Posts Tagged ‘death’

Warren Street and the Murder of Stan ‘The Spiv’ Setty by Brian Donald Hume in 1949

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Stan ‘The Spiv’ Setty in 1949. 

On March 8 2013 Camden Council permanently closed Warren Street to cars. The road had long been used, presumably for decades, as a rat-run for drivers hoping to avoid the congestion that would often build up at the junction between Tottenham Court Road and the Euston Road.

Closing a road to traffic in central London is hardly unusual these days but in this case there was a certain irony. For much of the 20th century Warren Street had been the centre of the used-car trade in London and was the oldest street car market anywhere in Britain.

“It’s a nice little runner” – Two car dealers on Warren Street in November 1949.

It all started in 1902 when Charles Friswell, an ex-racing cyclist and successful engineer,  astutely hopped on the running board of the new burgeoning car industry and opened Friswell’s Automobile Palace at 1 Albany Street on the corner of the Euston Road. It was a five-storey building that could accommodate hundreds of vehicles in garage and showroom spaces, with repair and paint shops, accessory sales and auction facilities. It was known as ‘The House of Friswell’ and ‘The Motor-World’s Tattersalls’ and was a huge success.

Friswell’s Great Motor Repository at Albany Street.

Friswell’s in Albany Street by the Euston Road.

Smaller car dealers started to open along the Euston Road but as the traffic got busier it became harder and harder to park cars outside their main showrooms. Many of the premises, however, had entrances or exits that opened up on the parallel Warren Street (the road was actually built in the 18th century as an access road for the newly built properties on Euston Road).

By the start of the First World War most of the car sales were actually now taking place in Warren Street. The main dealerships were soon joined by ‘small-fry’ or ‘pavement dealers’ – men who bought and sold cars of questionable provenance on street corners, cafes, milk-bars and pubs. Frankie Fraser described Warren Street in his book Mad Frank’s London:

They’d have cars in showrooms and parked on the pavement. There could be up to fifty cars and then again some people would just stand on the pavement and pass on the info that there was a car to sell. Warren Street was mostly for mug punters. Chaps wouldn’t buy one. People would come down from as far away as Scotland to buy a car. All polished and shiny with the clock turned back and the insides hanging out. And if you bought a car and it fell to bits who was you going to complain to?

Car dealers on Warren Street in November 1949.

Warren Street March 2013. Photograph by Lucy King.

Dodgy car-dealer spivs outside 54 Warren Street in 1949.

 

54 Warren Street today. Photograph by Lucy King.

In December 1949 the magazine Picture Post published an article about the used-car market in Warren Street. They described the road as the northern-most boundary of Soho (Fitzrovia is actually a relatively recent construct and only really been used since the fifties) and explained that was the reason why, “ it attracts a fair amount of gutter garbage from the hinterland.” The reporters feigned shock at the numerous cash-deals that were going on;

Bundles of dirty notes were going across without counting…there is nothing illegal about a cash sale unless, of course, the Income Tax authorities can catch them – which they cannot – or thieves fall out and pick each other’s pockets – or unless, of course, someone gets killed.

And someone did get killed. His name was Stanley Setty, a shady Warren Street car-dealer, with a lock-up round the corner in Cambridge Terrace Mews . He hadn’t been seen since 4 October when he had sold a Wolseley Twelve saloon to a man in Watford for which he received 200 five pound notes. The next day Setty’s brother-in-law called at Albany Street Police station to report him missing but it also didn’t take long before Setty’s fellow traders and black-marketeers noticed his absence from his usual patch outside the Fitzroy Cafe on the corner of Fitzroy Street and Warren Street.

Car dealers loiter outside the Fitzroy Cafe on the corner of Warren Street and Fitzroy Street in London, 19th November 1949. Stan Setty used the cafe as his personal office.

The former stamping ground of Stanley Setty on the corner of Fitzroy Street and Warren Street today. Photograph by Lucy King.

