TELEVISION IS a great consumer of talent. It uses people up and then spits them out into the oblivion of panto and seaside piers. Rod Hull, the children's entertainer known to millions throughout the Seventies and Eighties for his manic act with the anarchic puppet Emu, a bad-tempered and aggressive blue and yellow bird, provides a cautionary tale. He rose to the top of his profession but fell from grace because of over-exposure, mismanagement and his own naive nature.
Hull was born in 1935 on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. His father Leonard was a jack-of-all-trades with an optimistic outlook on life and a succession of odd jobs. "Life at home was like a panto," Hull later recalled:
We were quite poor. My father never succeeded in anything, but that never worried him. Or me. Or my mother Hilda who was as he was and terribly proud of him. It was just Dad. Life to him was a giggle. He always gave me bags of love. And he taught me that as long as you've got a sparkle in your eye, life will be good.
The young Rod discovered the delights of Charles Dickens through The Pickwick Papers and made puppet theatres out of cornflake packets. Adopting his father's philosophy, Hull, who had a stammer and was a rather shy boy, decided to go on stage to conquer both problems. By the time he was 15, he had joined the local concert party where he met his first wife, Sandra, a hairdresser. They married six years later and had two daughters.
Having done his National Service in the Royal Air Force, Hull qualified as an electrician. In 1958, he and his family decided to follow his parents' example and emigrate to Australia. At first, Hull used his qualifications and designed floodlights for bowling greens but soon, he got a job as an electrician in a new television studio. Inevitably, Hull got the TV bug and began writing scripts for others before eventually hosting his own early morning children's show.
In 1969, the classic double act with the giant and uncontrollable Emu was born. "A viewer sent in a real emu's egg which I put on the radiator to hatch," explained Hull when asked about the genesis of this unlikely partnership. "A few weeks later, I was wondering what we could get to come out of the bloody thing when I came across Emu in the props room. I picked him up and the whole thing just took off." The flightless Australian bird - Dromaius Novachollandieae - looked like an ostrich but certainly didn't behave like one. In fact the animal had quite a bad temper and children immediately identified with the creature's mischievous character.
Hull supported the actor Warren Mitchell on a tour of Australia during which he met his second wife Cher, an artist. "I knew the moment I saw her that she was the woman for me. I felt an excitement I had never experienced before. I wanted her to be a part of me. She showed me the potential within myself," he said. Later, Cher and Rod wrote several children's books together in the series Emu's Little World.
In 1970, following the lead of many Australian-based entertainers from Rolf Harris to Olivia Newton-John, Hull, who "felt homesick", came back to Britain. Emu's unpredictable behaviour soon made Rod Hull a national institution. No respecter of authority or royalty, Emu ate the Queen Mother's bouquet at the Royal Variety Show in 1972. "She didn't bat an eyelid. Just looked very concerned and said: `I think your Emu is rather hungry'," revealed Hull.
Emu acted out a similar stunt on Michael Parkinson in 1976, wrestling the presenter to the ground and devouring his shoe. The British boxer John Conti looked on bemused; Hull and Emu wisely didn't pick on him. The clip remains a firm favourite with BBC archivists and compilers.
Like many puppeteers, Hull had a love-hate relationship with his creation. "I've never felt affection for Emu. He is just part of my work, like a word processor would be to someone else. But I'm grateful he brought me affluence," he said. Rod and Emu fronted a succession of popular television shows. Rod Hull and Emu paved the way for EBC (Emu's Broacasting Company) and later Emu's World, Emu's Wide World and EMU-TV. The pair fought Grotbags the evil witch in Emu's Pink Windmill, made several records, sold out the London Palladium on a regular basis, appeared on This Is Your Life and even created their own pantomime: Emu in Pantoland. "It was a wonderful time. Life could not have been better," remembered Hull, who, at the time, could command pounds 5,000 per show. Having appeared several times on the Royal Variety Show, Hull adapted the idea to his target audience and devised the first Children's Royal Variety Performance which he hosted in 1981.
However, he soon experienced difficulties similar to that of his fellow entertainer Ken Dodd. By 1986, Hull had become one of the highest paid entertainers on TV and bought Restoration House, a 32-roomed Elizabethan mansion in Rochester, Kent, which he hoped to restore to its original splendour. "We were trying to save it from being knocked down and replaced by a car park. I felt so proud that I - who was once a little child with a speech impediment - was able to restore such a historic place. Dickens, who writes about the house both in Great Expectations and The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, was my idol," said Hull, who played Fagin in several fund- raising productions of Oliver! at his children's public school.
However, the Eighties property boom bubble burst and, by the turn of the Nineties, Hull's pounds 350,000 investment became an albatross around his neck. An unscrupulous accountant didn't help. "I didn't realise how bad things were until I received a buff envelope from the taxman saying I hadn't paid tax for five years. Ever since I'd started in show business, I'd had the same person to manage my money. It was someone I trusted absolutely," he said.
When I phoned him to ask what was going on, he broke down and said he was very sorry, that he had mismanaged everything. At first, I couldn't believe it. Then I decided that I could either cry my heart out and feel sorry for myself or smile and get on with it.
The house was eventually requisitioned by the Receiver to help pay a huge tax bill and in October 1994, Hull was declared bankrupt.
Savings had to be made and the villa in Portugal also went, along with the Mercedes, the Bentley and the children's private education. A few weeks later, his wife Cher went back to Australia with the children. Rod Hull had hit rock bottom. A friend who worked at the National Trust offered Hull a dilapidated two-bedroom 1810 brick cottage near Rye in East Sussex. In 1997 he told the Daily Mail:
I could live cheaply if I renovated it. I have a much simpler life which I wish I'd discovered long ago. I've written a book of poems [The Reluctant Pote] and a novel and I sit in front of a log fire listening to classical music. I'm much more content than I've been for a long time. It's perhaps only when you've gone through what I have gone through what I have that you find true values. It's nothing to do with money, which doesn't buy you happiness. I think I had to go all the way down before I could find this lovely way of life. I just work to meet outgoings. Although I still enjoy performing, I've no more desire to be a success.
Hull received regular visits from his friend Spike Milligan, a near neighbour, enjoyed his beekeeping and played boules for his local pub team. Chainsmoking a pipe, he remained the optimist to the end. In late 1997, Hull was indeed discharged from bankruptcy and enjoyed something of a revival.
He turned on the Christmas Lights in Leeds and had a successful run in Windsor as Wishee Washee in Aladdin. A Rod Hull lookalike became the butt of a running joke of the alternative comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring on their show Fist of Fun. The real Rod Hull appeared in an episode of the BBC2 series to confront Kevin Eldon, his impersonator. Lee and Herring even tried to pull his tufty ginger hair off, to no avail.
Last year, during a feature on GMTV about children's favourites from the Seventies, Rod Hull and his snarling sidekick Emu reprised their mauling act and attacked the show's presenter Lorraine Kelly as they had Michael Parkinson. Keith Harris and Orville were the bemused bystanders this time.
In February this year, the Conservative Party made an ill-advised attempt to enlist his services, along with those of Jim Davidson. "I'm a Eurosceptic," admitted Hull. "But when it comes to politics, I'm not a member of the Conservative Party and I'm not a fan of William Hague. He doesn't have the drive and vision and he's not showbiz enough for my liking."
Rod Hull, television entertainer: born Isle of Sheppey, Kent 13 August 1935; twice married (two sons, three daughters, one step-daughter); died Winchelsea, East Sussex 17 March 1999.
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