Obituary: Anthea Askey

Denis Gifford
Friday 05 March 1999 01:02

PERT AND pretty, sweet and very petite, Anthea Askey was the delightful daughter of one of the country's all-time favourite funny men, Arthur Askey, who might very well have called himself "sweet and petite" if only in jest. The only child of Arthur and his beloved wife, May, both of whom might be described as pocket-sized, Anthea inherited her father's spirit of comedy and her mother's good looks. Domesticity and producing grandchildren for her parents deprived her of a fulsome career in television and faithful viewers of a major star.

Anthea Shirley Askey was born in 1933 in the same Golders Green nursing home where her funny father was having his tonsils removed. "It was a sort of package deal," he was pleased to remember. A few weeks later Askey was to make his first BBC radio broadcast in Saturday Night Music Hall. He felt his daughter's birth brought him luck for within a few years he would become the star of radio's first regular comedy series, Band Waggon, which would lead him into a string of major comedy films over the next decade.

Anthea's education at a nearby convent was interrupted by the Second World War. The Askey family evacuated themselves to Worthing, then in 1940 to Lytham in Lancashire while Arthur starred at the Blackpool Opera House, then to Portmeirion in Wales, moving to Lake Windermere in 1941, a cottage in Little Milton in 1942, after which Anthea was put into a boarding school at Bletchley.

Finally in 1944 the Askeys bought a house in Sussex. Moving in at Christmas they discovered their gardener was augmenting his income by selling their prize vegetables to the local greengrocer.

By this time Anthea's permanent nickname for her dad was "Wave". As an infant in arms she thought it was his name. Every time Askey left the house, wherever it might be, her mother took the child's arm and said, "Wave!"

She made her first stage appearance in 1945 at the age of 12. She was attending boarding school on the Isle of Wight at the time. The local repertory theatre at Ventnor needed a young girl for a small part in the Emlyn Williams play Dear Evelyn. Anthea was eager to take the job, as it meant no homework plus late nights for a fortnight. Dad was especially delighted when an on-stage door stuck. Anthea gave it a couple of pulls, then ad-libbed "I think I'll go through the French windows, it's quicker!" Like father, like daughter.

In 1946 Askey received his first invitation (of nine) to take part in the Royal Variety Performance. After the show he asked Anthea how she liked it. "Do you know daddy," she said, "they didn't give me a spoon with my ice-cream".

In 1948 the 15-year-old Anthea passed her radio audition and was cast as the lisping Violet Elizabeth Bott in the latest series of sit-coms based on Richmal Crompton's Just William. Naughty schoolboy William Brown was played by David Spenser, the former newsreader Bruce Belfrage played Mr Brown, while his wife was played by none other than Enid Trevor, wife and straight-woman to comedian Claude Hulbert.

By 1949 Anthea Askey was a hardened "pro" and joined her father on stage in his play The Kid from Stratford. Then the Askeys upped and went to Australia, where they starred in The Love Racket. They intended to stay for three months but were such a hit they ended up spending a full year. When she finally returned home Anthea was cast in her first pantomime at Bolton.

In 1954 Arthur threw her a star-studded 21st birthday party at the Dorchester Hotel. The 150 guests included his old Band Waggon partner Dickie Murdoch, Norman Wisdom, Bobby Howes and his film-star daughter Sally Ann, and the entire Crazy Gang not forgetting "Monsewer" Eddie Gray. Askey, knowing his daughter's heart, invited as a surprise guest her secret love, the cinema heart-throb Herbert Lom.

The same year Anthea made her cinema debut, backing up father in his starring vehicle The Love Match. This John Baxter production based on Glenn Melvyn's successful play also featured Thora Hird as her mother, James Kenney, the handsome son of the popular "miserable" comedian Horace Kenney, and a guest star appearance by veteran comedian Robb Wilton in his radio role of Mr Muddlecombe JP.

The following year she played her father's daughter once again in Ramsbottom Rides Again, a comic western about the timid grandson of a tough guy sheriff. In the cast were the pop star Frankie Vaughan, Sharni Wallis and Sabrina, her father's busty discovery from his BBC television series.

Anthea Askey made her last film in 1959. This was father's final starring vehicle, Make Mine a Million. He played a television make-up man while she did a guest star walk-on with her television co-star, Dickie Henderson. For by this time she had become one of the new stars of London's latest television channel, the Independent Commercial Company, Associated-Rediffusion.

She began as ever in a production starring her father. This was a serialised version of Love and Kisses, shown in five episodes at the end of 1955 and not much more than a direct full-frontal filming of the Glenn Melvyn stage play currently performing in Blackpool. The programmes were made by Jack Hylton Productions, who would make Arthur Askey's final cinema films and most of his, and all of Anthea's, television series. Hylton, once a dance band leader, now an impresario, was the contract comedy producer for ITV and, of course, agent for the Askeys.

Next came Before Your Very Eyes (1956), taken over from the BBC and again starring father and daughter, followed by Living it Up (1957), a television version of Askey's first ever radio series reuniting him with Dickie Murdoch 18 years later, this time they were living (on the programme) in a flat atop not Broadcasting House but Television House. Anthea played herself.

In 1957 came the show that would make her a full-blown star at last. Beginning as The Dickie Henderson Show and later retitled The Dickie Henderson Half-hour, the series ran for several years. Dickie, whose first contact with Askey was singing with his sisters, the Henderson Twins, in the stage version of Band Waggon, played husband to Anthea's wife. The scripts were Anglicised from an American sit-com starring Sid Caesar, and a number have been preserved by the National Film Archive. In the later programmes, Anthea's role was taken over by June Laverick.

In 1956 Anthea had married Bill Stewart, her father's stage manager in Love Match, and now fell pregnant. Unhappily their firstborn died when only three weeks old. Later she was able to present her father with three grandchildren, Jane, Andrew and William. Tragically Anthea Askey died just a week before she was due to marry Will Fyffe Jnr, the pianist son of the Scottish comedian Will Fyffe.

Denis Gifford

Anthea Shirley Askey, actress: born London 2 March 1933; married 1956 Bill Stewart (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Worthing, West Sussex 28 February 1999.

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