Fred Yule – Radio Celebrity …… and LHS President!

Over the past 86 years, our Society has enjoyed the wisdom and support of many fine Presidents, including civic dignitaries and JPs, yet none have been quite so ‘celebrity’ as Fred Yule, the LHS’s popular President from 1970 to 1981.

In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Fred Yule was a well-known character actor, singer and comedian, frequently to be heard on the radio, and perhaps best known to listeners as Bigga Banga and Norman the Doorman in I.T.M.A., the much-loved WW2 radio show, which ran from 1939 until the sudden death of the star of the show, Tommy Handley, in 1949.

Frederick Robert Yull - he later changed his surname to Yule - was born on 7th October 1893 at Hemsby, Norfolk. His early career was in horticulture, working at the renowned orchid nursery owned by Frederick Sander, known as the Orchid King, at St. Albans in Hertfordshire. It was here that his lifelong love of plants and gardens was first awakened.  The young Fred was also keen on amateur dramatics and soon joined a group of local players, appearing in many of their productions. However, the First World War was to see the closure of the orchid nursery and Fred joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, in the rank of Gunner. Unlike many of his comrades, Fred survived the terrible hostilities, and after the war found work on the music halls, becoming famous for his fine and powerful baritone voice.

In 1921, he married a fellow music hall artist, Laura Montgomery, professionally known under her stage-name, Doreen Monte, at St. George’s Hanover Square, Mayfair. By 1926, Fred had joined Catlin’s Royal Pierrots, a touring music hall troupe which, that summer, played at the Floral Pavilion, Wallasey. For the next ten years, he and Laura continued the itinerant life-style common to entertainers, playing music halls throughout the country, and living out of a suitcase.

Fred’s first big break came in 1937, when he appeared in an early television production of The Beggar’s Opera, broadcast from the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace.  His name was now becoming known in broadcasting circles and, in the spring of 1941, his fine voice could be heard playing the part of Bill Bobstay in H.M.S. Pinafore. But it was to be a role in radio comedy that made Fred Yule a familiar voice to the listening public.

In 1939, the entertainment show ‘It’s That Man Again’ - better known under the acronym ‘I.T.M.A.’ - was first broadcast, and quickly became one of the BBC Light Programme’s most popular comedy shows, running until 1949, when the star of the show, Tommy Handley, died from a sudden stroke. Fred joined I.T.M.A. in the early 1940s and was soon established as a regular member of the cast.

Further radio work beckoned, with regular appearances in the domestic comedy show, Ray’s a Laugh, starring Ted Ray. The show ran from 1949 until 1961, with Fred playing the star’s brother-in-law. In November 1947, to celebrate the BBC’s Silver Jubilee, a special edition of the popular musical review programme, Bandwaggon, was broadcast, with Fred sharing the billing with Richard Murdoch and Arthur Askey. 

In fact, so popular was Fred Yule at this time that he was included in a set of ‘Radio Celebrities’ cigarette cards issued in 1950 by Carreras.

Dramatic roles also came his way. Fred was cast in the popular science fiction serial, Journey into Space, the last BBC radio drama to enjoy higher ratings than television. And an occasional role in The Archers featured Fred playing the part of Admiral Bellamy, until the character’s demise in 1964.

Following the end of the Second World War, Fred and Laura moved to Leigh-on-Sea, buying a large detached property in Park Road. His local celebrity status saw Fred opening the Ideal Home Exhibition, held at the Kursaal Exhibition Hall, Southend-on-Sea, in February 1949. But, by the end of the 1950s, with Fred now in his mid 60s, his career as an entertainer was gradually fading. And despite the many comedic and dramatic roles he had played over the previous twenty-five years, in radio, and occasionally television, offers of work were drying up.

Shortly after moving to Leigh-on-Sea, Fred’s love of plants and gardening had led him to join the flourishing Leigh Horticultural Society, where his jocular and outward-going personality made him a popular and much loved member. Now, with more time on his hands, he became a regular exhibitor at the Society’s flower shows, showing some of the magnificent chrysanthemum and dahlia blooms grown in his beautiful Park Road garden, and winning many awards.

The ebullient Fred, in smart suit and tie, with his trilby hat sitting jauntily on his head, was always an early visitor to the flower shows, arriving as soon as the doors opened to the public. But this was not just to learn whether his blooms had secured awards; he would make straight for the tea room, where he could be found consuming vast quantities of cream cakes and cups of tea! In 1971, Fred enthusiastically accepted the position of President of the Leigh Horticultural Society, an office he executed with great professional skill and wit until ill-health forced him to stand down in 1981.

Sadly, Fred’s health continued to decline, and he passed away, at the grand old age of 89, on 11 December 1982. Laura, his supportive and loving wife for over sixty years, survived him for another nine years, until her death in May 1991.

Although Fred Yule never achieved the fame and celebrity of many of today’s radio and television performers, he had been a most popular entertainer, and a mainstay of many successful BBC radio programmes. His memory lives on in the BBC’s archive of popular shows of the mid 20th century, a fitting tribute to the LHS’s ‘celebrity’ President!

© Jim Sanctuary