Stanley Setty’s Citroen parked outside his garage in Cambridge Terrace Mews just north of the Euston Road and west of Albany Street.

Stanley Setty had been born in Baghdad of Jewish parents and arrived in England at the age of four in 1908. Twenty years later he received an eighteen month prison sentence, after pleading guilty to twenty-three offences against the Debtors’ and Bankruptcy Acts. In 1949 he was still an undischarged bankrupt and thus unable to open a bank account. Despite this, or more likely because, Setty dealt in large amounts of cash and he was what was called a ‘kerbside banker’.

It was widely known that, on his person, he never carried anything less than a thousand pounds, and, if he was given a couple of hours notice, he could produce up to five times that amount. His real name was Sulman Seti but to many he was known as ‘Stan the Spiv’.

A spiv in 1945 with a Voigtlander camera for sale on the blackmarket in London. The brooches on his lapels are also for sale.

Spiv is a word that’s almost non-existent today and a couple of years ago there were more than a few blank faces when Vince Cable showed his age when describing the City’s much-maligned bankers as ’spivs and gamblers’. After the Second War, however, the word was almost ubiquitous. It was used to describe the smartly-dressed black-marketeers that in a time of controls and restrictions lived by their wits buying and selling ration coupons and sought after luxuries.

When the war had come to an end in the summer of 1945 it was estimated that there were over 20,000 deserters in the country and 10,000 in London alone. These deserters, all without proper identity cards or ration books, had only one choice to make (if they didn’t give themselves up and receive a certain prison sentence) and that was to be part of the huge and growing black market underground.

The word ‘spiv’ had been used by London’s criminal fraternity at least since the nineteenth century and meant a small time crook, con-man or fence rather than a full-time and dangerous villain. The exact origin is lost in the London smog of thieves’ cant, and is etymologically as obscure as the derivation of the goods the spivs were trying to sell. In The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green suggests the word originally came from the Romany spiv, which meant a sparrow, used by gypsies as a derogatory reference to those who existed by picking up the leavings of their betters, criminal or legitimate.

In 1909, the writer Thomas Burke, in a short story featured in the Idler magazine entitled ‘Young Love in Bermondsey’ mentions ‘Spiv’ Bagster, the ‘Westminster Blood’ who can ‘do things when his dander’s up’. Henry’ Spiv’ Bagster actually existed and was a newspaper seller and petty-thief. His many court appearances for selling counterfeit goods and illegal street-trading were occasionally mentioned in the national press between 1903 and 1906.

Thomas Burke wrote about characters from and around Bermondsey including Barney Grierson who was ‘always handy in a scrum’; Hunky Bottles, ‘captain of the Walworth Whangers’, Battlng Bert, Jumbo Flanagan, Greaser Doodles as well as ‘Spiv’ Bagster.

Another theory about the word ‘spiv’ is that it could well have come from the slang term ’spiff’ meaning a well-dressed man. This turned into ’spiffy’ meaning spruced-up and if you were ‘spiffed up’ you were dressed smartly.

Over time the two meanings of ‘spiv’ seemed to have mysteriously combined and in 1945 Bill Naughton, the playwright and author brought up in Bolton but best known for his London play and subsequent film – Alfie, used the word in the title of an article he wrote in September 1945. Written for the News Chronicle, just a few weeks after the end of World War Two, Meet the Spiv began:

 Londoners and other city dwellers will recognize him, so will many city magistrates – the slick, flashy, nimble-witted tough, talking sharp slang from the corner of the mouth. He is a sinister by-product of big-city civilisation.

James Agate in the Daily Express reviewing Naughton’s article described the spiv as:

That odd member of society… a London type. Which would be a Chicago gangster if he had the guts.

