Obituary: Kenneth Connor
Tuesday 30 November 1993
A VETERAN of 17 Carry On comedy films and remembered as 'the man of many voices' in Ted Ray's radio and television shows and, more recently, for playing the amorous undertaker Alphonse in 'Allo 'Allo, Kenneth Connor won laughs for his wide range of characterisations, although he loved performing the classics on stage and named the Fool in King Lear as his favourite role.
Born in London in 1916, the son of a naval petty officer who organised concert parties, Connor made his stage debut at the age of two as an organ-grinder's monkey in one of his father's shows, in Portsmouth. When his father left the Navy to run a pub, the youngster took drama lessons in his spare time and acted in charity productions, before gaining a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama, where he was a Gold Medal winner.
Connor made his professional debut in JM Barrie's The Boy David, at His Majesty's Theatre, London, in December 1936 and, when war came, he served as an infantry gunner with the Middlesex Regiment but continued acting by touring Italy and the Middle East with the Stars In Battledress concert party and ENSA.
It was during such wartime shows that he met the actor William Devlin, renowned for his pre-war performance as King Lear. While waiting to be demobbed in Cairo, Connor received a telegram from Devlin asking him to join the newly formed Bristol Old Vic, where he gained a solid grounding in the classics, before moving on to the London Old Vic company for a 1947-48 season at the New Theatre. His most notable performances there were as Chaplain de Stogumber in Saint Joan and Dobchinsky in The Government Inspector, which starred Alec Guinness. He subsequently appeared on the London stage as Mr Kimber in Queen Elizabeth Slept Here (Strand Theatre, 1949), Taffy in Waggonload O' Monkeys (Savoy Theatre, 1951) and O'Dwyer in Trelawney of the Wells (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1952), before playing in The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic Theatre, in 1953.
In the same year, he took over from Peter Sellers in Ted Ray's radio show Ray's a Laugh - launched by the BBC in 1949 as a successor to Tommy Handley's Itma - and created characters such as the shopkeeper Sidney Mincing (catchprase 'Do you mind]') and the oddjob man Herbert Toil, reviving them when the programme moved to television as The Ted Ray Show in 1955. He was also on radio in The Grove Family, Meet the Huggetts, with Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison - a long-running serial that was a spin-off from the Huggetts films - and Eric Barker's show Just Fancy, as well as filling in on The Goon Show when the stars fell sick. Peter Sellers is credited with borrowing for the show one of Connor's catchphrases, 'Oh, mate]', from the programmes with Ted Ray.
With a wide range of facial expressions to add to his panoply of voices, Connor was also much in demand on television, appearing in the anarchic, Goon-style Idiot Weekly, Price 2d (1956), written by Spike Milligan and starring Peter Sellers, and as a guest in Charlie Farnabarn's Show, Alfred Marks Time, The Dickie Valentine Show, The Black and White Minstrel Show, The Anne Shelton Show and Hi Summer. He was also in a number of children's programmes, such as For the Children and Huckleberry Finn and, more seriously, played the Bigamist in a television adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Round Dozen.
Although Connor's film career had begun as early as 1939, when he appeared in the Flora Robson drama Poison Pen, he did not act on the big screen again until 10 years later, with a small part in The Chiltern Hundreds. Half a dozen other pictures followed, including roles in The Beggar's Opera (1952), Miss Robin Hood (1952) and the Ealing Studios comedies The Ladykillers (1955, as a taxi driver) and Davy (1957, alongside Harry Secombe), before Connor played the rookie Horace Strong in Carry On Sergeant, the first film made by the famous comedy team, in 1958.
He was in a further 16 Carry On films, often cast as ineffectual types, acting everything from a science teacher to a ship's medical officer, an ornithologist to a caravan-site owner, although he took a five-year break in the Sixties to return to the stage, but this did not stop him appearing in other pictures, including Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1968). After 1969, when he made Carry On Up the Jungle, Connor's big-screen appearances were all with the Carry On crew, apart from a role in Eric Sykes's wordless comedy Rhubarb (1970).
His greatest Carry On role was probably that of the innocent, henpecked cave-dweller Hengist Pod, inventor of the square wheel, in Carry On Cleo (1964), who is captured by the Romans and ends up as Julius Caesar's bodyguard. It was a comic performance of great sensitivity.
On stage, Connor starred in the revue One Over the Eight (1962), at the Duke of York's Theatre, the original London West End production of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1963), as Hysterium - and directed the show when it went on tour - The Four Musketeers (1967), with Harry Secombe at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, playing King Louis XIII, and the revue Carry On London (1973) at the Victoria Palace.
In later years, he appeared in cameo roles on television, in programmes such as Frankie Howerd Reveals All (1980) and the situation comedy That's My Boy (1981), before joining the cast for the pilot of the French Resistance comedy 'Allo 'Allo in 1982, as the undertaker Alphonse. He continued in the role on and off for the subsequent series, which ran for eight years from 1984, and saw his character ever in pursuit of Madame Edith. The programme relied on innuendo and end-of-the-pier humour, which must have been familiar to such a stalwart of the Carry On films.
Connor was also seen on the small screen in On the House, Room at the Bottom, Hi-de-Hi], Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder III, Harry Enfield's Norbert Smith - A Life, You Rang M'Lord? and the drama series Made In Heaven. His last appearance was as a celebrity guest on the Noel Edmonds quiz show Telly Addicts, broadcast only last week.
Connor's son, Jeremy, who now works in television production, appeared with him in four Carry On films, making his screen debut at the age of three in Carry On Nurse (1959). One of the more private members of the Carry On cast, Connor enjoyed reading books about the sea and owned a boat on the Thames.
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