Date of Birth: 1 April 1932, El Paso, Texas, USA
Birth Name: Mary Frances Raynolds
Nickname: Debbie Raynolds
When Debbie Reynolds, wearing a skimpy pink flapper’s dress, burst out of an enormous cake at a Hollywood party in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), she simultaneously burst into screen stardom.
In fact, it was the sixth film appearance of Reynolds, who has died aged 84, but her first starring role. The casting of the inexperienced 19 year old was a risk taken by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the co-directors of the classic MGM musical about the early days of talkies. The gamble paid off, but not without some sweat and strain.
“There were times when Debbie was more interested in playing the French horn somewhere in the San Fernando Valley or attending a Girl Scout meeting,” Kelly recalled. “She didn’t realise she was a movie star all of a sudden.” Reynolds herself admitted later: “I was so confused. It seemed dumb to me reporting to the studio at 6am, six days a week and shooting till midnight. I didn’t know anything about show business.
“I learned a lot from Gene,” she added. “He is a perfectionist and a disciplinarian the most exacting director I’ve ever worked for every so often, he would yell at me and make me cry. But it took a lot of patience for him to work with someone who had never danced before. It’s amazing that I could keep up with him and Donald O’Connor. This little girl from Burbank sure had a lot of spirit.”
Daughter of Maxene (nee Harmon) and Ray Reynolds, she was born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas. Her father was a railroad mechanic and carpenter, who lost his job at the height of the Great Depression. After living from hand to mouth for a while, the family moved to Burbank, California when her father got a job with the Southern Pacific railroad. While at high school, Reynolds entered and won the Miss Burbank beauty contest. One of the requirements was “talent”, which she fulfilled by lip-syncing to a record of Betty Huttonsinging I’m a Square in the Social Circle, which earned her a Warner Bros contract. (It was Jack Warner who gave her the name of Debbie.) But after a bit part in the Bette Davis comedy June Bride (1948), and playing June Haver’s bubbly young sister in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), she took up a contract with MGM, where she flourished, on and off, throughout the 50s and early 60s.
Prior to Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds was noticed, in what amounted to a cameo, lip-syncing I Wanna Be Loved By You to the singer Helen Kane’s voice in Three Little Words (1950). In Two Weeks with Love (1950), as a younger sister again, this time Jane Powell’s, the cute 5 ft 2in Reynolds stopped the show with the 6ft 3in Carleton Carpenter in two numbers: Abba Dabba Honeymoon and Row, Row, Row, with her nifty tap dancing belying her statements of never having danced before Singin’ in the Rain.
Reynolds’s lively opening Charleston number in her breakthrough film has her singing and dancing All I Do Is Dream of You with a dozen other chorus girls; she keeps up brilliantly with Kelly and O’Connor in the cheery matinal greeting Good Mornin’, danced and sung around a living room even though during some of the more challenging steps, she stands by and lets the two men dance around her and she is touching in the lyrical duet You Were Meant For Me with Kelly, who switches on coloured lights and a gentle wind machine on a sound stage to create a make-believe atmosphere.
In the plot, a silent screen star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, unforgettable), has a risibly squeaky voice for sound movies and, unknown to the public, is dubbed by Kathy Selden (Reynolds). In reality, however, Debbie’s singing voice was dubbed by the uncredited Betty Noyes, and Hagen herself provided the speaking voice for Debbie, dubbing her on screen because Reynolds was then handicapped by what Donen called “that terrible western noise”.
An effervescent Reynolds went on to star in a series of charming youthful musicals, this time using her own pleasant singing voice. I Love Melvin (1953) was one of the best, with Reynolds paired again with O’Connor. The film opens with A Lady Loves, a musical dream sequence in which Debbie sees herself as a big movie star courted by Robert Taylor. This gives her a chance to be classy, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Later she features in a witty acrobatic number entitled Saturday Afternoon Before the Game in which she is dressed as a ball being tossed around by a football team.
There followed The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Give a Girl a Break (both 1953), Susan Slept Here, Athena (both 1954), Hit the Deck and The Tender Trap (both 1955). In the latter, a romantic comedy, Frank Sinatra is a confirmed bachelor and Reynolds is determined to trap him into marriage. In the same year, 23-year-old Reynolds married the 27-year-old crooner Eddie Fisher. They became the darlings of the fan magazines, and co-starred in Bundle of Joy (1956), a feeble musical remake of the 1939 Ginger Rogers David Niven comedy, which capitalised on their personalities as a happy young couple and the rumours of her pregnancy. (Reynolds gave birth to a daughter, Carrie, in October 1956.)
Meanwhile with the film musical in a moribund state, Reynolds showed that she could get by in straight acting roles, the first proof being in The Catered Affair (1956), a slice of Hollywood realism, with Reynolds as the daughter of working class parents (Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine). This failed at the box office, unlike Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), which was one of Reynolds’s greatest successes, the theme song of which (“I hear the cottonwoods whisp’rin’ above, Tammy! Tammy! Tammy’s in love!”) remained high in the hit parade for months. This entertaining piece of whimsy gave Reynolds, as a backwoods girl in love with a wealthy man (Leslie Nielsen), what was an archetypal role a naive girl thrust into a sophisticated world and triumphing.
In 1957, Eddie and Debbie were best man and matron of honour at the wedding in Acapulco of Fisher’s lifelong friend the impresario Mike Todd to Elizabeth Taylor. A little over a year later, Todd was killed in a plane crash, and Taylor sought solace in Fisher’s arms, causing a huge Hollywood scandal. Taylor, who had been cast as the Grieving Widow, now found herself in the role of the Vamp, while Reynolds was widely and sympathetically portrayed as the Wronged Woman. However, the outraged moralistic public was unaware that the Fisher-Reynolds marriage was already in tatters, although they continued to play America’s sweethearts in public, mainly because Debbie was pregnant with their son Todd (named after Mike) and they were worried that divorce would damage their popularity ratings. But divorce was inevitable and, on 12 May 1959, Taylor, who had converted to Judaism when she married Todd, married Fisher at a synagogue in Las Vegas.
Despite being the divorced mother of two small children, Reynolds was never more active. In 1959, she was among the top 10 Hollywood box office stars and appeared four movies that year: The Mating Game, Say One for Me, The Gazebo and It Started With a Kiss. None were world-beaters, but they got by on her effortless charm.
In November 1960, Reynolds married the millionaire shoe store magnate Harry Karl, and pursued her career with added vigour, though her roles hardly varied, whether she was playing Fred Astaire’s nubile daughter in The Pleasure of His Company or a feisty young widow with two children in The Second Time Around (both 1961) or a pioneer woman in the sprawling Cinerama western How the West Was Won (1962), in which she is the only character who makes it through from the first reel to the last, ageing from 16 to 90.
In The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), for which she was Oscar nominated, Reynolds throws herself around energetically in the title role of the backwoods girl (shades of Tammy, but with added robustness) who enters high society and survives the Titanic, displaying everything she had learned from past musicals, especially in the dance numbers Belly Up to the Bar, Boys and I Ain’t Down Yet.
After playing a man resurrected as a woman in the tiresome Goodbye Charlie (1964), and the title role in The Singing Nun (1966), the mawkish biopic of the guitar strumming Belgian nun who composed the hit song Dominique, she finally managed to bid farewell to her ingenue “tomboy” persona and portray a mature adult in Divorce American Style (1967). A rare Hollywood comedy with teeth, it cast Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke against type as a squabbling couple, who utter not a word as they prepare for bed in the best sequence. “That was a really hard part to get,” Reynolds commented. “The producer didn’t want me. He didn’t think I could play an ordinary married woman. I think he thought I had to be all ‘diva’d up’ and in a musical.”
When Reynolds, now in her mid-30s, saw her film career gradually slowing to a virtual halt, she reinvented herself as a cabaret performer, appearing most frequently on stage in Las Vegas. Reynolds also shifted her attention to US television starting with 18 episodes of The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969-70), a sitcom resembling I Love Lucy, in which she played a suburban housewife with ambitions to become a newspaper reporter. She continued to appear regularly on TV for the next four decades. What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971), a campy murder tale set in 1930s Hollywood in which Reynolds and Shelley Winters run a school for budding Shirley Temples, would be her last feature film for 20 years.
By the early 1970s, her marriage to Karl was heading for the rocks, mainly because of his infidelities but also because he had gambled away both their fortunes. Luckily, Reynolds was still bankable and, immediately after her divorce in 1973, she made her Broadway debut in a revival of the 1919 musical hit Irene. The show, which ran for 18 months, gained Reynolds a Tony nomination, and was the first of several stage musicals she would appear in over the years: Annie Get Your Gun, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Woman of the Year among them.
Reynolds returned to the big screen in the 90s, where she showed that she had lost none of her comic timing playing a number of sweet-voiced monster mums, having maintained her doll-like looks. These included Albert Brooks’s Mother (1996), her first leading film role for 27 years, In & Out (1997) and Zack and Reba (1998), as well as appearing in 10 episodes of Will and Grace on TV, portraying Grace’s mother, a would-be star whose propensity for breaking out into show tunes and impressions dismays her daughter. Reynolds was also known as Princess Leia’s mother, after Carrie Fisher found fame in the Star Wars movies.
Aside from performing, Reynolds had many other interests. In 1991, she bought a hotel and casino in Las Vegas, where she displayed part of her extensive collection of vintage Hollywood props, sets and costumes. But after her marriage to the real-estate developer Richard Hamlett ended in 1996, she was forced to declare bankruptcy the following year. She later reopened her museum in Hollywood. Reynolds was also an indefatigable fund-raiser for The Thalians (a charitable organisation that provides mental health services from pediatrics to geriatrics in Los Angeles).
Date of Birth: 21 October 1956, Burbank, California, USA
Birth Name: Carrie Frances Fisher
Nickname: Carrie Fisher
Carrie might well have had an entire career eclipsed after playing one of the leads in the most successful movie franchise of all time. Fisher’s portrayal of the intergalactic rebel leader Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars series certainly made her a household name: “In the street, they call out, ‘Hey, Princess!’, which makes me feel like a poodle.” But the films never defined her as they did some of her co-stars.
If anything, her bristling humour and intellect made it seem in retrospect as though she had been rather slumming it in those trumped-up B-movies. Certainly the snappy writing in her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge (1987) was light years ahead of anything she ever had to say on screen as Leia. She was unimpressed about her role in the first Star Wars (1977): “A lot of it was just running down corridors.”
It came as no surprise, then, that she enjoyed a successful writing career alongside her increasingly intermittent acting appearances, with other novels including Surrender the Pink (1990) and Delusions of Grandma (1993). Her most recent book, The Princess Diarist (2016), drew on diaries she wrote while shooting the first Star Wars film in 1976 and included the revelation that she and her married co-star Harrison Ford had been romantically involved.
Anyone lacking Fisher’s tenacity would surely have been capsized by a Hollywood childhood marked by turbulence and scandal. Her parents, the actors Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, divorced when she was 18 months old; her father ran off with Elizabeth Taylor while her mother turned to drink. Fisher grew up to have difficult relationships with each parent. As a child, she rarely saw her father; as an adult, they took cocaine together. Her arguments with her mother could be cataclysmic. As a teenager, Fisher once threw milk in Reynolds’s lap; Reynolds responded by putting baked beans in Fisher’s hair.
If anything, Fisher’s difficult background made her seem impossibly savvy and whip-smart. “I was going to be this nonchalant, seemingly tough kid,” she wrote in 1991. “I was going to handle it. I was going to put my head down and get through it as quickly as possible and get out.”
She gave off the impression of having no illusions about love, family or fame, and yet she would always be charmingly frank and self-deprecating about why another of her relationships or marriages had run aground her marriages to the singer Paul Simon and the agent Bryan Lourd each ended in divorce or why she had fallen prey to extended bouts of drug addiction.
She spoke widely of her bipolar disorder, declared herself “Joan of Narc, patron saint of addicts”, claimed that therapy had been “my only serious relationship” and said of relationships: “Sex is out of my element. I’m much more successful during the cigarette.”
It was this mix of candour, sweetness and wit that prevented her from appearing bitter. No matter how hard her life was, or how poor some of her personal choices had been, her wry observations always seemed suffused with hope. She was no cynic.
Fisher was born and raised in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, and lived in the media glare from an early age. The first published photograph of her, in Life magazine, was taken when she was just two hours old. She was educated at Beverly Hills high school and began putting on razzle dazzle performances at friends’ barmitzvahs at the age of 13. By 15, her mother had roped her into performing alongside her, first in her nightclub act and then in 1973 on Broadway in the musical Irene. Fisher then enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
“She never played a grand game or pulled rank,” her classmate, the actor and director Selina Cadell, told the Guardian in 2015. “She was just a lovely person with this amazing sense of humour. We think of sharp, witty people as being very resilient but she had a striking softness and vulnerability.”
In 1975, Fisher made a brief but memorable film debut propositioning Warren Beatty in the satire Shampoo, before landing her big break on Star Wars, where she sported a hairstyle she described as “hairy earphones”. She was already drinking heavily and taking drugs (cocaine, LSD, Percodan) and her addiction only intensified, along with her fame, following the colossal success of the movie and its immediate sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), in which there was less running along corridors and more sparkling banter, particularly between her and Ford.
She later explained that drugs “managed something in me that I was too lazy to manage on my own, this thundering emotion and verbal excitement that would roar out of me. It still can: I can still take a dinner party hostage but I try not to.”
She had her stomach pumped after overdosing on Percodan in 1985. “I’m glad they did it,” she said, “because that was a very powerful piece of evidence that drugs and I had to part ways.” That incident, and a subsequent month-long spell in rehab, formed the basis for Postcards from the Edge. The novel was filmed by Mike Nichols in 1990 from Fisher’s own screenplay, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine playing characters based on the author and her mother respectively. She was also a highly paid Hollywood script doctor; films that benefited from her uncredited polishes or rewrites including Sister Act (1992), The Last Action Hero (1993), The River Wild (1994) and The Wedding Singer (1998).
Her non-Star Wars film appearances were sporadic and not especially notable, with the exception of parts in The Blues Brothers (1980), Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars (2014). In the last of these, in which she played herself, her face seemed oddly immobile, though rumours that she had undergone plastic surgery were never confirmed.
She was, however, an outspoken critic of Hollywood’s treatment of women, and revealed that she had been asked to lose weight to play Leia both in the original Star Wars and the seventh instalment, The Force Awakens (2015), nearly 40 years later. “They don’t want to hire all of me only about three-quarters! Nothing changes, it’s an appearance-driven thing. I’m in a business where the only thing that matters is weight and appearance. That is so messed up. They might as well say get younger, because that’s how easy it is.”
Latterly she had become a much-loved figure on social media along with her French bulldog Gary, whose Twitter account had around 16,000 followers to her 1.13m. She also had an acerbic cameo in the acclaimed Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe. Although Fisher did not shoot any new footage for the Star Wars prequel-cum-spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), she made a surprise appearance at the end of the movie in digitally manipulated footage drawn from her 1977 performance, and had recently finished production on Star Wars Episode VIII, to be released in December 2017.
Date of Birth: 25 June 1963 East Finchley, London, UK
Birth Name: Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou
Nickname: George Michael
George Michael was Britain’s biggest pop star of the 1980s, first with the pop duo Wham! and then as a solo artist. After Wham! made their initial chart breakthrough with the single Young Guns (Go for It) in 1982, Michael’s songwriting gift brought them giant hits including Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and I’m Your Man, and they became leading lights of the 80s boom in British pop music, alongside Culture Club and Duran Duran. His first solo album, Faith (1987), sold 25m copies, and Michael sold more than 100m albums worldwide with Wham! and under his own name.
Michael remained a major figure in the music industry even when his record releases slowed to a trickle in the later part of his career, and a loyal fan base ensured that his concert tours always sold out. However, from the late 1990s onwards he was beset by a string of personal crises and clashes with the law caused by drug use. He had always felt ambivalent about the demands of stardom, and found it difficult to balance his celebrity status with his private life. After years of concealing his homosexuality, he eventually came out in 1998, after being arrested for engaging in a “lewd act” in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills, California.
He was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in Finchley, north London. His father was a Greek Cypriot restaurateur, Kyriacos Panayiotou, who had married Lesley Angold, an English dancer. The family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire, and George attended Bushey Meads school, where he became close friends with Andrew Ridgeley. The pair formed a ska-influenced quintet, the Executive, in 1979, then in 1981 re-emerged as a duo, Wham!. They recorded some demos of their songs (written by Michael), and were promptly signed by the independent label Innervision.
Their debut release was the single Wham Rap! in June 1982, one of the first singles by a British group to include rapping. It didn’t chart, but the follow-up, Young Guns (Go for It), in October 1982 reached No 3, thanks to a timely appearance on Top of the Pops featuring a nightclub-style dance routine by the Wham! duo and backing singers Shirlie Holliman and Dee C Lee. Wham Rap! was reissued as Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) and shot into the top 10, where it was followed by Bad Boys and Club Tropicana in 1983.
With Wham! blossoming into a full-scale phenomenon, their debut album Fantastic (1983) charged to the top of the charts. Wham! were now battling with Culture Club to be top act in Britain’s so-called “new pop” boom.
Michael and Ridgeley had become aware that their Innervision contract was bringing them a very poor return on their efforts, and having signed a deal with the Sony subsidiary Columbia Records for America, they chose to forfeit royalties from their debut album to sign with CBS (later bought by Sony) worldwide.
The decision proved wise, as their second album, Make It Big (1984), turned them into a global success story, spinning off singles such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Careless Whisper, Freedom and Everything She Wants. In 1985, Wham! achieved a massive publicity coup by becoming the first western pop group to visit the People’s Republic of China. The visit was filmed by the director Lindsay Anderson as Foreign Skies: Wham! In China (1986).
However, Michael was already eyeing up a solo future. Despite being included on Make It Big, Careless Whisper was credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael” in the US and was issued as a Michael solo single in other territories. By the time Wham! called it a day with a spectacular final concert at Wembley Stadium in June 1986, Michael had already released his first solo single, the chart-topping A Different Corner. Music from the Edge of Heaven (1986) was the final Wham! album, and The Edge of Heaven their farewell single.
Michael topped the charts again in early 1987 with a duet with Aretha Franklin, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), and that autumn released his first solo album, Faith, to critical and commercial acclaim. Produced, written and arranged by Michael, it spawned hits including I Want Your Sex (considered too explicit by some radio stations), Faith, Father Figure and Kissing a Fool. In 1988 Michael set out on a world tour, which was a major commercial success but left him feeling exhausted, isolated and dubious about the entire rigmarole of superstardom.His follow-up disc, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1, did not appear until 1990, and signalled Michael’s preoccupation with becoming recognised as a serious adult artist. Though Praying for Time brought him a chart-topping single in the US and the album reached No 1 in the UK, the level of sales was substantially lower than for Faith. He hardly helped his case by refusing to appear in any of the videos for the album’s singles. For the video for Freedom ’90, he recruited a batch of supermodels, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, to lip sync the lyrics in his place.
In 1991 Michael and Elton John enjoyed a mutual triumph with their duet version of John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, a song they had performed together at the 1985 Live Aid concert and which they now recorded live at a Michael concert at Wembley Arena. It topped both the US and British charts. Michael was growing unhappy with his relationship with his record company, however, and in 1992 he began legal proceedings against Sony, claiming he was bound in artistic servitude to a company that “appears to see artists as little more than software” and claiming that Sony had failed to promote Listen Without Prejudice properly (it sold “only” 8m copies).
Panayiotou and others v Sony Music Entertainment (UK) Ltd came to the high court in October 1993, and was seen as a test case that could have dramatic repercussions across the music industry should Michael win. Although the legal proceeedings shed light on various restrictive practices in the business, he did not, since Justice Jonathan Parker found that Michael’s contract was “reasonable and fair”. One casualty of the lawsuit was Listen Without Prejudice Vol 2, which Michael scrapped, donating some of its songs to the Red Hot + Dance charity project to raise money for Aids awareness.
In 1993, the Five Live EP (released on Parlophone in the UK and Hollywood Records in the US) included tracks from the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium at which Michael sang with Queen, along with some live tracks from Michael’s 1991 Cover to Cover tour. Proceeds from the EP went to the Mercury Phoenix Trust to help combat Aids.
The following year, Michael premiered a new song, Jesus to a Child, at the inaugural MTV Europe music awards. The long, melancholy piece was written after the death of his lover, Anselmo Feleppa, who had died of an Aids-related brain haemorrhage in 1993, and when it was released in January 1996 became his first solo single to enter the UK charts at No 1. Another single, Fastlove, emerged in April 1996, followed a month later by his third solo album, Older, which was dedicated to Feleppa. It was on Virgin in the UK and David Geffen’s DreamWorks label in the US, where it went platinum. The album set a record in the UK by becoming the first ever to produce six Top 3 singles. That year Michael was voted best British male artist at the Brit awards, and received his third Ivor Novello award as songwriter of the year.
Intervals between releases of new material were growing ever longer, though Michael retained a powerful popular appeal. In 1998 came Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, a compilation containing his best-known songs as well as duets and tracks from compilations not previously featured on his own albums. The album would become one of his biggest, going on to sell 15m copies. Nor was it entirely retrospective. The first single from it, Outside, was a new song, about Michael’s arrest by an undercover policeman in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills a few months earlier. The policeman in question, Marcelo Rodriguez, tried unsuccessfully to sue Michael for emotional distress caused by the video for Outside, which depicted policemen kissing. Michael now let it be known that he had been in a relationship since 1996 with the businessman Kenny Goss; they remained together until 2009.
In 1999 came Songs from the Last Century, a collection of cover versions spanning such disparate pieces as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, My Baby Just Cares for Me and Wild is the Wind. It was his lowest-performing solo release, not even breaching the top 150 on the American Billboard chart, though it reached No 2 in Britain. He now embarked on a lengthy period of recording material for a planned album of new material, the first fruit of which was the 2002 single Freeek!.
He followed this with Shoot the Dog, a political piece attacking Tony Blair and George W Bush for their warlike posturing in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.Perhaps even more surprising was the news, in 2003, that Michael had re-signed with Sony. The studio released his fifth studio album, Patience (2004), and it jumped to the top of the UK chart, and, although it would not climb higher than 12 on the US charts, it was a hit throughout Europe. It also generated a batch of singles, including Amazing and Flawless (Go to the City). Although Michael announced that Patience would be his last disc to be given a physical release (as opposed to digital download), this apparently did not apply to compilations, since 2006 brought a chart-topping greatest hits album, 25, as well as the 25 Live tour, his first in 15 years.
