Frankie Howerd’s depression was so severe his doctor resorted to a controversial means of treatment

Richard Bevan
Richard Bevan
4 Min Read

In the history of British comedy, few names leave a lasting impression such as Frankie Howerd. Known for his iconic catchphrase “titter ye not,” Howerd left an indelible mark on the entertainment landscape, especially through his roles in Carry On films, including Carry On Doctor. However, behind the laughter lurked a tale of personal struggle and a controversial treatment that left its mark on the comedian’s legacy.

Howerd’s journey began on the stage at the age of 13, but dreams of serious acting were dashed after a failed audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. During World War II in the British Army, he found his comedic stride, performing in concert parties and adopting the surname “Howerd” for a touch of uniqueness. Post-war, his profile soared, and he became a radio sensation with his catchphrases, including the unforgettable “titter ye not.”

The silver screen beckoned in 1954 with his debut in The Runaway Bus, marking the start of Howerd’s experimentation with various formats. Despite setbacks, the 1960s witnessed a resurgence in his career, fueled by successes like That Was the Week That Was and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Frankie Howerd worked on the circuit for years before becoming a household name after appearing in Carry On Doctor.

Frankie Howerd sought alternative methods to deal with depression and guilt.

However, beneath the laughter, Howerd battled personal demons. His homosexuality, concealed due to legal restrictions until 1967, strained his mental state. His lover and manager, Dennis Heymer, played a pivotal role in reviving Howerd’s career in the 1960s, but the duo had to navigate societal prejudices discreetly.

Howerd’s complicated relationship with his sexuality, coupled with bouts of self-disgust, led him to seek unconventional solutions. Heymer, recognizing the need for intervention, introduced a controversial treatment – LSD therapy. This unexpected approach, administered by a doctor, aimed to provide enlightenment but inspired the 2015 radio drama “Frankie Takes a Trip.”

Heymer, despite the challenges, stood by Howerd for over three decades until the comedian’s death. The pair’s discreet love story became the focus of a 2008 drama, “Rather You Than Me,” starring David Walliams and Rafe Spall.

As Howerd confronted the harsh criticisms of Mary Whitehouse and navigated the changing tides of comedy, he turned to psychoanalysis and LSD to cope. Reflecting on Howerd’s unique comedic style, Barry Cryer stated, “He was like a tightrope walker… waiting for a laugh, and then, suddenly, Bang. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Frankie Howerd and his manager of whom he had a relationship with
Howerd’s lover and manager, Dennis Heymer (Left), would take him for his LSD treatment.

In 1991, after contracting a virus in the Amazon, Frankie Howerd battled respiratory issues and sought treatment at London’s Harley Street clinic, eventually being discharged around Easter. Tragically, two weeks later, on April 19, 1992, at the age of 75, he collapsed and passed away due to heart failure. Remarkably, he discussed new show ideas with his TV producer before passing.

Two great comedic friends passed within a day of each other.

The news of Howerd’s death coincided almost simultaneously with fellow comedian Benny Hill’s, prompting some newspapers to erroneously quote Hill as saying they were “great, great friends.” Howerd found his final resting place at St. Gregory’s Church in Weare, Somerset, and in a poignant twist, his partner Dennis Heymer was buried near him in May 2009, solidifying their enduring connection even in death.

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