Betty Astell

Early television variety artist
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The Independent Online

During the early days of television, Betty Astell was one of those whose face flickered on the screen as the pioneering John Logie Baird conducted experiments in the new medium. On 22 August 1932, when the BBC began its "30-line" transmission with Baird's equipment, speeches by the great and the good were followed by a programme of light entertainment that included Astell singing and dancing in Studio BB, the dance-band studio three floors below Broadcasting House, in Portland Place. During hundreds of nightly half-hour broadcasts, she also played Alice in television's first pantomime, Dick Whittington (1932).

Astell, who had taken part in Baird's tests at his cramped studio in Long Acre over the previous three years, became a regular performer before the cameras when the BBC launched the world's first regular television service in 1936, with studios at Alexandra Palace and a definition of at least 240 lines.

Born in London in 1912, Astell trained as a dancer and first sang on BBC radio at the age of 12. Four years later, she made her West End acting début in John Galsworthy's Escape, at the Ambassadors Theatre. Her first film appearance was in the comedy A Tight Corner (1932), starring Frank Pettingell, a Liverpool-born actor renowned for playing good-humoured North Countrymen. She subsequently acted alongside Gordon Harker and Binnie Hale in This is the Life (1933), Henry Kendall in Great Stuff (1933), A Wife or Two (1934) and The Man I Want (1934), Jack Hulbert in Jack of All Trades (1936), Jack Livesey and Dinah Sheridan in Behind Your Back (1937) and Will Fyffe in The Mind of Mr Reeder (1939).

Most of the two dozen films she appeared in were made before she found success on the small screen. Although BBC television closed during the Second World War, its radio service continued and, while recording a show for Henry Hall's Guest Night in 1940, Astell met Cyril Fletcher, who had made a name for himself on television performing his "Odd Odes" and had a similar background to her in variety. The couple married the following year.

After the war, they both wrote and starred in the film comedy A Piece of Cake (1948). They also appeared on television in episodes of the sketch show Kaleidoscope (1949) and their own BBC sketch special Cyril's Saga (1957), written by Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin. Switching to ITV, they starred in The Cyril Fletcher Show (1959), a six- part series of comedy sketches scripted by Johnny Speight.

Monkhouse and Goodwin also wrote a radio sitcom for Astell and Fletcher. Mixed Doubles (1956-57) featured them as a married couple, with Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray - another show-business pair - playing their neighbours in south London.

But, as variety lost its attraction, there were fewer radio and television opportunities. For 27 years after the war, the couple staged their own pantomimes - written by Astell, who played principal boy while Fletcher acted the dame - and a seasonal show, Summer Masquerade, at the theatre on Sandown Pier, on the Isle of Wight. In 1949, the summer production was broadcast on BBC television for six consecutive weeks as The Saturday Night Attraction, with the then unknown Harry Secombe as Fletcher's second comedian.

Fletcher's career was revived in the 1970s when he performed his "Odd Odes" in the light-weight consumer series That's Life! The couple, who returned every year to St Martin-in- the-Fields in London to renew their marriage vows, moved to St Peter Port, Guernsey, in the mid-1980s. Their daughter, Jill Fletcher, is an actress and comedienne.

Anthony Hayward

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