After several arrests for drugs offences, in 2010 Michael was fined and given a five-year driving ban and a prison sentence after admitting driving under the influence of drugs, having crashed his Range Rover into a Snappy Snaps photo store in Hampstead.
Nonetheless, he had evidently rediscovered his appetite for performing and recording. In 2011 he made a cover version of New Order’s hit True Faith for the Comic Relief charity, and recorded an MP3 version of Stevie Wonder’s You and I as a wedding gift for Prince William and Kate Middleton.
He launched his Symphonica Tour in Prague in August 2011. However, it was cut short when he fell ill with severe pneumonia in November, after the tour had reached Frankfurt, and he was admitted to hospital in Vienna.
He spent a week in intensive care and was not discharged from hospital until 21 December. Two days later he made a public speech outside his home in Highgate, north London, saying that the staff at the Vienna general hospital had saved his life. He suffered a further medical emergency in May 2013, when he had to be airlifted to hospital after he fell out of a car travelling on the M1.
In June 2012 Michael released the single White Light to mark the 30th anniversary of Wham Rap!. In March 2014 he released Symphonica, which became his seventh solo album to top the UK chart. This month, it was announced that he was working on a new album with producer and songwriter Naughty Boy. Also in the pipeline was a film, provisionally titled Freedom: George Michael, due to accompany the reissue of his 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. With Michael as narrator, the film would feature stars including Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Liam Gallagher and Mary J Blige as well as the supermodels who had appeared in his Freedom! ’90 video.
Date of Birth: 11 December 1921, Crosby, Lincolnshire, UK
Birth Name: Betty Gleadle
Nickname: Liz Smith
Being “discovered” by the director Mike Leigh when she was about to turn 50 changed Liz Smith’s life. Bleak Moments (1971), his first film, seemed an appropriate title for an actress who was brought up in poverty after the death of her mother and lived a hand-to-mouth existence raising her own children single-handedly “hard labour” she called it.
Smith, whose face could go from doleful to riotously expressive with a sudden quirky or quizzical look, regretted never playing young female leads but was grateful for the long list of dotty old women that came her way, most famously “Nana” in The Royle Family. In the sitcom created by Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, she played Norma Speakman, mother of Barbara (Sue Johnston), the long-suffering wife of Jim (Ricky Tomlinson). She frequently feuded with Jim, especially after moving in with the family when her health declined. Smith appeared in all three series (1998-2000), but her character died in the subsequent Christmas special, “The Queen of Sheba” (2006).
The actress played a string of mothers on screen, beginning in Bleak Moments. Another was Maggie Smith’s in A Private Function (1984), Alan Bennett’s comedy about a pig being fattened secretly and illegally during the days of post-war food rationing. She landed the role after sending her son to Bennett’s house with a postcard asking for a part in the film. It won her the 1984 Bafta Best Supporting Actress award.
However, Smith did not become a star until the 1990s, when she played church organist Letitia Cropley in The Vicar of Dibley’s’ first series (1994) and a 1996 Easter special. The batty old woman in a hat was renowned for the awful cakes she made the subject of a tricky question she asked Dawn French’s pioneering female priest when Smith was written out: “My cooking. Was I a great experimenter, a pioneer, whose rich command of unorthodox mixtures will be the stuff of legend in the new millennium, or was my food just ghastly? You can tell a dying woman the truth, vicar.” The Reverend Geraldine Granger looked up appearing to ask for forgiveness as she gave a diplomatic answer.
Despite suffering three strokes over two days in 2009 and announcing her retirement, Smith continued taking occasional television roles for another four years.
The actress was born Betty Gleadle, an only child, in Crosby, Lincolnshire, now a Scunthorpe suburb. When she was two, her Yorkshire-born mother, Nellie (née Foster), died in childbirth (the baby girl also died) and she was aged seven when her father, Wilfred, a butcher, abandoned her and moved to Lancashire to marry Ellen Webster, who was also a widow. Smith recalled him telling her that he would write, but he never did.
She was brought up by her maternal grandparents, but more heartbreak came when her grandfather died in a flu epidemic. In a 2008 television interview with Mark Lawson, Smith reflected on losing her parents and her lonely existence as a child: “I’m sure it’s made me odd I’m very wary of people because you feel a reject you feel uncomfortable.”
Smith she took the name when her grandmother adopted her attended Scunthorpe Modern and Day Commercial Schools. Regular visits to the cinema, which screened silent films with stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy, and Scunthorpe’s Palace Variety Theatre made her want to act and she performed in church halls and in school plays at that theatre.
On leaving school, Smith worked as a seamstress before joining the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) in early 1940, months after the outbreak of war. She served in the Fleet Air Arm in Scotland, then in South Africa and India.
During this time, when she was 20, Smith’s grandmother died, leaving her £2,500 to buy a house and be independent. This helped her after the war when she found herself bringing up two children alone. In 1945, she had married Jack Thomas, known as “JT”, who worked in a tax office but aspired to write plays.
Smith bought a house in London’s Westbourne Grove area and did jobs from home, such as painting lead model soldiers. She also followed her plan of studying art for a year, at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art, then training as an actress, at the Gateway Theatre.
In 1954, with two children, Sarah and Robert, the family moved to Epping Forest and Smith concentrated on bringing them up. Shortly afterwards, JT left her for another woman.
Seeking acting work again alongside daytime jobs, she joined London’s Unity Theatre, spent five years with Charles Marowitz’s company, which paid no money but gave her experience in improvisation that would be invaluable years later, and acted with the Forbes Russell Repertory Company at Butlin’s holiday camps for many summers, giving her children their first holidays.
While working at Hamleys toy shop in London, Smith received a telephone message that Mike Leigh was looking for an older woman to improvise the role of a mother. Bleak Moments opened the floodgates she ended her Butlin’s seasons and became a prolific bit-part actress on television.
There were also recurring roles in sitcoms as the matronly Mrs Brandon in I Didn’t Know You Cared (1975-79), Gran in Now and Then (1983-84), Mrs Anstruther in Mann’s Best Friends (1985), Mrs Giles in Valentine Park (1987-88) and the dual roles of Bette and Aunt Belle in 2point4 Children(1991-99), and in drama as Gran Turner in One by One (1984), Mrs Fisher in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986) and Zillah in the first series of Lark Rise to Candleford (2008). She also played Grandma Georgina in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and worked again with Mike Leigh in High Spirits(1988).
Smith won the 2007 British Comedy Awards Best Actress honour, a year after her memoirs, Our Betty: Scenes from My Life, were published, complete with her own drawings.
In 2008, Mark Lawson asked Smith whether she had had a happy life and she sadly responded: “No. I consider I’ve had too much struggle and too much loneliness and too much rejection, really, and I’m so thankful for the later half of it that it’s been so lucky, very lucky.”
Date of Birth: 6 February 1917 Budapest, Austria, Hungary
Birth Name: Sári Gábor
Nickname: Zsa Zsa Gabor
Zsa Zsa Gabor the woman who probably inspired the term "famous for being famous."
Gabor followed her sister Eva from Hungary to Hollywood in the 1940s. Zsa Zsa scored some small movie parts from big movie directors, Orson Welles and John Huston among them and was also featured in some movies probably best forgotten, such as Queen of Outer Space.
But if she wasn't known for her skilled acting, dancing or singing, Gabor was an irrepressible performer and she excelled at playing herself, once endless rounds of Hollywood gossip and publicity made her own persona larger than any character.
She had charm, which made her jokes about marrying for money rather than romance more palatable right when women were starting to demand more financial control. Her oft-stated fondness for sex dented traditional expectations of passive femininity, Pullen says: "She paved the way for the sexual revolution."
And when Gabor slapped a policeman who pulled her over in 1989, she parlayed the incident into a full-blown comeback, without any apparent help from mangers or publicists. The incident put her back on the talk show circuit, where she chattered merrily about the challenges of maintaining a beauty regimen in the slammer.
Even as an older woman, Gabor tended her image as the glamorous starlet who married something like 10 times. She threw out lines like, "I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house."
As far back as the 1950s, when women were expected to be decorous, Gabor sought and got constant press for her juicy hookups, her fabulous bling and her public antics. She could dominate a newsreel about a movie premiere for a movie she wasn't even in just by showing up in a diaphanous gown. She was arguably the prototype for today's Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons.
Date of Birth: 22 November 1932, New York, US
Birth Name: Robert Francis Vaughn
Nickname: Robert Vaughn
Many actors opt for long-term employment in television series, only to find their lucrative association with a “personality” difficult to shake off. Robert Vaughn, who has died aged 83, overcame that problem in not one but seven long-running TV series, beginning with The Lieutenant in 1963.
By far the most substantial of these was The Man from UNCLE, in which he played the suave Napoleon Solo, in more than 100 episodes (1964-68) and eight features cobbled together from the series. Eventually, that too ran out of steam (although it remained a cult, particularly in Britain) and he moved on to create the detective Harry Rule in The Protectors, filmed in London through the early 1970s.
He also starred in episodes of Emerald Point NAS (1983-84), and was General Stockwell in the fifth and final series of The A-Team (1986-87). Late in his career, he was appointed Judge Travis in The Magnificent Seven (1998-2000), a TV spin-off from the western film in which he had played the gunslinger Lee 40 years previously.
An astonishingly prolific actor, he guested in hundreds of television shows, from Gunsmoke to Police Woman and from Wagon Train to Law and Order, as well as scores of TV movies and miniseries, including the prestigious Washington Behind Closed Doors (1977), which won him an Emmy.
Vaughn also appeared in some 50 movies, following his uncredited debut as a spear-carrier in The Ten Commandments (1956). In tandem with acting he maintained an interest in politics, campaigning against the Vietnam war from the late 1960s until the US withdrawal from the conflict in 1973, and supported liberal causes as a Democrat and friend of the Kennedys, especially Robert.Vaughn was born in New York, son of actors, Marcella (nee Gaudel) and Walter Vaughn. He studied journalism at the University of Minnesota, transferring to Los Angeles City College to take drama and to LA State College for a master’s. His PhD thesis on the aftermath of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation sympathetically examined its effect on members of the acting profession. It was published in 1972 as Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting.
Although he did not begin full-time acting until he was in his mid-20s, he started with stage work, television appearances and uncredited screen roles, and was soon cast as the lead in No Time to Be Young (1957), where the influence of James Dean, killed two years before, was apparent. When he played the title role in Roger Corman’s preposterous Teenage Caveman (1958), his character was promoted as a “prehistoric rebel without a cause”. The actor later described it as “one of the best worst films of all time”.
It led to an intriguing western, A Good Day for a Hanging (1959), in which he co-starred as a killer who charms the townsfolk into opposing the sheriff who wants him hanged. He got his break in The Young Philadelphians (1959), receiving an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his performance as an alcoholic who is framed for murder and defended by a calculating lawyer (Paul Newman).
That drama established Vaughn, but it was The Magnificent Seven (1960) that consolidated his big-screen stardom, four years before he debuted as Napoleon Solo. He played the gunfighter who has lost his nerve and joins the Seven to defend villagers from marauding bandits, simply for the money. In a climactic shoot-out, the jittery coward redeems himself, returning to help his friends in Ixcatlan, and sacrificing his life in the process.
After the tongue-in-cheek The Man from UNCLE series, to which David McCallum as his sidekick Illya Kuryakin contributed a cheery breeziness, the darker-toned Vaughn needed a change and moved back into movies with Bullitt (1968). Cast, in Pauline Kael’s words, as “the slimy Mr Big”, he was memorable as Chalmers, a crooked politician, who is a thorn in the side of the bullish detective (Steve McQueen). He was equally persuasive as the Nazi officer in The Bridge at Remagen (1969) and made a credible Casca in the dull 1970 version of Julius Caesar. He was a bossy senator in The Towering Inferno (1974) and a caring neurosurgeon in The Mind of Mr Soames, bringing his patient (Terence Stamp) out of a 30-year coma with terrifying consequences.
Soon after appearing in René Clément’s last picture, La Baby Sitter (AKA Scar Tissue, 1975), Vaughn was used to devastating effect as the voice of the rebellious computer Proteus in Demon Seed (1977), where his off-screen voice was a coolly intelligent reflection of his often menacing on-screen persona.
In Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), he reworked his gunslinger Lee in space, and a year later played a philistine studio executive (allegedly based on Robert Evans) in S.O.B. (1981), Blake Edwards’s blistering attack on Tinseltown. Few such literate scripts or talented directors were available during the later 1980s and 1990s and Vaughn contented himself with guesting as authoritarian figures, including judges, ambassadors and senior army personnel.
Often that was in movie dross, although television was kinder to him in prestige miniseries such as Backstairs at the White House (1979) and The Blue and the Gray (1982) or in lighter material such as Murder, She Wrote.
Throughout four busy decades he had reinvented himself as required by age and changing fashion. His early roles as outsiders, troubled lovers, cowards and alcoholics gave way to a mild debunking of his persona, particularly his well-groomed heroes. His somewhat cerebral acting style proved a perfect antidote to spoofs and he established a cult following, partly as the sole redeeming aspect in such later movies as Joe’s Apartment (1996, as a corrupt senator), Motel Blue (1997, as a police chief) and the sports spoof BASEketball (1998).
Despite a steady stream of work, Vaughn announced, aged 70, that he was “going to take it a little easier” and promised to complete his autobiography, tentatively titled, Christ, Shakespeare, Ho Chi Minh: As I Knew Them. This emerged in 2008 as A Fortunate Life and declared his enjoyment of a long and profitable career, his work as a liberal activist (even playing three Democratic presidents on screen) and a happy marriage.
He continued working steadily on television and occasional features, playing a judge in Cottonmouth (2002), villains in Happy Hour (2003) and Hoodlum and Son (2003), and a doctor in Scene Stealers (2004). However, it was in yet another successful TV series that he returned to form. Vaughn starred in 48 episodes of Hustle, produced by the BBC between 2004 and 2012, as the debonair Albert Stroller, member of a disparate group of con artists. Elegant and assured, he showed that he had retained his sense of humour and lack of pretension, something confirmed by his appearance in The Magnificent Eleven (2012), about a football team who go the aid of an Indian restaurant, harassed by local thugs. He had a recurring role, too, in the soap Coronation Street in 2012 as the businessman Milton Fanshaw, love interest of Sylvia Goodwin (Stephanie Cole), mother of Roy Cropper.
Date of Birth: 20 September 1923, Barnes, Surrey, UK
Birth Name: Jimmy Perry
Jimmy Perry was one of the greatest British TV comedy writers best known for Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi! and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
It was an uneasy start in 1968 but Jimmy Perry and his co-writer David Croft, still pulled out all the stops even when Mary Whitehouse was campaigning to clean up TV. The BBC’s senior executives felt under pressure to avoid causing offence. Market research was called for: three 100-strong focus groups each spent a day watching the earliest episodes before they were transmitted and, according to the laconic Perry, 99% said they hated them.
The first woman who was asked her opinion said the show was rubbish and no one was interested in the Home Guard any more. Others felt that the material ridiculed the Home Guard’s behaviour at a time when Britain stood alone in its finest hour, and should certainly not be broadcast.
Fortunately the then head of BBC comedy, Michael Mills, decided to go ahead regardless not with Perry’s title, The Fighting Tigers, but with his own, Dad’s Army. Perry was allowed to keep the song he had written for the series, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?, which won him an Ivor Novello award. The programme ran until 1977, and is still regularly repeated.
Perry, an actor who had thought of the series when he was working for Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop company at the Theatre Royal, Statford East, London, also deftly accepted without resistance a piece of casting by Mills that transformed the approach to social class as shown in the relationship between Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson. Arthur Lowe had been cast as the officious bank manager who was commanding officer of the Home Guard platoon at Walmington-on-Sea.
The original intention was that the sergeant under him would be a rough-hewn cloth-capped type. But Perry accepted the elegant John Le Mesurier as the sergeant. Perry remade him into a relaxed ex-public schoolboy and ex-army captain who always tries desperately to underplay his patrician background. The show ran to 80 episodes and a 1971 feature film, and was eventually recognised as the very essence of British humour, involving realistic sympathetic characters, and a gentle mocking of class consciousness and its instability in wartime conditions. A film version starring Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon and Toby Jones was released earlier this year. But Perry and Croft’s attempts at an American version failed.
Croft and Perry bounced ideas off one another and wrote together for a period of over 30 years. Along with Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, they were among the dominant writing teams of the period. They contrasted in both primary function and temperament, Croft tough in negotiation and Perry coiffured and urbane, rather in the style of Le Mesurier’s Sergeant Wilson. He guarded his privacy jealously and was rarely photographed.
He was born and brought up in Barnes, south-west London. His father was an antiques dealer with a shop in Kensington. His grandfather had been a butler in Belgrave Square, and some of his stories found their way into Perry and Croft’s last television series, You Rang, M’Lord? (1988-93).
As a child, he was told not to play with “common” boys. He went to Colet Court, the prep school for St Paul’s, where he saw that all races were welcome as long as they were rich. As the antiques business slumped with the approach of the second world war, his mother gave cookery lessons to aristocratic women left without servants. He became, as he put it, a closet socialist.
The cinemas and theatres of nearby Hammersmith were his main solace as his schooldays became more difficult. Faced with a school report which said, “We fear for his future”, and asked by his father how he would get on in life without qualifications, he replied: “I don’t need any qualifications. I’m going to be a famous film star or a great comedian.” His father said, in tones more sad than hectoring, “You stupid boy” the same phrase that Captain Mainwaring would use years later to the rookie Pike in Dad’s Army, played by Ian Lavender
Perry left school at 14 and was sent to Clark’s college to learn shorthand, typing and a final irritant book-keeping. He was then apprenticed to Waring & Gillow, purveyors of high-class furniture, but moved out of London with his family when his father took over the shop of his uncle in (safer) Watford after hostilities broke out.
It was in Watford that the 16-year-old Perry served in the Home Guard, thriving on its concerts if not its drill, appeared in monthly talent shows at the Gaumont theatre, and generally gained the experience that would one day enable him to write Dad’s Army. He saw himself as a version of the muddled and mother-dominated Private Pike.
After call-up, he served in the Royal Artillery, principally as a concert party manager, and was drafted to the far east, where his experiences came in useful for his later series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81). Once demobbed, he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a serviceman’s scholarship. To raise funds, he became a redcoat at Butlins holiday camps, which was to help him create another series, Hi-de-Hi! (1981-88).
From Rada he went into repertory, his height and easy patrician looks then proved to be an asset, and for several years from the mid-1950s onwards ran the Palace theatre, Watford. He was having a rather lean time when Littlewood thought he might learn through the improvisation techniques she had perfected.
Perry, like many other actors, found Littlewood a bit of a puzzle and felt that his talents were being underused. He was on his way to Stratford East one day in the 60s when, after 17 busy but none too prosperous years as an actor, he conceived the idea for a television series which would include a plum part for himself: Walker, the fixer of the home guard platoon, who was a comic spiv and hustler. In the event, he never played Walker because the BBC pronounced that he could not be both writer and actor. Dad’s Army confirmed that Perry would become better known in the former role. He was appointed OBE in 1978.
Date of Birth: 5 August 1959, Port Sunlight, Wirral, UK
Birth Name: Peter Jozzeppi Burns
Nickname: Pete Burns
Originally best known for his 1985 chart-topper You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), made with his band Dead Or Alive, Pete Burns later became a reality TV star, coming fifth in the final of Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, as well as a living advertisement for the dangers of plastic surgery.
His heyday as a pop star in the mid-1980s coincided with the rise of the “New Pop” epitomised by Boy George and Culture Club, Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. With his ambiguous sexuality, androgynous look and spectacular fashion choices, Burns, after several years of trying, found himself in the right place at the right time. “Everything goes round in circles and luckily we’ve got the current sound of the moment,” he commented in 1984, a remark pointing to his inherent scepticism about fame, fashion and pop music.
Dead Or Alive’s first album, Sophisticated Boom Boom (1984), had paved the way for the group’s success by reaching the UK Top 30 and yielding a Top 40 single with a cover of KC & The Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way (I Like It). The following year they released Youthquake, which was produced by the upcoming hit-makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman and not only contained You Spin Me Round but also gave them a No 9 album in the UK and reached 31 on the US Billboard chart.
However, despite further hits with Lover Come Back to Me, In Too Deep and Brand New Lover, the huge success of You Spin Me Round was not to be repeated. Dead Or Alive continued through the 80s, but by the end of the decade had been reduced to the core duo of Burns and the drummer Steve Coy. Their album Nude (1989) gave them a belated chart fling by delivering a No 1 hit on the US dance charts with Come Home With Me Baby, while Turn Around & Count 2 Ten reached No 1 in Japan.
Burns was born in the model village of Port Sunlight in Bebington, Cheshire (now in Merseyside). His mother, Eva, Evelina Maria Bettina Quittner von Hudec was a German aristocrat who had been born in Heidelberg but fled to Vienna because of her Jewish background. There she met a British soldier, Francis Burns, who became her husband. The young Pete grew very close to his mother, speaking only German and a little French until he was five, and though she developed addictions to alcohol and tranquillisers, he recalled that: “I was brought up with an incredible amount of freedom and creativity.”He dropped out of his Liverpool boys’ school at the age of 14, after his red-dyed hair and huge earring provoked official outrage, and got a job at a record store, Probe Records, where he met numerous local musicians. He was briefly a member of the Mystery Girls alongside future Liverpudlian stars Julian Cope and Pete Wylie, before forming the Goth-influenced Nightmares in Wax in 1979. Their sole recording was the EP Birth of a Nation, including the track Black Leather, which incorporated That’s The Way (I Like It). The latter was reworked by Dead Or Alive, which was the new name Burns gave to an overhauled line-up of Nightmares in Wax the following year.
During the 90s, Dead Or Alive released several albums in various territories outside the UK, with limited success. In 1994 Burns sang and co-wrote the single Sex Drive for the Italian techno act Glam, and that same year Burns and Coy recorded David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, calling themselves International Chrysis. Fragile (2000) was Dead Or Alive’s final album of new material, though some tracks were remixes and cover versions. The new century brought the compilations Evolution: The Hits (2003) and That’s The Way I Like It: The Best of Dead Or Alive (2010).
