Douglas Gray, member of a comedy act which inspired Monty Python and The Goodies – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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'The Alberts', Douglas Gray (left) and his brother Tony: they supported their stage career by driving newspaper delivery vans taking The Sunday Telegraph to far-flung parts of East Anglia
'The Alberts', Douglas Gray (left) and his brother Tony: they supported their stage career by driving newspaper delivery vans taking The Sunday Telegraph to far-flung parts of East Anglia

Douglas Gray, who has died aged 89, was, during the satire boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a member of a trio of musical clowns whose brand of perverse antiprofessionalism influenced The Goodies and Monty Python.

The group, which consisted of Douglas and his elder brother Tony (known as the Alberts), and “Professor” Bruce Lacey, had their own show, An Evening of British Rubbish, in the West End for nearly a year in 1963.

They later played at the Royal Court in their own version of The Three Musketeers, and on special occasions, with the help of sundry Goons and other recruits, converted themselves into a larger group called The Massed Alberts.

In 1964 The Alberts were booked to appeared with Ivor Cutler in a comedy performance on the opening night of BBC Two. The broadcast had to be aborted due to a power failure so The Alberts’ Channel Too, billed in The Radio Times as “featuring Ivor Cutler, David Jacobs, Adolf Hitler and Birma the elephant”, had to wait until the new channel’s second night.

Douglas Gray as Porthos promoting the Alberts' version of The Three Musketeers
Douglas Gray as Porthos promoting the Alberts' version of The Three Musketeers

An Alberts show would typically include a stuffed camel whose tail could be turned to detonate explosions (one of several ear-splitting devices), an automatic applause machine and a mechanical dummy which specialised in political speeches. There were interludes involving walk-on performers such as sword swallowers or ballet dancers – or moth-eaten dogs owned by one or other of the brothers.

Original poster for An Evening of British Rubbish
Original poster for An Evening of British Rubbish

One sketch featured a “dog washing machine” consisting of a dog being pulled along on a “travelator” and being washed and dried as it went along.

“Moth eaten men in beards and baggy Edwardian clothes strode on and off the stage,” recalled John Wells of a typical Alberts performance, “there were a great many random bangs and explosions, trumpets were blown, jokes were muttered and shouted, usually into the wings; the stuffed camel had its tail turned like a starting handle to the accompaniment of further bangs and more dirty men in ancient military uniforms strode on and off shouting at each other; someone appeared dressed as a bee; a mechanical dummy was wheeled on to deliver a monosyllable political speech; a musician in a grubby white tie and tails attempted to play the cello, and subversive figures winking at the audience and slyly tapping their noses were seen to lay a charge of dynamite under his chair, reel out the cable to a plunger and finally blow themselves up with another thunderous bang.”

Douglas Gray (seated, with bagpipes) and fellow cast members of An Evening of British Rubbish
Douglas Gray (seated, with bagpipes) and fellow cast members of An Evening of British Rubbish

At one theatre the Alberts accidentally blew out a wall to reveal a shell-shocked man sitting on a lavatory. “I am not sure why I laughed,” confessed one critic. “There was a certain resistance at first.”

Though their career at the top was brief, the Alberts had a considerable influence on the Sixties comedy and satire scene, their anarchic brand of slapstick influencing the Goodies and Monty Python as well as the deliberate amateurishness of satirical publications like Private Eye (whose design supremo, Willie Rushton, presented a documentary about the Alberts). They were also cited as a big influence on the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

Douglas Gray (standing), Tony Gray, seated, and Bruce Lacey, recumbent
Douglas Gray (standing), Tony Gray, seated, and Bruce Lacey, recumbent

Douglas was the most musically gifted of the pair, proficient to varying degrees on an eclectic range of instruments from the balalaika and bagpipes to the serpent and sousaphone.

He was a member of a balalaika orchestra and although history does not record the fact, he was said to have been a founder member of the Temperance Seven (he certainly thought of the name, his reasoning being that seven was “one under the eight” and, since the band had nine members they were “one over the eight” – the “Temperance” was ironic). He was said to have been ejected due to “musical incompatibility”.

Douglas Gray (left) at home with brother Tony
Douglas Gray (left) at home with brother Tony

Though the Alberts were entirely original, they were always completely themselves. Neither Douglas nor Tony Gray had any professional training and in real life they were as unself-consciously eccentric as they were on stage.

Douglas Gray was born on September 28 1930 in St Mary Abbots, west London, the youngest of three sons of a printer and amateur musician. During the war, he and his brother Tony were evacuated to Penzance, where they took to playing practical jokes on school bullies.

The Grays left school after the war and both spent their National Service in Egypt, Douglas working as a driver of an Army bus in Alexandria. They then joined the printing trade. In the glory days of the printing unions the brothers, according to one account, largely performed their duties by clocking in (or having other people clock in for them) as M Mouse, leaving them free to devote the rest of their time to other pursuits.

