by Mark McKay (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #23, 2002)
In a 1973 interview, the late Barry Took submitted to Ted Ray that he must have made more radio broadcasts than anyone else in comedy. Such a claim would be virtually impossible to prove, but given that Ted had appeared in over six hundred episodes of Ray’s A Laugh and Does The Team Think? alone, it could well have been true*.
This achievement is all the more impressive considering he did not neglect the other media – films, television and the variety theatre stage were all successful platforms for the Ray wit and charm.
Ted was born Charlie Olden in Wigan, but spent most of his childhood in that comics’ breeding ground, Liverpool. His father – in turn, a small-time Lancashire comedian, pub landlord and ship’s steward – clearly had a great influence on young Charlie, who was inspired to follow in his old man’s footsteps and take up the violin.
His prowess with the fiddle would eventually lead to his first show business bookings, when he joined a local dance band which entertained cinema audiences during the interval between films. As well as scraping the cat-gut, Ted occasionally loosened up the larynx with a spot of crooning, and his little party piece of improvising lyrics to The Farmer Took Another Load Away was very well received by the punters.
With characteristic confidence, it wasn’t too long before Ted was treading the boards as a solo performer. For his first engagement, he decided to adopt the whimsical name “Hugh Neek”, a decision that immediately backfired when a cloth-eared theatre manager introduced him as “Mr. Hush Week”. Patiently waiting in the wings, clad in an old mac, tatty scarf and bowler, Ted was not amused. Later, he toured in musical revues as “Nedlo**, the Gipsy Violinist”, sporting a sash made from an old table runner and with brass curtain rings dangling from his ears.
But real success still eluded him until he made the momentous decision to discard all the fumy clothes and do his act dressed in an ordinary suit. Although practically the norm these days, to see a stage comedian looking like he’d just wandered in from the street was then still a novelty.
Having adopted this everyman character, Hugh Neek soon picked up gigs in London and then acquired an agent, who urged him to take on a new name. Oddly, the snappy one he chose – Ted Ray – already belonged to a former celebrity, namely the winner of the 1912 British Open golf championship.
In the years that followed, Ted’s act (a mixture of violin playing and joke telling, which he dubbed “Fiddling and Fooling”) improved and he slowly worked his way up the billing and into larger theatres. In 1932 he made his debut at the London Palladium, where much later he was to help his friend Danny Kaye take Britain by storm.
For contractual reasons Ted had to wait until 1939 to make his first broadcast*** and the ordeal almost turned him off radio for life. He put everything he had into his routine for the BBC’s Music Hall and had just returned to his dressing room, when the producer John Sharman delivered the bad news. Apparently the recording equipment had broken down during his performance and so Ted was forced to face the audience for a second time and repeat his piece verbatim.
Shortly afterwards Ray was awarded his first weekly wireless show, entitled Just Fooling, but the outbreak of war put an end to its run after only one episode. It was ten years before his next series, but this one fared considerably better.
Ray’s A Laugh, as it was somewhat cornily christened, was devised by BBC producer George Inns, and featured a talented cast including Kitty Bluett (who had just arrived from Australia) playing his wife, Patricia Hayes (the cockney character actress later better known as Edie Grimthorpe in The Benny Hill Show and Mrs. Cravatte in Hancock’s Half Hour) and a young, recently demobbed impressionist named Peter Sellers.
Beginning with a record-breaking initial series of sixty-five episodes, Ray’s A Laugh ruled the airwaves for an amazing twelve years. Early programmes consisted of Ray’s short introductory stand-up (or ‘patter’ in 1940s parlance) routine, a domestic scene with Ted, Kitty and her brother Nelson (played by Fred Yule) written by Eddie Maguire, and finally, the adventures of ‘George, the Man with a Conscience’, featuring a host of funny voiced two-dimensional characters and catchphrases by the ton. Musical interruptions came from The Beaux and The Belles (basically The Keynotes from Take It From Here rebadged) and sibling harmonists Bob and Alf Pearson (‘We bring you melody, from out of the sky – my brother and I’).
By 1953 the format had altered significantly. All the oddball characters were insinuated into the middle domestic spot, and the show metamorphosed into an uninterrupted half-hour sitcom. Peter Sellers left after the sixth series (retitled Ted Ray Time) to pursue film and television aspirations, and most of the funny voices were taken over by future Carry On star, Kenneth Connor. Sellers even pinched a couple of Connor’s characters for The Goon Show, namely wheezing geriatric Herbert Toil (‘you’re very rude, ain’t ya?’) and nasal shop proprietor Sidney Mincing (‘do you mind?’).
