Obituary : Alfred Marks

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The Independent Online
For many millions who remember the black-and-white years of early ITV, the name Alfred Marks will immediately conjure up not the smiling, balding, big built star so much as the moustachioed, probably purple face of ex-regimental sergeant major "Tibby" Brittan as he roared the title to open each episode of Alfred Marks Time! This two-way pun - all the famous NCO ever did on the show - was typical of the gag-packed proceedings scripted by two of Marks's favourite young writers, Brad Ashton and Dick Vosburgh. Both of them are still working in comedy today, which sadly can no longer be said of Alfred Marks.

Marks was born in Holborn, London in 1921. His parents, Max Marks and Gabrielle Solomon, were Russian ref-ugees who came to settle in the East End. As a boy young Alfred learned to win the favour of his chums by impersonating their teachers, and frequently gave one-boy shows on the landing of the tenement building where he lived. He was but nine years old when he made his first stage appearance as an amateur in a concert party put on by his local chapter of the Boys Brigade. Although bitten by the stage bug very early, it would be some 20 years before he eventually turned pro. Meanwhile he found work as an engineer's assistant and then as an auctioneer in Petticoat Lane.

Marks was 18 when the Second World War broke out and he promptly volunteered for the Royal Air Force. Crazy about flying, he served a full five years without ever going up in an aeroplane. After demob, like so many ex-servicemen, he found work at the famous Windmill Theatre in Piccadilly, but unlike those other ex- servicemen his work was behind the curtains as a scene-shifter, not on stage as a comedian.

However by studying the succession of young comics who used the Windmill as a jumping-off ground into showbusiness, Marks was able to cobble together an act which he used as his professional debut. This was at the Empire Theatre, Kilburn in 1946. Packing his performance with a multitude of voices, not so much impersonations of stars, as was common at the time, but with impressions of the many accents he had heard around the East End markets, he went down well, especially when he wound up with a straight ballad sung in a surprisingly good bass baritone.

Marks made his debut on BBC radio in 1946, as one of the newcomers in a discovery series called Beginners Please. This went out at the unlikely hour of 10.30am and was compered by Brian Reece, yet to become radio's popular PC 49.

At the time Miss Paddie O'Neil, five years Alfred's junior, was the commere of Navy Mixture, the radio series for men and women in the Royal Navy. The two met when they were booked together to appear in a summer show called Montmartre played at Brighton and in September, 1952, they married, the suave impressionist with the rich basso and the lion-tamer's daughter, circus bareback rider and trapeze artist.

They co-starred as a team in their own television series Don't Look Now (1950), supported by a young Ian Carmichael plus the Hedley Ward Trio, and later Marks became one of the comedy panel of My Wildest Dream (1956), sitting beside Tommy Trinder and Terry-Thomas. Radio was still the strongest entertainment medium however and in 1955 Marks took over the compering of the BBC's top pop musical series, The Showband Show.

Between Cyril Stapleton's superb musical items, Marks spoke the jokes of Vosburgh and Ashton. He liked their stuff so much that when ITV called via impresario Jack Hylton to build a series around him, Marks took Vosburgh and Ashton with him.

Alfred Marks Time, with its bellowed intro, began on 12 April 1956, and presented an unprecedented parade of surprise guest stars, all unbilled. These included Peter Sellers, glamorous movie queen Greta Gynt, film hero Robert Beatty, television quizmaster Hughie Green, singer Lucille Mapp, mouth organ player Tommy Reilly, comic Kenneth Connor, as well as an appearance by Mrs Marks, Paddie O'Neil, who would return for a reunion on the 21st show.

Alfred Marks the film star began his career in 1951 with Penny Points to Paradise in which he topped an almost all-Goon cast of Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, his wife Paddie and somewhat surprisingly, Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders. This film, never seen on television, is considered lost, although Marks is supposed to have bought the last remaining print in order to suppress it!

His film roles were mostly comedic, but dramatic roles, at which he proved adept, turned up now and again. Desert Mice (1959) was a good wartime comedy with Marks as a major in charge of a troupe of entertainers including Sid James, Dick Bentley, Dora Bryan and Irene Handl. The Frightened City (1961) was the very opposite, with Herbert Lom organising a group of gangs into a protection racket; Marks was billed fourth under Sean Connery. Other notable films were There Was A Crooked Man (1960), in which he was second only to Norman Wisdom, and She'll Have To Go (1962), in which he was paired with Bob Monkhouse. Both of them were films that contrasted strongly with his role as a police superintendent in the all-star horror film, Scream And Scream Again (1969), which featured Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Marks's stage career was equally impressive, beginning with High Button Shoes (1950), continuing with A Day In The Life Of (1958), and including a long run in Spring And Port Wine (1966). He was also a great favourite in pantomime. His last radio series proper was Marks In His Diary, but he supplied voices and readings for Frank Muir's long run on Radio Four, Frank Muir Goes Into . . .

Character roles in television drama included appearances in the series Lovejoy, The Children's Ward and Minder. He was appointed OBE in 1976, which delighted his parents and reminded Marks of the true advice once given to him by Bud Flanagan: "Remember, Alfie, an East End boy has to try twice as hard."

Denis Gifford

Alfred Marks, comedian and actor: born London 28 January 1921; OBE 1976; married 1952 Paddie O'Neil (one son, one daughter); died London 1 July 1996.