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Happy birthday Mike Yarwood – and thanks for the memories

At first glance the picture looked pretty unremarkable. Two wizened elderly men, one slightly taller than the other, in the garden of a retirement home. There was a second picture of the shorter man, who was celebrating his 81st birthday this week.

Mike Yarwood larking with Harold Wilson in 1977
Mike Yarwood larking with Harold Wilson in 1977

On closer examination, the shorter man was clearly recognisable. A lot older and more gaunt, now needing a walking stick, but still with a glint in the eye. It was clearly Mike Yarwood.

And his friend? To be honest, he was harder to recognise. He was a little younger than Mike, but the years had taken more of a toll. Richard O'Sullivan, better known as heart-throb Robin Tripp from Man About the House.

Mike Yarwood larking with Harold Wilson in 1977

I suspect this is the point when readers will split sharply into two camps – for many, it will take them back to simpler, if not necessarily easier times, memories of spacehoppers, power cuts and scorching summers. Others will simply ask: Mike who?

For the benefit of the latter, Mike Yarwood was arguably the king of light entertainment in the late 1960s and 70s. Nearly 22 million people watched the impressionist's 1977 Christmas show, which saw PM Jim Callaghan and Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey joining the Sex Pistols, and Prince Charles enjoying a party at the palace. John Cleese, Dave Allen and Bruce Forsyth put in appearances – not literally, of course – and the show was rounded off with Harold Wilson singing My Way.

Mike's friend Richard O'Sullivan starred in a spectacularly successful sitcom, playing would-be lothario Robin Tripp, who had the good fortune to be sharing a flat with Sally Thomsett and Paula Wilcox, but the misfortune to be frustrated at every turn in his pursuit of his flatmates. So successful was the series that it spawned not one but two spin-off series, Robin's Nest and George & Mildred, which lasted well into the 1980s.

Richard O'Sullivan starred in Man About The House

Also celebrating his birthday this week was 87-year-old James Bolan, who played cheeky chappy Terry Collier in The Likely Lads. This was another side-splitting comedy which pulled in viewing figures no-one would ever envisage today. It probably seems hard to imagine for a generation brought up on a diet of wall-to-wall soaps, Love Island and Strictly Come Dancing, but there was a time when any night of the week you could just switch on the television at about eight o'clock, and were more-or-less be guaranteed an hour of laughs before the news.

Interestingly, the BBC is now showing re-runs of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? on its Britbox streaming service, with a warning that it contains "language and attitudes that may offend". Which is a bit rich coming from a broadcaster that still sees fit to show Frankie Boyle.

Of course, most kids have long given up on television, with viewing figures dwindling among the under-30s in particular. You can hardly blame them. To be honest, I've largely given up too. Apart from the news, The Apprentice, and the odd repeat on ITV4, there's not really anything worth bothering with. Can't Pay We'll Take It Away was quite good, before it fell foul of the privacy campaigners. I've tried watching a few of the weird late-night attempts at comedy after News at Ten, but apart from This Country, most of them just make me cringe.

It seems comedy today is very little about laughter, and more about being part of a club where like-minded people come together to deride those with a different worldview. If there is a bit of fruity language or personal abuse involved, so much the better, but actual humour seems to be pretty low down the list of priorities. You have to feel sorry for a generation which has never known what it is like to be entertained.

The irony of all this, of course, is that it was Margaret Thatcher who did for Mike Yarwood. While Yarwood was brilliant at topical humour when the news was dominated by Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, he was at an obvious disadvantage when faced with a female prime minister.

At least that was the attitude back then. I suspect today, such thinking would probably constitute a hate crime.

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