Obituary: Peter Brough

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The Independent Culture
"WE'LL BE educating Archie, / What a job for anyone, / He's no good at spelling, / He hasn't a clue, / He thinks that three sevens make 22": the signature song of one of radio's funniest and most important series ever, and the only one to star a ventriloquist and his wooden dummy, a fact that has mystified certain celebrities who ought to know better.

After all, every major radio comedy show is thick with imaginary characters, from ITMA's obviously overweight Colonel Chinstrap ("I don't mind if I do") played by scrawny Jack Train, to The Goon Show's awful infant Little Jim ("He's fallen in the wa-ter") played by skinny Spike Milligan. There had been plenty of variety-style broadcasts by ventriloquists before Educating Archie, of course, notably Arthur Prince and Jim, the naval officer and his cockney rating ("There's somefing abaht the sea that makes you jolly well want to be a sailor") and in the United States radio had made top stars of Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and the country bumpkin Mortimer Snerd, but Peter Brough and Archie Andrews were the first British vent act to be awarded their own series. And so carefully was the show created that after its first run in 1950 it won the first ever National Radio Award for the Outstanding Variety Series of the Year.

Peter Brough had an extraordinary start in the art of ventriloquism - his father was one of the top vents of his day. Arthur Brough and his dummy Tim were on the bill at the Empire Theatre, Croydon, in 1922. Top of the bill was the famous cockney singer Marie Lloyd. This great lady patted Brough's six-year-old son on his sailor's cap, smiled and said, "Why, Arthur, if you're not careful you'll be having another ventriloquist in the family one day."

Peter Brough was born in Ealing, west London, in 1916, but, while his father was a big star of the variety stage, he did not trust the profession totally and kept a daytime job with the Jaeger Wool Company. This profitable caution would in time lead Peter into the textile trade, too, where he would continue to make and sell shirts of quality to people of quality for most of his life. One fateful night Peter collided with his older brother Kenneth, whose candlestick clipped off the corners of Peter's two front teeth. A panic rush to the dentist brought the advice not to interfere with them, a fact that in later years proved extremely helpful to Peter when trying to control his lips during his ventriloquial talk.

Arthur Brough's health failed in 1922 and he retired from the stage, concentrating on his textile business. This made his son more than ever determined to follow in his footsteps. Leaving school at 16 he became a run-around for the big store of William Whiteley in Bayswater, rising swiftly from parcel packer to counter salesman via window dressing. Nights he spent practising throwing his voice in front of a triple mirror. After a try-out at a local concert party he was given a week's work in Cine- Variety, acting between the films at the Blue Hall in Islington. At Christmas 1938 he was booked into his first full week of variety at the New Theatre, Oxford. Brough called his first dummy Jimmy.

In 1939, with war looming, father and son Brough started their own textile agency, a shared job that enabled Peter to work the occasional week in variety. In 1940 he married Peggy Franklin, a pretty programme seller, and made his first film, Cavalcade of Variety. Peter and Jimmy shared a box and acted as comperes to the various acts. Later he made a one-minute Ministry of Information film in which he and his dummy demonstrated how and how not to use a stirrup pump.

Brough joined the Army as a driver stationed at the RASC Department in Colchester. His off-duty fun entertaining his chums brought him a week's work at the Stoll Theatre, Kingsway, and this in turn caught the attention of Captain George Black Jnr. Black got him posted to the War Office Pool of Entertainers in Greenford, Middlesex, an outfit soon to be known as Stars in Battledress. But it was not long until Brough's lungs began to cause trouble and he was invalided out of the service.

Back in the family textile firm, Brough joined Ensa, Basil Dean's huge project for entertaining the nation's troops. Here he chummed up with the Sweetheart of the Forces Vera Lynn and encountered a talented little busybody who would effect his future. This was Wally Ridley, then working for Peter Maurice, a music publisher. Ridley gave Brough some strong advice: "Your patter is weak and your dummy is atrocious!" Brough was impressed with this honesty and contracted a new dummy to be built. He showed it to the ITMA scriptwriter Ted Kavanagh. "Call him Archie Andrews," said Kavanagh. Brough discussed the problem of jokes with Bud Flanagan, who went home and kindly constructed a new routine for him.

He passed an audition from John Sharman, producer of the BBC Music Hall, and got a broadcast in this prestigious Saturday-night special. This meant much to Brough as he had previously been turned down flat as "too amateurish" when he had tried back in 1938. However it would be a whole year before he got a second go at the microphone.

