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Issue 16 . Spring 2005

Sweet sixteen and out on the razz . Forever on our minds . Adored and accepted . The life and times of Dougie Byng . News in the archive

The life and times of Dougie Byng

Dougie ByngThe name Dougie Byng is synonymous with pantomime dames, musichall - and Brighton. A familiar, dapper figure in Kemp Town, where he lived in his later years, Byng is unique in having enjoyed one of the longest and most prolific careers of any performer: 76 years, during which he explored musical comedy, variety, cabaret and pantomime.

Born in Nottingham in 1893, his had a comfortable upbringing, in an extended family which included 10 half-siblings from his father's first marriage. His grandfather had been a music hall entertainer, who trod the boards in London for 40 years, writing and performing his own songs. Dougie was just eight when he first expressed a desire to go on the stage, but received little or no encouragement from his mother. At a village concert she had to remove him after he dissolved into a helpless giggling fit at the sight of a large lady with prominent teeth and pince-nez, belting out a sentimental ballad.

Mr Douglas ByngLack of family support did nothing to dampen the young Dougie's enthusiasm, or his determin-ation to carve out a successful career in show business. He worked his way across the various genres, starting off as a dresser with a theatrical costumiers in Soho, his first job. From there he turned to acting, and in 1914 joined his first concert party at the Palacette Theatre in Hastings, a big break which led on to lengthy tours in musical comedy and operetta, and prestigious cabaret stints in London, Paris and New York.

"Too blue"
While touring with ENSA during World War Two, his act was considered "too blue for the Troops". Byng also turned to radio (in 1920 he'd received the dubious accolade of being banned by the BBC for being too risque), and became the first-ever female impersonator to appear on television, with his own show. A brilliant raconteur, he wrote his own material, including many songs, which were packed with innuendo and double entendres. Only six months before he died (in 1988) he gave a sell-out performance at the National Theatre.

Love from Dougie

Dougie as Boadicea

Dougie Byng as Boadicea

What makes the man such a fascinating and compelling subject is that, in many ways, he was ahead of his time: a pioneer and key exponent of what we would now regard as 'camp', and he proved to be a major influence on subsequent comics and drag artistes. Beneath this flamboyant exterior, however, existed a very private, introspective man. Byng's personal life was open to widespread speculation, but among his immediate circle of friends his homosexuality was common knowledge. He was rumoured to have had relationships with the playwright Terence Rattigan and actor Robert Newton, among others.

Have you got a story about Dougie?
Veronica has spent several months researching into Dougie Byng's life, with a view to turning it into a biography, and has interviewed several celebrities who knew and/or worked with Byng, including George Melly, Ned Sherrin and Brighton's own Dora Bryan. But more contributions would be most welcome.

Please e-mail any stories or reminiscences - however tenuous - about Dougie Byng, to Veronica at


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