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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 13 March 2008
Rex Jameson as his popular 'drunken old tart' character Mrs Shufflewick
Rex Jameson as his popular ‘drunken old tart’ character Mrs Shufflewick
Hits and Mrs of the amazing Rex Jameson

Rex Jameson was acclaimed by comedy greats before drink blurred the lines between his two identities and led to a premature end for Mrs Shufflewick, writes Simon Wroe

FOR nearly 30 years, a small, dishevelled figure could often be found in the tawdrier drinking establishments of Camden and Kentish Town, perched precar­iously at the bar, drink in hand and a Woodbine cigarette never far from the lips.
This character was Mrs Shufflewick: a red-nosed, drunken old Cockney charlady, formerly betrothed to a pheasant plucker and known in variety circles, she claimed, as “Bubbles Latrine and her educated sheepdogs”.
“Weak-willed, easily led and broad-minded to the point of obscenity,” Mrs S wore a parched ­salad of a hat, usually with a bit of fake fruit stuck to it, and a bedraggled fur made of “genuine untouched pussy”. She was always on the prowl for a man, declaring: “If I’m not in bed by 11, I’m going home,” though the evening was more likely to end with her alone and naked, but for her hairnet, on the top of the 29 bus.
Mrs Shufflewick was also not a real person. Or at least not at first. She was the creation of Rex Jameson, a quiet, diffident comedian about whom little is known. (A foundling, he took his surname from his favourite Irish whiskey.) The name of Mrs Shufflewick, however, was up in lights at venues around the country from the 1950s until the early 1980s, alongside bygone comedy greats such as Bob Monkhouse, but most audiences did not even know her real name.
Patrick Newley, Jameson’s friend and manager during the latter part of his career, attempts to redress the balance in his fond biography, The Amazing Mrs Shufflewick.
Conversations with the comic prior to his fatal heart attack in 1983 reveal a disorientated childhood: abandoned at birth, brought up by foster parents in the seaside resort town of Southend before moving to Finsbury Park shortly before the Second World War.
Army enlistment in 1942 formed the unlikely roots of his comedy career. As a member of one of Gang Show’s variety troupes (Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock are notable alumni), Rex honed his craft performing sketches in war zones and desert storms to boost troop morale.
War also gave him his first taste of heavy drinking and cross-dressing: “I thought: this is marvellous, this life, getting pissed all the time, not having to work in the morning, so I turned professional.” Mrs Shufflewick was born soon after.
Jameson’s original Cockney avatar had a vague semblance of refinement – a little risqué but nonetheless hugely popular with family audiences. In her post-war salad days she was billed as “TV and Radio’s Greatest Laugh.”
As Jameson’s drinking got worse and his performances increasingly erratic, the billing for Shufflewick changed to “TV and Radio’s Most Curious Character”.
He amassed large gambling debts and often drank so heavily in the performance intervals that he would do the same routine when he returned in the second half.
By the early 1970s, when Newley met him, the Shufflewick act was “pickled, sour and almost dangerous”. And it was no longer clear where the act ended and the man began. Yet despite a lifelong predilection for booze and bankruptcy, Jameson, or ‘Shuff’ as he became known, was much loved. The comedienne Hylda Baker proposed to him – Rex politely refused.
A host of showbiz characters – the film star Robert Ryan, Frankie Howerd, Douglas Byng and drag artist Danny La Rue – were all fans and friends. Their camaraderie ensured that Rex, however destitute, was never out for the count.
An altogether seedier Shufflewick found a new home touring drag shows on the gay scene.
She was a regular Sunday lunchtime feature at Camden’s Mother Black Cap, where an enormous photograph of her loomed over the bar.
The music hall performer who once commanded four-figure fees now appeared for a tenner and a bottle of whiskey – sometimes just whiskey.
The dog-eared dressing-room served as his second home; many of his props and bedraggled furs resided there in preference to his squalid flat in Falkland Road, where a damp lounge high with the stench of stale cigarettes and urine and a bath stacked with bits of old iron awaited him.
Newley was chosen as his manager during this period because “he knew things about him and had a telephone. When he was on top form there were few comics to equal his timing or sense of the absurd,” he remembers. “When he was drunk he was awful. But you couldn’t hide drink from him.”
Fortunes picked up after Newley got Mrs Shufflewick a gig at the London Palladium. She was a runaway success. The Young Vic asked if he’d perform Beckett monologues, which he graciously refused; spots on Parkinson and the film Wildcats of St Trinians were offered, though cancelled due to “whiskey-itis”.
He came out in the 1970s and became something of a champion for gay activists, though he harboured no political opinions on the subject. His volatile relationship with a Lancashire labourer, Newley believes, brought a greater depth to the put-upon Mrs S character.
In 1983, aged 58, Shuff collapsed in Camden High Street on a beer and cigarettes run and was later pronounced dead at the Royal Free. He was due to headline the ­Theatre Royal Stratford East that night.
Some believed he could have been as big a name as Tony Hancock or Peter Sellers if he had disciplined himself. For others Rex’s inconsistency and identity crisis was part of his brilliance. Asked if he ever regretted merging his own character into Mrs Shufflewick’s, his response was: “If I got up on stage in a suit no one would recognise me would they? They want to see this drunken old tart.”
• The Amazing Mrs Shufflewick: The Life of Rex Jameson.
By Patrick Newley.
Third Age Press £12.50.

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