Born June 14th, 1941
Died September 8th, 2023
The comedy impressionist Mike Yarwood, who has died aged 82, held the record for the most-watched British light entertainment programme of all time (his 1977 BBC One Christmas show attracted 21.4 million viewers) but he later confessed to feeling desperately unhappy and inadequate during the professionally triumphant years when his was a household name.
Yarwood impersonated most of the showbiz stars of the day – Ken Dodd, Frankie Howerd, Steptoe and Son, Max Bygraves, Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer – but his most famous comic creations were politicians and royalty. He poked affectionate fun at Prince Charles, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath and John Major. When Wilson was UK prime minister, he sat reading state papers with Yarwood on television in the next room, telling his wife: “Give us a shout when I’m on, Mary.”
“I pitch a person in my head and I think: You are now that person,” Yarwood said.
At the end of a quick-fire burst of impressions, he would murmur his catchphrase, “and this is me ... ” and launch diffidently into song. His voice was unremarkable, but it was interesting to note that if he was impersonating a fine singer – Frank Sinatra, say – his technique, phrasing and range improved significantly.
In 2002 he said: “Early in my career I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be a star impressionist and then become a comedian and develop my own personality, but it didn’t work because there isn’t really a ‘me’.”
When he became unfashionable – through a combination of the rise of harder-edged political impressionists such as the Spitting Image team, and his battles with alcohol and depression – his withdrawal was almost total
A nervous and shy person, lacking the carapace of confidence and ego that might protect a different performer through the tough times, he seemed unsuited emotionally to life in the public eye and hid behind the meticulously accurate impersonations he created. Hard-working and co-operative in the TV studios – though his perfectionism sometimes made him testy – at home he turned into an alcoholic who destroyed his marriage and alienated his two beloved daughters in the 1980s. Thankfully, the estrangement ended when he got sober, and he was reconciled with his supportive children for the last 30 years of his life.
When he became unfashionable – through a combination of the rise of harder-edged political impressionists such as the Spitting Image team – and his battles with alcohol and depression, his withdrawal was almost total.
“He was not a satirist; he was an entertainer,” Rory Bremner said. “He had that advantage physically of having a blank-canvas face with not particularly strong features. Therefore he had the ability to become the character.”
Yarwood was born in the Cheshire village of Bredbury, his parents having moved from the nearby town of Stockport when the second World War broke out. His Irish mother, Bridget, was a former nanny; his father, Wilf, was a fitter.
He started work as a junior dispatch clerk with a mail order firm, then became a trainee salesman for a dress company, all the time honing his impersonations in front of the mirror in his bedroom at home. The breakthrough came when he met Royston Mayoh, then a TV cameraman who also wrote scripts for the BBC children’s show Crackerjack! Guided by Mayoh, he began performing at local hotels, pubs and clubs.
His growing reputation, particularly as an impersonator of Wilson, led to an acclaimed spot on ATV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, also in 1964, and in 1968 he graduated to his own show, Will the Real Mike Yarwood Stand Up?, on ATV. This was followed by The Real Mike Yarwood? the following year, and in 1971 he moved to the BBC for the wildly successful Look – Mike Yarwood!, which ran for six series and two specials until 1976. That was also the year he was appointed OBE.
Yarwood’s kid gloves approach and nice-guy persona started to look quaint as a grittier era dawned. His confidence badly shaken, the alcohol addiction became overwhelming
In 1969 Yarwood married Sandra Burville, who was in the pop dance troupe the Gojos, and the couple went on to have two daughters, Clare and Charlotte.
His best-known series, Mike Yarwood in Persons, ran on BBC1 from 1976 to 1981. He made an ill-advised move back to ITV for Mike Yarwood in Persons (2), which ran from 1982 until 1987, but Yarwood’s kid gloves approach and nice-guy persona started to look quaint as a grittier era dawned. His confidence badly shaken, the alcohol addiction became overwhelming, and by the end of the 1980s he had simply gone from the screens.
One of his extremely rare appearances in more recent years was as the subject of John Fisher’s Heroes of Comedy (2002). On it he talked frankly about his drinking. Fighting back tears, he said: “I missed my first daughter’s first birthday because I was so hungover. I hate thinking about that.”
In 1986 he was banned from driving after being found nearly three times over the drink-drive limit. In 1990 he had a heart attack at his home in Weybridge, Surrey, and gave up alcohol completely the following year. In 1999 he underwent treatment for depression at the Priory Clinic. He remained close to Sandra, who remarried.
“People say ‘Mike, you’re not on telly any more’,” he said. “No, but the important thing is, I’m sober and I’m happy. If I never step on stage again, I’ve had a wonderful life.”