Avril Angers

Comic actress described as 'a female Tony Hancock'

Saturday 19 November 2005 01:00

Avril Florence Angers, actress: born Liverpool 18 April 1922; died London 8 November 2005.

The actress, singer and comedienne Avril Angers had a long and impressive career that embraced stage, screen, television, radio and cabaret. Although never a top star, she was a reliable performer much in demand by stars and producers to bolster their supporting casts. Terry-Thomas, Victoria Wood and Les Dawson were among those who appreciated the contribution she could make to their work (she was once described as "a female Tony Hancock"), and she has earned a footnote in history, too, by being one of the cast of the first ever British television comedy series, How Do You View? (1949).

The BBC had made several attempts to find a comedy formula that would work on television and not be just a radio show with sets and costumes, and this showcase for the talents of gap-toothed comic Terry-Thomas, produced by Bill Ward with the inventive sketches written by the star himself, proved an enormous hit. Angers appeared on the show throughout its five series (with Sid Colin and Talbot Rothwell joining the writing team), mainly playing the recurring character of the canteen server Rosie Lee ("the girl with the tea").

Angers was born in Liverpool in 1922. Her father, Harry Angers, was a well-known comedian who appeared in two films, Oh for a Plumber (1933) and My Irish Molly (1938), and her mother, Lillian Erroll, was a veteran of concert parties and an original Fol-de-Rol.

An accomplished dancer by the time she was 14, Angers made her professional début in 1936 as part of a concert party troupe on the Palace Pier, Brighton, and the following year she was playing Cinderella in Birmingham. In 1940 she herself became a member of the Fol-de-Rols, before appearing with Ensa for most of the Second World War years.

She made her West End début in the revue Keep Going (1944), but first made a major impact when the following year Leslie Henson brought Henson's Gaieties, a show with which he had been entertaining the troops, to the Winter Garden Theatre. Heavily revising the show for London audiences, he signed Angers as leading lady, other cast members including Carroll Gibbons and his Orchestra and Graham Payn. Angers was described by one critic as "a Betty Hutton with a sophisticated subtlety".

Much of her stage work thereafter was outside London - she was Miss Prue in Love for Love (1949) in Worthing, and in 1950 she starred as Billie Dawn (the role created on Broadway by Judy Holliday) in an Isle of Man production of Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday. She also made frequent appearances in pantomime.

Already a prolific radio performer, her role in How Do You View? made her equally in demand for television. In 1954 Bill Ward, Sid Colin and Talbot Rothwell reunited four members of the earlier show - Angers, Janet Brown, Peter Butterworth and Benny Lee - in Friends and Neighbours, in which the foursome played two married couples who live next to each other in flats converted in a large Victorian house.

Later, in 1954, she was given her own show, Dear Dotty, set in the offices of a women's magazine, in which she was a minor employee whose efforts to become a journalist result in a series of comic misadventures. Dear Dotty is credited with making Angers the first comedienne to have her own story-line series on television.

On stage, Angers toured for a time with the popular talent show hosted by Carroll Levis, and she made her screen début with Levis in the comedy-thriller The Brass Monkey (1948). Playing herself, and given co-star billing, she had what would, ironically, be her most substantial screen role. As Levis's scatterbrained secretary, she emulated Gracie Allen, though much of the material was weak. She did, however, provide one of the film's highlights with her Huttonesque rendition of a splendid piece of special material, "Home Sweet Home", written for her by Steve Race and Sid Colin, in which she sang of the noisy neighbours in the apartment building to which she had just moved.

Angers's other films included Miss Pilgrim's Progress (1949), The Green Man (1956) with Alastair Sim and George Cole, Two a Penny (1967) with Cliff Richard, and There's a Girl in My Soup (1970), with Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn. Her roles were generally small but given a zestful spark by her skilled playing. One of her best roles was that of Hayley Mills's shrewish mother in the screen version of Bill Naughton's play The Family Way (1966), about a young married couple beset by family problems. Mills said, "I have great affection for The Family Way . . . working with my father, and darling Avril Angers as my mum."

In 1964, Angers returned to the West End in one of her finest stage roles, that of the flamboyant fictitious screen star Belle Poitrine, whose memoirs are the subject of the show, Little Me, with songs by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. Neil Simon, who wrote the libretto based on the book by Patrick Dennis, conceived the idea of having all Belle's seven lovers played by one actor - on Broadway Sid Caesar, and in London Bruce Forsyth. Although Forsyth won most of the principal acclaim with his tour-de-force performance, Angers was highly lauded, and was particularly effective in her opening song, "The Truth" in which she promises that her book will tell all ("With the areas I'll expose, I'll annihilate Gypsy Rose"), and in a show-stopping rendition of the title song, duetted with her younger self (Eileen Gourlay).

Her last West End appearance was in another Broadway musical, Crazy for You (1996), with songs by the Gershwins. Her later television appearances included Dad's Army (in which she played a telephone operator in two episodes), The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served?, Minder, Dangerous Davies: the last detective and, in 1994, the series Common as Muck.

Tom Vallance

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