The walls of Melvyn Hayes’ study at his family home in Ryde are covered with reminders of a truly remarkable career in show business.
There are photographs of Melvyn with Cliff Richard and the cast of ‘Summer Holiday’, a smash hit film of more than 50 years ago. There are Radio Times front covers, and even a model of the film set depicting the time when he played Gunner ‘Gloria’ Beaumont in the hilarious TV series ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’.
There are billboard posters of plays that he has featured in, and there is even the famous red book from the time he was caught by Eamonn Andrews for ‘This Is Your Life’. And for every picture, every front cover and every poster, Melvyn has a tale to tell. No wonder he says: “So far I have been writing my autobiography 30 years and I have got up to 1958. So I am going to be 172 before I even get halfway.”
The most amazing thing I found when I chatted to him was that for a man who has just passed his 79th birthday, and has had a triple heart by-pass and new valve, Melvyn still has remarkable energy and enthusiasm for an acting profession he has been engaged in for more than 60 years. Every story he tells has a funny twist; and the true pro can break effortlessly into the voice of the character he is talking about.
A Cockney, born within the sound of Bow Bells, Melvyn was a youngster in the Second World War and was evacuated from London. He said: “First I was sent to Devon, only 80 miles from Cherbourg which was being bombed, and then to Coventry – and we all know about the bombing there. If they had found out I was Jewish they would probably have sent me to Berlin!”
After leaving Grammar School in Battersea he wanted to be a jockey rather than an actor, saying: “Everyone told me I should be a jockey because I was so small, and I thought that was a good idea, even though I don’t like horses. I wrote to the Queen, when she was still Princess Elizabeth, saying I understood she had some horses and could I join her stables. I had a nice letter back saying ‘Princess Elizabeth is very pleased to hear about your future plans, but unfortunately she is on holiday in Malta, and wishes you all the best’.”
He eventually secured a job at the stables of a famous trainer; was supposed to earn five shillings (25p) a week, but never got paid, and soon left. He said: “I saw the trainer some time afterwards while I was filming, and told him he never paid me. He replied ‘oh, didn’t I?’ and just walked off. I never saw him again.”
Melvyn then had a spell in Fleet Street, carrying printers’ blocks in the office of the News Chronicle. It was while he was there he saw an advert in the paper simply saying ‘Boy wanted to disappear’.
He continued: “That led me to my first showbiz appearance, disappearing twice daily doing the Indian Rope Trick at the Comedy Theatre, London when I was 15. At school I was very good at Latin and climbing ropes, so I was the only one who applied for the job who could stay on the rope long enough for the Press to take pictures.
“I was paid £4 a week, but when the show toured, I was told my wages would be cut because I was no longer working in the West End. It was that or being a night watchman at a factory in Croydon, so I went on tour doing the Indian Rope Trick, and as assistant stage manager, property master, looking after the animals and setting all the props. Everyone says this is a glamorous profession, but in my 64 years in it, I have never seen any glamour!”
Melvyn then had a variety of acting jobs including Bonzo the Dog in ‘Babes in the Wood’, before deciding: “I needed to learn my trade, and appeared in repertory theatre around the country. That was when I worked with two actors, who weren’t sure whether to carry on because the going was tough. One was Frank Finlay and the other Eric Woodward. I once told Eric I wish he had told me not to carry on.”
Melvyn eventually earned a film contract as well as appearing in dramas on stage. He said: “I had a variety of roles. I think I am the only actor to play young Frankenstein and Tarzan. It was only when I read the script I realised I had been cast as a ‘camp’ Tarzan. Peter Cushing and Oliver Read were also in the film, but I never saw it.”
Along with ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ Melvyn is perhaps best remembered for his role in films with Cliff Richard – initially ‘The Young Ones’ followed by ‘Summer Holiday’ and ‘Wonderful Life’. He said: “The Young Ones was a smash hit, but I decided I wasn’t going to do Summer Holiday because they wouldn’t guarantee me any billing on the advertising posters. I changed my mind about a month before filming started.”
He continued: “Making the films with Cliff was great fun because we were just a bunch of kids having a good time. With Summer Holiday suddenly there I was in Athens thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ and then we went to the Canary Islands for Wonderful Life.”
As we laughed about the good times, Melvyn had a quick coughing fit. With a typical one-liner, he joked: “Sorry I will try not to die on you!” Coughing over, he continued: “When we were on location for the ‘Cliff’ films we could order any food we liked. Instead, we would sneak into the restaurant at lunchtime and pinch oranges, apples and a bottle of wine and take then to our room so we could sit and play records. We could have picked up the phone and ordered room service, but we never thought of that.
“Cliff liked this banana liqueur drink that was there, and said he was taking some home with him. He opened his suitcase and it was full of the stuff. I told him he would have to pay duty on it, and he just nodded – of course he would pay the duty. But there I was, clutching my half bottle of brandy to take back; I wasn’t going to pay duty!”
“Cliff and I got on well. I once told him that every time I was interviewed I said he was a great guy, but he never said anything nice about me. He replied ‘that’s because you are not a nice guy’. I warned him that the next time I would have a go at him, and I jokingly told the New Musical Express magazine he was a right b****** who couldn’t care less about anyone. I told the girl who interviewed me I was only joking, but the whole article was published.
“I rang Cliff to ask him if he had seen the NME and he replied ‘I don’t read comics any more’. I told him about the story, and he said he knew one day I would stitch him up. He was always a very private person, who couldn’t dance or act in the beginning, but he worked very hard at it. We are still great friends. I saw him at Buckingham Palace only last year at a garden party.”
In the next edition: Melvyn talks about ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’; why the BBC refuse to show it again, and his role of parent and foster parent.