Burns’s decision to embrace reality TV came after he had spent years protesting that he would never do it (“I still have a career, and I don’t really do reality,” he said in 2003), but his outsized personality and caustic manner made him a natural. The sight of him dancing with the politician George Galloway, both of them dressed in lycra leotards, on Celebrity Big Brother was unforgettable for any number of reasons.
Burns triggered further controversy on Big Brother when he claimed to be wearing a coat made of illegal gorilla skin, though tests proved it was made from the skin of the colobus monkey, using pelts that pre-dated legislation outlawing their use.In 2007 Burns appeared on Big Brother’s Big Mouth and Celebrity Wife Swap, where he swapped places with Leah Newman, partner of the footballer Neil “Razor” Ruddock. Also on the show was Burns’s husband, Michael Simpson, whom he married in 2006 after his divorce from the stylist Lynne Corlett whom he had married in 1978. The three remained on good terms. In the series Pete’s PA, on Living TV, contestants competed to become Burns’s assistant.
In 2015, Burns was evicted from his London flat after running up £34,000 in rent arrears. Last month, Burns appeared on Channel 5’s Celebrity Botched Up Bodies and talked frankly about his horrific experiences with cosmetic surgery, which had given him near-fatal blood clots and pulmonary embolisms as he underwent further procedures to try to correct mistakes.
Date of Birth: 11 October 1926, Toxteth, Liverpool, UK
Birth Name: Jean Mavis Hodgkinson
Nickname: Jean Alexander
Hilda Ogden was Weatherfield’s answer to Carmen Miranda. While Miranda wore fruit in her hair, Hilda favoured curlers and headscarf, as if her hairdo were permanently in preparation for a glamorous invitation that never came. And when she warbled in a reedy, affected soprano (usually as she dusted the Rovers Return under the landlady Annie Walker’s patrician eye), those on the receiving end winced. And yet, against the odds, Hilda, conceived by Coronation Street’s writers in 1964 as a nagging wife and gossiping char, became much more than that and found a place in the hearts of millions of the enduring soap’s fans.
She was regularly confused with her alter ego. Once, Alexander reported she was coming out of Woolworth’s and a woman pinned her against a shop window. “I know who you are,” the woman said, and then, recalled Alexander, “backed away as though I were a priceless painting”. Fans frequently asked her “Where’s your curlers?” or “Where’s Stan, then?”
Hilda Ogden was born during Granada TV’s 1964 night of the long knives. Eager for ratings and worried that the four-year-old soap had become too cosy, the show’s new producer, Tim Aspinall, purged several actors including Frank Pemberton, Doreen Keogh and Ivan Beavis. The character Martha Longhurst, who had been the gossipy foil of Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples, had a heart attack and collapsed on a table in the Rovers snug (it’s how, perhaps, she would have wanted to go). In a bitter prefiguring of more recent employment practices, the press knew who was to be sacked before the actors.
In came the bracing new Ogden family. Stan was played by a former leading man and Granada continuity announcer Bernard Youens and his wife, Hilda, by Alexander, who was then 37 and whose acting career until that breakthrough had consisted of character parts in theatres at Southport and York, and minor TV roles. They were cast as stock soap characters, comedy proles, about whom the likes of Annie Walker, Elsie Tanner and Rita Fairclough would be insufferably snooty. Stan was a boozy layabout slob, she his common wife with laughable pretensions. Hilda had an Alpine mural on the living room wall which she called a “muriel” and three plaster ducks rising up it a vista Stan later ruined by letting his bath overflow.
But Hilda and Stan confounded that blueprint. Viewers loved them for their daily battles against their plight in the seemingly cursed 13 Coronation Street she destined to live on her wits, he dodging any task that didn’t send him in the direction of a pint. They were like us, or like what we feared becoming.
In a bittersweet storyline in November 1977, Hilda had a rare stroke of luck. She won a competition organised by Loving Cup Shandy with her slogan: “Be a mistress as well as a wife and your husband will always be your boyfriend.” The prize was a weekend’s second honeymoon at a four-star hotel with Stan. In their suite, after drinking freebie champagne, Hilda, in seventh heaven, sang Vera Lynn’s Room 504. “When Hilda reached the last line of the song,” Alexander recalled, “and gave him a wistful look, a slurred voice said ‘Shurrup!’ It was Bunny, putting on his own unscripted line, a piece of inspired improvisation that made a perfect end to a sad little comedy.”
And yet the Ogdens’ marriage was hardly loveless, as Alexander recognised. “Hilda could criticise him but she defended him furiously if anyone cast aspersions on his character,” Alexander wrote. “There was always a sense of deep pride when she talked of ‘my Stan’, just as ‘our ’ilda’ contained a tinge of awe. Together they formed an alliance against a world that was out to do them down.”
In 1979, the British League for Hilda Ogden was founded: its honorary life president was Sir John Betjeman, and Russell Harty, Willis Hall and Michael Parkinson were on the committee. They were proud to wear the BLHO’s lapel badge featuring Hilda in curlers.
She was born in Toxteth, Liverpool, the second child of Archie Hodgkinson, an electrician, and his wife, Nell, who lived in a terraced house very similar to Hilda and Stan’s (except it didn’t have a bathroom or indoor lavatory). Jean got the acting bug early after staying at a guesthouse in Barrow-in-Furness where her dad was working at the shipyard. In the guesthouse back yard, 12 dancing girls practised their routines. Jean was captivated: “Little Jean, skinny, crop-headed, scabby-kneed, standing on a stage and making people laugh or cry – it would have been too absurd. But not to me …”
At the Pavilion theatre, Liverpool, she saw variety acts that deepened that ambition Lucan and McShane, the Four Charlottes, Cavan O’Connor and Teddy Brown. The last act was “an enormous American, all girth and smiles, who played the xylophone”. She wanted to emulate him: “I began to wonder just where in Toxteth I could learn the xylophone.” As a teenager, she spent spare time at the Playgoers’ Club, an amateur theatre troupe where she became adept at stage management, set building and prompting. She also sought to obliterate her native accent with five-shilling weekly elocution lessons. They didn’t quite work: in later life, she reported, someone would always ask: “What did you say, scouse?”
In 1949, after five years working for Liverpool’s library service, she was hired to act at £5 a week by the Macclesfield-based Adelphi Theatre Guild. She made her professional debut in Somerset Maugham’s Sheppey as Florrie.
During the 1950s she worked in theatre in Southport and York. She took relatively minor roles, such as the front end of a pantomime horse and the bargewoman in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. At the end of the decade she headed to London where in 1960 she made her TV debut in Deadline Midnight. A string of minor TV roles followed, including in 1962 a small part in Coronation Street as a kidnapper’s landlady.
The year after leaving Coronation Street for good, Alexander made a guest appearance in the BBC’s long-running sitcom about northern gents in their dotage, Last of the Summer Wine. She played Auntie Wainwright, a money-grabbing local junk shop owner, a role she reprised from 1992 until the series ended in 2010. She also had minor roles in films: she was Christine Keeler’s mother in Scandal, the 1989 film about the Profumo affair, and voiced Mrs Santa in Hooves of Fire, the 1999 Robbie the Reindeer film.
Date of Birth: 9 October 1949, Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, UK
Birth Name: Rodney Lynn Temperton
Nickname: Rod Temperton
Member of Heatwave who went on to become a successful songwriter creating huge hits for Michael Jackson such as Thriller
But despite his huge hits for Michael Jackson, above all the title track for Thriller, he was so low-profile that he was nicknamed the “invisible man”. His compositional skills led to him writing three songs for Jackson’s 1979 album Off the Wall, which went on to sell more than 20m copies. In 1982, he wrote three of the nine songs on Jackson’s Thriller, including the title track, and his contributions helped the album to shift 65m copies and become the biggest seller of all time.
Temperton, who had previously been a member of the funk-disco band Heatwave, was recruited to the Jackson team by producer Quincy Jones in 1978, as Jones was preparing to record Off the Wall. Temperton formed a fruitful partnership with Jones and the recording engineer Bruce Swedien, prompting the three of them to be dubbed the A-Team.
Of the songs Temperton wrote for Off the Wall, the title track reached the Top 10 of the US Billboard pop chart, while Rock With You topped it. Both were Top 10 hits in Britain. His third track, Burn This Disco Out, was released as the B-side of Beat It. When Thriller was recorded three years later, Temperton was seen as indispensable by Jones
He toyed with the idea of calling it Midnight, before he hit upon Thriller.
It was also Temperton’s idea to include the macabre spoken word section at the end of the song: “One thing I’d thought about was to have somebody, a famous voice in the horror genre, to do this vocal.” As luck would have it Jones’s wife was friendly with the actor Vincent Price. He was delighted to be offered the job. Temperton wrote out the text in a cab on his way to the recording session, Price (who took a flat fee) did only two takes, and the result entered into music industry folklore. The album also featured the Temperton songs Baby Be Mine and The Lady in My Life; only Jackson himself contributed more numbers.
The songwriter’s journey to the centre of the West Coast entertainment business began in the Lincolnshire seaside resort of Cleethorpes, where he was born. He would later describe how his father put a transistor radio on his pillow when he was a child and he would fall asleep listening to the pop station Radio Luxembourg.
He attended De Aston school in Market Rasen, where he formed a band in which he was the drummer. On leaving school he worked for a time at the Ross Foods frozen fish factory in Grimsby. Meanwhile he persevered as a musician. Switching from drums to keyboards, he played in several dance bands and in the early 1970s moved to Germany. With guitarist Bernd Springer he formed a band called Sundown Carousel, which played soul music covers in bars and GI clubs across Germany.
In 1974, having also been part of a group called The Hammer, he replied to an advert in the Melody Maker that had been placed by Johnnie Wilder Jr. He had sung with a number of groups while serving with the US army in West Germany and was putting together a new outfit. The band began performing in London as Chicago’s Heatwave before shortening their name to Heatwave, adding a funk beat to their disco sound and signing to GTO Records in 1976. They recorded a debut album, Too Hot to Handle, and in 1977 their third single from it, Boogie Nights (written by Temperton, as were all the songs on the album), reached No 2 on both the UK chart and the Billboard Hot 100.
The follow-up single, the ballad Always and Forever, reached the UK Top 10 and climbed to 18 on the Billboard pop chart. Luther Vandross recorded a version of it for his album Songs (1994). A second album, Central Heating, appeared in 1978, and another Temperton composition, The Groove Line, delivered another US Top 10 hit. It was in 1978 that Temperton decided to leave the group to concentrate on songwriting, though he would continue to contribute material to Heatwave. He soon received his priceless opportunity with Jackson and became a writer for countless major artists.
Among his credits are George Benson’s most successful single, Give Me the Night (1980), from the album of the same name, various contributions to Jones’s The Dude (1981), and several co-writing credits on Donna Summer’s album Donna Summer; Baby, Come To Me for Patti Austin and James Ingram; and tracks on Herbie Hancock’s Lite Me Up (all 1982). He also wrote for Manhattan Transfer, Siedah Garrett, Aretha Franklin, Jeffrey Osborne, Karen Carpenter, Mica Paris and many more.
In 1986 he was nominated for the Oscar for best original song for the track Miss Celie’s Blues, which he had co-written with Lionel Richie and Jones for the film The Color Purple. Temperton also wrote five songs for the Billy Crystal movie Running Scared (1986).
He remained self-effacing, though his success funded homes in Los Angeles, the south of France, Fiji, Switzerland and Britain. Tongue in cheek he summed up: “I watch telly, catch up on the news, and maybe the phone will ring.”
Date of Birth: 11 June 1933, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Birth Name: Jerome Silberman
Nickname: Gene Wilder
With his wide, quizzical eyes, his shock of curly hair and puckish features, Gene Wilder was a totally original comic actor, whose classical training lent his performances a sometimes disconcerting depth and whimsical irony.
He first attracted major attention with a memorable cameo in the film Bonnie and Clyde, after which he was cast as the naive and gullible accountant in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy The Producers.
He went on to do some of his best work in further Brooks projects, including Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and later he scored a personal success on the London stage in Neil Simon’s comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor. His private life in later years, though, was dogged by tragedy his wife Gilda Radner died of cancer in 1989, and last year Wilder was himself diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.
The son of an immigrant Russian who had prospered from the manufacture of miniature liqueur bottles, he was born Jerry Silberman in 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A bug-eyed and curly-topped child, he found his appearance caused chuckles and decided the best response was to be deliberately funny.
At the University of Iowa he attended drama classes, and upon graduation he travelled to England and enrolled at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, where he won the school’s fencing championship. Returning to the United States, he taught fencing for a while, then worked as a chauffeur and toy salesman while studying at the Lee Strasberg Studio in New York.
Wilder gave one of his funniest screen performances in Bud Yorkin’s Start The Revolution Without Me (1970), a frequently hilarious farce on the twins-switched-at-birth theme and the first of several pastiche films made by Wilder, who had loved movies since his childhood and delighted in parodying the various genres. In Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), every cliché of the western was mercilessly lampooned, and in Young Frankenstein (1974), developed by Brooks and Wilder from an idea by Wilder, it was the monster-horror genre, with its highlight a song-and-dance rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” performed by Frankenstein (Wilder) and his creation (Peter Boyle).
Taking inspiration from his mentor Brooks, Wilder himself wrote and directed a pastiche of detective movies, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), with Wilder also playing the lead as the manically jealous sibling who is determined to outdo his famous brother in everything, from fencing and inventing to fiendishly clever detection. (Other Brooks alumni Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise were among his co-stars in this enormously popular spoof.) Wilder’s quirky personality also found apt outlets in Mel Stuart’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) as the enigmatic and wickedly mischievous factory-owner, and Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (1972).
He teamed up for the first time with the former night-club comic Richard Pryor (who had been one of the writers of Blazing Saddles) in Arthur Hiller’s Silver Streak (1976), an enjoyable comedy-thriller deliberately conceived in Hitchcock style by writer Colin Higgins, in which exhausted businessman Wilder finds mystery and murder on a cross-country train he has boarded hoping for relaxation. Wilder and Pryor complemented each other beautifully and were to make several more films together.
In 1996 Wilder travelled to London to appear in a stage production of Neil Simon’s comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Based on Simon’s youthful experience working on the Sid Caesar television show (with Wilder’s role a thinly disguised Caesar) it had been only a modest success on Broadway and fared similarly in London, though it was generally agreed that Wilder was better casting in the leading role than the more manic Nathan Lane had been on Broadway.
Even before he became ill Wilder had slowed down on the performing front although he won an Emmy award for an appearance in comedy series Will & Grace. “I don’t like show business, I realized,” he said in 2008. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.” But Wilder would later turn his hand to books. In 2005 Wilder produced a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art; a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love? (2010); and three novels: My French Whore (2007), The Woman Who Wouldn’t (2008) and Something to Remember You By (2013).
Date of Birth: 15 May 1923, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Birth Name: Cecil James Gilbert
As a producer, and then as the BBC’s head of comedy, James Gilbert was adept at spotting winning formulas. Among many successes, he was responsible for launching two of British TV’s long-running comedy mainstays, The Two Ronnies and Last of the Summer Wine.
Gilbert and David Frost originally teamed up Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the BBC’s satirical show The Frost Report (1966-67), winner of the 1967 Golden Rose of Montreux. Frost, the programme’s presenter, hired Corbett and John Cleese, then Gilbert, the producer, signed up Barker. “I had a tall one in Cleese and a tiny one in Corbett, so Ronnie seemed an obvious choice,” Gilbert told Barker’s biographer Richard Webber.
Those three actors’ variations in height were memorably used in the sketch satirising the British class system, with the bowler-hatted Cleese looking down on the trilby-wearing Barker, who looks up to Cleese but down on Corbett, in a flat cap, who says resignedly: “I know my place.”
Barker and Corbett were soon paired together once Gilbert recognised the chemistry between them. When the duo returned to the BBC in 1970 after a spell at ITV, they asked for him to be executive producer of the light entertainment show they were to make together, so he was taken off all other projects for a year to devise and oversee the first series of The Two Ronnies, which aired in 1971. Gilbert opened and closed each programme with the news desk format previously used by Frost. The show was an immediate hit and, during its 16-year run, attracted audiences of up to 19 million.
Shortly after his year with Barker and Corbett, Gilbert produced and directed the 1973 Comedy Playhouse pilot and first series of Last of the Summer Wine.
Gilbert known as Jimmy was born in Edinburgh, the son of Mabel (nee Crump) and Cecil. His father was a civil servant. Jimmy played the piano as a child and enjoyed performing in school productions of Gilbert and Sullivan at Edinburgh academy. He spent a year at Edinburgh University before serving as a pilot with RAF Coastal Command during the second world war. On demob, Gilbert trained as an actor at Rada in London and spent his early years with the Glasgow Citizens theatre company, acting alongside Fulton Mackay and Stanley Baxter, being directed by Tyrone Guthrie and writing music for pantomimes.
He moved to London, had small roles in films and on television and, with the lyricist Julian More, composed the hit West End musical Grab Me a Gondola (staged at the Lyric theatre, 1956-57), a satire based on the film star Diana Dors’s publicity stunt of wearing a mink bikini as she floated down the Grand Canal during the Venice film festival.
In 1957, Gilbert joined the BBC as a producer and director, making music programmes, including the popular Off the Record (1957), before launching Baxter’s TV career in the sketch series On the Bright Side (1959-60) and the first Stanley Baxter Show (1963), which both showed off the actor’s talent for mimicry. He also worked with the comedian Jimmy Edwards, seen in different guises every week in The Seven Faces of Jim (1961) and two sequels (1962 and 1963).
Various programmes followed before Gilbert produced The Frost Report, with a “dream team” of writers including Marty Feldman, Barry Cryer, Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall, Frank Muir, Denis Norden, David Nobbs, Antony Jay, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor. He also produced and directed the third series of Not Only… But Also (1970), starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the first run of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1973), which won a Bafta for best sitcom.
As a BBC executive, Gilbert was responsible for commissioning comedy successes such as Porridge (1974-77), The Good Life (1975-78), Fawlty Towers (1975-79) although he voiced concerns about it being based almost entirely inside a hotel, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79) and Yes Minister (1980-84).
After leaving the BBC in 1982, Gilbert worked as a freelance producer for the corporation and ITV, making Tripper’s Day (1984), French Fields (1989-91) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1994-95), before retiring. Teaming up with More again, he also wrote the musical Good Time Johnny (Birmingham repertory theatre, 1971-72), based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and starring Barker.
Date of Birth: 24 December 1963, Ealing, London, UK
Birth Name: Caroline Mary Aherne
Nicknames: Caroline Aherne
Caroline Aherne was responsible for some of the most distinctive and memorable comedy creations of the 1990s. From Mrs Merton to The Royle Family, her characters were waspish but warmly observed, and gave audiences an all-too-rare taste of comedy that reflected their relationship with television and love-hate feelings about celebrity. She was one of the few members of the British comedy pantheon not to be male, metropolitan and privileged, and her work often drew on her background. Aherne made her name with the Mrs Merton Show, a chat-show featuring the eponymous horn-rimmed, chintzy-sleeved northern housewife who fired faux-naive questions at her hapless celebrity guests: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” she once asked his wife Debbie McGee.
The Royle Family, the sitcom she co-wrote with Craig Cash, was groundbreaking in its portrayal of a working-class Manchester family watching TV in their front room. It was a sitcom that drew on the British tradition of 1950s kitchen sink dramas and the films of Mike Leigh, but it was more compassionate than either. The writer Jimmy McGovern said of it: “There is great love in that family, but it is never stated. That’s so true to life.”
Though the sitcom cannot be said to have ushered in a new era of comedy drawing on working-class experience British TV comedy remains, with a few exceptions, as dominated by ex-public school boys as it ever was it did pave the way for at least two subsequent TV series. Paul Abbott, creator of Shameless, the Channel 4 comedy drama set in a low-income northern milieu, said he owed his show’s success to The Royle Family. More recently, Gogglebox, Channel 4’s documentary series observing viewers watching television narrated by Aherne owed an obvious debt to its sitcom precursor.
There was more to her comic armoury than Mrs Merton and Denise Royle, though they were her best-known characters. In the 1990s sketch programme the Fast Show, Aherne played the Mediterranean weather girl Paola Fisch (catchphrase “scorchio!”), and a cheeky checkout girl who insulted customers. The comedy series Dossa and Joe, which she wrote and directed in the early 2000s while in self-imposed exile in Australia, focused on a couple who had been happily married for 40 years yet found their marriage floundering after retirement. The show was a critical success but a ratings flop.
Aherne was born in London to Irish immigrants, Bert, a labourer on the railways, and Maureen, a school dinner lady. When she was two, the family moved to Wythenshawe, Manchester. The Royle Family may well have been inspired by the Aherne family, with her father serving as unwitting prototype for sharp-tongued, moaning Jim Royle. She recalled later: “My dad was always going on about the immersion, and about lights being left on. ‘It’s like feckin’ Blackpool illuminations,’ he used to say.”Both she and her older brother Patrick were born with a rare cancer of the retina, retinoblastoma, that caused Patrick to lose an eye, and left Caroline almost unsighted in one eye. She became the family joker, impersonating TV characters like Margot and Barbara from The Good Life and celebrities such as Marti Caine and Cilla Black. “Nobody else in the family was like that,” Patrick said. “But she was funny from the time she was really little.” As a teenager, Caroline watched Mike Leigh’s television play Abigail’s Party (1977) and resolved she would become a writer like him.
Precociously intelligent, she scored 176 in an IQ test and received nine As in her O-levels at the Hollies Convent grammar school. She studied drama at Liverpool Polytechnic, and in the late 1980s took a job at BBC Manchester as secretary to Janet Street-Porter. During this time she began to develop an act on the Manchester comedy circuit, with characters including Mitzi Goldberg, lead singer of the comedy country and western act the Mitzi Goldberg Experience, and a nun called Sister Mary Immaculate, whose ambition was to kiss the Pope’s ring.
