The Starmaker (26 February 1916 – 3 June 1999)
"A ventriloquist on radio. How daft."
Throughout the 1950s, the corridors of the BBC often echoed with the same question: “How can a ventriloquist possibly be appreciated on radio?”. It seemed pointless for an audience to miss out on seeing a skilled performer throw their voice and speak without moving their lips, yet this anomaly appears to have led to Educating Archie becoming one of the corporation’s most successful comedy broadcasts of all time.
The show ran for ten years, during which period it introduced the listening public to some of British entertainment’s greatest comedy stars. Despite its old-fashioned Variety segments such as musical interludes, it was one of the first radio sitcoms to draw famous contemporary performers to seek a cameo appearance. But it didn’t matter who appeared on the programme: against all odds it was Archie Andrews, the wood-pulp, bug-eyed, schoolboy dummy who became a national icon.
Peter Brough (left) was born in Ealing, west London. His father, Arthur Brough, was a ventriloquist and a big star of the Variety stage. Despite his talent, Arthur was constantly worried that the audience would grow to dislike his act, so he maintained a day job with the Jaeger Wool Company. Since he had to be up in the morning, Arthur Brough never ventured far for his evening work, which meant that young Peter could often accompany his father and his dummy ‘Tim’ around the halls and theatres of London.
One night in 1922 at the Empire Theatre of Varieties, Croydon, when Brough Jnr was sitting and playing with his father’s dummy, the famous cockney singer Marie Lloyd, top of the bill that night (right), walked past. She remarked to Peter’s father, "Why, Arthur, if you're not careful you'll be having another ventriloquist in the family one day."
By the end of that year, Arthur Brough’s health was failing fast, so he retired from show business and concentrated on the textile business. With no more regular trips to the theatre to look forward to, the Brough family had to create entertainment at home. One evening when Brough Jnr was playing with his brother Kenneth, a candlestick fell and clipped off the corners of the younger boy’s two front teeth. A dentist advised that it would be best not to interfere with the chipped teeth, a fact that in later years proved extremely helpful to Peter when developing the ventriloquist skill of lip control.
Brough left school at fifteen, and with the help of his father’s contacts became an errand-boy for Whiteleys (right), the Bayswater department store. He swiftly rose from parcel packer to counter salesman via window dressing. To the annoyance of the other sales clerks he would practice throwing his voice in front of the triple mirror in the menswear department, a practice he perfected over the next five years while working at the emporium.
A 1936 audition for the Shepherd’s Bush Concert Party led to a week’s stint working for Cine-Variety, a popular entertainment format in the thirties. These were diverse programmes put together to pull in customers: a main feature, a supporting shorter film, trailers for next week’s show, a newsreel, a cartoon and some live ‘turns’ including full orchestras. Brough performed with his first dummy ‘Jimmy’ (left) between the films at the Blue Hall in Islington (left).
By 1938 he was regularly touring Variety theatres around the country and by Christmas he would be performing in his first pantomime at the New Theatre, Oxford. Brough was extremely happy with this appointment, particularly since he had auditioned earlier that year for the BBC producer John Sharman and his new radio show Music Hall, but was turned down for being “too amateurish”.
Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Brough and his father decided to go out on their own in the textiles business and they opened a fabric sourcing agency. This work allowed the younger Brough to perform an occasional week in Cine-Variety: while at one of its many cinema outlets, he met a pretty programme seller, Peggy Franklin: their wedding followed in 1940. Thanks to a movie role as the compére in Billy Cotton’s 1940 film Cavalcade of Variety, Brough was in a good position to fund it.
Brough join the forces in 1940 and became a driver for the Royal Army Service Corps, stationed in the Colchester barracks, Essex. He made a one-minute Public Information film for the Ministry of Defence in which he and Jimmy illustrated how and how not to use a stirrup pump.
Private Brough entertained his fellow servicemen at the garrison and caught the attention of one Captain George Black Jnr. Black had Brough reassigned to the War Office pool of entertainers in Greenford, Middlesex, a company soon to be renamed Stars in Battledress. Unfortunately, Brough contracted a lung problem soon after and was invalided out of service.
Despite the family textile business thriving and Peggy enjoying her husband being back at home, Brough still wanted to do his best for the war effort. He joined ENSA, the organisation set up to provide entertainment for British armed forces during World War II.
Here, he teemed up with ‘The Forces’ Sweetheart’, Vera Lynn (left), and the pair toured extensively. It was during these shows that Brough met Lynn’s mentor, the record producer Wally Ridley, who bluntly told Brough "Your patter is weak and your dummy is atrocious!".
