On this day in history….30th April 1947

On this day in history : 30th April 1947 – The birth of English actor Leslie Grantham; who amongst his varied acting roles was to play ‘Dirty Den’ in the BBC1 soap opera ‘EastEnders’….

Grantham as ‘Den Watts’ – Fair use

Leslie Michael Grantham was born in Camberwell, South London and in 1965, at the age of 18, he joined the Army – enlisting with the Royal Fusiliers…. He was soon to be sent to Germany but the young Grantham found himself in the situation of being unable to cope financially and he quickly fell into debt…. In desperation he resorted to crime….

It was on the 3rd of December 1966 that things were to go so catastrophically wrong – resulting in a man losing his lie…. Felix Reese was a taxi driver and Grantham attempted to rob him at gunpoint…. A struggle occurred and the gun went off; Reese sustained a gunshot to the head…. Grantham was arrested and charged with murder – he claimed he did not know the gun was loaded….

Grantham came to trial in April 1967 and was convicted of murder, receiving a sentence of life imprisonment…. However, because the sentence was greater than two years it could not be served in Germany and he was transferred to a British prison – Leyhill Prison in Gloucestershire…. He was also dishonourably discharged from the Army….

After serving ten years Grantham was released in 1977…. Whilst in prison he had become involved in amateur dramatics, performing in plays for other inmates…. One of his fellow prisoners was disgraced Labour politician T. Dan Smith, who was serving time for corruption charges…. He spotted that Grantham had a natural flair for acting and encouraged him to pursue it…. Encouragement also came from the actress Louise Jameson, known for roles such as ‘Leela’ in Dr Who, ‘Susan Young’ in Bergerac, ‘Rosa de Marco’ in EastEnders, ‘Blanche Simmons’ in Tenko and for Emmerdale fans she plays the part of ‘Mary’…. Louise Jameson and Grantham were to become good friends….

Upon his release from prison the encouragement Grantham had received from his friends led him to enrol in the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art…. It was at stage school in 1977 that Grantham was to meet his wife, Jane Laurie…. The couple were married for 31 years before divorcing in 2013…. They had three sons, Spike, Jake and Daniel…. Daniel plays the part of ‘Reggie Jackson’ in the BBC’s Call the Midwife….

Grantham’s TV debut came in 1982 when he played the character ‘Boollie’ in Jake’s End, a production for BBC2’s Playhouse…. A number of minor roles followed; he played ‘Frank’ in the short-lived sitcom Goodnight and God Bless, ‘Davros’ in Dr Who and the part of a signals sergeant in the series The Jewel in the Crown….

Then in 1984 Grantham’s big break came, when he auditioned for the BBC’s new soap opera EastEnders…. The original audition was for the role of market trader ‘Pete Beale’ (former husband of ‘Kathy Beale’ and father of ‘Ian Beale’)…. Grantham was not offered the part of Pete – but he was offered the part of ‘Den Watts’, landlord of the Queen Victoria public house…. His long suffering, alcoholic, onscreen wife ‘Angie’ was played by Anita Dobson…. Grantham’s character soon got the name ‘Dirty Den’, which was well-deserved with his long string of extramarital affairs…. One of the most memorable storylines being when he fathered the child of 16-year-old ‘Michelle Fowler’ (played by Susan Tully) who was the best friend of his own adopted daughter ‘Sharon’ (played by Letitia Dean)….

On Christmas Day 1986 some 30 million viewers (then more than half of the British population) watched ‘Den’ serve ‘Angie’ with divorce papers – delivering them with the words…. “Happy Christmas, Ange”….

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During 1988 his character began to be seen less of…. ‘Den’ had sold the pub and fewer main storylines were to come his way…. Grantham announced his intention to leave EastEnders, giving the producers of the soap a major headache – as Anita Dobson was also about to leave and they could not afford to lose two main characters in one go…. Therefore, intense advanced filming took place, enabling Grantham to move on in the autumn of 1988 – but leaving behind enough footage for his presence onscreen to continue into 1989….