Mrs Merton was developed in collaboration with Henry Normal, then a performance poet in Manchester, Craig Cash, with whom she presented a show on Manchester radio station KFM, and the comedian Dave Gorman. But it was the late Chris Sievey, the man behind the outsize-masked comic character Frank Sidebottom, who ensured that their creation made it to the big time. Sievey asked Aherne, a friend of his brother-in-law, to voice the part of Frank’s neighbour Mrs Merton on his album 5:9:88 (1988), and later on his Piccadilly Radio show in Manchester.
The following year, Sievey invited her to reprise the character in Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show (1992) on ITV. She was supposed to be Sidebottom’s sidekick, but Mrs Merton overshadowed him and was so well received that Granada TV commissioned her to make her own comedy vehicle.
The result was the Mrs Merton Show, which ran from 1995 to 1998 on the BBC. It had an audience composed of real-life pensioners and an in-house band, Hooky and the Boys, led by her first husband, Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook, whom she married in 1994. The couple divorced in 1997. The Royle Family ran for three seasons from 1998 to 2000, followed by specials until 2012. Mrs Merton and Malcolm, with Cash as a 37-year-old son still living at home, had a single series in 1999.
For all that she was feted by critics and garlanded with awards, Aherne struggled with fame and with her health. In 1998, at her mews home in Notting Hill, she tried to take her own life. She was treated for depression and alcoholism at the Priory clinic in 1998, and was also treated there in 2002. In addition, she suffered bladder cancer related to her eye condition. In 2014, as part of a charity drive to raise money to treat other patients suffering from the disease, she announced she was suffering from lung cancer.
In 2001, she announced she was quitting showbusiness, because she no longer wanted to be famous. She moved for a while to Australia, returning in 2002 to collaborate with Cash one last time, on Early Doors, a fondly observed sitcom about the regulars of a Manchester pub, but she quit, leaving Cash to write and star in the hit show that some critics misguidedly called the British Cheers.
In later years, Aherne never equalled her earlier successes, still less the celebrity that came from writing and performing in two hit TV shows. She eschewed the media spotlight and lived quietly at a house in Manchester not far from her mother’s home.
She wrote such dramas as The Fattest Man in Britain (2009) and The Security Men (2013), as well as taking minor roles, such as a barmaid in a comedy called Sunshine (2008) with Steve Coogan. She also narrated programmes including Pound Shop Wars (2014), a BBC1 documentary, and voiced some of the characters in CBBC’s animated series Strange Hill High (2013-14). Perhaps fittingly, one of her last TV roles was to narrate Gogglebox, the weekly Channel 4 documentary series in which TV viewers watch other TV viewers watching TV.
Date of Birth: 17 January 1942, Louisville, Kentucky US
Birth Name: Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.
Nicknames: Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was acclaimed by many as the greatest world heavyweight boxing champion the world has ever seen. He was certainly the most charismatic boxer. His courage inside and outside the ring and his verbal taunting of opponents were legendary, as were his commitment to justice and his efforts for the sick and underprivileged.
Three times world champion, Ali harnessed his fame in the ring to causes outside it. He was a convert to Islam and the personification of Black Pride. He anticipated the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s by refusing to join the armed forces.
He made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea, delivered medical supplies to an embargoed Cuba, and travelled to Iraq to secure the release of 15 US hostages shortly before the first Gulf war. Repellent though he found many aspects of US foreign policy and repellent as the establishment found him when in 1967 it banned him from the ring for three years for refusing the draft – the nation embraced Ali as time passed, realising his unique ambassadorial value. In 2005, he received his country’s highest civilian honour, the presidential medal of freedom, from George W Bush, an incumbent whose views he must have detested.
But it all stemmed from boxing. His matchless magnificence, the self-proclaimed “greatness”, was invented early as a cheery prizefighter’s publicity stunt. It was a greatness that was to balloon and achieve near-universal acceptance as he became acknowledged as a beacon not only for downtrodden African Americans but for global Islam as well, not to mention the anti-war movement or poverty in developing countries. In the middle of press conferences, reporters would earnestly ask him about solving the Palestine problem, or if he could have a quiet word with Moscow about President Ronald Reagan’s star wars programme. Ali was a rebel with a cause lots of them.
He played the sovereign to the hilt. He played the victim. He played the clown. He played the camera. But, above all, he played the sport. He was the best heavyweight boxer there had ever been since the Marquess of Queensbury set down his rules in 1867, undeniably the best since Kid Cain KO’ed Sugar Ray Abel. First as Cassius Clay, then as Ali, this remarkable boxer totally reset the marks, utterly changed all inviolate techniques and tenets. Four years after winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, he won the undisputed professional world heavyweight championship, taking on all comers. He was to regain the title twice, an achievement that remains unmatched. His career in the professional ring spanned an astonishing 21 years. Of 61 contests, he lost only five, four of them when he was long past his majestic best. Thirty-seven victories were knockouts.
Ali’s fabled predecessors in his kingdom were Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Johnson was a puncher-boxer and dandy; Dempsey an uncomplicated hitter; Tunney had grace and nerve and fast feet; Louis’s fast hands punched in a blur of combinations, and he had a killer instinct as well as chivalry; Marciano had relentless oomph and steam-hammer cruelty. Ali had every single one of all those qualities in abundance, as well as timing, intelligence, wit and an extraordinary courage which, in the end, becursed his wellbeing. Yet, through the final third of the 20th century, rheumy-eyed, scarred and bent-nosed ancients would shake their heads at his virtuosities, sigh, and insist that the big, bold champions of their far tougher olden days would have ambushed, cornered, speared and most damnably done for the swankpot in no time. But as the fearless Ali strutted on, inventing new ways, new scenes, new angles, new endings, those croaking pronouncements of veterans petered out. No one believed them any more, not when Ali was in his prime, in his pomp.
He was born the eldest son of Cassius and Odessa Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, and named Cassius Marcellus after his father. His mother was listed on the birth certificate as a household domestic, his father as a signwriter. The family lived on Grand Avenue in the segregated city’s black west end. In the Kentucky state census rolls, all four of his grandparents were described as “free coloureds”. One of Odessa’s grandfathers, Tom Moorehead, was the son of a white man called Moorehead and the partner of a slave named simply as Dinah. Odessa’s other grandfather was a white Irishman, Abe O’Grady, born in County Clare, who married a “freed slave woman, name unknown”.
It was a small but happy family (there was soon a second son, Rudolph), in which penury was taken for granted. The brothers were both good boys, the neighbours recalled, unfailing attendees of the Baptist Sunday school. Odessa was a serene and saintly homemaker, though her husband was a rascally tale-teller and liked to drink. This led to occasional court appearances. He paid the fines and, as a self-imposed additional penance, painted religious murals for various Baptist chapels around the city. The two boys would sometimes help. “Louisville was more peaceful, less dangerous then,” Rudolph recalled many years later, “except if we strayed off-limits, then white boys would threaten: ‘Hey, nigger, get back to your own.’”
Young Cassius was no scholar, and by the end of his schooling, only an occasional attendee. He could scarcely read or write when he graduated from Central high school in 1960, and ranked 376th in the graduation class of 391. Long before then, however, his abundant energies had been devoted to boxing.
When he was 12, in October 1954, his cherished bicycle was stolen. The white policeman, Joe Martin, to whom he reported the theft, happened to be the organiser of a boys’ boxing club in the basement of the city’s Columbia auditorium. He never got his bike back, but it was a life-changing encounter. Encouraged also by a black trainer, Fred Stoner, within two months the spindly, sassy youngster weighing 90lb had won (on a split decision) his first official three-minute, three-round amateur bout against another rookie, Ron O’Keefe. Over the next six years he contested a further 107 junior bouts, won two national Golden Gloves titles and two national Amateur Athletic Union titles, and was chosen for the US team for the 1960 Olympics. He leapt to such glamour with relish and a nerveless, original skill and in the final of the 178lb (light-heavyweight) division, the 18-year-old defeated and bewildered and perplexed the three-times European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, of Poland.
These were the first Olympics to be televised live around the world. And the world took notice. I did, for sure, and remember thinking: “This madcap kid doesn’t even hold up his guard. He just dances and sways and punches in lightning flashes.” I still recall Neil Allen’s prescient report in the Times: “The American has given the impression of being so much a showman that we have waited throughout the tournament for someone to wake him up with a solid punch. Nobody has, and in the final last night Clay, like some loosely strung marionette, put his punches together in combination clusters and pummelled the Pole about the ring. Only great courage kept the triple European champion on his feet. We still have not seen whether the new gold medallist can take a punch but I expect him to be among the professionals next year so we shall know his worth soon enough.”
And so it came to pass. In 1960 a consortium of old-money Kentucky businessmen were ready to launch the young Olympian’s paid career with a $10,000 down payment and a guaranteed $333 a month against ring earnings (the latter was split 50/50 for the first two years, then 60/40 for the next four of the six-year contract). It was a good, fair deal, and three days after signing, on 29 October 1960, Clay made his debut as a pro and defeated in six one-sided rounds Tunney Hunsaker, a former chief police officer, in Louisville’s packed Freedom Hall. Hunsaker lived off the history of it till his death 40 years later. The consortium hired a canny veteran, Archie Moore, as Clay’s trainer, but the two never got on and instead he went south to Florida, to Angelo Dundee’s celebrated Fifth Street gym in Miami. The skilled and caring Dundee was to be at Ali’s side and in his corner for the next 21 years.
As his fleet and rangy physique bulked up, his looks and build now matched his charm and cheek. The artist LeRoy Neiman observed: “Suddenly he resembles a piece of classical sculpture with no flaw or imperfection, his features and limbs flawless and perfectly proportioned.” The engaging nature, too, began to resonate as Clay cut a swathe through the well-selected heavyweights’ Second Division and he allowed his ego full rein on self-promotion. Imitating the white, vaudeville television love-to-hate wrestler Gorgeous George, his forecasts bragged the precise round he was going to win, sometimes combining such box-office larks with couplets of doggerel. One was: “I’ll Just Say ‘Boo!’/He’ll Go in Two” (Lamar Clark, KO 2); another was “Ol’ Mitt Likes t’Mix/He falls in Six” (Alex Miteff, KO 6). In 1963, Clay returned to Europe for his first foreign professional fight against Henry Cooper (“London’s a Jive/’Enery Lasts Five”), and although he was floored for the first time, he duly stopped Cooper in the fifth as he had predicted.
Spring 1964 was momentous for Clay in several ways. Dundee, daringly, deemed him ready for Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion. Liston smiled for once. The boxing fraternity chortled. This, or so the knowing forecast went, would be the end of a half-diverting saga of an appealing loudmouth. We would hear of him no more, for Liston and his ogre status made both an art and science out of first, intimidation, then sadistically inflicted pain. Hadn’t Liston not long before humiliatingly laid to waste, twice inside six minutes, the Olympic champion of 1956, Floyd Patterson?
Liston was presumed invincible and the greenhorn, fresh-faced challenger was an unprecedented 8-1 underdog odds that lengthened when, at the weigh-in, Clay’s apparent hysterics had doctors pronouncing him traumatised by fear. Come the bell, the upstart nervelessly played it cool, almost a laughingly gay matador, his speed of hand and foot totally nullifying Liston’s wicked jab, the key to his armoury. Dismantled brick by brick and tile by tile, Liston aged 10 years in less than 20 minutes and retired on his stool before the start of the seventh (the round in which the challenger had predicted “the ol’ bear would be trapped and wrap’t”). On 25 February 1964, Clay was crowned world heavyweight champion for the first time. In the rematch in May 1965, Liston keeled over in a fainting funk inside a round.
Two days after his first defeat of Liston, Clay announced his conversion to Islam, and on 6 March, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Liston later complained that the Black Muslims, a separatist sect, had threatened him in an attempt to throw the fight. Old ham boxing writers were happy to believe him, and so were America’s rightwing rednecks. Such a charge was at least given credence as the newly renamed boxer was a minister in the Nation of Islam, and the group’s self-proclaimed “messenger”, Elijah Muhammad, had, to all intents, become the boxer’s manager. (Ali was to convert to orthodox Islam in 1975.)
The US of the mid-1960s was a nation seething with racial undercurrents. (Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 and Martin Luther King three years later.) The rest of the world was comparatively oblivious to all of this, and while to a large, white tranche of the US, Ali became public enemy No 1, his televised contests with Liston had girdled the globe so, even by then, whatever name he chose, his sporting legend was assured.
However, for all his brilliance in the ring hands as fast and deadly as a cobra’s strike, feet in a riverdance blur never before seen in a heavyweight America’s inevitable white backlash to his religious defiance bit back with merciless retribution. This change of mood among white Americans coincided with Ali’s second US army call-up to serve in Vietnam. Although he had already failed in 1964 the draft’s preliminary intelligence tests in literacy and numeracy (placed at just 16 in an elementary attainment level of 30) “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest” fresh calls for his induction came in 1966.
Establishment outrage reached spittingly aggressive proportions when Ali, pleading deferment on religious grounds, told reporters: “I ain’t no quarrel with them Vietcong … no Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger’.” Within an hour, outraged, all US boxing bodies suspended his licence and stripped him of his title. In June 1967, a court confirmed the ban unanimously. Ali was prevented from boxing until 1970 – that is, between the ages of 25 and 28, which undoubtedly should have been the pinnacle and prime of his athletic resplendence. His really “greatest” years were arguably stolen. (The conviction for refusing to join the armed services was reversed in June 1971 by the US supreme court.)
When the three-year ban expired, he returned to the ring, in October 1970, with a three-round stoppage of Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia, although observers could already detect a glimmer of unease about his work. He knew the ravishing speed and the split-second timing of his punches were fractionally out of kilter. He never reclaimed the full package; lost property, stolen property. I was pleased, at least, to have witnessed his pre-ban splendours say, against Cleveland Williams at Houston in November 1966, or Zora Folley in New York in March 1967.
Nor, after the ban, it must be said, was Ali’s passing, nasty and vindictive side ever again in evidence, such as when he bullyingly and hurtfully “carried” the hapless, injured Patterson in 1965, or malevolently taunted to painful humiliation for the full 15 rounds Ernie Terrell, who had addressed Ali as Clay at the weigh-in at Houston in 1967. Those were not pretty sights.
If the two fights with Liston, epic in their theatricality and outcome, had begun to compile the legend, then the three contests with the uncomplicated, brooding warrior Joe Frazier, in 1971, 1974 and 1975, clinched the immortal deal. Here was an unmissably dramatic, defining, second act. Only six months after the exile’s return against Quarry, Ali squared up to the remorselessly committed hitter “Smokin’ Joe” to challenge for his own usurped title. After a thunderously pulsating, draining 14 rounds it was dead-level. In the last, a fearsome Frazier hook crunched into Ali’s jaw, broke it, and dumped him on the canvas, sprawling on his back. Frazier deservedly won the decision but the fact that Ali somehow gathered himself to his feet and attempted to fight back not only had the fans round the world swooning at the heroism, but it gave notice of the added, and unconsidered, ingredient that would embrace Ali for the rest of his life.
Should we call it adversity? Well, here is sheer, dauntless, leonine courage. Worldwide love of, and tributes to Ali today are not so much for his astonishing, upfront, youthful and winning talents, but for his bravery at heaving himself from the canvas that New York night in 1971.
Ali avenged that defeat by Frazier with a points victory in the return contest in the same New York ring three years later. In 1975, the last payday was generous enough for the two ageing fighters to meet for a third time in Quezon City, in the Philippines “the Thrilla in Manila”. The venom and pain of it was excruciating. To all intents, it was a requiem for both men’s illustrious prizefighting. It ended with Ali collapsing but, by minutes, the winnerbecause Frazier was mercifully retired by his cornermen at the end of the 14th and penultimate round. They had nearly beaten each other to death. The doyen of British sportswriters, Hugh McIlvanney, was at the ringside: “There was nothing morbid or sadistic about the thrill that their performances sent through the blood. What we felt was awe at the spectacle of two extraordinary men setting new limits for themselves, pushing back the boundaries of their courage, their physical and psychological capacity.”
A year before what should have been, by every doctor’s recommendation, the (sort of) triumphant last hurrah in the Philippines, Ali’s global ambassadorial obsessions saw him stripped for battle in the even more unlikely setting of Kinshasa (then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The posters for this contest dubbed it “the Rumble in the Jungle”. It was probably the seminal boxing match of all time, the dramatic unities perfectly in place: perceived goodie v baddie, impossible odds, totally unforeseen outcome.
The 25-year-old George Foreman was cast as the behemoth beast, but boxing had not seen a hitter of such concussive, one-punch power, demonstrated in Jamaica when he took the title from Frazier. Ali might possibly have had an answer in his prime, but not now, not at a fading, spent-force 32 years old. But as well as his wilful courage, in this (what we thought) would be the last chapter of his glories, we came also to marvel at the brazenness. For seven sweltering rounds, against all prognoses, Ali allowed Foreman, the brutish, one-blow Goliath, actually to punch himself out on his arms, as Ali himself lay on the ropes, head back as if out of a bedroom window to check if the cat was on the roof. Ali called it his “rope-a-dope” trick and the world caught its breath when finally he came off the ropes, feinted with his left and, with a single right hander, felled the bewildered Foreman.
Unaccountably champ again, Ali went on boxing. He had easily enough of a fortune left, however generous he was with it, and in the ring he was now being hit with increasing regularity and hurt. In February 1978, he lost the title to the workaday Leon Spinks and regained it once again that September but tiredly, for now the feet were flat, the reflexes dull, the senses dimmed. His speech was slurring badly.
He retired, came back, retired again and was just short of his 39th birthday when he allowed himself to challenge the giant he-man Larry Holmes in October 1980. He was calamitously, cringingly, beaten up over 10 rounds by a mercifully unvenomous Holmes but badly beaten up he still was. It was not till December 1981 just five weeks off 40 that sense and his friends coaxed him from the ring and quietly led him away after a last humbling from Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.
Ali’s health nosedived almost at once. Soon he was seen scarcely able to talk or walk, his speech descending into inaudible mumbles, the once stimulating “Ali shuffle” becoming a harrowing shamble. It was pitifully obvious that Parkinson’s disease was severely debilitating his brain and limbs. Yet the soulful, mischievous brown eyes still spoke eloquently of his wit and charm. With pride, difficulty and a dignified, if silent, eloquence, he lit the torch to open the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Thousands wept as he did so.
At the turn of the millennium, Ali was voted, far and wide and undisputed in umpteen countries, man of the century, sportsman of the century, and personality of the century. In 2005 he opened a museum built in his honour in Louisville. And in 2011 he made rare public appearance the funeral of his former opponent, Frazier. At last year’s opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London, he seemed extremely frail and was only able to walk a few steps. However, he received a rapturous reception from the 80,000-strong crowd.
Date of Birth: 18 July 1930, Warrington, Lacashire, UK
Birth Name: Herbert Tsangtse Kwouk
Nicknames: Burt Kwouk
Burt Kwouk, mostly seen in British films and TV, did manage to elevate many of his roles, finally transcending stereotypes such as his celebrated Cato, the foil to Peter Sellers’ bungling Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, to become a national treasure, this status being consecrated in 2002 by his joining the cast of the BBC’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine.
Kwouk was born in Warrington, Lancashire, “because my mother happened to be there at the time,” but at 10 months old was taken back to the family home in Shanghai. There he remained until he was 17, when his well-off parents sent him to the US to study politics and economics. However, before he was able to graduate his parents lost all their money in the 1949 revolution, and he returned to Shanghai. A few years later, Kwouk took advantage of his dual nationality and returned to Britain, where he took various menial jobs before his girlfriend “nagged me into acting”. Capitalising on his oriental looks, he started getting roles mostly as villainous or comic Chinese or Japanese characters.
One of his first TV appearances was a comic one, in a Hancock’s Half Hour (1957), as a Japanese man presenting two bowls of rice to Tony Hancock, who has won a lifetime’s supply in a newspaper competition. A year later, Kwouk was fortunate, so early in his career, to have one of his better film roles in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, set in China but shot in Wales. Kwouk, one of the few genuine Chinese people in the cast, played Li, who helps Ingrid Bergman, as the English Christian missionary Gladys Aylward, escape from the Japanese with 100 children. After a long and arduous journey, he is shot and killed by Japanese soldiers when he tries to distract them from the children.
He was soon cast in a couple of Hammer Horror films, The Terror of the Tongs, as one of evil Christopher Lee’s hatchet men, and Visa to Canton (both 1961). Kwouk was subsequently to play the sidekick of Lee’s Fu Manchu in The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). But in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980), Sax Rohmer’s master criminal was played by Sellers, with Kwouk as his manservant. It was a best-forgotten, dismal ending to Sellers’ career, but it did give him and Kwouk a last chance to work together.
Their first chance had come 16 years before in A Shot in the Dark (1964), the second of Blake Edwards’s slapstick comedies featuring Sellers as the extraordinarily maladroit Inspector Clouseau, who seemed unable to cross a room without breaking something. Kwouk played Clouseau’s Chinese “houseboy”, whose sole function was to ambush his master with kung fu attacks at the most unexpected moments from the most unsuspected places. These brilliantly choreographed running and jumping gags, which always resulted in the destruction of Clouseau’s apartment and Cato coming off worst, were the highlights of all the Pink Panther films, which included The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978).
“Peter and I fell about laughing so much that very often we were unable to complete the day’s work as scheduled, which the producers hated,” Kwouk recalled. “Cato and I are very different. He never stands still. I only move when I have to.” The death of Sellers in 1980 didn’t prevent Edwards from making The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) by piecing together out-takes and clips from the previous films in the series. Kwouk was seen as Cato, bravely being interviewed about his boss, and again in Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), this time as proprietor of the Clouseau museum. Kwouk’s protracted association with the Pink Panther series ended with Son of the Pink Panther (1993), in which, in various disguises, he attacks villains on behalf of Roberto Benigni in the title role.
Kwouk also appeared in three James Bond movies: Goldfinger (1964), as a nuclear scientist sent to oversee the bomb that China has given to Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) to blow up Fort Knox, but who is later double-crossed and shot; Casino Royale (1967), as a Chinese general; and You Only Live Twice (1967), as one of Blofeld’s gang of Spectre henchmen.
His other roles varied from Chairman Peng of the People’s Republic in Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) to a corrupt Laotian general who’s hoping to save up enough money to buy a Holiday Inn in the US in Air America (1990), to the trustworthy contact in Paris of Jet Li’s Chinese cop in the formulaic martial arts thriller Kiss of the Dragon (2001).
