For this blog I will look at many of the people who I remember well from television of the fifties and sixties. Some may have appeared on the radio at first and some continued for many years afterwards. Many of them also appeared in films or in the pop music charts. I will do them alphabetically (by first names) with notes and dates (and most pictures) added with much help from Wikipedia.
As with the short obituaries that I occasionally write, I keep wanting to write ‘fondly remembered’ or ‘well-loved’ for all of these. But some are still living, some still performing.
There is no logical system for selection – just my failing memory. If you can’t see your favourites from radio and television here they may appear in other blog posts or perhaps they slipped through the net.
Alfred Hawthorne Hill (1924-1992)
The Benny Hill Show ran on television from the mid-fifties to the end of the eighties, including sketches, slapstick, mime, parody and double entendre. His theme tune, Yakety Sax was often shown with a farcical animated chase scene involving Benny and several scantily-clad women. He also made several comedy records and is well known for ‘Ernie, the fastest Milkman in the West,’ which topped UK charts in Christmas 1971. I remember him for his wicked leer, perhaps more from after the sixties. His show was on ITV which we didn’t watch much earlier. (Most of my early memories are BBC.)
Bob Monkhouse (1928-2003)
Initially a comedy writer and comedian, Bob was known later for hosting game shows, particularly the Golden Shot from 1967 to 1972, also Celebrity Squares, Family Fortunes and others. He was sharp with ad lib humour.
Brian Rix (1924-)
For most of the fifties and sixties Brian appeared in farces at the Whitehall Theatre, London and these Whitehall farces were regularly shown on television. It’s a form of drama, with improbable and absurd situations, that has gone out of fashion nowadays but was very popular at the time. All the televised farces seemed to star Brian with many other well-known actors and actresses.
He had a long marriage with the actress Elspet Gray, with whom he worked. In 1951 the first of their four children was born, a daughter with Down syndrome (in those days referred to as mongolism.) There was no welfare support for such children and certainly no education. The only offering the state made was to place them old, Victorian, run-down so-called hospitals where “patients” were left to their own devices for hours on end. The Rixes were determined to try and do something better and became involved with various charities. His personal experience and his leading position as a fundraiser led to Brian applying to work for Mencap. When he retired in 1987 he became chairman and later president.
Charles Edward Springall (1925-2006)
I was particularly endeared to Charlie because he was even shorter than me. His comedy was often slapstick and his catchphrase was “Hello, my Darlings!” I will leave it to Wikipedia to explain that ‘the catchphrase came about because he was short, and so his eyes would often be naturally directly level with a lady’s bosom. Because of this and because in his television work he preferred appearing with big-busted women, the catchphrase was born.’
His Charlie Drake Show of 1960-61 ended with a serious accident during a live transmission. (Most television used to be live then.) He had arranged for a bookcase to be set up to fall apart during a slapstick sketch but over-enthusiastic workman had “mended” the bookcase before the broadcast. The actors working with him, unaware of what had happened, proceeded with the rest of the sketch which required that they pick him up and throw him through an open window. He fractured his skull and was unconscious for three days. It was two years before he returned to the screen.
After four films, none of them successful, he returned to television in 1963. I still remember the show in which an extended sketch featured an orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, in which Drake appeared to play all the instruments. As well as conducting he featured as the player of a triangle waiting for his cue to play a single strike – which he subsequently missed.
[I know what you are thinking – 1812 Overture – That would have been a good one for Music lessons at ICHS – Of course it was!]
The show also included a recitation of The Listeners by Walter de la Mare.
“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller; Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass; Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret; Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time; “Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller; No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes; Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners; That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight; To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair; That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken; By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness; Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf; ‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even; Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered; That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners; Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house; From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup; And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward; When the plunging hoofs were gone.
He made a few recordings, notably ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back,’ in 1961. (Nowadays, with political correctness, it would not have been seen in the same way with its references to Australian aboriginal culture.)
