He’s earned an OBE, used to hang with The Beatles and has played more games of golf than Tiger Woods. Jimmy Tarbuck has performed thousands of gigs, featured on TV more often than Sir Trevor McDonald and become a national treasure.
Yet when it comes to talking to Liverpool’s comedy legend, we’re warned to expect the unexpected.
“He’ll be calling from home,” his agent says. “So he may reverse the charges.”
And, lo and behold, that’s precisely what he does. A nice man from BT tells us we’ve got a call from Jimmy Tarbuck and are we willing to accept the call.
Maybe he’s too smart to hand out his home number – or maybe he’s saving for Christmas. Who can say. But in moments he’s through. And he’s hilarious from the off.
“Wolverhampton,” he starts. “Wolverhampton. What’s it like there now?”
We tell him it’s sunny.
“Great. I love Wolverhampton. You’ve got one of the really good football clubs. I remember when I was a kid and you had players like Billy Wright. They were a great club. They were one of the first teams to play these foreign sides. I went to watch Liverpool play there many years ago. They should be in the Premier League. They are a big club. But don’t get me talking about football.”
We don’t. Tarby loves the beautiful game as much as Sir Rod Stewart. If we started talking about Dalglish and Souness, Hansen and Shankley, Paisley and Gerrad, Owen and Rush we’d probably still be talking to him now. And given that we’re paying the bill thanks to that nice man from BT, Lord knows what the cost would be.
So, instead, we talk about his show. Frankly, it’ll be a corker. Tarby is lining up with his old mucker, Des O’Connor, for an evening of variety at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre on July 22. There’ll be bright lights, dinner jackets, dickie bows and plenty of laughs. The two don’t work to a script, probably. They’ve known each other for more years than they care to remember and the stories will just flow.
“Yes, we’re looking forward to it. Wolverhampton is an unbelievable place. I’ve done quite a bit of work in that part of the world, with a panto just down the road in Birmingham.
“The show with Des is a lot of fun, I promise you. It’s not like going to a show, it’s like being allowed into a party. The reception all over the country, from the London Palladium to the regional theatres, has been incredible. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s two old professionals showing their experience of 50 years on stage.”
When Tarby started, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were getting married (for the first time), sentences totalling 207 years were being passed for the people involved in the Great Train Robbery, US President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were scaling back their nuclear programmes and a man called Nelson Mandela was making his I Am Prepared to Die speech, at the opening of the Rivonia Trial. BBC Two was being commissioned, Sir Terence Conran was launching Habitat, Malawi was receiving independence from the UK and a bunch of blokes called The Beatles were number one around the world. Tarby remembers it well.
“It’s totally changed. It’s just not the same. You don’t see the same speciality acts any more. Quite frankly, you go to a show and a lot of the comics today, and I like most of them, they will eff and blind all the time. You don’t get that with Des and I. I’m against bad language, there’s no need.”
They first met in the 1960s, or maybe earlier, when Tarby asked Des for his autograph. It was at the stage door of the Liverpool Empire and Des had been on stage with Lonnie Donegan. Neither of them imagined that 50-odd years later they’d still be doing it. At that time, Tarby didn’t even imagine he’d ascend to Des’s level.
“I first met him when I asked for his autograph. I was a boy. I was doing it part time in those days. But you look at Des’s career and he’s a man to be admired. He’s a toff. He’s an easy guy to work with. A lot just happens when you get on the stage with Des. We don’t rehearse the banter, it just happens. It’s a mutual respect thing. He’s now become a sex symbol for Saga. He doesn’t get groupies any more he gets groanies.”
His first love was football, of course. And he’d have been as happy lining up for Liverpool FC as he was taking to the stage at the Palladium. Things haven’t changed. He’s still a sport-a-holic.
“The things I loved are the same as they ever were. I loved sport and I love sport today. I’m one of those annoying people who reads the papers backwards, I start on the sports pages and then get up to the news. It’s still the same. I love golf – mainly because I can still play golf a little bit. There comes a day when you can’t kick a football anymore because you’re too old. And that’s annoying.
“I was fair when I played. I played at Wembley twice, which was enjoyable. I played twice on Cup Final day. Before the FA Cup, they had charity matches and all the good and the great played. Bobby Moore was playing both times. And it was an honour to play alongside him and on two other occasions. He was a gentleman. A total gentleman.
“But he was a man’s man. And he was the world’s greatest lager drinking champion, bar none. God knows I tried to keep up with him, I lost that race.”
His life has been one of exceptionalism. At school, Tarby was the kid who made people laugh. Mind you, he wasn’t the biggest over-achiever from his form. That honour went to his school mate from Dovedale Primary School, in Liverpool, a certain Mr John Lennon.
“It’s funny, isn’t it. If you wrote my life down as a script, if you looked at this fairytale career of mine, you’d say no, it’s too far-fetched.
“Nobody knew John was a genius when we were at school. He was just a typical cheeky Scouser. He always had an answer. Then all of a sudden he became one of the four most famous people in the world. In the world. Bar none. When the announcer read ‘John, Paul . . .’, the screams went. He didn’t get to ‘George and Ringo’.”
