On this day in history : 24th January 1924 – The birth of Alfred Hawthorne Hill – better known to us as the slapstick comedian and actor Benny Hill….
Hill was born in Southampton – both his father and grandfather before him had been circus clowns…. Hill had a variety of jobs after leaving school…. He worked in Woolworth’s, did a spell as a milkman, was a driver, a bridge operator and even a drummer – before finally becoming assistant stage manager for a touring theatre company….
In 1942 he was called up – and served as a truck driver, mechanic and search light operator in Normandy, France…. However, his talent to entertain did not go unnoticed and he was eventually transferred to Combined Services Entertainment – the division which provided entertainment to the British Armed Forces…. It was at this time he changed his name to Benny – after his favourite comedian Jack Benny….
After the War he performed on radio – and made his TV debut in 1950…. He pursued a film career, with credits including ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘The Italian Job’ – amongst others….
But his real glory came from his long running TV series ‘The Benny Hill Show’…. With its sketches of slapstick, parody, mime and double entendre the show ran in one form or another from January 1955 to May 1989 – and aired in over 140 countries…. In 1971 audience in the UK peaked at more than 21 million viewers…. However, declining numbers meant that in 1989 the show was axed….
Hill never married, although he proposed to at least two women – he had no children…. By the late 1980s his health had begun to decline – and in February 1992 he was advised to have a heart bypass after a mild heart attack…. He declined….a week later he was also diagnosed with kidney failure…. Benny Hill died alone, in his armchair in front of the TV, in April 1992….
On this day in history : 2nd November 1954 – BBC radio comedy ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ makes its debut….
The very first episode ‘The First Night Party’ – with special guest appearances from Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Moria Lister and Bill Kerr – sees Hancock throw a party to celebrate his new radio show….having hired a venue from Sid…. Of course, things don’t go according to plan….
Approximately 100 episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour were made for radio broadcast….following Hancock’s adventures as an actor and comedian finding it hard to make his way in his chosen career…. In 1956 it made its first appearance on television, paving the way for the traditional sitcom….
Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson had met in 1948 whilst both in a sanatorium recovering from TB…. Later Hancock, Galton and Simpson went on to create Steptoe and Son for the BBC….
On this day in history : 3rd June 1971 – The premier in London’s West End of the longest-running comedy in history ~ “No Sex Please, We’re British”….starring Michael Crawford….
Written by Alastair Foot and Anthony Marriott and directed by Allan Davis the farcical play opened at the West End’s Strand Theatre….
The plot centred around Bank Manager Peter Hunter and his new wife, Frances, who live in a flat above the bank…. Frances sends away for some Scandinavian glass – but when it arrives it turns out to be not glass at all….but Scandinavian pornography…. A flood of photographs, books and films begins to arrive and the couple, along with the bank’s chief cashier, Brian Runnicles, desperately try to find a way to get rid of it…. Matters are complicated by Peter’s interfering mother, his boss, a bank inspector and a police superintendent….
The part of Brian Runnicles was at first played by Michael Crawford and later by David Jason…. Crawford used the character of Runnicles for his persona of Frank Spencer in “Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em”…. He was offered the part of Frank after the success of “No Sex Please, We’re British” but had not been the first choice for the hit sit-com…. the part had been offered to Ronnie Barker and then Norman Wisdom – but both had turned it down…. However, it has to be said Michael Crawford made Frank Spencer his own….
The character of Frances Hunter in “No Sex Please, We’re British” was initially played by Belinda Carroll…. The comedy ran until 1987, playing at full houses at three West End theatres:- The Strand, The Garrick and The Duchess, giving a total of 6,761 performances…. However, it did not enjoy the same level of success in America, closing after only sixteen performances on Broadway in 1973….
Also in 1973 a film version starring Ronnie Corbett as Brian was released with with changes to names, script and elements of the plot….
On this day in history : 4th May 1984 – Diana Dors, film actress, singer and writer, the English equivalent to Hollywood’s blonde bombshell, dies of cancer….
Born Diana Mary Fluck on the 23rd of October 1931 in Swindon, Wiltshire, Diana knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress…. Her passion as a young girl being the cinema – her heroines Hollywood actresses such as Veronica Lake, Jean Harlow and Lana Turner….
As a girl Diana was mature for her age, looking older than her years…. At the age of 14 she was offered a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art….making her their youngest ever student….
She made her film debut in 1947, a small uncredited role in ‘The Shop at Sly Corner’…. On signing the contracts she was asked to change her name from ‘Fluck’ – and she opted for her maternal grandmother’s maiden name of ‘Dors’….