David Tynan O’Mahoney (1936-2005)
Coming from Australia and appearing on British television from the late sixties to the early nineties. His shows interleaved pre-recorded sketches with his dry humour directed from a high chair as he smoked and sipped whiskey. (Wikipedia says that it was ginger ale but we were certainly led to believe that it was whiskey.) He had lost half a finger, which he would allude to sometimes with humour. The truth was that it was an industrial accident.
His humour, especially the sketches, was often controversial and frequently featured Roman Catholicism and priests. (By modern standards it would be tame but then standards used to be very different.)
You could never quite tell how much of his Catholic upbringing had stayed with him but he came across as partly lapsed and agnostic. He always ended by toasting the audience with the words, “Goodnight, thank you, and may your God go with you”, an original catchphrase that included everyone and typified his amiable style.
Des O’Connor (1932-)
I still think of Des as a singer from his records of the late sixties and seventies but he has done a lot more on television – comedy; hosting chat shows and game shows; presenting the Royal Variety Performance; and more recently presenting Countdown with Carol Vorderman. (And also as the butt of humour from Morecambe and Wise!)
Richard Gilbert Emery (1915-1983)
I am not surprised to find that after some early entertainment appearances, Dick Emery was associated with some of my other childhood memories – Educating Archie, Tony Hancock and Michael Bentine. But he was most remembered from the Dick Emery Show through the sixties and seventies, featuring many sketches in which he appeared as various flamboyant characters. Most famous of these was Mandy, a buxom blonde interviewed with a series of double entendres. She always ended with, “Ooh, you are awful … but I like you.”
Eric Sykes (1923-2012)
Eric started as a script writer and came to fame in the sixties in his series, ‘Sykes and a …’ This was an early situation comedy, featuring Hattie Jacques as his sister and sometimes Deryck Guyler as ‘Corky’ the local policeman and Richard Wattis as the snobbish neighbour Mr Brown.
For most of his career he was almost totally deaf and he continued for many years even with declining sight. He had short appearances in one of the Harry Potter films.
Harry Bourlon Illingsworth (1917-1989)
A comedy actor with long BBC running television in the late fifties and throughout the sixties. He portrayed himself as a charming, gentle man bemused by life and will be remembered for his visual illusion of levitation, using a shop window. (High Street shops and department stores, particularly fashion shops, used to show samples of their good in shop windows. This practice has now virtually disappeared.)
Remembered, as his comedy character, as a thoroughly nice man. In those days humour was always clean.
Josephine Edwina Jaques (1922-1980)
A comic actress, known perhaps mainly for the Carry On films but also from many other radio and television series – ITMA (before my time); Educating Archie with Peter Brough (mentioned in another blog) and Tony Hancock. For many years she appeared with Eric Sykes (see below) as his sister in his television series. It was, in the words of Wikipedia, ‘a role that endeared her to the public.’
Ernest John Morris (1916-1999)
He was a natural mimic and impersonator, who first appeared on television as The Hot Chestnut Man, a short slot in which he was shown sitting roasting chestnuts, while he told a humorous yarn in a West Country accent, often ending with a moral. His catchphrase was used near the beginning of the programme, when he gave his young viewers a brief outline of the week’s story and asked whether he’d told it before: “Didn’t I ? ………… I thought I did”.
Later he was known for many television programmes, mostly for Children’s Television and to do with animals. He presented Animal Magic from 1962 to 1984, co-presented by others including Gerald Durrell, Tony Soper and Terry Nutkins. It was discontinued when his anthropomorphic treatment fell out of fashion.
I absolutely loved his soft, calm voice and his anthropomorphism. While we watched animals, he would not only voice their thoughts (in a humorous, not serious, way.) He would give them extended conversations and human emotions in his intonation.
June Whitfield (1925-)
June has been a well-known (and well loved) comedy actress since the early fifties, appearing in several popular sitcom series. In the seventies and eighties she starred in series with Terry Scott and even in the nineties she appeared with Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous.
