Over the past hundred years there have been a raft of British comedy stars that have become household names in the UK, and, in some instances, in the US, too. Here are ten comedy legends that will probably still be making us laugh in another hundred years.
10. David Jason
Star of possibly Britain’s favourite sitcom, Only Fools and Horses, David Jason showed his versatility early in his TV career when playing an old man in another top British sitcom, Porridge. Also a star in Open All Hours as the innocent shop assistant, Granville, it was a later comedy, Only Fools and Horses, that made David and his wheeler dealer character Del Boy so well loved in homes all over the UK.
9. Norman Wisdom
photo: Jac. de Nijs / Anefo
Norman Wisdom continued the sad clown tradition of previous British comedy greats Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Because of his likeability and vulnerability, cinema audiences soon warmed to Norman’s most famous comedy character, Norman Pitkin, in the 1950s. Norman Wisdom was, at the time, Britain’s biggest comedy star, and he also showed audiences that he was a talented singer, too.
8. Rowan Atkinson
A comedy star who doesn’t even have to speak to make people laugh, Rowan Atkinson certainly has the face for comedy. Rowan has always recognised that the opportunity to contort his rubbery face into various directions is one that shouldn’t be missed – none more so than with his character, the angry, incompetent loser that is Mr. Bean.
7. Tony Hancock
If you want to look at the definition of the sad clown, Tony Hancock pretty much was just that. A comedy genius, the lugubrious character Tony Hancock played on TV turned out to be not so different from what Tony was like in real life. The master of the deadpan delivery, Tony was also impressive in the film The Rebel as a hopeless artist with ideas above his station.
6. Morecambe and Wise
If judged on fame in Britain alone Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise would have come nearer to the top of the list. But, though they were Britain’s most popular comedy duo of all-time, they didn’t make a great impact in countries like the United States. Eric and Ernie were primarily TV stars, but they did gravitate briefly towards movies in the 1960s with limited success.
5. Benny Hill
Benny Hill fell out of favour in the 1980s, when younger comedy stars looked down their noses at his TV shows, and called them sexist. However, there was a lot more to Benny’s comedy than sketches involving scantily clad women. He would use wordplay to hilarious effect, and he was particularly adept at writing and performing comedy songs. Benny also expertly sent up film stars, singers and pretentiousness generally.
4. John Cleese
A comedy actor who made manic behaviour an artform, it was John Cleese’s ability to depart from the typical stiff upper lip Englishman and completely lose control, as with his character Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, that really defined him. John had done this earlier, too, as part of the legendary Monty Python comedy team, when he looked every inch the man from the City, but would then introduce into a sketch a very silly walk indeed!
3. Peter Sellers
Peter Sellers showed his ability as a mimic early in his career, and as part of the surreal comedy group The Goons. From there Peter moved into film and he made the role of the bumbling French Inspector Clouseau his own in the Pink Panther movies from the 1960s onwards. But, it was the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, that really showed just how talented Peter Sellers was. In the film Peter played three key characters, including the fanatical Dr, Strangelove – and his performances received widespread acclaim.
2. Stan Laurel
Born and bred in Britain, Stan Laurel would become a household name in the United States in his 30s as one half of the most famous comedy duo of them all – Laurel and Hardy. The very different appearance of the stick-thin Stan compared to the rotund Oliver Hardy was a key ingredient in the duo’s success, as was Stan’s often tearful responses to Oliver’s angry outbursts – after a dim Stan had done something wrong again.
1. Charlie Chaplin
With his distinctive walk and appearance, Charlie Chaplin was the first British comedy star to become a household name in both the UK and the US, when he became the world’s biggest film star during the silent era. Charlie also had more strings to his bow than being a film star, and was a notable composer, screenwriter, director and producer – and he co-founded United Artists. A century on from his early silent films, Charlie Chaplin still remains the greatest comedy star Britain has ever produced.