A domestic comedy series, The Larkins, which ATV presents on Friday, is the first TV programme to be written by Fred Robinson.
Fred Robinson. Does the name ring a bell? It ought to with any ITV viewer. Fred has never appeared on TV, never received a screen credit. But he was frequently mentioned in such shows as Alfred Marks Time and Saturday Spectacular.
Scriptwriter Brad Ashton told me why. “My partner, Dick Vosburgh and I met Fred Robinson, and found he was a very funny writer. We mentioned him to several comics, but they weren’t interested. So we started a little campaign on his behalf by naming various characters in our comedy sketches Fred Robinson. It kept his name alive.”
Now Fred comes up with The Larkins, starring Peggy Mount and David Kossoff. After 10 years of spare-time scriptwriting, Fred recently gave up his job as a builders’ clerk to devote himself to full-time writing. So far he has written a few gags for radio and has had his comedy thriller, You Too Can Have a Body, successfully presented in the West End of London.
But the history of his Larkins’ characters goes back many years. “I used to write plays for an amateur group in Harringay, North London, and several plays were written around the Larkins family,” he said. “I haven’t changed the characters much, but I’ve written half-a-dozen new stories for TV.”
Cockney Fred, who lives at Hackney Downs (a London area that has provided show business with Alfred Marks and John Slater, not to mention Brad Ashton) has based his comedy ideas on a Cockney Mum and Dad.
“Ada is a dominant character, but her old man is by no means henpecked,” said Fred. “Alf fights back, but, of course, he can never win.”
Peggy Mount is the ideal choice for Ada. “When I read the scripts I thought they were just too good to miss,” she said, offering me home-made cakes in her Kensington flat. “Most Cockney stories aren’t much good. They are inclined to overwrite the Cockney with lots of ‘aints.’ These stories are real — all the things could happen in anybody’s home.”
Peggy, who sprang to fame as Cockney Emma Homett in the long-run stage success Sailor Beware, was born 42 years ago in Southend. Her mother used to take her to London to see shows about twice a year. “She wanted to go to musicals, but I always wanted to see straight plays,” said Peggy. A passionate interest in the theatre developed, and, while working as a shorthand typist, she took an interest in amateur dramatics. When she broke into the theatre — as an assistant stage manager — her secretarial training stood her in good stead: “They wanted some scripts typed, and they paid me about £10 for the main copy and £5 each for parts. I had never had so much money in my life. I made about £35 while working for about £4 a week.”
Once started as an actress, Peggy was never out of work. “I’ve always been plump, never very good looking — which was lucky or unlucky, whichever way you look at it. I’ve always been able to play characters. I was playing parts of 80 when I was 20. My face has always looked much the same, and I can easily play someone 15 or 20 years older. I can also look huge and fat because I have big shoulders to hang dresses from.
“I was working in repertory at Wolverhampton when the then manager and owner, Basil Thomas, asked me if I’d like to audition for a witch in Humpty-Dumpty at the London Palladium. Basil, I found out afterwards, had written the script.
“I was terrified of the idea of an audition at the Palladium in front of Charles Henry, who devises the shows, and Val Parnell. When I got there I was fascinated to watch the rehearsals, and a man put his arm round me and said he was glad to see me. Another man said: ‘Would you like to come to us, my dear?’ He told me to go up on the stage and say anything like a witch. I was petrified; didn’t know what to do. Then I remembered the first four lines of The Tinder Box, which I had played at Liverpool repertory two years before. I made a lot of witch-like noises, and the second man came up to me again and said ‘That was very nice, my dear.’
“By this time, I was so nervous I had to be carried off the stage. I found that the first man was Charles Henry and the second, Val Parnell.”
In the past few months Peggy made her debut in a television play, The Visit to Paradise Buildings, and followed it with Arsenic And Old Lace. At the first Arsenic rehearsal she met David Kossoff, who complimented her and told her: “I took this part only because I wanted to appear with you.”
This set Peggy thinking about The Larkins. She had accepted the Ada Larkins’ part and was at a loss to know who to suggest for the part of Alf. “I looked at Kossoff, and thought, well, why not? So I asked him if he was interested.”
Sitting among many carvings and ceramics — from Africa, Israel and Austria — in his Golders Green, London home, David Kossoff told me: “Like Peggy, I was beguiled by the scripts. All the writing has heart, a warm feeling.”
Both stars are insistent that this show’s comedy will be based on theatrical acting as opposed to music-hall gagging. The other principals in the regular cast are also experienced actors: Shaun O’Riordan (from Emergency — Ward 10) as son Eddie Larkins; Ronan O’Casey as son-in-law Jeff Rogers; Ruth Trouncer as daughter Joyce Rogers, and Hilary Bamberger as girl-next-door Myrtle Prout.
But to get back to Kossoff. “These days I’m principally known for foreign parts,” he told me, “though for six years on the radio I almost had a corner in Cockney characterisations.
“On television and films, I played plenty of foreigners but not one honest-to-good-ness Cockney — which is what I am. I, too, come from Hackney!”