At the tender age of 87, a comedy legend has finally published his autobiography. Andrew White speaks to St Helens-born Bernie Clifton.

“Be honest, how many of you thought I was dead?"

That's a quote from Bernie Clifton - singer, comedian, radio DJ, trombone player and ostrich handler - at the top of his publicity material.

But not only is Bernie still alive, he has now written his autobiography, 'Bernie Clifton: Crackerjack to Vegas' which details a lifetime in showbusiness.

It tells of his journey from failed plumber to reducing the late Queen to tears of laughter, from Crackerjack regular to Las Vegas star - and all while playing trombone (badly) for the England World Cup football band.

St Helens Star: Bernie Clifton has released his autobiography 'Crackerjack to Vegas' at the age of 87Bernie Clifton has released his autobiography 'Crackerjack to Vegas' at the age of 87 (Image: CLOUT COMMUNICATIONS)

It's all a far cry from Bernie's humble beginnings, living with his large family in a two-bedroom house in the centre of St Helens.

"It was almost Dickensian," he tells me, recalling those early years of "getting up to all sorts of stuff and mucking about on building sites".

"When I was four, we dodged a bomb," he adds, explaining how a wartime missile "missed us by three doors".

"That was the first momentous occasion I can recall," he adds.

Things didn't improve much for little Bernie.

"I was heading for grammar school, having passed my eleven-plus, wearing clogs," he says. "I was told 'you can't go to grammar school wearing clogs because it's not allowed' - and that broke my heart. Those are events in life you never forget."

A failure at school, he got a job as an apprentice plumber - he was "a pretty bad plumber", but a decent singer and plucked up some Dutch courage to audition, successfully, with a band at a St Helens ballroom.

After a spell in national service, working on RAF 'V bombers' in Doncaster, he decided - against his mother's wishes - that plumbing wasn't for him and tried to make a go of his talent as a boy singer, with a little comedy attached.

A turning point came after he appeared on television for the first time, in variety show The Good Old Days in 1972, headlined by the man who would become his mentor - Les Dawson.

St Helens Star: Bernie got his first television break on The Good Old Days, where he met Les Dawson who was to become his mentorBernie got his first television break on The Good Old Days, where he met Les Dawson who was to become his mentor (Image: CLOUT COMMUNICATIONS)

Bernie explains: "Les Dawson collared me and said 'you're not bad, but you're just doing what a hundred other comics are doing - why don't you find your own style?'

Bernie told Les he enjoyed working with props.

"I'll never forget his words," says Bernie. "He said 'go out and become a prop comic then, because nobody else can be arsed'."

And that's exactly what Bernie did. Armed with props like a pair of biscuit tins to dance in, a cat which sat on his shoulder and a huge rubber shark, Bernie developed his own distinctive act.

"I became known as a prop comic," says Bernie. "That made me different, it kept me apart from the herd. That's how I got my own identity and it's thanks to Les - I always acknowledged that."

Another turning point came when he started working with what was to become his most famous prop - Oswald the Ostrich.

Somebody told Bernie they had seen a man "on a chicken" at a street carnival, so he approached Peter Pullan, "the go-to man when it came to props".

Pullan - the man who made Orville for Keith Harris, Rod Hull's emu and the Honey Monster - made an ostrich.

Bernie tried it on and ran out into the street to test it, drawing instant howls of laughter.

"It stopped the traffic," says Bernie. "I felt the power of it and that was just the start. Peter and I worked for years to perfect it, there were many versions."

It all came together for Bernie at the 1979 Royal Variety Show, where he and Oswald ran amok on stage.

"Apparently the Queen was hysterical with laughter, nobody had seen anything like it," he says. "I would burst onto stage at 100 miles per hour, I was as fit as a butcher's dog and it really hit home."

Major success followed for Bernie, who became a household name with his own TV show and regular appearances on Crackerjack and The Keith Harris Show.

In 1982 he ran the first of his London Marathons with Oswald the Ostrich, then later appeared alongside Peter Kay in the ‘Amarillo’ video which went to number one and he went on to host a Radio 4 special.

St Helens Star: Bernie and Oswald became regulars at the London Marathon in the 1980sBernie and Oswald became regulars at the London Marathon in the 1980s (Image: PRESS ASSOCIATION)

Other opportunities presented themselves. Bernie appeared on BBC’s The Voice, singing his rendition of The Impossible Dream - much to judge and childhood fan Ricky Wilson's delight.

He starred in ITV's Last Laugh in Vegas, a documentary following eight 'showbiz legends' as they prepared to perform in Las Vegas - and he even got a mention in an episode of Inside Number 9 titled Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room.

Perhaps the strangest twist in Bernie's career came when he was invited to perform with the England World Cup football band, playing the trombone he used as a prop.

His first appearance was at Newcastle's St James' Park, where he played 'The Great Escape' during an England match.

He travelled all over with the band - to World Cups in Germany and South Africa, supporting boxer Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas and and the Team GB women's hockey team at the Beijing Olympics.

"That's what's curious about my story," says Bernie. "All the twists and turns that it took. You really couldn't make it up.

"I think for that 10-year-old boy who was wearing clogs in St Helens, it would have been outside the realms of possibility."

St Helens Star: Praise for Bernie Clifton's autobiographyPraise for Bernie Clifton's autobiography (Image: CLOUT COMMUNICATIONS)