Life and career
Richard Gilbert Emery was born in University College Hospital, Bloomsbury, London. His parents were the comedy double act Callan and Emery. They took him on tour when he was only 3 weeks old and gave him the occasional turn on the stage throughout his childhood, which was always on the move and disrupted, creating problems for the future, but at least setting the scene for eventually going into show business. His parents split up when he was 8 and he chose to stay with his mother, who gave up show business. He tried a variety of jobs before the stage: mechanic, office boy, farm hand and driving instructor.
During the Second World War he was called up to the RAF and rose to the rank of corporal. However, because of family problems, he returned to London joining the chorus line of The Merry Widow at the Majestic Theatre, London. He was recruited by Ralph Reader into the RAF Gang Show to entertain air and ground crew at bases in Great Britain.
At this time he created Vera Thin (the Forces' Sweetheart), loosely based on Vera Lynn, later saying, “I was better in drag than combat gear”. After D-Day, his unit toured forward airbases.
On leaving the RAF, he returned to the theatre as a comedian. He worked at the Windmill Theatre, though his name does not appear on the plaque commemorating the acts that played there. He toured his fledgling act around the United Kingdom.
He also auditioned for various parts and in 1952 he starred in a role in a 15-minute Radio Luxembourg series on Saturdays at 7.00pm called Chance of a Lifetime. This was a quiz sponsored by Marshall Ward in which merchandise to the value of £30 was awarded to contestants. Other radio work around this time included several appearances on Workers' Playtime on the BBC, a morale-boosting show that had started during the war to entertain factory workers in their canteens. Emery also made a guest appearance on the popular BBC radio programme The Goon Show, replacing regular cast member Harry Secombe when he was absent for one episode in 1957.
During 1953 he briefly formed a double act with Charlie Drake. His television debut came in 1950 on The Centre Show on the BBC. Throughout the 1950s he appeared on programmes including Round the Bend (BBC, 1955–56) and Educating Archie (ITV, 1958–59) and appeared with his friend Tony Hancock in several episodes of The Tony Hancock Show (ITV, 1956) and Hancock's Half Hour (BBC, 1957).
He enhanced his reputation on two series with former Goon Michael Bentine: After Hours (ITV, 1958–59) and It's a Square World (BBC, 1960–64). His role as Private Chubby Catchpole in the final series of The Army Game (ITV 1960) led to an exclusive BBC contract, and the long-running The Dick Emery Show (BBC, 1963–81) began.
The show, which ran irregularly from 1963 to 1981, involved Emery dressing up as various characters, “a flamboyant cast of comic grotesques”. These included the buck-toothed Church of England vicar, sex-starved, menopausal, man-eating spinster Hetty, and Clarence, an outrageously camp man who coined the catchphrase “Hello Honky Tonks”. Other roles were gormless denim-clad bovver boy Screwsby (in a double act with his long suffering father, played by several actors including Roy Kinnear) where, each week, he would mess up and utter the catchphrase “Dad, I fink I got it wrong again”, the crusty pensioner James Maynard Kitchener Lampwick, College (a genteel tramp whose real name was Lancelot Orpington Penrose) and Mandy, a busty peroxide blonde whose catchphrase, “Ooh, you are awful … but I like you!” (given in response to a seemingly innocent remark made by her interviewer, played by Gordon Clyde, but perceived by her as ribald double entendre), preceded a hefty shove on the shoulder of the interviewer, and a prompt about-turn walk-off with a leg trip. “It was clever, pure vaudeville, in a television form.” (Michael Grade).
In a sporadic film career he made his debut in the Goons' The Case of the Mukkinese Battle Horn (directed by Joseph Sterling, 1954). He also played bungling bank robber Booky Binns in The Big Job (directed by Gerald Thomas, 1965) and was known for vocal talents as an array of characters including “The Nowhere Man” Jeremy Hillary Boob, the Mayor of Pepperland and Max, one of the Blue Meanies in the Beatles' Yellow Submarine (directed by George Dunning, 1968).