Regrettably there is little pleasure today to be gained by listening to an episode of Ray’s A Laugh. The over-reliance on catchphrases and scene-setting monologues from the star (‘Here I am stranded at Bletchley…’) is highly reminiscent of Tommy Handley’s old ITMA shows and sounds just as dated. In addition, there is something about Ted and Kitty’s manner which is more apt to irritate than to amuse.
During the 1950s, Ted appeared in many other programmes, often in the role of compere. For seventy consecutive weeks he hosted Calling All Forces, a prodigious variety show aimed at the troops, with film star guests and scripts by bright new boys, Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin. Coronation year saw him presenting special broadcasts featuring the cream of the profession on both radio and television (the latter with co-host Terry-Thomas).
After Ray’s A Laugh, Lawrie ‘Navy Lark‘ Wyman wrote an interesting series for Ted, incorporating various sketches centred around a different object each week. As well as delivering one-sided conversations in the Bob Newhart style, Ted played an assortment of unusual character parts, including a mouse, a reindeer and even a ventriloquist’s dummy. Later he co-starred with Kenneth Williams (friend of his actor son, Andrew) in The Betty Witherspoon Show, a fast-paced potpourri of cross-talk, sketches and songs.
But the radio series which occupied most of his time during the sixties and seventies was Does The Team Think?. In this show, devised by Jimmy Edwards as a comic alternative to Any Questions?, queries posed by members of the audience or a guest celebrity goaded a panel of funnymen into a frenzy of improvised gag-cracking. DTTT clocked up over three hundred editions in its twenty year run, and even made a brief transfer to television.
Ted’s first major small screen venture was an eponymous series of Saturday ‘spectaculars’ for the BBC. This mixture of jokes, song, star turn, dancing girls and sketches (co-starring Kenneth Connor as his brother-in-law) was soon competing with Val Parnell’s big variety productions over on ITV. By the 1970s he was appearing regularly as a panellist on Jokers Wild and as a judge on the talent quest, New Faces.
Ray also enjoyed a modestly successful film career, however this failed to really take off due to a stroke of bad luck. In l959 he starred as the headmaster in the third Carry On movie, Carry On Teacher. Later that year he took the lead role in Please Turn Over, playing a businessman whose daughter writes a spicy novel featuring the whole family. Peter Rogers, producer on both pictures, hoped that Ted would become a regular in subsequent Carry On productions. Sadly this proved impossible since he was under contract to another studio. A replacement was sought and so it was that Tony Hancock’s sidekick, Sid James, joined the series.
In 1975, returning home from a day of golfing and alcohol (two of his favourite passions), Ted was involved in a very bad car accident. The injuries sustained in the crash had a debilitating effect on his body and left him dependent on crutches to get about. On 8th November 1977 he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Asked to supply his own obituary in a 1971 edition of Does The Team Think?, Ted had suggested the following: “Ted Ray died peacefully in his sleep at 95 years of age in a Brighton hotel. A blonde is helping the police with their inquiries.”
In reality, it was left to other great British comic talents to pay homage. Kenneth Williams acknowledged an admiration for his geniality and wit, stating “He was a true craftsman and it’s a shame he only appeared in one of the Carry Ons.” Interviewed for a radio tribute programme, Peter Sellers maintained “Whatever I know about timing I learned from Ted.”
“Always exit with a good gag” was a golden rule of Ted’s, which he applied to life both on and off stage. After his death, a card was found in his top pocket which left the following instructions: “Cremated, and ten percent of ashes to be scattered over my agent.”