The continuing plot of the soap saw ‘Den’ become involved with a criminal gang – imaginatively called ‘The Firm’…. The story unfolded over the summer of 1988…. ‘Den’ had to disappear from Albert Square after falling out with ‘The Firm’ – but was to ‘feel the heavy hand of the law’, landing him on remand in prison…. ‘The Firm’ ambushed the vehicle taking ‘Den’ to Court but somehow he managed to escape both the gang and the police…. But then, on the towpath beside the canal, he met his ‘demise’…. All we saw was a bunch of daffodils concealing a gun – and then with a splash ‘Dirty Den’ was gone…. No body was to be found – until a year later when a decomposed corpse turned up in the canal and it was presumed to be ‘Den’….

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We all thought ‘Dirty Den’ was finally pushing up daisies – but behind the scenes the BBC were trying to persuade Grantham to return to EastEnders…. In the meantime he had undertaken various other roles, such as Danny Kane in the TV crime series The Paradise Club (1989-90)…. He had a part in The Detectives in 1993 and produced and starred in the sci-fi mini series The Uninvited…. He co-hosted the game show Fort Boyard with Melinda Messenger from 1998-2001 and in 2000 co-starred with Anita Dobson in the two-part The Stretch on Sky One….

Then on the 29th of September 2003 – “Hello Princess”…. ‘Dirty Den’ had returned to Albert Square, walking into the E20 nightclub – now owned by his daughter ‘Sharon’…. It turned out he hadn’t died in the shooting but had survived and fled to Spain, aided by his mistress ‘Jan’…. The twists and turns of life on Albert Square continued, including ‘Den’ trying to get the Queen Vic pub back in December 2004 – which was now run by ‘Sam Mitchell’ – sister of ‘Phil’ and ‘Grant’…. Don’t mess with the ‘Mitchells’!

Photo credit : Matt Pearson – Flickr CC BY 2.0

It was in May 2004 that in real life Grantham became embroiled in a sex scandal, resulting in his three attempts at suicide…. It was confirmed that this time ‘Den’ would be leaving EastEnders for good…. On the 18th of February 2005 16.2 million viewers watched his second wife ‘Chrissie’ hit him over the head with a doorstop during a fight…. Grantham was bitter about EastEnders and spoke out against it – claiming it to be untrue to real life….

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After EastEnders Grantham appeared on stage in the Jeffrey Archer play Beyond Reasonable Doubt – and he also appeared in pantomime…. He appeared in a couple of episodes of ITV’s The Bill and did some film work…. In 2010 he played ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ in A Christmas Carol at the Lincoln Theatre Royal….

Grantham was to play the part of ‘John’ in The English Neighbour – a series on Bulgarian TV – and Bulgaria was now where he had made his home…. In June 2018 he returned to England for treatment for lung cancer…. He died on the 15th of June 2018 at the age of 71….

On this day in history….21st January 1924

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….

Waxwork of Benny Hill in character as Fred Scuttle on The Benny Hill Show – Ricardo Liberato via Wikimedia Commons

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….

Portrait of Benny Hill, from Press Kit – Fair use

On this day in history….9th December 1960

On this day in history : 9th December 1960 – The very first episode of Coronation Street is aired at 7pm on ITV – and is watched by 7.7 million people….

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The soap, which was first broadcast in black and white, was only ever meant to have run for 13 episodes – but is now Britain’s longest running soap, having been aired nearly 10,000 times….

The brainchild of scriptwriter Tony Warren of Granada TV, the idea was at first rejected by the TV station’s founder, Sidney Bernstein…. However, producer Harry Elton persuaded Bernstein to run a 13 part pilot series….within 6 months it had become the most watched TV show in Britain…. It has since become a true British institution and part of our culture – even the Queen watches! Many fans around the world can also view it; it has been shown in Australia since 1963 and from 1964 in New Zealand…. It can be seen in Canada, the USA, South Africa and the Republic of Ireland…. Satellite channels make it available in countries such as Cyprus and Malta – and also in Asia and the Middle East….

