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Gray, Edward Earl [Eddie] (1898–1969), comedian and juggler, was born on 10 June 1898 at 2 Carey Place, Pimlico, London, one of nine children of Edward Earl Gray, a Pimlico general dealer, and his wife, Rebecca Daniels. With his brother Danny, Gray was apprenticed to a juggling troupe at the age of nine. In his youth he toured extensively in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and the Far East. He first came to notice as a technically accomplished and innovative straight juggler and only gradually incorporated into his act the laconic, idiosyncratic humour for which he would be renowned. From 1919 he worked often with the double act of Jimmy Nervo and Teddy Knox (having first met Nervo when both were child performers in 1912) and appeared with them in their innovative revues of 1925, Young Bloods of Variety and Blue Bloods of Variety, and in Chelsea Follies in 1930. In counterpoint to their anarchic, practical-joking comedic style Gray developed a droll, slightly seedy stage persona, accompanying his juggling feats with an ironic, self-deprecating commentary. He toured extensively throughout the twenties, including a spell with Harry Lauder's company touring Australia and South Africa. He married Marie Cecilia Loftus (d. 1994), a variety performer, in 1931. She was known professionally as Patti Loftus and she came from a dynasty of female entertainers, being the niece of Marie Loftus, a well-known ‘principal boy’.

In November 1931 Gray appeared, with the double acts of Nervo and Knox, Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold, and Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy in what was billed as a ‘crazy week’ at the London Palladium. The great success of this event led directly to the formation of the , with whom Gray would continue to be associated. He appeared more or less continuously with the gang in a series of spectacularly popular variety shows and revues at the Palladium until 1940. It was during this time that he perfected the persona of the Monsewer, a droll grotesque with steel frame glasses and preposterous curly moustache, juggling and performing card tricks in an idiosyncratic comic patois of cockney and cod French: ‘Now, ce soir—that's foreign for this afternoon—moi's gonna travailler la packet of cards—une packet of cards, not deux, une.’ Veering in a deadpan manner between technical brilliance and apparent ineptitude, at one moment a polished performer eating apples as he juggled with them, the next a hilariously incompetent dog trainer, Gray developed an eccentric, inscrutable comic manner that made him a favourite among other comedians.

When the Crazy Gang split up in the early years of the war, Gray, like the other members of the group, toured in variety (including a run in Hi-de-hi at the Palace Theatre with Flanagan and Allen in 1943) and worked with the Entertainments National Service Association, touring in Europe and the Middle East. After the war Gray pursued a successful solo career in variety. He joined the re-formed Crazy Gang for a royal variety performance on 1 November 1948, but didn't fully rejoin until the revue These Foolish Kings at the Victoria Palace in December 1956. He subsequently appeared in all the gang's shows, and after their final show, Young in Heart in May 1962, continued to enjoy success as a solo act and as a performer in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Frankie Howerd.

Gray was much loved for his idiosyncratic humour, both on and off stage. Paul Jennings, in The Times, called him ‘the funniest man in the world’ and he was renowned as the favourite comedian of the poet laureate John Betjeman. There are many fond accounts in show-business reminiscences of his penchant for hoaxing and practical jokes; the most often repeated among these concerns his trick of persuading passers-by that a postman had become trapped inside a letter box. Although he was a founding member of the Crazy Gang and had helped define its characteristic, anarchic comedic style he always remained a semi-detached member of the group—a kind of eccentric cog in its deranged mechanism. He famously refused to sign contracts with managements throughout his career and so tended to be paid less than his talents were worth, leading him to quip frequently about his lack of ‘remooneration’. He continued to work until the end of his life, and died on 15 September 1969 at Southlands Hospital in Shoreham by Sea, Sussex, three days after making an impromptu guest appearance with Elsie and Doris Waters (Gert and Daisy) at the Hippodrome, Eastbourne.

David Goldie

Sources  

M. Owen, The Crazy Gang: a personal reminiscence (1986) · J. Fisher, Funny way to be a hero (1973) · R. Wilmut, Kindly leave the stage! (1985) · The Times (16 Sept 1969) · R. Hudd, Roy Hudd's cavalcade of variety acts (1997) · R. Busby, British music hall: an illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (1976) · I. Bevan, Top of the bill (1952) · B. Green, ed., The last empires: a music hall companion (1986) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1969) · b. cert. · d. cert. · private information [Mrs Wendi Lynch, first cousin, once removed]

Archives  

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, documentary recording


Likenesses  

group photograph, 1956, Hult. Arch. · group photograph, 1959, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£6733: administration, 13 Nov 1969, CGPLA Eng. & Wales