* Although his Does The Team Think? colleague, Jimmy Edwards, must have been a serious contender
** His own surname (Olden) reversed
*** Curiously he had appeared in the film Radio Parade Of 1935 four years earlier
1934: Radio Parade Of 1935
1950: A Ray of Sunshine
1952: Meet Me Tonight (The Red Peppers segment)
1954: Escape by Night
1956: My Wife’s Family
1959: The Crowning Touch, Carry on Teacher, Please Turn Over
* Excerpts from some of these films appear in That’s Carry On and To See Such Fun (both 1977)
Fiddling and Fooling (Parts 1 & 2)
Decca 78rpm F-7317 (1939)
Dearie/Count on Me (both with Kitty Bluett)
Columbia 78rpm DB-2698 (1950)
Let’s Put Out the Lights (and Go to Sleep)/An Ordinary Broom (Reminds Me Of You)
(both with Kitty Bluett)
Columbia 78rpm DB-2760 (1950)
Jack the Giant-Killer/When Daddy was a Boy (both with Andrew Ray)
Columbia 78rpm DB-2774 (1950)
Easy Come, Easy Go/What a Cute Little Hat (both with Kitty Bluett)
Columbia 78rpm DB-2921 (1951)
Derek Roy’s Star Party (with Derek Roy, Richard Murdoch, Jon Pertwee & Jimmy Wheeler)
Oriole 7″ EP C81415
Ted Ray Says ‘Be My Guest!’
Lyntone 7″ flexidisc LYN 937
Ray’s A Laugh
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1117 (1990)
contains four complete broadcasts:
8 Nov 1949, 22 Nov 1949, 6 Dec 1949 and 21 Sep 1950
A World of Variety
Emporio CD EMPRCD 778 (1997)
contains the track: Talks To Gerry
The Comedy Greats
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1852 (1998)
contains an excerpt from Calling All Forces
Ray’s a Laugh
Sketch show/sitcom with Ted Ray, Kitty Bluett (series 1-5,8-12), Patricia Hayes (series 1-5), Peter Sellers (series 1-6), Kenneth Connor (series 5-12).
script by Ronnie Hanbury (series 1), Eddie Maguire (series 1-5), Ted Ray (series 1-6), George Wadmore (series 1-7), Sid Colin (series 6-7), Talbot Rothwell (series 7), Charles Hart & Bernard Botting (series 8-12)
Series 1: Home Service, Mondays, 4 April to 30 May 1949
and Tuesdays, 7 June 1949 to 27 June 1950 (65 x30 mins)
Series 2: Home Service, Thursdays, 21 September 1950 to 26 July 1951 (45 x 30 mins)
Special: Ted And Kitty’s Christmas: Home Service, Monday, 25 December 1950 (30 mins)
Series 3: Home Service, Thursdays, 1 November 1951 to 17 July 1952 (not Feb 7 or 14) (36 x 30 mins)
Series 4: Home Service, Thursdays, 25 December 1952 to 25 June 1953 (27 x 30 mins)
Special: Ted And Kitty’s Easter Outing: Home Service, Monday, 6 April 1953 (30 mins)
Special: from National Radio Show: Home Service, Thursday, 3 September 1953 (30 mins)
Series 5: Home Service, Thursdays, 1 October 1953 to 29 April 1954 (31 x 30 min)
Series 6: retitled Ted Ray Time: Home Service, Mondays, 25 October 1954 to 18 April 1955 (26 x 30 mins)
Series 7: Home Service, Thursdays, 13 October 1955 to 5 April 1956 (26 x 30 mins)
Series 8: Light Programme, Thursdays, 25 October 1956 to 18 April 1957 (26 x 30 mins)
Series 9: Light Programme, Fridays, 4 October 1957 to 28 March 1958 (26 x 30 mins)
Series 10: Light Programme, Fridays, 26 September 1958 to 20 March 1959 (26 x 30 mins)
Series 11: Light Programme, Fridays, 11 September 1959 to 4 March 1960 (26 x 30 mins)
Series 12: Light Programme, Fridays, 2 September 1960 to 13 January 1961 (20 x 30 mins)
Home Service, Saturdays 8.00pm, 24 September 1949 to 15 July 1950 (43 x 60 min)
Calling All Forces
script by Bob Monkhouse & Denis Goodwin
Light Programme, Sundays, 3 December 1950 to 23 December 1951 (1.00pm, then 9.00pm from 13 May) and Mondays, 31 December 1951 to 7 April 1952 (9.00pm) (71 x 60 min)
My Wildest Dream
Panel game with Ted Ray, Tommy Trinder, Jimmy Edwards
Light Programme, Mondays 8.30pm, 3 October to 12 December 1955 (11 x 30 min)
The Laughtermakers: The Art of Ted Ray
Home Service, Friday 13 July 1956 (30 min)
The Spice of Life
Variety show with Ted Ray, June Whitfield, Deryck Guyler
script by Gene Crowley
Home Service, Mondays 8.15pm, 8 October 1956 to 1 April 1957 (26 x 45 min)
Variety show with Ted Ray, Ronnie Barker, Patricia Hayes, Cicely Courtneidge, Jack Hulbert
Home Service, Saturdays 8.00pm, 5 October 1957 to29 March 1958 (26 x 60 min)
Home Service, Saturdays 8.00pm, 27 September to 20 December 1958 (continued to 4 July 1959 with Vic Oliver)
(13 x 60 min)
Does the Team Think?