Parallel to his film career, Kwouk made a niche for himself on British television in series including The Saint (1965-68), It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1977-78), Doctor Who (1982), and as himself in The Kenny Everett Show (1983-84) and The Harry Hill Show (1997-2000). But the role that revealed his underused talents as a dramatic actor was Major Yamauchi, the strict but honourable commandant of a women’s POW camp in Tenko (1981-84).
In contrast was his Mr Entwistle, a philosophical electrical handyman from Hull in Last of the Summer Wine, a part specially written for him by Roy Clarke. “It is a very pleasant and easygoing programme, a lovely gentle comic show,” Kwouk remarked. “There is no one charging around, and even the slapstick is quite gentle certainly more gentle than I am used to.”
Kwouk’s voice was almost as famous as his face. It can be heard in the video game Fire Warrior, narrating the English version of the Japanese TV series The Water Margin (1976-78), the bizarre “interactive” gambling show Banzai! (2001-04) and in many TV commercials.
Kwouk was appointed OBE in 2011 for services to drama.
Date of Birth: 9 July 1937, Nottingham, UK
Birth Name: Barry Fredrick Howard
Nicknames: Barry Howard
Barry Howard was best known to TV viewers for his role in the BBC sitcom Hi-de-Hi! as Barry Stuart-Hargreaves, who, with his wife, Yvonne, teaches ballroom dancing at Maplins holiday camp.
Set at the turn of the 1950s, Hi-de-Hi! was created by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, based on their experience of staging summer shows at Butlin’s. Howard had started his own career at Butlin’s after learning ballroom dancing at school.
Whereas once Barry and Yvonne (played by Diane Holland) had swept across the country’s top dance floors, they were now reduced to imparting their skills to holidaymakers in the fictional Essex seaside town of Crimpton-on-Sea and even taking part in what they saw as demeaning shows alongside the yellowcoats hired by the entertainments manager, Jeffrey Fairbrother (Simon Cadell). Having spaghetti stuffed down his trousers and dressing up as Percy the pixie were an embarrassing come-down for Barry Stuart-Hargreaves.
The dance instructors’ frustrations were compounded by strains in their own relationship, not helped by Yvonne’s previous infidelities. Howard played every situation deadpan, often with a sideways glance and flare of the nostrils, whether making caustic comments about Yvonne or the guests.
After the 1980 pilot and seven series (1981-86), Howard was written out and Barry was replaced as Yvonne’s dancing partner by Julian Dalrymple-Sykes (Ben Aris), one of her former lovers. “I used to drink more than was good for me in those days and got into trouble for shoving one of the yellowcoat girls into the pool,” Howard said. “I enjoyed any type of drink and made front-page news. I wasn’t well enough to continue for the last two series.”
However, the actor did return to his role for a 2010 stage tour of Hi-de-Hi!, one of only two original cast members to do so. Nikki Kelly, who had appeared as the yellowcoat Sylvia Garnsey in the series, took the role of Yvonne. Howard and the TV cast had originally appeared in the stage show Hi-de-Hi – The Holiday Musical, which was performed at the Victoria Palace theatre, London (1983-84), sandwiched between summer seasons in Bournemouth and Blackpool.
Howard was born in Nottingham to Gladys (nee Booth) and Frederick, a butcher, and did national service in the Royal Air Force after leaving grammar school. Wanting to train as an actor but unable to get a grant, he worked backstage at the Alexandra theatre, Birmingham, for almost two years to fund himself through Birmingham Theatre School.
He then performed at Butlin’s Ayr holiday camp, followed by theatre summer seasons at other seaside resorts. After Howard and John Inman appeared together in a 1964-65 tour of the musical Salad Days, they formed a partnership as a long-running Ugly Sisters act in pantomimes and ran up their own costumes dresses of lime green and purple, puce and crimson, lemon and black, embroidered and trimmed with lace, feathers, net, fur or sequins.
The double act continued until Inman found fame as Mr Humphries in the TV sitcom Are You Being Served?, but Howard continued to play pantomime dames.
After his West End debut in 1964 as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night during a Shakespeare season at the Comedy theatre, he took the roles of Mr Sowerberry in the first national tour of Oliver! (1964-65) and Herr Schultz in Cabaret at Bristol Old Vic (1977-8), appeared in the Churchill musical Winnie at the Victoria Palace (1988), was the narrator of The Rocky Horror Show on tour (1991-92) and, between 2003 and 2013, was Jacob Marley opposite Tommy Steele’s Ebenezer in Scrooge: The Musical on tour and at the London Palladium.
His television appearances were few before he became a star through Hi-de-Hi!, but Howard subsequently had a cameo role as Count Zarkhov in a 1990 episode of the Perry-Croft “upstairs, downstairs” comedy You Rang, M’Lord? and played the footman Danny Jackson for the entire run of the royal household sitcom The House of Windsor (1994).
Later, he was seen in the 2009 Doctor Who story The End of Time as Oliver Barnes, one of the Silver Cloak group of pensioners also including June Whitfield, searching for David Tennant’s abducted Time Lord.
Date of Birth: 7 June 1958, Minneapolis, Minnesota, US
Birth Name: Prince Rogers Nelson
Nicknames: Prince, Jamie Starr, Joey Coco, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince
Prince was the prodigious hit-maker who synthesised an intoxicating mix of musical styles.
Typical of its prodigiously gifted composer, a multi-instrumentalist with a ferocious work ethic, the 1984 album Purple Rain, and accompanying semi-autobiographical hit movie of the same name, launched Prince, who has died aged 57, on to the global stage. It put him on track to become one of the greatest superstars of that decade and beyond.
The chart-topping Purple Rain sold more than 20m copies, delivering two US No 1 singles in When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy, and winning Prince the 1985 Oscar for best original song score. The anthemic title song could make it only to No 2, but it became the calling card of a compelling and glamorous performer who continued to dazzle and bewitch audiences.
His career as a hit-maker had begun five years earlier, with the single I Wanna Be Your Lover, and he followed up Purple Rain with further hugely successful releases including Parade, Sign o’ the Times, Lovesexy and Diamonds and Pearls. While his profile and commercial fortunes ebbed and flowed over the following decades, and he even changed his name temporarily to a mysterious symbol as part of an attempt to get out of his contract with Warner Bros, in recent years he had regained his grip on his career, and become acknowledged as one of the most inspirational artists of his era.
His ability to synthesise an intoxicating mix of musical styles, from funk, soul, gospel and rock to jazz, hip-hop and psychedelia, made him unique in rock music history, helped by his mastery of studio and audio technology. In addition, he presented his music and his persona with dazzling visual flair, and was always an enthralling live performer even when his record sales were not at their peak. After playing hours-long headlining concerts, he would often perform late-night shows with his band at local clubs; these became almost more sought after than the “official” performances.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis. His father, John Nelson, was leader of the Prince Rogers jazz trio, and met his wife-to-be, Mattie Shaw, when playing at community dances on Minneapolis’s North Side. Mattie joined the Prince Rogers trio as vocalist, but dropped out of the group after she married. The couple named their son after John’s stage name, though the boy was nicknamed “Skipper” when he was growing up. His parents’ musical leanings rubbed off on him, and at the age of seven he wrote his first song, Funk Machine, on his father’s piano. In 1960 his sister, Tyka, was born.
His parents separated when Prince was 10, and he would alternate between living with his father and with his mother – who studied for a master’s degree in social work and her new husband, Hayward Baker. It was Baker who took the boy to see James Brown perform, an event that had a profound influence on his approach to writing and performing. Prince eventually found a more permanent home with neighbours, the Anderson family, and their son Andre (later known as André Cymone) became a close friend and a musical partner. While attending Minneapolis’s central high school, Prince and Andre joined a band called Grand Central, which also included Prince’s cousin Charles Smith on drums. They played mostly cover versions, arranged by Prince. The group became Champagne, and acquired a new drummer, Morris Day, who later became lead singer with the Time and had prominent roles in Prince’s movies Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge (1990).
After making some recordings with Pepé Willie and his band 94 East, released in the 1980s as Minneapolis Genius: 94 East in 1976 Prince made a demo tape of his own material with the engineer Chris Moon, which caught the ear of a Minneapolis businessman, Owen Husney. He signed Prince to a management contract, forming the company American Artists, and funded the recording of high-quality demos which attracted interest from several record labels. Prince accepted the deal with Warner Bros, which gave him a rare degree of artistic control as well as ownership of his publishing rights.
On his first album, For You (1978), the artist wrote and performed everything himself. The single Soft and Wet, an early indicator of Prince’s fondness for suggestive sexual wordplay, sold 350,000 copies and reached No 12 in the US R&B chart. The following January, Prince unveiled his new band at the Capri theatre in Minneapolis, a funk-rock ensemble featuring Cymone on bass alongside keyboard players Gayle Chapman and Matt Fink, guitarist Dez Dickerson and drummer Bobby Z.
After Prince fell out with Warner Bros, he made his feelings towards the label explicit by writing SLAVE on his cheek whenever he appeared in public. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images
By the time his second album, Prince, appeared in October 1979, he had switched to Earth Wind & Fire’s management, Cavallo & Ruffalo. The album reached 22 in the Billboard 200, and would eventually sell a million copies as well as generating his first major hit with I Wanna Be Your Lover. The Dirty Mind album followed a year later, reaching the Top 50 in the US while provoking some criticism for the blatantly sexual nature of songs such as Head and Sister.
Aptly, his next release was the following year’s Controversy, which contained more sexually explicit songs, a chant of the Lord’s Prayer, and even an intervention in US foreign policy, with a plea to President Reagan called Ronnie, Talk To Russia. Prince’s ability to provoke an audience was illustrated when he supported the Rolling Stones in San Francisco, and was pelted with shoes and chicken’s innards.
But the music was flowing out of him in an unstoppable torrent, and the 1982 double album called 1999 gave him his first Top 10 entry as well as hit singles with the title track, Delirious, and, above all, Little Red Corvette. The last-named benefited from heavy rotation on MTV, one of the first tracks by a black artist to receive such intense exposure, so helping to change the station’s programming policies. It was also the first album credited to Prince and the Revolution, his band now including Mark Brown and Lisa Coleman in place of Cymone and Chapman. Prince undertook a six-month tour to promote 1999, where he was joined on the bill by his proteges the Time and a new all-female group, Vanity 6, the latter seemingly an embodiment of Prince’s sexual fantasies.
Filming of the Purple Rain movie began in late 1983, and took seven weeks on a budget of $7m. The Purple Rain campaign got off to a perfect start when the first single, When Doves Cry, topped the US charts (the Revolution now had a new guitarist, Wendy Melvoin, replacing Dickerson). The movie opened in July, the album arrived the following month, and in November Prince embarked on a 100-date US tour. At one point in 1984, Prince had the No 1 album, film and single in the US. Meanwhile he achieved another milestone of sorts when some of his lyrics, including those from Purple Rain’s Darling Nikki and his hit written for Sheena Easton, Sugar Walls, hit opposition from the newly formed Parents’ Music Resource Centre, which campaigned for a warning sticker on records containing sexually explicit lyrics.
Intense press scrutiny didn’t seem to agree with Prince, who shunned interviews and in 1985 announced his retirement from live performing. This didn’t prevent Around the World in a Day from topping the Billboard chart that spring and delivering the hits Raspberry Beret and Pop Life. A year later came Parade, along with the chart-topping single Kiss (and behind it at No 2 was the Bangles’ Manic Monday, another Prince composition). July brought Prince’s new film Under the Cherry Moon, for which Parade provided the soundtrack, though the film was a comparative failure. His performing ban apparently rescinded, Prince embarked on the Hit n Run – Parade Tour, which included three nights at Wembley Arena. This was the end of the line for the Revolution, which Prince disbanded at the end of the tour.
Music continued to pour out of him, and the epic double album Sign o’ the Times was released in March 1987. This produced a fresh batch of hit singles, including the title track, U Got the Look (featuring Easton) and I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man. Prince undertook an international touring campaign with a new band featuring the drummer Sheila E and dancer/choreographer Cat Glover, and a Sign o’ the Times concert film was released in November, though with limited commercial success.
Shelving what later appeared as The Black Album – whose mix of lewd funk workouts, free jazz and hip-hop Prince suddenly decided was “evil” – he instead released Lovesexy (1988), an exercise in spiritually inclined R&B notable mostly for its infectious hit Alphabet St. The album fared well in Europe but poorly in the States, while the lavish Lovesexy world tour lost money. Prince’s financial affairs were in some disarray: “He wouldn’t budget, he wouldn’t run a business, he just did everything on a whim and a prayer,” said one business associate. However, Prince – having co-written and sung on Love Song, from Madonna’s 1989 album Like A Prayer – found himself back in commercial clover that year with his soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman movie, a multi-platinum US chart-topper which gave him another US No 1 with Batdance.
His profile boosted by Sinéad O’Connor’s version of his song Nothing Compares 2 U, Prince embarked on another film and music project with Graffiti Bridge. The album went Top 10 but the film sank without trace, prompting another shake-up in Prince’s backing group. In 1991 he introduced the New Power Generation, who backed him on the Diamonds and Pearls album. This reached No 3 and delivered four hit singles, including his fifth US No 1, Cream.
In 1992 Prince announced a new $100m deal with Warner Bros, but the shine faded when he found that the contract deprived him of ownership of his master recordings. The Love Symbol Album (which reached No 5 in the US and No 1 in Britain) was a harbinger of things to come, since in 1993 Prince changed his name to what he called “that symbol on the album” (the so-called “love symbol”, combining male and female images). Prince wanted to set a faster pace of album releases, but Warners wanted a more controlled flow to permit maximum exploitation of singles and touring. Prince, now referred to as the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, made his feelings towards the label explicit by writing SLAVE on his cheek whenever he appeared in public. Meanwhile the label marked time by releasing the triple-CD set The Hits/The B-Sides (1993).
Prince reached a settlement with Warners in April 1996, by which time he had also released Come (a collection of material from his vaults), the notorious Black Album (1994), and The Gold Experience (1995), the latter providing a solid hit with The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. On Valentine’s Day that year he married a 22-year-old backing singer and dancer, Mayte Garcia, but in October their son Gregory died one week after his birth because of a rare skull defect, Pfeiffer syndrome. It drove the couple apart; they divorced in 2000.
After releasing the contractual obligation album Chaos and Disorder (1996), Prince celebrated his escape from Warners with the triple-album Emancipation on his own NPG label; it sold 2m copies in the US. Prince now embraced the internet era by selling Crystal Ball, a five-CD set of previously unreleased tracks, on his website, though the delivery process was chaotic. This won him a Webby lifetime achievement award in 2006, as the first major artist to release a whole album exclusively online. Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) was designed to be commercial and accessible, but was a relative flop.
In May 2000, after the expiry of his publishing contract with Warner Chappell Music, Prince officially retired the love symbol and became Prince again. He now focused on internet distribution via his NPGMusicClub.com site, which brought The Rainbow Children, the instrumental album N.E.W.S. and the jazzy Xpectation. One Nite Alone ... Live! (2002) was his first live album.
In 2001 he had married Manuela Testolini, whom he met while she was working at his charitable foundation. They divorced five years later. In 2001 Prince joined Jehovah’s Witnesses, introduced by Larry Graham, who had played bass with Sly and the Family Stone and fronted his own band, Graham Central Station.
In February 2004, Prince made a spectacular appearance at the Grammy Awards with Beyoncé, performing a medley which included Purple Rain, Let’s Go Crazy and Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love. In March Prince was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, playing a batch of his own songs before joining in While My Guitar Gently Weeps as a tribute toGeorge Harrison, who had died in 2001.
Musicology (2004) presented a relaxed, optimistic Prince making listener-friendly music with a new business model. He arranged distribution through Columbia Records, taking no advance payment but retaining complete ownership of the album. Anybody who bought a ticket for the Musicology tour received a copy of the album, which was also available though the online Music Club. “One advantage of writing SLAVE on my face back then is that when I meet with a label now, they already know they’re not going to be owning anything,” Prince said. “Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don’t roll like that no more.”
He scored his first US No 1 album since Batman with 3121 (2006), and in November that year was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.
He opened the 3121 nightclub under a deal with the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and performed there regularly.
In February 2007, at the Super Bowl half-time show in Miami, one of the highest-profile showcases a US artist can achieve, he played some Purple Rain songs alongside cover versions of pieces by Queen, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Foo Fighters.
His Earth Tour brought him to London that summer, to play 21 nights at the O2 Arena. The Planet Earth album was given away free with the Mail on Sunday, to the dismay of music retailers (he was dubbed the Artist Formerly Available In Record Stores). In October 2008, he released the live album Indigo Nights, comprising music performed after hours at the IndigO2 nightclub, plus a matching book called 21 Nights.
The album 20Ten was released in 2010 as a free covermounted disc with various European publications but not available online; he toured the album in Europe in two separate legs with different bands. His appearance at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent in July 2011 was his debut at a UK festival.
In 2013, Prince formed a new backing band called 3rdeyegirl, which came to London on the small-scale Hit and Run Tour in February 2014. Even more surprising than his performance at the home of singer Lianne La Havas was news that Prince had signed a new deal with Warner Bros after an 18-year gap. The label announced the release of a 30th anniversary deluxe edition of Purple Rain, and returned ownership of his Warner recordings to the artist.
Date of Birth: 19 May 1953, Prestwich, Lancashire, UK
Birth Name: Victoria Wood
Victoria Wood, found success in the 1970s as one of Britain’s first woman stand-up comics and the plump chanteuse of bittersweet songs, often with a social point.
At the heart of her acerbic observations on human frailty lay her mischievous brand of witty musical epigrams that conjured a lost 1950s world of feeble men, gynaecological afflictions, split ends, corner shops and unsatisfactory sex.
In the days when almost all stand-up comedians were men spouting sexist, racist material, Victoria Wood counted herself fortunate that she narrowly predated the wave of alternative comedians. Indeed, seated breezily at the piano, she seemed to frame her essentially Northern, self-deprecating view of life in the old-fashioned cabaret style of Noël Coward.
It was perhaps in subconscious homage to Coward (who had fashioned his own version of the Cole Porter standard in the 1950s) that she wrote her most popular number Let’s Do It, putting her own twist on it by making it a marathon saga of inverted suburban lust with the wife, Freda, wanting sex and the husband, Barry, finding every excuse not to oblige.
As Freda’s demands are given full rein (“Bend me over backwards on my Hostess trolley… Beat me on the bottom with my Woman’s Weekly”), Barry’s excuses become more and more lame (“You know I pulled a muscle when I did that grouting… ”)
Having surfaced on the ITV talent show New Faces in 1974, Victoria Wood soon became a fixture on Esther Rantzen’s BBC One That’s Life show, warbling whimsical takes on stories in the news.
Although Victoria Wood herself cultivated a deliberately frumpy, roly-poly image, attracting such epithets as The Daily Telegraph’s “plucky, buxom singing blonde from Lancashire”, her origins were comfortably middle-class: her father was an insurance underwriter who played jazz piano and wrote plays and television scripts in his spare time. Her flair was to capture the speech-patterns of ordinary folk discussing subjects that were workaday but inherently amusing. As one television producer put it, “she manages to be extraordinarily ordinary”.
While her on-stage persona suggested the matey, if mumsy, girl-next-door, she earned a reputation for being somewhat dour in private. She disliked publicity, was wary of journalists and gave interviews only when they served to promote her work. There were hints of a troubled childhood, and in the 1990s she underwent psychotherapy “to clear out things that might have been bothering me from my past”, although these were never specified.
Her appearance, too, was ambiguous: the baggy striped blazer, trousers, carelessly knotted tie and pudding-basin haircut underlined a camp style that attracted a large gay following. Later, when Victoria Wood lost weight, she shed the boyish uniform for more stylish jackets and brooches. At the same time, she moved from one-liners to longer formats.
Her first substantial success on television was with her series Wood and Walters (1982), starring with her close friend from drama school days, Julie Walters. In Victoria Wood – as Seen on TV (1985), she created a cult classic with “Acorn Antiques”, a soap opera parody in which the cast, featuring Wood and Walters, fluffed their lines on the wobbly set, a throwback to the days of Crossroads. Victoria Wood’s scripts were clever, quirky and original, and the show won Bafta’s prize for best comedy of the year, cementing her claim to be the funniest woman in Britain.
After a gap of several years, in 1998 she returned to the small screen with a new sitcom, Dinnerladies, about a group of women working in a northern factory canteen.
Untrammelled by political correctness, Victoria Wood’s scripts fizzed with sexual banter between the women and the canteen manager, Tony (Andrew Dunn). “Abuse and harassment are disgusting,” she conceded, “but when people go to work they talk about sex - it’s part of life.” The series was recommissioned the following year, but received mixed reviews and was subsequently dropped.
She turned again to the live stage, touring provincial venues and starring at the London Palladium and at the Royal Albert Hall, where with her stand-up show, Victoria Wood — At It Again, she held the record for the most sell-out shows for a solo performer.
Victoria Wood was born on May 19 1953 at Prestwich, north Manchester, the youngest of four children. Her father worked in insurance, underwriting cover for pharmaceutical chemists, and as the Liberal agent for Bury and Radcliffe, where he and his wife brought up the family.
When Victoria was five, they moved to Birtle Edge House, a dismal, isolated former children’s home overlooking moorland on the outskirts of Bury.
A year later Victoria saw the comedienne Joyce Grenfell on stage in Buxton, and decided she wanted to be an entertainer.
At Bury Grammar School for Girls she was talented but withdrawn and lazy, and in her spare time joined the local orchestra and played trumpet in a military band.
Tortured by low self-esteem, she also read voraciously, second-hand books that had either been acquired by her book-obsessed mother, a drama teacher and former communist, or stolen from Bury Library (in 1999, by then an established star, Victoria Wood sent the library £100 in cash and a letter of apology).
For her 15th birthday in 1968 her father gave her a piano, and in the same year she joined Rochdale Youth Theatre Workshop, where she impressed with her writing skills and comic invention. Called for an audition at Manchester Polytechnic’s school of theatre in 1970, she failed to secure a place but encountered Julie Walters for the first time.
