James Casey – Comedian and Scriptwriter
James Casey was born in Stockton-on-Tees on 16 August 1922 and was the son of the comedian Jimmy James and cousin of comedian Eli Woods.
As a child he literally lived in a wicker basket whilst his father and mother performed on stage, one of them looking after him in the wings or in the dressing room while the other was performing. During the Second World War he served as an officer in the Durham Light Infantry, landing on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944.
His father wanted him to have a career in law rather than have an uncertain life on the stage, and when he came out of the army at the end of the war he tried to sort out his father’s disastrous financial affairs. Jimmy James was a compulsive gambler and went bankrupt three times. On the final occasion on which he faced the bankruptcy court, completely deadpan, he announced to the surprised assembly: “I presume I have now won the Official Receiver outright!”
It was during the late 1940s that he first joined his father’s act under the stage name of Cass James, in three-handed sketches with his father and cousin, Jack Casey (who originally used the stage name Bretton Woods, but was later better known as Eli Woods). He quickly discovered a greater talent for writing the sketches, so when his father moved into radio he wrote his series’ The Mayor’s Parlour and Home James. Not only was he writing for his father but other popular comedians such as Norman Evans in the show Northern Variety Parade. The popularity of his father’s series meant he was eventually offered a staff job as a BBC producer.
One of his most popular successes was with the diminutive Jimmy Clitheroe. At only 4’3” tall, Clitheroe specialised in playing cheeky schoolboys until well into middle age. In 1955, at Casey’s prompting, Clitheroe appeared in Call Boy, a radio variety series featuring popular stars of the day. Written mainly by Casey, and assisted by Frank Roscoe and Ronnie Taylor, the initial sketches featuring Jimmy Clitheroe were short 8 minute items, but within three years had expanded into the full-length situation comedy The Clitheroe Kid, written mainly – and produced solely – by Casey. The combination of Casey’s versatile scripts and Clitheroe’s impetuous cheek proved a winner and ran from 1957 to 1972.
Two famous comedians owed their professional careers almost entirely to Casey, who discovered, honed and marketed them. When he spotted Les Dawson in a Manchester club he immediately recognised great talent, but it took five years to persuade the BBC to try him out on radio. When they did, Casey wrote the jokes for Listen with Les for 12 years. When he saw the first scripts, Dawson remarked that they were more like him than he was himself.
Casey spotted Ken Dodd at the Sunderland Empire on the same bill as his father, and challenged the BBC’s initial assessment that Dodd was suitable only for television. Much later, he was asked if he would again produce Ken Dodd on radio, as he was the only person the now famous comedian trusted. He did, and Dodd recorded several over-length live shows, which Casey edited, almost non-stop over a period of 24 days, to create the series: the resulting six programmes being a terrific success.
Another successful comedy series Casey produced was Hinge and Bracket, whom he initially thought were two old ladies. It was pointed out to him that they were actually two young men in drag. The closing credits on the resulting series included a reference to producer “Gentleman James Casey”, a typically Northern epithet.
Other comedians and personalities who profited from Casey’s scripts were Morecambe and Wise, Mike Yarwood and Des O’Connor. He also discovered and promoted the actress Alison Steadman, who appeared in the comedy sketch series The Worst Show on the Wireless, which also featured his son, Daniel Casey and Eli Woods.
He retired from the BBC in 1982, after which he revived his father’s variety act to great acclaim with Roy Castle (who had begun his career in the 1950s as a member of Jimmy James and Co.) and Eli Woods on The Michael Parkinson Show in 1982. As a result of that appearance, they were invited to include the act in that year’s Royal Variety Performance. With Woods, Casey then worked the surviving variety theatres with the act for the following 25 years. As a measure of his stature within the profession, many famous stars willingly appeared as the second stooge in the act during those years, including Ray Alan, Jimmy Cricket, Roy Hudd, Paul Shane, Reg Varney, Les Dawson, Don McLean and Charlie Williams.
He died in Stockton on 23 April 2011, aged 88.