Syd Little marks his 50th anniversary in showbiz next year, most of which he spent as one half of comedy double act Little and Large. As he stars in panto at the Grand Opera House, he talks to YorkMix about going solo, singing comedians – and why he’s not keen on telly
Did you go to pantos yourself as a kid?
Yes – I’m from a working class background and my parents couldn’t afford four kids to go to a panto but we used to go with the school. We always went to the one at Manchester Opera House. I used to love the band – I still do when I go to see the big shows, Les Mis things like that. As soon as the orchestra strikes up the overture – woah, it’s magic, you’re transformed into this other world. I just love theatre.
Did that give you the showbusiness bug?
Music was the thing I liked, more so than the acting. That’s what I eventually did. My father was very musical, he used to play the accordion. He taught me to tune up my first little plastic ukelele when I was about 14. That was me, I was hooked. It was the late Fifties, it was all rock’n’roll, Lonnie Donnegan and skiffle – you only had to know three chords and you could pick anything up.
I’d have loved to have been a pop star. I think every comic always dreams of being a pop star. Bless him, Frank Carson, if there was ever a chance to get up and sing Beatles’ songs he would, Jimmy Tarbuck’s another one – and Eddie. We started off as singers, me and Eddie in the Sixties. Most of our act when we first started together was music. It was only when the audience started saying we looked funny, with me being thin and Eddie big, we thought we had something. Nine times out of ten they’d laugh as soon as we walked out on stage, so we thought let’s use it – and that was it, we were off with the comedy.
What was it like being huge TV stars?
When television came along it pushed us into the comedy side, more than the music, which worked. We got 18 million in 1977 when we did our first big TV show. Then we went right through the Eighties and finished in 1991 – that was our last series. That was a long time and a lot of material.
I was never a lover of TV. I’d rather have live shows every time. It’s so clinical television. Today it’s changed, comics have got a lot of freedom now. They can say what they want and they don’t have a producer saying “Cut! Do that again!” They just seem to let them rumble – which was one of our strengths. If I messed up lines in the old days, Eddie would jump on me like a ton of bricks and he’d get out of it some way. That was funnier than the scripts sometimes.
Was it difficult to adjust after you split as a double act?
I didn’t find it hard. Other people found it hard to accept me. They want to see you together all the time. I came through, I came good. Nine years ago I did my first panto for the producer and he came into my dressing room and said, “Syd, I want first refusal on you next year”. And I’ve been with him for nine years now.
Have you appeared in many pantos?
Me and Eddie turned professional in 1963 and I think 1969 was the first pantomime we ever did. So from 1969 onwards – 30-odd years of panto with Little and Large, nearly every year. We always played the brokers men or the robbers, roles like that.
Now I’ve been on my own for the last nine years and I’m a lot older, I’m getting the roles like Baron Hardup, the dad of Cinderella, the emperor of China or in this one I’m playing King Egbert the Umpteenth, Beauty’s father. I’ve never done this one before, Sleeping Beauty, it’s very good.
What do you think of those who criticise pantomime?
You get a lot of press saying they’re has-beens doing pantomime. But no one else will do them. The top of the bills today, they don’t have to sit in a dressing room for two performances a day like we do, because they’re earning too much money. In our day that was it, two shows a day for weeks, and the same in the summer season. Those days have gone, variety days have gone.
Now it’s all these big arenas – 7,000 people and do a killing in one day. You don’t get 7,000 in ten weeks in a panto. That’s why they don’t do them. They label people as if it’s a second class thing to do a pantomime, but it’s not. It’s skill. I’d like to see a lot of them do it. It’s worth doing. You see the reaction on those kids’ faces, that’s why it’s lasted that long. There’s no other area of showbusiness that can do that.
It’s your second stint in the York panto – do you like it here?
York – wow. It’s old, it’s brilliant. I love it, you go into the Shambles, especially Christmas time – last time I came the snow was here and it was just like a Dickens scene. It was great. I’m really looking forward to York and all my mates are coming over. We’re on the wrong side of the Pennines though…