Ted Durante: Comic strongman and stalwart of 'The Good Old Days'
Tuesday 16 March 2010
Ted Durante was the Tommy Cooper of strongman acts, whose valiant efforts to lift a weight, or balance a tray of drinks on the end of a pole, usually collapsed into disaster.
Physical strength and a taste for showbusiness were in the genes. Durante's father Edward Aston won the title of "Britain's Strongest Man" in 1911, retiring undefeated 25 years later. On the variety hall circuit he toured in a speciality act with his wife Zena.
Ted Durante was already a "tramp clown" for Bertram Mills' Circus when the Second World War interrupted his career, and he was made a PT Instructor Sergeant, ending up in the Far East. After the surrender of Japan he returned to England on the troop ship HMS Devonshire. While on board he joined a concert party organised by Cartographer Sergeant Kenneth Williams, demobilised from the Combined Services Entertainments (CSE) unit. Durante's contribution was a balancing act with a table and three chairs as his props, all the more impressive through being performed on deck against the roll of the ship.
In civilian life, Durante teamed up with the one-time amateur pugilist George Mooney. As stage brothers Ted and George Durante they worked out a routine based on missed cues and unlikely contortions. When George leapt on to his partner's shoulders, Ted would frantically signal panic as his neck disappeared into his chest, and wander around like Quasimodo.
In the summer of 1951 the Durantes, billed as "Music Hall's Ace Acrobats", were in Bernard Delfont's Do You Remember? company, touring with a line-up of veteran stars that included George Robey. Delfont also imported adapatations of the Folies Bergère revue from Paris, and in 1953 at the Prince of Wales Theatre Frankie Howerd starred in Pardon My French, supported by the Durantes. On Christmas Eve Ted and George decamped to Cinderella at the London Palladium where, as the broker's men Herbert Fitzpatrick and Patrick Fitzherbert, they made a perfunctory attempt to remove some furniture then went into their established tumbling act.
Meanwhile, Ted Durante had remained in touch with the world of bodybuilding. In 1949 he was at the centre of a human pyramid that occupied the front cover of Health and Strength magazine. The national craze for physical culture had been recognised with a first Mr Universe contest in 1948, under the auspices of the National Amateur Body Builders Association of the United Kingdom. A professional category was introduced in 1952 and Durante – entered under his real name of Aston – came fourth in his middleweight class that year.
In 1958 he was in another production of Cinderella. Originally a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, it reverted at the London Coliseum to traditional pantomime, while retaining the songs. Durante was one of the Ugly Sisters, cast opposite Kenneth Williams, and they even trilled a duet.
In 1961 at the Victoria Palace, where musclemen had gathered for the 13th Mr Universe contest, Durante performed in the cabaret interlude to the amusement of a full house. There was another solo appearance in 1966, when he appeared uncredited in the film Just Like A Woman. The scene in which Durante, playing a linguistically-challenged juggler/trampolinist of indeterminate nationality, reduces a harassed television director to a nervous wreck is classic comedy. Indian clubs shatter overhead lights as the ambitious turn ends in chaos.
Durante had acquired a new partner. "Ted Durante and Hilda" rapidly became established as the funniest comedy balancing act in the business, and throughout the 1960s and '70s enjoyed the hectic life of a successful variety duo, playing British summer seasons, European nightclubs, the London Palladium and television –where, between 1976 and 1983, they were favourites on The Good Old Days.
Hilda – the eager-to-please dumb blonde, glamorous in her sequins – would make a dog's breakfast of "assisting" her man. A characteristic gag had Ted lurching around with an iron weight that he would set down, apparently exhausted. Hilda would then pick up the "weight" in one dainty hand and casually move it upstage.
The BBC axed The Good Old Days in 1983, but the format was relaunched in 1988 at the City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds, and the Durantes were still appearing there in 1994. They were enthusiastic members of the showbusiness charity The Grand Order of Water Rats and its sister organisation The Grand Order of Lady Ratlings, which culminated in Hilda's reign as Queen Ratling in 2000. The couple had been proud when their daughter, Jay Aston, shot to fame as the youngest member of Buck's Fizz, and the family name lives on in her band Aston.
Edward Albert Aston (Ted Durante), entertainer, bodybuilder: born 5 March 1926; married Hilda (died 2007; one son, one daughter); died 4 December 2009.
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