Emery appeared in films including as Shingler in The Fast Lady (1962), as Peter Sellers's neighbour in The Wrong Arm Of The Law, as Harry in Baby Love (1968), as Mr Bateman in Loot (1970) and Ooh… You Are Awful (1972), in which he played many of the characters he had portrayed in his TV series. The plot of this comedy centred on Emery hunting down a bank account number. The digits of the number are tattooed on the bottoms of four young women. Emery has to see the girls naked, which requires disguises. One of the women is played by Liza Goddard.
Emery also recorded several novelty records during his career, most notably “If You Love Her” which reached number 32 in 1969, and “You Are Awful” which just missed the top 40 in 1973. Other singles included “A Cockney Christmas” (1962), “You're The Only One” (1974) and “Rocking Horse Cowboy” (1979). In 1979, Emery moved to ITV for three one-hour specials before returning to the BBC in 1980 and resuming The Dick Emery Show.
By 1982, Emery was tiring of the format for his BBC series and wanted to do something different. Using a new format and character, Jewish private detective Bernie Weinstock, Emery had a new outlet - two series of comedy thrillers under the banner Emery Presents (BBC, 1982–83), Legacy of Murder and Jack of Diamonds.
Dick Emery had a very difficult childhood initially. Following the departure of his father Laurie Howe, however, things settled down. He was devoted to his mother for most of his life and helped support her once he was able to work. This devotion could and did cause problems in his marriages.
He was very keen on “long legs and blondes” and was often in the newspapers with beautiful women, and was in six long-term relationships, marrying five. He also had numerous affairs throughout his life.
He married Joan (sometimes known as Zelda) Sainsbury at the beginning of the Second World War and had one son, Gilbert Richard. After the failure of that marriage, he later met Irene (Pip) Ansell but the marriage barely lasted six months. While working in summer season in 1950 at the Winter Gardens in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight he met Iris Margaret Tully who was also in the show. At the end of the season, they returned to London and set up home together in Iris's flat in Shaftesbury Avenue. Iris changed her name to Emery by deed poll until 1955, when a year after she had given birth to his second son, Nicholas William; she married Emery in 1955.
This marriage was rocky as Emery had several affairs while away on tour. He met the woman who became his fourth wife, Victoria Chambers, in the mid-1950s. He was torn between the two women and in late 1958 left Iris and moved to Thames Ditton in Surrey to set up home.
In 1960, however, he returned to Iris and his son and moved them to Thames Ditton. He could never settle, though, and in 1962 he left Iris for Victoria. Iris divorced him in 1964. By this time, he had set up home in Esher. Vickie bore him a son Michael and a daughter Eliza. His last wife was Josephine Blake to whom he was still married at the time of his death but had left her to live with Fay Hillier, a showgirl, 30 years younger than him.
Outside of show business, he enjoyed aviation holding a pilot's licence from 1961 onwards, fast cars (it was a family joke that he changed cars when the ashtrays were full), motorbiking, scale model model-making (he was chairman of the Airfix Modellers' Club) and wrote a review feature for Meccano Magazine during 1971.
While the public took him to heart (voting him BBC TV Personality of the Year in 1972) Emery suffered from severe stage fright and low self-esteem. He underwent analysis, hypnosis and sedatives to try to cure these problems. He told Roy Kinnear: “I don't just envy the confidence that other comics seem to have, I resent it. I hate them for it, just like my dad did. If there's such a thing as a chip off the old block, it's on my shoulder.”
He had four children: Gilbert, Nicholas, Michael and Eliza. He was the brother of actress Ann Emery.
The Dick Emery Show was aired in the UK on (the now defunct) Granada Plus, ITV4 and UKTV Drama. The show is now being screened on the G.O.L.D. comedy channel, but only in small snips lasting around 5 to 15 minutes.
In December 1982, Emery was rushed to hospital with severe chest pains. He died at the hospital from cardio-respiratory failure on 2 January 1983 at the age of 67.
Emery's humour is still admired by comic actors such as Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. His influence can be seen in “The Lovely Wobbly Randy Old Ladies” played by Kathy Burke and Harry Enfield, with their catch phrase “Ooh, young man!”, and in the performances of David Walliams and Matt Lucas in Little Britain, and furthermore the “Elegant tramp” bears a strong resemblance to “Sir Digby Chicken Caesar” of Mitchell and Webb.