In 1971 she enrolled at Birmingham University to study Drama and Theatre Arts and while working as a part-time barmaid in a pub frequented by BBC producers was invited to a party where she played a few of her songs. The following day she auditioned at the BBC studio, Pebble Mill, and was given a spot on a local television programme about Midlands life. This led to another audition, and two appearances on the ITV talent show New Faces, one of which she won.
But a major breakthrough still eluded her, and she spent four years on the dole, often depressed, staying in bed for 14 hours at a stretch, eating too much tinned mince but also writing stage sketches, some of which became vehicles for her satirical songs.
In 1978 her first stage hit, In at the Death (Bush), was a revue about mortality. The Daily Telegraph found the songs “successfully blend a gallows humour with an unexpected touch of humanity”.
She followed up with Talent (ICA, 1979), a largely autobiographical take on a dreadful talent show in which she deployed jokes about such preoccupations as corsetry and “barmy” nuns.
While The Daily Telegraph considered this “crude and chattermagging”, The Sunday Telegraph’s critic disagreed, saying Victoria Wood’s talent was “as ample as her frame”.
For years she had agonised about her weight, having envied her two older sisters who were thin and, to her mind, more attractive. As a young woman of 15 stone, she suffered from a compulsive eating disorder, which she overcame and later incorporated into her stage act.
She became a vegetarian, gave up smoking, drinking and sugar, but subsequently admitted to secret bingeing sessions, isolating herself socially in the process.
“If you have an eating disorder then food replaces almost any need that you have,” she explained. “But you have to do it privately. Personally I don’t like being fat. The fact is that I was overweight, but I’m not now.” She trimmed down to a size 14.
After undergoing a hysterectomy in 2001, she took up marathon running and in 2004 made a hard-hitting documentary for BBC Television excoriating the diet industry. The following year a musical version of Acorn Antiques, starring Julie Walters and directed by Trevor Nunn, opened at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
She was irked when her 2009 television special, Victoria Wood’s Midlife Christmas, was moved (without reference to her) from the promised prime time Christmas Day slot to an inferior one the night before.
In 2011 she wrote and directed a musical, That Day We Sang, for the Manchester International Festival, about a middle-aged couple who find love after meeting on a television programme about a choir they both sang in 40 years previously.
The following year she wrote Loving Miss Hatto (BBC1), an “imagining” of the life of the concert pianist Joyce Hatto, who became famous late in life when unauthorised copies of recordings made by other pianists were released under her name, a fraud which only came to light after her death.
The following year she produced a documentary about the history of tea entitled Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea.
In the last three years she appeared in episodes of QI and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, and in 2015 took part in a celebrity version of The Great British Bake Off for Comic Relief, when she was crowned Star Baker in her episode. In December last year she co-starred with Timothy Spall in Sky television’s 3-part adaptation of Fungus the Bogeyman.
Her television work earned her many British Comedy and Bafta awards, including, in 2005, a tribute award and, in 2007, Bafta’s award for best actress and best single drama for Housewife, 49. She was the Variety Club’s BBC Personality of the Year for 1987.
She was appointed OBE in 1997 and advanced to CBE in 2008. She once beat the Queen Mother into second place to top a poll of “People You’d Most Like to Live Next Door To”.
Victoria Wood married, in 1980, Geoffrey Durham, the magician who entertained under the name The Great Soprendo. The marriage was dissolved more than 20 years later.
Date of Birth: 12 February 1945, Wales, UK
Birth Name: Gareth Daniel Noake Thomas
Nicknames: Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas, best known for his role in the popular BBC science-fiction series Blake’s 7. He was an accomplished classical stage actor who gained television fame in the title role of the BBC science-fiction series Blake’s 7 in 1978. Conceived by the writer Terry Nation as a more adult alternative to Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 was hugely popular with the public, ran for four series, amassed 10 million viewers, sold worldwide and retains a loyal fanbase despite the disdain with which some critics treated it at the time.
Thomas’s character, the political dissident Roj Blake, framed for child abuse while on the run, gathers a motley bunch of outlaws to do battle with the evil Federation. The series explored complex morality Blake’s fanaticism made him a compromised hero and his relationships with the other characters, notably the scheming antihero Avon (played by Paul Darrow), were never entirely comfortable.
After two series, Thomas hankered to return to the theatre and departed. The character was still mentioned missing, presumed dead and so, fearing that casting directors would assume he was still in the show and so unavailable for other work, he requested that Blake be killed off definitively. His bloody demise at Avon’s hand precipitated a memorable series climax in which the regular cast were all shot dead.
Thomas was born in north London, the younger of two sons of Kenneth, a barrister who had been a junior at the Nuremberg trials, and his wife, Olga (nee Noake). A peripatetic childhood was spent in Aberystwyth, London, Edinburgh and Leamington Spa, when his father became a managing director for the John Lewis department store chain.
Thomas went to King’s college, Canterbury, and, in an attempt to extend his studies for as long as possible, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, in 1964. After a stint as an assistant stage manager and bit part player at the Liverpool Playhouse, he made his West End debut as an understudy in Three Months Gone at the Duchess theatre (1967), going on – at short notice and without rehearsal for the indisposed lead actor, Alan Lake, for one matinee performance.
He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for its 1968-69 season, and played small parts for directors including Trevor Nunn and John Barton. Immediately fulfilling his wish to return to quality classic theatre upon leaving Blake’s 7 in 1979, he rejoined the RSC, giving a vigorous, aggressive Orsino in Twelfth Night (directed by Terry Hands), Cassio to Donald Sinden’s Othello and a strong performance as the Irish stoker Mat Burke in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. In 1987 he played Glendower and the Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Fluellen in Henry V for Michael Bogdanov’s English Shakespeare Company.
Other theatre work included Frank in Educating Rita (on tour, 1983), the title role in King Lear (a favourite part, Northcott theatre, Exeter, 1989), Cliff in John Osborne’s Déjàvu (Comedy theatre, 1992) and Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion (Edinburgh Lyceum, 1996). He was Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Dundee Rep, 1997), Dysart in Equus (Salisbury Playhouse, 2000), Oberon/Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the drunk Mr Dearth in JM Barrie’s Dear Brutus (Nottingham Playhouse, 2000), Chebutykin in The Three Sisters (Nuffield theatre, Southampton, 2002) and Ephraim Cabot in O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 2010) in a performance described as “masterful” by the Daily Telegraph.
Blake’s 7 was not Thomas’s only brush with science fiction he was one of the workmen who discover mysterious remains in the London Underground in the Hammer film Quatermass and the Pit (1967). On television he was in Star Maidens (1976), an Anglo‑German co-production concerning a planet of domineering women, and he played the scientist Adam Brake in the memorably atmospheric HTV children’s series Children of the Stones (1976). In Knights of God (1987) he fought against a militant religious order whose leaders were played by Julian Fellowes and John Woodvine.
Thomas’s extensive small-screen career also included the BBC’s How Green Was My Valley (1976, with Stanley Baker) and semi-regular appearances as Area Commander Bulstrode in the popular London’s Burning (1989-94). He was twice nominated for a Bafta: for his first major screen role, in Jack Gold’s television film Stocker’s Copper (1972), and for his portrayal of a struggling hill farmer in the series Morgan’s Boy (1984).
A prolific radio actor, he was Mog Edwards in the 1988 production of Under Milk Woodwith an all-star cast led by Anthony Hopkins and starred in the Doctor Who spin-off Dalek Empire for the audio company Big Finish, for whom he reprised the role of Blake in 2011.
Date of Birth: 4 December 1930, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Birth Name: Ronald Balfour Corbett
Nicknames: Ronnie Corbett
Actor and comedian who became a national treasure as partner to Ronnie Barker in The Two Ronnies
It would be wrong to suggest, though, that Corbett’s huge role in British TV comedy from the 1960s onwards was due only to him playing on his diminutive stature. Over the years, Corbett, who has died aged 85, and his long-term professional partner, Ronnie Barker, created some of the most memorable and frequently repeated moments in British comedy.
In another, more celebrated Two Ronnies sketch, for instance, Corbett played an ironmonger confounded by Barker’s homophonically challenged customer. “Four candles,” demanded the latter. Corbett presented the customer with four candles. “No, fork ’andles. Handles for forks.” The sketch continued with more hilarious misunderstandings. In a version that was not broadcast, Corbett was to be replaced by a buxom woman who would ask the customer: “Right then, young man, what kind of knockers do you want?”
In an era of TV double acts Morecambe and Wise, Mike and Bernie Winters, Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, the Two Ronnies were different, not least because Corbett was more than Barker’s straight man and both received equal billing. “In fact,” argued Barry Cryer, who wrote for both The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise, “because they [alone] never regarded themselves as a double act, Corbett and Barker never saw themselves in competition with Eric and Ernie.”
For 16 years, and more than 93 episodes, from 1971 to 1987, up to 22 million British viewers regularly watched The Two Ronnies on Saturday nights, making the comedy duo household names and even national treasures. Corbett, unlike his diffident partner, enjoyed the fame. “I do find the ‘national treasure’ thing very touching,” he told one interviewer. “Actually, it brings a tear to my eye when people call me that.”
Corbett was under no illusion about why he was a national treasure. “It’s all down to The Two Ronnies,” he said. “Those years with Ronnie Barker were the spine of my career.” But he had other successes. In the BBC sitcom Sorry!, which ran for seven seasons from 1981, Corbett played Timothy Lumsden, a middle-aged librarian who lives at home with his mother. “He was a sort of Walter Mitty – he pretended to be bold and worldly but really he was just a timid mother’s boy,” wrote Corbett in his autobiography, High Hopes (2000). “I received a lot of letters from librarians saying: ‘We are trying to improve the image of librarians and we’re not sure Timothy Lumsden is a step in the right direction.’”
And then there were the late-career comedy turns in which Corbett gamely subverted his national treasure status. On Ricky Gervais’s sitcom Extras in 2006, Corbett played himself snorting cocaine with fellow actors in the loos at the Baftas. They were caught and hauled before the head of security, who said: “Corbett! It’s always bloody Corbett.” “Just a bit of whizz to blow away the cobwebs,” replied the comedian. Corbett explained why he took the role: “It did cause a stir, but I had the reasonable safety valve that Moira Stewart was my ‘supplier’. If I was in trouble, she was in more trouble.”
In Little Britain Abroad, broadcast on Christmas Day in the same year, Corbett appeared as unwitting suitor to Matt Lucas’s grotesque exhibitionist Bubbles DeVere, who stripped off and attempted to seduce the 76-year-old in his Monte Carlo villa. Corbett turned down another sketch on the show, though. “I was supposed to be having a massage at a health spa and the script said I came out afterwards in my towelling dressing gown ‘visibly erect’,” he recalled. “I wrote a letter saying: ‘You have to understand that after years of me being a cherished little soul in a Lyle and Scott sweater, I am not prepared to trade it all for one sweaty moment in a sauna.”
Corbett was born in Edinburgh, the eldest of three children of William, a baker at McVitie’s who worked night shifts for 29 years, and his wife, Annie, who worked in a telephone exchange. Ronnie was educated at the Royal high school, and after leaving took an office job at the animal feeding stuffs department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. By then, though, he had a sense of his true vocation.
He was entering a world very different from that of his childhood. “Our parents taught us the value of hard work and discipline. They never borrowed money, never drank except for a sherry at Christmas and took us to church on Sunday.”
He joined an amateur dramatics company during his national service in 1950 and subsequently moved to London to start an acting career. He worked for a time behind the bar at the drag artist Danny La Rue’s nightclub, Winston’s, in Mayfair, and for many years did cabaret there. It was at Winston’s that he met and fell for Anne Hart, an actor and dancer who, at 5ft 8in, was seven inches taller than him. “But of course she was married, and in those days you didn’t fall in love with married people,” he recalled. “Sadly, her husband then died an untimely death.” The pair eventually married in 1965, and had two daughters, Sophie and Emma, as well as a son, Andrew, who died of a heart defect at six weeks.
Corbett’s first big break was doing standup on the BBC children’s TV show Crackerjack in the mid-50s. But he was also becoming a stage star. In 1963 he starred opposite Bob Monkhouse in Rodgers and Hart’s musical The Boys from Syracuse at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. In 1965 he was due to appear as Will Scarlet in Lionel Bart’s Twang!, a musical about Robin Hood, but the production collapsed. That was fortuitous as it left Corbett free to accept an offer by David Frost to appear in The Frost Report (1966–67). It was there that he met Barker, and the two men formed a bond: they were two grammar school boys who had not been to university, surrounded by writers and actors who were mostly Oxbridge graduates.
One sketch from the satirical show became a classic. In it, Corbett played a cloth-capped working-class man literally looking up to Ronnie Barker’s middle-class man (5ft 8in) who, in turn, looked up to upper-class John Cleese (6ft 5in). “I know my place,” said Corbett. “But I don’t look up to him” looking at the other Ronnie “as much as I look up to him,” nodding at Cleese.
Apart from being a satire on the sclerotic British class system, the sketch traded on Corbett’s size. He had been self-conscious about his height ever since his doctor recommended stretching exercises when he was 15. He recalled asking a girl to dance with him when he was in his teens. She looked down at him and said: “If you weren’t so short, you’d be quite good-looking.” The remark devastated him. “I felt like I’d been cut in half,” he said.
In the late 1960s he gave a revealing interview in which he said: “Being small is a bit like being Jewish you always feel you’re being discriminated against. I mean, could you see anyone employing me as a bank clerk or consulting me about an insurance policy? Whatever I did to seem dignified, they’d think I was the teaboy.” But at least he could play that sense of discrimination for laughs. Between 1967 and 1970, he starred in No, That’s Me Over Here!, a sitcom written by Cryer, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, as a small insurance clerk with big ideas, always confounded by more adept office politicians (notably his lanky colleague Henry McGee).
Ronnie Corbett’s ‘I know my place’ sketch with John Cleese and Ronnie Barker traded on his height, about which he had been self-conscious ever since his doctor recommended stretching exercises when he was 15.
During the late 60s, Corbett started to get film work. He appeared in the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1966) alongside David Niven, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress. It was a critical and box-office disaster. He also appeared in Some Will, Some Won’t (1970), as one of four people who go to great lengths to obtain the fortune left in a will, and in the film version of No Sex Please: We’re British (1973). In this, he was a small-town bank clerk horrified when he receives pornographic postcards in the post, rather than the calculator he ordered. His character spends much of the rest of the film trying to dispose of the package without courting scandal. “A pleasing performance from Corbett,” said the American TV Guide critic, “saves this otherwise average British farce from the usual doldrums.”
Corbett was destined to become more famous on the small screen. After No, That’s Me Over Here!, he appeared in two follow-up BBC sitcoms by the same writers, Now Look Here (1971-73) and The Prince of Denmark (1974).
After The Two Ronnies and Sorry! finished, he was never to repeat their successes. He appeared on game shows such as the short-lived Full Swing (1996), hosted by his golfing chum Jimmy Tarbuck, which involved general knowledge and golf. It was cancelled after one series. The following year he was reunited with Cleese to appear in another big-screen comedy flop, Fierce Creatures.
In 2000 he revived his armchair monologue routine on Ben Elton’s TV show, his still-innocent humour standing up well among younger, swearier and more political comedians.
He was reunited in 2005 for one last time with Barker, who in 1987 had retired from showbiz, for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, a series of six programmes of sketches from The Two Ronnies, with new introductions by the two stars. The last episode was broadcast on Christmas Day that year, Barker having died in October.
The one Ronnie carried on. In 2010 he took a role in the John Landis film Burke and Hare, starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as two 19th-century grave robbers in Edinburgh. In his 80s he starred in the cult hit When the Dog Dies (2010-14), a BBC Radio 4 sitcom written by Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent (who wrote Sorry!), as a retired man whose family want him to leave the house he shares with a lodger, Dolores (played by Liza Tarbuck), so they can move in. He resolves to do so only when his beloved companion, Henry the dog, dies.
Corbett celebrated his golden wedding with Anne in 2015. For many years he lived in Surrey in a house adjoining a golf course, where he could indulge his passion for the game. He was appointed CBE in 2012.
Date of Birth: 29 November 1949, Chicago, US
Birth Name: Garry Emmanuel Shandling
Nicknames: Garry Shandling
Garry Shandling, the American comedian and actor, plundered his own neuroses to create a comic persona vain, self-centred and riddled with anxiety which he exploited brilliantly in The Larry Sanders Show, a fly-on-the-wall-style spoof about a chat show and its egomaniacal host.
The series inspired a new form of self-referential, realist comedy that would be developed by British comic performers such as Ricky Gervais. “Without comedy as a defence mechanism I wouldn’t be able to survive,” Shandling said.
Garry Emmanuel Shandling was born in Chicago on November 29 1949. His father ran a print business and his mother a pet shop. The family moved to the dry climate of Tucson, Arizona, because Shandling’s older brother suffered from cystic fibrosis; he died when Garry was 10. The event had a profound impact on comedian’s life.
Shandling did not at first aim for showbusiness but after school studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Arizona, switching to Marketing and eventually working at an advertising agency in Los Angeles. He studied creative writing for a year as a graduate student and, having received encouragement from the stand-up comic George Carlin, began writing sitcom scripts. In 1973 he sold one to Sanford and Son, the American adaptation of the BBC’s Steptoe and Son. He sold material to several sitcoms, but found writing formulaic jokes frustrating.
In 1977 he was involved in a car accident and while recovering decided to live the life he really wanted to. As a stand-up comedian he rose quickly. He did not do “shtick”; he was dead-pan and his jokes sometimes took a few seconds to roll around an audience before detonating.
By 1981 he was a regular guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Carson enjoyed Shandling’s work and the young comedian might have taken the presenter’s chair when Carson retired. But Shandling wanted to explore deeper themes, and was aware of the destructive effects of fame.
Shandling, in effect, turned himself into a sitcom character, first on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, about a sitcom star supposedly playing himself (aired in Britain in 1986 on late-night BBC Two) and then, in 1992, on The Larry Sanders Show (HBO and BBC Two).
Larry Sanders was set backstage at a late-night television chat show much like Tonight. Shandling was the highly strung host who is tactfully protected from network interference by his vodka-swilling producer Artie (Rip Torn). Much comedy derives from Sanders’s interactions both with Artie and with his insensitive “sidekick”, the announcer Hank Kingsley, played by Jeffrey Tambor.
Each episode was built around a work day and preparations for the arrival of a special guest. Real film-star guests playing themselves would willingly undergo the required humiliations, to rich comic effect. The tone was that of a documentary or “reality” television programme. Most of all, Shandling/Sanders himself was the wellspring of the humour; the scripts specialised in the comedy of insecurity, toe-curling embarrassment and the ever-present fear of unravelling under the pressures of performance.
The Larry Sanders Show gained a devoted cult following in Britain and its techniques were taken up by writers and performers such as Ricky Gervais, Armando Iannucci and Sacha Baron Cohen. Among the staff writers on the show was Hollywood’s current “king of comedy”, the writer and director Judd Apatow. It went off the air in 1998, the year it won a Bafta, and Shandling himself an Emmy award for writing.
Shandling appeared in films, such as Town & Country (2001) with his friend Warren Beatty and Iron Man 2 (2010), but never enjoyed the same success again. He became a mentor to younger comedians and in recent years he worked with Apatow and Baron Cohen, helping them sharpen up their scripts.
Date of Birth: 6 April 1938, Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire, UK
Birth Name: Newton Edward Daniels
Nicknames: Paul Daniels
Paul Daniels, was the most famous British magician of the past half-century, a skilful magician with a strong line in witty chat whose determination to succeed took him to the top of British show business.
From an extremely modest background he rose by professional brilliance and sheer force of personality to become one of television’s leading figures in the 1980s. A small man of indefatigable cheeriness, he was a straightforward but astonishingly skilful performer who also displayed a highly developed flair for comedy; the combination of magic and witty chat took him to the pinnacle of showbusiness and earned him a fortune.
The producer of BBC1’s The Paul Daniels Magic Show in the 1980s, John Fisher, said: “Having worked with him on close to a hundred shows, I never ceased to be amazed at his capacity for mastering new and often technically complex material week after week, a challenge non-existent in the lives of the old masters of magic on the halls. Moreover, he displayed an instinctive ability to entertain in a way few of the great hocus-pocus giants have matched.”
He was born Newton Edward Daniels in South Bank, a small industrial town between Middlesbrough and Redcar in North Yorkshire, and for most of his early life was called Ted by family and friends. His mother was Nancy (née Lloyd) and his father Handel Newton Daniels, known as Hughie, who was a cinema projectionist.
Daniels often described a poor but warm childhood, filled with laughter, in a little terraced house with a lavatory in the back yard. “The one big thing I remember about Christmases then is that it was the only time of the year that we ate a chicken,” he wrote in his autobiography, Under No Illusion (2000).
When he was 11 he won a scholarship to the Sir William Turner grammar school in Redcar, and it was around this time that he started to become interested in magical tricks after finding an old book at a friend’s house. Daniels had discovered the perfect way to distract bullies and gain social acceptance. “This new art was an attractive antidote to my shyness,” he wrote, “and the insecure part of me had found a bridge to enable me to communicate with people in a way that I would not have found possible by any other means”.
As a teenager he saw the famous Australian conjuror The Great Levante at a local theatre, and he made his own first appearance as a magician before a smaller audience at a Normanby Road Methodist Chapel Youth Club show when he was 14. He wanted to be a professional from childhood, but this seemed a remote possibility, so when he left school he went to work for Eston Urban borough council as a junior clerk, while helping his father as a trainee projectionist in the evenings.
Called up for national service in the army when he was 18, he served in Hong Kong and, on the journey there, was entranced by a gulli-gulli man, an eastern magician, who came aboard at Suez. This encounter provided more material for the shows he put on for his fellow soldiers. After returning to his job at the council offices in 1959, he developed his magic skills at local clubs. Capitalising on the quick-witted ability to make people laugh while he amazed them, he also formed a comedy act with his brother Trevor. It was in this period that he came up with the catchphrase for which he later became famous, used initially to quell a drunken heckler: “You’ll like this ... not a lot, but you’ll like it.”
