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Obituary: Len Lowe

ALTHOUGH LEN Lowe will always be recalled by variety lovers as one half of that once highly popular double act, Len and Bill Lowe, he had a lone solo career either side of that particular high point in hilarity. The talented brothers were in fact but two-thirds of a trio, the other brother going under the double stage names of Chester Ladd and, latterly, Don Smoothey. All three were soloists in laughter and were, at one time or another, partners in doubled-up acts of traditional crosstalk comedy.

Leonard Lowe was born in Fulham, London, in 1915. All three brothers were destined by their parents for stage careers, although variety was not the original aim. A star pupil at the Italia Conti School for juveniles with theatrical ambitions, Len made his first West End appearance in Miss Conti's annual production for parents, Where the Rainbow Ends. From there he went into another West End Christmas regular, Peter Pan, and thence into the original production of Noel Coward's massive docu-drama Cavalcade at Drury Lane. When Fox made the film version in Hollywood, young Len's role was taken by the equally young Dickie Henderson Jnr.

Blessed with a good singing voice and expertise on the guitar, the teenaged Lowe was welcomed into Robert Atkins's first season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. He stayed with the company for two annual seasons of Shakespeare plays, in between including an appearance in the popular musical White Horse Inn at the London Coliseum.

Jack Hylton, who virtually invented the "show band" style in the Thirties, had become something of an impresario. On the lookout for new talent, Hylton spotted Lowe doing a turn on the halls and invited the handsome young man, not yet 20, to join his dance orchestra as a guitarist and singer. Lowe thus made his grown-up West End debut in Hylton's star-studded variety spectacular Life Begins at Oxford Circus, the 1935 sensation at the London Palladium. At the end of that year Lowe might be spotted in the band in Hylton's big cinema success She Shall Have Music, which also starred the attractive Hollywood heroine June Clyde and Claude Dampier, the buck-toothed comedian who billed himself as "The Professional Idiot".

As a member of Hylton's band, Lowe was taken to the United States for a tour, in which he was considered very lucky: the American Musicians' Union objected to Hylton's bringing his full band. A live broadcast of the Hylton band in Chicago has been preserved by keen collectors of old- time radio programmes.

In 1938 Lowe teamed up with his brother to form the double act Len and Bill Lowe. Picking up on ideas he had spotted in the US, Lowe groomed the act away from the usual format for crosstalk comics. Rather than the smartly dressed straight man interrupted by the baggy-panted red-nosed funny man, both dressed smartly and in fashion. Philip Hindin, the music- hall memory man, recalls them: "They were the forerunners of the smart double act, where the comedian as well as the straight man wore a Savile Row suit, no baggy trousers and grotesque make-up. Later Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise adopted the same style."

After successful variety tours on the Stoll-Moss circuit, and another West End shop window with the Hollywood stars Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon at the Holborn Empire, the brothers were called up into the RAF. They spent the Second World War as headliners in one of Ralph Reader's several RAF Gang Shows. When the Hollywood star Ann Dvorak came to England to make a propaganda film, There's a Future in It (1943), she stayed on to entertain the American troops. The Lowe brothers, who appeared briefly in the film, were seconded to support her. Their humour, modelled on slick American-style chit-chat, went down well with the GI audiences.

After the war the boys began to turn up on the radio, raising the laughs in such variety shows as Henry Hall's Guest Night and Variety Bandbox. British films, albeit only lowly second features, took them on and they appeared in Date with a Dream (1948) and Melody Club (1949). Both fascinating productions today, the films' co-stars included Terry-Thomas, Jean (not yet Jeannie) Carson, and Harry Green in the first, with Terry-Thomas up to his teeth again in the second. The most significant moment, and a moment was truly all it was, occurred in the first film when a young Norman Wisdom walked on and fell over.

Len and Bill split up the act in 1950, when Bill married his co-star Jean Carson. He went off to start a new career in American television, leaving Len looking for someone else to make laughter with. In next to no time he formed a partnership with his other brother, Don, now known as Chester Ladd (a pun on the phrase "just a lad"). As Lowe and Ladd they made a highly successful tour of Australia and New Zealand, returning home for fun at the seaside in several summer shows. After six years they agreed to part and Chester Ladd became Don Smoothey once again.

Television, which Lowe had first dabbled with in 1951 when he became straight man to Cheerful Charlie Chester in his highly popular BBC series, called again and so did Jack Hylton, who had become comedy provider to London's new commercial station, Associated-Rediffusion. Hylton cast Lowe in his top television series, which starred Dickie Henderson, now old enough to drop his "Junior". The Dickie Henderson Half Hour, which partnered him with Anthea Askey, Big-hearted Arthur's daughter, as Mrs Henderson, was the top ITV comedy series of 1958.

Other notable television series for Lowe included What a Life (1966), a BBC series starring the radio character comedian Al Read, and Kindly Leave the Stage (1968). This latter was a wonderworld for lovers of the kind of comedy that was swiftly dying out, that of the old variety stage. With the eccentric acrobat Billy Dainty top-billed, and reunited with his brother Don, Len co-wrote the scripts which revived many of the old- time variety gags and sketches from the pre-war music halls. Never revived, it would seem sad if this unique series has been dumped into the BBC's dustbin. Lowe also appeared on The Basil Brush Show (1978), a children's series moved up to adult time. In this he co-starred with the conjuror David Nixon, the newsreader Richard Baker and a lady with the unlikely name of Fran Fullenwider.

There were a few more films, including a small part in Charlie Chaplin's Countess From Hong Kong (1966), a memorable experience for any comedian to have had, and Carry On Loving (1970) with the usual gang, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey.

There would be one more television show with his brother Don. This was 1984's Century of Stars, a massive special hosted by the Duke of Edinburgh celebrating the show-business charity the Grand Order of Water Rats. This was of huge importance to Len Lowe, as he had been not only a Preceptor but also a King Rat. Everyone from Max Bygraves to Wee Georgie Wood was in the show, from contemporary stars like Roy Castle, Les Dawson and Bruce Forsyth to old-timers like Bob and Alf Pearson, Tommy Trinder and the veteran ventriloquist who had been in the Water Rats from the start, Fred Russell.

Lowe's last London stage appearance was in Windy City at the Victoria Palace. He leaves a wife, two sons, and a legacy of laughter. Leonard Lowe, comedian: born London 17 December 1915; married (two sons); died 21 August 1999.