Comic star’s big chance

Frank Randle
Frank Randle
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Now a new book claims Lancastrian Frank Randle - the most popular comic performer of his age and a man who was trashing dressing rooms long before rock and roll was invented - first performed a stand-up routine right here in Sheffield.

And the biography, The Theatrical World of Arthur Twist, by brothers David and Philip Williams, says that even then, before he was an established name, the seeds of his alcoholic downfall were already being sown in a South Yorkshire pub.

The Theatrical World Of Arthur Twist - biography about Frank Randle

The Theatrical World Of Arthur Twist - biography about Frank Randle

“Incredibly enough, the first time he performed as a comedy character was an accident,” says David, down the phone from his Ashton-under-Lyne home.

The year was 1932. Randle was 31 and part of a trampoline act.

The group were on tour with a variety show called Yorkshire Relish which that summer stopped in Sheffield for a week to play the city’s old Theatre Royal, which stood opposite the Lyceum until it burnt down in 1935.

“On the first night there was a backstage hitch which meant one of the acts couldn’t go on,” says David, who has written several books on Lancashire’s 1930s film and stage stars.

“We’re not sure what the hitch was but it seems the tour manager, a Yorkshire man called Reg Bolton, looked at Randle and pushed him on stage to fill the slot.”

It worked.

Randle had been working on a sketch called The Boatman for years which his crippling self-doubt had always stopped him from pitching to show managers - but that night the routine blew hundreds of Sheffielders away.

The Star described it as one of the highlights, and the act was made a permanent fixture.

But little did his audiences know that while playing the semi-drunk, staggering Boatman, he wasn’t exactly acting.

As part of their research for the book, the Williamses interviewed a then-young theatre volunteer called Jack Akers, of Motehall Way, Manor Park.

“Jack was sent every night to the nearby Adelphi Hotel, where Frank would be drinking,” says 63-year-old David.

“He had to go and tell him ‘Frank, you’re on in 15 minutes’, after which he’d finish his drink, give Jack a handful of loose change and slowly stumble to the theatre.”

The book, named after one of Randle’s early stage names, is the brothers’ second about Randle.

The first, Wired To The Moon, focused mainly on the comic’s life after he became a household name.

“That he did become a household name was no small thanks to that incident in Sheffield,” says David. “Or those audiences - Yorkshire loved him.”

Randle of course would go on to make The Boatman a searing success, while simultaneously descending into alcohol abuse and ever-increasing wild behaviour.

He died in 1957, aged 56.