Daniels left the council and ran his own grocery business, for a time from a mobile van, while in the evenings touring his magic act with his wife Jacqueline (née Skipworth), whom he married in 1960, as The Eldanis. His professional breakthrough came in 1969, when he was offered a summer season at Newquay. He made his first television appearance on ITV’s Opportunity Knocks in 1970 and, after extensive stage touring, was given a regular slot on Granada’s The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, hosted by Colin Crompton and Bernard Manning, in 1974. The following year he was on The David Nixon Show, on Thames TV, prompting Clive James to comment in The Observer: “One of [the] guests was a very droll ‘unusualist’ called Paul Daniels, of whom one hopes to see more.”
And we did, of course. ITV gave him his own series, Paul Daniels’ Blackpool Bonanza, in 1978 and he made his first series for the BBC, For My Next Trick, the same year. This led to The Paul Daniels Magic Show, which ran on BBC1 from 1979 to 1994 and made him a household name.
Some of the tricks he performed were astounding, recreating the stunts of Houdini, for example, or making a television camera in a crate disappear while transmitting what the camera is seeing in real time. In all these performances he employed old-fashioned conjuring techniques, never resorting to using television technology to cheat or enhance illusions. He had a strict moral code on such matters and had strong feelings about the new generation of TV wonder-workers, much of whose impact is achieved by preparations carried out by researchers ahead of the recording.
By now divorced from Jacqueline, with whom he had three sons, Daniels was the professional and personal partner of a former ballet dancer, Debbie McGee, always introduced as “the lovely Debbie McGee”, whose role as his assistant became a major feature of the act. The couple had been together for nearly 10 years when they married in 1988.
Daniels starred in It’s Magic at the Prince of Wales theatre from 1980 to 1982, London’s longest-running such show. In this newspaper Michael Billington wrote: “What makes him different from other magicians is his ceaseless sleight-of-tongue.”
He hosted several non-magic television series in the 1980s and 90s, including three BBC1 quizzes: Odd One Out, Every Second Counts and Wipeout. When the new breed of slick and toned TV magicians creating fantastical spectaculars, or at the opposite end of the spectrum televised street conjurors emerged in the mid-1990s, the rumpled and bewigged Daniels’s cosy banter seemed old-fashioned, and he went back to touring live shows with his wife while also working behind the scenes designing illusions for West End shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Cats, English National Ballet’s The Nutcracker and the film Return to Oz. He and Debbie did appear on Channel 5’s The Farm (2004), however, and ITV’s The X Factor: Battle of the Stars (2006) and Wife Swap (2007).
In late 2015, shortly before being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, Daniels seemed content with his reduced status: “I’ve got so much going at the moment. We took this little tour out ... it all fits into the back of my estate car and that includes bits of scenery and props.”
He had travelled some distance from his glory days in the 1980s, but the admiring comment of the best-loved comedy magician of them all, Tommy Cooper, made when Daniels first burst on to the scene in the 1970s, still held true: “Paul Daniels is to magic what Muhammad Ali is to boxing.”
Date of Birth: 27 March 1927, Camberwell, London, UK
Birth Name: Sylvia Beatrice Thomas
Nicknames: Sylvia Anderson
Sylvia Anderson, best known as the voice of Lady Penelope in the TV show Thunderbirds.
Anderson co-created the hit science-fiction puppet series, which ran from 1965, with her late husband Gerry.
In a career spanning five decades, she also worked on shows Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet, and for US TV network HBO.
She died at her Buckinghamshire home. Her daughter said she was "a mother and a legend", who would be sadly missed.
"Her intelligence was phenomenal but her creativity and tenacity unchallenged. She was a force in every way," Dee Anderson said.
Her former husband Gerry Anderson died in 2012 after suffering from Alzheimer's.
Born in south London to a boxing promoter and a dressmaker, Sylvia Anderson graduated from the London School of Economics with a degree in sociology and political science.
She spent several years in the US and worked as a journalist before returning to the UK and joining a TV production company, where she met her future husband.
When he started his own company, AP Films, she joined him, and the couple began making puppet shows.
They developed a production technique using electronic marionette puppets, called Supermarionation, in which the voices were recorded first, and when the puppets were filmed, the electric signal from the taped dialogue was hooked up to sensors in the puppets' heads.
That made the puppets' lips move perfectly in time with the soundtrack.
In 1963, the couple came up with the idea for Thunderbirds, which told the story of the Tracy family who form a secret organisation dedicated to saving human life, set in the future.
As well as co-creating and writing the series, Anderson worked on character development and costume design.
The character of Lady Penelope, a glamorous agent, was modelled on Anderson's own appearance, and she also provided her characteristic aristocratic voice.
The success of Thunderbirds led to two feature films and a toy and merchandise empire.
Three new programmes were made last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the series.
Other shows which the couple worked on include Stingray, Fireball XL5 and Secret Service.
However, the partnership ended when they divorced in 1981.
Sylvia went on to work as head of programming for HBO in the UK, and write several books.
Her last public interview was on the Graham Norton Show on BBC Radio 2 with actor David Graham, who also provided voices for Thunderbirds, in December.
Date of Birth: 5 February 1921, Berlin, Germany
Birth Name: Klaus Hugo Adam
Nicknames: Sir Ken Adam
Sir Ken Adam, the Academy Award-winning film designer, who has died aged 95, awed a generation of moviegoers with his larger-than-life sets projecting megalomaniac power; such creations as the “War Room” in Dr Strangelove (1964) and the hollow volcano from which James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld launches spacecraft to provoke nuclear warfare in You Only Live Twice (1967) had an influence far beyond the world of entertainment.
Ronald Reagan, newly inaugurated, asked to see the “War Room” only to be told it had been a figment of Adam’s imagination. And the work of a generation of British architects led by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers was heavily influenced by schoolboy exposure to Adam’s Bond interiors.
Though he trained as an architect, Adam did so purely to get into movie design. Yet in a crowning irony Foster’s design for the reunified Germany’s Reichstag drew heavily on the work of Adam – who had persuaded his parents to flee Berlin after seeing the original gutted by fire. Adam’s influence can be seen in buildings worldwide, from the Lloyd’s building in the City and Canary Wharf underground station to the skyline of 21st-century Shanghai.
Stephen Spielberg reckoned the Strangelove set Adam devised for Stanley Kubrick “the greatest in the history of movies”. Bond aficionados might nominate Blofeld’s caldera, Dr No’s hideout at Crab Key or Goldfinger’s deadly “Rumpus Room”. Adam disliked the last because the script turned it into a gas chamber, reminding him of the fate suffered by many of his family in Auschwitz; he had also been one of the first British officers into Belsen.
Adam’s speciality was bunkers. His first, in 1948, was for Edward Dmytryk’s film Obsession, starring Robert Newton. He developed the combination of claustrophobia and menace further in Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), in which German soldiers defuse bombs beneath Berlin. Then came his first masterpieces, Dr No (1962) and Strangelove; in the latter he maximised the feeling of vastness by never displaying the entire set at any one time.
He won his Oscars with more conservative designs: for Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1994). He was awarded Baftas for edgier work: Dr Strangelove and The Ipcress File (1965) Adam’s kitchen for Michael Caine influencing a generation of bachelors to grind their own coffee.
Though Adam dismissed his 007 designs as “complete fantasy,” he was grateful for the way the Bond films allowed him to indulge his imagination. Two designs stand out: Blofeld’s extinct volcano, and the supertanker that swallows up submarines in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
The volcano set, equipped with a full-sized rocket, helicopter landing pad and monorail, was built from scratch at Pinewood by 250 workers using 700 tons of steel. “Such a set,” said Adam, “represents both a dream and a nightmare in movie-making.” When it was torn down, he vowed that if he ever had to build another sound stage from scratch it would be a permanent structure.
His chance came 10 years later when he found himself back at Pinewood building the 60,000 sq ft 007 stage, still in use today. Adam collaborated with the sound stage expert Michael Brown to build what was then the world’s largest set, nicknamed Jonah after the prophet swallowed by the Biblical whale. The set boasting three 5/8ths scale nuclear submarines floating in their pens – was opened by the prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Adam liked to work for other directors between Bond films the most distinguished being Kubrick so as to return to 007 with a fresh approach. He contained his frustration when, having signed with Cubby Broccoli to design for Thunderball (1965), Kubrick asked him to do the interiors for 2001: A Space Odyssey. He felt obliged to decline; in the event Kubrick’s project took so long that he could have taken it on.
Klaus Hugo Adam was born in Berlin on February 5 1921 to Jewish parents. Fritz Adam had been a highly decorated cavalry officer in the Kaiser’s army and owned a fashionable department store; he had just commissioned Mies van der Rohe to design a modernistic new branch when Hitler came to power.
His father was arrested, and only freed days later through the intervention of one of his store managers, who had become an Obergruppenführer in the SS. The family escaped to Scotland before settling in London, Klaus taking a job as a glove salesman.
Ken’s schooling began at Le Collège Français in Berlin, continued at Craigend Park school in Edinburgh and was completed at St Paul’s. He was given the idea of going into cinematic design by Vincent Korda, who suggested he first train as an architect. He won a place at London University’s Bartlett School of Architecture in 1937, joining CW Glover & Partners shortly before war broke out.
He served in the Pioneer Corps until his sheer persistence earned him acceptance for RAF pilot training (one of very few German-born pilots). Adam flew Typhoons in support of advancing Allied troops after D-Day, then braved roaming German deserters to travel overland to Berlin, where he found the family’s apartment and store destroyed and their lakeside retreat commandeered by the Russians.
He had to wait until 1947 to get into films, as a draughtsman on Tim Whelan’s This Was a Woman. He spent the next nine years working as an assistant art director on undistinguished pictures, and only in 1956 picked up his first solo credit on Soho Incident, serving as production designer the following year on Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. He gained a reputation for being innovative on a small budget and was always in demand, sometimes working on eight films in a year.
Adam first worked for Broccoli on The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960). Broccoli thought his futuristic style influenced by William Cameron Menzies, creator of the Art Deco utopia of Things To Come (1936) would be just right for Dr No, the first in the Bond series.
He skipped the next Bond film From Russia With Love (1964) to work on Strangelove. This won plaudits from a niche audience, but his designs for Goldfinger (1964) thrilled the masses. Its climax took place in the Fort Knox depository, so Adam knew the public wanted to see gold and lots of it. His genius was in building the Fort Knox of their imagination, not the gloomy, dusty vault of reality.
“Films, being a visual entertainment, should offer a form of escapism for an audience,” Adam said. “I can achieve more reality in terms of dramatic value for the screenplay by not copying nature, architecture or whatever really exists.” His final Bond film was the overblown Moonraker (1979) and most of his later work save for The Madness of King George was less memorable.
Ken Adam received the Hollywood directors’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He was appointed OBE in 1995 and knighted in 2003.
Date of Birth: 6 July 1921, New York, US
Birth Name: Anne Frances Robbins
Nicknames: Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan, the former First Lady of the United States who has died aged 94, probably exercised more power than any other president’s wife.
Edith Wilson usurped the executive function after President Wilson’s stroke; Rosalynn Carter sat in on Cabinet meetings; Hillary Clinton began by nursing the ambition of carrying Medicare reforms. But Nancy Reagan, operating under a public cover of wifely submission, was the crucial influence over her husband’s entire political career.
“If Ronald Reagan had married Nancy the first time round,” James Stewart once remarked, “she could have got him an Academy Award.”
As a politician, Reagan’s appeal was that of an easy-going, uncomplicated nice guy, whose forte was to bring common sense to bear upon the intractable problems of state. The image proved extraordinarily successful because in large measure it was based upon truth.
But nice guys, by definition, do not possess the ruthlessness and drive required to secure the presidency of the United States. Californian millionaires put up the money for Reagan’s attempt on the White House; Nancy Reagan provided the intensity of purpose that clinched success.
Her determination to see her husband on the pinnacle of power was unimpeded by imagination, idealism or humour or by any competing interest. Her desire had grown out of the insecurities of her youth, and was pursued with a deadly combination of wariness and suspicion.
“Ronald Reagan trusts everyone and likes everyone,” explained Nancy Reynolds, who handled public relations for the Reagans. “Nancy has a more discriminating antenna about people. She’s seldom wrong.
“And if she feels someone is hurting him she’ll speak out. She’s a tiger at such moments, and thank God for it, because her husband is the kind of man who never says no. She makes sure the sharks are kept at bay.”
Similarly, on the campaign trail she made quite sure that Reagan’s aides were kept up to the mark. In the White House particularly during the President’s second term, when his faculties were clearly on the wane her hostility meant political death, and her penchant for firing people earned her the nickname of “Little Gun”.
Donald Regan, chief of staff at the White House from 1985 to 1987, found himself continually harassed by the First Lady in his attempts to extricate the President from the ramifications of the Iran Contra affair.
Mrs Reagan exercised unchallenged sway over the President’s schedule. And, as Regan explained, “virtually every move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco (Joan Quigley) who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in favourable alignment for the enterprise.”
Nancy Reagan’s obsession with astrology did not become public until Regan published his memoirs in 1988. But long before that her performance as First Lady had raised eyebrows. In private she would hold her staff at bay with frozen stares; in public she would fix her husband with a gaze of rapt, not to say imbecile, adoration.
Yet she was always ready to take action at awkward moments. There was a press conference in 1984, for instance, where Reagan, asked about his plans for talks with the Russians on space weapons, suddenly seemed incapable of speech. “Tell them we’re doing everything we can,” hissed the First Lady through lips that barely moved. “We’re doing everything we can,” echoed the President.
Her devotion, however, remained constant. “My life began when I married Ronnie,” she said. “I think I would have died if I hadn’t married him ... He is my hero.”
The sceptical remained unconvinced. They were also surprised by Nancy Reagan’s commitment to social causes. They knew that she loved expensive clothes (and especially those that designers made for her gratis); and that she instinctively preferred the company of the super-rich.
As soon as she entered the White House she carried out extensive redecoration, and ordered a set of china costing over $200,000 this at a time when the President was stressing the importance of restricting expenditure.
In consequence, although Nancy Reagan put many hours into the campaign against drug abuse visiting 64 American cities and eight foreign countries, and helping to found 3,400 Just Say No clubs she never succeeded in creating a compassionate image.
Her critics pounced on any slip up, such as when she telephoned from a fundraising event in Chicago in 1980. “Oh Ronnie,” she enthused, “I wish you could be here to see all these beautiful white people ... black and white people, I mean.”
She was born Anne Frances Robbins in New York on July 6 1921. Her father, Kenneth Seymour Robbins, was an insurance salesman, albeit from an old New England family. Her mother (née Edith Luckett), a loud-mouthed woman given to swearing and dirty stories, pursued a rackety theatrical career independently of her husband. Alla Nazimova, a close friend of Edith’s and one of the American theatre’s leading lesbians, was appointed the child’s godmother.
By the time Nancy was two, her parents’ marriage was virtually over. She was parked with a maternal aunt at Bethesda, in Maryland, while her mother pursued her theatrical ambitions; in the summer she would visit her father in New Jersey. Her parents divorced in 1928, and Kenneth Robbins remarried later that year. In 1929 her mother married Loyal Davis, an austere and forbidding Chicago neurosurgeon of tightlaced, unforgiving Republican views.
Edith Davis assiduously pushed her unprepossessing new husband’s career, while she herself worked in radio soap opera. Nancy, too, took to drama. At Girls’ Latin School in Chicago, she took one of the lead parts in First Lady, a play about two formidable women, each determined to put her man into the White House.
In 1938 Nancy Robbins was adopted by her stepfather, and thereafter featured as Nancy Davis, making no effort to see her real father. The next year she went to Smith College, where she continued to dabble in drama. In 1944, after graduating from Smith, she became engaged to one James Platt White Jr, but the match was soon broken off.
Nancy Davis now pursued an acting career, and landed a part with three lines in a show called Ramshackle Inn, on tour at Detroit; soon afterwards it came to Broadway. Then in 1946 she had another small part, as a Chinese handmaiden in Lute Song, with Yul Brynner and Mary Martin.
Her mother knew Spencer Tracy, who managed to fix her up with a date with Clark Gable. Tracy also obtained a screen test for her at MGM, and in March 1949 she signed a contract with that studio at $300 a week.
A number of small parts followed: as a psychiatrist required to unlock the memories of a traumatised six-year-old in Shadow on the Wall (1949); as suitably enough the dutiful daughter of a prominent neurosurgeon in The Doctor and the Girl (1949); and as a meddlesome interloper who tells Barbara Stanwyck her husband is having an affair in East Side, West Side (1949).
It was in the autumn of 1949 that Nancy Davis first met Ronald Reagan, whose movie career was already in decline, but who had become President of the Screen Actors Guild. Reagan had been previously married to the actress Jane Wyman with whom he had two children.
Nancy Reagan recalled that she had known “right away” that Ronald was the man she wanted to marry. Certainly, she pursued him, asking him to sort out the embarrassment that had arisen as a result of another Nancy Davis having appeared among the list of those who had questioned the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Reagan, though, was involved with several other women, and it was only after Nancy Davis became pregnant that, in March 1952, he married her. Their daughter Patti was born that October.
Meanwhile Nancy Davis’s career had been foundering. As a heavily pregnant wife in The Next Voice You Hear (1950) she projected, according to Spencer Tracy, “all the passion of a Good Humor ice cream – frozen, on a stick, and all vanilla.”
She was a schoolteacher in It’s a Big Country (1951), and a gutsy war widow (her favourite part) in Night Into Morning. But she made no mark in these films, nor in Shadow in the Sky (1951) and Talk About a Stranger (1952). In January 1952 Warner ended her contract.
Ronald Reagan’s career was also at a low ebb in 1952, though he would be saved two years later by a lucrative contract to introduce General Electric Theatre on television. Before that Nancy had been in Donovan’s Brain (1953), as the wife of a mad scientist. Later, the Reagans appeared together in Hellcats of the Navy (1957), and the next year Nancy Reagan made her last film, Crash Landing (1958).
By the time that their son Ronald “Skipper” Reagan was born in 1958, the Reagans were becoming more closely involved with politics. Under the influence of Loyal Davis, Reagan’s views had hardened; he had developed a particular horror for “socialised medicine”. Though he campaigned as a Democrat for Nixon in 1960, he became a Republican – and a Right-wing one – soon after John Kennedy’s victory. Four years later Reagan was the one bright spot in Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign.
Nancy Reagan was certainly behind her husband’s decision to run for Governor of California in 1966, backed by a group of Californian millionaires. Always at home with the super-rich, she formed an especially close attachment to Betsy Bloomingdale, wife of Alfred whose grandfather had founded the department store.
Reagan’s victory in California offered opportunities for internal decor that she did not mean to forgo. Calling on her rich friends for donations, she built a new governor’s mansion overlooking the American River outside Sacramento. She also had her first taste of press hostility, when Joan Didion penned a withering piece about her for the Saturday Evening Post.
It was certainly difficult to strike a human spark from her in interviews. “She just drove me nuts,” complained another journalist, Nancy Collins. “She just sits there with her legs glued together, her hands all white knuckles, teeth grinding and that face just a mask no animation, no laughter, no spontaneity, nothing. She was awful, just awful.”
Reagan made a cursory attempt at the presidency in 1968, marked by his wife’s claim that she was really much happier in California. It was as well, then, that Reagan was re-elected as Governor in 1970, albeit with a reduced majority.
Notwithstanding the emerging Watergate case, there was no chance of Reagan making a realistic challenge to President Nixon in 1972. But the fall of Nixon and the presidency of Gerald Ford offered new hope. “Nancy’s beam is like a lighthouse,” sang Frank Sinatra at Republican fundraisers in 1974, “she sees her husband in the White House.”
She proved a formidable force in Reagan’s campaign in 1976 to wrest the Republican nomination from President Ford, and though in the end the power of White House patronage proved too strong, failure stimulated rather than quenched her ambition. What with the failures of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the well-honed efficiency of their public act, the Reagans enjoyed a relatively smooth passage to the presidency in 1980.
Of their two children, the elder, Patricia (“Patti”) became an actress and model, changed her name to Patti Davis and, in 1986, published a novel entitled Home Front, an obviously autobiographical tale about the daughter of a television star who becomes president of the United States. The character’s mother features as a distant figure obsessed with clothes and given to preaching the virtues of chastity. Their son, Ronnie, became a ballet star and later a television host.
Several years after he left office (at the end of his second term in 1989), Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Nancy Reagan subsequently became an outspoken advocate for stem cell research and continued to protect her husband’s image. “Ronnie has a wonderful disposition, always has had, and still has. He’s a dear, sweet, wonderful man,” she observed. “I certainly wish it was different. But you learn something out of everything.”
Ronald Reagan died in 2004. During a seven day state funeral Nancy Reagan led the American nation in mourning, and at a sunset memorial service kissed her husband’s coffin and mouthed the words “I love you.”
As she became increasingly frail she withdrew from the public eye although she retained her links to the political community, including Margaret Thatcher whom she described as strong but with a “nice soft side”.
In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2009 she revealed that Michelle Obama had called her for advice on hosting guests at the White House.
Date of Birth: 21 February 1946, Acton, West London, UK
Birth Name: Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman
Nicknames: Alan Rickman
The world became fully aware of the sly, languid and villainous charms of Alan Rickman as the self-parodying Sheriff of Nottingham pitted against Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves(1991). However, the actor had already established himself as a star name at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1980s and as the hilarious German terrorist, Hans Gruber, in the action thriller Die Hard (1988) with Bruce Willis.
Rickman appeared as the cello-playing, dearly departed ghost in Anthony Minghella’s sensual, taut and wonderfully muted Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), with Juliet Stevenson as his grieving partner. At the RSC, he had been sensational as the predatory, dissolute Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton’s brilliant adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century epistolary novel that started small in the RSC’s Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon and trailed clouds of glory to the West End and Broadway in 1987; Rickman was a pivotal figure in a company that included, at that time, and in that production, Lindsay Duncan, Stevenson and Fiona Shaw.
Having first trained and worked as a graphic designer, Rickman was a late starter as an actor, attending Rada between 1972 and 1974, and winning the Bancroft gold medal, before working in rep and the RSC in small roles at the end of the 70s. He began making waves as Anthony Trollope’s devious chaplain Obadiah Slope in BBC television’s The Barchester Chronicles in 1982.
Then he was, for a new generation entirely, the sinister potions master Severus Snape in the eight Harry Potter movies, for a decade from 2001. Snape had secrets, and this inner life infused one of the outstanding performances in the series as he stalked the corridors and back passages at Hogwarts like the ghost in Hamlet, smelling a rat at every turn, his noble face contorted with mysterious loathing and curious motivation.
