Obituary: John Hanson

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The Independent Culture
WHEN JOHN Hanson met Eric Morecambe, the comedian was in cracking form. Bespectacled Eric looked Hanson up and down and said, "Left your camel in the car park, have you?" Everyone laughed; everyone understood, for John Hanson was the swashbuckling hero of The Desert Song.

He was born John Watts, in Oshawa, Ontario, in 1922, to English parents. When he was three the family moved to England, where John was educated at Dumfries Academy. His headmaster recognised his talent as a boy soprano and recommended him to the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation. It was there that he made his debut, at the age of 12. He was offered a scholarship to the Milan Conservatoire, but the Second World War put paid to that. For the rest of his life Hanson regretted losing that chance to become an operatic tenor.

During the war he served in the RAF but was invalided out. He sang for the troops and was offered a long-term singing engagement but his father insisted he follow another career path - a proper job. So he qualified and worked as an engineer.

His father was a test driver for Donald Campbell and thus close to the racing scene, Hanson acquired a love of beautiful cars, which he drove at high speed at all times. He gave his first professional performance at Birmingham Town Hall, in 1946. Two years later he featured in Variety Bandbox and Songs From The Shows.

In 1948 Hanson married Brenda Stokes (it was love at first sight), a petite and pretty blonde, with a twinkling laugh. Although by nature a very private man, as he became more famous he was persuaded by Brenda to meet the demands for interviews, which he hated, especially with the spectacular journalist Jean Rook of the Daily Express. (He described her as "lethal".) After that interview it was Brenda, as usual, who sent the journalist a bouquet of flowers and a note of thanks, signed "John Hanson".

Brenda arranged all his itineraries and always travelled with him. Together, they brought up two delightful children, Stella, now Head of Radio Two, and John Jnr, a brilliant lawyer. John Hanson loved his family. In summer seasons, during the school holidays, he would bundle them all (hamsters included) into the family car and take them to whatever resort he was playing. At other times, after each week's show he would drive all night in order to spend time with them and tend his beloved flowers and garden at their beautiful Weybridge home.

Hanson was best known for his performance as the Red Shadow in The Desert Song, which led to his being dubbed "the last of the matinee idols". He and his friend and fellow actor, Clifford Mollison, each put up pounds 2,000 to put The Desert Song on, and it opened at the Opera House in Manchester in 1957. It was a gamble for both of them. "Pop" had taken over and musicals had declined. The show, however, was an immediate success.

Although scheduled to run for only 12 weeks, their tour of the provinces lasted 10 months. After the success of the original Desert Song, Hanson toured with The Student Prince (1959), The Vagabond King (1960), Maid of the Mountains (1964) and The World of Ivor Novello (1965).

Always, he concentrated on the provinces where he formed his own company. In 1966 he starred in When You're Young, for which he wrote the book and lyrics. He revived the Desert Song many times but it wasn't until 1968 that this serious, ambitious man achieved every actor's dream. He took the show to the West End and, gambling again that it would succeed, invested his own money. It did; it was a huge success. "I've waited 20 years to get into the West End and it's very nice to arrive like this."

Coincidentally, Topol was playing in Fiddler on the Roof at Her Majesty's Theatre. The cartoonists had a field day with the "Arab Red Shadow" and "The Jew".

The Desert Song was succeeded at the Cambridge Theatre by The Student Prince. Again, the shows were presented, in Blackpool, for the summer seasons of 1969 and 1970. For the next decade Hanson toured in romantic musicals: Lilac Time, The Dancing Years and Glamorous Nights.

There were concert performances too, at the Festival Hall and the Albert Hall. He appeared many times in pantomime, usually as Robin Hood. He broadcast more than 1,400 times and made 21 LPs (winning a Golden Disc in 1977). The Student Prince alone sold more than 300,000 copies. His autobiography, Me and My Red Shadow, was published in 1980.

Hanson's career as a singer made him a household name. With his chiselled good looks, black hair and glorious voice, he always had a flapper following. Whenever he went shopping girls rushed from behind their counters to mob their idol. Even the middle-aged ladies queuing at the stage door went weak at the knees at the sight of him.

He lived as he drove, at full throttle. He was a highly strung, but compassionate man, who lived for his work and family. His last public performance was at St Paul's, the actors' church, at the service of thanksgiving for his long-time friend Clifford Mollison. He sang the "Goodbye" song from The White Horse Inn, a song which Mollison had sung in 1936 at the Coliseum and with which he was forever associated. The congregation were so moved that, unanimously, they rose and gave John Hanson a standing ovation.John Watts (John Hanson), actor and singer: born Oshawa, Canada 31 August 1922; married 1948 Brenda Stokes (one son, one daughter); died Shepperton, Surrey 3 December 1998.