With his small stature (5′ 1″/155 cm tall), curly red hair and liking for slapstick, he was a popular comedian with children in his early years, becoming nationally known for his “Hello, my darlings!” catchphrase.
He took his mother’s maiden name for the stage and, later,
television and film, achieving success as a comedian. Drake made his first appearance on stage at the age of eight, and after leaving school toured working men’s clubs. After serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, Drake turned professional and made his television début in The Centre Show in 1953. He then joined his wartime comrade Jack Edwardes to form a double act, named ‘Mick and Montmorency’. In 1954 he appeared with Bob Monkhouse in the film, Fast and Loose.
He appeared in the television shows “Laughter in Store” (1957), “Drake’s Progress” (1957–58), “Charlie Drake In…” (1958 to 1960) and “The Charlie Drake Show” (1960 to 1961), being remembered for his opening catchphrase. It came about because he was short, and so his eyes would often be naturally directly level with a lady’s bosom. Because of this and because in his television work he preferred appearing with big-busted women, the catchphrase was born.
The later series was ended, however, by a serious accident that occurred in 1961, during a live transmission. Drake had arranged for a bookcase to be set up in such a way that it would fall apart during a slapstick sketch in which he was pulled through it. It was later discovered that an over-enthusiastic workman had “mended” the bookcase before the broadcast. The actors working with him, unaware of what had happened, proceeded with the rest of the sketch which required that they pick him up and throw him through an open window. Drake fractured his skull and was unconscious for three days. It was two years before he returned to the screen.
Television fame led to four films, unsuccessful “Sands of the Desert” (1960), “Petticoat Pirates” (1961), “The Cracksman” (1963) and “Mister Ten Per Cent” (1967). He returned to television in 1963 with “The Charlie Drake Show” a compilation of which won an award at the Montreux Festival in 1968. The centerpiece of this was an extended sketch featuring an orchestra performing the “1812 Overture”, in which Drake appeared to play all the instruments; as well as conducting and one scene in which he was the player of a triangle waiting for his cue to play a single strike – which he subsequently missed.
Through the series he played a gymnast doing a single arm twist from a high ring while a commentator counted eventually into the thousands and by the end of the series, Drake’s arm appeared to be 20 ft (6 m) long. Other shows included “Who is Sylvia” (1967) and “Slapstick and Old Lace” (1971), but it was “The Worker” (1965 to 1970) that gained most acclaim.
He was the subject of “This Is Your Life” on two occasions, in December 1961 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in a rehearsal room at the London Palladium, and in November 1995, when Michael Aspel surprised him at the curtain call of the comedy play “Funny Money” at the Playhouse Theatre.
In “The Worker” (ATV/ITV, 1965–70) he played a perpetually unemployed laborer who, in every episode, was dispatched to a new job by the ever-frustrated clerk (firstly Mr Whitaker in series one, played by Percy Herbert, and from series two onwards Mr. Pugh, played by Henry McGee) at the local labor exchange. All the jobs he embarked upon ended in disaster, sometimes with a burst of classic slapstick, sometimes with a bewildered Drake himself at the center of incomprehensible actions by the people employing him. Bookending these sequences were the encounters between Drake and Pugh. Running jokes included Drake’s inability to manage Mr. Pugh’s name, his mispronunciations ranging from a childish “Mi’er Poo” to “Peeyooo”. Drake sang the theme song himself, using an old music hall number. The series was briefly revived by London Weekend Television in 1978.
Drake made a number of records, most of them produced by George Martin for the Parlophone label. The first, “Splish Splash”, a cover version of a rock and roll song originally recorded by Bobby Darin, got into the Top 10 of the UK Singles Chart, reaching number 7 in 1958. An edited version of “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”, became a mid-chart (# 14 UK charts), following on from “Mr. Custer” (#12 UK charts) hit.
In 1972 Drake recorded a spoof song called ‘Puckwudgie’ on Columbia records. It referred to a 2-or-3-foot-tall (0.61 or 0.91 m) being from the Wampanoag folklore. It reached #47 in the BBC Top 50 in early 1972.
Peter Gabriel, after leaving Genesis in late 1975, produced a single “You Never Know” for Drake (UK Charisma), it was not a chart success. Drake turned to straight acting in the 1980s, winning acclaim for his role as Touchstone in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” (at the Ludlow Festival), and an award for his part in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, along with Michael Angelis. Drake also starred as Smallweed in the BBC adaptation of “Bleak House” (1985), and “Filipina Dreamgirls” a TV film for the BBC. His final appearances on stage were with Jim Davidson in “Sinderella” his adult adaptation of “Cinderella” as Baron Hard-on. A live recording of one of the dates on the tour of the pantomime was later adapted, and edited for video, and put out for sale nationwide.
Drake was married twice and was survived by three sons. He was married to Heather Barnes (born 1935), a dancer, from 1953 until 1971, and they had three sons. In 1976 Drake married his second wife, Elaine Bird (born 1959) – also a dancer, but the marriage was dissolved in 1984.
Drake’s autobiography, Drake’s Progress, was published by Century Benham, Ltd., in 1986. Drake suffered a stroke in 1995 and retired, staying at Brinsworth House, a retirement home for actors and performers, run by the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, until his death the previous night.