Tarby saw The Beatles regularly. They were part of the same set and lived on the same turf. Their paths crossed like lanes at Spaghetti Junction. “I saw them regularly when they were coming back from Hamburg. They’d have been playing five shows a day: morning, lunchtime, afternoon and two at night. They’d play the same 12 songs every show so they were really, really tight.
“But those were songs we hadn’t heard back in the UK, by people like Chuck Berry. John always used to say they shouldn’t have called it rock‘n’roll, they should have called it Chuck Berry.
“When they came back to Liverpool and played at The Cavern, they blew everyone away. Then, all of a sudden, they found a great talent for writing. I never thought three of them would get that. But George was on a par with John and Paul. He wrote possibly the greatest love song ever. Something. And then he wrote My Sweet Lord.”
During the early 1960s, Liverpool was the coolest place on the planet. The focus of attention hadn’t yet switched to swinging London. And Tarby was at the centre of it all.
“The Beatles brought a lot of attention to Liverpool and in those days, it wasn’t a bad thing. I got dubbed the fifth Beatle because I looked like them. I wore the same suits and had the same hairstyle.
“They were great, great fun days. We were all so young. When you’re that age, the energy is wonderful and the enjoyment was fourfold. They were heady days. Everything you want to say about it is true. All the doors opened for everybody. Cilla and Gerry Marsden and The Searchers, we all made it. Cilla was great. She was what you saw and what you got on TV.”
Tarby’s career sky-rocketed at the same time as The Beatles were filling stadia around the world and sweeping fans away on a tide of Beatlemania. JT went down to the bright lights of London where he hosted Sunday Night At The Palladium.
“It was a glorious time of my life. To be associated with the greatest theatre in the world was one of my greatest memories. I’m still very excited about that. It was a nervous time because it was live and when it’s live there’s mistakes. You get nervous – and if you don’t get nervous you’re either fibbing or there’s something wrong with you.”
Such stories will be retold when he visits Wolverhampton with Des. “Wolverhampton will see us live. You’re not Brummies are you, that’s Birmingham. You’re Black Country. The people there like a laugh, it’s always been very good to me all around that area.”
The clock’s ticking and there’s still ground to cover. Like politics. Tarby is one of only a handful of celebrity Tories and, on one occasion, his Conservative affiliation landed him in trouble. “I was meeting Margaret Thatcher, who was then Prime Minister. It was her 60th birthday, in 1985.
“We did a charity thing and were handing over a coach for handicapped children. There were all these cakes laid out because it was a birthday. Then the next thing I knew, one of these kids hit me full in the face with a cream cake. Bosh. Right down my face. Next minute, the Prime Minister arrived and I’ve got cream all over me. ‘That suits you,’ she said, laughing. I tell you, I could’ve killed that kid.”
More recently, there was Strictly Come Dancing. And though Tarby had to drop out because of a health scare, he had the time of his life performing alongside another old friend, Sir Bruce Forsyth.
“Bruce is great and Strictly was wonderful to be on. It’s a great show for a Saturday night for the family. But you have to be fit on that show, so I wish I’d done it 10 years earlier. The old heart missed a couple of beats – and I don’t know if that was the strenuous part of the rehearsals or because of the young lady I was dancing with. I had to have a couple of stents put in.
“Bruce is a great old friend and I wish him well. He’s just getting himself right. He’s fine. But that’s from a different era.
“There was a time when you could sit down on a Saturday night and watch the Generation Game, then maybe a good movie or Morecambe and Wise, then a football match to close the night. And in between that, you had Parkinson.
“It made for a great Saturday night. These days, I don’t know what it is. I think it’s all about money.”
Not that TV has mattered too much to Tarby. He’s spent most of his life on stage – including one memorable show with Des, Bruce and Ronnie Corbett. “They proposed a charity show for us, so I said yes. They had an idea of putting us on with Bruce, Des, little Ronnie and myself. It was the only time we all worked together on one stage. When we came to the finale for our call, we got an ovation from the audience. I said to the boys, ‘let’s enjoy this, it’ll never happen again’. Unfortunately now it can’t. But dear God, it was lovely. And the thing with Des is something similar. More importantly, we’re totally enjoying it.”
He’s proud of what he’s achieved, though his family is his greatest achievement. He lives with his wife, Pauline, in Kingston-upon-Thames and keeps in close contact with his kids, including his daughter, Liza.
“I listen to Liza on the radio on Saturday nights and she makes me laugh. Her sister and brother are great too.”
Time’s up and he’s a total gent as we say goodbye. We’ve clocked up 20 minutes at £1.32 per minute, plus £3.32 on top. The reverse charge call has been worth every penny of our £29.72 bill.
“It’s nice to talk to you and I wish you all the best. If you come to the theatre come and say hello. We might have a beer. Or we might have two.”
I might not be as good a drinker as Bobby Moore, I tell him.
“You won’t be. Don’t even try. You take care now.”
l For tickets to the Grand show on July 22 visit www.ents24.com
By Andy Richardson