The Chuckle Brothers, it is fair to say, are British comic royalty. There probably isn't an adult in the land who can't hum the iconic theme music to ChuckleVision, and you only have to say 'To Me' before somebody immediately replies 'To You!'.
As he works on his crowdfunding campaign to bring The Chuckle Brothers back to television in animated form, we chat to Paul Elliott - better known as Paul Chuckle - about panto, pratfalls and the joy of physical comedy.
Your dad, Jimmy Elliott (also known as Gene Patton), was a comic. Could you tell us a bit about who your dad was and the kind of comedy he did?
He was a visual type of comic; he retired in 1954 from the business. In the 1960s, when it came to young people and what they wore on the streets, he used to say 'It's a good job I retired, I used to wear stuff like that to get laughs!'. But he was a good comic, he was a siffleur, which is a whistling act, and soft shoe shuffle dancing.
He did four hundred and ninety-something BBC recordings, before TV obviously, on radio. Mostly in the North - I think it was called BBC Radio North - because he was quite a broad Geordie. He got banned in 1939 by finishing a gag with "as smooth as a baby's bottom!". Two-year ban from the BBC for that! It didn't matter in the end because the war broke out. He met my mother, who was a dancer in one of the shows he was in back in 1930. She was a Tiller type girl. High kicking, straight legs. And it goes from there!
You spent your childhood going round theatres with him. Was it inevitable that you and Barry would follow him into showbusiness?
It was for Barry, that's all he ever wanted to do, be a funnyman. I played football for all the school teams, the junior school team, the senior school team. Went through Rotherham Boys. Then I got injured, I was fourteen. Bad injury, never played professional football, so the natural thing to do was to go into the family business. I joined Barry, who was already a comic working the clubs and started doing that.
You started on the working men's club circuit. Given that you weren't known as The Chuckle Brothers back then, did you ever have to make the act a bit blue to appease those audiences?
No, we were never blue. We refused ever to go blue. You can make more money and get more work if you do, but we wanted TV and if you're too blue you're never going to get on TV.
It was fifty-fifty. You never knew when you went to a working men's club whether they were going to love you or hate you. A lot of clubs, all they wanted to hear was dirty jokes, which we never did. Others used to think it was a breath of fresh air, that we could go and make people laugh without being filthy.
We also used to sing and dance, tap dance... but dad said to us, probably in the late sixties, "you want to concentrate on one thing, because your older brothers Jimmy and Brian [The Patton Brothers, known to many as the characters No Slacking and Getoutofit in ChuckleVision] sing, dance and do comedy. They'll always be used, but they'll never make it big, so you need to concentrate on either singing, dancing or comedy." So we dropped the singing and dancing and just did comedy. It eventually paid off!
Was it mainly old gags or would you write new material in?
There were some old gags, we'd make them visual. There was one about a lad going to the zoo with his mum, who told him something about the elephant. So he went back the following week with his dad, who pointed at the elephant and did the gag. So we turned that into a visual, with Barry putting in curlers to look like a woman. A lot of gags we did like that.
It's the kind of humour everybody can enjoy.
Exactly. Visual comedy has been around since the year dot and it's still funny now. Somebody slips on some marbles and falls on their back. It's going to hurt, but you still laugh! It's funny, anything like that. Trousers falling down, all of that.
You worked with legendary clown Charlie Cairoli in the circus. What was that experience like?
We learnt a lot; he was brilliant old Charlie. He was so funny. He looks funny, very friendly. Kids, adults, everybody liked him, he was like a friend. Really nice, warm feeling coming from him.
I remember seeing him in a theatre do something that we didn't knock off, but we did something similar later. He'd be told 'go and stand over there, we don't want to know you!'. Then he'd be messing about on the wall, getting his finger stuck, drawing the attention of the audience. Brilliant. We learned a lot from him.
Barry starred as pantomime pioneer Joseph Grimaldi in short film Grimaldi: The Funniest Man In The World. It encapsulates a lot of the things that made The Chuckle Brothers such a brilliant double act. How did it come about?
