Titter ye not: Frankie Howerd had a dark side
David Walliams plays comedian Frankie Howerd in a new TV drama. He talks to James Rampton
The technical crew of Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me, an absorbing new biopic of the late comedian, are huddled behind a monitor in a draughty school hall in west London.
The entire team - from tattooed electricians to immaculately coiffed make-up women - are roaring with laughter as they watch David Walliams mug to the camera in an uncanny impersonation.
The 36-year-old Little Britain star is perched on a stool, dressed in a costume from Up Pompeii - a combination of cream mini-toga, chunky leather belt and strappy sandals - and surrounded by three busty, scantily clad women.
Puffing out his cheeks and gurning, he leers at the women's cleavages and gaily ad libs:
"Drape yourself over Francis… don't mind if I do… not too close, dear… mind your hand there… there's a strange stirring down there… stir your porridge with it, you could… we could make a go of it, us four, couldn't we?… Is it greedy having three?… Nay, nay and thrice nay."
"Cut!" shouts the director, John Alexander. "Very good, David. Very convincing." And it is. Walliams could have been born to play Frankie Howerd.
Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me, which is on BBC4 next month, is far from a cheery, rattling good night in. It peers behind Howerd's familiar comic mask and depicts a homosexual performer who was abused by his father during childhood, and who in adulthood was filled with self-loathing, misery and guilt.
"I hate the way I am," Howerd screams in one scene. "It's dirty, and it's disgusting. It makes me want to vomit."
The drama focuses on Howerd's relationship with Dennis Heymer (played by Rafe Spall), a waiter whom the comedian met in a restaurant in 1955, and remained with until his death in 1992.
If the scenario has the ring of authenticity, it's because it was made in collaboration with Heymer who, at the age of 80, has finally decided to tell all about the relationship that was kept a secret throughout Howerd's lifetime.
As Howerd, Walliams is an ingenious stroke of casting; the two performers share an inextinguishable twinkle, a camp, arched-eyebrow sense of mischief, and a magnetic, exhibitionist screen persona. "It's my dream role," says Walliams. "As soon as my agent told me about this, I said, 'Oh my God, I just have to do it!'?"
The actor's connection with Howerd goes back a long way. As a teenager, during the Eighties, Walliams went to see him at the Chichester Festival Theatre in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and performing his one-man show in Sutton.
"I loved the show so much, I went backstage and got his autograph," the actor recalls.
"A few years later, Matt [Lucas, his Little Britain co-star] and I first connected by swapping impressions of Frankie."
For the purposes of this drama, Walliams had to stretch himself far beyond comic impersonation.
"You can look at the tapes of his shows endlessly, but for most of this drama I'm trying to capture Frankie when he's not performing," he says.
"At times, I'm playing a very serious side of him that no one's ever seen before. In the first scene I filmed, for instance, I was portraying Frankie at a psychotherapy session, high on LSD, writhing on the floor and crying his eyes out about his childhood abuse. However often I watch Carry On Up the Jungle, I can't find a scene like that."
The drama concludes BBC4's strong "Curse of Comedy" season, which has also explored the behind-the-scenes despair afflicting Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell, Tony Hancock, and Hughie Green.
Walliams feels that in all these biopics, the element of darkness is vital; it is the pain that gives the films their point.
"We're all fascinated by comedians who are deeply unhappy," he says.
"That huge contrast between how they are on stage and how they are at home is utterly riveting."
For Howerd, that divide could hardly have been greater.
"Back then, when homosexuality was still illegal, it could ruin your life to be gay," says Walliams.
"After sex, Frankie used to cry. He saw it as something revolting."
Walliams, who has been linked with a string of beautiful women over the years, took the sex scenes with Spall in his stride.
"I had to touch Rafe's private parts last week," he smirks. "We were very heterosexual on set that day. We talked a lot about girls we fancy.
"But the sex scenes are not that bad. In fact, I quite enjoy them! It's more embarrassing if you really fancy the person you're kissing. Then you don't know where to put yourself!"
While researching for the part, Walliams and Spall paid a visit to Dennis Heymer in the Somerset home he used to share with Howerd. "There were pictures of Frankie everywhere," he says. "Dennis said to us, 'Even though he died 16 years ago, I dreamt of Frankie just last night.' That's real devotion."
Why does Walliams think people still hold Howerd in such affection, all these years after his death?
"He was really, really funny," he says.
"Like Eric Morecambe or Tommy Cooper, he's got what they call funny bones. It's not about smart one-liners; it's about the ability to be funny without saying a word. Frankie had that in spades."
Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me is on BBC4 at 9pm on April 9