Panel game with Jimmy Edwards, Ted Ray (from 2/4), Tommy Trinder, Cyril Fletcher, Arthur Askey and others
Series 1: Light Programme, Sundays 9.15pm/9.30pm, 29 September to December 22 1957 (13)
Series 2: Light Programme, Sundays 7.00pm, I lune to 24 August 1958 (13)
Series 3: Light Programme, Sundays 7.00pm, 19 July to 11 October 1959 (13)
Series 4: Light Programme, Thursdays 9.00pm, 10 March to 18 August 1960 (24)
Series 5: Light Programme, Tuesdays 8.00pm, 3 January to 16 May 1961 (20)
Series 6: Light Programme, Tuesdays 8.00pm, 2 January to 27 March 1962 (13)
Series 7: Light Programme, Mondays 9.00pm, 21 January to 22 April 1963 (not 25 February) (13)
Series 8: Light Programme, Thursdays 8.00pm, 14 November 1963 to 19 March 1964 (19)
Series 9: Light Programme, Sundays 2.00pm, 22 November 1964 to 4 April 1965 (20)
Series 10: Light Programme, Saturdays 12.00pm, 15 January to 9 April 1966 (13)
Series 11: Light Programme, Sundays 5.00pm, 1 January to 16 April 1967 (16)
Series 12: Radio 2, Tuesdays 8.45pm, 3 October 1967 to 27 February 1968 (some in Friday repeat slot only) (22)
Series 13: Radio 2, Sundays 2.00pm, 18 August to 6 October 1968 (8)
Series 14: Radio 2, Sundays 9.00pm, 4 January to 29 March 1970 (13)
Series 15: Radio 4, Tuesdays 6.15pm, 6 October to 29 December 1970 (13)
Series 16: Radio 4, Saturdays 1.15pm, 10 July to 4 September 1971 (9)
Series 17: Radio 2, Tuesdays 8.00pm, 5 October to 28 December 1971 (13)
Series 18: Radio 2, Sundays 2.00pm, 3 September 1.972 to 4 March 1973 (not 31 December) (26)
Special: for the troops in Northern Ireland: Radio 2, Sunday 2.00pm, 28 October 1973
Series 19: Radio 4, Tuesdays 12.25pm,16 April to 6 August 1974 (17)
Series 20: Radio 4, Mondays 6.15pm, 24March to 19 May 1975 (9)
Series 21: Radio 4, Mondays 6.15pm, 24 May to 19 July 1976 (9)
Once Over Lightly
Topical sketch show with Ted Ray, Dick Bentley
script by Maurice Wiltshire & David Climie
Light Programme, Wednesdays 7.30pm, 4 October 1961 to 10 January 1962 (15 x 30 min)
Ted Ray and the …
Sketches with Ted Ray, Paul Whitsun-Jones, David Nettheim
script by Lawrie Wyman
Light Programme, Thursdays 7.30pm, 4 October to 20 December 1962 (12 x 30 min)
Tuba / Elephant / Rabbit Suit / Fence / Squeak / Square / Cat’s Whisker / Frame / Trailer / Fiddle / Dummy / Card
Let Bye-Laws Be Bye-Laws
One-off in series Star Parade with Ted Ray & Charlie Chester
Light Programme, Thursday 8.00pm, 9 May 1963 (30 min)
How’s Your Father?
