Obituary: Charlie Chester
Friday 27 June 1997
National celebrations will mean less without him: he was BBC Radio's official host for every wartime anniversary, from Dunkirk and D-Day through to his most recent programme on VE Day plus 50.
He was born in Eastbourne in 1913, son of a cinema sign-painter and part- time roller-skating instructor, and a mother who could sing. At the age of seven Charlie sang out loud and clear at a children's competition at the Eastbourne Winter Gardens, and won. It was the first of no fewer than 82 talent competitions he would win before turning professional performer as a teenager. By this time his voice had broken into an attractive yodel, all the rage in the early Thirties. Teaching himself the guitar, Charlie now did a creditable impression of Jimmy Rogers, "America's Singing Brakeman", and was soon supplying vocals for the Dixies Dance Band of Ewell. He was 17 when he went out as a solo act for the first time, singing and twanging under the name of Duke Daly.
From one-night stands and masonics, Chester's talent would eventually lead to Royal Variety performances at the Palladium and his crowning as King Rat. But, for all the parade of successes, there would be one area of showbiz at which even Cheerful Charlie would admit failure: the films. After a gag-packed debut with his radio Crazy Gang in a clutch of Ministry of Food Flashes, one-minute newsreel trailers made in one day in 1945, only three proper films featured him in the whole of his 65-year career. He appeared as himself giving a show in Holiday Camp (1947), getting the campers to "bob up and down like this", and then singing his own comedy song, "The Farmer's Boy", featuring grunts, snorts, whistles and the famous yodel. Twenty-four years later he appeared as the late Max Miller in a small semi-documentary, Top of the Bill, and finally played a small role in the soft-porn feature Can I Come Too (1979).
It was curious that Chester should have been cast as Miller, the famous "Cheeky Chappie" of the music halls, for the similarity of their style, facial features, and snazzy dress from snap-brimmed trilby down, had caused ructions in his early comedy career. Even their signing-off songs, complete with guitar accompaniment, were similar. As Chester revealed in a recent television Kings of Comedy programme, Miller attended one of Chester's performances, bringing along his solicitor to take notes. Luckily for Chester he had chosen "Cheerful" and not "Cheeky" as his bill-matter. In time after Chester's wartime rise to the top as a broadcaster, the rivals made up and even appeared together in a shared top of the bill.
Chester almost failed his chance as a broadcaster. Granted his first BBC radio audition in 1937, he was warned by the Head of Variety that unless he toned down his gags he would be banned from the air. Reassured by the programme secretary, Chester went ahead with the radio show exactly as he had performed in the trial. Afterwards the Head of Variety sought him out, congratulated him on his good reception, and said he was pleased Chester had taken his advice and changed his jokes.
It was the Second World War that gave Chester his much-needed boost into the nation's heart. As a sergeant in the Royal Irish Fusiliers he was seconded into the army entertainment unit, Stars in Battledress. At this time a BBC series for the Forces, Mediterranean Merry-Go-Round, was written and performed by the Armed Services themselves, "Bringing Music and Fun to Boys and Girls in Khaki and Two Shades of Blue". The naval show was HMS Waterlogged, written and performed by Sub-Lieutenant Eric "Heart-throb" Barker; the RAF show was Much- Binding-in-the-Marsh, starring Flight Lieutenant Richard Murdoch and Wing Commander Kenneth Horne; the army show was a package supplied by various units, and thus had not the pulling power of the other branches of the services.
Sergeant Chester was ordered to write and perform "A successful radio series!" and he certainly did. Originally entitled Studio Stand Easy, it was announced as "Look out for laughs in the next half-hour with Cheerful Charlie Chester and his Crazy Gang of other cranks!" Then came the signature tune, "Shoot the Khaki To Me". This is less well remembered than the signature song full of sound effects that started his long-running post-war series Stand Easy: "Ring that bell (ding-dong), bang that drum (bang-bang), sound that horn (beep-beep), shoot that gun (bang!)."
