Performing on stage, Mike Yarwood was the ‘man of a thousand famous faces’. He knew just how to mimic Harold Wilson’s nasal Yorkshire accent, did an uncanny Bob Monkhouse smirk and nailed Bruce Forsyth’s mannerisms.
His impression of the then Prince Charles was so good that Diana told him she ‘laughed until she cried’ at one of his Royal Variety Performance sketches.
And his TV shows were so popular that his 1977 Christmas Day special drew a record 21.4 million viewers.
Back home in the village of Bredbury, Cheshire, however, two little blonde girls had no notion of the heady heights of their father’s fame. To them, Mike, who died last month at the age of 82, was simply ‘dad’.
And, behind the scenes of his meteoric success, their dad was falling to pieces.
Mike Yarwood’s TV shows were so popular that his 1977 Christmas Day special drew a record 21.4 million viewers
Yarwood’s impression of the then Prince Charles was so good that Diana told him she ‘laughed until she cried’ at one of his Royal Variety Performance sketches
Mike Yarwood with daughters Charlotte (left) and Claire (right)
He might have been known as ‘Mr Saturday Night’ but privately Yarwood was battling alcoholism, anxiety, depression and — seemingly at odds with his flamboyant public persona — crippling stage fright. In 1987, having divorced from his wife of 18 years, he dramatically disappeared from the limelight, fuelling rumours about what was going on in his life.
Clare and Charlotte, Yarwood’s daughters, were there through it all — and have now decided to reveal the truth about the demons that sank their father’s career.
Charlotte Yarwood says she knew from a young age that her father had a dangerous relationship with alcohol — and it was this that tore their family apart.
‘I would say I was five, six or seven. I didn’t know what the words to describe it were, but we knew as a family and certainly my mother knew he had a drink problem, and that it was getting worse and worse,’ she says.
In the end, it precipitated Yarwood’s divorce, and an estrangement from his beloved daughters which lasted several lonely years. ‘My brilliant mother could no longer deal with his drinking,’ recalls Charlotte, 53.
‘She had given him many chances to change and sort it out but his drinking affected her deeply. She could not live with that any longer, and so she had to get out.’
To those who grew up watching Yarwood, the notion of a shy family man jars with the image of the larger-than-life impressionist, the jewel in the BBC’s comedy crown, who was able to charm (nearly all) the politicians, presenters and public figures he mocked.
‘He really seemed to crave disappearing when he wasn’t performing,’ recalls Clare Yarwood-White, now 50. She and her sister have spoken for a one-off documentary, Mike Yarwood: Thanks For The Laughs, broadcasting tonight on Channel 5.
‘He could switch it on for the cameras but when he came home he just wanted a quiet life. He didn’t want anyone to come to the house; he didn’t want to socialise. He just wanted to be with my mum, my sister and me, and be left alone.’
Charlotte, who runs a small business, says their father felt ‘safe’ at home, away from the public’s scrutiny. ‘It was a welcome relief. The impressions… were his protectors. He found being himself really hard.’
Clare, a writer, says his choice of career was ‘at odds… with who he was’. She adds: ‘He was a very modest, very quiet, shy man. It takes enormous guts to stand up in front of an audience, especially as a comic. At times it must have been torture for him.’
Mike Yarwood and and fellow comic Kate Robbins send up Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson
Mike Yarwood impersonating comedian Bob Monkhouse, one of many guises he donned in ‘The Mike Yarwood Show’
It was this torture which, tragically, made Yarwood turn to drink, downing a pint or two — and gradually more — before going on stage to steady his nerves. But then he hadn’t set out to be in showbusiness.
Growing up outside Manchester, the son of a fitter and a nanny, he started doing impressions aged six, when he’d stuff a cushion up his jumper to impersonate TV’s tubby schoolboy Billy Bunter. His mother, Bridget, told him it was rude, but his father, Wilf, would be in stitches.
He failed his 11-plus and left school at 15. The teachers marked his departure by inviting him to impersonate each of them.
A skilled footballer, he toyed with the idea of a professional career, but instead took work as a dispatch clerk with a mail order firm and later as a salesman for a dress company.
But his love for comedy remained, and his spare time was spent honing his impersonations of TV stars such as Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise in front of a mirror.
By chance one day, Yarwood met Royston Mayoh, a scriptwriter for the BBC children’s show Crackerjack!, and, under his tutelage, started performing in pubs, clubs and hotels.
He was a notorious pacer and used an old-fashioned carpet sweeper in place of a microphone stand to practise standing still.
Armed with his new stage skills he was soon invited to appear as a guest on TV shows such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium and the Cilla Black Show.
In 1968, three years before he got his big break with Look — Mike Yarwood!, he met Sandra Burville, a dancer. They fell in love and married the following year.
‘He lived at home with his mum and dad until he met my mum and married her,’ says Clare. ‘His mum doted on him a bit and he went straight from having everything done for him at home to marrying my mum, and she probably took on the reins of looking after him.
‘He never really had to function in the real world. We always joked about it. He wouldn’t know how to use a cash point or navigate a multi-storey carpark — all those basic things that everybody does.’
As YARWOOD’S star rose, with two young children at home, Sandra had to sacrifice her own working life. ‘Everything in our household revolved around his career,’ says Charlotte. ‘My mother, who was a stay-at-home mum, was kind of his PA. She was absolutely key in allowing him to pursue that important part of his career.’
There were perks to having a famous dad: the family moved to a mansion with a swimming pool in Surrey, and the girls got to rub shoulders with their idols, including Abba, Sir Paul McCartney and Bucks Fizz.
Mike Yarwood as Ronnie Corbett on ‘The Mike Yarwood Show’
One of Clare’s earliest memories is going on stage with Abba at her father’s Christmas show in 1978. ‘They had these bright pink and electric blue catsuits with matching suede knee-high boots,’ she recalls. ‘I was at thigh height to the boots and I was fixated by them.’
