PERFORMERS: BILLY RUSSELL

Born:   July 16 1893
Died:   November 25 1971

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2011)

Best remembered for his grumbling old navvy with the pipe and droopy moustache, Billy Russell was a firm favourite in an era when the British Music Hall was evolving into Variety. His routine On Behalf of the Working Classes stayed in the record catalogues for decades appearing originally as a set of 78s then being reissued as an EP, on LP and (half a century after it was performed) on compact disc.

Born Adam George Brown in Birmingham in 1893, Billy first appeared on stage as a juvenile in a double act and later as a solo comic. World War I found him entertaining the troops with his version of a then popular cartoon character from Punch (Bruce Bairnsfather’s Old Bill).

It was an alter ego that would stay with him for the rest of his career, best captured in the celebrated Decca/Regal Zonophone 78s recorded at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead a couple of months after the outbreak of World War II. There were also Royal Variety Performances (in 1933 and 1947) and numerous supporting appearances in movies.

In 1955 he went to Australia for a holiday, but the enormous continued popularity of his 1939 recordings down under led to an offer to perform his act at the Tivoli Theatres in a revue called Laugh Around the Clock. And fortuitously, E.M.I. chose to record his performance for eventual release as an EP.

Back in Britain it was now the television age and theatres were closing all over the country, so Billy (now in his sixties) turned his talents to acting roles on stage and for the small screen. He was a regular on the David Kossof sitcom A Little Big Business in 1964 and six years later starred in a Comedy Playhouse episode on BBC1. Then as a Christmas treat later that year, BBC2 gathered an all-star cast (Billy, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Ronnie Barker, Warren Mitchell and others) in celebration of the restoration of the nineteenth century Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End.

Less than a year later Billy collapsed and died in a London TV studio aged 78.

 

Films

Take Off That Hat (1938)
Night Train to Munich (1940)
For Freedom (1940)
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
Judgement Deferred (1952)
Negatives (1968)
Start Counting (1969)
Leo the Last (1970)

Recordings

recorded at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, November 13 1939:

On Behalf of the Working Classes
Regal Zonophone 2 x 78rpm MR 2837/8, (Australian) Columbia EP SEGO 70027

On Behalf of the Working Classes / (We’re Gonna Hang Out) the Washing on the Siegfried Line
Decca 78rpm F 7320

recorded at the Tivoli Theatre, Sydney, 1957:

On Behalf of the Working Classes No. 2
(Australian) Columbia EP SEGO 70007

reissues

On Behalf of the Working Classes
(Australian) Columbia EP SEGO 70027

TOMMY TRINDER’S STAGE SHOW / ON BEHALF OF THE WORKING CLASSES
(Australian) Columbia 10”LP 33OS 7570
includes Billy’s 1939 recording

BILLY RUSSELL / TOMMY TRINDER
(Australian) E.M.I./Axis LP AX 260475
includes the 1939 and 1957 versions of On Behalf of the Working Classes

ROBB WILTON’S WAR
Pavilion/Flapper CD PAST CD 7854
includes the 1939 Decca and Regal Zonophone tracks

Radio

SATURDAY SOCIAL
BBC Home/Forces Network Saturday 8-15pm February 28 to April 18 1942 (45 min)
with Jack Warner, Billy Russell, Jeanne De Casalis, Phyllis Robbins

 

Television

A LITTLE BIG BUSINESS
(first series only) ITV/Granada February 27 to April 2 1964

COMEDY PLAYHOUSE The Old Contemptible
BBC1 July 15 1970
script: Keith Waterhouse

WILTON’S – THE HANDSOMEST HALL IN TOWN
BBC2 December 26 1970 (45 min)

DVD

SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE LONDON PALLADIUM
Network 3DVD set
includes a 1964 appearance by Billy

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