The Showbiz XI

For half a century, celebrities have risked making fools of themselves with no need for reality TV, by playing football. But, as John Harding explains, it’s all in a good cause

The lure of the football pitch for theatre folk has always been strong. Ever since professional football became a mass working-class attraction, variety artists have craved some of the allure attached to the game. Before the First World War, comedian George Robey, “The Prime Minister of Mirth”, organised charity fund-­raising matches involving top football stars and music-hall favourites, which drew large crowds. After the war, the tradition continued in intermittent form with teams representing actors, the cinema trade and pantomime artists, dance bands and the pioneering women’s team, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies.

By the 1950s, with variety dying, the only regular such fixture was a Boxers v Jockeys match raising funds for sportsmen’s charities. But the world of entertainment was being rapidly transformed by the twin forces of television and rock’n’roll and, in 1957, those two worlds ­collided to ­produce ­a charity football ­phenomenon – the Showbiz XI. 

Started in a coffee bar in Soho by disc jockey and song plugger Jimmy Henney and Cliff Richard’s manager, Franklyn Boyd, it was primarily an outlet for young musicians and actors to indulge themselves in a game that many of them might well have taken up professionally, had not the stage and screen claimed them. Early line-ups included Sean Connery, Tommy Steele, Jimmy Tarbuck, Tony Newley, Lonnie Donegan, Des O’Connor and Patrick McGoohan, who was a rugged centre-half, plus various theatrical agents, managers and hangers-on. Although the team often trained at Highbury, ex-professional players featured rarely: only Billy Wright and Wally Barnes, a former Arsenal wing-half then working as a commentator, were ever-present.

Current pros were banned, of course. Stanley Matthews was reprimanded by the FA for appearing in a fund-raiser between the Tennis Stars and a Showbiz XI in December 1960 because the Showbiz team was “unaffiliated”. Matthews was forced to give a written undertaking not to do it again.

One among the pioneers was a svelte, good-looking young rock-star-cum-male-model, Jess Conrad. Unlike Steele, Connery and many of the others, Conrad boasted no athletic ability whatsoever. But he had a dream. “I went in goal because, when I was younger, a Russian ­goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, caught my imagination. The pictures of him were so reminiscent of Batman sweeping through the air, and he was dressed all in black.” The fact that Conrad couldn’t actually kick a ball mattered little. For the next 40 years, Jess would earn quite a reputation as a shot-stopper, bravely diving in and risking his heavily insured teeth at the same time. Jess would ultimately captain, manage and organise the Showbiz XI. He also designed the logos, sourced the sponsors, negotiated with the FA, and packed the hampers as the various eclectic teams travelled by coach, train and plane to the four corners of the UK and beyond. When he was making movies, it was written into his contract that, every Saturday, wherever he was, he would be flown back to London to play.

Jess also kept a record of every match and every score because, although it was an entertainers’ team, they were deadly serious when it came to the result. Conrad explains: “They [the entertainers] wouldn’t have played if they hadn’t thought they were any good, they just wouldn’t have exposed themselves if they hadn’t thought they could play. We tried comedy football, which was a disaster, throwing buckets of water over people, silly hats, but people never ever came to see that, what they came to see was a football match at reasonable standard.”

And they turned up in their thousands. In May 1957, singer Alma Cogan kicked off a Showbiz XI game at West Ham in front of 23,000, while crowds often reached 30,000. Games were so popular that a “lighter” rival, the TV All-Stars, appeared. Comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters picked teams featuring stars created by hit ITV shows such as The Army Game, Emergency Ward 10 and Sunday Night At The London Palladium. Their matches would often feature slapstick silliness, which turned off some of the more traditionalist players such as skiffle king Chas McDevitt. He recalls: “The ex-pros did not like to play with these other teams, as they usually did too much comedy.”

There were ideological differences, too. When professional players led by Jimmy Hill were threatening to strike in 1961, the players’ union planned strike fund-raising matches. The Showbiz XI felt the cause was too political and declined to help, but the All-Stars obliged. Transfer rebel George Eastham even played for them alongside Mike and Bernie Winters, incurring the wrath of the FA. For a time, the line-ups of the two squads were interchangeable. However, the All-Stars faded away when the Winters parted company and from then on the Showbiz XI reigned supreme.

The list of causes supported down the years is endless, from the Aberfan disaster to the Bradford Fire, Hillsborough to Dunblane, local hospices and special schools, Save The Valley, the Wishing Well Appeal, community centres. The roll-call of players includes Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, David Frost, Nicky Campbell, Rod Stewart, Roy Castle, Freddie Starr, Dennis Waterman, Ray Winstone and Robbie Williams, and ex-players such as Vinnie Jones and Paul Gascoigne.

Injury forced Conrad to quit in the 1980s. He bemoans the changes that have occurred since the innocent early days: “We came into the business as young, working-class, ordinary guys, and felt we had to give something back. Younger performers today don’t understand charity, they want money and proper expenses. It’s more of a business, but there are bigger sponsors and it’s better publicised so we make more money.”

For Jess, the camaraderie of the dressing room was what made it all so special, “that special bonding thing of playing together, where you throw away the egos. And we were dedicated, taking risks and making sacrifices that today’s stars wouldn’t dream of. Cliff Richard apparently sacked Franklyn Boyd because he was always somewhere else with the Showbiz team. And Larry Parnes, Tommy Steele’s manager back in 1961, told him in no uncertain terms that, having just landed a starring role in a West End pantomime, he wasn’t to play football. Tommy goes off, plays – and breaks his leg. No way can he tell Parnes, so he gets smuggled into the theatre, makes his first entrance down the stairs from his dressing room – and pretends to fall down and break his leg. The understudy had to go on and Parnes never learned the truth.”

Today, Conrad is the Showbiz XI president and confines his role to introducing the team before the game. He was on duty at Harwich & Parkstone’s ground, near Colchester, at the end of July raising funds for the Cry (Cardiac Risk In The Young) appeal. Peter Purves, athlete Iwan Thomas and John Altman – Nick Cotton in EastEnders – played against Simon Milton’s East Anglian Legends XI.

Conrad’s latest film role is playing Steele’s manager, Parnes, in ­Tel-star, a biopic of record producer Joe Meek. Another ex-EastEnders actor, avid Crystal Palace fan Nigel Harman, plays the young Conrad, which is apt. Not only is he the spitting image of Conrad, he rather fancies himself as a footballer.

From WSC 260 October 2008