With Syd Little, he found fame on Opportunity Knocks — and left audiences doubled up for decades. As Eddie Large dies of coronavirus, here’s how he gave Britain… a large helping of laughter
The day Spike Milligan died, motormouth comedian Eddie Large was waiting for a heart transplant.
The way he liked to tell it, his children were driving down from Manchester to Bristol, to see him in hospital, when they switched on the radio and heard the headline: ‘Comedy legend dies.’
‘I told them,’ Eddie chuckled, ‘as soon as they heard the word ‘legend’, they should have known it wasn’t me.’
Throughout the Eighties, though, when their Saturday night show on BBC1 was commanding audiences of up to 18 million, the double act of Syd Little and Eddie Large were indeed legends of the variety circuit.
Portrait of British comedy team Little and Large, London, England, 1977. Starting as singers before switching to comedy, the duo consisted of Scottish comedian Eddie Large (born Edward McGinnis) (left) and English straight man Syd Little (born Cyril Mead)
Their end-of-the-pier shows packed in the crowds all summer long.
Yesterday, reacting to the news that Eddie had died in hospital, aged 78, after contracting coronavirus, Lenny Henry tweeted a memory of sharing a bill with them on the midnight matinee in Great Yarmouth in 1978.
‘I’d never heard laughter like it,’ he said. ‘Rude, raucous and rollicking. Eddie’s energy and electricity and impressions and props and improvs were hugely impressive.’
That tribute sums up the appeal of the duo. Syd was the longsuffering straight man, who stood there in his inch-thick spectacles, wearing an expression as flat as a wall, while Eddie bounced off him like a powerball fired from a howitzer.
In a typical routine, Eddie could cram a dozen impressions into three minutes, both current TV stars and ones he’d been mimicking since he was a teenager.
He did Elvis, swivelling his hips and clamping his knees together like he was desperate for the loo — ‘I gotta go, man, go.’
Then he morphed into Buddy Holly: ‘All my life, I’ve been kissing, your left one cos the right one’s missing!’
Eddie Large could turn an adult audience into a crowd of howling eight-year-olds, convulsed by smutty jokes in the school yard.
But there was nothing childish about the talent that brought the impressions to life: his gift for imitating soap stars, politicians and royalty was a match for professional impressionists such as Mike Yarwood.
Comedian Eddie Large, who has died from coronavirus, with wife Patsy at home, near Bristol
It was a knack he possessed even as a child, born Edward McGinnis in 1941 and brought up in the Glasgow tenement his parents shared with a dozen of their siblings.
He never forgot his first joke: playing with his cousins aged five, he wandered off and got lost.
A kindly lady asked him his name. Brashly determined to show he was not afraid, the boy piped up with a popular song: ‘My name is McNamara, I’m the leader of a band!’
Despite his brilliance with impressions, the BBC saw Little and Large as all-rounders in the mould of Morecambe and Wise or the Two Ronnies.
Scottish comedian Eddie Large (right) and English straight man Syd Little (right)
Their show, which ran from 1978 to 1991, included sketches, scripted skits and dance routines, as well as their peerless stand-up act.
As a result, TV audiences didn’t always see them at their best, and their show sometimes drew harsh remarks from critics.
This was unfair: in their natural habitat, at the front of the stage, there wasn’t a double act to beat them.
They had met in 1960, in a pub in Manchester, where Eddie’s family had moved when he was nine. Cyril Mead — aka Syd Little — was a lugubrious beanpole doing an amateur spot.
Eddie thought he needed some support, and jumped on stage to duet with him. They brought the house down.
For the next 11 years they honed their act, changing their names to Little and Large and touring the clubs tirelessly.
Their break came in 1971 when they won TV talent contest Opportunity Knocks. They looked exactly what they were: a couple of Northern comics, in shiny shirts and bow ties, with Beatles haircuts and sideburns.
But with their confidence booming in the Seventies, all that changed. Eddie got a frizzy perm that was almost an afro, and he ceased to be a slick clubland comic with all the patter.
Suddenly, he looked himself: an over- excited schoolboy who wouldn’t sit still. They headlined their first series, The Little And Large Telly Show, for ITV in 1976, but they hit the big time the following year at the Royal Variety Performance.
Compere Bob Hope introduced them: ‘It’s got to be the thrill of a lifetime if you’re fairly new to the business and you find yourself booked to perform in one of these great royal gala shows.
‘Because it could be the start of something big . . . which I’ve got a feeling is about to happen right now.’
The running gag in their early shows was that Supersonic Syd was the star, not so much a man as 6ft of raw sex in a tuxedo.
That night, he came out singing ‘Do you wanna touch me’ while Eddie whipped up the well-heeled audience — hardly their usual crowd. But what won the day was Eddie’s cavalcade of impressions.
TV detectives, Hollywood stars, Muppets, rock’n’rollers, comedians — he could do them all, and well enough that the audience recognised every one.
He launched into a throaty rendition of I Am Sailing, perfectly echoing Rod Stewart’s gravelly vocal. ‘Who’s that meant to be?’ demanded Syd.
‘Popeye!’ retorted Eddie. Their material never did equal his talent, but that’s the way both men liked it.
Why do clever gags when you can get bigger laughs with daft jokes all the family will understand?
After that, Saturday night was theirs. Over the next 13 years, they did more than 70 editions, with celebrities from skiffler Lonnie Donegan and bird impressionist Percy Edwards to wrestler Giant Haystacks joining them for sketches.
The duo’s heyday came as alternative comedy was breaking through in the early Eighties, and it was a tribute to their staying power that Eddie and Syd held on to their audience for so long.
By the Nineties, though, they were on the wane — not helped by Eddie’s failing health.
Heart and kidney disease were robbing him of his energy.
Syd wanted to keep touring but Eddie, who had moved with wife Patsy and their three children to the outskirts of Bristol, felt unable to continually drive north for shows.
‘It’s what made me ill in the first place,’ he explained.
His reluctance to perform put a strain on his relationship with Syd, and for nearly a decade the men barely spoke.
Following his heart transplant in 2003 — an operation doctors warned Patsy her husband was unlikely to survive — they got back in touch, and the friendship revived.
In recent years, they spoke on the phone almost daily. Coronavirus restrictions meant that Eddie could have no visitors at his bedside, not even his wife or their children.
But Syd spoke to him by phone, and the night before he died Eddie was still able to show how much his old mate meant to him.
‘He was in pain, bless him, but he even asked me how we are,’ Syd said. ‘We did everything there was to do in showbiz,’ he added, ‘and we did it together. Happy times.’
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