Comedy writer Roger hoping to get the Black Country laughing

Roger Edwards, of Wightwick, who will be holding a comedy course in Dudley
Roger Edwards, of Wightwick, who will be holding a comedy course in Dudley

“Sometimes I don’t think he knew how funny he was,” says the Midland comedy writer who worked with him on Bullseye.

“He was like Arthur Daley, he always had some scheme on the go where he was trying to make a bit of money.

“You would go into a production meeting, and he would start asking what size shoe you take.

“He had some contact who worked for Nike, and he would come back a few minutes later and try to sell you some trainers. He was forever doing stuff like that.”

Roger, from Wightwick, near Wolverhampton, has enjoyed a colorful career in show business. Cutting his teeth as a stand-up in the unforgiving environment of the West Midlands club circuit, he met his wife Jan Jennings while they were both working as Butlin’s Red Coats. The couple moved into television, Jan as an actress in popular television programs such as Boon, Roger as a producer and writer of some of the funniest lines used by the likes of Bowen, Russ Abbott and Les Dennis.

And Roger is now teaming up with fellow funnyman Doug Parker to teach ordinary Black Country folk how to be funny. His Arts Council-funded project called The Black Country Telling Jokes will see ordinary folk from the region spend a morning coached in the art of joke-telling, followed by an afternoon being filmed by a professional crew.

“We’re not looking for stand-up comedians, we’re just looking for ordinary people in the street, who will be taught how to be funny,” says Jan.

Roger, who worked closely with Barry Cryer, became a close friend of Les Dennis after working with him in panto at Wolverhampton Grand Theater in 1984. At the time Les and his comedy partner Dustin Gee were the up-and-coming stars of ITV, famous for their impressions on Russ Abbot’s Madhouse. They hit it off straight away, and Roger eventually ended up as the producer of Family Fortunes when Les took over as the show’s presenter in 1987.

Much of the mirth on Family Fortunes came when the contestants would give silly answers to the questions, but Roger says these did not come about entirely by accident. Roger, whose job it was to write the questions as well as audition the families for the show, would carefully word questions which he thought would elicit humorous answers from the contestants.

“One of my favorites was ‘Name a bird with a long neck’, to which a contestant replied Naomi Campbell,” he chuckles.

“Jan and I would go on holiday to the south of France every year for 16 years, and I would spend the first day of the holiday on the beach writing the questions. When I had got them done, I would say ‘that’s it, we’ve paid for the holiday now.”

By this time Les was minus his comedy partner Dustin Gee, who had died from a heart attack in 1986 while they were working together in the Cinderella pantomime at Southport. It was decided that the show would go on, with Jim Bowen drafted in at short notice.

“You had never seen such an ugly sister in your life,” says Roger.

It was chance meetings such as this which led to him being recruited to work on some of the most-watched programs in television, and he ended up making 16 series of Family Fortunes, five series of Bullseye, and four series of The Russ Abbot Show . He also recently appeared as a guest on the panel show Would I Lie To You, starring Rob Brydon, Lee Mack and David Mitchell.

Roger, who is in his early 60s, says much of the success of Family Fortunes was down to the relationship Les Dennis would strike up with the families who appeared.

“I would go on the road to pick the families, and by the time it came to the filming, Les would spend two whole days with them, and he had become their best mates.”

There were plenty of capers along the way. Roger recalls one occasion, when he and Les were flying back to Britain after working abroad to make a new series of Family Fortunes.

“We were in a four-man plane, and the co-pilot gets up and asks Les if he fancies a go at flying the plane,” he says.

“Of course, he says yes, and he scared the life out of me, he was all over the place. It seems funny now, but it didn’t at the time.”

He also remembers celebrating his 30th birthday party during the small hours of the morning, after working on a show in Birmingham.

“It was the typical sort of thing in those days, the show had run late, and we would be the only people in the hotel bar. And then about 2am this singer comes in, it was Stevie Wonder.

“He had been performing in Birmingham, and he often used to have trouble sleeping, so I can honestly say Stevie Wonder came to my birthday party.”

Roger says he learned so much about the trade while working with Barry Cryer and Neil Shand, who had written scripts for David Frost, Mike Yarwood, Spike Milligan and The Two Ronnies.

“They were the masters,” he says. “Just watching them at work was amazing.

“Neil Shand would just sit there and cut scripts to pieces, he never wasted a word. They knew how to get every word right.

“They knew how to condense it until you have got the only words you need.

“The art of comedy is turning a story into a one liner.”

Cryer was also great fun to be around, Roger adds.

“If you ever wanted to go to the pub, to get out of something, you would go with Barry,” he says.

“The stories he would tell you were amazing, he had a story about everything. I didn’t realize at the time, but we were so blessed being in his company.”

It is these skills that Roger hopes his new project, which will be held on August 20 at Wall Heath Community Centre, near Dudley.

“Dougie Parker is really good at coaching people how to tell jokes,” says Roger.

Anybody from the Black Country is welcome to take part in the course, which is free to take part in.

“You might like to think of a joke you would like to tell, or if not we have got lots of jokes you can use.”

The course starts at 11am, with filming commencing at about 1.30pm.

The initial film will be broadcast on a YouTube channel, and promoted on social media, but it will also be marketed as a pilot show for broadcasters.

“I can eventually see it becoming a series, where we go to a different location each week, and have Birmingham Telling Jokes or Telford Telling Jokes,” he says.

*The Black Country Telling Jokes will be held at Wall Heath Community Centre, near Dudley, on August 20. To take part telephone Roger Edwards on 07976 202605.

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