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Yarwood, Mike (1941-)

Impressionist, Comedian

Main image of Yarwood, Mike (1941-)

Mike Yarwood was British television's first truly successful impressionist, with his own long-running series on both the BBC and ITV. His impressive attention to detail through voices, facial characteristics and body language made him hugely popular with viewers (and even with most of his subjects), making him one of the biggest stars of the 1970s.

Following success in talent contests, he learnt his trade in the pubs and clubs circuit of northern England, particularly around Manchester, where he was spotted by Billy Scott, a producer with ABC Television. Scott found him a spot as the warm-up act on the ABC show Comedy Bandbox (ITV, 1962-66), which mixed established acts with newcomers. Yarwood showed enough promise to be invited back to make his television debut on the same show on 21 December 1963.

Fame did not beckon immediately, and Yarwood returned to the pubs and clubs circuit, interspersed with appearances on Let's Laugh (BBC, 1965), a showcase series for Northern comedians, and Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ITV, 1955-67; 1973-74).

His first series, Three of a Kind (BBC, 1967), teamed him with comedian Ray Fell and singer Lulu in a mixture of song and sketch. Despite two successful series, Yarwood turned down a third, as Lulu had by now progressed to her own series and he hoped for the same. He returned to guest spots on other shows until Lew Grade's ATV came to the rescue. For ATV, Yarwood made three series over a two-year period: the atrociously titled 5/7ths to 7/7ths (Midlands only, 1968), Will the Real Mike Yarwood Stand Up? (ITV, 1968-69), following which he seriously considered giving up show business, and The Real Mike Yarwood? (ITV, 1969), in which he unwisely concentrated on straight comedy rather than his impressionist skills.

However, in 1971 Yarwood rejoined the BBC, and it was through the series he made for the corporation - Look - Mike Yarwood (1971-76) and Mike Yarwood in Persons (1976-81) - that he would find fame and fortune. Yarwood's impressions and the gentle lampooning of his chosen subjects in a mix of stand-up and sketch finally came together with some better quality scripts, making him a firm favourite with viewers. The improved material came largely from the pens of Eric Davidson, who had worked on some of the earlier ATV shows, and Neil Shand, who had worked on Three of a Kind.

Yarwood was at his comedic and creative peak. His most popular impressions ranged across television -Hughie Green, Eddie Waring, Robin Day; sport -Brian Clough; and politics -Edward Heath (with that grin and heaving shoulders), Denis Healey and, especially, Harold Wilson, a speciality of Yarwood's since the early 1960s. Such was his popularity that from 1978, after Morecambe and Wise had left for Thames Television, his Christmas specials replaced theirs as the highlight of the BBC's Christmas Day schedules.

Much to the BBC's chagrin, however, in 1982 Yarwood also signed for Thames, where he made two series of Mike Yarwood in Persons (ITV, 1983-84), and a number of specials. The move to Thames, however, coincided with a downturn in his fortunes. His drinking (dating from the 1970s owing to overwork, anxiety and being based in London away from his family) was now exacerbated by a change in the comedy climate.

With the rise of alternative comedy, Yarwood's gentle lampooning of establishment figures began to look out-of-date (his prime subject, Harold Wilson, had even bestowed an OBE on him in 1976). His impressions had arguably served to popularise many political figures by giving them a human face, something anathema to the new breed of satirists, like those behind the hugely popular puppet series Spitting Image (ITV, 1984-96). Yarwood felt increasingly out in the cold.

Following The Mike Yarwood Show special on 15 December 1987, his contract with Thames was not renewed. Yarwood never again achieved the success he had enjoyed in the 1970s.

He was one of many guest stars in Eric Sykes' silent comedy Mr H is Late (ITV, tx. 15/2/1988), but work was now scarce. In that same year he collapsed three times on stage through anxiety while in a touring version of the farce One for the Pot. The run had to be cancelled, as did a planned pantomime later that year.

Plans to become a chat show host in 1989 never materialised (a filmed pilot with Anthony Hopkins was never transmitted). A successful appearance on A Night of Comic Relief 2 (BBC, tx. 10/3/1989), as Brian Clough, was undermined by a nervous appearance in front of a clearly embarrassed celebrity audience on London Sports Personality 1989 (ITV, tx. 20/11/1989).

The 1990s saw appearances on Des O'Connor Tonight (ITV, 1983-) and The Royal Variety Performance (ITV, tx. 20/11/93), doing an excellent impression of John Major on both; Call Up the Stars (BBC tx 8/5/1995), a recreation of a 1940s concert in which he appeared as Max Miller; and as host of All the Best for Christmas (BBC, tx. 23/12/1995), in which his impressions linked a compilation of festive sketches.

John Oliver

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