The word ’spiv’ caught the imagination of the public of all classes. People who would have normally described themselves as law-abiding, appreciated, albeit grudgingly, what the spivs had to offer. During the war many people would have felt that without the black market it was almost impossible to have any quality of life at all and the spivs offered an escape from the over-whelming and suffocating strictures of austerity, rationing and self-denial. The sympathetic acceptance of the men with the flashy suits with the wide lapels and narrow waists only increased when the war came to an end. The wartime restrictions were now just restrictions, and the diarist Anthony Heap summed up the mood of much the country at the end of 1945:

Housing, food, clothing, fuel, beer, tobacco – all the ordinary comforts of life that we’d taken for granted before the war and naturally expected to become more plentiful again when it ended, became instead more and more scarce and difficult to come by.

By 1946 the archetypal spiv character was more well known, the columnist Warwick Charlton in the Daily Express wrote in November of that year:

The spivs’ shoulders are better upholstered than they have ever been before. Their voices are more knowing, winks more cunning, rolls (of bank-notes) fatter, patent shoes more shiny. The spivs are the “bright boys” who live on their wits. They have only one law: Thou shalt not do an honest day’s work. They have never been known to break this law.

When war came they dodged the call-up; bribed sick men to attend their medicals; bought false identity cards, and, if they were eventually roped in, they deserted. War was their opportunity and they took it and waxed fat, sleek and rich. They organised the black market of war time Britain. Peace had them worried but only for a moment. Shortages are still with us, and the spivs are the peace-time profiteers.

Seventeen days after Stan ‘the Spiv’ Setty went missing, on the 21 October 1949, a farm labourer named Sidney Tiffin was out shooting ducks on the Dengie mud flats about fifteen miles from Southend when he came across a large package wrapped up in carpet felt. He opened it up with his knife to reveal a body still dressed in a silk cream shirt and pale blue silk shorts. The hands were tied behind the back but the head and legs had been hacked roughly away.

It was estimated that the truncated body had been immersed in the sea for over two weeks and without the head it was thought almost impossible to identify. But the celebrated, not least by himself, Superintendent Fred Cherrill of Scotland Yard’s fingerprint department managed to remove the wrinkled skin from Setty’s fingertips which he then stretched over his own fingers to produce some prints. Prints that turned out to be a match for those of Setty’s.

Within a few days the police found more evidence after they had instructed bookmakers around London to look out for the five pound notes they knew Setty had on his person the day he went missing. Five pounds was a lot of money in 1949 (worth over £150 today) and at that time any five pound note withdrawn from a bank would have had its number noted by the clerk along with the name of the withdrawer.

On the 26th October one of the Setty fivers was found at Romford Greyhound Stadium and on the next day five more were traced back to a dog track at Southend. The police were closing in and on 28 October a man was arrested and taken to Albany Street. Not long after a flat was searched at 620B Finchley Road near Golders Green tube station.

Brian Donald Hume with his wife Cynthia. At the time of his arrest in October 1949 they had a three month old son. She was a former night-club hostess and went on to marry the crime reporter Duncan Webb.

The man arrested was Brian Donald Hume who had originally met the physically imposing Stanley Setty two years previously at the Hollywood Club near Marble Arch. Hume had been impressed with Setty’s expensive-looking suit with the flamboyant tie and his general overall wealthy appearance: “He had a voice like broken bottles and pockets stuffed with cash,” Hume later recalled.

Setty realised that Hume could be useful for his illegal operations and they became ‘business’ partners dealing with classic ‘spiv’ goods such as black market nylons and forged petrol coupons but also trading in stolen cars which Hume stole for Setty to sell on after a quick re-spray. Hume was also useful as he had qualified for a civilian’s pilot’s licence after the war and had been getting a name for himself within London’s underworld as ’the Flying Smuggler’.

Hume was born illegitimately in 1919 to a schoolmistress who gave her son to a local orphanage to bring up. He was retrieved after a few years and brought up by a woman he knew as ‘Aunt Doodie’ but who actually turned out to be his natural mother. According to Hume she never properly accepted him as she did her other children and he would later comment: “I was born with a chip on my shoulder as big as an elephant.”

In 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a pilot but left in 1940 after getting cerebrospinal meningitis. An RAF medical report at the time, however, described him as having ‘a degree of organically determined psychopathy’.