This kick-started Brough into coming up with a new act, and he would take himself off on long walks to try out different voices and characters. He listened enviously to Edgar Bergen (right) and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, on American Forces Radio, a vent act admired by many for its crosstalk patter. Then, one day on a Scottish beach Brough had an epiphany which he later described: ”Out of the sea, sky and shore one voice suddenly seemed to ‘click’...the thin cheeky treble of a boy of fourteen or so...”
This boy was visualised in wood as a slightly aristocratic young teenager in a striped blazer. Considering it was still a lean, post-war period, the dummy’s manufacture set Brough back by a small fortune: its head alone cost £250; its clothes and shoes were custom-made in Savile Row. The dummy was eventually allowed an annual clothing allowance of fifty ration coupons for its part in boosting national morale. Its name, ‘Archie Andrews’, was coined by Ted Kavanagh, the writer of the hit radio series ITMA; it’s not known if Kavanagh was aware of the US comic strip character of the same name.
Brough took his new act back to John Sharman, who had by then become one of the BBC’s top light entertainment producers. This time, the audition led to Brough and Archie appearing on the radio show Vaudeville of 1944, their very first appearance together. On 11th June that year, Brough was initiated into the Grand Order of Water Rats (membership no. 432), and while at a Rats Lodge meeting he had a discussion with Brother Rat Bud Flanagan (right) on the difficulties of writing material with a child as a comedy stooge. Flanagan went home and created a routine for Brough in which the ventriloquist was the dummy’s guardian and Archie his cheeky ward, setting the template for their relationship.
Neglecting his rag-trade responsibilities, Brough went back on the road and sharpened the act further. He signed a 12-month contract with the Stoll-Moss circuit and played some of the best Variety theatres in the country. A performance at The Empress, Brixton in south London was attended one night by the BBC producer, Charles Maxwell. Maxwell had created a new radio programme for the Beeb called Navy Mixture, a wartime Variety show “blended to suit the taste of the Royal Navy”, and hosted by Petty Officer Jack Watson.
Maxwell believed Brough would be a perfect fit for the programme, and offered him the chance to join its next recording. Despite having his lemonade jokingly spiked with a double gin by the show’s pianist, Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson, Brough performed very well. He and Archie were given a regular weekly spot on the show entitled Archie Takes the Helm, a naval-based comedy, script-assisted by Sid Colin.
Brough assumed he would probably be contracted for a few weeks, six at the most. The total was 46 consecutive weeks. He wasn’t only a firm favourite with servicemen: the listening audience at home including entire families were also tuning in to hear about Archie’s antics. He became such a success that the Inland Revenue sent demands to both the BBC and Peter Brough addressed to ‘Archie Andrews Esq’ and when Brough enquired about increasing his insurance level on the four-foot doll, the underwriters invited Archie to take a medical.
This triumph on radio did not escape John Sherman who offered Brough Music Hall, the show for which he’d been turned down seven years earlier. Throughout the late 1940s, Brough was a regular guest on Variety Band Box, Calling The Stars, Round The Halls, Music While You Work, The Carroll Levis Show, Here’s Wishing You Well Again, Children’s Hour and Workers Playtime, as well as performing live most nights.
Envious of Edgar Bergen’s radio show, Brough also wanted his own programme so he set to work on selling an idea to the BBC: The Archie Andrews Radio Show. He recorded a pilot, aided by film actor Bonar Colleano and wireless comedian Jon Pertwee. At the recording, support for the show was strong since the audience included Tommy Handley, (bottom right) Kenneth Horne (bottom left) and old friend Ted Kavanagh (top).
The BBC turned it down. They thought that Archie would never be a strong enough character to engage listeners…but also that Brough was, in fact, not a particularly good ventriloquist. The blow hit him hard, affecting his health physically and mentally. His chest complaint returned and Brough was ordered to spend curative time in Switzerland. He returned fully recovered in Christmas 1947, still determined not to give up on his radio ambitions.
Charles Maxwell decided it was time to give Brough a helping hand. He launched a twenty minute show (not the full thirty of most comedy radio shows) in which Brough was teamed with the man known as “the voice of them all”, impressionist Peter Cavanagh (right). Two’s A Crowd first aired on Thursday 19th February 1948 at 10:15pm but did not get the audience the BBC were hoping for. Oddly, the 4.40pm Monday repeat on the Home Service did much better, perhaps due to the earlier schedule time allowing an additional younger audience to tune in.
Intent on pitching an impressive new show to the BBC, Brough brought together a set of great writers to help: Wally Ridley, Sid Colin and an emerging young comedy writer called Eric Sykes (left). They also engaged top radio producer Roy Speer, who wrote to the BBC: "We see Archie as a boy in his middle teens, naughty but lovable, rather too grown-up for his years, especially where the ladies are concerned, and distinctly cheeky!". It worked.
