Published: 05:00, 26 December 2021
| Updated: 13:31, 31 December 2021
Next month Michael Crawford, one of Britain’s most versatile performers, turns 80. We celebrate with a look at the star’s early days growing up on the Isle of Sheppey and go behind the scenes of one of his most famous television episodes for Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em...
It seems incredible that one of Britain's greatest entertainers, with a career spanning six decades, spent his early years on the Isle of Sheppey.
Michael Crawford, then just plain Michael Dumbell-White, lived with his single mum Doris in his nan's bungalow at Halfway. The white-walled house later became home to Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson.
Crawford, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on January 19, is now living on another seaside island although a little larger, New Zealand, where he is known as 'Mike'.
He made his name playing the hapless Frank Spencer in the BBC TV comedy series Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and filmed one of its most famous episodes, the 1975 Christmas special, on Sheppey.
Frank was learning to drive and ended up stranded on the top of the Kingsferry Bridge in a Hillman Imp. Huge crowds later gathered to watch him drive off Neptune Jetty and into the sea at Sheerness.
It was there a shocked Ray Featherstone, now 77, ended up as Crawford's 'bodyguard' for the day.
Ray, who was running the amateur Stone Film Productions at the time from the front room of his home in Berridge Road, Sheerness, recalled: "I had popped out for a walk along the seafront and spotted a huge crowd and a TV crew. I didn't know what was going on but I rushed back home to get my 16mm Bolex cine camera.
"Whenever we staged a premier for one of our films we always had a B-film and a newsreel. I thought this would be great for the newsreel."
But when he returned ready for action he was in for a surprise.
"I asked the production manager if he minded me filming and he said it was fine but added that he was in big trouble because of the size of the crowd now lining the promenade.
"He said he thought Sheppey was a sleepy place and hadn't expected such an interest. He admitted he didn't have enough crew to cope and asked if I could lend a hand."
Ray stowed his cherished camera in nearby Wood and Sons fishmongers for safekeeping and presented himself for work.
"I thought I'd be asked to carry a tripod or something. Instead, he asked me to look after Michael for the rest of the day. I was quite aghast. Until then I hadn't even realised what the show was they were shooting.
"I'd never met Michael before but my mum used to tell me he lived in The Crescent at Halfway with his gran. I used to watch him playing a cabin boy in a children's TV show about pirates."
Ray escorted Michael to the Roman Catholic church hall which the star was using as a changing room.
Ray said: "I waited outside as he got into a wetsuit and put his clothes on over the top. Then we walked to the jetty and I helped keep autograph-hunters away. At times, Michael signed some on the bonnet of the car.
"We walked to the end of the jetty to check on the tide and I made the mistake of leaning on one of the guard rails. It fell off in my hand. They had taken all the metal ones out and replaced them with rubber ones so the car could crash through them. They also created a trellis wall for the car to drive through.
"At the end of the jetty was a ramp and a cannon which fired the car into the water at high speed. "Until then, I'd just seen Michael playing an idiot on television. Now I realised how professional he was as he checked every aspect of the stunt.
"There was even an oxygen cylinder in the car in case he ended up trapped under the surface and needed to breath. It as pretty dangerous stuff.
"While we waited for high tide, Michael went over the road to the Napier for lunch. There was a huge crowd outside clamouring for his autograph. He let me collect autograph books and signed them in the pub."
After the stunt, which ended with Crawford waving wildly from the open sunroof of the car surrounded by waves, the star returned to the church hall to change.
Ray recalled: "I waited for him outside but unknown to me he was taken out by another door and straight into a waiting car and driven away. I never got a chance to say goodbye and the production crew never even knew my name. I wasn't paid and to this day he won't know who I was."
But Ray's brief time of rubbing shoulders with TV royalty was captured by a BBC documentary unit shooting behind the scenes.
A few seconds of Ray walking along the jetty next to Crawford was shown on the recent Channel 5 documentary Michael Crawford: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (still available to view on My5 catch-up).
Ray said: "Purely by chance, we were both wearing black roll-neck jumpers and check jackets."
He never managed to get any film of the event which turned out to one of Sheppey's enduring highlights of the small screen.
But one person who caught the deed was Barry Hollis, a 21-year-old photographer on the Sheerness Times Guardian.
Barry, 67, from Waverley Avenue, Minster, said: "I think it was a Sunday. I was definitely not working. Someone mentioned Michael Crawford was filming on the beach so I wandered down and ended up staying the rest of the day."
He snapped away taking both colour and black and white pictures.
He said: "The stunt team spent about half a day checking everything out with Michael before he took the wheel of the car.
"He was very professional, checking out how the car should react when it hit the water. The car was packed with polystyrene to help it stay afloat and had an oxygen bottle and breathing apparatus which Michael tested beforehand.
"People got to hear what was happening and by the afternoon there were hundreds all lined up along the side of the Catholic church but out of sight of the cameras.
"I saw the car crash through the wall, smash through the barriers at the end of the pier and then fly across the water. It all seemed to go so smoothly. It was just luck I happened to be there.
"I don't think any of us realised this would become such an iconic episode."
Many still remember the filming. In a post on the The Sheppey History Page on Facebook, Mark Soave wrote: "If you watch the film two people, Mick Bronger and Norman Girt, are fishing at the end of the pier. The rumour is that they were asked to move and refused so the BBC paid them £10 each to stand where they were."
Mr Girt replied: "True story! But they paid us £50. We had to sign contracts in the Dolphin Cafe."
Lynda Pearce swears her "other half" still has the gear knob from the Imp. Apparently the car was eventually pushed ashore by a tug from the docks.
Wendy MacKenzie revealed she once refused to go on a date with the star when he was younger.