Producer Jon Conway gave us a call and asked us if we would do it. We knew who Grimaldi was and thought it sounded really good. Barry and myself were lifelong partners on the stage, and Grimaldi and the character I played were the same. They weren't family, just friends. Yeah, you could feel it in the film. It was quite upsetting, the last scene, would have been even more so had I known Barry was that ill.
It's a very poignant performance by Barry and it's lovely that's it's captured on film.
Onscreen forever. The whole thing was lovely, we really enjoyed doing it. As I say, the last scene I carry him onstage to leave him and say goodbye, it brought tears to my eyes doing it, but had I known he was going to die at the time it would have been ten times worse. I don't know if I could have done it. Very moving. He got a Best Supporting Actor Award at a film festival in Moscow.
It went to festivals all around the world. I can't see why it was 'supporting' - Grimaldi was the star of the show!
It's his name in the title!
I think they put down the young lad who was his son as the star of it, which was a bit ridiculous.
You were working as 'The Harman Brothers' - what prompted the change to Chuckle?
1967 we were on Opportunity Knocks with a guy called Hughie Green. After that, very quickly back to nothing again. Unless you're on TV all the time, you don't get noticed. We needed to change it because we thought The Harman Brothers didn't sound very memorable.
In 1974 we won New Faces, another talent show like Britain's Got Talent. We won that, but we actually missed out because our manager at the time signed us up to go to Jersey for a summer season. It was great work, six months in Jersey. But the owner refused to let us go two days a week, for seven weeks, to record a TV show which would have been on every week. He refused to let us out of the contract. So the TV company saw us turning them down and said "forget it" and didn't use us again... When we came back after six months, we were back to square one.
We changed to Chuckle in 1979 I think it was. It sounded amusing, the kind of name that people will remember.
That was only for three months. Jim and Bri said that, since The Marx Brothers, there hadn't been a family comedy act... so we tried it out, and we did alright. We'd both got pantomime sorted, so I think we did one TV before panto and then two more TVs afterwards.
We'd agreed that we weren't going to do anything on our own after pantomime, we'll get a summer season. Nothing had come in by about March, after we did the Lennie & Jerry show. Bri phoned me up and said "we've got a summer season!" I said "Oh brilliant, where are we going?". He said "No, not the four of us. Me and Jim".
You've appeared in pantomime for over fifty years. What, in your experience, makes the perfect pantomime?
Just be funny. If people go away saying "I've not laughed so much for a long time!", then it's a success. Sometimes there's too much singing, too much audience participation with kids shouting all the time 'It's behind you!' constantly. That sort of thing spoils a panto for me, it needs to hit them with lots of laughs. You get lots and lots of laughs in a show, everyone goes away saying 'what a brilliant pantomime!'. That's what we've always found. Make it funny.
You've worked with some huge names in pantomime, were you ever intimidated? Did you ask them for advice?
It's amazing, going back, being brought up in showbusiness. In theatres, meeting star names. As a kid, they always make a fuss of you. When we started in the business, it wasn't a case of 'Oh, look who it is!'. Everybody's just a normal person. There are a few, I won't mention any names, but mainly, people are normal.
Me and Barry were always normal, we'll talk to anyone - I'm talking to you! You know what I mean? We were brought up on a council estate and did twenty-three years slogging around, bits and pieces on telly, summer seasons, pantomimes. All these things, being nobody and not earning much money. When we started to make a bit of money, we didn't feel like 'Oh, I'm a star'. As we always have been, we're just Barry and Paul. As you know, we always met our fans after shows and we always loved it.
What advice do you give to burgeoning performers?
We tell everyone we work with "our dad always told us 'give every performance one hundred percent'. For one, you don't know who's in the audience."
There was twenty eight people in that show we did with Ward Allen, where [producers] Peter Ridsdale Scott and Martin Hughes were in; we didn't know, we had no idea! But we gave it one hundred percent. Because another thing dad said, those twenty-eight people have paid ten pound a seat, same as if there were a thousand in, they'd have paid ten pound a seat. It's not their fault there's only twenty-eight. It's what we've always done and we always tell others to do it too. Especially pantomime.
