Wednesday 19 April 1995
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
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.
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