What do you get if you combine the British tradition of sticking a ferret down your trousers and the Room 101 section of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984? You get – or got – the admirably OTT act Ratman and Robin.
I have only just found out that Ken Edwards died a couple of weeks ago on 9th January. He was 79.
He was better-known to connoisseurs of the bizarre as the ‘Ratman’ in Ratman & Robin.
Reporting his death, the German news website news.de called him “Britischer Joe Exotic” – “the British Joe Exotic“.
I auditioned Ratman & Robin back in 1987 for the Channel 4 TV show The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross. They and their rodent co-stars arrived in a Rentokil van.
Alas the show’s producer was not enamoured of rat acts, especially when the rodent co-stars had a tendency to escape and run round the audition room. So the Jonathan Ross show sadly remained rat free.
Years later, in 2012, Ken also got turned down after an audition for Britain’s Got Talent in which he ate cockroaches out of a paper bag in front of the judges.
David Walliams later said his children’s book Ratburger – particularly the character Burt – was inspired by this audition. Walliams told the Irish Daily Mirror in 2017: ”I was slightly disappointed that he didn’t go through to the next round because he was such an amazing character.”
When I met them, both Ratman and Robin seemed very relaxed and amiable: just two blokes who had stumbled on an interesting sideline; much better than making matchstick models of the Eiffel Tower or breeding racing pigeons.
Ken was a man of many animal parts. As the Britain’s Got Talent audition showed, he could also turn his creative hand and mouth to eating live cockroaches.
Asked what the cockroaches tasted like, he once said: “They taste awful. I just cannot describe them. I just think of England and a pint… It’s like having an anaesthetic at the back of the throat.” (A result of the scent they let off to repel predators.)
He also (at least once) took part in a slug-eating competition to raise money for Hyde United football club and, over the years, he raised thousands of pounds for charity.
He reportedly contributed to a few un-named Hammer horror movies, where he would allegedly provide rats and the like for unspecified “crucial scenes”.
In 1987, according to the Manchester Evening News, the RSCPA attempted to get the Ratman & Robin act banned “but were unsuccessful in their efforts”.
He found himself included in the 1988 Alternative Book of Records after he stuffed 47 rats down his, admittedly elasticated, trousers. And he earned a ‘proper’ Guinness World Record title in 2001 for the most cockroaches eaten – 36 – in one minute. He did this during an appearance on TV’s The Big Breakfast.
Ken had started his working life as a projectionist at the Hyde Hippodrome cinema before moving to the Ritz Cinema in Hyde, Greater Manchester.
By the age of 18, he had started acting on stage at venues including the Plaza, Stockport and the Theatre Royal, Hyde. He then bought a concertina and started touring concert halls across the North of England telling ‘mother-in-law jokes’ but (according to the DerbyshireLive website) “demand soon dried up”. Whether this was because the North of England comedy-goers of that time were early with political correctness or because he delivered the jokes badly is a matter for conjecture.
After that, according to the Derby Telegraph, he spent around 15 years ‘prowling’ the sewers and cellars of Manchester, earning a living as a ratcatcher.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he also spent time working as a zookeeper at Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester, looking after lions, tigers, emus, hippopotamuses and giraffes. He had joined the Board of Directors of the Belle Vue Circus in 1963.
One day, while working as a ratcatcher, he was asked to set traps at a glove factory in Stockport and met worker David Potts.
They became friends and, together, became Ratman & Robin.
Ken was a late developer. His talent for carrying out bizarre stage acts was initially unveiled on the British TV show Over The Top when he was 39. After that, Ratman & Robin appeared on various TV shows throughout the 1980s including The Russell Harty Show though, sadly, not The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross.
David Potts, his ‘Robin’, said Ken would often catch the vital co-stars of their act – the rats – in traps in Manchester’s sewers and then clean them up and look after them in his six garden sheds before using them in the act.
In 1985, Ken told reporters: “Our rats are really well treated… The rats are all caught from sewers, shampooed, deloused, and kept in special galvanised cages.”
David said Ken’s home “would often contain around 150 rats, a pet mink and even a Mexican coatimundi – a type of racoon”.
Not surprisingly, Ken became a bit of a local hero in Hyde.
Reminiscing on a local website in 2011… someone called ‘Tom’ remembered: “I once saw Ken walking a ring-tailed lemur on Great Norbury Street, near to the George pub.”
Another contributor – ‘Westar Steve’ – added: “He used to live on Chapel Street and in his house he used to sleep in a coffin and he had two fangs put in his mouth instead of two normal teeth. Last time I saw him, he had a stall on the flea market on Ashton Market and he was living in a caravan near that Alexander Mill in Hyde”
His friends and family became used to his OTT behaviour and Ken said: “If I were to actually do something normal, THEN they would react!”
In 1988, he told the Liverpool Echo: “I put the rats down my trousers… It’s boring but the audience loves it.”
According to the Manchester Evening News: “One of Ratman & Robin’s most controversial acts revolved around a ‘Coffin of Blood’ performance, which involved Ken being handcuffed inside a Perspex coffin. Assistant David would inflict several wounds to his body and then introduce 30 wild rats into the coffin, while audiences watched in horror as they fed off his open wounds.”
Ken once said he loved to take himself “to the limits of disgust” with the act: “I just think of the money,” he told the Liverpool Echo in 1988. “I soon realised people love to be disgusted.”
He was unsurprisingly sometimes called an eccentric: “He loves offending people,” a friend said, “piercing pomposity and giving his audiences a belly laugh.”
His publicity card in 1990 proudly proclaimed the opinions of various journalists:
“…a very complex man”
“…that strange man”