Arthur Worsley

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The Independent Online

Arthur Wilkinson Worsley, ventriloquist: born Failsworth, Lancashire 16 October 1920; married Audrey Hewitt (one son); died 14 July 2001.

Arthur Worsley was simply the best ventriloquist of his day, with a unique and memorable act. No good "vent" moved his lips when the dummy was "speaking", but Worsley carried this idea to an insanely logical conclusion: his doll, "Charlie Brown", had all the dialogue, and he never said a word.

Worsley was the blank sheet of paper on which Charlie scrawled an unstoppable avalanche of oral insults at his master's expense, impudently directing these subversive remarks across the footlights toward his audience. There was none of the old cross-talk between authority figure and mischievous woodentop; Charlie dominated the act, and Worsley could only maintain a stiff upper lip against the slings and arrows of his dummy's outrageous wisecracks.

Worsleys's brilliant talent was an early gift. Eleven years old when he made his stage début at the Casino in Rusholme, Manchester, in 1931, he was billed as "The World's Youngest Ventriloquist" and became more widely known through a radio broadcast from the Winter Gardens, Morecambe, a few years later. By 1935 he was playing the South London Palace, having appeared in most of the big provincial variety halls on his way there. There was a proud moment in 1945 when the show- business charity the Grand Order of Water Rats staged Rats' Revels at the Victoria Palace, and Worsley was booked to work alongside two legendary vents of the older generation, Arthur Prince and Fred Russell.

Russell's real family name was Parnell and when Val of that ilk launched Sunday Night at the London Palladium on commercial television, in late 1955, he also took over the Wood Green Empire where ATV produced a Saturday Spectacular variety hour every week. Worsley was a popular booking for these venues, supporting the likes of Vera Lynn and Peter Sellers.

In 1958 on The Mindy Carson Show he routed the myth that ventriloquists can only deliver "b" as "g" (where a favourite alcoholic beverage is a "gottle of geer") by tackling the equally difficult "m" consonant. With impeccable clarity and precision, Charlie Brown recited a list of English place names from Macclesfield to Manchester, ending on a triumphant flourish with a deliberately measured ". . . and Melton Mowbray!" The spontaneous applause was deserved.

Such television appearances demonstrated how a remarkable performer thrived under the scrutiny of a camera lens. In close-up, the act reached a peak of perfection, where Worsley's ability to keep a straight face under the onslaught of jokes from his doll enchanted the viewers. As with Buster Keaton one looked for the cracking of a smile on Worsley's impassive face, to be occasionally rewarded by a tremble at the corner of his tightly pursed mouth; a bemused nod of the head or a twinkle of amusement in the eyes were the only signs of life otherwise.

Meanwhile Charlie continued his garrulous account of Worsley's shortcomings with classic one-liners such as this one from Starlight Hour in 1959: ". . . and what have I told you about wearing diamond rings, eh?" In the same programme, Charlie explained to the audience that all vents go nuts in the end (Dead of Night anyone?) and turns on Worsley saying, "He thinks I'm real – don't you, son?"

During the 1960s Worsley ascended to become the star ventriloquist of radio, stage and television, overtaking the great and gentlemanly Albert Saveen, guesting on series like The Arthur Haynes Show and – inevitably – The Good Old Days. In 1968 there was another proud moment when he was one of several top acts – including Roy Hudd and Jimmy Edwards – who delighted a service audience on the occasion of the RAF Association's 50th anniversary jubilee, in a raucously nostalgic BBC television show broadcast live from the Victoria Palace.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Worsley not only had an accomplished technique but genuinely funny material. The gags had to be good, because Charlie Brown was in effect a stand-up comedian – the ventriloquial equivalent of Hylda Baker gossiping about her mute stooge "Cynthia". Sometimes the act could fool the professionals. All vents have a version of the story about a radio producer who asked for the dummy to be closer to the microphone because the sound level was not right, or the interviewer who moved the hand mike back and forth as vent and doll alternately replied to his questions.

All true – and nobody created the illusion that his dummy was "real" more brilliantly than Arthur Worsley.

Cy Young