FRED GWYN - real name Cheesman - was my paternal twice-great uncle. Fred enjoyed a relatively long career, performing in British Music Hall and end-of-the-pier shows, from the turn of the century until his retirement in the 1950s.
London born and bred, Fred came from a musical family. His father had been a band leader and vocalist. Fred's elder brother was an accomplished pianist, who composed and performed under the name Frank Norris. The family story was always that he died in Egypt during the Great War, victim of a stray bullet whilst playing the piano to entertain fellow soldiers. That, or they were a particularly tough crowd!
Fred's longevity on stage owed much to his versatility. He would often feature on the same bill in a variety of roles: matinee love interest, song-and-dance man; and slapstick comedian. Like all good entertainers, his comedy was tailored to suit the audience. Known as The Clown Prince of Comedians, one evening routine featured an impression of two frogs making love.
We know he toured the British Isles and performed at the Winter Garden Pavilion in Eastbourne. The late, great Bob Monkhouse recalled first meeting Fred onstage, during a show in Worthing. The following is an excerpt from an article in the Manchester Evening News:
Why would anyone want to become a comedian?
Monkhouse stares into space for a while. "Laughter," he says, after a moment. "Definitely laughter. My family always used to tell a story about how as a child I wandered away from my aunt when we were in Worthing.
I followed the sound of the laughter from the music hall on the pier and somehow wandered on stage. I remember the spotlight falling on me and the sound of laughter and the comedian, a man called Fred Gwyn, making the most of this sudden interruption."
Fred would later become mentor to the infant interloper, who failed to steal the spotlight from his stage that day. I like to imagine Fred ad-libbing 'Shouldn't you be up a chimney?' to young Bob, then winking at the lady in the front row: 'He looks nothing like me, missus! I'm taller for a start.' Monkhouse paid tribute to Fred in his autobiography, Crying with Laughter - My Life.
In 2006, Max Tyler at the The British Music Hall Society kindly sent us copies of some memorabilia. We are grateful for his enthusiasm and dedication, which ensured that the fading memories of a bygone age remain illuminated for future generations.
We were intrigued to discover that Fred's stentorian voice often found its way on to the radio. Fred was one of Cecil Johnson's Entertainers for over a decade, alongside Horace Mashford. They were frequently listed in the Radio Times. He also performed with Music Hall stars Mona Vivian and Patrick Colbert in The Peep Show in 1942.
Fred played Shorty Sinclair in the radio show Eight Bells, starring Arthur Askey. First broadcast in April 1935, it only ran for a few years and resurfaced after the war as Eight Bells Home Again.
Uncle Fred had funny bones and is fondly remembered by surviving family. He would amuse the children with his visual gags, particularly when pretending to cough up his own tongue. Many famous comedians who came just after Fred must have seen his act and been influenced by it.
Fred was unable to simply enter a room. His arrival was always perfectly choreographed, with a purposeful stride towards the doorway, face animated and hand half-raised as if to greet someone, only to suddenly trip and appear to bang his head - with a loud thud - on the door. And then the punchline:
'Who put that there?'
This is how you make an entrance, folks.
A true entertainer, Fred could never resist busking outside at a family funeral, and cracking jokes. Where better to make them laugh and forget their woes, if just for a moment? We all need that bright, warm sunray in a gloomy sky. We're glad he gave pleasure to so many.
THE CLOWN PRINCE OF COMEDIANS
Fred towards the end of his career
Saunders Family Archive
Fred (far left) with Cecil Johnson's Margate Entertainers in the mid-1940s
The Man with the India-Rubber Face
Saunders Family Archive
A recording of EVER SO GOOSEY from 1929
Fred Gwyn also recorded a version of the song early in his career
We'd love to find a copy
For GREAT GRANDMA GERT
Gertrude Ethel Mimi Cheesman
For GRANDMA BESS & the Saunders Family