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Jewel, Jimmy [real name James Arthur Thomas Marsh]free

(1909–1995)
  • Dave Russell

Jimmy Jewel (1909–1995)

by Wolfgang Suschitzky, 1981

© Wolfgang Suschitzky / National Portrait Gallery, London

Jewel, Jimmy [real name James Arthur Thomas Marsh] (1909–1995), comedian and actor, was born on 4 December 1909 at 52 Andover Street, Pittsmoor, Sheffield, the younger child of James Arthur Thomas Marsh (1881–1936), music-hall artist (under the name James A. Jewel) and designer and builder of stage scenery, and his wife, Gertrude, née Driver (1881–1956), also a music-hall performer. Jewel was involved in the theatrical world from childhood, making an albeit brief début in a Barnsley pantomime—he injured his shoulder making his first entrance—aged five. His schooling was largely peripatetic, including two unenjoyable spells at boarding-schools in Derbyshire and in south London, and ineffective. He made his début in a walk-on role in the family revue Explosions in 1925 and then, under the name Marsh Jewel, he developed a song-and-dance routine that involved impersonations of Maurice Chevalier and Jack Buchanan. As well as touring with the family show in the 1930s he also worked for periods with Willie Lancet's Midget Troupe and as a solo act in cinema variety spots. His career was reshaped by accident in May 1934 when he and his cousin, black-face act Ben Warriss [see below], were asked to form an impromptu double act to cover for the non-appearance of another duo. Their performance was successful enough for the two to link permanently from the autumn of that year and, by 1938, they were good enough to make their West End début at the Holborn Empire under Max Miller. Ben Holden Driver Warriss (1909–1993) had been born in the same bed as his cousin at 52 Andover Street, Sheffield, five months earlier than Jewel, on 29 May 1909, the son of Benjamin Holden Joseph Warriss, insurance company's inspector, and his wife, Mary Ann, née Driver, Jewel's mother's sister.

For much of the 1940s and 1950s, Jewel and Warriss were Britain's leading comedy double act. They appeared at the highly prestigious Palladium for the first time in 1942 in Gangway and they returned with High Time in 1946, a year that also saw them top the bill in the royal variety performance. Although they were arguably always most effective as stage performers, their BBC radio series Up the Pole—which ran from 1947 to 1952—was extremely successful and it brought them to an even wider audience: they were even the lead strip in the comic Radio Fun for a period. They did only a limited amount of film work, beginning with Rhythm Serenade (1943), starring Vera Lynn, but were more successful in television, becoming the stars of Turn it up, the first regular television comedy series, in 1951. They were a major pantomime attraction and they regularly toured the leading provincial variety theatres. Their stage act was essentially a mixture of the fast-paced, increasingly American-influenced, cross-talk acts popular from the 1930s, and a repertory of visual gags that often made use of sophisticated props and scenery: the influence of Jewel's father was clear here. Jewel, with a slightly unconvincing toupee, a remarkably mobile and expressive face, and a broad Sheffield accent, was invariably the gullible victim of the suave Warriss's somewhat malicious humour. When, for example, a character in Up the Pole asked Jimmy, 'Where did you learn to kiss like that?', Warriss replied for him, 'Syphoning petrol!' (Foster and Furst, 100). Warriss regularly received letters asking him to stop bullying his partner. Their comic legacy was fairly limited, as they embodied a skilfully honed version of an old tradition, and by the 1960s their style seemed dated and less appealing to audiences who were increasingly attuned to more subtle and more intimate forms of humour. In 1966, with the variety circuit dead and the disillusioned pair reduced to working the pub and club circuit, Warriss ended the partnership.

Warriss ran a restaurant near Bath before returning to the stage to chair music-hall revivals at Blackpool, to perform in pantomime, and even to take straight acting roles in productions of Jean-Claude Grumberg's Dreyfus and John Osborne's The Entertainer. He finally retired only when his health broke down a year before his death. He was married three times. His first wife, whom he married on 22 September 1934, was Grace Mary Skinner (b. 1910/11), a dancer and teacher of dancing and daughter of Henry Arthur James Skinner, master mariner. This marriage had ended by about 1940 and two years later Warriss married the entertainer Meggie Easton. Little is known of his third marriage, which took place about 1960, other than that his third wife was named Virginia. Warriss was a prominent member of the show-business charity the Grand Order of Water Rats, and he was King Rat for the years 1953, 1961, and 1962. He died at a home run by the Entertainment Artists' Benevolent Fund, Brinsworth House, Staines Road, Twickenham, of lung cancer, on 14 January 1993.

Jewel was initially deeply upset by the break with WarrissWarriss informed him by letter rather than in person—but he gradually forged a new career as a television and stage character actor that won him greater critical acclaim than his earlier work had ever done. In 1968 the BBC head of comedy, Frank Muir, persuaded him to play the part of a militant shop steward in the television play A Spanner in the Works, and this relaunched his career. From 1968 to 1972 he played opposite Hylda Baker in the successful television series, Nearest and Dearest, and much more television work appeared, culminating in his final series, Funny Man (1981), which he wrote himself and which was based on his experiences in the family troupe in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1975, aged sixty-one, his serious theatrical career commenced when he starred as the comic Eddie Walters in Trevor Griffiths's The Comedians at the Nottingham Playhouse, and later at the National Theatre, and as Willie Clark in Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys in the West End. He continued to work in television and theatre into the 1980s and he made a film appearance in American Friends as late as 1991. His varied and lengthy career marked him out as one of the most flexible and professional of twentieth-century comic talents. He married the Australian entertainer Isabel (Belle) Bluett (1911/12–1985) on 31 August 1939. She was the daughter of Frederick George Bluett, theatrical artist, and the sister of Kitty Bluett, the comedian. They had a son, Kerry, in 1946 and adopted a daughter, Piper, in 1955. Jewel's autobiography, Three Times Lucky (1982), gave evidence of few hobbies beyond golf and his family. He died at his home, 96 Troy Court, Kensington High Street, London, of respiratory failure, on 3 December 1995. He was survived by his son and adopted daughter.

Sources

  • J. Jewel, Three times lucky: an autobiography (1982)
  • The Guardian (4 Dec 1995)
  • The Guardian (6 Dec 1995)
  • The Times (5 Dec 1995)
  • The Independent (5 Dec 1995)
  • The Times (18 Jan 1993) [Ben Holden Driver Warriss]
  • The Independent (18 Jan 1993) [Ben Holden Driver Warriss]
  • The Guardian (19 Jan 1993) [Ben Holden Driver Warriss]
  • A. Foster and S. Furst, Radio comedy, 1938–1968 (1996)
  • b. cert. [Ben Holden Driver Warriss]
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • group portrait, photograph, 1953, Hult. Arch.
  • group portrait, photograph, 1976, Hult. Arch.
  • W. Suschitzky, bromide print, 1981, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian (4 Dec 1995)
  • photograph (with B. Warriss), repro. in The Times (5 Dec 1995)
  • photograph (with B. Warriss), repro. in The Independent (5 Dec 1995)
  • photograph (with B. Warriss), repro. in The Times (18 Jan 1993)
  • photographs, repro. in Jewel, Three times lucky

Wealth at Death

£671,838: probate, 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]