Sitcom with Ted Ray, Thora Hird, Eleanor Summerfield, Robin Ray;
script by Denis Goodwin
Pilot in series Star Parade: Light Programme, Sunday 2.30pm, 22 September 1963 (30 min)
Light Programme, Fridays 7.30pm, 10 April to 5 June 1964 (9 x 30 min)
Ted Ray says Be My Guest
Radio 2, Tuesday, 3 December 1968 (30 min)
The Betty Witherspoon Show
Sketch show with Ted Ray, Kenneth Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Nigel Rees
script by Michael Wale & Joe Steeples
Radio 2, Saturdays, 20 April to 22 June 1974 (10 x 30 min)
The Ted Ray Show
Variety show with Ted Ray, Kenneth Cormor, Nicolette Roeg, Jane Hilary, Diane Hart
Series 1: BBC-TV, Saturdays, 21 May, 18 Jun, 16 Jul & 13 Aug 1955 (4 x 60 min)
Series 2: BBC-TV, Saturdays, 28 Apr, 26 May, 23 Jun & 21 Jul 1956 (4 x 60 min)
Series 3: BBC-TV, Saturdays, 19 Jan, 16 Feb, 16 Mar, 13 Apr, 11 May, 8 Jun, 6 Jul & 3 Aug 1957 (8 x 60 min)
Series 4: BBC-TV, Saturdays, 25 Jan, 15 Feb, 15 Mar, 12 Apr & 10 May 1958 (5 x 60 min)
Series 5: BBC-TV, Saturdays, 27 Sep, 25 Oct & 22 Nov 1958 (3 x 60 min)
Special: Segment in Christmas Night with the Stars BBC-TV, Thursday, 25 December 1958
Series 6: BBC-TV, Saturdays, 31 Jan, 28 Feb, 28 Mar, 2 May 1959 (4 x 60 min)
Hip, Hip, Who Ray
ATV, Saturdays, 25 August to 29 September 1956 (6 x 45 min)
Ray’s A Rat
BBC-TV, Sunday, 22 September 1957 (30 min)
Friday The 13th
BBC-TV, Friday, 13 December 1957 (30 min)
It’s Saturday Night
Variety show with Ted Ray, Robin Ray
BBC-TV, Saturdays, 19 Sep, 17 Oct, 14 Nov, 12 Dec 1959 (4 x 45 min)
Does the Team Think?
Panel game with Jimmy Edwards, Ted Ray and Bernard Braden
BBC-TV, Sundays, 28 May to 13 August 1961 (12 x 30 min)
One Good Turn
BBCZ, Wednesday, 10 March 1965
Parlour game with Ted Ray, Charlie Chester, Jimmy Edwards.
BBC1, Wednesdays, 14 April to 16 June 1965 (10 x 30 min)
BBCl, Friday, 18 June 1965 (25 min)
Ted’s Turn Again
BBC2, Saturday, 20 November 1965
Hooray For Laughter
ABC, Sunday, 12 March 1967
Suddenly It’s Ted Ray
BBC2, Monday, 28 August 1967
Yorkshire Television panel game with Ted Ray, Arthur Askey, Les Dawson, Barry Cryer and others.
Series 1: YTV, Wednesdays, 9 July to 12 November 1969 (19 x 30 min)
Special: Segment in All Star Comedy Carnival
ATV, Thursday, 25 December 1969
Series 2: ATV, Saturdays, 4 July to 26 September 1970 (13 x 30 min)
Series 3: ATV, Saturdays, 12 December 1970 to 23 January 1971 (not 26 Dec) (6 x 30 min)
Series 4: ATV, Mondays, 24 July to 4 September 1972 (not 28 Aug) (6 x 30 min)
Series 5: Thames, Thursdays, 19 October l972 to 22 March 1973 (23 x 30 min)
Special: Thames, Tuesday, 26 December 1972 (30 min)
Series 6: Thames, Thursdays, 17 May to 13 September 1973
(not 24 May, 28 Jun, 16 Aug, 23 Aug, 6 Sep) (13 x 30 min)
Series 7: Thames, Mondays, 19 November 1973 to 24 June 1974 (not 15 Apr, 27 May) (30 x 30min)
Series 8: Thames, Wednesdays, 25 September to 20 November 1974 (not 2 Oct, 9 Oct) (7 x 30 min)
Ray’s a Laugh
by Ted Ray and Eddie Maguire (Broadcast Books paperback 1950)
Raising the Laughs
by Ted Ray (Werner Laurie hardback 1952)
My Turn Next!
by Ted Ray (Museum Press hardback 1963)
Golf – My Slice of Life
by Ted Ray (W. H. Allen hardback l972)
These books contain a chapter on Ted Ray:
Funny Way to be a Hero
by John Fisher (Muller hardback 1973)
Look Back with Laughter: Volume Three
by Mike Craig (MFP Design & Print paperback 1998)