She also loved getting rare glimpses into her father’s creative process. ‘He would always have an A4 lined jotter pad on his desk where he would write jokes. Sometimes he would test them out on us, and often they would go over our heads, but he loved testing out jokes on my mum as well. That’s something we had in common: a silly sense of humour. We laughed a lot.’
But Yarwood’s off-stage shyness seemed to intensify as his fame grew, and his daughters felt the impact.
‘He didn’t drive us to see friends, or come to school plays as I think he found it really difficult,’ Clare says.
‘Even if we went to restaurants, he would always get stopped and asked for autographs. I think he preferred not to go out.’
And while millions tuned in to see Yarwood’s razor-sharp impressions on TV, he was never one of them.
‘If he was going to watch something, he’d be standing up and smoking and pacing,’ says Charlotte. ‘It would be quite an unpleasant experience, because he’d see something he didn’t like and that was a bit stressy for him.’
Yarwood was so nervous about performing that he would vomit before and after every performance.
He developed strange habits before an act, like refusing to eat anything that required him to chew because he couldn’t bear the ‘noise’ of his jaws opening and closing. But, while trouble brewed behind the scenes, Yarwood’s A-list status — and his roster of impressions, which by then included Michael Parkinson, the Two Ronnies and an all-singing, all-dancing Frank Sinatra — was still growing.
His appeal was not only in his talent but the gentle, family-friendly slant of his impressions, which poked fun without offending, meaning subjects were queueing up to be lampooned.
Harold Wilson, whom he once impersonated while sitting next to the former prime minister, recommended him for an OBE in 1976, and the Queen is said to have delayed the Royal Family’s Christmas lunch by an hour one year, just so she could watch his show.
As time went on, however, Yarwood’s drinking got worse. In a rare interview from 2002, he described it as ‘out of control, most of the time’.
‘I first realised I had a dependence on drink when I discovered it was its own antidote, that I needed it in the morning to take away the horrors of what it had done the night before,’ he said.
‘One of the saddest things I can think of is that I missed my first daughter’s first birthday because I was too hungover. I hate thinking about that.’ Then, as the 1980s dawned, the comedy scene began to change, taking a turn for the satirical (Spitting Image would debut in 1984). Yarwood’s style of humour was going out of fashion.
When he moved to Thames Television in 1982, he had only a fraction of the success he’d enjoyed on the BBC. Then, in 1985, fed up of his drinking, Sandra left him and, two years later, Thames pulled the plug on his show. He withdrew from the public eye and, though nobody realised it at the time, it was for good.
‘That was a time he hit rock bottom,’ Clare recalls. ‘Suddenly there was no longer a Mike Yarwood show, which had to sting.’
Charlotte says they were ‘pretty dark times’ for her dad. Having been famous from such a young age, if he was no longer a performer, who was he?
‘His marriage had ended. His career was not looking promising any more. He had nothing else. He couldn’t do anything else and he didn’t want to do anything else. He became worryingly isolated.’
After that, their father’s mental and physical health started to spiral. In 1986, he was banned from driving after being found nearly three times over the limit. There were press reports he had ‘gone into hiding’ after crippling stage fright left him unable to perform.
Then, in 1990, there was a disastrous trip to Los Angeles on Virgin’s inaugural flight, during which Yarwood — who’d brought his daughters along — got drunk on the plane, gave a below-par and insulting performance and then passed out in his hotel room.
‘I remember sobbing,’ says Charlotte. ‘The paramedics had been to see dad, they’d sedated him and said they didn’t think he’d had a heart attack. It was probably a mix of alcohol and some anxiety medication that he was taking.
‘The door knocked and there was Richard Branson… I said, “I need to tell you something, dad’s not very well. He has a drink problem and it’s become evident that he’s really unwell”.’
Clare chips in: ‘He [Branson] just said, “Right, you go and get some fresh air, sort yourselves out. I’ll sit with your dad for a bit.”
‘It makes me want to cry thinking about it because it was one of the kindest outreaches we’d had in a time that was so turbulent.’
Back home, living alone in Weybridge, Surrey, Yarwood had a heart attack soon afterwards. It was the wake-up call he needed.
By the following year, with help from Alcoholics Anonymous and his devoted daughters, he’d kicked the drinking habit.
It was too late to restart his damaged career, but Yarwood — who would make a few fleeting appearances on TV specials in the decade that followed — did not seem to mind. As he put it in 2002: ‘I’m sober. The important thing is, I’m happy. If I never set foot on another stage for the rest of my life, I’ve had a wonderful career.’
The transition wasn’t always easy: in 1999 Yarwood was admitted to the Priory Clinic for depression, but leaving the glare of the spotlight certainly lightened his load.
He was, his daughters say, ‘the most loving father we could have wished for’, and his death last month has hit them hard. ‘We’d been with him a couple of days before and we were not expecting it,’ says Clare. She and Charlotte, and their four children, had an extremely close relationship with Yarwood at the end.
He also rebuilt a friendship with Sandra, who had remarried after their divorce, and he was — at last — getting used to simply being himself.
Yarwood spent his final years at the Royal Variety Charity’s nursing home, Brinsworth House, in Twickenham, South-West London, one of the causes for which he had fundraised in his heyday.
There, he was happy, relaxed and — perhaps most importantly — still making people laugh.
His final impressions were done purely to entertain his grandchildren, who he once said had ‘made me happier than anything in my life so far’.
Their giggles proved that, after everything he had been through, the great Mike Yarwood never lost his touch.
- Mike Yarwood: Thank You For The Laughs, tonight at 8.25pm on Channel 5.