‘YOUNG MAN WITH POSSIBILITIES’ ARTHUR ASKEY’S MARGATE BIG BREAK
Featured in the April 2009 handbook.
In 1982, Britain lost one of it’s best-loved performers when pint-sized Arthur Askey died. Born in Liverpool at the dawn of the 20th century, he always had a flair for showbusiness, and his hilarious autobiography ‘Before Your Very Eyes’ told how, by the age of only ten, he had studied Gilbert Rogers Rhyl Concert Party so intently that he knew every song and sketch off by heart, so well in fact that he could recite them word perfect over 60 years later.
Finding an obvious niche for his talents, Arthur was entertaining wounded soldiers of the Great War whilst still too young to enlist himself, which he did in June 1918, on reaching his 18th birthday. In March 1924, he made his professional debut with the ‘Song Salad Company’, the start of a career which was to last for 57 years, until ill-health forced his retirement. But it was at Margate that
Arthur first achieved national recognition on his road to fame and fortune.
During the 1920’s, the Daily Mail newspaper ran competitions for their readers to write in with nominations for their favourite seaside performing artiste, and towards the end of the 1928 Summer Season the paper’s posters were carrying the headline of ‘MARGATE COMEDIAN HEADS POLL’. There were several popular and well-known comedians treading the boards here that year, including
Leonard Henry, a household name and radio star who was working the season on the Jetty, and Margate’s own Leslie Fuller, who was at the Clifton Baths (later The Lido) with his famous ‘Ped’lers’ Concert Party. The comparatively unknown Arthur Askey had been here at the Oval Bandstand since 1926 with Fred Wilden’s Concert Party, and had taken ‘digs’ in Clifton Gardens. In his memoirs,
Arthur recounted the story of that Daily Mail poll.
He recalled meeting Leonard Henry on the seafront one day, and that Henry, obviously very vainly believing himself to be top of the poll, was indignant that the Daily Mail was a bit late discovering him! And Arthur got the same from Leslie Fuller, who said he was surprised by a competition to discover him!
Well, how deflated both those ‘Big Stars’ must have been when the paper put out its new posters which proclaimed ‘MARGATE COMEDIAN WINS’, and announced that little Arthur had come top in the whole country. He recalled proudly returning to his ‘digs’ to find his landlady had decorated her house inside and out with the posters, but how anti-climatic it had been to read the review by the critic
sent down by the Daily Mail to catch his act.
“SEASIDE TALENT SEARCH. MR. ARTHUR ASKEY, COMEDIAN, YOUNG MAN WITH POSSIBILITIES Margate, Sunday. Mr Arthur Askey is a short man with red hair and a pair of very
large horn-rimmed spectacles. He is a member of the concert party which Mr Fred Wilden runs at the Oval there. For the last fortnight postcards have poured in from readers of the Daily Mail resident or holidaying at certain South of England seaside towns, recommending the merits of this and that concert party comedian or comedienne. Mr Askey’s name has been on a great many of them. Well,
today I have watched Mr Askey. He showed symptoms of being able to amuse in a way of his own.
Physically, he reminded me of Mr Nelson Keys; in methods he is not so glitteringly definite and clear-cut. He is slower and his face is not so elastic. I thought his material was poor, but that he handled it with assurance and with a voice that carries well. He did not dance, but looks as if he could. At present I should not put Mr Askey down as ready to step into a leading part on the West End stage, but he is a young man possibilities.”
The critic had mistakenly attended a Sunday children’s matinee, where no jokes or singing was the rule - the children themselves being the performers with the professionals assisting. Arthur’s name was now established, however, and he left in 1929 to follow his destiny, becoming a mainstay of radio, films, television and variety.
Anyone who has local historical queries can Phone Mick Twyman on 01843 227574