Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Freddie Starr

Freddie Starr Image copyright Getty Images

Freddie Starr, who has died aged 76, was known for his zany, high-energy performances and impersonations of Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Max Wall and a wellington-boot wearing Adolf Hitler.

Born Frederick Leslie Fowell in Lancashire in 1943, Starr had a troubled childhood.

In an interview with Devon newspaper the Herald Express, Starr said his father, a bricklayer and part-time bare-knuckle boxer, broke both his legs when he was a child. He said he was taken into care for two years aged six.

He did not mention this in his 2001 autobiography, which its publisher described as depicting him "spending years in a children'’s home when he'’d stopped talking".

In the same year Starr spoke to the Evening Standard about his father, saying: "Never mind slap me, he used to punch me - sometimes spark out."

"He was very Victorian. But he never picked a fight in his life. He always tried to talk to people first and ask for a word in their ear. But if they cornered him, he would let go."

Image caption Starr's anarchic brand of comedy saw him send up figures like Adolf Hitler

As a teenager, he appeared under his own name as a gang member in the 1958 film Violent Playground, about teenage delinquents, starring Stanley Baker, Peter Cushing and David McCallum.

By the early 1960s, Starr was the lead singer of the Merseybeat pop group The Midnighters.

The band released three records on the Decca label, produced by the legendary Joe Meek but all three failed to make the charts, despite some promotion by the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein.

Starr left the band in 1965. He would eventually go on to have some chart success though, with the number nine single It's You in 1974.

His big break came when he was "discovered" through the talent show, Opportunity Knocks, a precursor to shows like The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent.

Image copyright PA
Image caption By the early 80s, Starr was one of the biggest names in British comedy

But he became a household name on the 1970 Royal Variety Performance where his preening, rubber-legged impersonation of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger had the audiences in the theatre and at home rolling in the aisles.

It led to a period of solid television work.

Between 1972 and 1976, Starr worked alongside the rising stars of British comedy like Russ Abbott, Les Dennis, David Copperfield and Little and Large on the comedy sketch show Who Do You Do? for London Weekend Television on ITV.

The Freddie Starr show was broadcast on the BBC in 1976 and ITV gave him two series of his own in the 90s along with 1996's An Audience with Freddie Starr.

It proved so popular that a sequel, Another Audience with Freddie Starr, was broadcast the following year.

At his peak, the comedian was reported to be earning in excess of £2m a year, often playing live gigs seven nights a week but it played havoc with his personal life.

Hamster story debunked

But as a new generation of subversive, often political British comics began to emerge, work dried up for Starr.

Demand fell for his once edgy and near-the-knuckle brand of comedy, and he become almost as well-known for his colourful personal life as his zany stage performances.

In 1986, The Sun newspaper printed the headline "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster".

The comedian was accused of putting the live pet of a friend between two pieces of bread and devouring it live. The story was a complete fabrication, devised by the disgraced late PR man Max Clifford.

In his 2001 autobiography Unwrapped, Starr said: "I have never eaten or even nibbled a live hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, mouse, shrew, vole or any other small mammal".

Away from comedy, Starr's horse Miinnehoma - ridden by Richard Dunwoody - won the 1994 Grand National at Aintree Racecourse in his home county of Merseyside.

Afterwards, BBC Sport presenter Des Lynam conducted a live phone interview with the winning owner, in front of a crowd of race-goers, as Starr was unable to attend due to prior TV commitments.

Addiction battle

The father-of-six married his first wife Betty when he was 17. His second marriage to Sandy lasted 15 years and he married his third wife, Donna, who was 27 years his junior, in 1998. They married and divorced twice.

He separated from his fourth wife Sophie in 2015.

He was accused of infidelity and violent behaviour, including towards his son and remained largely estranged from most of his children until his death.

Though a teetotaller, Starr battled a 20-year addiction to Valium which he told the Standard "makes you feel you are never wrong".

"When you have a clear mind you can look in the mirror and face your own image. I've done that."

"I was destroying myself, destroying my marriage, destroying a lot of things. And that was self-inflicted. I hold myself totally responsible. Now I am clear and I can see what I have done and I am very sorry."

'Swindlers and villains'

Starr had a brief career resurgence in 2009, when he appeared in the reality ghost-hunting show Living with the Dead, but a 2010 tour was cancelled when he suffered a major heart attack and underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery.

The tour was rescheduled for 2011, the same year he participated in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here.

He pulled out of the show following a "bushtucker trial" that included eating mouse tails and turkey testicles.

"I was sick not to finish the show. The decision's been made and I have to live with that. I wish everyone on the show all the best," he said.

Writing about his years spent in the showbiz wilderness, he called former agents and managers "smooth talking crooks, swindlers and villains", adding: "As soon as your ratings start dropping and people stop coming to see you when you're touring, you find all your 'best friends' disappearing into the woodwork.

"I'm not saying it's right. I'm just telling that's how the business works."

Arrest and defamation claim

If frustrations over his stalled career were his biggest problems, his life was about to hit a even lower point when, in 2012, he was arrested in the police inquiry investigating sex abuse claims against Jimmy Savile.

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Image caption Starr's failed defamation cases landed him with a huge legal bill

The comic was accused of groping a teenage girl backstage on Savile's Clunk Click TV show.

The Crown Prosecution Service decided no charges would be brought against him but in 2015, he took one accuser Karin Ward to court accusing her of defamation.

His legal action failed and in his judgment Mr Justice Nicol said Ms Ward's testimony was found to be true, but too much time had lapsed since the offence.

It landed Starr with a large legal bill and in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, he revealed he was moving to Spain.

In an eerily accurate prediction, he told the paper: "No matter which way I turned there was a... revolver pointing at my head so I thought 'I'm not going to tell anyone, I'm just going to get on a plane and go to Spain, the place I love, and this is where I'm going to die'."

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