Hume as RAF Officer c.1943

During the war he bought an RAF officer’s uniform and used his knowledge to masquerade as Flying Officer Dan Hume, DFM. Hume passed off forged cheques at RAF stations around the country (“it was a great thrill to have everyone saluting a a bastard like me”) but he was soon caught and in 1942 he was bound over for two years.

On 1st October 1949, Setty and Hume’s thin veneer of friendship was stripped away during an argument at Hume’s Finchley Road flat. Setty had recently upset Hume by kicking out at his beloved pet terrier when it had brushed up against a freshly re-sprayed car and the confrontation soon became physical. Hume, not a person who particularly found it easy to control his temper, was now in a violent rage and reached over and grabbed a German SS dagger that was hanging on the wall as decoration. He later told a reporter:

I was wielding the dagger just like our savage ancestors wielded their weapons 20,000 years ago . . . We rolled over and over and my sweating hand plunged the weapon frenziedly and repeatedly into his chest and legs . . . I plunged the blade into his ribs. I know; I heard them crack.

Hume stabbed Setty five times after which he lay back and watched his victim’s last breaths. He wrote later: “I watched the life run from him like water down a drain”.

Hume dragged Setty’s hefty thirteen stone into the kitchen and hid the body in the coal cupboard. The next day, while his wife was out, he started to dismember the body with a linoleum knife and hacksaw, eventually wrapping the body parts in carpet felt adding some brick rubble for additional weight.  The following morning Hume arranged to have his front room redecorated, and had the carpet professionally cleaned and dyed to get rid of any stray blood stains. What upset him most was having to burn £900 worth of bloodstained five pound notes.

Later that day Hume took the carpet felt parcels to Elstree airport and hired an Auster light aircraft to dump Setty’s remains over the English Channel. It took several attempts, and broke the plane’s window in the process, before Hume was successful in getting the parcels to slide out of the small side-door. As it was now getting dark Hume decided to land at the closer Southend airport and had to hire a car home for which he paid, of course, with one of Setty’s left-over fivers.

The actual Auster light aircraft used by Brian Hume to dispose of Setty’s body.

Brian Donald Hume, 1949.

A week after his arrest on 5t November Hume appeared at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court charged that he:

Did, between 4th and 5th October, 1949, murder Stanley Setty, aged 46 years. Against the Peace.

By now there was so much evidence collected by the police including fingerprints, identified torsos, blood-stains found in the flat of the accused, hire cars paid by the victim’s proven money and so on that anyone involved in the case thought that realistically there could only be one verdict.

The trial at the Old Bailey started on the 18 January 1950 and Hume’s defence was based around a story that he had originally contrived for the police. Essentially, it was that he had been paid £150 to dump some heavy parcels over the English Channel by three former associates of Setty called Max, Greenie and The Boy. Hume’s descriptions of the three men seemed so accurate and detailed that the story sounded credible to many in the courtroom.

The defence also called on Cyril Lee – a former army officer who lived within earshot of Setty’s lock-up for three years. He was no friend of Setty’s and admitted that he disliked the sort of men that had been habituating the garage at Cambridge Terrace Mews. He told the court that although that they weren’t ‘the sort of people I would like to see round my doorstep,’ he had heard two people that were called ‘Max’ and ‘The Boy’ and also acknowledged that he had seen a man who looked like Hume’s description of ‘Greenie’.

Queues for Brian Hume’s trial at the Old Bailey, 18th January 1950.

Police officers carry bloodstained carpet and floorboards from the home of Brian Hume into the Old Bailey at his trial, London, 18th January 1950. A week later, Hume was convicted as an accessory to the murder of his business associate Stanley Setty.

The Judge, Mr Justice Sellers, spoke to the jury about the inferences and assumptions they had to make but also told them that if there was any doubt about what had happened then they were compelled to return a verdict of not guilty.

