Funny man Brad's gags tickled a host of stars

WRITING gags for a living is a cut-throat business... but it has provided Brad Ashton with a barrel of laughs for more than 50 years.

And since 1985 he has been telling his anecdotal tales to passengers on cruise liners about working with comedy greats such as Groucho Marx, Tommy Cooper, Tommy Trinder and Les Dawson.

Born Bernie Abrahams in Stepney, London, in 1931, Brad discovered comedy during national service with the RAF.

"I hated parades so volunteered for educational courses," he recalled.

"One was at Nottingham University and we put on a play at Nottingham playhouse. Back at Hendon aerodrome, the RAF asked me to put on an Xmas show and I got the bug.

"I'm an East End Cockney, but didn't drink like the other guys so stayed in and listened to British comedy shows on radio.

"Stars included Ted Ray, Tommy Trinder, Jimmy Edwards, Jon Pertwee and Leslie Phillips."

Demobbed in 1951, Brad began to write for these comedians - and more.

"I wrote single acts for Harry Worth and Dick Emery before they became famous," he said.

"The I wrote for Stan Stennett for his Showband Show before he got his big break with the Black and White Minstrel Show."

Johnny Lockwood broadcast Brad's first script on September 28, 1952, but was unable to listen to the transmission as it was Yom Kippur.

"My father, Mark Abrahams, was a presser in a factory where my mother Ray also worked," he noted.

"We were traditional Jews and my father would not let me turn on the radio during High Holy Days, which I respected."

It was not long before the surname Abrahams was changed for professional reasons.

"In the early 50s I found the BBC a bit antisemitic so having a Jewish name did not help," he explained.

"I became Bernard Ashton, then Brad Ashton and changed my surname by deed poll, which was witnessed by Spike Milligan when I married my wife Valerie in 1961."

Brad initially harboured hopes of being a comic on stage, but that dream quickly died.

"I had six books of notes of shows I'd been listening to and realised it was done to a formula," he said.

"I tried to be a comedian, but was lousy. One night an agent said, 'I've seen great comedians on this stage with lousy material but you're the opposite'. I decided to be a writer.

"At an AJEX meeting one night, Denis Norden was giving a talk and got me started when we chatted afterwards. Denis told me his agent had seen me perform and that I had brilliant material.

"I joined his agency and was soon writing for Benny Hill, Tommy Cooper, Dick Emery, Les Dawson, Frankie Howard , Ken Dodd, Bob Monkhouse, Bernard Bresslaw, Mike and Bernie Winters and Little and Large.

"The easiest comics to deal with were the ones with most confidence like Dick and Bob who were trained by Ralph Reader.

"Ralph's way of training was to tear a page out of a phone book and say, 'There is your script - go out in front of an audience and get some laughs'. They did it by making funny faces and voices, which built confidence.

"Bernard was also marvellous to work with. He could sing, dance and play about 10 instruments so could always improvise."

Bresslaw went on to star in the classic Carry On films alongside Sid James and Kenneth Williams.

"Sid had great confidence. You had to adapt because what suited Sid or say did not suit Tommy Cooper," Brad commented.

"Tommy was the most naturally gifted comic I worked with but never knew what made him funny while Kenneth loved the sound of his own voice.

"When Kenneth was at the Talk of the Town he got huge laughs but could not figure out why until I went along to one of the recordings.

"The first six rows were his gay friends and Kenneth kept putting in gay phrases, which got the laughs.

"Kenneth relied a lot on that, but it was like me putting in Yiddish phrases to a Jewish audience. You could not fail."

Compiling scripts has always been to a certain formula, but bouncing ideas off other writers helps.

"I used to think of a subject and write a lot of rubbish until the end of two pages, then stop to read through," he said.

"I'd think that's not a bad line or that or that, so I had three lines to start the next two pages and gradually it builds.

"It's like sifting through gold - you go through rubbish to find nuggets and it builds into a script.

"Spike (Milligan) had an office below me for 20 years and we'd have lunch together along with Galton and Simpson, Johnny Speight and so on.

"There were 16 of us in the same building, but you did not have to be a funny person to write funny.

"If we were not sure of a gag or routine, we'd pop into one of the other offices and try it out on each other."

Brad, who ran a comedy writing school (1971-78), experienced the ups and downs of working with Groucho Marx for 14 weeks.

"Groucho was 74, unable to read very well or remember his lines so we had a huge 20ft screen out of sight of the audience," he recalled.

"One day we had a row over a script he felt was not right for him. Groucho said, 'If it does not get lots of laughs we'll fire you'. I said if it gets laughs, I want double my salary.

"The script got laughs and after that Groucho rang me every day in the early hours for three weeks. He told me that I was the expert and took the mickey out of me for three weeks. We got on great in the end."

Brad, who worked with TV producers in 12 countries, collaborated with popular Jewish comedy double act Mike and Bernie Winters for seven years.

"I was like a third brother to them because we came from the same background," he recalled.

"Like Groucho Marx, because I was Jewish there was an affinity.

"What you saw with Bernie on screen was what you saw off stage. He was a lovely guy. Mike lives in Miami and we keep in contact."

One star Brad was in awe of, however, was David Frost.

"When That Was The Week That Was started, I was asked by Ned Sherrin to help decide between David Frost and Brian Redhead as anchor man," he explained.

"Halfway through, Brian was way ahead but then David said to a 300-strong audience, 'Call out any member of the cabinet and any political question you have'.

"David did 10 perfect impersonations and is the most talented person I've worked with.

"On a Sunday morning, I'd get all the papers, sit down at 7am and by 3pm I'd have my target of 33 gags.

"In his dressing room at the BBC for the show that night, I'd read them to David and the ones that excited him, he'd remember. On average he used 15 for the show, which was great.

"David was brilliant, always did his research and knew the answer to every question he was asked. If he dodged an answer he'd find a way around the question."

Brad also enjoyed working with Les Dawson.

"Les spoke seven languages," he recalled.

"Sitting with him at a Chinese restaurant he spoke for 20 minutes in Chinese with a waiter.

"During lunch my ribs would be aching, Les was always so funny off stage. He was a guy with tremendous confidence and a joy to work with."

Another comedy great Brad knew was Tony Hancock, famous for his radio show Hancock's Half Hour.

"I went to his shows with Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes when they recorded them at Riverside Studios," recalled Brad, who has three children but none are in the comedy business.

"We used to take part in the warm-up. You were a part of the show and Hancock relied on it."

Outside comedy, Brad has also made a lifetime study of confidence tricks, scams, buncos and stings.

He has also worked with Scotland Yard's Fraud Squad on a BBC Radio series exposing more than 180 con-tricks that netted around 16 million a year.

Brad's last English series was Little and Large. He retired from television three years ago but still works as a journalist, writing comedy articles.

"Everyone says, having written for all these comedians I must have had an exciting life," he said.

"I probably did but was too busy to notice. In 1968, I was writing weekly shows for Dick Emery, Mike and Bernie Winters and an American series called The Ugliest Girl In Town.

"Each day I'd be at rehearsals and script meetings. I slept when I could at my desk using a satchel as a pillow, but they were marvellous experiences.

"The best thing about my profession was not having to be a performer, watching a good comedian get a laugh, sitting back and thinking, 'I wrote that'."

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph