Henry McGee

Television straight man to Benny Hill and Charlie Drake

Anthony Hayward
Thursday 02 February 2006 01:00

Henry Marris-McGee (Henry McGee), actor: born London 14 May 1929; died London 28 January 2006.

In 20 years of playing the straight man to television's cheekiest clown in The Benny Hill Show, Henry McGee, with his well-rounded vowels and snappy suits, became one of the most familiar faces on the small screen. He would often be seen in the role of "the interviewer", putting searching questions of the day to Hill's character Fred Scuttle about the bespectacled nitwit's latest brainwave or asking the Chinaman Chow Mein for his observations on life in Britain. It was also most frequently McGee's voice, in "announcer" mode, that introduced the programmes with the upbeat "Yes . . . it's The Benny Hill Show!"

The series relied on saucy, seaside-postcard humour and it was derided by some for its innuendo and double entendre. Others claimed that Hill showed genius as a writer and performer, with his spoofs of well-known films and television programmes, and a real talent for word-play in patter songs and poems.

When the raunchy dance group Hill's Angels were added to the entertainment mix, which owed a debt to the comedian's background in variety, Hill was accused of sexism for putting scantily clad young women on screen alongside his own lecherous, leering characters, but he countered that he was the one who ended up being chased by them. The chases reached a climax at the end of every show, with speeded-up pictures of Hill legging it away, accompanied by the frantic theme tune "Yakety Sax".

McGee sported a false beard to parody Kenny Everett with a provocative dance troupe in a sketch entitled "Hot Gossamer", and was seen as Two Ton Ted from Teddington, the bread-delivery man competing for the affections of a widow with the local milkman, in the promotional film for Hill's No 1 single, "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" (1971).

Born in Kensington, London, in 1929, McGee was the son of a Rolls-Royce engineer. His mother came from a theatrical family dating back to a leading 18th-century comedy actress and singer, Kitty Clive, who was a member of the actor-manager David Garrick's original company at the Drury Lane Theatre.

McGee's father died when he was 17, so he abandoned ideas of becoming a doctor on leaving Stonyhurst College. After National Service as a wireless operator at the Admiralty in Whitehall, he trained at the Italia Conti Stage Academy, aided by a government grant, and while there made his professional début carrying a spear in a visiting Comédie-Française production at the St James's Theatre. After a season of Shakespearean productions at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, and repertory in Northampton, he then spent two years on stage in Australia with the J.C. Williamson organisation, starting in For Better, For Worse.

Returning to Britain, he appeared on the West End stage in the Félicien Marceau comedy The Egg at the Saville Theatre in 1957. Later, his ability to remain deadpan made him ideal to play in stage farces, such as Uproar in the House (in which he took over the lead role from Nicholas Parsons at the Whitehall Theatre, 1968-69), Run for Your Wife (Whitehall Theatre, 1989-90), It Runs in the Family (Playhouse Theatre, 1992-93), Funny Money (Playhouse Theatre, 1995) and The School for Wives (Piccadilly Theatre, 1997).

He made his film début, uncredited, as a soldier in Seven Days to Noon (1950) and was subsequently seen on the big screen in Sailor Beware! (1956), an adaptation of the hit West End show starring Peggy Mount, as a rector in Fanatic (1965), a tailor in the heist picture The Italian Job (1969), a television announcer in Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973), a holiday-camp manager in Holiday on the Buses (1973) and Officer Bardot in Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978).

As the British film industry entered a bleak decade in the 1970s, McGee was one of many who took roles that they probably later regretted in sex comedies and soft-porn films, including The Cherry-picker (1972), Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976), Come Play with Me (1977) and Carry On Emmannuelle (1978).

Before becoming well known on television for comedy, he regularly played character roles, often as villains, in crime series. His first excursion into screen farce was in the six-part Paris 1900 (1964), as one of the resident cast performing Feydeau classics.

McGee first worked with Benny Hill in 1968 during the comedian's final series at the BBC, after 13 successful years. When the star switched to ITV, although Nicholas Parsons sometimes played his stooge, that role was most often taken by McGee, who appeared in 45 of the 58 shows between 1969 and 1989. The Benny Hill Show was finally axed by Thames Television amid claims of sexism, a backlash created by the new wave of "alternative" comedians, such as Ben Elton, and complaints to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Plans for a revival to be made by Central Television were scuppered when Hill died of a heart attack in 1992. McGee described him as "a most extraordinary, ordinary man who gave the world's funnybone a tweak and sent it spinning on its way".

Sitcoms were McGee's other regular screen outlet. He created his most memorable character in The Worker as Mr Pugh (1966-70), the Labour Exchange counter clerk desperately trying to find work every week for Charlie Drake. McGee joined for the second series and the joke was that the diminutive Drake could not pronounce his name, referring to him as "Mr Pee-yew", and the seething official often pulled him up off the ground by the scruff of his neck.

McGee also played Ronnie Corbett's sniffy neighbour in suburbia who commutes with him to their office jobs in No - That's Me Over Here (1967-70) and starred as the Cocker's Components factory boss Dicky Bligh in Up the Workers (1973-76), created by Lance Percival.

Other comedians he appeared with were Frankie Howerd, Reg Varney, Eric Sykes and Jimmy Tarbuck, and many viewers will recall him alongside the Honey Monster in Sugar Puffs commercials.

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