Barry Cryer leading Dambusters Ball at Harpenden Public Halls

THE problem with enjoying an extended lunch with comedy genius Barry Cryer is that you’re unlikely to focus on the subject at hand, being distracted instead by his instant recall of a lifetime’s worth of jokes and hilarious digressions covering a host of different times and places.

I had arranged to meet with Barry, who has written material for the likes of Morecambe and Wise, Kenny Everett, Bob Hope and Tommy Cooper, for some food and drinks at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, but it was far from your usual sort of interview.

We were joined by St Albans actor Bob Goulding, and stand-up master and original Comic Strip member Ronnie Golden with the intention of putting together a preview piece for Bob’s forthcoming ’forties vintage evening The Dambusters Ball, but ended up spending several hours immersed in a world of one-liners and showbiz anecdotes, many of which are either too rude or too libellous to repeat here!

OK, first things first, let’s get the raison d’etre out of the way. The Dambusters Ball is a nostalgic revival of the 1940s, incorporating the music, fashion, food, vehicles and that indomitable wartime spirit, and promises the chance to party like it’s 1945! Barry and Ronnie will be providing the comedy, continuing a partnership which has taken them to the Edinburgh Festival and beyond.

Bob, who is perhaps best known for Olivier Award-winning West End play Morecambe, explained: “It’s really to celebrate all things ’40s really, that’s why I wanted to put it together. I did a similar thing for my 40th birthday, and it was a hoot, it all went really well. It’s all about the music, the clothing, the food, the whole jolly good British decency… There’s going to be bangers and mash, mushy peas, out of a mess tin, and then we’ll have spotted dick and custard for afters.

“We’ve got a big band [the 17-piece Glenn Miller-style group The 78rpm Band], a jump-jive band called The Hep Chaps, an Andrews Sisters tribute act called The Marjorie Belles, a Vera Lynn tribute, Winston Churchill, George Formby’s going to be there welcoming everyone with his ukulele, some dancing hopefully.

“We’ve asked everyone to come in period costume...”

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“I don’t have to try!” interjects Barry, and that’s enough to send the conversation off on a string of tangents, each one moving further and further away from the subject at hand.

Even the matter of selecting from the menu proves inspiration for a story, as Barry is inspired by talk of salt beef sandwiches: “There’s a veteran agent I know, even older than me, with a perma-tan, hair that’s gone black with age and bling and buy sale jewellery. He had an office over a salt beef bar. His floor and their ceiling were quite thin, and if you stamped on the floor in his office they could hear it.

“So he became good friends with the owner, and they had a code – one stamp was a cup of tea, two was a cup of coffee and three stamps was a salt beef sandwich. He said it worked very well until the day he auditioned a flamenco dancer!”

And then it’s 20 minutes later, and Bob finally manages to pull things round to the ball again: “I think the 1940s are a bygone era which we have forgotten too soon. Everything’s about recent history rather than that era, and it was a time of common decency, of the Blitz spirit, that idea of us all being in it together, in every country. It just seemed to capture something that perhaps we’ve lost now…”

The Dambusters Ball takes place on Saturday June 16 from 7.30pm-1am at Harpenden Public Halls, which was built in 1939 and still looks pretty much the same, probably because the council hasn’t spent any real money on it for seven decades…

“It screams wartime when you look at it, it’s brilliant,” says Bob. “In one of our pictures I’ve superimposed a Lanc over the top of it and it looks perfectly normal!

“Most of Bazz’s jokes come from the ’40s… The 1840s!” he adds.

“Mussolini leaning on a lamppost, all of that,” says Ronnie.

“I’ve got a great Clement Atlee routine…” Barry laughs. “No, there’s a pristine form of the joke that never dates because it’s about life. Frankie Howerd said I’ve been doing the same act for 40 years, I just change the names! If a joke is good it survives…”

But that said, Barry did recall one very apt period joke: “The boys were in near-Arctic conditions in Norway, and they had this short gun, the sten gun, and it would freeze and jam overnight. So almost as a joke, one of the lads got a condom and stretched it over the barrel, peeled it off in the morning and it fired first time.

“So this story went up the chain of command to Churchill, and it was mooted that the Durex company made an 18-inch condom for use on sten guns. Churchill sanctioned it on two conditions [and cue impression]: ‘One, they are clearly marked Made in Britain, and two, medium size.’”

And so the afternoon continued until I was eventually forced to make my excuses and return to the office, leaving the trio of gagsters continuing their recollections, with the implication that it was going to be a long one!

So a reminder again about The Dambusters Ball, in case you’d forgotten the purpose of this piece. There will also be a fundraising raffle on behalf of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund with the star prize a helicopter flight along the white cliffs of Dover alongside a real MK Vb Spitfire. Tickets for the ball, which lasts from 7.30pm-1am, include dinner and are available for �45 from the box office on 01582 767525.