Obituary: Norman Hackforth
Wednesday 18 December 1996
In the post-war 1940s, when the nearest thing to a screen on the chunk of furniture in the corner was an illuminated dial showing dozens of world- wide stations from Hilversum to Schenectady, it was the voice, not the face, that counted. By 1923 we already had a Golden Voice of Radio, the velvety smooth tones of Stewart Hibberd who bade the nation, "Goodnight, everybody . . . goodnight." This was the first radio catchphrase. The pause in the phrase, which was what turned it into a catchphrase, was, according to its evening-dressed creator, "so that the listener at home could answer me back, and so that I could have the last word".
The Silver Voice followed, the tenor Val Rosing who sang so sweetly about the "Teddy Bears' Picnic" with Henry Hall and his BBC Dance Orchestra. Then came the Sinister Voice, that of Valentine Dyall, who intoned "This is your story-teller, the Man In Black" before every late-night instalment of Appointment With Fear (1943).
Finally, with a nod towards one unofficial Golden Voice, the fruity tones of Syd Walker, the wandering junk man of Band Waggon (1939 - catchphrase "What would you do, chums?"), we had the Mystery Voice.
For a while the Mystery Voice was just that, a mystery. But with the passing of time and the rapidly increasing success of Twenty Questions, he was duly revealed as Norman Hackforth. Hackforth was the slender, small, and short-trousered pianist who accompanied Noel Coward on his many troop concerts throughout the wilder theatres of war. Together they put on shows from South Africa to Burma by way of Ceylon.
After the war their association continued, on and off. In 1947 Hackforth wrote and staged his own revue, Between Ourselves. Coward went on opening night, but confided to his diary, "Awful, with a couple of good ideas bungled and a cast of repellent unattractiveness."
Norman Hackforth was born in India in 1908. By the late 1920s he could be seen playing and singing in the John Logie Baird experimental television programmes on the original spinning disc system, and in 1929 he was picked out of cabaret to do his turn in two early talkie shorts - Musical Moments and A Song or Two. He also acted in Eight Cylinder Love (1934), a Quota Quickie in which Pat Aherne played a kidnapped racing driver.
The format of Twenty Questions, based on the family parlour game Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, was bought from its American adapters by a popular pre-war dance band leader, and soon the post-broadcast announcement of "By arrangement with Maurice Winnick" became a catchphrase in itself.
Twenty Questions not only gave the husky Hackforth a new lease on life, but it did the same for several other long-time radio names. The chairman was Stewart MacPherson, a pre-war ice hockey commentator, keeping control of the impressionist Jack Train, at a loose end through the sudden ending of It's That Man, Richard Dimbleby, the war correspondent (not yet a television personality), and Anona Winn, once the leader of her own dance band, the Winners. Later Gilbert Harding, the grumpy old grumbler of radio, took over when MacPherson returned to Canada, and the comedian Kenneth Horne followed Harding. The genial Horne would become the subject of a biography by Hackforth, Solo For Horne (1976).
Whilst the total run of Twenty Questions set up a record for panel games - it lasted from 1947 to 1976 - the full number of shows is unknown. The BBC refuses to acknowledge its run on Radio Luxembourg, where it was sponsored by Craven A cork-tips. Hackforth would not see the entire series through, but was suddenly plucked from his "secret room" and turned into a panellist himself in 1965. He did appear as himself in The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery (1948), later re-issued as Murder on the Air. In the cast, headed by Robert Beatty and Rona Anderson, the full classic radio team appeared: Train, Dimbleby, MacPherson, Daphne Padel and Jeanne de Casalis.
In later days Hackforth filled the post of the first musical director of Anglia Television, and in his retirement wrote his own autobiography, published in 1976 and now extremely hard to find. He called it And the Next Object Is, his catchphrase from Twenty Questions.
As accompanist to Noel Coward, writes Philip Hoare, Norman Hackforth joined a small band of musicians who contributed rather more to the Master's work than keeping up with a pell-mell rendition of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen".
Hackforth's relationship with Coward began in 1941, when he succeeded Elsie April and Robb Stewart as his amanuensis and arranger; Hackforth helped Coward write such wartime classics as "London Pride" and "Won't You Please Oblige Us With a Bren Gun".
In 1943, when Coward was touring the Middle East war zone, he met up with Hackforth and engaged him as his pianist on a tour of South Africa. It was a memorable trip for both parties. Hackforth remembered the nerve- wracked first night of the tour in Cape Town, when Coward engaged the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra to open with a selection from Wagner and Rossini. The effect was calculated to "bore the bejesus out of the audience", said Hackforth; after that "they'll be only too delighted to see us".
Coward and Hackforth went on to play throughout southern Africa, from hospital canteens in what is now Soweto, to the Pretoria Country Club.
Mountbatten having asked Coward to extend his tour to the Far East, Coward and Hackforth arrived in India in the monsoon. Acquring an upright piano ("from first to last a malign, temperamental little monster"), they spent 10 hellish days in the jungle, made worse by not entirely appreciative audiences: Hackforth "open-necked, sweat-stained khaki shirt, with a lock of damp hair hanging over one eye, and hammering away at the Little Treasure as though he was at his lasp gasp and this was the last conscious action of his life" as Coward sang to 2,000 booing black GIs who had never heard of this effete limey. Throughout, Hackforth "kept his temper, his sense of humour and his health, which was the most surprising of all, for his looks as resolutely belied his constitution then as they do today", wrote Coward in 1954. "His face is always wan and set in deceptively morose lines, and no burning sun, no stinging wind has ever succeeded in tinting lightly its waxen pallor."
Although Hackforth maintained that they worked together "very amiably, indeed, always", in later years, he was keen to set the record straight on his relationship with Coward, first in his memoirs, and latterly in interviews. He was particularly exercised by comments in Coward's "ghastly diaries which really show him up in such a vile light I don't know why anybody ever published them".
Coward underplayed Hackforth's part in his reinvention as a cabaret singer. In 1951, Hackforth was playing for Beatrice Lillie at the Cafe de Paris (which he was also promoting):
Noel came to the first night, had a drink with me afterwards and said
"Do you think I'd be any good at this
cabaret?" I said "Of course you would. I've been trying to get you to do it for years! Why don't you get yourself a good agent and see what happens?" He said "I don't want an agent - you can be my agent." So I was. And I got him his first booking - it wasn't very difficult, I may say, but I actually negotiated it.
In 1954, Hackforth joined Coward in Jamaica, "slaving away every day" on the score for the abortive musical After the Ball. Coward saw it in Bristol the following year: "The orchestra was appalling, the orchestrations beneath contempt, and poor Norman conducted like a stick of wet asparagus . . . The whole score will have to be re-orchestrated from overture to finale and Norman will have to be fired." "Typical Noel Coward exaggeration," countered Hackforth.
The working relationship with Coward ended that year, when Hackforth was unable to acquire an American permit for Coward's planned cabaret conquest of Las Vegas. Marlene Dietrich found a new accompanist and arranger for Coward: Peter Matz, who become another in the long line of unsung heroes who underscored the career of a musically illiterate but supremely gifted genius.
Norman Hackforth, actor, pianist, broadcaster: born Gaya, India 20 December 1908; married Pamela (nee Hall, died 1995); died Tenterden, Kent 14 December 1996.
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