Stan Stennett: Actor, comedian and musician whose varied career took in working with Max Miller and appearing in 'Crossroads'

 

Thursday 28 November 2013 01:00
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Stennett: he began his career on guitar and trumpet with Joe Loss and Ted Heath
Stennett: he began his career on guitar and trumpet with Joe Loss and Ted Heath

The veteran comic entertainer Stan Stennett's 60-year career as a musician and actor began with Workers' Playtime in the postwar period and ended with bit parts in television shows as late as 2010, when he made a brief appearance in Ruth Jones' comedy-drama Stella. After serving with the Royal Artillery, he began as a jazz trumpeter and guitarist with the Harmoniacs, playing with the Joe Loss and Ted Heath bands, and was resident comedian on Welsh Rarebit and The Black and White Minstrel Show.

His first appearances as a comedian were with Max Miller in the late 1940s. Over the next two decades he worked with most of the famous names of British and American showbiz, including Billy Daniels, Johnny Ray, Chico Marx, James Cagney, Morecambe and Wise, Ken Dodd, Ronnie Corbett and Jon Pertwee. This was a boom time for variety shows as the rigours of the war gave way to comparative affluence and a more relaxed attitude to popular entertainment, and he was rarely out of work thereafter.

By 1970 he had appeared with the Minstrels seven times, helping to win the Golden Rose award at the Montreux Festival, and had worked with comedians such as George Chisholm and Leslie Crowther. It was in this way he learned his craft as a stage comedian with a talent for playing the fool, in particular for making children laugh. His first appearance in pantomime was at the Grand Theatre, Swansea, in Little Red Riding Hood.

With a humour that was broad, warm and clean, he went through the traditional routines of which children never tire, and his singalongs and rhyming ditties brought smiles to the faces of their parents and teachers as well. One of his most popular acts was as Billy and Bonzo, in which he played both the gormless Billy and his rascal pooch Bonzo. By this simple device he was able to make comedy that was spellbinding, surreal and sometimes moving. He held the record of having appeared in pantomime for five consecutive years at Cardiff's New Theatre.

Stan Stennett was born in Cardiff in 1925 and lived there for most of his life. His mother died in childbirth and he was brought up by his grandmother in Gorseinon, near Swansea, a city which was to hold a warm place in his affections. His ambition to work on the stage was first fired by listening to radio programmes on the Welsh Home Service, particularly shows like Mai Jones's Welsh Rarebit. Like so many of his generation, he was shaped by the war and its aftermath and always took the view that the pictures were much better on the wireless. His one-man show Bless 'Em All, a compendium of wartime nostalgia, was a huge success among those who could remember the Blitz, the black-out and rationing.

But it was television that gave him his break as an actor. He appeared in Coronation Street in 1960 and in several broadcasts of Play for Today. In 1971 he had a part as an American GI on the run from the military police who holds up Tish Hope at her cottage in Crossroads; it was among the more gripping episodes of that soap opera and showed him capable of playing more serious parts than he had hitherto been given. Unfortunately, the gunman was sentenced to 20 years in jail and so he never appeared in the part again.

He made a return to Coronation Street in 1976 as Hilda Ogden's brother, Archie Crabtree, and in 1982 he returned to Crossroads as the garage mechanic Sid Hooper. It was not intended to last long but, in the event he played Sid until 1987. He also played Cyril Fuller in Heartbeat in 1999 and Wally Brindle in Casualty in 2002. In 2007 he played alongside Lee Evans in the television adaptation of Mr Polly.

At various times Stennett managed theatres in Tewkesbury, Hereford, Caerffili and Porthcawl. In 1984 he was at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, where he was interviewing his friend Eric Morecambe about his career. The idea was to get Morecambe to sit quietly on stage at the end of the show; instead he rushed about pretending to play all the instruments in the band, after which he suffered a heart attack, his third, and collapsed in the wings as the curtain came down, dying later in hospital.

His hobby was aviation: he held a private pilot's licence and was named Flyer of the Year by the Royal Aeronautical Club in 1955. He was the subject of This Is Your Life and in 1979 was awarded the MBE for his services to the entertainment industry and his patronage of many charities in south Wales. He was particularly proud of his association with the Grand Order of Water Rats and with the Cardiff College of Music and Drama, where he was given a Fellowship. In 1998 his house was partly destroyed by fire and his huge collection of memorabilia lost, which seemed to dash his fans' hopes of a memoir. In 2010, however, he published his autobiography, Fully Booked. The last time I saw him was in a queue at a chip shop in north Cardiff where, extrovert as ever before an audience, however small, he was making customers grin at his wisecracks.

MEIC STEPHENS

Stanley Stennett, musician, comedian and actor: born Cardiff 30 July 1925; MBE 1979; married Elizabeth (two sons); died Cardiff 26 November 2013.

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