The soap focuses on the everyday life of working class folk in Weatherfield, a fictional town based on Salford, Manchester…. In its fictional history The Street was built in 1902 as a tribute to the Coronation of King Edward VII….

Cast of Coronation Street, 1960 – Fair use

The very first words spoken in the first episode – “Now the next thing you’ve got to do is get a sign writer in” – were by the character Elsie Lappin as she handed over the reins of the corner shop to Florrie Lindsey…. Also in this first episode Elsie Tanner nags her 18-year-old son, Dennis, who has just served a prison sentence, to get a job…. She also discovers her daughter, Linda, has split up with her husband…. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Ken Barlow argues with his father, Frank, at the dinner table…. The rebellious Ken was later to cause outrage in a 1961 episode when he uttered the first swear word of the soap – “bloody” – which received 83 complaints from viewers….

Ken Barlow in the first episode, 1960 – Fair use

The most watched episode ever was on Christmas Day 1987 – when 26.6 million tuned in to watch Hilda Ogden say “goodbye” to the Rovers…. Not bad viewing figures considering the negative reception it had from the media back in 1960…. The Mirror reported on it as “doomed from the outset”….as it objected to the depressing view of terraced houses with their smokey chimneys ~ and the dreary signature tune…. Even Granada’s general manager said he “couldn’t find a single redeeming quality” about it…. But obviously the British public thought differently….

Image from Wikimedia

On this day in history….23rd November 1963

On this day in history : 23rd November 1963 – The very first episode of the science fiction series Dr. Who is shown by the BBC….

‘An Unearthly Child’ was shown in four weekly parts and introduced William Hartnell as the first Doctor….with Carole Ann Ford as his granddaughter and companion….

William Hartnell as the first Doctor – BBC – Fair use

The first episode centres on school teachers Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton (played by Susan Foreman – with Jacqueline Hall and William Russell) discovering the Doctor and his TARDIS…. The rest of the story takes place in the Stone Age and follows the plot of warring tribes who have lost the knowledge of how to make fire….

On this day in history….20th October 1946

On this day in history : 20th October 1946 – Muffin the Mule appears on BBC Children’s Television for the first time….

Muffin the Muke puppet toy, Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh – Image credit : Chemical Engineer CC BY-SA 4.0

Muffin was already 12-years-old before debuting on TV…. Hogarth Puppets, run by puppeteers Jan Bussell and his wife Ann Hogarth, were used as an experimental medium during the pioneering days of television in the 1930s…. The mule, which at that point remained nameless, was made by Fred Tickner (who also created Punch and Judy) and was added to the Hogarth collection in November 1934….

Ann Hogarth – Fair use

It was in 1946 that Annette Mills, older sister of actor John Mills, joined the BBC…. Annette had been an accomplished and up and coming dancer – but her dancing days ended when she suffered a broken leg…. In a career change she took on the role as presenter of a show to entertain children by singing and telling stories….using the top of her grand piano as a ‘stage’ for the characters in her stories….

Annette and her colleague, producer Andrew Miller Jones, approached Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth – and together as a team they devised the ‘Muffin the Mule Show’ using the mule puppet Fred Tickner had created….

Usually the show went out on air at Sunday teatime and ran on the BBC until Annette’s death in 1955…. Each 15 minute episode began with Annette singing the theme tune ~ “We want Muffin, Muffin the Mule…. Dear old Muffin, playing the fool” …. Ann Hogarth would operate the puppet, so that it would be dancing on the piano top, from behind a screen…. A story would then be told by Annette, usually featuring other puppet characters, such as Sally the Seal, Poppy the Parrot, Peregrine the Penguin and Katy the Kangaroo….

Muffin was one of the first stars of British television – and one of the first examples of character merchandise….including toys, books, playing cards, clothing and games, such as ‘Pin the Tail on Muffin’…. The puppet featured as a regular comic strip in the 1950s publication ‘T.V. Comic’ and there was even a Muffin the Mule Club to join….