A lot of the time you're doing matinees when the kids have gone back to school. You get some people who are very workman like, they walk through it, just recite the lines. I just want to say 'Get out there and work!'. One thing with pantomime is that you get theatre directors from all over the country travelling round to see all the pantomimes. If they see somebody giving hundred per cent, they'll go 'Oh, they're good, we'll book them for next year'. If you're walking through it, they won't. So work one hundred per cent, you've got to be there anyway, so what's the point in walking through it? Enjoy it!
You mentioned Martin Hughes, after that performance he booked you to play The ChuckleHounds in The Roger The Dog Show on television. Being that you were ensconced in huge dog costumes, was it more of a challenge to create the slapstick without any dialogue?
We found it pretty easy. There are thousands of silent movies. You look at them, there's gags after gags after gags. We looked at them and thought 'we could do that', which we did and it was a huge success. Fifty-three countries round the world!
We didn't make much money out of it, I think we got one pound twenty-five from a place in Africa called Gabon, one pound twenty-five for the whole series! Fun episodes, it was for under-fives, pre-school stuff. That of course led us to getting ChuckleVision.
ChuckleVision ran for almost three hundred episodes. While it was very much on yours and Barry's shoulders, that's a lot of scripts! Can you talk a little about the writing process?
Most of the episodes have John Sayle at the bottom. John was the main writer, he wrote more than half of them.
Usually, after pantomime finished, we'd go to the BBC and sit with Martin Hughes and John Sayle. We'd go through fifteen different ideas, sort through which ones were working or which ones didn't. Working in a chemist's shop, for example - drugs and all that stuff - so that was a no. So we'd discuss and change it to a milk depot, say.
Martin would allocate eight or nine of them to John then the others would be divided among four or five other writers. Then we'd get the scripts a month or so later and we'd go through them: "that's not funny" or "that routine that Abbott & Costello did would be perfect here".
Then there would be rewrites. We'd do summer season, then we'd film in September for seven and a half weeks. That was our routine ever year for twenty-two years!
What was that day like?
It was brilliant, it really was. It's always nice to be thanked by your peers. When they said it was a special prize for The Chuckle Brothers, they all stood up. It was fabulous, we did a speech, loads of laughs on the speech.
Ten years later, at the same awards - Barry had died by then - but they asked me if I wanted to go and present one. When they asked me up onstage to present the prize, I got a standing ovation for five minutes. Unbelievable. Tears in my eyes, they wouldn't stop clapping! All on their feet, the whole room! Very special.
It can only be a matter of time until the knighthood!
It would be very nice, but I can't see it!
What are your favourite episodes of ChuckleVision?
Obviously the football one! (Football Heroes, Series 8). I also like the hot air balloon one (Up In The Air, Series 5), big silver shiny thing. That was done at Scarborough.
There's so many of them, loads that I thought were very, very funny. I think they were all funny, not trying to blow my own trumpet! But that's what we set out to do, laughs in every single one. That's the beauty of it. That's why it lasted so long.
Especially this past year, I know I've turned to ChuckleVision many times to cheer me up.
A lot of people have said that the BBC should put it back on during lockdown. Anybody under the age of fifty would have watched it. It's frightening when you say that, anyone under the age of fifty! Thirty-four years ago it first started.
Was it very intensive shooting the episodes?
We used to do about eight minutes a day, which is quite a lot in filming terms. Big movies are lucky if they get forty-five seconds! Why they're so slow I don't know.
We had seven weeks, then an additional three days to do any pickups, mostly had Saturday and Sunday off, though occasionally we had to film on Sunday because the streets were quiet. But we got it through quick enough.
Barry and myself did always find that the first take was the best. Martin didn't really agree, he'd say we need another couple. Look at the old black and white silent movies, they're all taken on one camera. Not cutting from here to there, just one camera in front. They just did their act.
We did a pizza one (Pizza The Action, Series 6)... [Paul mimes a pizza making]. That was about a minute, they set the camera up then the whole crew just sat down like an audience in front of us and we did it like our act, it came out really well and it's still there now, to watch.
On The Verge, the episode where you run a food truck with one wheel so everything's swaying, is another good example.