However, it would be wrong to typecast Rickman as a villain. He was an outstanding Hamlet at the Riverside Studios and on tour in 1992, a mature student whose rampant morbidity masked an intense, albeit perverse, zest for life. And in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1998, he was fabulous opposite Helen Mirren’s voluptuous serpent of old Nile – shambolic, charismatic, a spineless poet of a warrior. It was his misfortune to have both these great classic performances displayed in productions that met with considerable critical hostility and public indifference.
Tall, commanding, extremely funny when required, he was never above sending himself up either on stage or in the movies. He had talent to burn, a glorious voice that sometimes blurred in slack-jawed articulation, if only because everything he did seemed to come so easily to him. He was a central figure in the life of the little Bush theatre on the London fringe, at the Royal Court in the Max Stafford-Clarkera of the 80s, as well as at Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands’s RSC, and he was a continual source of inspiration, and practical support, to his colleagues. He proved also to be a fine stage director, and directed two films. In the second of them, A Little Chaos (2014), a handsome 17th-century costume drama of love among the landscape artists at the newly constructed palace of Versailles, Rickman himself presided in his bewigged pomp as Louis XIV, the Sun King.
The son of a factory worker, Bernard (who died when Alan was eight), and his wife, Margaret (nee Bartlett), he was of Irish and Welsh descent, raised on a council estate in Acton, west London, with three siblings (he was the second child), and educated at Derwentwater primary school in Acton, a Montessori school, and Latymer Upper. He studied graphic design at Chelsea School of Art where he first met, aged 18, his future life partner, Rima Horton and the Royal College of Art. With three friends, he ran a graphic design studio for three years in Notting Hill before going to Rada at the age of 26.
Rickman made his first impact with the Birmingham Rep, the first regional company to visit the new National Theatre’s home on the South Bank, when he played the upright Wittipol, disguised as a Spanish lady, in Ben Jonson’s The Devil Is an Ass in 1976, and also at the Edinburgh festival. Small parts in the RSC season of 1977-78 were followed, in 1980, by leading roles as a distraught sponsor of a pop concert in Stephen Poliakoff’s The Summer Party at the Crucible in Sheffield, with Brian Cox and Hayley Mills, and in Dusty Hughes’s anatomy of the Trotskyite left in Commitments, at the Bush. Rickman was a lifelong Labour party activist, while Rima, an economist, with whom he lived from 1977, was a Labour councillor in Kensington and Chelsea for 20 years from 1986.
In the early 80s, he was an ideal, doggedly English Trigorin in Thomas Kilroy’s otherwise Irish version of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Royal Court; a coruscating Grand Inquisitor in Richard Crane’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov at the Edinburgh festival; and a cheerfully stoned pragmatist on a Californian dope farm in Snoo Wilson’s The Grass Widow, also at the Royal Court, laying bare the capitalism of the drugs world as a sort of displaced Howard Marks, alongside Ron Cook and Tracey Ullman.
Everything about his acting came into sharp focus in the 1985-86 RSC season, when Les Liaisons Dangereuses was in repertory with three other plays. In As You Like It, he was the perfect “Seven ages of man” Jaques with Stevenson as Rosalind and Shaw as Celia; in Troilus and Cressida, Achilles never sulked so mightily in his tent; and in Ariane Mnouchkine’s superb version of Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker, he nailed the dilemma of a creative artist in the censorious climate of the Third Reich: “What can I do? I’m only an actor.” He took the next big job. He was both rooted in his own theatre world and internationally curious. Guided by the producer Thelma Holt, he played a reclusive, abandoned actor in a derelict cinema in Kunio Shimizu’s Tango at the End of Winter, a beautiful poetic drama of memory and illusion directed by the Japanese maestro Yukio Ninagawa, at the Edinburgh festival in 1991; and buckled down to Hamlet with Robert Sturua, the great director of the Rustaveli theatre in Georgia who had made waves in western Europe.
In the earlier part of his career, Rickman had supervised several shows with the comedian Ruby Wax, whom he had met at the RSC, and had recommended a play by Sharman Macdonald to the Bush; he expanded his directing work with Wax into a new play he commissioned from Macdonald, The Winter Guest (1995, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Almeida in London), a tone poem in a Scottish seaside town, with no plot, for the superb quartet of Phyllida Law, Sheila Reid, Sian Thomas and Sandra Voe; he also directed a film version (1997) with an overlapping cast.
But film had begun to take precedence, Robin Hood leading to big roles and billing in Tim Robbins’s satirical Bob Roberts (1992), about a rightwing folk singer running for the US Senate; as Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s fine version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1996), with a screenplay by Emma Thompson; and as Eamon de Valera in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996), starring Liam Neeson as the IRA founder.
Even with the Harry Potter franchise under way, Rickman managed a triumphant return in 2001 to the West End and Broadway in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, displaying what the New York Times called a virtuosity of disdain as the squinting, wounded egomaniac Elyot Chase opposite Lindsay Duncan’s blonde ice queen of an Amanda Prynne; this was the best pairing in the roles since Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith 30 years earlier. His last stage roles, both critically acclaimed, were as Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey in Dublin (with Duncan and Fiona Shaw) in 2010 and as a celebrity teacher in a writing workshop in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar on Broadway in 2011.
In between, he directed My Name Is Rachel Corrie at the Royal Court, the West End, the Edinburgh festival and on Broadway in 2005-06. He compiled the show with Katharine Viner, now editor-in-chief of the Guardian, from the writings and emails of the American activist Corrie, who was killed by a bulldozer operated by the Israeli army in Gaza in 2003 while protesting against its occupation. This sense of political justice and civic responsibility informed his life as a citizen, too.
Rickman will be remembered latterly as Thompson’s husband in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003), the voice of Marvin the paranoid android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), as Judge Turpin in Tim Burton’s wacky movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (2007) and as (another voice) Absalom the Caterpillar in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010).
But he was a committed vice-chairman of Rada, a patron of the charity Saving Faces, dedicated to helping those with facial disfigurements and cancer, and honorary president of the International Performers Aid Trust, which works to alleviate poverty in some of the world’s toughest areas.
Date of Birth: 8 January 1947, Brixton, South London, UK
Birth Name: David Robert Jones
Nicknames: David Bowie
Until the last, David Bowie was still capable of springing surprises. His latest album, Blackstar, appeared on his 69th birthday on 8 January, and showed that his gift for making dramatic statements as well as challenging, disturbing music had not deserted him. Throughout the 1970s, Bowie was a trailblazer of musical trends and pop fashion. Having been a late-60s mime and cabaret entertainer, he evolved into a singer-songwriter, and a pioneer of glam-rock, then veered into what he called “plastic soul”, before moving to Berlin to create innovative electronic music.
In subsequent decades his influence became less pervasive, but he remained creatively restless and constantly innovative across a variety of media. His capacity for mixing brilliant changes of sound and image underpinned by a genuine intellectual curiosity is rivalled by few in pop history. Blackstar was proof that this curiosity had not diminished in his later career.
Bowie was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, south London. His mother, Peggy, had met his father, John, after he was demobilised from second world war service in the Royal Fusiliers. John subsequently worked for the Barnardo’s children’s charity. They married in September 1947, eight months after David’s birth, when John’s divorce from his first wife, Hilda, became absolute.
In 1953 the family moved to Bromley, Kent, where David attended Burnt Ash junior school and showed aptitude in singing and playing the recorder. Later, after he passed his 11-plus exam, he turned down a place at a grammar school and went to Bromley technical high school and studied art, music and design. His half-brother, Terry Burns, nearly a decade older than David, introduced him to jazz musicians, such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and in 1961 David’s mother bought him a plastic saxophone, introducing him to an instrument that would become a recurring ingredient in his music.
After a 1962 schoolyard punch-up, the pupil in David’s left eye remained permanently dilated, having the serendipitous effect of lending him a vaguely unearthly appearance (the thrower of the punch, George Underwood, remained a close friend and later designed Bowie’s album artwork).
At 15, David formed his first band, the Kon-rads, a primitive rock’n’roll combo that contained a fluctuating number of members, including Underwood. He quickly became disillusioned with his band’s lack of ambition and quit to form a new outfit, the blues-influenced King Bees. They released a single called Liza Jane, but when it disappeared without trace, David jumped ship again and joined the Manish Boys. Named after a Muddy Waters track, they too were blues-orientated. Their single I Pity the Fool proved no more chart-friendly than Liza Jane had done, after which the restless Davy Jones was on the move once more.
His next port of call was the Lower Third, an R&B band from Margate, Kent. The group thought they were auditioning for a singer and equal member, but once they had hired David, they were taken aback when he issued a press statement saying: “This is to inform you of the existence of Davie [sic] Jones and the Lower Third.” Moreover, David, abetted by his new manager Ralph Horton, a former tour manager for the Moody Blues, decreed that the band should be decked out in fashionable mod attire, in emulation of the Who. Fellow members of the Lower Third could not help noticing David’s flamboyant, even effeminate performing style. They released a Jones-penned single, the aptly named You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving, but despite receiving a handful of radio plays, it failed to chart.
It was clear that David’s talents and ambition dictated that he should go solo, and Horton provoked a split with the Lower Third by announcing that there was not enough money to pay their fees. David now adopted the name Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees, and put together a new group via an advertisement in Melody Maker, specifying that he wanted musicians “to accompany a singer”. The new band was named the Buzz.
He dropped Horton after a botched music publishing deal, and in his place hired Ken Pitt, a far more substantial figure who had had success with Mel Tormé and Manfred Mann. Pitt secured an album deal for Bowie with Decca’s Deram label, which resulted in an LP entitled simply David Bowie, released in June 1967. It was preceded by the novelty single The Laughing Gnome, a flop at the time but a top 10 hit when reissued in 1973. Bowie later said of his debut album: “I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley.” But within its disjointed mix of styles, it found Bowie reflecting on issues such as childhood, sexual ambiguity and the nature of stardom. By the time the album was released, Bowie had already got rid of the Buzz, again citing lack of money.
For a time he studied theatre and mime with the dancer Lindsay Kemp, and in 1969 he started a folk club at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham, Kent. This developed into the Beckenham Arts Lab, and a variety of future stars, including Peter Frampton, Steve Harley, Rick Wakeman and Bowie’s future producer Tony Visconti, performed there.
In July 1969 Bowie released Space Oddity, the song that would give him his initial commercial breakthrough. Timed to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, it was a top five UK hit. The accompanying album was originally called Man of Words / Man of Music, but was later reissued as Space Oddity.
The following year was a momentous one for Bowie. His brother Terry was committed to a psychiatric institution (and would kill himself in 1985), and his father died. In March, Bowie married Angela Barnett, an art student. He dumped Pitt and recruited the driven and aggressive Tony DeFries, prompting Pitt to sue successfully for compensation.
Artistically, Bowie was powering ahead. The Man Who Sold the World was released in the US in late 1970 and in the UK the following year under Bowie’s new deal with RCA Victor, and with its daring songwriting and broody, hard-rock sound, it was the first album to do full justice to his writing and performing gifts. The title track remains one of his most atmospheric compositions, and songs such as All the Madmen and The Width of a Circlewere formidably inventive and accomplished. The album’s themes included immortality, insanity, murder and mysticism, evidence that Bowie was a songwriter who was thinking way beyond pop’s usual boundaries.
The Man Who Sold the World was significant in other ways too. Its producer, Visconti, became a long-term ally, and in the guitarist Mick Ronson and the drummer Woody Woodmansey, Bowie had found the core of what would become the Spiders from Mars. The UK cover pictured Bowie lounging in a long dress and bearing a striking resemblance to Lauren Bacall, playing on the theme of sexual ambiguity that he would exploit so successfully.
He followed it with Hunky Dory (1972), a mix of wordy, elaborate songwriting (The Bewlay Brothers or Quicksand), crunchy rockers (Queen Bitch) and infectious pop songs (Kooks). It was an excellent collection that met with only moderate success, but that all changed with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars later that year.
This time, Bowie emerged as a fully fledged science-fiction character an intergalactic glam-rock star visiting a doomed planet Earth – and the album effectively wrote the script for his own stardom. The hit single Starman brought instant success for the album, while Bowie’s ravishing stage costumes and sexually provocative performances (following his carefully timed claim in a Melody Maker interview that he was gay) triggered fan enthusiasm unseen since Beatlemania. Seeing Bowie perform as Ziggy on Top of the Pops was a life-changing experience for a generation of pop listeners in glum 70s Britain.
Everything Bowie touched turned to gold, such as his song All the Young Dudes which provided a career-reviving hit for Mott the Hoople, or Lou Reed’s album Transformer, which he co-produced with Ronson. He scored his first UK No 1 album with Aladdin Sane (1973), which generated the hit singles The Jean Genie and Drive-in Saturday. But Bowie was already planning fresh career moves, and in July 1973 he shocked his audience at the Hammersmith Odeon by announcing the retirement of Ziggy Stardust.
He made Pin Ups, a transitional album of cover versions, before embarking on the sinister concept album Diamond Dogs, intended as a musical version of George Orwell’s 1984. Bowie’s commercial instincts remained in fine working order, however, and the album brought further hit singles with the title track and Rebel Rebel.
He took his new music to the US in 1974 with the elaborately theatrical Diamond Dogs tour, which was filmed by the BBC’s Alan Yentob for the documentary Cracked Actor. However, professional pressures and an escalating cocaine habit were making Bowie paranoid and physically emaciated.
His increasing interest in funk and soul music came to the fore on the deliciously listenable Young Americans (1975), which gave him a US chart-topper with Fame (featuring John Lennon as a guest vocalist) and earned him a slot on the American TV show Soul Train. This was Bowie’s so-called “plastic soul” album, which he described as “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey”.
But once again, Bowie’s frantic creativity was accompanied by crises in his business life. He fired Defries, which spurred long and tortuous litigation and cost Bowie millions, then hired his lawyer, Michael Lippman, as his manager. A year later he went through the sacking-and-lawsuit process all over again with Lippman.
Yet he was still breaking new musical ground. Station to Station (1976), a euphoric dose of what might be called synthetic art-funk, introduced a new persona, the Thin White Duke, which Bowie had carried over from his headlining performance as Thomas Jerome Newton, the melancholy space traveller, in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth.
But Bowie’s own connection to terra firma was looking increasingly shaky. He told Rolling Stone magazine about his admiration for fascism, and provoked outrage when his wave to the crowd while arriving in an open-topped Mercedes at Victoria station in London was interpreted as Nazi salute.
He found some breathing space by buying a home in Switzerland, where he rediscovered his interest in art and drawing, but by the end of 1976 he had taken up residence in Berlin, where he was accompanied by Iggy Pop with whom he was working on Iggy’s album, The Idiot and Brian Eno, who would be the catalyst for another of Bowie’s musical leaps forward.
The upshot was the so-called “triptych” of Low, Heroes (both 1977) and Lodger (1979), where Bowie mixed Krautrock influences with Eno-driven synthesizer mood-music, with at least some pop accessibility for good measure (such as Low’s Sound and Vision or Lodger’s Boys Keep Swinging). Lodger, though recorded in Montreux and New York, used the same personnel as the previous two, with Eno once again acting as creative ringmaster. Meanwhile, Bowie found time to film another leading movie role, appearing as Count Paul von Przygodski in Just a Gigolo (1978).
Bowie’s relationship with his wife had been disintegrating under the pressures of success and the couple’s hedonistic, promiscuous lifestyle, and they would divorce in 1980. This was a year of further creative triumph, bringing a fine album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and its spin-off chart-topping single, Ashes to Ashes, followed by Bowie’s well-received stint as John Merrick in The Elephant Man on the Broadway stage. To make the accompanying video for Ashes to Ashes, he went to the Blitz club in London and recruited several leading lights from the New Romantic movement, a collection of bands including Visage and Spandau Ballet, who owed much of their inspiration to Bowie.
With hindsight, Ashes to Ashes can be seen as the point where Bowie’s cutting edge began to lose its sharpness, and he was never again quite the cultural pathfinder he had been in his heyday. This process expressed itself in the way he restlessly bounced between collaborators. He bagged a No 1 single with his 1981 partnership with Queen, Under Pressure, while becoming increasingly involved in crossovers between different media. He appeared in the German movie Christiane F (1981) and wrote music for the soundtrack, and his lead role in the BBC’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1982) was accompanied by his five-track EP of songs from the play. He registered another chart hit with Cat People (Putting Out Fire)from Paul Schrader’s movie Cat People (1982). Bowie continued to make progress as a screen actor with appearances in The Hunger (alongside Catherine Deneuve) and the second world war drama Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, both released in 1983. Musically, this was the year in which he marshalled his forces for an all-out commercial onslaught with the album Let’s Dance and follow-up concerts. With co-production from Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Let’s Dance moulded Bowie into a crowd-friendly global rock star, with the album and its singles Let’s Dance, China Girl and Modern Love all becoming huge international hits.
Tonight (1984) could not repeat the trick, though it delivered the hit Blue Jean, whose short accompanying film Jazzin’ for Blue Jean earned Bowie a Grammy. But his profile gained another boost from his appearance at the 1985 Live Aid famine relief concert at Wembley stadium, where he was one of the standout performers. In addition, he teamed up with Mick Jagger to record the fundraising single Dancing in the Street, which sped to No 1.
Bowie then returned to the multimedia trail with an appearance in Julien Temple’s shambolic film Absolute Beginners (1986), from which he salvaged some personal kudos by supplying the winsome title song. He also wrote five songs for Jim Henson’s fantasy film Labyrinth, as well as taking the role of Jareth the Goblin King. In 1987, a solo album, Never Let Me Down, performed reasonably well commercially, but poor reviews were endorsed by Bowie himself (he described it as “an awful album”). The follow-up Glass Spider tour was castigated for its soulless over-production.
After playing Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Bowie’s next move was the heavy-rock band Tin Machine, with which he sought to appear as a band member rather than as a solo star. Their album Tin Machine (1989) and tour earned a mixture of modest acclaim and howls of outrage. However, by the time they released a second album, Bowie had abandoned the pretence of being “one of the boys” by undertaking 1990’s greatest hits tour Sound + Vision, unashamedly designed to promote the reissue of his back catalogue. Tin Machine dissolved in 1992. A few days after his appearance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley stadium in April 1992, Bowie married the Somalian model Iman, whom he had met 18 months earlier, and the couple bought a home in New York. This new start in his private life coincided with a search for fresh musical inspiration.
For the album Black Tie White Noise (1993), he reunited with Rodgers and sprinkled elements of soul, electronica and hiphop into the mix. It topped the UK album chart and yielded a top 10 single, Jump They Say. However, Bowie’s quest for new sounds to plunder began to evince an air of desperation. Outside (1995) found him reunited with Eno and was another commercial success, despite its laborious concept and clumsy adoption of grungy, industrial sounds, while Earthling (1997) borrowed elements of the drum’n’bass style practised by such UK artists as Goldie and Asian Dub Foundation. One of the album tracks was I’m Afraid of Americans, originally written for the movie Showgirls but remade under the auspices of Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. Released as a single, it sat on the US Billboard Hot 100 for four months. Bowie was demonstrating unexpected forms of creativity in other areas. In 1997 he made history of a sort by launching his Bowie bonds, whereby he netted $55m upfront by surrendering his royalties over the bonds’ 10-year term. In 2000, he delved into online banking with BowieBanc, giving customers an international banking service as well as cheques and debit cards with his picture on them. New media and technology influenced his recordings too. His 1999 album Hours… was based around music he had written for a computer game called Omikron, in which Bowie and Iman appeared as characters. Some listeners detected a return to the Hunky Dory days in the album’s reflective, self-analytical musings, though the songs could not match those former glories.
As an adopted New Yorker, Bowie was the opening act at the Concert for New York City in October 2001, where he joined Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, the Who and Elton John in a benefit show six weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Bowie sang Paul Simon’s song America and his own Heroes. He played himself in Ben Stiller’s fashion industry spoof Zoolander (2001). The following year, he was artistic director of the Meltdown festival on the South Bank in London, opening the event by performing the first concert of his own Heathen tour, in support of his album of the same name. The work reunited Bowie with Visconti for the first time since Scary Monsters, and sold 2m copies worldwide. It was nominated for the annual Mercury prize.
A re-energised Bowie was back in the studio with Visconti the following year for Reality, another successful outing welcomed for its energy and musical freshness. However, in the midst of his Reality tour in 2004, Bowie was stricken with chest pains while performing at the Hurricane festival in Germany and underwent an emergency angioplasty procedure in Hamburg to clear a blocked artery.
He took the medical emergency as a warning and reduced the pace of his activities. He made a handful of guest appearances, including a couple of live shows with the Canadian band Arcade Fire, then in 2006 announced he would be taking a year off from touring and recording. Despite this, shortly afterwards he appeared with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall, singing the Floyd classics Arnold Layne and Comfortably Numb. In February that year he was given a Grammy lifetime achievement award, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In The Prestige (2006), Christopher Nolan’s film about two battling magicians, Bowie featured as the inventor Nikola Tesla. Nolan said he cast Bowie because he wanted somebody “extraordinarily charismatic”.
In 2007 Bowie was curator of the eclectic High Line festival in New York, and included among his choices Arcade Fire, Laurie Anderson and the comedian Ricky Gervais. In 2008 he contributed vocals to a couple of tracks on Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits cover versions, Anywhere I Lay My Head.
In 2010, a live double CD, A Reality Tour, was released on Bowie’s own ISO Records. Recorded in Dublin in 2003, it was a survey of most of the key moments in his musical career. Reviewers were enthusiastic, but could not help noticing the valedictory feel of the album. “Nobody really knows if Bowie is hanging up the spacesuit for good,” said Rolling Stone. “But if so, this is one hell of an exit.” But there was more to come. In 2011 he released the album Toy, which dated back to 2001 and comprised tracks from Heathen and their B sides plus versions of older material. Of far greater significance was The Next Day (2013), his first album of new material in a decade. Produced by Visconti, it was preceded by the single Where Are We Now?, which gave him his first UK top 10 hit since 1993. The album topped charts in Britain and around the world, reaching No 2 in the US. In 2014 Bowie was given the Brit Award for Best British Male, making him the oldest recipient in the awards’ history.