Ken Dodd (1927-)
Ken has for many years been a comedian, singer-songwriter and actor, known most for his fast on-line stand-up comedy style, his trademark unruly hair and protruding teeth, his “tickling stick” and his famous, upbeat greeting of “How tickled I am!”. He works mainly in the style of Music Hall, although he has occasionally appeared in drama, including as Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
He has also been a singer recording serious songs, of which the most famous were ‘Happiness’ and ‘Tears’ in the mid-sixties. ‘Tears’ is among the best ever selling singles of the UK.
Kenneth Williams (1926-88)
He came to fame on the radio in Hancock’s Half Hour with Tony Hancock, mostly playing funny voice roles, with his nasal, whiny, camp-cockney inflections and his catchphrase, “Stop messing about … “) He also featured in the radio series Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.
He continued to work on the stage and in films, particularly the Carry On films; in Radio programmes such as Just a Minute; and on television including the children’s storytelling series Jackanory.
Lenny the Lion
I loved Lenny the Lion and have taken the liberty of not putting him alphabetically under Terry Hall (1926-2007) who was an English ventriloquist credited as being one of the first to use a non-human puppet. Terry appeared regularly on television with Lenny, a very timid lion, whose catchphrase was “Aw, don’t embawass me!”
Terry created Lenny the Lion in 1954 after he visited the zoo while working at the summer season in Blackpool. Lenny was made from an old fox fur and papier-mâché, with a golf ball for the nose. He originally had a mouthful of fearsome teeth, but they were removed to avoid scaring children in the audience.
The Lenny the Lion Show ran on from 1957 to 1960, followed by Lenny’s Den in 1959 to 1961, and the pop music show Pops and Lenny in 1962 to 1963. They remained popular throughout the 1960s, appearing on stage in Blackpool and on television. Lenny advertised Trebor mints for three years. They continued to work through the 1970s, appearing on television in Crackerjack and 3-2-1. From 1977 to 1980, Hall regularly appeared in the educational television programme Reading with Lenny.
Pierino Ronald Como (1912 – 2001)
An American singer often seen on British television through several decades known for his relaxed style, similar in some ways to Des O’Connor and Val Doonican. His hits included ‘Magic Moments’ and ‘Catch a Falling Star.’
Phil Silvers (1911-1985)
An American comedy actor. I remember the Phil Silvers Show, (which I loved) where he played Sergeant Ernie Bilko at Fort Baxter. In the USA it ran for nearly 150 episodes, all black-and-white, in the late fifties. I think repeats in the UK continued for long afterwards.
Bilko ran the Motor Pool but never seemed to do any work, normally gambling and devising other money-making routines. I still remember his henchmen, Rocco Barbarella and Steve Henshaw; camp cook Rupert Ritzik with his loud-mouthed wife and Duane Dobermanm, the archetypical slob. The camp commandant, Colonel Hall, always knew that Bilko was up to something but never quite knew what.
Pinky and Perky
I nearly forgot this pair, as I forgot them in considering Children’s Television. They were stiffly moving puppets, originally marionettes but later animated cartoons, singing and dancing, anthropomorphic puppet pigs with their own television series, created by Czechoslovakian immigrants Jan and Vlasta Dalibor. They were originally going to be named “Pinky” and “Porky” but there was a problem registering Porky as a character name. They were very alike. Pinky wore red clothes and Perky wore blue, but this distinction was of little use on monochrome TV, so Perky often wore a hat.
Pinky and Perky spoke and sang in high-pitched voices, created by re-playing original voice recordings at twice the original recorded speed; a technique also used by Ken Dodd’s Diddymen and the Chipmunks.
Rolf Harris (1930-)
I can’t leave out Rolf, an Australian entertainer whose career encompassed work as a musician, singer-songwriter, composer, comedian, actor, painter and television presenter.
