“Nice one, Cyril!”, or the birth of British catchphrases

In It’s not all laughs—but it is catching, published in the Daily Mirror (London) of Tuesday 13th February 1973, Donald Gomery gave an interesting account of the manner in which British catchphrases appear:

It’s funny, but the birth of every good catchphrase is always unplanned. Ask any comedian.
When a comic finds a phrase that catches on it’s like striking gold. Instant identification. It can also be a pain in the neck.
Once the fans get hold of it they won’t let him forget it.
Take Dick Emery1’s now famous: “Ooh, you are awful—but I like you,” which has even been used as the title of his new film.


“It could get wearying,” he told me. “But then some old dear, living alone perhaps, stops you.
“You see the pleasure she gets, and that makes it all worthwhile.”
And, true to tradition, it all happened by accident.
Dick says: “Peter Elliott was interviewing me in my role of Mandy and asked me something particularly outrageous.
“I was supposed to give him just a look, but instead—inspired genius!—I said, ‘Ooh, you are awful—but I like you.’ And it stuck.”
Clive Dunn2 of Dad’s Army, is also confronted by fans asking for “Permission to speak, sir?”


What phrase will be on everybody’s lips in 1973? Impossible to guess. But certainly one of 1972’s biggest successes was Larry Grayson3’s “Shut that door.”
Larry really does suffer from arthritis in one arm. On stage at Leicester, a terrible draught was causing him pain. Looking into the wing he saw the stage door wide open.
“Shut that door!” he shouted. He meant it seriously, but the audience laughed . . . and a catch-phrase was born.
Bruce Forsyth4, once well-known for his expression “I’m in charge,” came up with “Didn’t he do well?” last year.
He used it a couple of times in BBC TV’s “The Generation Game” and was appearing in cabaret one night when someone in the audience called: “Oh, didn’t he do well?”
Bruce realised he had a winner and made a point of repeating the phrase in his TV show.
Now it is so well known that he has made a record using the phrase.
Jimmy (“Orft we jolly well go”) Young5 also stumbles on catch-phrases by accident.
“I say something spontaneous and for some reason it latches on with the public,” he says.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus6 claims highbrow origins for its “And now for something completely different.”
Michael Palin, who stars in the show, says the catchphrase was lifted from Proust, the French novelist.
Latest catchphrase comes from a TV commercial for bread—“Nice one, Cyril.” It’s caught on, especially with Tottenham Hotspur football fans, who chant it in support of one of their star players, Cyril Knowles.
But daddy of all catch-phrasers is Arthur Askey7. His “Don’t be filthy” . . . “Hello playmates” . . . “Before your very eyes” made parrots out of millions.
As Hylda Baker8 might say: “He KNOWS, y’ know.”

1 Richard Gilbert Emery (1915-83), English comedian and actor
2 Clive Robert Benjamin Dunn (1920-2012), English actor, comedian, artist, author and singer, who played Lance Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, a British television comedy series (1968-77) about the British Home Guard during the Second World War
3 Larry Grayson (William Sulley White – 1923-95), English comedian and television presenter
4 Bruce Joseph Forsyth-Johnson (1928-2017), English presenter, actor, comedian, singer, dancer and screenwriter
5 Jimmy Young (Leslie Ronald Young – 1921-2016), English singer, disc jockey and radio personality – orft: deliberately illiterate pronunciation of off for jocular effect
6 Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British television comedy series (1969-74), starring, among others, Michael Edward Palin (born 1943), English comedian, actor, author and television presenter
7 Arthur Bowden Askey (1900-82), English comedian and actor
8 Hylda Baker (1905-86), English comedienne, actress and music hall performer from Farnworth, Lancashire

In Very Interesting . . . But Stupid! A book of catchphrases from the world of entertainment [see footnote] (Unwin Paperbacks – London, 1980), the Scouse author and broadcaster Nigel Rees (born 1944) quoted Barry Day, President of the advertising agency McCann & Co, as saying the following about the catchphrases that have entered the language from TV advertising:

“It occurs to me that most of the truly memorable and mind-nagging lines come in the early days of commercial TV – can you tell Stork from butter? / you’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent! / you’ll be a little lovelier each day with fabulous pink Camay! – I suspect that’s because early TV was very self-consciously a moving version of print advertising, which had always depended very heavily on the slogan or pay-off line. And just about everything was sung. But from the 1960s there was the revival of the catchphrase type of slogan along the lines of the radio programme ones of the war years. Again, you were consciously trying to create popularity. You hoped the comics would take them up and make them part of the language (as opposed to the accidental and usually rude borrowings of slogans like “Can you tell Stork . . . ?”, etc.) Examples of the ‘planted’ lines would include:
I’m only here for the beer! (Double Diamond)
Are you getting enough? (Milk)
Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach. (Heineken)
What your right arm’s for. (Courage)
“There have also been a number of fortunate accidents – fortunate in that, although the line was intended, its impact was unexpected:
Sccchh – you know who . . . ! (Schweppes)
Full of Eastern Promise. (Fry’s Turkish Delight)
Nice one, Cyril! (Wonderloaf)
The Right One. (Martini)
Don’t forget the fruit gums, mum. (Rowntree’s Fruit Gums)
“It’s quite fascinating to re-analyse advertising from this point of view!”


The following from The Stage and Television Today (London) of Thursday 4th October 1973 shows that the advertising slogan Nice one, Cyril! (1972) rapidly gained currency in Britain:


'Nice one, Cyril!' - The Stage (London) - 4 October 1973

● What it feels like to win £200 — CYRIL GARNER talented instrumentalist and singer representing the BRECKNOCK ARMS, Camden Town, who won the second prize in the TRUMAN-BIERRITZ Summer Talent Competition. Finals were held at the spacious Woods Sports Club near Colchester last Saturday.


Note: Nigel Rees explains that very interesting . . . but stupid! (pronounced verry and with a thick German accent) was Arte Johnson9’s catchphrase when playing a German soldier in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In10.

9 Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson (born 1929), American comedian and actor
10 Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, an American sketch comedy television programme (1968-73)

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