On the 6th June 1950, the Educating Archie (link here soon) ensemble hit the radio waves: a cheeky school kid, a private tutor, the chum of a handyman, a mothering housekeeper, a teenage girlfriend and a rather strict BBC announcer entertained over fifteen million listeners. The show was an instant hit. The Beeb had intended to record only six episodes, but its success eventually led to a total of twenty-nine. In December, it won the first-ever National Radio Award for the Outstanding Variety Series of the Year.
During the next decade, casts of stars came and went, and new writers joined and left but for its audience, the show remained pure joy. Archie Andrews became a national treasure. As well as his serialised adventures in the weekly comic Radio Fun, there were Archie Andrews Annuals, Archie Andrews Calling story-books and Archie Andrews Colouring Books. Merchandising included replica dolls, jigsaws, clothes, masks, key-rings, mechanical figures, board games, ice-lollies and even an Archie Andrews-shaped Imperial Leather bar of soap.
The cast, now household names, went on to perform a sell-out tour of music halls. Following one of the cast Christmas parties at the Prince of Wales Theatre, the company was invited to meet with the royal family at their own annual staff party in Windsor Castle. Explaining to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose how Archie worked, King George VI (right) removed Archie's head. Reconstructed, he was handed back to Brough by the King, to whom Archie turned and said, "Sir, I'm the only fellow you have ever beheaded in your reign."
Life at home for Brough was not so good. Peggy felt that he neglected her and their two children, Christopher and Romey, and she often accused Brough of caring more for Archie than for his own offspring. Despite enjoying the Hertfordshire mansion, the minks, the cars and the jewellery she was acutely embarrassed by the source of their wealth. The children also developed a loathing for Archie, having posed for countless photos with their ‘wooden big brother’. Christopher’s dislike intensified to such a level that in a game of football in the garden, he allegedly kicked the doll into many pieces.
Peggy’s assertion about Brough’s misdirected parenting seems hardly fair - if it were true, it’s doubtful he’d have been so careless with Archie. One time, after a recording in the BBC Paris Studios, London, Brough left the dummy sitting in an unlocked car on Lower Regent Street from where it was stolen, and then turned up two days later in a garden in Paddington. Another time he left Archie in the case rack of a North Kent train and then again on a train to Leeds where Brough disembarked, and Archie went on to Bradford.
However, her complaints continued, as did her medication (amphetamines and Valium): the bickering and rowing began to push Brough away and traumatise the children, and gave Brough another reason to hit the road and perform live. The couple parted company in 1954 but Brough kept this knowledge out of the public eye, fearing a scandal could damage his career. Brough’s daughter, Romey, later spoke about her mothers’ psychiatric problems which eventually led to suicide; Brough’s son Christopher suffered the same unfortunate fate.
In 1956, the BBC gave Brough the opportunity to transfer his radio show to TV, and a one-off special emerged. An essential difference was that the audience could now see Brough, whose ventriloquism skills had not previously been tested by radio and were now visible in all their mediocrity. Beryl Reid (left), who worked with him, was once asked if it was possible to see Peter Brough’s lips move during his act. Her answer: “Only when Archie spoke”.
Two years later, the ITV company Associated-Rediffusion tried relaunching Archie Andrews for television in 27 half-hour programmes. Marty Feldman was contracted to join the writing team in order to create a less dummy-like impression, with less cross-talk and more monologues. Special effects allowed Archie to walk, move and talk without Brough but despite these efforts, the original magic of the radio show could not be recaptured and audience numbers declined.
The last radio broadcast of Educating Archie was on 17th February 1960, and within the year Brough retired without explanation from show business. After the death of his father, he took over the family textiles business. Brough died aged 83 in 1999. His final days were spent at the Actors’ Nursing Home,
Denville Hall in Middlesex.
In 2005 Archie Andrews was sold at auction, having been in a cupboard from the day Brough had retired and only brought out on very special occasions. The dummy went to a committed Educating Archie fan, Colin Burnett-Dick, who paid £40,000 for it.
Did Peter Brough retire too soon or at just the right moment? A second marriage and another family gave him the opportunity to begin a new life beyond the critical media world which had damned him. Peter Brough was a unique performer: it was not his craft skills that propelled him to fame, but rather his dummy's persona. Following in the 'disrespectful schoolboy' tradition of Billy Bunter and William Brown, Archie quickly gained a special place in the hearts of post war mass audiences. Brough's ability to tap in to the nation's new delight for
insubordination was his genius.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Gifford D. The Golden Age of Radio (1985)
Nobbs G. The Wireless Stars (1972)
Furst S. & Foster A. Radio Comedy 1938-68 (1996)
Fisher J. Funny Way To Be A Hero (2013)
Elmes S. Hello Again (2012)
Brough P. Educating Archie (1955)
Connor S. Dumbstruck - A Cultural History Of Ventriloquism (2000)