Also in 1947 she had a small part in the comedy drama ‘Holiday Camp’ and a walk-on part in ‘Dancing with Crime’ starring Richard Attenborough…. 1948 saw her in a further 6 films including the role of Charlotte in ‘Oliver Twist’….
At the age of 16 she signed with the Rank Organisation and in 1949 landed her first leading role in the period drama ‘Diamond City’, set in 19th century South Africa…. In May 1956 she signed with RKO and left England for a career in Hollywood….
In 1951 Diana had married Dennis Hamilton, five weeks after meeting him on the film set of ‘Lady Godiva Rides Again’…. Hamilton, although a charmer, was a controlling, violent man who exploited her and took over her business affairs…. He also reportedly involved Diana in sex parties and introduced her to the likes of the Kray twins who he counted amongst his friends…. Incidentally, Diana became friends with Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Great Britain, whom she had also met on the set of ‘Lady Godiva’…. Ellis had a small part in the film….
It was at a party held for Diana that scandal broke out…. Diana, Hamilton and two others were posing for a poolside photo shoot when the Press surged forwards, knocking the four into the pool…. Hamilton was beyond furious; he exited the water and punched the nearest photographer, knocking him to the ground…. Hamilton then repeatedly kicked the man in the head until he lost consciousness….
Feeling she had to get away, Diana returned to England…. The end of her marriage left her financially crippled; Hamilton had forced her to sign over all her assets….
Diana resumed her career in Britain and throughout the 1950s her popularity increased…. She also started to do cabaret with her ‘The Diana Dors Show’…. In 1959 she married comedian Richard Dawson and had two sons, Mark and Gary…. However, the marriage ended in 1966….
She remarried in 1968, this time to actor Alan Lake and had another son, Jason…. Lake was a reputed alcoholic and the marriage was stormy….
It was during this period of time that she recorded her album ‘Swingin’ Dors’…. Continuing to work Diana began to diversify in her career – in 1978 her first book ‘For Adults Only’ was published and was an instant bestseller…. She also became Agony Aunt for the Daily Star….and was later to become a TV agony aunt…. She even appeared as the fairy godmother in the Adam and the Ants music video for ‘Prince Charming’….
To celebrate her 50th birthday a special edition of the Russell Harty show was filmed at her home…. But tragically, unbeknown, Diana’s life was drawing to a close…. For the last two years of her life she battled ovarian cancer…. In March 1984 she started work on her last film, ‘Steaming’ – but sadly lost her battle in May…. Diana died at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Windsor…. Having converted to Catholicism in 1973 she was buried at the Sunningdale Catholic Cemetery….
Devastated, Lake took his own life a few months later….16 years to the day of when they had first met….
Diana is claimed to have left a fortune to their son….details of which were given to the family in code… A code only Lake knew how to decipher….it is thought around £2 million was hidden in banks across Europe…. However, its whereabouts to this day remains a mystery….
In her autobiography ‘Dors by Diana’ she said of her life that she “enjoyed the whole absurd mess to the highest possible degree”….
On this day in history : 6th March 1917 – The birth of Francis Alick Howard – who was better known to us as comedian and comic actor Frankie Howerd….
The son of a soldier, Howerd was born in York – and was educated at Shooter’s Hill Grammar School, London…. His first stage appearance was at the age of 13…. However, after failing to get into RADA a career in serious acting was not to be…. It was whilst serving in the army during WWII that he began to entertain….and it was also at this time that he changed his name to Howerd – apparently ‘just to be different’….
He began his professional entertainment career in 1946, in the touring show ‘For the Fun of It’…. He made his radio debut in December of the same year and his first screen role was in the film ‘The Runaway Bus’ in 1954, in which he starred opposite Petula Clark….
With a mixture of jokes, impressions, comical songs and monologues Howerd hosted his own series of TV shows in the 1950s…. Known for his risqué double entendres he came across as a larger than life figure – however, this couldn’t be further from the truth in reality….
Howerd suffered from acute stage fright – (his close friend Cilla Black once said of him – ‘that it made him physically ill’)…. He was a painfully shy man, lacking in self confidence and prone to severe depression…. He was also terrified of his sexuality becoming common knowledge…. At a time when homosexuality between men was illegal (until 1967 in England and Wales and 1981 in Scotland) it would have ruined his career….
He met his partner, Dennis Heymer – 12 years his junior – in 1958. Heymer also became his manager and helped him to revive his flagging career during the 1960s…. The couple were together for over 30 years – until Howerd’s death on the 19th of April 1992, after suffering heart failure due to a respiratory illness…. Always their relationship remained discreet outside of their immediate circle…. Howerd is buried at St. Gregory’s Church, Weare, Somerset – Heymer, who died in May 2009, is buried close by….