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Funn's Final Frontier

Britain's last cricket comedian Dickie Funn has taken his final bow. PDCC met up with him to reflect upon the highs and lows of a less than glittering career.

It's perhaps the most emotional day ever in the life of cricket comic Dickie Funn.

Here on the tiny stage of the Barnoldswick Working Mens Club he is going through his act one last time before finally giving up on the 'career' that has been his life since 1976.

But the reality is even sadder than just the end of one mans dream - it's also the end of an era. Dickie Funn is Britain's last full-time cricket comedian and there wont be another.

In Barnoldswick a tearful Dickie Funn is not going down too well with the harsh unforgiving audience.

"An English batsman, a Scottish batsman and an Irish batsman walk into a bar and the landlord says 'is this some sort of cricket joke?'"

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Dickie Funn going solo in 1982 shortly after comic partner Ollie Onions drowned in vinegar.

Silence ensues, broken only by a few coughs and a low murmur of disquiet.

Then he announces on stage that he is retiring from performing - a statement which is met with cheering.

"In fact I'm retiring after this show", he tells them.

"Can't you make it sooner?" shouts one wag from the floor.

Funn stumbles on unable to hold back his feelings. I can see him choking back the tears as he tells his final joke.

"A man goes to the doctor and says 'doctor, doctor, I keep thinking I'm a Night Watchman', and the doctor says 'come back in the morning'."

No one laughs. He says his goodbyes and exits stage right to a mild round of booing and sarcastic applause.

It's over. In two days Dickie Funn will start a 'proper' job as a care assistant entertainment manager at Brinkley House - the retirement home for ex cricketers.

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"I'd hoped it would end at the Royal Albert Hall or even in the Richard Lumb Lounge at Headingly; not bottom of the bill one Tuesday night at the Barnoldswick Working Mens Club."

"It's true what they say about comedians." Funn tells me backstage, as he bundles his ragged stage clothes - including his trademark dickie bow - into a blue carrier bag, "we are all sad clowns really. Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock, Les Dennis, Billy Wickets ... and me."

Funn, now 54, started his career in his hometown of Canker in Derbyshire as a teenage ventriloquist with his upper crust dummy 'Little Lord MCC' - resplendent with a monocle and 'egg and bacon' tie. However, his parents were too poor to send him to Leeds Ventriloquism College and he was forced to take a lowly paid job in the local chuff factory.

In those days in addition to his burgeoning comedic skills Funn was also a promising cricketer. His early appearances for the West Canker Fifth X1 in the Ribble Valley and District Sunday League led many shrewd observers to predict a rosy future for the young leg spinner but Funn couldn't resist using his ventriloquism skills at inappropriate times. When in the field he would call 'run' when the batsman hit the ball close to a fielder leading the striker to think his partner had called him through for a quick single; followed by the inevitable run out. Even his own team mates were unaware of what was happening or who the real culprit was ... Funn was only discovered when he added sledging to his repertoire.

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Funn and Games famous 'put the kettle on' routine always went down a storm with tea ladies.

"I used to say things and no-one knew where the voice was coming from. I got away with it for years until one night before a game I saw one of the opposition get drunk after drinking ten bottles of Newcastle Brown in the pub and during the match when he was batting I said 'it looks like you had too much to drink last night. Ten brown bottles of beer I heard' but it came out as 'gen grown gockles of gear' and they rumbled it had been me all along."

Funn received a 10 year ban for unsporting behaviour and decided to turn his attention to the world of entertainment. In 1976 he met comedian Geoff Games at a sheep dip and formed a double act - Funn and Games. Funn took on the role of straight man and for a while the duo had some success on the North West working mans club circuit with a zany brand of slapstick, wisecracks and humorous songs about having ringworm.

However in 1976 Geoff Games encountered Tommy Toys backstage at a club in Salford and they decided to work together as a new act called Toys and Games. A distraught Dickie Funn took the news very badly and was on the verge of giving up when he was contacted by Larry Laughter - an East Midlands based impressionist - who was in the market for a new straight man. The two hit it off and started performing together as Funn and Laughter.

It wasn't to last. After a disastrous appearance on Opportunity Knocks ('the clap-o-meter went backwards') in 1979 Larry Laughter announced he was going solo and started touring the northern circuit with his Larry Laughter Laughter Show.

Once again Dickie Funn was left high and dry.

"I didn't have the confidence to perform on my own so I had to try and find someone to form a new double act with. There were lots of great duos around at that time and some that were not so good, like Duckworth and Lewis who always left the stage early and then sat in the dressing room working out how many laughs they would have got if they'd stayed on. Anyway, I'd heard that another top act Cheese and Onion had split up so I gave Charlie Cheese a call. Unfortunately for me he was already booked to do a summer season in Scarborough with Peter Pickle as Cheese and Pickle. Out of desperation I had to get together with Ollie Onion as Funn and Onion. The problem was that we were both straight men so we didn't get many bookings."

The pair struggled to find work and an increasingly depressed Ollie Onion began behaving erratically. One night in 1982 after being booed off at a show in Pontefract a manic Ollie Onion broke into a local pickle factory and committed suicide by drowning himself in a vat of vinegar.

"It's how he would have wanted to go" says Dickie Funn ruefully.

Funn knew that he would have to adapt his act or face the prospect of being forced to give up on his showbiz ambitions.

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Funn and Onions in happier times circa 1980.

A chance meeting at a sporting dinner in Wakefield was to prove crucial.

