Pug-faced and cheery-eyed, Paul Shane was the face of a particular strain of nostalgic comedy on BBC television for nearly two decades. Instantly recognisable as the face (and voice) of the ’50s-set holiday-camp sitcom Hi-De-Hi!, Shane relished the role of resident comedian and shyster Ted Bovis. The series won a Bafta in 1984, and while the camp performances and larky plots may seem as quaintly antiquated now as the 1950s themselves did in the 1980s, the series was a Sunday-night hit for the BBC and worked well as a knockabout family romp alongside the decade’s more ground-breaking sitcoms.
Born George Frederick Speight, he came from a South Yorkshire mining community, and if it hadn’t been for an accident when he was 27 he may well have remained a collier. He had been performing for fun in working men’s clubs as a musical act for a few years, but when he slipped on a bar of soap in the pithead baths at Silverwood Colliery, resulting in double herniated discs, he was pensioned off and decided to go professional.
Like Billy Connolly, he was a musician who gradually evolved into a comedian. In Connolly’s case it was when his patter between the songs got a better reaction from the audience than the songs themselves. In Shane’s case it was by taking straight renditions of pop standards, and, as his confidence grew, performing outrageous parodies of them. Ironically, when he attempted to make a return to straight singing in the 1990s with a performance of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on the BBC’s Pebble Mill at One, it caused unintentional hilarity and ended up on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest TV Moments from Hell.
His graduation from club entertainer to television actor came in 1972 when he landed a small role in Alan Bennett’s play A Day Out. Shown on BBC2 on Christmas Eve, the delightful story of a cycling club riding to Fountains Abbey, unaware that the spectre of the approaching First World War hangs over them, was Bennett’s first television play and his first collaboration with Stephen Frears.
There was a fashion in film-making for the small screen at this time to find “real people to play real people”, something begun by Ken Loach and Tony Garnett and used to great success through the 1960s and ’70s, particularly in Northern dramas. John Goldschmidt, who cast Shane in a small role in his Play for Today “Vampires” in 1979, recalled that “there was a huge agency in the North at this time and it was full of all these colourful characters, singers, magicians, pantomime dames, bingo callers, comics. You found some wonderful people there.”
Frears cast Shane again in another Bennett play, their masterpiece Sunset Across the Bay. Shane was popping up more and more, usually in plays that were well within his field of reference such as Pit Strike (1977) alongside Clifford Kershaw (a market trader-turned-actor who had been discovered by Mike Leigh) and Summer Season (1977) by actor and writer Brian Glover (originally a professional wrestler).
It was a small role in Coronation Street in 1979 that got him spotted by comedy writer Jimmy Perry, who with David Croft was devising a new sitcom based on his time working as a Butlin’s Redcoat after the war. As well as being a television success, a stage musical version of Hi-de-Hi! played summer seasons in Bournemouth and Blackpool and had a Christmas run at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The series theme song, “Holiday Rock”, sung by Shane, even made it to No 36 in the charts.
While enjoying the success of Hi-de-Hi!, Shane did turn in a straight role in the brilliant ITV serial Muck and Brass, one of the grittiest of Thatcher-era dramas, tellingly in a cast that also gave unsmiling roles to comedians Mel Smith and Jim Bowen. But it was a certain breed of sitcom that suited him best, and after Hi-de-Hi! he led in two more series, You Rang M’ Lord (1993) and Oh Doctor Beeching! (1996). Both used many of the same actors as Hi-de-Hi! and played like a mini-rep company, which added to the gentle tone of nostalgia. Oh Dr Beeching! was set in 1963 at a branch line station living in fear of the axe, and while the subject could have easily allowed some pathos to float into the proceedings, it instead went for broad buffoonery. The critics loathed it and it was probably too retro for the age in both subject matter and style, but it was all the same a fond celebration of a comedy squad that had won huge audiences over a 15-year prime-time reign.
Much better was Common as Muck (1997), with a great ensemble cast including Edward Woodward and Neil Dudgeon as dustbinmen. Shane’s final roles on television included short stints in Doctors (2000) and Emmerdale (2004). He continued to appear in panto until he underwent heart bypass surgery in 2009.
His career reminds one of how much offbeat talent was once born in clubs and concert halls, and how television once loved plucking it out. Like many of his contemporaries, Shane’s cough-and-spit roles in Play for Today led to him finding a niche, in his case in knockabout comedies. As casting becomes less daring and regional programming fades away, one wonders where such characters will come from in the future.
George Frederick Speight (Paul Shane), actor: born Rotherham 19 June 1940; married Dory (died 2001; three daughters); died Rotherham 16 May 2013.