Cyril Fletcher

Performer of 'Odd Odes' on 'That's Life!'
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Cyril Fletcher, actor and entertainer: born Watford, Hertfordshire 25 June 1913; married 1941 Betty Astell (one daughter); died St Peter Port, Guernsey 2 January 2005.

When Cyril Fletcher joined the series That's Life! in 1974 to perform his "Odd Odes", he was reviving his distinctive appearances from television's infant days four decades earlier.

In 1937 he had been among the first entertainers to step in front of the cameras following the launch of the BBC as the world's first regular television service the previous year. Living within four miles of its Alexandra Palace studios at Muswell Hill, in north London, Fletcher was often called in at times of crisis. He also enjoyed fame as a variety artist and radio star, frequently appearing with his wife, the actress Betty Astell.

Fletcher himself described his outrageous rhymes as "unique in their feeble banality", but he made his name with ditties such as this:

Whilst serving lunch poor Norah Gutt

Let the serving hatch fall on her nut.

She gasped, "Oh, look me conk is flat in

The beans on toast and cheese au gratin!"

Born in 1913 in Watford, Hertfordshire, where his father was a solicitor and town clerk, Fletcher began writing comic poems about his schoolteachers at Friern Barnet Grammar School, then, after taking a job as an insurance clerk, about his first boss. His dream was to become a classical actor and he was launched on a career in show business after Greatrex Newman spotted him reciting one of his odes. He joined Newman's Fols de Rols concert party in 1936, making his début at the White Rock Pavilion, Hastings, and subsequently appearing in London, at the Holborn Empire.

In the same year, he appeared on BBC radio for the first time, before making regular appearances on the new television service, which had a range of 40 miles from Muswell Hill. Among many speciality acts in those pioneering days, he was considered a perfect performer for the medium when he recited his "Odd Odes" in Cyril Fletcher (1937) because he managed to stay still for the camera while only his head and shoulders were seen in vision.

His other appearances at Alexandra Palace included parts in the revue Tele-Ho! (1937), written by John Paddy Carstairs, and the small screen's first pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat (1937).

BBC television closed during the Second World War and did not return until 1946, but its radio service continued. In 1941, Fletcher married Betty Astell, a performer from even earlier television experiments by John Logie Baird at Long Acre in the early 1930s, whom he met during a recording of Henry Hall's Guest Night on radio.

In that medium, Fletcher landed his own show, Dreaming of Thee, and his many acting roles included the schoolgirl Aggie in the weekly series Thanking Yew (1945) and two parts in the Johnny Speight domestic sitcom Life with the Burkes (1958), playing both Albert Burke and his small son 'Erbie.

Fletcher and Astell acted a married couple in the Bob Monkhouse-Denis Goodwin radio sitcom Mixed Doubles (1956-57), set in south London, with another show-business couple, Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, playing their neighbours.

Throughout this time, Fletcher continued his love for appearing in pantomime and took every role from Buttons to dames and, for many years after the Second World War, he and his wife staged the seasonal show Summer Masquerade in the theatre on Sandown Pier, on the Isle of Wight. In 1949, it was broadcast on BBC television for six consecutive weeks as Saturday Night Attraction, with the then "unknown" Harry Secombe as second comedian.

After his initial success on television, Fletcher also branched out into films such as the wartime thriller The Yellow Canary (acting himself, alongside Anna Neagle, 1943) and A Piece of Cake (a comedy that he and his wife wrote and starred in, 1948).

However, he was most notable in the Ealing Studios version of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), alongside Cedric Hardwicke and Sybil Thorndike. He played Mr Mantalini, husband of the dressmaker who employs Kate Nickleby, and was seen in a gaudy morning gown, performing with more typical Dickens extroversion than most in a fairly pedestrian adaptation of the novel. Fletcher's distinctive voice was also used for the narration of the biblical film A Story of David (1960).

Back on television in the post-war years, he was a regular in three series of the classic 1950s panel game What's My Line? and appeared in the first religious series, Sunday Story. He and his wife starred in Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin's BBC sketch special Cyril's Saga (1957) and in the six-part series The Cyril Fletcher Show (1959), scripted by Johnny Speight. Fletcher was also a regular member of the panel in the BBC radio show Does the Team Think?

He acted a vicar in an episode of the ITV sitcom Father, Dear Father (1971), before resurrecting his "Odd Odes" as light relief in the consumer watchdog series That's Life!, presented by Esther Rantzen. His mischievous smile also made him perfect as the programme's presenter of amusing misprints sent in by keen-eyed viewers. During his run in the programme (1974-81), he performed at the Royal Variety Show (1980) in front of the Queen Mother in the year of her 80th birthday, joining 12 other veteran comedians in a rendition of the music-hall legends Flanagan and Allen's number "Strolling".

Indulging his love of gardening, Fletcher presented Gardening Time for ATV and its successor, Central Television, in the Midlands ITV region for 14 years and a similar series for Channel Television after moving to Guernsey, followed by Cyril Fletcher's Lifestyle Garden (1990) for the short-lived satellite channel Lifestyle and Cyril Fletcher's Television Garden (1994-95) for the Learning Channel. Although he continued to work well past normal retirement age, he reported in 1995, "I met a woman in a lift recently and she said: 'Why don't we see you on telly any more?' I replied: 'Well, would you send your grandfather of 82 to work?' "

He designed seven gardens at the Royal Horticultural Society Show, Chelsea, while presenting a weekly programme for Capital Radio in London over eight years and wrote the books Cyril Fletcher's Gardening Book (1974), Planning the Small Garden (1981) and Cyril Fletcher's Rose Book (1983). He also wrote Cyril Fletcher's Odd Odes (1975) and an autobiography, Nice One Cyril (1978).

His daughter is the actress and comedienne Jill Fletcher.

Anthony Hayward

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