Forty-two years since last playing Frank Spencer, Michael Crawford is reprising his famous accident-prone character in a special Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em sketch for BBC1’s Sport Relief night. And even though he’s now 74, Crawford is still doing all his own stunts.
The sitcom’s ever-more elaborate sequences became its trademark over the three series that ran from 1973 to 1978, and Crawford is determined to keep up the tradition all these years on. “We’ve been working on this for four months, which sounds extravagant for a ten-minute sketch, but we wanted it to stand out,” says Crawford. “They’ve let me run riot but the producers are now scared to be left alone with me in case I come up with any more dangerous ideas. It’s turning into Ben-Hur!”
Two years ago Sport Relief revived Only Fools and Horses in a sketch that saw David Beckham join Del Boy and Rodney down in Peckham market selling a crate of dodgy underpants. Not to be outdone, Michael Crawford will be joined by sporting icon Sir Bradley Wiggins and – RT can exclusively reveal – former Formula One champion Jenson Button.
“I don’t want to give too much away,” says Crawford, “but Frank is on a journey by bicycle and on roller skates to see his grown-up daughter, Jessica, take part in a race at the Olympic velodrome in London. I arrive just as Bradley Wiggins is trying to break the world hour record, with hilarious consequences.”
One of the most iconic scenes from Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em was the original roller-skating episode broadcast in 1973, where Frank and Betty are expecting their first child and practising for parenthood by looking after the neighbour’s children. On an outing to a roller-skating rink Frank loses control, bursts through the fire exit onto a busy road at high speed, dodging cars and ducking under a lorry before eventually crashing into a baby shop.
When I reveal that it’s my favourite episode, Crawford laughs. “You’ll be pleased to hear I’m doing exactly that same thing with the double-decker bus, where I roller-skate around the corner and then grab on to the back. My balance isn’t what it used to be, so I had to do more than 12 takes before I got that scene right.”
Michael Crawford’s performing career nearly came to an end in 2004 after he had to pull out of The Woman in White in the West End suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome following a viral infection. His doctors think he became seriously dehydrated from performing in a rubber fat suit. He took several years to get healthy again but is now fighting fit and preparing to star in a new musical adaptation of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, opening in the West End in May.
The huge popularity of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em (the 1975 Christmas special got 25 million viewers) has often overshadowed the star’s successful stage career. Crawford originated the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera in the mid-80s, winning an Olivier and a Tony Award on Broadway.
He has refused numerous requests over the years to put on Frank Spencer’s trademark beret and trench coat, even turning down a lucrative advertising campaign. So why now? “Two things changed my mind: one, Sport Relief is a worthy cause, and two, the opportunity to work with Bradley Wiggins.”
He denies press reports that he has agreed to come back and do a revival of the series. “It’s just this sketch for Sport Relief, that’s it,” he says firmly. Michele Dotrice will also return to her role as Frank Spencer’s long-suffering wife, Betty. She’s currently on stage in the West End in Nell Gwynn with Gemma Arterton.
“Michele was always disgraceful on set,” recalls her co-star fondly, “because she never stopped giggling and that would set everyone else off. But she was a good sport when it came to doing stunts.”
One of the most dangerous scenes they ever filmed together for Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em was when their car ends up hanging over a cliff and Betty has to climb out over the bonnet.
“When Michele’s mother saw that scene, she slapped her daughter’s face and she never spoke to me again. Of course these days it’s all much more difficult with health and safety rules. We didn’t have those 42 years ago!” He says rather diplomatically that many of the new regulations are very sensible, but it’s clear he finds them a bore.
Are there any stunts from Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em that he couldn’t do now? “I think the one where I am taking my driving test and I drive off the end of the pier into the sea. I don’t think they’d allow that now.” The scene ended with Frank yelling to the terrified, bedraggled examiner, “Have I passed?”
Michael Crawford’s passion for doing stunts didn’t end with the sitcom. He once suggested to the Broadway producer Hal Prince that he come down the stairs at the start of the second act in Phantom on stilts. “I tried it out on stage in front of him and he practically threw me out the door. He said he’d never met anyone so crazy – but then he was American…”
Crawford’s love of physical comedy began when he was a child watching Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. “At school I couldn’t get my head round learning things I didn’t find interesting. I loved being outside, climbing trees and buildings, roller-skating through the streets – but my other passion was performing.” He was a choirboy and began acting professionally as a teenager.
In 1966 he worked with the great Buster Keaton on his final film role, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “You learn a lot listening to stories from physical comedians like him. Buster was still doing his own stunts right up until the end. He did what we call a pratfall in that film, where he walked into the branch of a tree and fell over backwards. What an inspiration!”