obituaries: Benny Lee

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The Independent Online
The BBC radio planners were sitting around the boardroom table playing bridge, when one said, "Look, we simply have to find a title for this new programme." Someone said, "How about Breakfast with Braden?," and someone else said, "Great, but who do we get to play the lead?" Bernard Braden, recalling the beginnings of Britain's first early morning comedy series, added, "Would you believe, they spent three months looking for a guy called Breakfast?".

Breakfast with Braden starred the Canadian couple Bernard Braden and his wife, Barbara Kelly. A minor revolution in British broadcasting, it began in January 1950 and featured two striking supporting players, the dance-band singers Pearl Carr and Benny Lee. Unusually, both were superb radio actors, "Miss Carr", as she was always addressed, playing the dumb bubble-head and Lee, who always addressed the star as "Mr Braden", the ill-educated ignoramus. Their radio personas, created by the scriptwriters Frank Muir and Denis Norden, were totally removed from their musical vocalisations, which were always excellent.

Benny Lee encompassed several careers in his long show-business life, ranging through acrobatics, fairground barker, dance-band drummer, recording artiste, television comedian and character actor in films. And there were quite a few more jobs outside showbiz, such as door-to-door salesman and gentleman's tailor. He was born in Glasgow in 1916, and started his singing career as tenor in the school choir. Leaving school at 14, he became a tailor's apprentice, but soon left to join an all-purpose act, which sang, danced and performed acrobatics all around one of the main variety circuits of Britain.

Lee's acrobatic days were somewhat longer-lasting than Braden recalled. "It lasted one evening, largely because of the shape of Benny's nose. In the finale the 12 acrobats grasped each other's ankles and somersaulted around the stage. As the act proceeded Benny noticed that he was following a circle of blood. His blood!" Doubtless the accident did shorten young Lee's career (and possibly lengthened his nose) for soon he was back in Glasgow, tailoring shirts and in his spare time playing drums for his own semi-professional dance-band. Wishing to return to the stage full time he joined the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, where he received a good grounding in straight acting. This led to his first BBC radio audition in 1938.

In 1941 Lee was heard singing by Johnnie Claes, a trumpeter who had recently formed a swinging dance-band called the Claepigeons. He liked the sound of Lee's voice and signed him on as a vocalist. Soon Lee was singing and recording with many bands of the day, including that of Sid Phillips. He was frequently heard on the radio, and not only as a band singer. He played the part of Eddie Cantor in a radio version of the film Show Business (1944). His other radio series included Top Ten (1944) and Music from the Movies (1946).

Lee's voice became popular enough for him to be starred as a solo singer and not just a band singer. In 1948 he was supported by the close-harmony group the Keynotes on "Rambling Rose". Next year he duetted with Joy Nichols, the star of Take It From Here, singing "On the 5.45". The Decca company came in with a contract and from 1950 he recorded such hits of the time as "Enjoy Yourself, It's Later Than You Think", and "Down at the Ferry Boat Inn" with the Stargazers. Every type of pop song seemed to suit Lee, and he covered Guy Mitchell's no 1, "Pretty Little Black-Eyed Susan", and the Hank Williams hill-billy hit, "Your Cheatin' Heart". He enjoyed comedy numbers and sang "Close the Door" with a chorus of young children on a special series made for Christmas 1955 entitled Benny Lee's Children's Party.

Television brought Lee a succession of successes beginning when he was cast as the host of the BBC's first ever series for teenagers. Cautiously subtitled "a fortnightly magazine for under 21s", Teleclub on its first outing introduced the pop star Teddy Johnson and radio's famous "Man In Black", Valentine Dyall. This was in 1953, the same year that Lee played Mr Pegg the myopic tailor to Terry-Thomas in the fifth series of How Do You View. His short-sighted measuring of the elegant "Master Terry" was a highspot.

The following year Lee was cast as Arthur Honeybee in an early situation comedy, Friends and Neighbours. Peter Butterworth played George Bird, and with their small-screen wives, Avril Angers and Janet Brown, they recorded the programme's signature song. It became a hit, not for them oddly enough but for Billy Cotton and his band. Lee was later one of the supporting comedy cast in the Michael Bentine's crazy series It's a Square World (1960) with Clive Dunn, not yet Corporal Jones of Dad's Army, Dick Emery, not yet a solo star, and Bruce Lacey, the madcap inventor.

Lee played character roles in a good many films, from Night of the Prowler to Mickey Spillane's Girl Hunters, while continuing on radio as host of It's Time For Old Time. He celebrated his 2,000th broadcast in 1953, and then stopped counting. His stage appearances included the musical Two Gentlemen from Verona (1973) and Windy City (1983).

Bernard Braden regarded Lee with great affection, mainly for the esteem in which he held elder showbiz personalities. When Braden pronounced a typical insult gag by announcing, "Music In Miniature will be introduced next week by Wee Georgie Wood", Lee tried to get him to cut the gag as he knew Wood was sensitive about his size. Braden refused, but never forgot Lee's kindness.

Denis Gifford

Benny Lee, actor and singer: born Glasgow 11 August 1916; married (two daughters); died 9 December 1995.