Ray Allen – ‘How I discovered Frank Spencer’
Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em creator: an Island comedy genius
Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em was one of the most iconic television comedy series of the 1970s, and remains just as popular to this day with those who remember the hapless Frank Spencer, and his long-suffering wife Betty.
Wearing his tank-top, raincoat and beret, accident-prone Frank, played by Michael Crawford, and Betty – the wonderful Michelle Dotrice – starred in 22 episodes and commanded peak TV viewing audiences of more than 25 million. The series was screened in more than 60 countries, and early next year it will return live on stage, with squeaky-voiced comedian Joe Pasquale playing Frank Spencer.
The TV series, and the subsequent stage production, is all down to the creative genius of Ray Allen, a quiet, unassuming man, who was born in Ryde and has lived there all his life. Now in his mid-70s, Ray has never been one to shout from the rooftops about his incredible comedy writing skills, but you only have to listen to his dry sense of humour to see Frank Spencer come gushing through.
He revealed: “I have often been likened to Frank Spencer. I could never really see it, although looking back I realise everything I have been associated with has either been pulled down or gone bust – I am accident prone.
“Every school I went to has been demolished, then I worked on an Isle of Wight newspaper that closed. I even appeared on Isle of Wight television and that closed as well. The only place I ever worked at that had no problems was an hotel in Ryde, but a few years ago even that caught fire.”
After may fruitless attempts to write serious plays, he hit on the idea of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, and particularly Frank Spencer, while working as a cleaner in a Shanklin cinema. He recalled: “‘When I was outside cleaning the steps of the cinema, this little man called Frank Spencer would often walk by, point to a poster and say ‘what’s that film about…is there any violence in it?’ If I said there was, he would toddle off with his dog mumbling ‘my wife wouldn’t like that’. I used his name for the character, but I’ve never seen him since.”
It was the breakthrough Ray had been seeking, but one he thought may never happen. He continued: “I was quite depressed because at 31 I didn’t have a proper job or any money, so I sort of identified with Frank. I once sent a script to a TV director and asked him for advice. A letter came back saying ‘to be a comedy writer you need a sense of humour, an ear for dialogue and some talent. Having read your script, you haven’t got any of them’!
“Eventually I wrote the first piece about Frank and Betty, sent it to the BBC, and four months later they replied asking me to write six more episodes. It had taken me four months to write one, and suddenly they wanted six more inside a fortnight. I did it, but when they sent the scripts to several top comedy actors including Norman Wisdom and Ronnie Barker, no one wanted to do it.
“While I was writing sketches, and trying to get my big break, I even did some toilet cleaning at the Shanklin cinema. When I told people at the cinema that the BBC wanted me to work for them, one guy said ‘I would have thought the BBC could get their own toilet cleaners’!”
The ‘Some Mothers’ scripts sat in a drawer at the BBC for two years, and the Corporation even told Ray they would pay him for writing them, but they would never be shown on television because no one wanted to play Frank Spencer, before Michael Crawford took up the offer.
In one of the original episodes, Frank was in a Morris Minor car dangling over a cliff. Soon after it was shown, Ray’s agent phoned him to say a company wanted to produce a Morris Minor limited edition, and if they could use the name ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ on it, they would give him a free car.
“I was very excited, and finally I had a call saying the car would be delivered the following week. I put some cones outside the house so there was a space to park it, and when there was a knock on the door, the man said he had come to deliver the car — and handed me a Corgi toy Morris Minor car. It was a bit of a let-down, but I’ve always kept it,” he smiled.
Ray wrote most of his work in a shed at the bottom of his garden, surrounded by vegetables and flowers, and if he left the shed door open, chickens would often wander in — typical Frank Spencer stuff.
He said: “I didn’t have a phone at home, so I went to a phone box in Ryde to contact the BBC. Often there was a queue outside the phone box while I was running a script past an actor or director who was in London. People thought I had gone mad. The phone box was eventually pulled down, something else I used that’s no longer there.”
The final TV series ended in 1978, but now nearly 40 years later, it will begin a stage tour of Britain next February. Joe Pasquale, the new Frank, said: “Ray Allen is a genius writer, and I am basing my whole version on him. He is Frank Spencer! Taking on this role is a huge challenge but I’m looking forward to it. I shall be wearing the Frank Spencer clothes, but using my normal voice, and I would hope to bring the stage show to the Isle of Wight one day.”
The ‘Some Mothers’ TV episodes were recorded in front of a live studio audience, and Ray admits: “I was surprised that some of the stuff that I regarded as not being particularly funny got some of the biggest laughs, and vice versa. By the time I wrote the final series other comedy show were on to our TV screens, and have continued to do so. I feel comedy has changed somewhat over the years.”
After ‘Some Mothers’ ended on TV, Ray continued to write sketches for the likes of Frankie Howerd and Dave Allen, but he had set the bench mark, and never managed to hit such heights again.
But he has continued to live off royalties from ‘Some Mothers’ saying: “Every time a clip is shown on TV there is a small something in it for me, which has made sure I never went back to cleaning toilets. It has been quite amazing, and in a way it has been a long-term pension for me. I never thought it would happen, and it is all quite unbelievable.”
By Peter White