She said: "He asked me out when he visited his Nan. He came into the garage (Vidgens) where I worked and filled up his Lambretta scooter. He wore a blue and white striped T-shirt and was a bit spotty and skinny, so I said no."
Years later he had swapped his scooter for a brand new red BMW.
The episode also created controversy when it was re-shown last year. When it opens, Frank is dressed as chief of the pixies in Santa's Grotto and is called a derogatory term by a boy. The episode now carries a warning at the start on the Britbox streaming service saying the show "contains language and attitudes of the time that may offend."
MP Gordon Henderson confirmed he once lived in Crawford's old home at 6 The Crescent, Halfway, which is featured in the entertainer's autobiography Parcel Arrived Safely: Tied With String.
The MP said: "I actually lived there for almost 30 years but I never had any fans knocking on the door. However, I remember on one occasion I was working on the roof when this huge Winnebago pulled up outside my home and Michael got out.
"He wandered over and explained he had brought his gran (who he doted on) down to see her old home. He pointed at the front garden wall, which was leaning over badly and which I kept promising to repair, but never got round to it.
"Michael told me proudly that he had built the wall. I said: 'I believe you!' and he gave me one of his Frank Spencer smiles.
"We had a little chat about things and then he drove off. Sadly, his gran passed away a few months later."
Mr Henderson wasn't the only person to end up in the bungalow. Veteran Sheppey journalist Bel Austin ended up there, too, with her friend Daphne.
Bel, 86, from Minster who still writes the weekly memory page in the Sheerness Times Guardian, recalled: "As teenagers staying in 'digs' Daphne Dance (nee Danton) and I might even have slept in Michael Crawford's bed!
"His grandmother Mrs Edith Pike was offering two upstairs rooms for rent. We were two girls wanting independence and moved from Daph's father's home in Baldwin Road, Minster.
"Between us - Daph was working at Sittingbourne paper mill and I was a trainee reporter on the North East Kent Times (price penny halfpenny) could just about manage the rent. It was something like £2.50 a week.
"I remember feeling very grand earning £3 a week running the newspaper office which shared part of Daisy Chandler's tobacconist shop in Sheerness High street.
"Mrs Pike, who was partially sighted, was very kind to us often spoke proudly of her grandson who, at that time, was just a name.
"He visited quite often and probably stayed in the bedroom we later occupied. But we never actually met him.
"Maybe if we hadn't flooded the bathroom during a bitterly cold winter we may have remained tenants a little longer. But we were responsible, accidentally, for causing a ceiling to collapse. While we were at work a thaw had set in and the once-frozen taps ran free to overflow the bath with the resulting damage.
"I can't remember whether we were asked to leave or if we went voluntarily."
Michael Patrick Dumbell-Smith, OBE and CBE, was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 1942 at the height of the Second World War after his single mum Doris moved out of London to dodge German bombers.
She later moved back to Sheppey where she lived with her Irish-born mother Edith Pike in what Crawford described as a "close-knit Roman Catholic family". His grandmother lived to be 99.
In a 1996 interview, Crawford said: "My early memories of life were always of large-breasted aunts. I was always nestled in someone's bosom. I thought life was wonderful.
"They were some of the best years of my life. I didn't get near another bosom until I was 19 or 20."
Michelle Dotrice, who played his long-suffering wife Betty in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, said in the Channel 5 documentary: "He used to talk about his Nan a lot. He was devoted to his Nan."
Crawford grew up believing his father was heroic RAF airman Sgt Arthur Dumbell-Smith who was shot down and killed over Kent in 1940 during the Battle of Britain.
But that was 16 months before Michael was born. He didn't find out the truth that he was the result of his mother's one-night stand with another pilot until he was 15.
At the end of the war his mother remarried a grocer and she and her son moved to Bexleyheath and then Herne Hill, London, where Michael joined the London Choir School. He recalled: "I didn't have as good a voice as the other choristers but I looked quite good."
At 12 he was cast as Sammy the Little Sweep in his school production of Benjamin Britten's Let's Make an Opera. It proved to be his turning point but first he needed to change his name to join the actors' union Equity. He selected Crawford after seeing a van delivering Crawfords cream crackers.
At 20 he was cast in his first West End play, Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn and then appeared in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy with Lynn Redgrave on Broadway where he was spotted by Gene Kelly and called to Hollywood to star in the movie musical Hello, Dolly! with Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.
When the film failed to cover its costs, Crawford ended up back in Britain working as an office clerk to make ends meet.
His acting career took off again when he appeared on the London stage in the farce No Sex Please, We're British which led to his role as Frank Spencer where he insisted on performing all his own stunts.
In 1981, after starring in the Disney comedy film Condorman, he took the lead role as American showman PT Barnum in the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium.
Always the perfectionist, he enrolled at the Big Apple Circus School in New York to learn how to walk a tight-rope, juggle and slide down a rope from the roof of the theatre.
In 1984 he surprised everyone by convincing Andrew Lloyd-Webber to cast him as The Phantom of the Opera.
He was married to Gabrielle Lewis for 10 years between 1965 to 1975 and has two daughters, Lucy and Emma. He is now in a long-term relationship with Natasha MacAller, an American dancer and chef.
In 2011 he appeared as the Wizard in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical version of The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium. The role was later played by Russell Grant.
On November 5, 2001, he returned to Sheppey to open the Crawford Centre in Edenbridge Drive, Sheerness, which provides social educational and recreational services.
At one stage the Sheerness Town Team launched a bid to hang a banner in his honour from high street lamps.
Crawford was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1988 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for charitable and philanthropic services, particularly to children's charities.
Earlier this month he appeared for a surprise reunion with The Phantom of the Opera creator Andrew Lloyd Webber over a video call.
He has had an incredible 80 years!
Read about other TV Christmas specials made in Kent here.