Throughout their career on the stage, they continued to support themselves in the printing trade and by driving newspaper delivery vans taking The Sunday Telegraph to far-flung parts of East Anglia, where they both bought themselves old rectories.

Douglas Gray (front row in bow tie) and Tony Gray (holding reins)in A Show Called Fred, with fellow comedians including Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Douglas Gray (front row in bow tie) and Tony Gray (holding reins)in A Show Called Fred, with fellow comedians including Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers

By the mid-1950s they were regulars at the Fleet Street Jazz Club, a Friday lunchtime venue in Fetter Lane run by Ray Whittam, and played with, among others, Acker Bilk, George Melly, Gerard Hoffnung and Kenny Ball. Also in the 1950s they started the Historical Commercial Vehicle Club with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. The club had its first rally at Beaulieu in 1957.

In 1962 Peter Cook booked them to appear at the Establishment Club in Greek Street. There, among other things they performed a DaDa-ist “quiz show”, involving much throwing of whitewash, and caused some grumbles among regular performers who had to pick their way through their rubbish to get to the stage. When John Fortune inadvertently detonated the stuffed camel he was unable to hear his cues for the whole evening.

Lenny Bruce saw their act at the Establishment, and engaged them to tour America. They travelled across on the Queen Mary, variously entertaining or annoying other passengers by riding their penny-farthing bicycles around the decks. By the time they arrived in New York, Bruce had been arrested on charges of obscenity. Their show was a success in New York, but flopped in San Francisco.

An Evening of British Rubbish - in which Ivor Cutler did several turns singing songs such as Pickle Your Knees (...in Cheese) and I am a Japanese Cowherd - ran for nearly a year at the Comedy Theatre in 1963 and later toured in Belgium and France where it was billed as Crazy Show de British Rubbish.

During the 1960s, John Wells worked with the Alberts on a short film about a flying machine in which they ran down a hillside on Hampstead Heath wearing a skeletal fuselage and flapping madly before falling into a pond. On stage they appeared in Sean Kenny’s production of Gullivers’ Travels at the Mermaid Theatre and in The Jackdaw at the Royal Court. In 1966 Douglas Gray took the role of Porthos in the Alberts’ version of The Three Musketeers at the Arts Theatre; the show later transferred to the Royal Court.

Douglas Gray with one of his dogs
Douglas Gray with one of his dogs

They appeared in several Ken Russell productions, including a television film about the Pre-Raphaelites, in which Douglas appeared as Holman Hunt and Tony Gray as Rossetti’s brother, and also took small walk-on roles in The Bliss of Mrs Blossom (a comedy about the wife of a bra manufacturer who keeps her lover in the attic), The Day the World Caught Fire and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

In the 1950s they had appeared on television in A Show Called Fred (a successor to The Goon Show) with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, and in the 1960s they featured in a Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium.

In 1979 they were contracted by the Royal Opera to take character roles in productions of Peter Grimes and Benvenuto Cellini, with which they later toured Italy and the Far East. To begin with they were worried that they might not be good enough for the demands of the professional theatre: “Look at your contract,” advised the actor Roy Kinnear. “Does it say you have to be good?”

Douglas Gray outside his old rectory in Norfolk
Douglas Gray outside his old rectory in Norfolk

Douglas Gray’s Gothic old rectory in a village near Sandringham, west Norfolk, was dilapidated when he bought it, and became more so under his stewardship. Guests invited to his musical soirées had to negotiate their way to the front door through stinging nettles and the carcasses of more than a dozen rusting cars, jeeps, buses and towing trucks which cluttered the drive.

Some of Douglas Gray's musical instruments
Some of Douglas Gray's musical instruments

Inside, the house was choc-a-bloc with his cobweb-covered collection of 200 musical instruments, along with broken-down ticker tape machines, books, cameras and old theatre props. On occasions, through the dust and gloom, the odd rat might be seen scuttling across the floorboards.

Twenty years of striding through explosions had left Gray almost completely deaf, yet he entered into the spirit of village life with noisy enthusiasm. Audiences at the annual village pantomime would be variously amused or horrified as Gray, wheezing alarmingly and dressed in a kilt several sizes too small, erupted on to the tiny stage, scattering children and elderly ladies, before launching into a one-man performance generally involving bagpipes, music hall songs, readings from William McGonagall, and old Alberts gags.

A strong element of melancholia led Gray to seek solace in the pleasures of the bottle and, although he worked for many years as a volunteer driver of the local community bus and for Riding for the Disabled, it eventually proved impossible for the police to continue to turn a blind eye and he lost his driving licence.

In 1968 Douglas Gray married Julie Charlton, but the marriage was dissolved. After his children left home, he shared his life with a parrot and a series of elderly dogs of doubtful parentage and uncertain temper. In later life, he became an assiduous churchgoer and would attend weekly services at the local parish church dressed as a Cossack.

Eventually he had to move out of the rectory into a small cottage in the village, and later into a care home.

Douglas Gray is survived by his children Gideon and Pandora.

Douglas Gray, born September 28 1930, died June 18 2020