Obituary: Tony Hawes

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The Independent Online
"Tony Hawes, meet Denis Gifford," said Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin after a broadcast they had written for Cyril Fletcher and Betty Astell. "He likes Laurel and Hardy too." Which is about as name-dropping a start for an obituary as has ever been written. We shook hands, had a beer and soon discovered we had even more in common than comedy.

He was a regular in the RAF; I was recently demobbed. He was a cartoonist with a penchant for comic strips; I was the same. He liked old movies and travelled miles to catch up on Boris Karloff reissues; so did I. In no time at all we were teaming up as comedy writers in the wake of our pals, Monkhouse and Goodwin, and our first business card read, "Gifford and Hawes for your scripts of course!"

Our career was held back by Tony's RAF contract, but in a while we were progressing fast enough for him to borrow from Bob enough money to buy himself out. I wasn't smart enough to take this as a warning of the shape of things to come. After some years of buying Tony threepenny-worth of chips to eat on the borrowed fourpenny bus-ride home, we went our separate ways. But we came together again in time, and concluded our relationship, suddenly and shockingly, the best of chums.

Hawes was born in Blackheath, south-east London, in 1929, and joined the art staff of the Bristol Evening World as an apprentice cartoonist. A little later he came back to London in a slightly superior art job at the Daily Mail, helping their cartoonist "Spot" (Arthur Potts) draw the daily strip starring that paper's revived pre-war children's character Teddy Tail. Hawes's most endearing, some would say irritating, charm was his regular recounting from memory the opening lines of a strip serial starring the mouse's insect mentor, Dr B (Beetle).

After National Service, Hawes failed to rejoin the Mail, so signed on for a term. It was 1952 when we met, 1953 when we turned into a team. The BBC started a weekly concert party called The Light Optimists, an old-fashioned title for a new-fashioned series designed to star new talent and new writers. We had a go, sent in a script, and were thrilled to be sent tickets to see it performed. Of the handful of three-minuters we wrote, the best was a monologue for an old tram driver which began: "I am a driver - Albert Driver!" It was performed by a youthful newcomer who was already specialising in quivery old-timers, Clive Dunn.

The best thing we wrote together came to nought. Hawes had suggested we take a trip to the Brixton Empress, where who should be appearing but Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, making their last lap of Britain. From the moment the band struck up with their signature tune, "The Dance of the Cuckoos", we were in a trance. "But they look just like them!", I said.

After the sketch, we went round to the stage door. We had suddenly come up with the idea that we might write a radio special for them. Yes, Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy would be pleased to see us. Well, we saw Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy. That is, we saw Mr Laurel, rather frail but very forthcoming, and we saw Mr Hardy at long range, red-faced and puffing, through his dressing-room door.

Yes, said Stan, we might try, but they would want to see the script first, and here you are, boys, have an autographed photograph apiece. Hearts beating, we started work. We presented the final half-hour to Bill Worsley, the producer of Workers Playtime. "We will see what they say," he said. They said no, but whether it was Stan and Ollie or the BBC who said it, we never knew. The title, by the way, was Laurel and Hardy Move to the Moon. Science fiction was all in the air in those days.

We were taken on as a team by Hector Ross Radio Productions, under Monty Bailey- Watson, who made programmes for sponsors to broadcast over Radio Luxembourg. We were to take over the devising of stunts for a show bought from America called People Are Funny. The Sunday we went to see a recording, the show's host, Peter Martyn, died. In came an unknown Vic Perry, a cabaret pickpocket. He delivered a weeping obituary for a man he had never seen or met, in which he told us how Martyn was even now hosting a great audience participation show for St Peter at the pearly gates.

Hawes was hived off to write a new series called Shilling a Second, sponsored by the Co-Op and starring Paul Carpenter as the quizmaster, while I took over the stunt devising for People Are Funny. Our producer was a John Whitney, who later surprised everybody who knew him by achieving national fame as Director-General of the IBA.

Commercial television brought Tony Hawes to the attention of the public, if not by name. His uncredited voice announced Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and later described the prizes which were "on the conveyor belt tonight" for Bruce Forsyth's and Larry Grayson's long-running series The Generation Game. It was this show which brought us together again as writers, creating stunts and sketches for viewer volunteers to perform in competition. It was Hawes who gave the nation the catchphrase description "A Cuddly Toy".

Among the many television series which Hawes scripted were The Dickie Valentine Show, The Liberace Show and Hippodrome. Perhaps the best remembered is the original Des O'Connor Show, with its comic line-up of a parodic quartet featuring scowling little Johnny Vyvyan and the catchphrase "One more time!"

Hawes also had a go at acting in films, thanks to his membership of Gerry's Club, run by Gerald Campion, television's Billy Bunter, and where, incidentally, Hawes met his first wife, Helen, the barmaid. He played small roles in The Soapbox Derby (1957), a feature for the Children's Film Foundation, Piccadilly Third Stop (1960) and The Frightened City (1961), in both of which he played the foppish Lord Buncholme - "pronounced Bunch-hume!"

He also scripted several small pictures, beginning with Hair of the Dog (1961), in which Reginald Beckwith starred as a commissionaire at a razorblade factory who caused a strike by growing a beard. Another was Strictly for the Birds (1963), with that forgotten talent Tony Tanner as a Soho gambler.

Our paths crossed again when he guested on my Looks Familiar series, and he later became programme associate on Quick on the Draw, created to showcase popular cartoonists. We came together again with the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society. I had organised the Film Funsters, the first British "Tent" of the Sons of the Desert as it was known, but found the work too demanding. A new organiser got both of us involved with the first ever International Convention, which took place in Hollywood in 1980. Hawes and I both went and met Stan Laurel's daughter, Lois. A little later Hawes married her. Thus does life tie itself neatly together, provided you live long enough.

Denis Gifford

Anthony John Hawes, actor and scriptwriter: born London 23 March 1929; twice married (one son); died Tarzana, California 13 February 1997.