We are Chesterfield: ‘I owe this town a lot’ says Crackerjack legend Bernie Clifton
Legendary entertainer Bernie Clifton will be forever grateful for the role that Derbyshire venues have played in shaping the act that has delighted millions of people.
The ostrich-riding octogenarian, who rose to fame on children's show Crackerjack in the Seventies, said: "I owe Chesterfield a lot. In many ways Newbold Working Men's Club was where it started for me.”
Bernie was running a vacuum cleaner shop in Chesterfield at a time when the club had just opened. The club’s management found out that he was a singer and asked him to perform on Christmas Eve as they hadn't got an entertainer. Bernie said: "I ended up being the turn on Christmas Eve and they said 'that went well, can you come back on New Year's Eve?’ I became very popular in the local area."
At that time the club scene was thriving. Bernie said: "Every street corner had a club or a pub. From Hasland to Sutton in Ashfield, there would be about 40 places of entertainment."
Bernie spent the evenings singing in clubs while maintaining his day job selling vacuum cleaners which was the work that brought him to Chesterfield 60 years ago.
He said: "We used to go out selling vacuum cleaners door to door and at lunchtime we’d go to a pub or working man's club for a pint. I'd say 'Anyone from the committee here because I'm a Boy Singer, can you give me a job?'. You didn't have to audition, they signed your diary and you signed theirs - it was so casual, but it worked."
After building up his act, Bernie became compere at the Aquarius nightclub in Chesterfield and opened a joke shop in town.
Asked what he misses about the Chesterfield of old, Bernie, who lives in Barlow, said: “The Co-op. It was huge, you could have a meal or buy everything from a washing machine to a suit. Chesterfield had a great market place. A lot of people don’t do town centre shopping any more. Wouldn’t it be great to see the High Street come back but what are the chances of that happening? Twelve months ago there was space for hundreds of cars on the Donut, there isn’t now.”
In 1971 Bernie appeared at the City Varieties theatre in Leeds where Les Dawson was topping the bill. Bernie said: "I was doing my comedy vocal and afterwards Les pulled me to one side and said 'you're all right son but you're just doing what a hundred other comedians are doing - you need to find your own identity. What you need to do is go out and plough your own furrow'."
The next day Bernie went to the Oxfam shop in Chesterfield where he saw a full-size lion skin hearth rug in the window for ten shillings. He said: "I came out with it under my arm as a ventriloquist singing Born Free."
Another feature of his act originated in a pub in Ilkeston. Bernie said: "They asked me to draw the raffle at the end of my spot. The tickets were in a pair of biscuit tins and I jumped into them and did a dance."
Oswald the ostrich has played a major part in Bernie’s fame. The eye-catching full-size prop was created by Peter Pullon who made puppets such as Orville, Emu, Sugar Puffs’ Honey Monster and Nookie Bear for celebrity clients.
The original Oswald disappeared when thieves swooped on Bernie's car while he was having a meal with friends in Wythenshawe. Bernie said: "The car was found on a housing estate on four bricks but Oswald was gone. I've since had several reincarnations of Oswald."
While 85-year-old Bernie is looking forward to returning to City Varieties theatre this September and taking his one-man show back on the road, he is easing off on Oswald’s reins.
Bernie said: "Oswald hardly makes any appearances now. I think the World Wildlife Fund would have something to say about over-exerting an elderly ostrich."
Wearing his big bird puppet costume, Bernie was among the star-studded cast which backed Peter Kay in his video for (Is This The Way to) Amarillo, a song which raised thousands for Comic Relief in 2005.
Oswald and Bernie entertained the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance in 1979, a show that the monarch was reminded of when Bernie attended a reception at Buckingham Palace five years ago. Bernie said: "The Queen said 'ostrich?' I replied 'yes, your Majesty and the ostrich is still performing, but much slower'. She replied: 'Isn't it funny how things do get slower?' and off she toddled.”
Bernie said: "The ostrich is an iconic figure but my act is not just stand-up. I've still got the singing voice." In 2016 Bernie captured the heart of the nation when he performed on TV talent show The Voice. He said: "I knew I'd got a singing voice but nobody else did. I never even told my family or agents what I was doing because they would talk me out of it.
"I'm quite a lucky bunny to have got to this age in relatively good health and still be active.
"When I look back at my old clips, the Royal Variety, Crackerjack, I was like a whirling dervish!" he chuckled.
Bernie's real surname is Quinn but he changed it in the early Sixties because show promoters kept getting it wrong. He said: "I used to be billed as Bernie Quill, Bernie Quink and I turned up once and found myself billed as an exotic dancer called Burma Queen. Don't ask me where Clifton came from....it was nearly Lipton but the tea people got there first."
He was born in St Helen’s on Merseyside during wartime and thanks his lucky stars that he lived to tell his tale. Bernie said: "At the age of four, a bomb missed me by 20 yards and brought all the ceilings of our house down. I'd got four brothers and we all survived it. I always think what a quirk of fate....I was not meant to go.”
Bernie left grammar school without any qualifications at 15 and became an apprentice plumber. "I was probably the world's worst plumber," he said. "I struggled through five years then fortunately National Service intervened and I ended up at RAF Lindholme in Doncaster as a radar mechanic at the command bombing school.”
Previous experience as a boy singer with a dance band in St Helen’s stood Bernie in good stead while he was in South Yorkshire. He said: "Doncaster was the breeding ground of northern clubland and because we only worked Monday to Friday, I started getting bookings in the working men's clubs. The only way to get to Doncaster on Sundays to do a show for miners at lunchtime was to borrow the flight sergeant's bike which would be on the rack at weekends - I never asked him if I could borrow it! I used to bike into Donny, hide the bike around the back of the church and get a bus out to one of the pit villages such as Edlington, Bentley or South Elmsall.”