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Open That Door! – Larry Grayson’s memoirs discovery reveals long-lost love

UNIVERSITY NEWS LAST UPDATED : 02 DECEMBER
Larry Grayson news

A new biography about the late entertainer Larry Grayson is to launch at Birmingham City University, and features insights from the star’s personal memoirs that have been lost in storage for over 20 years.

The newly-discovered memoirs reveal much about his one lost love – Tom Proctor, who was killed in the Second World War – his later clashes with gay activists at the height of his career and his complicated upbringing.

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The new book, ‘Shut That Door! – The Definitive Biography of Larry Grayson’ has been written by scriptwriter and producer Tony Nicholson, and also includes never-before-seen photographs found in the high-camp star’s personal archive, along with research obtained from his leather-bound scrapbooks that featured posters, flyers and tickets which he collated throughout his career.

Soulmate

Discussing the revelations Grayson’s memoirs reveal about his soulmate, Tony Nicholson said:

“Larry and Tom were at school together, having bonded from the age of five. They hated sport and woodwork, and anything that involved getting their hands dirty. Neither of them were academically inclined, preferring to giggle in class and discuss the latest Hollywood gems in class – they were both film mad. The pair left school at the age of 14; Tom got a mundane job and Larry went straight into professional show business.

“Both were called up for National Service when the Second World War broke out; Tom was taken into the Army, but Larry failed his medical. Tom was killed at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy towards the end of the war and Larry never really recovered from the loss.”

Tom’s sisters wrote a poem to commemorate his death and Grayson carried it round with him all his life, and would read to himself at the back of churches, especially on Remembrance Day.

‘And It All Came True’

The found memoirs also document his time at school, his first stage appearance – in the nativity aged five – and disclose that his famous characters, such as Apricot Lil and Slack Alice were real people and dated back to him entertaining in Second World War air raid shelters. Grayson was planning to call his autobiography ‘And It All Came True’.

As a long-time fan of the comedian, Tony Nicholson also produced Larry Grayson on ‘A Question of Entertainment’ in the late 1980s, and it was that experience that later inspired him to pen the first detailed biography of the flamboyant comedian and TV presenter.

Larry Grayson didn’t achieve commercial success until he was almost 50 and has no descendants, and while researching for the book, Tony struggled to document the early years of his life. The author was almost at the point of giving up when Paul Vaughan, Grayson’s former manager, invited him to Malvern, to search through a storage unit where all the entertainer’s personal effects were housed after his death in 1995.

Tony Nicholson said:

“When I was writing the book, I kept hearing about this autobiography Larry was supposed to be writing in the 1980s. He also mentioned it in several interviews I viewed and read. No-one else seemed to have any recollection of it and it was only when Paul Vaughan invited me to go to a storage warehouse, where all Larry's personal effects had been gathering dust since his death 20 years earlier, that the puzzle fell into place.

“There were countless boxes of pretty mundane stuff, but then I had an Indiana Jones moment! I found a lot of photographs, many of which are now included in the book, and then this bulging folder of hand-written A4 pages – it was the incomplete autobiography, all written in Larry's own fair hand! Unpublished and forgotten for about for 20 years, it allowed me to complete my book, with facts straight from the horse's mouth.”

Grayson once mentioned to Paul about the “only true love of his life” and, once the memoirs were uncovered, it became clear who he was referring to.

Early life

Grayson was born illegitimately in Banbury, Oxfordshire in 1923 and his mother arranged for him to be fostered by a mining family in Nuneaton, Warwickshire at just nine weeks old. He lived most of his life in Nuneaton with his foster sister ‘Fan’ (Florence), who raised him virtually single-handedly following the death of his foster mother when he was six years old, and the two remained devoted to one another.

Born William Sulley White, he left school at the age of 14 and began his performance career as drag act Billy Breen before finding mainstream fame in his middle age, which peaked in the early 1980s when he regularly attracted viewing figures of over 18 million for ‘Larry Grayson’s Generation Game’.

Grayson was famous for his catch phrases that included ‘what a gay day!’ ‘seems like a nice boy’ and, of course, ‘shut that door!’ (the latter first used when he felt a sudden draught while on stage in Redcar in the early 1950s). Despite being very private about his sexuality, he was one of the first television comedians to suggest an openly gay persona.

Legacy

Discussing Grayon’s long-term impact on British culture, John Mercer, Professor of Gender and Sexuality, Birmingham City University, said:

“His risqué humour and catchphrases remind us of a post-gay liberation moment in popular culture during the 1970s and 1980s where gay humour could have mainstream appeal and a visibly gay man could succeed at the highest level in the world of light entertainment, as long as he was prepared to perform his sexual identity ‘for laughs’.

“Much loved by the general public, Grayson alongside contemporary ‘gay comedians’ –though they were never explicitly described as such – like Frankie Howard or John Inman, were not always held in high regard by the gay liberation movement. In 1974 students from University of Westminster protested outside of a broadcast of ‘Shut That Door!’ and Peter Tatchell observed in 2016 that during the 1970s and 1980s he despised the stereotypical, and therefore negative, image of homosexuality that figures like Grayson offered.

Book launch

On Saturday 2 December, Tony Nicholson will be in conversation with Tony Currie, a Scottish continuity announcer for BBC Scotland, at The Curzon Building in Birmingham City University, where the writer will discuss the life of Larry Grayson and explain how he came to find the entertainer’s memoirs. Copies of the book will be available to buy at the event.

The event has been organised by Kaleidoscope – a Birmingham-based organisation specialising in locating missing television footage – who will also be showcasing clips from some of Larry Grayson’s most-famous programmes, as well as those of his contemporary Sir Bruce Forsyth, including previously missing behind the scenes footage from his incarnation of ‘The Generation Game’.

Earlier this year, Kaleidoscope screened lost episodes of iconic TV soap ‘Crossroads’ at Birmingham City University, which hadn’t been seen in more than 50 years. Incidentally, Larry Grayson himself made two appearances in the Midlands-based programme; first as a flouncing, difficult customer at the Crossroads Motel, and then as the chauffeur at the wedding of Meg Richardson (played by his close friend Noele Gordon). Ironically, Grayson couldn't drive.

Kaleidoscope’s CEO, Chris Perry is an alumnus of Birmingham City University, which was one of the first UK universities to offer media degrees and today boasts cutting edge facilities – including four TV studios and Europe’s largest static green screen.

Tony Nicholson’s book has also informed an ITV documentary about Larry Grayson that will be transmitted in early 2018. 

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