Anyone who watched TV in the 1970s will remember the extraordinary group of entertainers assembled by BBC impresario Bill Cotton.
They included the comic talents of Dick Emery, Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies – as well as singer Val Doonican and all-rounder Bruce Forsyth.
But the most popular star, with the best viewing figures of the lot, came from Stockport and pretended to be other people for a living.
He was, of course, impressionist supreme Mike Yarwood.
On Christmas Day 1977, he broke the record for the biggest audience for a single light entertainment broadcast when his Yuletide special was watched by 21.4 million viewers.
This even beat the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show later the same night, which many regarded as the annual highlight of the festive schedule.
In his day, Yarwood was a trail-blazer. He elevated mimicry to an art and laid the foundations for a host of modern impersonators like Janet Brown, Rory Bremner and Alistair McGowan.
His TV shows from the mid-1960s to the 1980s were the forerunners of modern classics like Spitting Image and Dead Ringers as well as BBC’s The Impressions Show in 2009.
Yarwood broke new ground in the 1970s by performing three or four characters at a time using colour-separation overlay.
In this way it would be quite possible for Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey to debate the issues of the day with TV host Hughie Green or football manager Brian Clough.
Yarwood’s career in mimicry took off in 1964 when he got his big break performing in the variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He was 23 years old.
Before that, he’d worked as a salesman at a garment factory and nearly pursued a career in professional football. A talented amateur, he played for a number of local clubs in the Manchester area.
His showbiz breakthrough couldn’t have been better timed. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson quickly became Yarwood’s best known impersonation. It probably remains his most accurate caricature.
Armed with Wilson’s familiar pipe and Gannex raincoat, Yarwood embarked on a series of programmes for ATV and Thames Television. The ATV series Will the Real Mike Yarwood Stand Up? ran for a year from 1968 to 1969.
Yarwood joined Bill Cotton’s BBC stable of stars in 1971 and presented the programme Look: Mike Yarwood from 1971 to 1976. This was followed by Mike Yarwood in Persons which ran from 1977 to 1981.
All the shows ran to a well-tried format. Yarwood performed sketches and monologues mixed with guest appearances from singers and musicians.
He’d always sing the final number, introducing himself with the line ‘and this is me.’
Yarwood added a bevy of politicians to his Wilson impersonation. Denis Healy, Tory leader Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot were all fair game. Political interviewer Robin Day was also a regular.
In 1980, Yarwood memorably presented sartorially challenged Labour leader Michael Foot as the scarecrow Worzel Footage, imitating the children’s programme Worzel Gummidge.
Other targets for Yarwood included eccentric TV science presenter Magnus Pyke, comedian Ken Dodd and rugby league commentator Eddie Waring.
Some of Yarwood’s sayings became household catchphrases. They included Denis Healey’s ‘Silly Billy’ and Hughie Green winking to camera with the line ‘I mean that most sincerely folks.’
A few impersonations missed the mark. His impression of Prince Charles, with actress Suzanne Danielle as Princess Diana, was not brilliantly received. Neither were his attempts at John Major and Tony Blair.
Yarwood later said the pair were difficult to impersonate because they were ‘nice guys.’
The Cotton Club broke up in 1978 when Morecambe and Wise defected to Thames TV. Yarwood followed in 1982. Eric and Ernie’s ratings remained stable while Yarwood’s started to drop. His show was cancelled in 1987.
Yarwood was not alone. Bruce Forsyth joined London Weekend Television in 1978 to present the two-hour Saturday night variety show Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. It lasted for just one series.
Forsyth made a comeback with the game show Play Your Cards Right in 1987 and then found his niche on Strictly Come Dancing in 2004.
Yarwood’s all-round entertainer approach was superseded by the new wave of observational satire and hard-hitting comment that took over TV during the 1980s.
He retired from TV to concentrate on the stage, but his love of football endured as a director of Stockport County.
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