Comedian and television presenter Larry Grayson’s famous catchphrase, “Shut that door!” began as a genuine request, after the stage door was left open during a theatrical performance in Redcar in the 1950s.
Many fans in the 1970s – his television heyday – thought it had been dreamed up as part of his flamboyant act. However, originally, he had uttered the famous phrase during a show at the New Pavilion Theatre in the Yorkshire seaside resort.
In those days, Grayson performed a drag act under the stage name, Billy Breen – a persona he had adopted since embarking on a career on the stage in his teens.
One evening, during his performance at the New Pavilion (later to become the Regent Cinema), Grayson felt a chilly sea breeze wafting across the stage, causing him to break off and shout across to the wings, “Shut that door!”
This legendary moment led to the birth of one of the most famous comic catchphrases in history, after the audience thought it was part of his act and began to laugh. Loved by fans and often mimicked by impressionists, the phrase remained with him throughout his long career.
Born William White in August 1923, to unmarried Ethel White of Banbury, Oxfordshire, Grayson was given up for adoption at ten days old – he never met his birth father.
After being adopted at nine weeks old by Alice and Jim Hammonds of Nuneaton, Warwickshire, he suffered a childhood tragedy – his adoptive mum died when he was only six years old. He was raised by his older foster sister, Florence – nicknamed “Fan”.
Grayson lived in Nuneaton with Fan for most of his life and they were devoted to one another. It was reported his birth mother always stayed in touch with the family. She was known as “Aunt Ethel” during his childhood and her true identity was revealed only when the star was an adult.
Grayson’s over-the-top stage persona began soon after he left school at the age of 14, when he began his comedy career, initially finding work as a supporting drag act on the club circuit. He performed as Billy Breen in a number of reviews, later adding stand-up comedy to his routine.
His style of comedy was gentle and anecdotal, based around a number of imaginary friends, including Slack Alice, Apricot Lil and Everard. He later admitted he based the characters on real local people.
He worked the club circuit for more than 30 years, changing his stage name from Billy Breen to Larry Grayson on the advice of his one-time manager, Eve Taylor. He was reportedly given the chance to try out for television in the 1950s, but his act was deemed too outrageous at the time.
By the 1970s, the standards for TV comedy were more relaxed and less rigid than they had been 20 years earlier. Television executive Michael Grade (who was an agent at the time) saw Grayson’s stage show and signed him up on the spot, although as a comedian and talk show host rather than a drag act.
He appeared in several variety shows on ATV and was then given his own light-hearted talk show, “Shut That Door!”, in 1972, followed by The Larry Grayson Show. He even recorded a jaunty song called Shut That Door in 1972 for his TV show of the same name.
At the time, he joked in a self-deprecating way it was his latest record – and that the producer had told him it would be his last one too! “Shut That Door!” ran until 1977 and Grayson’s guests included many famous light entertainment stars of the ’70s, such as Lionel Blair, Chris Tarrant and Diana Dors.
He also made guest appearances on the soap opera, Crossroads, first playing a difficult customer and then playing a chauffeur. He was a regular on TV variety shows, in panel games and on chat shows.
The Generation Game
Grayson shot to superstardom as host of the BBC family game show, The Generation Game. The show invited contestants, comprising teams of two people from different generations of the same family, to compete against each other in various challenges.
These ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous (a favourite was plate-spinning) and the contestants must be prepared to make fools of themselves! When Grayson became host of the show in 1978, with sidekick Isla St Clair, he used his own inimitable style – including his famous “Shut that door!” catchphrase.
He also introduced a new catchphrase about doors – “What are the scores on the doors, Isla?” – as the contestants’ scores were actually displayed on doors. Grayson was the ideal host, trying out many of the games himself. He also pretended to have no idea what he was doing to add to the comedy value.
He hosted The Generation Game until 1982 and was adored by the viewers. His final public appearance was in December 1994 on the Royal Variety Performance. He died at the age of 71, in January 1995, from a perforated appendix. Obituaries described his mass appeal as creating an intimacy with viewers, as if chatting over a garden fence about the humour in everyday life.
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Had Redcar’s New Pavilion Theatre had sliding doors that shut themselves, Larry Grayson’s famous “Shut that door!” catchphrase would probably never have been invented – a sobering thought! Please contact us for further information on our range of products and services.