Obituary: Leslie Crowther

William G. Stewart
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:13

Leslie Crowther was a great British all-rounder: straight actor, situation-comedy star, children's entertainer, game-show host, after-dinner speaker and tireless charity-worker.

He was born in Nottingham in 1933 and, though he moved to London in his teens, he never lost touch with the city which always knew him as a local boy made good. I knew him for 30 years, and the British public has known him even longer. There was no public image and separate private person about Leslie Crowther - they were one and the same person.

He made his first appearance on television in 1953 at the age of 20. The rest of the 1950s were spent consolidating a career that, over the next 30 years, seldom saw him without a major role or series in which he starred.

He spent most of the 1960s with the BBC. In his early television work (Hi Summer, Crackerjack, The Black and White Minstrel Show, The Billy Cotton Band Show), his experience in revue stood him in good stead. He polished his skills in comedy sketches and musical items (he was a moderately accomplished pianist) and his to- camera work in stand-up routines was natural and relaxed.

It was this relaxed approach, together with his ability to ad-lib, that led to his being chosen to present the hugely successful children's show Crackerjack, the BBC Christmas Morning Hospital programme, and his own programmes on radio (Crowther's Crowd; Variety Playhouse) and on television, Crowther Takes A Look. In 1969 he appeared in Let Sleeping Wives Lie at the Garrick Theatre in London.

In the 1970s he presented his own variety series, Crowther's In Town, and The Leslie Crowther Show (LWT), again mixing comedy and music. His talents as a comedy actor gave him his own ratings-topping situation-comedy series My Good Woman and Big Boy Now (ATV).

In the 1980s he was a highly acclaimed Chesney Allen in Bud 'n' Ches (with Bernie Winters as Bud Flanagan), and he had five years as presenter of the game-show of the 1980s, The Price Is Right (Central). His invitation to unsuspecting members of a frenetic studio audience to "come on down" to play numbers-games based on prices for huge prizes, found its way into the language. All over the country second-hand car dealers (especially) hung banners across their forecourts with the slogan "Come On Down to [whoever]: The Price is Right!"

When The Price Is Right came to an end in 1988, after 100 one-hour programmes, Granada picked Crowther up to present their new talent show Stars In Their Eyes.

Throughout all this time, hardly a year went by without his starring in a summer season or Christmas pantomime somewhere around the country (including the London Palladium), and through the same period he somehow found time for a prodigious amount of work for charity.

I first came across him at the BBC in the early 1960s, when I was an Assistant Floor Manager on The Black and White Minstrel Show. My real friendship with him, however, began in 1970 when I produced The Leslie Crowther Show for LWT.

Crowther was a very easy, uncomplicated person to be friends with, and to work with. One keeps coming back to the phrase "he was always the same". Because he was. Friendly, enthusiastic, slightly noisy, and reliable.

Professionally, he never seemed flustered nor unsettled. Whatever he was doing he'd arrive (always wearing a tie and jacket - I cannot remember seeing him at work in an open-necked shirt and sweater) well-prepared, knowing his lines, or whatever else was required, the Times crossword nearly complete.

His rapport with television crews and backstage theatre staff was well- known. He had as much time for them as he did for his producer or director. If he felt in safe hands he was easy to direct. He knew his trade, made his contribution, and got on with his job. He had a disarming and attractive admiration for other people's talents - especially those he called "real actors".

One of my firmest memories of him from that time was his enormous professional generosity. Two incidents come to mind. On his 1970 London Weekend series, a very nervous Larry Grayson, making his first-ever television appearance, overran his six-minute spot to 11 minutes.

I suggested to Crowther that we cut one short sketch of his, thus retaining nine minutes of Larry Grayson. Crowther asked to see Grayson's piece, and immediately said, "Take my long sketch out, we can do it next week, and leave Larry's spot intact."

I also remember warning him that having a small repertory company which included Albert Modley, Arthur English and Chic Murray on the show each week was like breaking the "never appear with children or dogs" rule three times. The three of them were born scene-stealers - Chic Murray really did once read the telephone directory, to enormous laughs. Crowther's response was simply, "If it makes for a better show, try and get Lassie too."

I have never known anyone who enjoyed what he was doing more than Crowther. He simply just loved his contact with people, whether they were an audience or not. When he put his arm around a middle-aged woman on a game-show, and called her "duck" (from his Nottingham upbringing), he meant it. Leslie Crowther and his audience were made for each other.

Privately, he was a kind man; and understanding of other people's shortcomings. He hardly had a bad word to say about anyone, and, if a strong case could be found for putting someone down, he'd find the single redeeming thing to be said in their defence.

He was also very intelligent and inquisitive. Behind the "Come on down", and bright eyes and wide grin of the game- show host, was an alert mind. Intellectual games interested him; but then he also loved English seaside-postcard humour.

His work for charity was a major part of his life. The Stars' Organisation for Spastics and the Lord's Taverners (of which he was President 1991-92) were the high-profile side of this work. But Leslie Crowther did not need a major function nor the presence of a mem- ber of the Royal Family to turn up.

Literally hundreds of small local charities could rely on his arriving alone and unpublicised to open a new play-group, knock over a pile of pennies, or draw a raffle. In the months we spent together in Nottingham, he rarely did less than three of these "locals" (as he called them) in a week.

Crowther's private passion was cricket: it was the only thing he'd ever suggest that rehearsals might possibly be worked around.

The much-publicised problems in his private life hurt him deeply, but he kept the hurt to himself. He was sustained by a quiet Christian faith and a family which, for all its problems, supported each other against whatever they had to face. His wife Jean was his rock; his best friend.

William G. Stewart

Leslie Douglas Sargent Crowther, actor and comedian: born Nottingham 6 February 1933; CBE 1993; married 1954 Jean Stone (one son; four daughters), died Bath 28 September 1996.

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