Whilst working a 12-month contract tour on the Stoll circuit, Brough and Archie were spotted at the Brixton Empire by Charles Maxwell, the BBC staff producer in charge of Navy Mixture, a wartime series which had begun in 1943, compered by Petty Officer Jack Watson. After a debut almost sabotaged when the well-meaning pianist Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson spiked Brough's lemonade glass with a double gin, Brough and Archie won a regular weekly spot in the show. Entitled Archie Takes the Helm, this was a Navy- based semi-sitcom scripted by Sid Colin, the dance-band singer who was fast becoming a top comedy writer. It ran for 46 consecutive weeks, and was such a national success that the Inland Revenue sent a tax demand to Archie Andrews, Esq.

Brough's second radio series ran 20 minutes, a trifle longer than Archie Takes the Helm but not yet considered big enough a prospect for a full half-hour. Called Two's a Crowd, it started in February 1948 and co-starred Brough with the impressionist Peter Cavanagh, known as "The Voice of Them All". With Wally Ridley helping him, Brough put together a pilot comedy show of which the BBC made a trial recording - and promptly rejected it. (They even destroyed the discs.) Brough had to be content with occasional one-shot broadcasts in Workers' Playtime and Henry Hall's Guest Night, in which Archie sang the signature tune while Henry played the piano.

Finally a series was devised by Brough, Ridley, and the writers Sid Colin and a talented newcomer, Eric Sykes. They built it around Archie with Brough as his semi-strict stepfather. Eric Speer was the producer, and he wrote, "We see Archie as a boy in his middle teens, naughty but lovable, rather too grown-up for his years, especially where the ladies are concerned, and distinctly cheeky!" The basic situation was, as the title explained, Educating Archie: a cheeky kid with a private tutor, a chum of a handyman, a mothering housekeeper, a teenage girlfriend and a somewhat strict BBC announcer.

The first cast was virtually perfect. Robert Moreton, a uniquely hesitant comedian fond of referring to his Bumper Fun Book and encoring every joke with "Oh, get in there, Moreton!", was the tutor. Max Bygraves ("I've arrived and to prove it I'm here!") was the Jewish-cockney handyman with the most catchphrases ("Big-'ead", "Dollar lolly!", "That's a good idea - son!"). The overweight Hattie Jacques played the housekeeper and incidentally met her future television "brother", Eric Sykes, and charming little Julie Andrews made her singing debut as Archie's girl chum. First broadcast on 6 June 1950, the six shows originally booked were immediately extended so that by the December it won the first National Radio Award.

Every new series brought its cast changes as the popularity of the show rocketed its members to instant fame. Nineteen fifty-one introduced Tony Hancock as Archie's new tutor. His catchphrase was "Flippin' kids!" Alfred Marks replaced Max Bygraves and then in 1952 the singing goon Harry Secombe came to tutor and Ronald Chesney imported his Magic Talking Mouth Organ. Nineteen fifty-three engaged the cockney film star Ronald Shiner as the tutor, and the series won another National Radio Award as the Year's Most Entertaining Programme. Nineteen fifty-four brought in Bernard Miles, then best known as a comic country bumpkin. Nineteen fifty-five brought in James Robertson Justice as the tutor, plus Beryl Reid as the awful schoolgirl Monica ("She's my best friend and I hate her!"). Nineteen fifty- seven introduced Alexander Gauge as tutor with Dick Emery as a host of funny voices including Grimble ("I hate yew!"). Nineteen fifty-seven had the famous straight man Jerry Desmonde, 1958 that hilarious little Welsh woman Gladys Morgan, and 1959, a series which opened with programme no 200, starred Bruce Forsyth. The final series in 1960 brought in that cockney Carry On character Sid James.

Archie Andrews was of course a national icon. From 1949 John Jukes drew his adventures every week in the comic Radio Fun: there was an Archie Andrews Annual and Archie Andrews Calling story-books. You could buy yourself a working replica of Archie himself and Brough ran a children's matinee show at the Prince of Wales Theatre called Archie Andrews' Christmas Party.

The radio series went on a music-hall tour with Hancock in the cast, and from September 1958 Educating Archie became an ITV series made by Associated-Rediffusion. There were 27 half-hour programmes, with Irene Handl as the housekeeper Mrs Twissle, and Dick Emery as the opportunist Mr Monty. The scripts were by Marty Feldman and Ronald Chesney, who helped create a new and less dummy-like appearance for Archie. Cunning special effects were used to allow Archie to be seen chatting away without the previously vital support of Brough.

Beginning at Christmas 1948, Brough and Archie were invited to entertain the Royal Family at their annual staff party at Windsor Castle. After the first show King George VI explained to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose how Archie worked. To do so he removed Archie's head. As he replaced it Archie said, "Sir, I'm the only fellow you have ever beheaded in your reign."

Peter Royce Brough, ventriloquist: born London 16 February 1916; first 1940 Peggy Franklin (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Elizabeth Chantler (died 1994; one son, one daughter); died Northwood, Middlesex 3 June 1999.