He is well known for his musical compositions Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, which became a hit in Australia, the UK, and the United States, and Jake the Peg. (So says Wikipedia. I have to add Two Little Boys, a song he sang but did not write.) He played the didgeridoo; was credited with the invention of the wobble board; and was associated with the Stylophone. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was a popular television personality in the UK, later presenting shows such as Rolf’s Cartoon Club and Animal Hospital.
I remember his painting on live television shows, usually with a huge canvas and an industrial sized paint brush. His catchphrase was, “Can you see what it is yet?”
Solomon Joel Cohen (1913 – 1976)
A South African-born English actor and comedian who came to fame as Tony Hancock‘s co-star in Hancock’s Half Hour, which ran on television from 1956 until 1960, then from the Carry On films, with the top billing role in seventeen of them, and in television sitcoms for the rest of his life.
Remembered for a lascivious persona, sometimes described as “the grand old man of dirty laughter.”
Tony Hancock (1924-1968)
I was tempted to describe Tony Hancock as ‘Arguably, one of the best ever British comedians,’ but in my mind there is no argument. He was our best ever comedian. I have also been dodging round mention of another show – but it has to be said that for the 1951–52 series, Tony was a cast member of Educating Archie, where he mainly played the tutor to the nominal star, (a ventriloquist’s dummy.) His appearance in this show brought him national recognition.
In 1954, he was given his own eponymous BBC radio show, Hancock’s Half Hour, which lasted for seven years and over a hundred episodes in its radio form, and from 1956 ran concurrently with an equally successful BBC television series with the same name. The show starred Hancock as Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock living in the shabby “23 Railway Cuttings” in East Cheam, one of the first of what we now all sitcoms. Most episodes portrayed his everyday life as a struggling comedian with aspirations toward straight acting.
Sid James featured heavily in both the radio and TV versions, while the radio version also featured Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and others.
Tony became an enormous star in Britain. Like few others, he was able to clear the streets while families gathered together to listen to the eagerly awaited episodes.
As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sid James became more important to the show when the television version began. The regular cast was reduced to just the two men, allowing the humour to come from the interaction between them.
From 1959 it became the first television series to be recorded before transmission, something technically impossible earlier.
Hancock became anxious that his work with Sid James was turning them into a double act and the last BBC series in 1961, retitled simply Hancock, was without him. Two episodes are among his best-remembered. “The Blood Donor“, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood, contains famous lines such as, “A pint? Why, that’s very nearly an armful!” The other instalment is “The Radio Ham“, in which Hancock plays an amateur radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a yachtsman in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from taking his position.
Michael Valentine “Val” Doonican (1927 – 2015)
A well-known and popular Irish singer of traditional pop, easy listening, and novelty songs, who was noted for his warm and relaxed style. In the United Kingdom he had five successive Top 10 albums in the 1960s as well as several hits on the UK Singles Chart, including “Walk Tall” and “Elusive Butterfly“. The Val Doonican Show, which featured his singing and a variety of guests, had a long and successful run on BBC Television from 1965 to 1986. He had a gentle baritone voice and, according to The Guardian, he had “an easygoing, homely charm that enchanted middle England”.
There were many others. Some I have forgotten. Some are down in my notes to be mentioned elsewhere. I could also have mentioned: Arthur Askey, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Gracie Fields, Groucho Marx, Joyce Grenfell (“George, Don’t do that!”), Les Dawson, Morecambe and Wise, Prunella Scales, Richard Briers, Terry-Thomas, Terry Scott, (see June Whitfield) Tommy Cooper, Tony Hart, (and Morph) The Two Ronnies, Vera Lynn, Victor Borge (who once over-ran a live show by about an hour and a half – It was so good, they couldn’t cut him off,) Wilfrid Pickles and many others. Some were more famous before the fifties; some were mostly famous after the sixties.
I have to admit I have really enjoyed writing this one. It has brought back memories.