OBITUARIES:Arthur English

"The Prince of the Wide Boys" is dead, and with him the last link to that low-life phenomenon of the Forties and Fifties, the spiv. Arthur English depicted the wide boy in extremis: he was worldly wise (street- wise we would say today), and literally wide. His super-spiv suit bore shoulders so broad that, to quote him, "I 'ad to come in the swing-door sideways!"

English was not the first to caricature the spiv on stage. That honour belongs to the great Sid Field, whose West End wide boy, Slasher Green, is immortalised for all time in the film London Town (1946). But where Green's overcoat was long enough to reach his snappy shoes, it was English's kipper tie that brought the house down. Early in his act he would unbutton his jacket and out would roll a flowered affair that would end around his knees. It was made by his wife out of some eye-dazzling curtain material, and caused one of the biggest laughs ever heard on Variety Bandbox on radio: "Keeps me knees warm in winter!", laughed English, much to the annoyance of the producer, who didn't approve of visual gags.

It was English's first broadcast (17 November 1949), and in no time at all he was added to the long list of resident comedians who had found fame on that famous radio series: Hal Monty, Derek Roy, Frankie Howerd, Reg Dixon, and all the way to Al Read. David Jacobs, who introduced the then new comedian, explained to listeners that English had to have three microphones - "because he just can't keep still". Hence English's first catchphrase, "Watch the boy!"

Arthur English was not a born Cockney, despite the excellent accent. He was born in Aldershot in 1919 and, after doing some local shows in his spare time away from a building site, he took the plunge into professionalism.

He bought a day-return to London and walked into the Windmill Theatre, nationally known as the home of new comedians. Anyone who could make the raincoated all-male audience laugh out loud between the nude ladies was considered good enough. English's spiv act, which he wrote himself and delivered at top speed in full motion, partly out of nervousness, had Vivian Van Damm, the Windmill's proprietor and producer, rolling in the aisles. It was the morning of 16 March 1949, and when the Windmill's show Revuedeville opened that afternoon, the star comedian was Arthur English.

Never one to lose the chance of publicity for his little theatre's latest discovery, Van Damm phoned the papers. Next morning it was all over the Daily Express: "A star is born!" English never went back to his job as a house painter. Six shows a day remained his regular stint at the Windmill for some time, then it was radio with Bandbox residency, and the variety theatres, first in his spiv act, then in a full show built around him and named after his closing catchphrase, Open the Cage.

Catchphrases were always important to English. He now opened his act with "Mum, mum, they're laughing at me again!", and always closed with a high-speed tongue-tripping gabble that wound up with, "I dunno what the devil I'm talking about - play the music! Open the cage!"

His variety career was capped early by an appearance in the Royal Variety Show of November 1951, but curiously he never had a television series built around him. It was not until he was cast in supporting roles in Till Death Do Us Part and the department-store sitcom Are You Being Served? that viewers made his acquaintance, more as a comedy actor than a comic.

English wound up his very first broadcast with the following verse:

This is Arthur English shoving orf

To the tune of "The Windmill's

Turning".

Shove on the coal, blow the expense,

Just keep the 'ome fires burning.

Perhaps I've made you larf a lot,

I 'ope I've brought yer joy,

So 'ere's mud in yer eye from the end

of me tie,

Good night - and Watch the boy!

Arthur English, actor, comedian: born Aldershot 9 May 1919; twice married; died Camberley, Surrey 17 April 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence