The entertainer Sunny Rogers was the patient piano accompanist - or "straight man", as she termed it - in the comedian Frankie Howerd's stage act. Invariably teased by the high camp star for her purported deafness - "No, don't, it's wicked to mock the afflicted" - she had previously enjoyed the kind of show-business career that simply could not happen today.
In the late 1940s, she was given the extremely unlikely billing of "the Gal from the Golden West", all the more unlikely as she was born (in 1913) Jessie Rogerson in Ashton-under-Lyne, the daughter of a grocer. She was taking piano and dance lessons by the age of eight, and, as was then deemed compulsory for a stage career, elocution lessons. At 14, she got a place in the Tiller Girls dancing troupe, becoming their Captain four years later, before taking up with a purportedly American duo named Buck and Chick, supporting them on a European tour of their Wild West act. Returning to London as a rope-twirling, whip-cracking sharpshooter, she was put under contract by the bandleader turned impresario Jack Payne, at the same time changing her name.
She first worked and became friends with Howerd in 1946, in a national tour under Payne's auspices, and in the Parisian-styled revue Pardon My French (Prince of Wales, 1953), but neither was as his pianist. Howerd had actually conceived the act in wartime and by accident (growing out of an ad lib, "That's all I need - a deaf accompanist") and Rogers inherited her position from "Madame" Blanche Moore when the latter proved unable to undertake a tour of Africa, and Howerd could only afford to bring one other performer. Graham McCann's exhaustive biography Frankie Howerd: stand-up comic (2004) claims that the act influenced Dame Edna Everage's silent bridesmaid Madge Allsop.
Her television appearances with Howerd included backing him in his climactic rendition of "With These Hands" in Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1964, on one of the few recordings of the show which survive). When she went to Borneo with him for a concert entertaining British troops in 1965, and was obliged to learn to play the accordion as a piano was impractical in the jungle, the result was filmed for a BBC documentary, East of Howerd. And in 1948, at Howerd's insistence, she had taken part in a BBC performers' audition for one of his scriptwriters, the then unknown Eric Sykes.
Howerd once admitted that, offstage, his pianists "have been guardian angels in their fashions", which was putting it mildly. Rogers often "used to try to calm Frankie's nerves" before shows and, during his well-documented career slump in the early 1960s, she attempted to help by offering him some of her life savings, through his companion, Dennis Heymer; Howerd was greatly touched by this "beautiful gesture", but declined.
By the 1960s, she had abandoned her cowgirl act, the partnership with Howerd dominating her career. But she once said,
People said that if I hadn't been so attached to Frank, I could have been another Wendy Toye . . . I'd like to think that was true.
In 1982 she nearly died from a thyroid illness, but recovered, thanks perhaps to Howerd's visiting her at St Bartholomew's Hospital. Her final stint supporting him was in his season at the Garrick Theatre in 1990, in Frankie Howerd at his Tittermost!, during which she stayed with him in his London home in west London.
On Good Friday 1992, she couldn't help laughing as Howerd told her over the phone about his recent stay in hospital, claiming "They were poking and prodding me, and I had all these people in white coats bending over me . . ."; it was to be their last conversation, and he died two days later.
She spent her last years living quietly in Brighton, with Alwyn Miller, a physiotherapist and former actress, in close attendance, enjoying gardening and supporting entertainment-based charities. Hanging in her hallway was a charcoal drawing of herself and Howerd.
Gavin GaughanReuse content