The original radio Crazy Gang were "Professor" Ken Morris, who "murdered a song at the piano" every week, Joe Giggs, Len Marten, Louise Gainsborough, Ramon St Clair the tenor, and Arthur Haynes, the only one of the gang to rise above Chester himself in public affection, via his later television series. The hysterical laughter of the studio audience which almost drowned the opening announcement was caused by Charlie and Co silently and swiftly removing the announcer's trousers.
A serial within the show was "Tarzan of the Tapes", featuring Stab-U the Elephant Boy and his regular order to his pachyderm, and "Git up there, Forsythe!" The scene was always set thus, "In the heart of the dreaded jungle of Janzibulla which is situated deep in the African province of Japonica . . .", and everyone who ever heard it will remember the regular chant of the natives:
Down in the jungle, living in a tent,
Better than a prefab - no rent!
Later came Whippit Kwik the Cat Burglar, whose whistled signature tune made him a national favourite. Tenor St Clair was replaced by Frederick Ferrari, known as "The Voice". Chester wrote him a signature song, "When Love Descended like an Angel". Unfortunately that is all he wrote, until listener demand forced him to write a full version so that Ferrari could record it.
Chester was, in fact, no mean songwriter. Early in the war he wrote a hit, "The Sergeant-Major's Serenade", and followed it with such sentimental favourites as "Down Forget-Me-Not Lane", "Primrose Hill" and comedy numbers for the Gang like "The Old Bazaar in Cairo". This included the verse:
Rice pud, very good, what's it all about?
Made it in a kettle and we couldn't get it out,
Everybody took a turn to suck it through the spout!"
For a while Chester even ran his own publishing company, Victory Music.
Stand Easy, which was given the accolade of a comic strip version in Radio Fun, ran from 1945 to 1951, when the title was changed to Keep Smiling. All the scripts were written by Chester, of course, but with the dawn of the sit-com age Pat Dunlop and Maurice Drake were commissioned to write one for Chester. Called Come To Char-Lee, Chester found himself sharing a flat with Cardew Robinson as his valet and Michael Bentine as his zany neighbour. Love interest came from Dora Bryan and Patricia Cutts, who later became Patricia Wayne the film star.
Never one to rest on his laurels, in 1949 Chester founded the Cheerful Order of Chin-Ups, complete with its own bi-monthly journal, the Charlie Chester Chin-Up Mag, price fourpence off all bookstalls. Soon Chester's self-promotion style changed to charity work, which would eventually win him an MBE in 1990.
Television called Chester in 1952 and he devised Pot Luck, the first ever British audience participation series. Described as a "programme of prizes and surprises", it involved members of the audience passing a pot around until the music stopped. Whoever was then holding the pot had to come up on stage and take part in a quiz. Supporting Chester were Harry Seltzer, recently seen as a venerable but still sprightly comic on Michael Barrymore's television show, and Leslie Welch the Memory Man.
Although Pot Luck was extremely popular and ran for some years, Chester's greatest television success was in Educated Evans, a series based on Edgar Wallace's popular Cockney tipster. There was yet another link with the past here, for Evans had previously been played in films by none other than Max Miller. There were two runs of the series, 1957 and 1958.
After stage productions with his Gang such as Midsummer Madness, the George and Alfred Black hit of the 1949 Blackpool summer season, Chester took over from George Formby in the popular West End musical Zip Goes a Million. In later days he returned to radio with his own listener question- and-request series, Sunday Soapbox. This started in 1969 and ran continuously until he was rushed to hospital following a stroke.
A staunch member of the showbusiness charity the Water Rats, Chester was voted King Rat in 1952. He wrote the history of the charity in 1984, and was appointed their Poet Laureate. Whenever a fellow Rat died, Chester wrote a short poem in their memory. Those so honoured include Robb Wilton, Wee Georgie Wood, David Nixon, Sid Field and Sandy Powell. The question now remains, who will write a rhymed farewell for Cheerful Charlie Chester.
Cecil Victor Manser (Charlie Chester), comedian: born Eastbourne, East Sussex 26 April 1914; MBE 1990; married 1939 Dorita Langley (died 1992; one son), 1994 Joan Jarvis; died Twickenham, Middlesex 26 June 1997.
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