It’s difficult interviewing a comedian, especially when it’s Billy Pearce, because you can’t stop laughing as he peppers the conversation with jokes during our Zoom chat.
Often referred to as a national treasure in the UK, Billy Pearce has won just about every comedy award going, including a British Comedy Award for ‘Top Theatre Variety Performer’, solo comedian of the year, and best television comedy newcomer at the London Palladium. Billy, dubbed West Yorkshire’s King of Panto, has been making people laugh for over 50 years. The consummate entertainer started his performing career in his home town of Leeds where his mum owned a dance school. “The Jean Pearce School of Dancing was probably the biggest dance school in the UK and mum acted as an adviser for the kids who went on to appear on Junior Showtime, a variety show for children on television, and she was responsible for giving many of them their first start in the business, including stars such as Joe Longthorne, Rosemarie Ford, Mark Curry and Bonnie Langford.” Billy explains.
“The dance school was always short of boys because they preferred to play football and rugby rather than appearing in the shows, so I used to get dragged in to help out,” he says. “The first time I went on stage was as a 6 year old at the Empire in Leeds, when I played a Siamese twin in The King and I, and from there I went on to appear in all the musical shows such as Oklahoma! and South Pacific.”
Although he loved appearing on stage, Billy never imagined that he would still be working in the entertainment industry all these years later. It was whilst he was working as an apprentice in a foundry that fate intervened and set him off on a different show-business path. “I was hit by a car when I was on my motor scooter that resulted in some terrible damage to my body, but it also made me change my priorities,” Billy says.
After a spell working behind the scenes as a stage hand, Billy teamed up with a friend from the dance school and together they went on to become Butlins Redcoats, following in the footsteps of so many stars of stage and screen. Cue a joke: “At Butlins we used to catch people climbing over the fence and then send them back to finish their holidays!”
“We could both sing, tap dance and play guitars,” he states, “and then when we returned to Leeds we started playing the working men’s clubs, mainly performing musical numbers, but when the resident band didn’t know a song, I would fill in with a bit of comedy.” Billy tells me that was when he found that he liked making people laugh. “I would do more and more comedy and then one day I woke up and somebody called me a comedian! I still don’t really think I am a comedian – I am more of a comedy entertainer – comedy is hard and it’s a serious business being funny.”
After a couple of years doing the clubs, Billy went out on his own. “It was a very difficult decision for me because I’m not the most confident person in the world – but it took me 16 years of hard slog learning my craft and then in 1986 I went on New Faces.” Billy made it to the final and then found himself touring with Danny La Rue, appearing on numerous TV variety shows in the late 80s and 90s including Tonight at the London Palladium and he became a mainstay of panel shows such as Through the Keyhole, Blankety Blank, Talking Telephone Numbers and You Bet as well as taking part in three Royal Variety shows and five children’s Royal Variety shows.
Most comedians spend a lot of time travelling and Billy is no exception. Cue another joke: “I have an international agent – that means I am out of work all over the world!” More lately, Billy has been touring theatres with his one man stand-up adult comedy shows, some of which can last up to two and a half hours. “In the clubs I do about an hour and a half and hit them as hard as I can and run – so I tend to do a bit of everything. I have been lucky that my career has been so varied,” he admits.
Lockdown for Billy was spent at home with wife Kerry, a former dancer. “Having to stay in isolation has taken the pressure off me,” he tells me. “When I am working I get up in the morning and already start panicking about the evening. It’s like a roller-coaster of adrenaline, so this has been like being on holiday, but I am getting itchy feet now and can’t wait to get back to performing.” Billy says that he has been full of mixed emotions. Joke alert number three: “It’s like watching your mother-in-law driving off a cliff in your brand new Mercedes!”
That joke is reminiscent of the one-liners used by British stand-up comedians such as Les Dawson. So what does Billy think about today’s alternative comedians? “Comedy has changed; it’s more observational now rather than jokes and a lot of it is not my cup of tea,” he admits. “I am more of an old fashioned gag man, delivering one liners in a similar way to Tim Vine, although I have written some observational comedy and I am proud of that.”
Billy says that he admires anybody who can get up on stage with a microphone in their hand and entertain people. “It is a very tough wage and I can only put it akin to boxing without getting physically hit – but you are in a way, because it is so brutal,” he states. “It’s like being thrown to the lions sometimes – I have been booed off walking on – only kidding!”
During his career Billy has been lucky to work with some wonderful people, many of whom became great friends such as John Inman and Lynda Bellingham. “Years ago I was in a double act with my girlfriend at the time. We were absolutely broke but we managed to get a week’s work in a variety show at the Whitehall Theatre in Dundee,” Billy says. “On the bill was a mind reading act called the Amazing Margoes (a really miserable old couple), who stood in the wings and watched our act every night but never said anything. On the last day I was summoned to their room – I was terrified. Mr. Margoe asked what we were doing after the show had finished its run, and I explained that we were out of work and didn’t have an agent. He put a piece of paper in my hand; it was a long list of agents and bookers, and told me to mention his name when I called them.” The upshot of the story was that Billy says he turned out to be a wonderful man with a kind heart. “You can’t judge a book by its cover!” he laughs.
Known for his cheeky face, his big grin and high-pitched accent (you may remember his “Hiya kids” catchphrase), Billy says he is a Yorkshire man, bread and buttered. “I know I’ve lost my accent since I went posh, but I’m proud of being from Yorkshire!” Is he always a laugh a minute? “I am just the same as a lot of my comedian friends – we all have our demons,” he comments. “I still get terrified before I go on stage even after 50 years and I get so angry with myself. Sometimes I will say to my wife that I don’t feel very well and she’ll say it’s because you are working tonight.” Billy knows that he is luckier than some. “I have a lovely family and plenty of people around me and although it has been difficult in lockdown it hasn’t been too bad for me because I have a big garden, but if you are on your own and don’t know where your next gig is going to be and you have been used to going out working all your life making people laugh, then it can get very dark.”
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Billy and England and Yorkshire cricketer Adil Rashid took time out of their own self-isolation to film a series of short video clips to reinforce the importance of the Government message to stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives as part of Bradford Council’s campaign to reach out to every part of the community with key public health messages.
Although Billy has been busy doing podcasts, sending birthday messages to fans and taking part in the online digital version of the Bradford Fringe, which he says has opened up a couple of new doors for him to do some serious acting work, it is panto which is his true love. “Oh no it isn’t, Oh yes, it is!”
“I have done panto at the Bradford Alhambra for the last 21 years and this year should have been no exception, but we are still waiting to hear if it will be allowed to go ahead,” he explains. Last year it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with Step’s Faye Tozer and Paul Chuckle and to put it in perspective as to how much panto means to the local community, Billy says that it took over £2 million at the box office. “It’s amazing how many people are on the payroll and how many in the area rely on panto for their livelihood.”
This year it should be Sleeping Beauty and Billy is waiting for the bones of the script to come through his letterbox. Over the years, he has established a fair bit of creative control over the panto, drawing on his vast experience to get heavily involved in the writing process. “I write a lot of the funny stuff, but I do that when I know who else is starring in it so that I can beef up their parts to suit their personality.”
Has Billy ever played the Dame, I ask? “It has been mentioned a couple of times but I always steer away from it when possible – although it may have to come in to play at some point. I am usually the central character and principal boy such as Buttons or Aladdin, but now I am getting older it doesn’t sit right!”
As he approaches 70, the veteran performer says that has no plans to slow down or hang up his microphone any time soon. So what does the future hold for Billy? “Retirement would drive me bananas and working is always something that I look forward to and the adrenaline keeps me young – I’m 95 you know!”