Frank Herbert Muir, CBE (5 February 1920 – 2 January 1998) was an English comedy writer, radio and television personality, and raconteur. His writing and performing partnership with Denis Norden endured for most of their careers. Together they wrote BBC radio's Take It From Here for over 10 years, and then appeared on BBC radio quizzes My Word! and My Music for another 35. Muir became Assistant Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC in the 1960s, and was then London Weekend Television's founding Head of Entertainment. His many writing credits include editorship of The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose.
Born and brought up in his grandmother's pub, The Derby Arms in Ramsgate, Kent, he spent part of his childhood in Leyton, London E10. In later years, whenever his dignified speech patterns caused listeners to assume that he had received a public-school education, Muir would demur: "I was educated in E10, not Eton." He attended Leyton County High School for Boys, though prior to this he was a pupil at Chatham House Grammar School, in Ramsgate, Kent, whose notable alumni include former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath.
Muir stood 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) tall.
Frank Muir joined the Royal Air Force during World War II and became a photographic technician, being posted to Iceland. While there he became involved with the forces radio station. Also while stationed in Iceland — as he describes in his memoirs A Kentish Lad — Muir suffered a spontaneous medical condition requiring the surgical removal of one testicle.
Upon his return to civilian life, he began to write scripts for Jimmy Edwards. When Edwards teamed up with Dick Bentley on BBC Radio, Muir formed a partnership with Denis Norden, Bentley's writer, which was to last for most of his career. The vehicle created for Bentley and Edwards, Take It From Here, was written by Muir and Norden from 1948 until 1959; a last series in 1960 used other writers. For TIFH, as it became known, they created "The Glums", a deliberately awful family, which was the show's most popular segment. For TIFH, Muir and Norden wrote the phrase, "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me", later used by Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo. In his autobiography A Kentish Lad[page needed] Muir expressed disappointment that he and Norden were never credited for it.
In 1949, Muir married Polly McIrvine. They had two children, Jamie (born 1952), a TV producer, and Sally (born 1954), who co-founded the Muir and Osborne knitwear design company, and is married to the journalist and author Geoffrey Wheatcroft.
Muir and Norden continued to write for Edwards when he began to work for BBC television with the school comedy series Whack-O, and in the anthology series Faces of Jim. With Norden, in 1962, he was responsible for the television adaptation of Henry Cecil's comic novel Brothers in Law, which starred a young Richard Briers.
The pair were invited to appear on a new humorous literary radio quiz, My Word!. In the final round Muir and Norden each told a story to "explain" the origin of a well-known phrase. An early example took the quotation "Dead! And never called me mother!" from a stage adaptation of East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood, which became the exclamation of a youth coming out of a public telephone box which he had discovered to be out of order. In early broadcasts of My Word! the phrases were provided by the quizmaster, but in later series Muir and Norden chose their own in advance of each programme and their stories became longer and more convoluted. This became a popular segment of the quiz, and Muir and Norden later compiled several volumes of books containing some of the My Word! stories.
Frank Muir was also, like Norden, a contestant on the My Word! spinoff, My Music. As a television personality, Muir's unofficial trademark was a crisply knotted pink bow tie.
In 1954 Muir founded an amateur dramatic society, "Thorpe Players", in the village of Thorpe, Surrey where he lived for many years. He was a writer and presenter on many shows, including the 1960s satire programmes That Was The Week That Was and The Frost Report. He was well known to television audiences as a team captain on the long-running BBC2 series Call My Bluff, and did voice-overs for advertisements, including Cadbury's Fruit & Nut chocolate ("Everyone's a Fruit and Nut case"), Batchelors' Savoury Rice ("Every grain will drive them insane!"), a coffee advert in which he used the phrase "impending doom", and Unigate milk Humphreys.
In the 1960s Muir was Assistant Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC and in 1969 joined London Weekend Television as Head of Entertainment.
His pets, which prompted many an anecdote on My Word!, included Afghan hounds and Burmese cats. The hounds were also the inspiration for a series of picture books about an accident-prone Afghan puppy called "What-a-Mess".
In 1976 Muir wrote The Frank Muir Book: An irreverent companion to social history, which is a collection of anecdotes and quotations collected under various subjects including "Music", "Education", "Literature", "Theatre", "Art" and "Food and Drink". (In the United States, this book is titled "An Irreverent Social History of Almost Everything.") For example, "Show me the man who has enjoyed his schooldays and I will show you a bully and a bore" Robert Morley. "Education, n, That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary. The quotes are interspersed with linking comments by Muir.
A similar format to The Frank Muir Book was used in his BBC radio series Frank Muir Goes Into..., in which Alfred Marks read the quotations, linked verbally by Muir. Muir published books based on these series. Muir's magnum opus, The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose, which again uses a similar format with more scholarly aspirations, was published in 1990.
In 1997, Muir published a well-received autobiography, A Kentish Lad. BBC Radio declined to serialize it as a reading.
Muir died in Surrey, on 2 January 1998 aged 77. In November 1998, ten months after his death, he and Denis Norden were joint recipients of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Writer of the Year Award. Muir's widow, Polly, died in Surrey on 27 October 2004, aged 79.
|Rector of the University of St Andrews
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