Don Estelle

Actor and singer best known as Lofty in 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum'
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Don Estelle, actor and singer: born Manchester 22 May 1933; married; died Rochdale, Lancashire 2 August 2003.

At 4ft 9in tall, the bespectacled Don Estelle, as Gunner "Lofty" Sugden, was the butt of Sergeant-Major Williams's jokes in It Ain't Half Hot Mum, the long-running television sitcom about a British Army concert party stationed in India during the final days of Empire.

When Estelle and his co-star Windsor Davies, who played the tyrannical officer trying to train the rag-bag performers, recorded the 1950s hit "Whispering Grass", they produced one of the most memorable novelty singles of all time. The hit, previously performed by the American doo-wop vocal group the Ink Spots, stayed at No 1 for three weeks. "Sing, Lofty!" implored Davies ,with a satirical edge, and Estelle started crooning the lyrics: "Why do you whisper, green grass . . ."

The sitcom and single formed the high point of Estelle's career as a singer and actor. He remained most recognisable as the pint-sized Gunner Sugden in It Ain't Half Hot Mum, with his face peeping out from an oversize pith helmet. One of the Royal Artillery Concert Party's "lovely boys" (as they were referred to by the sergeant-major), Sugden lined up alongside others who included the drag performer Bombardier "Gloria" Beaumont (Melvyn Hayes), the public school-educated Gunner "La Di Da" Graham (John Clegg), the banjo-playing Gunner "Nobby" Clark (Kenneth MacDonald) and the bungling Captain Ashwood (Michael Knowles).

Don Estelle was born in the Crumpsall district of Manchester in 1933, his father a jack-of-all-trades who at various times sold song sheets on Blackpool beach and was a handyman, attending fairs with his donkey and cart. At the age of eight, Estelle was evacuated to live in the Lancashire town of Darwen, 20 miles away from the German bombing of Manchester. He became a boy soprano at the local Holy Trinity Church (now St Peter's) and, on returning home after the war, switched to St Mary's Church, Crumpsall.

He later joined the Manchester Kentucky Minstrels, a local charity group, performed the Mario Lanza hit "Granada" in the talent show What Makes a Star? (1954) at BBC Radio's northern studios in Manchester, and gained his first experience in front of theatre audiences by singing one song 12 times a week in the show The Backyard Kids at the city's Hulme Hippodrome.

While working by day as a warehouse manager in Manchester, he sang on the Northern club circuit, where he met Windsor Davies. They teamed up and performed around Britain for four years. On days off, Estelle found work as an extra at Granada Television, making his début throwing darts in the Rovers Return in Coronation Street.

One of the stars of Coronation Street, Arthur Lowe, who subsequently found fame as the pompous Captain Mainwaring in the legendary television sitcom Dad's Army, suggested that Estelle should contact the programme's creators, Jimmy Perry and David Croft.

As a result, in 1969, Estelle landed a bit-part in Dad's Army as a Pickford's removals man delivering a naval gun to the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon. A year later, he returned for several episodes in the role of Gerald, a second ARP Warden, alongside Bill Pertwee as the chief warden, Hodges. In one story, the pair challenged the platoon to a cricket match, keeping quiet until the last moment about their secret weapon, the celebrated Yorkshire fast bowler Fred Trueman.

In the middle of Dad's Army's 10-year run, Perry and Croft's next hit series, It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81), with another ensemble cast, was launched, providing Estelle with the perfect chance to combine his talents for singing and comedy. Although set in India during the Second World War, the jungle scenes were shot in Norfolk and the desert sequences in Sussex. At its peak, the series was watched by 17 million viewers.

When a cast album was released, "Whispering Grass" (1975) was issued as a single and hit the top of the charts. It spawned the obligatory follow-up by Estelle and Davies, "Paper Doll", which barely scraped into the Top Fifty. Another single, the double A-side "Cool Water"/"Muck Spreadin' Charlie", failed to chart at all, but the duo had a Top Ten album with Sing Lofty (1976) and the partnership remained in demand.

As well as appearing in television commercials, they starred in a film version of the stage farce Not Now, Comrade (1976) and Estelle subsequently took small roles in the films A Private Function (1984) and Santa Claus (1985). He also took a side-turn into "serious" acting on television with the roles of Starveling, the tailor, in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1981), part of the BBC's project to film all of Shakespeare's plays, and Crook Fingered Jack in The Beggar's Opera (1983), directed by Jonathan Miller.

It Ain't Half Hot Mum was axed in 1981, when it was felt by some that the comedy was a slur on Indians, who appeared in the series as local wallahs. "I think it's wrong that other great shows like Dad's Army and 'Allo 'Allo are repeated but not ours," Estelle later complained. "There's no way it was racist. Lots of Asian people tell me how much they enjoyed it."

The performer continued to appear in commercials, summer seasons and pantomimes, but music remained his first love. He formed Don Estelle Music Publishing and released a dozen cassettes of his recordings, mostly on his own Lofty label, over the next quarter of a century. Classic songs featured on the albums included "As Time Goes By", "All I Have to Do is Dream", "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Beautiful Dreamer". Estelle even established a strong following in New Zealand, where he toured five times during the 1990s, and teamed up with Cyril Smith, the former Liberal Democrat MP for his local constituency, Rochdale, to record a new CD of the Laurel and Hardy film song "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" (1999).

However, in recent years Estelle cut a slightly sorry figure, dressed in his Lofty outfit, setting out a stall of his tapes and singing to passers-by in shopping centres. Similarly, he played a dirty old man in the promotional video for the Sun Page 3 Girl Jo Hicks's single "Yakety Sax" (2001), the Benny Hill Show theme.

But there was a brief return to television as Little Don, the zookeeper, in two early episodes of the award-winning BBC2 sitcom The League of Gentlemen (1999), set in the fictional northern town of Royston Vasey.

Estelle's autobiography, Thoughts of a Gemini, was published in 1999.

Anthony Hayward

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