Ray Alan: Ventriloquist famous for his partnerships with Lord Charles, Tich and Quackers
Wednesday 26 May 2010
The ventriloquist Ray Alan survived the death of variety theatre to take his act to television and become the doyen of his craft, best known for his tipsy, aristocratic dummy Lord Charles and the puppet pair Tich and Quackers.
"Ten rows back at the Woolwich Empire, it didn't matter if the vent's mouth was moving or not," he recalled. "But, when TV came along, I knew I wasn't going to be able to make a living doing 'gottle of geer' and 'grown gread and gutter' for the rest of my life."
Such was his dedication to perfectionism that Alan practised tricky words and phrases such as "blurry fool" and "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper..." until he could carry them off without the camera detecting any lip movement.
The snooty, monocled Lord Charles was Alan's longest-running creation, which he first tried out at a charity show at Wormwood Scrubs prison in 1959 after deciding he needed a character that would work on both stage and television.
Inspiration for the upper-class dummy came when Alan spotted a man in the audience at a cabaret show, wearing a dinner suit and accompanied by a young woman. "He was like a sugar daddy, patting her knee and pouring champagne," recalled the entertainer. "I thought what a lovely character that was, an upper-class little Englishman, loves the ladies and likes a drop of alcohol, especially champers!" Another influence was the actor A.E. Matthews, whose conversations went off on tangents.
The look of the puppet, whose catchphrase was "You silly arse!", came when Alan looked at a picture of Laurel and Hardy that the comedy duo had given him when he toured with them. He added to Stan Laurel's face a different hair style and a monocle. The new double-act of Ray Alan and Lord Charles appeared on the Moss Empires theatre circuit and they made their television debut together in 1961 on the television show The Good Old Days, which featured music-hall entertainers. Alan went on to appear a record 19 times in the programme.
Alan's other most popular creations, Tich and Quackers, a mischievous boy and his pet duck, appeared on children's television.
Born in Greenwich, south London, in 1930, the son of a docks tally clerk, Alan was educated at Morden Terrace School, Lewisham. At the age of five he won a talent contest at his local Gaumont cinema. Eight years later he left school to work at the Lewisham Hippodrome as both a call-boy, alerting actors to be ready for their entrances, and a lime-boy, operating the lights.
When he asked George Formby to autograph a ukulele he had bought with money saved from his newspaper round, the singer taught him to play it. He soon developed his own act, doing impressions of famous people performing conjuring tricks, as well as singing and playing the ukulele, at private concerts and dinner parties.
Graduating to the Woolwich Empire at the age of 16, Alan discovered that someone had accidentally left a dirty, green, wooden toolbox on his table of props. "It wasn't until I'd begun my act that I noticed," he recalled. "Realising I had to explain to the audience why it was there, I gave the box a little voice. It got laughs and impressed a theatrical agent in the audience."
However, it was another three years before Alan was booked for his first professional appearance as a ventriloquist, at the Palace Theatre, Ramsgate. He began this new career with a converted string puppet, then worked with a dummy he called Steve the Pageboy.
Alan performed in Britain's variety theatres, took on an eight-month cabaret engagement in India and, in 1954, appeared with Laurel and Hardy on their final tour – replacing Harry Worth, who was then a ventriloquist and had to pull out of the stage show, before later becoming one of Britain's leading comedy actors.
The ventriloquist's first success on television was with the puppet Mikki the Martian in the children's programme Toytown (1958), before his act with Lord Charles brought peak-time fame in many entertainment shows. Together, they also hosted Ice Cabaret (1968-69).
His biggest children's successes came in the 1960s with the characters of Tich and Quackers in Time for Tich (1963-64), Tich Puzzle! (1964-65) and Tich and Quackers (1965-68). Tony Hart, who became a star in his own right as the presenter of Vision On and Take Hart, was the unseen operator of Quackers. Alan also recorded a Tich Christmas single, "Santa Bring Me Ringo" (1964). Later, he created Ali Cat for the children's show Magic Circle (1977).
As a presenter, Alan hosted the quiz shows It's Your Word (1972-73) and Where in the World! (1972, 1984-85), the panel game Three Little Words (1980-86, with his then partner, Barbie, as hostess) and Cartoon Carnival. On radio, Alan presented The Impressionists (1980-88).
Less known is the fact that he had success as a scriptwriter of sitcoms using the pseudonym Ray Whyberd, with Bootsie and Snudge (1960-63, 1974) and Hancock (1963, Tony Hancock's disappointing follow-up to Hancock's Half Hour). He also contributed sketches to The Dave Allen Show, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and And There's More, starring Jimmy Cricket.
Alan was the writer and presenter of the documentaries A Gottle of Geer (1986), a history of ventriloquism, and Starmakers (1989), about variety agents. He also wrote the books Gottle o' Geer (1987) and The Lord Charles Wine Guide (1988).
By the late 1980s, ventriloquism had gone out of style on television, but Alan – whose rival acts included Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, Terry Hall and Lenny the Lion, Roger De Courcey and Nookie Bear, and Keith Harris and Orville – continued to perform in cabaret, on cruise ships and for corporate events. He appeared in Bob Hope's 82nd-birthday show broadcast from the Lyric Theatre, London, in 1985 and performed a short act with Lord Charles at Margaret Thatcher's 80th-birthday dinner 20 years later.
Four years ago, he took an acting role as a washed-up singer in a tour of the stage comedy There's No Place Like Home, about performers in a retirement home who believe the telephone is still going to ring. His character, James Johnson, discovers an old doll and considers a new career as a ventriloquist but turns out to be so bad that he makes his fellow residents cringe.
Later, he turned to crime-writing and had three books published: Death and Deception (2007), A Game of Murder (2008) and A Fear of Vengeance (2010).
Alan's first marriage, to Greta, ended in divorce in 1972. He is survived by his second wife, Jane, whom he married in 1991, following his relationship with Barbie.
Raymond Alan, ventriloquist, writer and television presenter: born London 18 September 1930; married twice; died Reigate, Surrey 24 May 2010.
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