Frank Muir (1920-1998)

Image: Wikipedia: “Hallgrímskirkja (Icelandic pronunciation:  [ˈhatl̥krimsˌcʰɪr̥ca], church of Hallgrímur) is a Lutheran (Church of Iceland) parish church in Reykjavík, Iceland. State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson’s design of the church was commissioned in 1937. He is said to have designed it to resemble the trap rocks, mountains and glaciers of Iceland’s landscape.

The statue of explorer Leif Erikson (c.970 – c.1020) by Alexander Stirling Calder in front of the church predates its construction. It was a gift from the United States in honor of the 1930 Althing Millennial Festival, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the convening of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir in 930 AD.”

Barry Took (1928-2002) wrote in an obituary for The Independent of 3 January 1998:

“Frank Muir, writer and broadcaster: born Ramsgate, Kent 5 February 1920; Assistant Head, BBC Light Entertainment Group 1960-64; Head of Entertainment, London Weekend Television 1968-69; President, Johnson Society, Lichfield 1975-76; Rector, St Andrews University 1977-79; CBE 1980; married 1949 Polly McIrvine (one son, one daughter); died Thorpe, Surrey 2 January 1998.

Before Frank Muir and Denis Norden, scriptwriting was not seen as a profession, and in fact it has never really developed beyond what they chose to describe as “a cottage industry” – that is, two blokes in a room inventing humour. It’s a far cry from the American “Ten writers, no waiting” approach, but has produced as much good comedy as the high-tech American method.

That it is as it is, is in many ways down to Muir and Norden, who proved that a scriptwriter was more than, to use Frank Muir’s phrase, “a comedian’s labourer”…

I suppose that for many viewers Muir will be remembered as the suave and beguiling team leader on the television panel game Call My Bluff where, whether in harness with Patrick Campbell or later with Arthur Marshall, and under the beady eye of Robert Robinson, he spun fantasies and elegant descriptions of obscure words, thus baffling his opponents and viewers alike.

He became, with Denis Norden, the (almost) ever-present member of the quartet which made the quarter-century or so of BBC Radio’s My Word! and My Music and massively entertained a world-wide audience which rejoiced in the humour and the erudition of those programmes…

In a way, Muir seemed like a Wodehouse character, a snuff-taking clubman (the Garrick was his favourite watering hole) and a dandy, his style of dress being in a way his visual signature tune. He was, in fact, more Jeeves than Wooster, usually getting things right…

His autobiography, A Kentish Lad, published last autumn, went at once into the best- sellers’ list. In it he recorded anecdotes of his childhood and his RAF service, which was spent largely in Iceland, where he was stationed as an aerial photographer. He commented, “When we had a plane we didn’t have a camera, and when we had a camera we didn’t have a plane.” But his natural gifts found expression in entertaining his fellow airmen and these blossomed after the war into a successful career in the professional world of scriptwriting.

For three years he was the Rector of St Andrews University, which he says was “spending three lovely years attending church with a terrific choir”.

Muir, a devout Anglican, is quoted as saying: “I think there is some kind of after-life, but it’s not pearly gates. I wish it to remain a mystery.” “.

The obituary continued:

“When I first came to England as a drama student and heard Frank Muir and Denis Norden’s Take It From Here, I assumed I was listening to a radio adaptation of an S.J. Perelman piece, so brilliant was the wordplay, writes Dick Vosburgh ( (1929 – 2007), American-born comedy writer and lyricist working chiefly in Britain.)

Week after week, the film takeoffs which ended the show glittered with outrageous puns . . . Shakespeare shouting to the landlord of the Mermaid Tavern, “See what the boys in the buckram will have!” . . . Dracula saying to a potential victim, “Won’t you join me in the old-fashioned vaults?” Or a New York gangster who – having been told that the police have thrown a cordon around the area, stretching all the way down to the Staten Island ferry – exclaims: “You mean there’s a ferry at the bottom of our cordon?” In another sketch, Sherlock Holmes said to Lady Baskerville, “Surely deep, deep down, your guardian has some ideas or theories about this spectral hound?” – only to be told, “Yes, there are theories at the bottom of my guardian.”

In 1956 Muir and Norden were finally given the opportunity to deliver such extravagant puns in person, when the radio literary quiz My Word! took the air. Each would be asked to give, by the end of the programme, the origin of various quotations. The inventions by both men were brilliant, but my favourite was Muir’s fandango around the song title “Come into the Garden, Maud”. He told a sad story about joining a yacht club and falling madly in love with a member called Carmen. On hearing that his adored one and a yachtsman called Toothy Gordon had “sailed together into the harbour of matrimony and were moored together for life”, he confessed that he could do nothing but sit and mutter again and again:

“Carmen . . . Toothy Gordon . . . Moored!” “.

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