Bernie Clifton looks back at his career

Bernie Clifton

An interview with Bernie Clifton, as he publishes his autobiography. He reflects on the influence of Les Dawson, reducing the late Queen to tears, appearing on The Voice and retiring Oswald The Ostrich.

When did you start writing the book and what inspired you to do so?

I started writing probably 15 years ago. I felt I had to. It's just that my story has had so many twists and turns it needed a definitive commentary that only I could deliver.

You've had a very varied career, spanning so many different genres. What would you say is your favourite discipline?

My favourite discipline has to be performing in variety theatre. As a teenager I loved watching the variety shows at the Theatre Royal in St. Helens, which was at the bottom of our street.

Barry Cryer once said I'd spun off the 'time warp' a generation too late. He meant that, in essence, I was a variety performer, but by the time I'd got my act together, in my early 20s, the variety theatre circuit had disappeared to be replaced by the social clubs, so I became a club act.

How did you get started in showbiz?

I got started in showbiz as a singer with the band at the Co-op Ballroom. During the day I was an apprentice plumber for the local council and working in bathrooms (great acoustics) helped to enhance my vocals.

The resident band singer was called up to do his national service; I saw my chance and asked for an audition. I'll never forget the first time I stood up to sing. It was a foxtrot and the song was Love is a Many Splendoured Thing.

I was living the dream, on Saturday afternoons I was playing left wing for the Saints' Junior Rugby B Team and a few hours later I'd be singing my heart out in front of hundreds of my fellow teenagers.

What inspired you to create Oswald The Ostrich?

Bernie Clifton

The Ostrich... I'd graduated from being 'just a singer' to a comedy/vocal act using a few small props. Following advice from Les Dawson in 1972 - he told me "Do your own thing; if you like working with props, become a prop comic" - I became a visual comic.

Within a couple of years I was travelling with a huge rubber shark, a 20 foot high inflatable diving suit, a cat that sat on my shoulder, a full size lionskin and a pair of biscuit tins to dance in. Someone told me they'd seen a guy 'on a chicken' in a street carnival. I told legendary prop maker Peter Pullan about it, and he made me one.

Just another prop I thought, but it grew and grew. A few years, and many modifications later, we stopped the show at the Royal Variety Show in front of her late Majesty the Queen who was reported 'to be dabbing away tears of laughter'. After 25 years I'd become an overnight success.

What made you go on The Voice?

I'd started taking singing lessons to rediscover my singing voice. There'd been a vast improvement and I thought The Voice would be a perfect showcase, I didn't tell anyone what I was up to in case they tried to talk me out of it. Although the chairs didn't turn, it reminded the world that I was much more than an elderly ostrich jockey.

What do you want people to take from the book?

I hope it reflects my journey. That little lad wearing clogs who went on to meet the Queen eventually earning a standing ovation in Las Vegas. Along the way I travelled the world with a brass band carrying a trombone I couldn't play, and, oh yes, almost forgot, as a hobby I learned to fly a microlight.

What is the secret to a long life?

Being lucky perhaps. Looking back, I've experienced some tragedies which have left their mark but even so to have reached 87 makes me a lucky boy.

Who would you most like to work with?

Meet The Richardsons. Image shows from L to R: Bernie Clifton, Lucy (Lucy Beaumont)

I'd love to work with the next generation, Jon Richardson had me on Meet The Richardsons a couple of times. Johnny Vegas of course...

Have you still got any ambitions left?

I'm hoping to tour again, this time with my book under me arm. And yes, it's true, the ostrich has been put out to pasture (seemed the kindest thing to do).

Finally, what other projects are you working on?

I'd love to continue performing with the Legends of Variety tour and I'm happy to report that my voice continues to recover following my collision with Covid last year.


Bernie Clifton - Crackerjack To Vegas

By Bernie Clifton

Growing up in wartime St. Helens (where a bomb missed his head by a few yards), Bernie began his career as a teenage singer with a local dance band. This was the first step on the long and winding road that took him to a Royal Variety Show where he reduced our late Queen to tears of laughter and then, after many years of touring, to a standing ovation in Las Vegas.

Bernie takes us along on his hilarious journey, explaining how he failed as a plumber but made it to Beijing as a trombonist. We read about his exploits piloting his 'Flying Ostrich' microlight (without a licence) and keeping fit with the odd London marathon... on the back of an ostrich! We also learn of his penchant for practical jokes which helped him keep sane. Having reached 87, he is still performing but doubts he'll write a sequel, quoting Barry Cryer on the subject of age: "I don't think that far ahead, I'm not even buying green bananas!"

First published: Monday 27th November 2023

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Published: Saturday 2nd December 2023

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