Obituary: Nat Mills
Saturday 14 August 1993
NAT MILLS was the 'exceptionally eccentric' comedian half of the hilariously peculiar double-act Nat Mills and Bobbie. Their catchphrase, whinnied in a weird whine and imitated by everyone who ever heard them on the wireless during the war years, was 'Let's get on with it]' - something they seldom did.
Nat Mills was short of stature, somewhat humped and with one shrivelled hand, but his clever choice of comic clothing successfully hid his deformities from the paying patrons who flocked in their thousands to see him on the pre-war variety stage. He began, aged 13, in pantomime with Andrew Melville's company at the old Holloway Road Empire, north London. Then came a tour with Madge Fenton's company, and finally he went solo, making his debut as an impressionist in various working-men's clubs around London. His professional variety debut was at the Bedford Theatre, Camden Town.
Meanwhile Bobbie, the girl who had become Nat's partner both on- stage and off, was making her start in drama, first as a child actress, then as a song and dance girl. She played the role of Mamie in The Belle of New York - touring version, of course. Encountering each other during tours, Nat Mills and Bobbie teamed up to try out as a comedy double. Giving themselves the bill-matter of 'the rare pair', they opened at the Woolwich Empire in 1929 and were an instant hit. Bobbie, skinny-legged and pigeon-toed, was the dumb blonde to Nat, not much smarter in his flat boater and baggy tails. Unlike all the other double-acts in the business, neither played the 'straight man', both were equally idiotic. Even when they developed their stage material to incorporate a period piece entitled An Episode of Nell Gwyn, their ill-fitting costumes and whining tones made them as unlike King Charles and his doxy as Abbott was unlike Costello.
Nat, as King Charles, would complain, 'Nelly, thou art late] Hast thou dilly-dallied?' To which Bobbie, as Nell, would respond, 'Nay, Nay - they are not open yet]' They were still performing this sketch during Cyril Fletcher's wartime review Dreamin' of Thee, but they had brought it up to date. Said Bobbie, 'Great aeroplanes have flown over the earth dropping things on thy garden]' Replied Nat, 'Is my rhubarb all right?' Rhubarb was one of those words disapproved of by the Lord Chamberlain, which is partly why the gag got a laugh. The rest was down to the comical couple's excruciating delivery.
Nat Mills and Bobbie toured the world: 16 weeks in South Africa, and a fortnight in the United States which extended itself to a full 52 weeks. Never let it be said that English humour does not travel. After a 22-week tour of Australia, they returned to England to star at the London Coliseum.
They made their radio debut in 1939, just before war was declared. Their weird voices, especially when they burst into their customary sign- off song, gave BBC listeners hysterics and a new star-turn was born. In early 1940 they travelled to war-torn France with the Scottish comedian Will Fyffe, and broadcast home in a special British Expeditionary Forces edition of the BBC's Music Hall. They spent the war sharing their variety tours with ENSA and on 4 November 1946 starred in the first peace-time Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. It marked the apex of their oddball career, for in January 1955 Bobbie died.
Nat Mills was heartbroken, and realising their double act had died with her, immediately retired from show business. He went to work for his brother's carpeting firm, occasionally surfacing to take part in the odd nostalgic show for television. He was an active member - and the oldest - of the show-business charity the Grand Order of Water Rats.
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