"Funn and Onion were booked to appear as the warm up act for the main performer: Billy Wickets. Ollie had just died but I desperately needed to keep working so I decided to do the gig on my own. Now, Billy Wickets was my absolute hero. At that time there were about 10 or 15 cricket comedians on the northern circuit alone but Billy Wickets was the best. He knew how to work a room. I remember him telling me that you had to adapt your act depending on your audience. Umpires like blue jokes and jokes about Germans and rationing. The National Association of Cricket Scorers wanted gags about malfunctioning scoreboards and the Irish. He taught me that you have to do your research."

Liverpool-born Billy Wickets was a legendary figure in the cricket comedy world. He had been at the forefront of the post war rise of popularity in specialist cricket entertainment when a nation that had been starved of the game during the war was hungry to make up for it in peacetime. In 1955 at the height of his career Billy Wickets even appeared at the Royal Variety Performance where he caused hilarity in the royal box with his cheeky comment to the Queen that she should "rattle her batting gloves".

However mainstream success proved short lived for Wickets and a combination of alcohol induced fecklessness, an impenetrable Scouse accent and the rise in popularity of association football meant that he was reduced to working only in areas where cricket still had a stronghold.

Wickets' jokes were nearing the end of their career when he met Dickie Funn in Wakefield in 1980. Hindered by ill health and old material Wickets was looking to wind down his career and was happy to sell on his contacts book - and jokes - to the newly solo Funn.

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Billy Wickets publicity photo 1972. "What do you get if you cross Arthur Fagg and a sheep? ... a wooly umpire."

It was the break Dickie Funn had been waiting for.

"Billy Wicket's joke book was sensational. It included every gag that he'd used in his half century on stage. Some of them were pretty unusable ... he did a whole routine about Douglas Jardine's trousers but most of the material is priceless ... or nearly priceless. The tight old sod did charge me ten grand or it."

As if to illustrate this point Funn launches into a selection of classic Wicket originals ... "did you hear about the convicts cricket match? The fast bowler whizzed down this screamer which missed the wickets but dislodged a bail. 'I'm not out,' said the batsman 'it was the wind'. 'Wind or not,' said the umpire 'you're out on bail'. Then there was the one about the umpire who gave a batsman caught out despite the ball only hitting his arm. 'How was that out?' said the disgruntled batsman, 'look in the paper tomorrow' replied the umpire, 'no, you look in the paper ,' said the batsman 'I'm the editor."

"I still use those jokes today," said Funn, only to correct himself "I mean ... I did use those jokes. When I die they will die with me. Some might say they have had a lot of practice already."

With the help of Billy Wickets' agent Chris Hogg of Hogg Artistes Ltd Dickie Funn was able to make a reasonable living in the Thatcher years. Then as the Millennium approached Hogg Artistes branched out into the lucrative world of cricket look-a-likes.

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Dickie Funn as 'Hey Ho it's Rachael Flint'.

"Hogg himself wanted all his artists to do cricket look-a-like work but my problem, was that I didn't really look like anyone much. I have a vague resemblance to the umpire Arthur Jepson but it wasn't likely to get me a lot of bookings. Then Mr Hogg decided I looked a bit like Rachael Heyhoe Flint so he sent me around the country in drag as 'Hey Ho it's Rachael Flint'. The main problem was that in some places they thought I was the stripper and I would continually get propositioned. At an awards night in Consett a man come up to me and asked if I did 'extras'. Well, as a fully qualified umpire of course I said 'yes, I give all extras'. Well, he chased me all the way to my dressing room and I had to lock myself in. I was terrified."

It was the beginning of the end. Speciality acts like Dickie Funn were falling out of fashion.

Funn had always wanted to branch out into acting and was optimistic that when Ian Botham started appearing in pantomimes in the 80s there might be a role or two for him. But it was not to be.

"I'd done a couple of functions with Beefy and we'd always got on pretty well. I thought he might put in a good word for me when he got cast as Baron Hardup in Aladdin at the Bradford Alhambra. Typical Beefy; he got his Somerset mates fixed up instead. Colin Dredge never looked back. He's cornered the Widow Twankey market ever since. That could have been me."

As audience tastes changed there were fewer opportunities for the country's few remaining full-time cricket comedy acts. Bookings dried up and as Dickie Funn entered the new century the writing was already on the wall.

Last year Funn was given the Saturday afternoon slot on hospital radio at Scarborough General. It was a break into the world of local broadcasting that he had long cherished. In addition to playing requests and answering patients' queries about cricket Funn started making zany prank phone calls to local umpires; broadcasting the results on air. It started well but one such call ended in disaster.

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The end of an era. Audience members gather for Dickie Funn's final performance.

"I decided to phone retired Filey umpire Arthur Brown but he wasn't at home. I started leaving messages on his answer phone saying that I'd been to his house and seen his wife's bloomers on the washing line. I'm afraid I got a bit carried away and I left another message saying that they were so big that Yorkshire wanted to borrow them to use as a makeshift sightscreen. I deeply regret it now."

Funn made a humbling apology to the Browns but it was not enough to save him. With his comedy bookings now few and far between Funn was forced to look for other sources of income. Brinkley House came calling.

"I'd done a gig at Brinkley House last Christmas so I knew all about it. I think it's brilliant that such a place exists. The gig itself hadn't gone too well if I recall - some of the residents didn't get my more contemporary references. One joke about Godfrey Evans's sideburns went right over their heads but I'm still looking forward to working there. It will still be performing - of sorts - no doubt I'll throw in a few gags here and there to keep the old boys spirits up."

So that's it then for Britain's - possibly the world's - last remaining cricket comedian. No farewell tour, no retirement party, no Lifetime Achievement honour at the Comedy Awards; just one man, some terrible jokes and a collection of soiled dickie bows ...

... and its goodnight from him.