Yes, and that wasn't easy to do! Quite technical with guys at either end pulling it up and down, but the timing was so specific; it was very difficult!
We had lots of fun filming. We had a fabulous crew, some of them were there right from the first episode to the last. A lot of them the last twelve or thirteen years, every single year, the same camera, sound, lighting, makeup and wardrobe people, the runners, the scenery guys, all the same people. All freelancers, but we had so much fun they made sure to leave autumn free every year so they could do it. The fun came across onscreen.
There have been a lot of guest stars over the years, do you have any favourite memories?
Oh yeah, lots. Bernie Nolan, that was her first acting job, after that she went on to be in The Bill. But on ChuckleVision she played a young mother in a holiday camp (Chuckles In Charge, Series 9), with a little baby in a pram and a caravan.
Ted Rogers, used to do 321 (Let's Get Quizzical, Series 13).
Roy Castle, it was his last ever TV show (Record Breakers, Series 6), where I was trying to get Barry into the Guinness Book Of Records. Roy was fed up waiting and in the end, Barry got the record for most failed record attempts!
Harry Hill was Simon Chortle in one (Mind Your Manors, Series 20); but there were so many, you forget!
We wanted Richard Branson to do the one we did on the aeroplane (High Jinx, Series 9) but he couldn't make it. He said he would have done but he was working, but he likes to do things like that, would have been nice.
There were some great shows though, lovely memories. I watch them sometimes, on YouTube. All the copies I've got are on VHS - we haven't got a player anymore!
The nineties were a busy time, but some people may not know that long before you collaborated with Tinchy Stryder, you and Barry released your own album To You, To Me. What was that experience like?
Oh, it was great. Dave Cooke - who did all the music for ChuckleVision, the theme tune and all the incidental music - we went to the studio in his house and recorded it all there in a couple of days. Good fun. Cliff Richard gave us permission to do On The Beach.
Did you pick up a whole new fanbase after the collaboration with Tinchy Stryder on the track To Me, To You Bruv?
We did yeah. We were The Chuckle Brothers and here we were with a single that was number one in the hip hop charts for two weeks! It raised three million pounds for charity, for ACLS.
We got a lot of nightclub work, meet and greets, we'd sing the song then do photographs afterwards. Nightclubs were packed out everywhere we went. It's a lovely feeling, the warmth and the love of people who want to be there just to shake your hand. It sets me off, because since Barry died, I've been off DJ'ing and doing the same thing. Well, not since February last year!
You've launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring The Chuckle Brothers back in an animated series. What can fans expect?
Well, it's going to be exactly the sort of thing we did in ChuckleVision, we're calling it Chuckleworld or The Adventures Of The Chuckle Brothers. Same type of stuff, me and Barry doing jobs, getting it wrong. Lots of different characters.
If somebody were to put a lot of money in, we'll give them a character in the show; they can voice it. Everybody who donates will get a taster clip of the series. It's a nice way of getting the fans involved. It's a new world, all this crowdfunding stuff...
An animated version worked extremely well for the Mr Bean franchise. The Chuckle Brothers' humour is in a similar vein.
Yeah, and kids love ChuckleVision. We were silly, that's what they like about it. The cartoon will be exactly the same stuff. We've even got John Sayle on board writing so it's the same old crowd!
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Fingers crossed, I've got a record coming out! Because I DJ nowadays, it's a real Ibiza dance kind of tune. We don't know when it's coming out yet, but it's all recorded and the video is almost finished. It's called The Only Way Is To Me, To You, which we can apply to the two-metre rule '2 Metre You!". Fingers crossed it'll be a hit and I can be a DJ again!
I've got pantomime in Cardiff this year, New Theatre, with Gareth Thomas, Gareth Gates and Mike Doyle. I'm looking forward to that in December. I'm doing various holiday resorts and theme parks in the summer, again DJ'ing, a forty-five minute slot. The Popworld Festival in Leeds on the 31st July. Me, Peter Andre and The Cheeky Girls! The unis start in September so there will be some Freshers gigs.
Paul Chuckle, thank you!