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Chuckle Brothers Paul: 'I feel Barry's presence before I go on stage'

Paul Elliott talks to Gabrielle Fagan about grief, the joy of comedy and living with the loss of his brother and daughter

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Paul Elliott

Paul Elliott

Press Association Images

Paul Elliott with brother Barry as The Chuckle Brothers

Paul Elliott with brother Barry as The Chuckle Brothers

Paul Elliott with brother Barry as The Chuckle Brothers

Paul Elliott with brother Barry as The Chuckle Brothers

Press Association Images

Paul Elliott

Making people laugh comes naturally to Paul Elliott - and clearly lockdown wasn't going to stop that. Elliott, one half of legendary comedy duo The Chuckle Brothers, has been busy delighting fans with online performances from his garden, singing, dancing and telling jokes.

"I did dance moves in my deckchair as I was recovering from Covid-19 and the video had more than a million hits," marvels the 72-year-old, talking on the phone from his home in south Yorkshire.

"My first instinct is to perform, so as soon as I could get out of bed, I wanted to do little videos to cheer people up and make them smile," adds Elliott, who contracted the virus in March ("my wife was worried I might die at one point... it was horrible").

As well as this, Elliott is still dealing with the devastating loss of his brother, Barry, who died in August 2018.

"It's like losing my right arm being without him," he confides. "Working on stage with him is what I miss most. No one could make me laugh like he could. We started out in showbusiness together when he was 18 and I was 15 and we were never apart from then on. I was the feed and he was the comic, the Ernie Wise to his Eric Morecambe."

The pair found enduring fame with BBC children's show ChuckleVision, which ran from 1987 to 2009. When it ended, they carried on touring, performing in packed theatres, nightclubs and student venues, and Elliott is still widely recognised and fondly greeted with their famous catchphrase, "To me, to you".

Their cult status was further enhanced in 2014 when they recorded a charity single, To Me, To You (Bruv), with grime artist Tinchy Stryder. It had three million downloads and led to them performing at Bestival.

The brothers were working on a comeback series, Chuckle Time, for Channel Five when Barry (73) who had bone cancer, became too ill to work.

He was cared for at home by Marie Curie nurses - and Elliott is now supporting the charity's emergency appeal.

"Baz didn't want to stop working, so he kept his illness secret for a long time. He didn't want treatment and only told me a few months before his death," he says.

"He received such incredible care and kindness from the Marie Curie team. The charity relies on donations from the public to survive. Just as they are gearing up to care for even more people, with the current crisis their fundraising income's been seriously compromised. They desperately need funds to keep their work going."

Continuing with performing without his brother has taken courage, but doing so has been important for Elliott, who returned to the small screen earlier this year in the BBC's The Real Marigold Hotel.

"Baz made me promise I'd carry on and I still love the business. The first clubs I did after his death, the audiences just stood up and cheered as soon as they saw me. Anybody under 50 has grown up with the Chuckle Brothers and there was so much love coming across the footlights, which was heart-warming," he remembers.

"Baz comes to me in my dreams and I feel his presence when I'm waiting in the wings before I go on stage. He inspires me with gags. I'm doing a lot of the lines he used to do and I feel he's there helping me get laughs, so I can time them the same as he did. I have so many happy memories of our time together that I'll never lose."

Sadly, he's no stranger to grief. In 1975 his three-month-old daughter, Nicola, died from a rare liver problem. In what he describes as "the worst day" of his life, Elliott was forced to perform on stage hours after her funeral. Show organisers had refused to release the brothers from their contract and threatened to not pay them if they didn't appear. In those days, they were too hard up to let that happen.

"I went to the funeral at 11am and was on stage in Glasgow by 8pm. That was the lowest I've ever been. It was really, really tough and I don't think we were very funny that night," Elliott recalls.

"I went through hell after losing her, but if you start thinking, 'Why me?', that doesn't do you any good. In the end, you realise you just have to accept that these things happen in life, live with it and carry on."

He relished his time in India filming The Real Marigold Hotel, where he opened up about his feelings of loss to the group, which included former Bond girl Britt Ekland, Dragons' Den's Duncan Bannatyne and cricket commentator Henry Blofeld.

"We all got on so well. None of us feel like pensioners - it's only the odd ache and pain that lets you know you've aged," Elliott says of his time on the series, which sees a group of ageing celebrities check out the potential of retiring in India.

"In showbusiness, retirement is a bit of a dirty word, really. No one ever wants to give up. Performing's a bit like a drug - you just want more of it."

While he was there, Elliott revealed that he suffers from lymphedema (a build-up of lymph fluid in tissues causing swelling), triggered a rough tackle in a football match when he was 14.

"My left leg is twice the size of the other due to soft tissue damage. There's no treatment. I've kept it hidden all my life - I've never worn shorts and I avoid beaches and swimming - because I'm so embarrassed about it. It was a massive for me to reveal that on screen to millions of people. Until then, only family and close friends have knew.

"My leg's extremely heavy. Its like constantly carrying a bucket of water around with you, so walking is tiring. The injury destroyed my dream of being a professional footballer but in a way led me to another opportunity: showbusiness. I hope it shows people that something disfiguring needn't hold you back in life."

The Chuckle Brothers' success - the duo, who were born in Rotherham, got their first break winning TV's Opportunity Knocks in 1967 - is testament to that.

"It was incredible how it all worked out for us. It's not something we ever expected," says Elliott. "Really, I don't think anyone's matched what we've done. These days it's all stand-up and some of it's brilliant, but for some reason people who run TV nowadays think people don't want variety shows as well. I think there's still room for those family shows like ours."

Happily married to wife Sue for 33 years (they have four children between them), Elliott is concerned about the toll lockdown has taken on the entertainment industry.

"It's never been known in history for showbusiness to close down like this. There's so much uncertainty now and it's very worrying financially with no work, but what can you do? Whatever happens, happens," he says.

"Fortunately, I'm a laid-back character who takes every day as it comes and tries to look on the bright side. I tell myself to live every day as it comes.

"I'm just looking forward to getting back in front of an audience again and feeling that love and appreciation.

"It would be wonderful to be able to pull that out of the air and bottle it, you know? It's the best tonic and laughter is the best therapy in the world."

Paul Chuckle is supporting Marie Curie's Emergency Appeal. Please help Marie Curie care for people at this unprecedented time of need. Donate to the urgent appeal today at mariecurie.org.uk/donate

Belfast Telegraph