Obituary: Roberta Huby
Wednesday 29 November 1995
Alan Melville's sketches (and Gingold's larking) packed the Ambassadors with the Sweet and Low series of revues during the Second World War. But half a century onwards the art of revue is like the dodo.
It is true that The Shakespeare Revue (managed by Michael Codron, who put on some of the best of them in the 1950s and 1960s) has been well received at the Vaudeville. It certainly reminds us what it used to be about. But the best of the old revues did not have a "theme" or revive stuff from old revues. They had personalities.
Revue in the bubbly Huby's day could fill large theatres as well as small. At the Palace she was with Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, Flanagan and Allen or Florence Desmond in shows called Hi-de-Hi or Keep Going (the war was on); at the Palladium it was Tommy Trinder and Ben Lyon in Gangway; and at the Prince of Wales it was the great Sid Field and his straight man Jerry Desmonde in Strike It Again.
What revue would draw to it, apart from new talents, was new audiences. To a schoolboy like myself it made a break from Shakespeare (Richardson's Falstaff, Gielgud's Macbeth, Wolfit's Lear), and Strindberg (Wilfrid Lawson's The Father).
Roberta Huby steered clear of all that kind of thing. It was her femininity, her sense of comedy and her lightness of touch that kept her busy. Her finest moments came with Ian Carmichael, Joan Heal, Dora Bryan and Jeremy Hawk in the long-running Lyric Revue, when it transferred from Hammersmith in 1951. This was a truly intimate revue, of the kind in which she had begun 10 years earlier at the Ambassadors.
That show - The New Ambassadors Revue - was my first revue. An accompanying parent described it as "satirical", whatever that was. He had some difficulty in finding a definition.
It was Huby's first West End appearance. She had a song dedicated to the invisible and always male newsreaders on the so-called wireless who we are told wore dinner jackets; and who, as a concession to a cosier relationship between the BBC and its listening millions had begun, after saying, "This is the news", to add, "And this is so-and-so reading it."
Such informality from such a pompous source was material for a satirical shaft. Thus it was that, seated under a spotlight and holding in her hands a sheaf of papers, the poised, decorous and alluringly blonde Huby, without a flicker of an eyelid or a hint of hilarity, purred into one of those old-fashioned table microphones on the table before her, as if addressing each one of us individually - and I can hum the tune to this day:
Perhaps you have heard of Alvar
Well, this is me reading it . . .
We all fell about. Everybody knew Alvar Lidell's authentic tones as he delivered the nine o'clock news; the irreverence of it was splendid. I was converted. Wherever a new revue was playing I would be there; until it was supposedly wiped out by the satire boom of the 1960s.
Huby must have enjoyed revue or she would could never have taken a chance on, say "an intimate revue from the Norwegian of Finn Boe", Rendezvous (Comedy, 1952), with such revue stalwarts as Walter Crisham and Chili Bouchier.
What could be better training, though, for musical comedy and farce? There was the Drury Lane musical Plain and Fancy, and an Aldwych farce to end all Aldwych farces under Peter Hall's direction, Brouhaha (Aldwych, 1958), in which Huby played up gamefully as Mrs Alma Exegis Diddle to the elusive Peter Sellers.
There were also films - with Arthur Askey in I Thank You (1941) - and there was television (Jezebel Ex UK and A Voice in the Sky): but isn't that medium often blamed for the demise of satirical revue?
Roberta Clarice Huby, actress: born London 29 September 1913; married 1941 John Roberts (died 1972; one son; marriage dissolved 1959), 1959 Jack Melford (died 1972); died Kingston-upon-Thames 19 November 1995.
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