OBITUARY:Harold Berens

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The Independent Online
"What a geezer!" This raucous Cockney cry of utter disgust was heard a thousand times and more down the years since it was first shouted in Ignorance Is Bliss, a popular crazy quiz of the radio-dominated Forties. It became the instant catchphrase of the comedian and character voice man Harold Berens.

Berens's death follows soon after the departure of the programme's snappy- chatting chairman, Stewart MacPherson, on 16 April; a coincidence that emphasises the importance of a distinctive voice in radio broadcasting. MacPherson was dubbed "the fastest voice in radio"; Berens was labelled "the man with a thousand voices".

Harold Berens ("no relation to Ballbearings"), was born in Glasgow in 1902, the son of a tailor. Educated in Leeds, Harrogate and Brussels, where he picked up the ability to gabble in pseudo-French, Berens first encountered show business in Brighton, where his father had built up a prosperous tailoring business by inviting whoever was starring at the Hippodrome to late-night parties. The stars would respond with a fragment of their acts, and the boy Harold would join in with his own party piece. He would imitate newspaper sellers shouting their headlines, concluding with "Teenage girl gives birth to twins - Harry Roy and his band leave for South America!"

After school Berens travelled Britain as a shirt salesman - "Having a flutter with the schmutter" as he called it - before settling down in his own shop in Regent Street, London. Following his father's technique, he concentrated on a showbiz clientele, styling himself "Shirtmaker To The Stars". His showroom was on the site which later became that of the Paris cinema where, from the years of the Second World War onwards, the BBC staged their audience shows and where, from 1946, Berens starred in a seven-year run of Ignorance Is Bliss. To use another of his catchphrases, "Now there's a coincidence!"

One of Berens's customers was the outsize Canadian broadcaster Carroll Levis, who ran a popular discovery series. "He discovered me", Berens recalled, "He lifted up a manhole cover and there I was!" But Levis thought Berens was too professional a performer to be presented as an amateur discovery, and recommended him for a BBC audition.

His earliest broadcasts were as comedy compere to Maurice Winnick and his Band in outside broadcasts from the Dorchester Hotel. This led to the creation of the BBC's own studio version of a West End nightspot, The Golden Slipper Club, with Berens as host. His multi-voiced talent brought him many radio and early television engagements, and a run as a solo act at the Windmill Theatre. "I fell in love with a tall fan dancer", Berens recalled, "I took her out one night and got a feather in me cap!"

Berens's big break came when he was signed for his own series on Radio Luxembourg, compering Jay Wilbur and his Band. It was just two days before war broke out. "Now there's a coincidence," Berens sighed. But the war proved lucky for him. As a services entertainer he had clocked up 200 shows by the time Wilfred Pickles interviewed him for King Pins of Comedy (1941), and by 1947 his radio broadcasts alone topped 2,000.

The most popular of his original radio characters was Mrs Twiddleswitch - "Spelled T with a W, I double diddle, S double which". She was a radio cook: "Take a pint of water, beat it to a stiff cream, whip it to a frenzy and flog it to a standstill." Many other characters followed. In Hoop- La (1944), a series based in a funfair run by Robb Wilton and Max Wall, Berens played the posh character Guy, ever pleading with his aunty to have tea - "With lashings of toast, simply oozing with butter!" In Ted Ray Time (1954) he played another woman, Ray's cleaner Mrs Mosseltoff. When Ray complained that he could write his name in the dust on the piano, she replied: "Ain't h'education a wunnerful thing."

But it is as the Cockney ignoramus of Ignorance Is Bliss that Berens will be long remembered. MacPherson introduced him as "a man whose brain is something to write home about - because that's where he left it".

Berens was a tireless worker, and famous throughout show business as a snappy dresser. Recently he could be found singing Fats Waller songs in intimate clubs. He also played a number of character roles in films. He was in George King's production of Candlelight In Algeria (1943), and in 1991 had a good character part in Hear My Song, the story of the Irish tenor Joseph Locke. For a time he also wrote a comedy column in the Northern newspaper Sunday Sun, and a paperback fun book, now very rare. Its title was the same as the title of a biographical radio series I wrote and presented with him in 1987 - What A Geezer!

Ivan Harold Berens: born Glasgow 4 March 1903; died London 10 May 1995.