Obituary: Sid Green
Wednesday 17 March 1999
Sid Green and Dick Hills seemed as permanent a pair of comedy scriptwriters as Eric and Ernie were as performers, but, as with everything that lasts a long time, perhaps a break-up was inevitable. The permanent break came in 1996 when Dick Hills died; now Sid Green has gone, both perhaps to join Eric Morecambe, leaving only Ernie Wise as the last living reminder of yesterday's years of the finest in our television comedy.
Green was born in London in 1928 and was thoroughly well educated at Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys' School in south London, where he met the boy who would eventually become his partner in comedy, Richard Hills, two years his senior.
Both served in the Second World War in different branches of the armed forces: Green was in the Army, Hills in the Navy, and both were officers. They met again as men back at the old school when both played for the Old Boys in the annual rugby match. In the interim both men had become schoolteachers. They tried their hands at script writing together that Christmas, contriving a sort of burlesque pantomime for the staff, the boys and their parents. It worked well enough for the pair to consider writing comedy for a profession.
They needed a star to hitch their hopeful wagon to, and found one performing in their local variety theatre, helping make merry in the comical musical act of Morton Fraser and his Harmonica Gang. This star was the good-looking Dave King, who towered over the stooge of the mouth-organists, a hilarious dwarf. Sensing King's comedic talent, Green and Hills soon persuaded him to go solo, and with the pair as his permanent writers, King swiftly rocketed to stardom as a solo comedian in monochrome television.
Beginning as the compere of the BBC's Show Case in 1954, King was soon rewarded with his own series, The Dave King Show, in 1955. He refused to sign the contract unless the BBC took on Green and Hills as his writers. The producer Ernest Maxin agreed, and the monthly 60-minute series ran from October that year until April 1957. From this time on the pair used their initials only: Sid was "S.C. Green" and Dick was "R.M. Hills", believing it sounded a little more literate than the show-bizzy Sid and Dick they would eventually become when united with Eric and Ernie.
When Dave King's local success prompted interest from American television, he took Green and Hills with him to NBC as his regular writers. This was 1959, and the team made no fewer than 19 live shows in the Kraft Music Hall series. The scripts were Americanised by a young tyro writer called Mel Brooks. When Dave King returned to Britain with his scriptwriters in tow, the team were signed up by Anglia Television (ATV) for a run of 11 hour-long specials, followed by a further seven half-hours in 1962. These would be the last shows Green and Hills would write for King.
When Tony Hancock insisted on severing himself from his popular radio supports for his next television series, Sidney James was temporarily stranded. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson saved the day by making Sid the star of a new series of sitcoms, Citizen James, featuring the pockmarked cockney as Sidney Balmoral James, semi-crook, in partnership with that other no-good from British B-pictures, Sydney Tafler. Galton and Simpson wrote the first six shows, then left the way clear for Green and Hills to try their hands at plot-bound sitcoms. They were successful enough to script a run of 26 half-hours from 1961 to 1962.
Along the way came The Alma Cogan Show (1960) starring Britain's bubbly pop singer. On this series Green and Hills encountered Morecambe and Wise, appearing as guest stars. There was instant rapport between the two teams of two. When in 1961 ATV offered the comedians their own half-hour show, Eric informed the management that "if we couldn't get Green and Hills, we couldn't do the series". The first show, which Green and Hills christened Two of a Kind after a song which they liked, ran into unexpected trouble - an all-out strike by members of Equity, the actors' trade union.
This turned into Green and Hills's biggest break: with Eric and Ernie's full approval they played all the other parts which they had written for supporting actors. Naturally nervous about appearing on national television, they soon developed characters of their own and clearly met with the approval of the huge ITV audience. Just as well, for the strike lasted 12 weeks. Graham McCann, in his recent biography of Morecambe and Wise, uses Green and Hills' own writing technique to describe their physical characteristics: "Hills, the short, pudgy, puckish one, and Green, the tall, thin, slightly queasy-looking one". He also quotes Morecambe's description, "They were very talented guys, better educated than the pair of us - and a lot older too!"
After coining many a catchphrase for the comical couple - "Get out of that!" says Eric with one hand flat against Ernie's neck; "There were these two old men sitting in deckchairs," begins Eric, telling a naughty story that never reaches its climax; and the extraordinary visual gag of Eric catching an invisible ball in a paper bag - Green and Hills finally left the series in 1968 when Eric Morecambe suffered his first severe heart attack.
On his own, Green went to the US again in 1970 to become the writer for The Don Knotts Show. Knotts, a meek and mild stooge promoted from a supporting role in The Steve Allen Show, liked Green's work but for the first seven weeks not one gag of Green's was used in the programme. There had been other failures too. In 1960 his Strange World of Gurney Slade, written for Anthony Newley, was a disaster. After the first show the remaining five were shifted from the peak time of half past eight to later than 11 o'clock, a sure sign of telly failure.
Further failures, this time for the whole team, were the three feature films written for Morecambe and Wise. Not that there was anything wrong with the scripts themselves, or the direction of the films; it was the performances of the comedians themselves. Used to doing their stuff in front of live audiences, the twosome, and particularly Eric, seemed unable to work their comedy without feeding off the adrenaline that comes from living laughter. For the record the films were The Intelligence Men (1965), That Riviera Touch (1966) and The Magnificent Two (1967).
Also somewhat odd and more than somewhat disappointing were the television series written by the writers for themselves. There was That Show for Southern Television in 1964, screened in London the next year in the sinisterly significant late hours, and Those Two Fellers, made by ABC- TV in 1967, in which they were supported by a new comedienne called Diane Rochelle. This was a bit better as it was basically a chat show starring comedians ranging from veterans such as Ted Ray and Big-Hearted Arthur Askey, to Bob Monkhouse and their old oppos, Morecambe and Wise.
In his closing decade of the 1980s Green wrote, on his own, for such popular comedy stars as Michael Barrymore, Freddie Starr and one more double act, the odd but endearing Krankies. It seems now, as the 1990s draw to a close, that the 1980s might well have been the fade-out for a golden age of television comedy. Perhaps Green and Hills knew, or suspected it.
Sidney Charles Green, writer: born London 24 January 1928; married (three daughters); died Frinton-on-Sea, Essex 15 March 1999.
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