A version of this article appeared in The Oldie magazine, March 2012.
Ted Ray was conservative, had traditional values, and pulled himself up from his northern working-class roots to become one of the most popular comedians of his era. His son Andrew was an unconventional hell-raiser who had fame thrust upon him as a child. Why were they so different? Mark Olden unravels the mystery at the heart of his family.
As my dad bounded on to the bus, my mum shouted after him from the street: “Give the poor woman a chance to speak. Let her get a word in edgeways.”
They were about tocelebrate 44years of marriage, and no-one knew him better than she did. The next day he was meeting a literary agent to discuss a family memoir, and while he was a good listener, he was also an effusive talker. My mum feared his words might not stop.
Walking into the agent’s West End office the following day, Andrew Ray looked a decade younger than his 64 years. He was tanned and fit from a summer cycling along the Brighton coast. The agent was in her 30s, well-spokenand astute. They greeted one another, sat down and he began his story.
He told her of his childhood growing up in north London as the son of a famous comic, Ted Ray. He explained how, as a shy, stammering 10-year-old, a casting director spotted him, and after an audition in which his self-consciousness vanished in front of the camera, he was offered the lead role as the wide-eyed Victorian street urchin in a film called The Mudlark. It brought him instant fame and ended his schooling. He signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, starred in numerous films, had hit plays in the West End and on Broadway and, at 20, married my mum, a pretty Rhodesian actress who’d recently left drama school.
Then, following the arc of so many child stars’ lives, came the fall: he blew his earnings, which his dad had prudently placed in a trust, as soon as he got his hands on them, wrote off two sports’ cars in succession and was rushed to hospital after overdosing on sleeping pills. His agent stopped calling and the work dried up. Penniless, he faced the ignominy of being caught stealing groceries from a supermarket. The newspapers no longer covered his latest triumph, but his latest crisis.
There followed a wild, often drug-fuelled journey through the 1960s, a spiritual epiphany in India, which inspired him to give away his possessions and later move to the English countryside with dreams of living off the land. He was tailed by Special Branch in racially segregated Rhodesia for declaring that black and white should be equal, and eventually forced out of the country. And his career revived with a steady stream of TV and theatre work.
My dad hadn’t heeded my mum’s advice. He’d spoken for 20 minutes with barely a pause. Finally the agent had her chance. Gathering her thoughts, she started explaining how all this might be tied into a book. As she began, she noticed that my dad’s eyes were shut. Her first thought was that he’d fallen asleep. “Are you ok?” she asked. There was no reply, no movement of any kind. His heart had stopped.
My dad’s obituaries described an actor who’d lived in both the limelight and the wilderness, and a man who didn’t bow to convention. They also hinted at a rift between him and his father, invariably referring to how the “disciplinarian” Ted had tried to block Andrew marrying so young. One report was more explicit.
“I was always taken aback when I heard Ted Ray talking about his sons in public,” the comedian Barry Cryer said in The Daily Express. “He would praise [his elder son, the broadcaster] Robin to the hilt but never Andrew. He always referred to him as ‘the other’. It was sad.”
Ted and Andrew Ray differed in fundamental ways. Andrew could be impulsive and lived on the edge; Ted did things by the book.
Charlie Olden, as he was known before he adopted the stage name Ted Ray, was born in Wigan and grew up in a working-class home in Liverpool. “If you learn the violin,” his dad told him when he was a boy, “you’ll always have a living even if you have to play in the streets.” He heeded his words, and after stints as an office clerk and a ship steward, worked as a small-time dance band violinist.
Variety shows were the mainmass entertainment of the day, and the stand-up comics who played them adorned their routines with singing and dancing. Nedlo the Gypsy Fiddler – the ridiculous moniker Ted then went under, (Nedlo being Olden backwards) – mixed wisecracks with violin-playing, and cavorted on stage with what looked like a tablecloth on his head. Facing unforgiving crowds in dreary provincial towns he climbed his way up the bill, his gags relying less on spontaneity than a prodigious memory and virtuoso timing.
“Every night, hour after hour,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I would stand in front of the mirror in my bedroom, grimacing, smiling and winking, with the idea of getting the most effective expression for putting over a joke… Every inflection of voice and every shade of emotion as reflected in a comedian’s voice do count tremendously, and I was determined that if hard work and ceaseless rehearsal would help, no trouble on my part would be too great.”
This tenacity led to him becoming a household name. When the lights of Variety finally dimmed, he moved into television and radio, where his show, Ray’s A Laugh, lasted 12 years and was one of the most popular programmes on the airwaves. With success had come marriage, to the vivacious, headstrong Sybil, a chorus girl in one of his shows, and they eventually settled in a posh suburban home with a Jaguar in the driveway.
In 1975, when he was 69, he crashed his car while driving home drunk from the golf club, and was hospitalised for three months with multiple broken bones. Afterwards, unable to play his beloved golf, his zest for life waned. Two years later he died – like Andrew – of heart failure. In his jacket pocket was a card on which he’d written: “Cremated, and ten per cent of my ashes to be scattered over my agent.” He’d left with a good gag, as he’d always strived to.
Ted Ray’s values were of the aspirational working-class: conservative and underpinned by a belief in pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. The contrast between his and Andrew’s paths to fame – the former toiling his way to it, the latter having it thrust upon him as a child – was enough to shape them into the very different men they were. In any case, offspring can be the polar opposites of their parents. But was there more to it than that?
A possible answer lies in the notes my dad typed just before he died, in preparation for his meeting with the literary agent. In them, he describes a furious row he had with Sybil when he was in his 40s, and they were on holiday together in the south of France after Ted’s death.
“Mama drops a bombshell,” he wrote. The “bombshell” was that Ted wasn’t his father. A man named Barry Kennedy was. His mum later retracted her words. She’d said it in the heat of the moment, she claimed. But some things can’t be unsaid.
Sybil Ray was a remarkably generous woman who loved champagne and James Cagney films, and performed the splits on her 70th birthday. Throughout their marriage she remained Ted’s staunchest supporter, and he, apparently, remained under her spell. She outlived him by a quarter of a century, and always spoke of him with reverence. Yet the spectre of Barry Kennedy never left. By 93, Sybil’s mind was fraying and she went into a nursing home. She told the carers there all about Ted – someone they’d never heard of from an era they didn’t know – but in her final days, with dementia advancing, she started calling out Barry Kennedy’s name.
This is all my dad knew about him:
Barry was a dancer whom Sybil was seeing before she met Ted.
When my dad was a boy, a fair-haired, rakish figure with a twinkle in his eye approached him in the street one day and said, “Give my regards to your mother”. He said his name was Barry Kennedy.
Ted once met Barry at a golf club, and said, “If I never see you again, it won’t be a day too soon”.
Did Ted have an intuition that Andrew wasn’t his, and if so, did this create the fault-line in their relationship?
Probably not. Ted, with his stocky frame and strong jaw-line, and the skinny, fair-haired Andrew didn’t seem to bear a physical resemblance, but in his autobiography Ted describes looking into Andrew’s eyes and seeing his own. The book is also littered with passages bursting with fatherly pride: Ted recounting, for instance, Laurence Olivier phoning to ask permission for Andrew to perform in one of his productions. “Ted, dear boy,” said England’s most revered actor, “do let us have your little son for the play. He is so wonderful.”
For Andrew, the question of his origin remained unresolved. But his brother Robin helped him make sense of it, assuring him that whether or not Barry Kennedy was his father, it was Ted who loved and raised him
Whatever the truth, when nature and nurture collided in my father, the result was someone who broke the mould.