Francis Alick Howerd’s father Frank, was a soldier, and his mother was called Edith. Francis was the eldest of three children; he had a younger brother called Sidney and a sister, called Betty. When Frankie was just two-years-old, the family moved to the small town of Eltham in Kent (now a suburb of Greater London).
Growing up in the peaceful Kentish countryside endowed Frankie with a lifelong love of rural pleasures and pursuits. As a child, he loved roaming wild in the countryside and he remained a keen walker throughout his life.
Frankie described himself as “lightly educated”, and attended secondary school at Shooters Hill Grammar School in Eltham. Despite the fact that he suffered from acute shyness, he was drawn to drama and performing from an early age. Even as a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a professional actor, but his early ambitions were thwarted when he failed the entrance audition for RADA. He found work as an office clerk instead, and was paid the princely sum of £1.35 per hour for his first position.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Frankie was drafted into the army. Ironically, joining the armed services helped him to further his dreams of acting, for during the course of the war, he was given the opportunity of entertaining his fellow men with his comedy routines. After the war, he managed to break into radio, and began broadcasting in December 1946 on the BBC Variety Bandbox programme, along with several other ex-servicemen. As well as his radio shows, he also performed in revues, clubs and pantomime.
Frankie made slow progress to begin with, but during the early 1950s his reputation gradually grew. He made his television debut in 1952, in a three-part series called 'The Howerd Crowd', written by fellow British comedian Eric Sykes. Sykes’s writing was an important contributing factor to Frankie’s success, and he wrote a great deal of his comedy material throughout the 1950s. During this period of his career, he also teamed up with a piano accompanist (who happened to be deaf) called Mrs Vera Roper, who remained a loyal part of his repertoire for years to come.
In 1954, he landed his first feature film role in a movie called 'The Runaway Bus', in which he co-starred with Petula Clark. Frankie’s subsequent movies included 'The Ladykillers' (1955), and 'Jumping For Joy' (1956). He also continued to act on the stage, and appeared in traditional farces, such as 'Charley’s Aunt' (1955-56) and 'The Perfect Woman' (1958). But when he appeared in a badly received TV adaptation of Moliere’s 'School for Wives', his reputation began to decline; in addition, he was reportedly beginning to acquire a reputation among TV producers for being difficult to work with. He then made an ill-advised move into sitcom, with 'Frankie Howerd' (1959), which again, was poorly received by the public. Unfortunately, Frankie began to fall prone to serious bouts of depression, culminating in his suffering a nervous breakdown in the early 1960s.
As the 1960s began, the tone of British popular humour underwent a huge shift in emphasis, and cutting edge comedy acquired a far more satirical and political tone than had previously been the case. Comedians like Frankie Howerd based their stock comedic repertoires on plentiful sexual innuendoes, and comic figures like mothers-in-law and seaside landladies, but this kind of comedy now seemed somewhat passé and old-fashioned. The leading TV comedians of the day included university graduates like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who produced witty satirical shows like 'That Was The Week That Was' and 'Beyond The Fringe'.
Initially, Frankie felt very discouraged by this sea-change. Indeed, at one point, he reportedly became so utterly disillusioned with show business that he considered abandoning his chosen profession altogether and opening a pub instead. In 1962, he attended the Evening Standard Awards, where high-flying comedians Cook and Moore were also among the invited guests. At that time, Peter Cook was just about to open a nightclub in London called The Establishment Club, which was intended to provide a platform for the top satirical stand-up comedians of the day. Frankie’s material was written by leading comedy writers Johnny Speight, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and introduced just the right note of satire into Frankie’s customary style of stand-up comedy.
Frankie’s set at The Establishment Club was incredibly successful; so much that he was invited to appear on 'That Was The Week That Was', which was, at that time, one of the most popular shows on TV. Moving back into TV in such a high-profile manner rekindled public enthusiasm for Frankie. His new-found popularity on 'That Was The Week That Was' was consolidated by a new series, called 'Frankie Howerd', which aired on the BBC between 1964 and 1966. Another highly successful TV show was 'A Last Word On The Election' (1964), which was also written by Galton and Simpson.
Despite the fact that Frankie’s first foray into situation comedy had proved to be something of a disaster, it was a sitcom series that would soon bring him the greatest TV success he’d ever known. Between 1963 and 1965, Frankie had playing a starring role in the hugely successful London stage musical, 'A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum', a comedy set in ancient Rome. Taking the success of the stage show as an inspiration, the writer Talbot Rothwell created a new television series called 'Up Pompeii', first broadcast in 1971, in which Frankie starred as a toga-wearing slave called Lurcio, who served his master, one Ludicrus Sextus, in ancient Rome. 'Up Pompeii' gave Frankie the chance to skilfully reprise his particular brand of comedy, thickly laced with stock phases, such as “titter ye not” and “Ooh yes, missus”, double entrendres and plentiful sexual innuendo. The TV series was the perfect showcase for his particular brand of humour, and happily for Frankie, whose career had had more than its fair share of ups and downs, the show was a massive success, and re-established him as one of the leading lights of British comedy.
Following on the success of 'Up Pompeii', Frankie appeared in a string of similar sitcoms, in which he was cast either as a slave or in some other kind of subordinate role. In the series, 'Then Churchill Said To Me', Frankie played the part of a private soldier assigned to an underground HQ in wartime London. Around the mid-1970s, however, the momentum of Frankie’s success began to slow down again and his career experienced yet another downturn. The rise of “alternative” comedy during the late 1970s and early 1980s made Frankie’s humour look and seem old hat once again.
Happily, Frankie was not destined to die in obscurity. Right at the end of his life, he was “rediscovered”, and promptly became extremely popular with a whole new generation of student audiences, who sported T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Frankie Says”…and “Titter Ye Not”. In one of his last broadcast performances, London Weekend Television filmed him performing live to a student audience at the Oxford Union for a one-off TV special called 'Frankie Howerd On Campus'. He’d made several such “concert” type programmes throughout his career, and his final television work, 'Frankie’s On' was planned to be a series of such concerts, including one on HMS Ark Royal. A six-part series had been planned, but only four programmes had been filmed before Frankie’s death.
Frankie was extremely discreet about his personal life, since he was a homosexual, which was illegal for much of his lifetime. In private, he was reportedly quite promiscuous in his youth and was said to be quite bold in his sexual advances. Various media sources have also claimed that Frankie was uncomfortable with his sexuality; he allegedly once said to fellow TV star Cilla Black, “I wish to God I wasn’t gay”.
In 1955, Frankie met a waiter called Dennis Heymer, who subsequently became his manager and lighting operator, and who also became his main life partner. Dennis and Frankie lived together for thirty years, until Frankie’s death. In later life, Frankie and Dennis lived in the country village of Cross in Somerset. In April 1992, Frankie suffered serious problems with his breathing, and he died at home of a heart attack two weeks after leaving hospital in London. Two hours before his death, he was chatting on the phone to a BBC producer about his latest TV series, 'Frankie’s On'….
Dennis Heymer lived in the country house in Somerset that he and Frankie Howerd shared together until his death in 2009. The house has a small museum devoted to Frankie’s life and work, and has now become a tourist attraction; it also hosts concerts in the summer. Frankie Howerd is buried in the graveyard at St. Gregory’s Church in Weare, Somerset.