It’s been a year of extremes – from the pomp of Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee to the growling Sex Pistols song God Save The Queen.
But in 1977, Mike Yarwood bridged the gap in society with humor – an impressionist, comedian and a welcome relief from the country’s many problems.
On December 25 this year, a staggering 21.4 million of us watched his marquee television show and were delighted by his spot-on portrayals of the big names of the time, from Prime Minister Jim Callaghan to the then Prince Charles.
Among them was the prince’s mother, the Queen, who reportedly postponed the royal family’s Christmas dinner by an hour so she could watch the show.
It still holds the record for the largest television audience on Christmas Day, according to the Royal Variety Charity.
Mike, who died on Friday at the age of 82, had outstanding talent and a gentle humor that enabled him to satirize royalty and politicians without offending them. It made him an unmissable sight.
At the end of his shows he always sang a closing number and introduced himself with the line “And that’s me.”
His stunning impressions of leading figures of the time such as Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Denis Healey, as well as well-known television faces such as quiz host Hughie Green and The Sky At Night’s Patrick Moore, cheered the nation through the dark and politically turbulent 1970s.
He even invented the catchphrase “Silly Billy” for his portrayal of Healey, which became so famous that the Labor chancellor even occasionally used it himself.
“So much joy”
Mike’s brilliance in imitating both the mannerisms and voice of each celebrity was an inspiration to later impressionists, including Rory Bremner and Alistair McGowan.
Rory tweeted yesterday: “He was the governor. He inspired us, pushed the impressionists and was the court jester of the “golden age” of television.”
He added: “He kicked the door down and turned his impressions of some kind of professional gig into a Saturday night affair.”
Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, and Mike found it a challenge to emulate her – “I couldn’t get the voice at all,” he admitted.
In the 1980s, Mike struggled with alcohol and anxiety problems as his career faltered, satire became increasingly caustic, and his characters faded from public prominence.
Alistair said yesterday: ‘With impressionists we get a bit forgotten because our material is current and of course the people we work with are constantly moving on.
“So on TV you don’t get repeats in the same way and Mike didn’t get repeats in the way that The Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise were always repeated.
“Mike has been forgotten in this regard, and that’s a shame because he brought so much joy to young and old alike.”
Mike was born and raised in Bredbury, near Stockport, Cheshire and was a lifelong Stockport County fan. He was only six years old when he first became interested in impressions.
He stuffed a pillow into his sweater, put on glasses and enjoyed playing the fictional, chubby schoolboy Billy Bunter.
But mimicry wasn’t his only talent.
He grew up on the outskirts of Manchester and was an experienced footballer who played for local clubs.
He thought about turning professional, but show business lured him when he started winning local talent competitions.
Mike’s big break came when he was booked on the ITV variety show Sunday Night At The London Palladium in 1964, aged 23.
That night, the public first caught one of his most lasting impressions – with the trademark pipe and raincoat as Labour’s Harold Wilson, who later became prime minister that year.
This resulted in a series of programs for ATV and Thames Television. In 1971 Mike joined super-producer Bill Cotton’s BBC star list, including Morecambe and Wise and the two Ronnies, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker.
Under Cotton’s leadership, Mike’s fame was taken to new heights with shows such as Look: Mike Yarwood from 1971 to 1976 and Mike Yarwood In Persons, which ran from 1977 to 1981.
All of his shows had a sophisticated format – Mike performed skits and monologues, mixed with guest appearances from singers and musicians.
Mike’s warm, family-oriented sense of humor was generally understated – but at times he could also be a bit mocking.
As Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan joked: “Actually, at the House of Commons Christmas party, Maggie asked me if I would kiss her under the mistletoe. I said I wouldn’t kiss her under anesthesia.”
And he parodied astronomer Patrick Moore, famous for his squint, joking: “Now watch out, because I’ve got my eye on you.”
He became famous for a sketch with Sir Paul McCartney, in which Mike played Denis Healey disguised as a punk.
He asked the Beatle: “Sorry, I don’t know if you know me, but I used to be Denis Healey.
“Well, I got pretty tired of being a dumb Billy, so I decided to become a burly punk.”
At the time, Mike was married to Sandra, a member of the TV dance group The Young Generation, who appeared regularly on his shows.
The couple lived with their daughters Charlotte and Clare in a sprawling Surrey mansion with extensive grounds and a swimming pool.
Mike appeared at seven Royal Variety shows – which would have proved awkward as the Windsors were an integral part of his routine.
He is believed to have been the first on television to imitate royalty with his foppish impression of the Prince of Wales.
But Charles and his then-wife Diana were impressed.
Mike said: “He never said much about what he thought, but he liked my Ronald Reagan.
Princess Diana told me she liked a kitchen sketch of Charles and Diana that I did with Suzanne Danielle.”
He was also welcomed by the political establishment. Prime Minister Edward Heath introduced him at a luncheon as “the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition”.
He was referring to himself and Harold Wilson. Wilson left Mike’s show playing in the background while he read official newspapers and instructed his wife Mary, “Tell me when it’s my turn.”
Wilson was clearly pleased by the famous parody and named Mike an OBE on his retirement honors list in 1976.
Despite all his successes, Mike was a perfectionist and put himself under enormous pressure to perform.
He recalled: “When I was on The Mike Yarwood Show, I walked into the studio and saw all these people working on a project, all because of me. I wanted to run away.”
When he wasn’t working, he was exhausted and struggled to settle into a normal family life.
He admitted: “I had a period where I didn’t want to go out at all because it made me uncomfortable.
“I struggled with common things husbands do, like going to the supermarket on Saturdays.”
His pre-show nervousness worsened, his drinking increased, and his marriage came under strain.
Mike later admitted: “I wasn’t a monster, but I was bad-tempered and a control freak. I had a tendency to say, “Oh, there’s so much pressure in show business,” but it was my drinking that was causing the problems.
“It is paradoxical that my most successful years were the 70s and yet I look back with great sadness.
“My drinking was out of control most of the time. I worked too much and everything got to the point where I had to drink. I missed a lot of children growing up.
“One of the saddest things is that I missed my daughter’s first birthday because I was too hungover.”
In the early 1980s, Mike moved to ITV, but many of his favorite impressions had now fallen out of favor and his television career finally ended in 1988 when Thames Television decided not to renew his contract.
His marriage to Sandra also ended, and away from the spotlight, Mike suffered from an identity crisis.
His daughter Clare said: “He was famous from a young age and when it all stopped the big question was: ‘If I’m not Mike Yarwood, who am I?'”
Apparently restless, he went home five times, once to Prestbury, Cheshire, where he regaled pub patrons with his impressions over a pint.
Plans to revive his career as a talk show host were thwarted in 1990 when he fell ill while performing at a cabaret in Los Angeles.
Shortly thereafter, he suffered a heart attack, which was the wake-up call he needed to stop drinking alcohol for good in 1991.
Mike found peace in later life and described himself as a “happy man”.
He said: “I spend most of my time with my daughters and four grandchildren and they are the ones who make me laugh.
The star’s final years were spent at the Royal Variety Charity’s Brinsworth House care home in Twickenham, south-west London.
Mike’s final skits were done solely for the entertainment of his grandchildren – whose giggles proved that, even in his final years, he still knew how to make a good impression.