Lennie Bennett: Stand-up comedian who hosted the 'Punchlines' game show
Wednesday 20 May 2009
The route from comedian to game-show host is a well trodden one in television, with some stars such as Bob Monkhouse and Bruce Forsyth proving that they can be top of the pile in both roles.
Before he trod the same path, Lennie Bennett – notable for his bubble-perm hair, toothy grin and three-piece suits – had found some success as a stand-up comic in the quickfire series The Comedians (1971-4) and a panellist in the comedy game-show Jokers Wild (1969-74). He was also part of the double-act whose show Lennie and Jerry (1978-80) was launched by the BBC following the departure of Morecambe and Wise to ITV.
The chance to host Punchlines (1981-84) came after Bennett put his stand-up career in jeopardy by dramatically leaving the BBC. Punchlines was a Saturday-evening ratings success for ITV, consistently attracting up to 15 million viewers during its four-year run.
Celebrities sat at desks with a box containing the punchline while two teams of a star guest and member of the public had to remember the location of the one that followed a phrase read out by Bennett. To make it harder, the celebrities frequently swapped seats, musical chairs-style. For the first two series, the losing contestant was presented with a Lennie Bennett doll. This booby prize was later upgraded to a case of champagne with glasses.
Bennett was born Michael Edward Berry on Blackpool's South Shore in 1938. On leaving the town's Palatine secondary school he fulfilled his ambition to become a journalist, joining the West Lancashire Evening Gazette and working his way up to entertainment editor. He also contributed articles to the Daily Mirror and TV Times.
This led him to meet stars such as Des O'Connor and Lonnie Donegan, and write gags for them. Dared to do a stand-up act himself, in 1963 he started performing in working men's clubs across north-west England as half of the double act Mike and Tony Angelo. A year later, he went solo and adopted the stage name Lennie Bennett, having been an admirer or the comedian Lenny Bruce and liking the juxtaposition of two names with a double-N.
In 1966, he left journalism and turned professional on being offered a summer season in Jersey. As a result of appearing at Leeds City Varities theatre, he made his television début in The Good Old Days, the music-hall series broadcast from that venue, three years later.
Bennett's big break appeared to be his teaming up, in 1978, with Jerry Stevens for the light-entertainment series Lennie and Jerry, with Stevens as straight man to Bennett's funny guy. The programme started on BBC2, underwent a title change to The Lennie and Jerry Show, and was switched to BBC1, with much talk about the duo being the new Morecambe and Wise.
But Bennett suddenly walked out on fame after three series. "People began to think of us as a double act, which I didn't like, because we had solo careers," he later explained. "I decided to move on, which didn't please the Beeb, because I had an exclusive contract with them. I drove away from Television Centre convinced it was the end of my TV career."
However, a phone call from Michael Grade, then director of programmes at LWT, took Bennett to ITV as the host of Punchlines. Less successful was his attempt at hosting an LWT chat show, Bennett Bites Back (1982). The programme was intended to be topical, with guests from the week's news, but it was axed after one series, with the star claiming he was not prepared to massage their egos.
Later, having swapped jacket and tie for a sweater, he hosted another game show, Lucky Ladders (1988-93), screened on daytime television, with contestants working out the connected words as they "stepped" up ladders to reach holiday prizes.
At the same time, Bennett's personal life was going downhill. He was divorced from his wife of 29 years following an affair that led to a short-term relationship and had to sell the flat in St John's Wood, north London, and villa in Spain that had become symbols of his success. Then, in 1993, he underwent heart-bypass surgery after suffering three heart attacks. He subsequently earned money as an after-dinner speaker and, in 2000, bought a burger bar on Blackpool seafront. "I was bored and wanted something different to do," he recalled. "I called it Fat B'Stards, which some people didn't like. I owned it for four years before selling."
When Bennett – who lived most of his life on the Lancashire coast – reappeared on television in a celebrity edition of The Weakest Link (2003), he was almost unrecognisable, with thinning, grey hair.
He retired from show business three years ago. "The industry is a young man's game now and I was horrified by the thought of being an elderly comic, still working," he said. "I think it's undignified to hang around."
Michael Edward Berry (Lennie Bennett), comedian: born Blackpool, Lancashire 26 September 1938; married Margaret Backhouse (marriage dissolved); died Lancaster 8 April 2009.
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