including Frank Randall, Arthur Lucan, aka “Old Mother Riley”, and the ukulele-playing George Formby, with whom he appeared in the 1942 film Too Shy.
But when he moved to radio in the mid-1950s, he became a household name in his own right.
Originally broadcast on the Northern Region of the BBC Home Service, The Clitheroe Kid switched to the national light program in 1959.
Soon, millions across the country were preparing to learn the mischief Jimmy would face each week.
Set in an unnamed town in the north of England, Jimmy has lived with his Scottish grandfather, mother, and sister “Scraggy Nick” Susan, with his regular comedy partner being Suzanne’s bumbling, mouthless boyfriend, played by Danny Ross.
In total, 290 episodes of The Clitheroe Kid were produced, making it the longest-running BBC sitcom in history. At its peak it attracted over 10 million listeners.
Among his devotees was the young Jimmy Cricket: “I was a huge fan growing up in Belfast in the fifties. I later remember James Casey, producer and co-writer, telling me that Jimmy Clitheroe was perfect for radio because he sounded like a cheeky schoolboy, but at the same time he had the timing of an experienced performer” .
Cricket had seen Clitheroe perform twice and was enchanted each time: “I saw him at the Britannia Theater in Great Yarmouth in 1968 and at the Queen’s Theater in Blackpool in 1969. He was hilarious.
“This weird magician came on stage asking for a student volunteer from the audience, and little Jimmy would come up from the audience in his school uniform and proceed to make a mess of this guy’s paraphernalia.”
Jimmy was well liked by those he worked with. “It was amazing,” says Diana Geiger, who plays Jamie’s sister Susan as Diana Day.
“After we finished recordings, we all go to the bar together. We were like a family. In fact, Jimmy became godfather to my daughter Melanie.”
Accordion star Laurie Adam adds: “One time when we were in Scarborough, he said, ‘Do you want to go fishing tomorrow? So we went to the hunting store to buy some tackle and everybody stopped him to get his autograph. He autographed every single one. He was great with the crowd.”
However, despite earning £60,000 a year in his heyday, Jimmy has remained close to his roots.
Even at the height of his fame, he lived with his mother, Emma, in a bungalow in Blackpool.
“He was a great character,” says Alex Connor, who is still working on The Squirrel and is one of Jimmy’s local kids.
“He used to come and play snooker with us. He would ask the owner to get him a beer crate for him to stand on. He would always say to us ‘what does everyone drink?’ and offer to buy us a pint.”
Jimmy invested his money in real estate, owned race horses and greyhounds, and had his own betting shop.
He was driving a blue Mercedes that had special blocks installed so he could reach the pedals. But he was tired of being pulled over by the police, who thought they saw an underage driver who advertised as driver and public assistant.
But in 1972, the BBC dropped The Clitheroe Kid, after only 10 episodes out of 300. That was a big enough blow, but soon after, after a fight, Jimmy’s girlfriend Sally was killed in a car accident.
With his failing health and worries about his mother, who was now in her mid-80s, Jimmy’s world seemed to fall apart around him.
What was to be his final UK tour took place in early 1973 with Laurie Adam.
Lowry recalls: “At Annan, in Scotland, there were a lot of people waiting in the dressing room to get Jimmy’s autograph. They pushed on the door and he fell!”
“Jimmy was underneath it, but he just laughed and signed autographs.”
But after a few weeks his mood changed. “When we got to Plymouth, he was very depressed,” says Laurie. “He didn’t really want to mix with anyone.”
Jimmy is found collapsed in his hotel room and taken to hospital. Adam was worried if Jamie’s mom would find out, but the news got out. Just two months later, on June 1, 1973, Emma Clitheroe died, leaving Jimmy heartbroken.
The following Wednesday, the day of the funeral, relatives who had flown in from London found Jimmy unconscious in his bedroom. He was taken to the hospital but died an hour after his mother was cremated.
A postmortem examination found that he had died from the effect of sleeping pills mixed with several glasses of brandy.
It was a sad end for a man who brought so much joy to so many.
- Neil Clark writes a biography of Jimmy Clitheroe