The jury were ready in less than three hours to return their verdict and to most people’s surprise, it was that they had failed to agree on one. Hume was retried, and on the 26th January 1950, and after the judge had instructed the new jury to return a not-guilty verdict for the charge of murder, he was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact.  Hume was sentenced to just twelve years in prison but he didn’t hide from the courtroom that he had expected less.

Three years before the case of Setty’s murder caught the imagination of the British public in 1946, George Orwell wrote the essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’. What he thought of the Setty murder case we will never know as on the very same morning that Brian Hume was taken to begin his sentence at Dartmoor Prison, Orwell’s funeral was taking place at Christ Church on Albany Street. The church was situated just round the corner from Stanley Setty’s lock up in Cambridge Terrace Mews and on the very same road where Friswell’s grand Automobile Palace once stood and where Hume was originally taken in for questioning at Albany Street Police Station.

Brian Hume was released from Dartmoor Prison on 1st February 1958. It was almost certainly the only time in Hume’s life that his behaviour was described as ‘good’ but it was for this reason he was released four years early. Because of the law of double jeopardy Hume was secure in the knowledge that he could no longer be retried for murder and he brazenly sold his story to the now defunct Sunday Pictorial. The front page splash began:

I, Donald Hume, do hereby confess to the Sunday Pictorial that on the night of October 4, 1949, I murdered Stanley Setty in my flat in Finchley-road, London. I stabbed him to death while we were fighting.

For the benefit of the Sunday Pictorial newspaper Brian Hume was photographed celebrating his release from prison with champagne. It didn’t go down well with the public.

Hume admitted in the article that he had murdered Setty alone and Max, Greenie and The Boy was just figments of his imagination. The astonishing detailed accuracy of the descriptions of the trio that had successfully fooled some of the jury were actually based on the three policemen who had originally interviewed him.

In May 1958 Hume, complete with a false passport and what was left of the money he had received from the Sunday Pictorial, fled to Zurich in Switzerland. To raise more money he started committing bank robberies back in England that were cleverly synchronised with flights at Heathrow enabling him to flee the country before the police had even started their enquiries. Eventually Hume’s luck ran out when he shot and killed a taxi driver after another attempted bank robbery. This time it was in  Zurich and Hume was ignominiously captured by a pastry chef before being rescued by the police from a gathering angry crowd.

Hume was at last found guilty for murder and he received a life sentence with hard-labour. In 1976 he was was judged to be mentally unstable by the Swiss authorities and this gave them the excuse to fly Hume back to England where he was incarcerated at Broadmoor Hospital. Hume was eventually released in 1998 but it was just a few months later when his decomposing body was found in a wood in Gloucestershire. The body was identified as Hume’s by it’s fingerprints.

Not unlike the Manson Family killings in 1969 that seemed to bring an end to the peace-loving hippy era and the summer of love, the shocking Stanley Setty murder changed the public perception of the typical Spiv as a loveable rogue forever. There was always something slightly comical about the Spiv and indeed the exaggerated clothes and manners lent themselves to caricature. The spiv-like comedy characters continued to be part of British popular culture for the next couple of decades or so – notably Arthur English’s Prince of the Wide Boys, George Cole’s ‘Flash Harry’ in the St Trinian films, and Private Walker in the early Dad’s Army episodes.

London, 1950. British actor and comedian Arthur English dressed as the spiv known as ‘Prince of the Wide-Boys’.

But it was rationing that gave spivs a major reason to exist and during the General Election of 1950 the Conservative Party actively campaigned on a manifesto of ending rationing as quickly as possible. The issuing of petrol coupons ended in May 1951 while sugar rationing finished two years later and finally in 1954 when the public were allowed to buy meat wherever and whenever they wanted, it brought an end to rationing completely.

By the time Brian Hume was released from prison in 1956, the era of the Spiv had essentially come to an end.

 

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Benny Hill and the Windmill Theatre in Great Windmill Street, Soho

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Benny Hill in his sixties heyday.

“The notion that Benny was a lonely man is so depressing and wrong. He just liked his own company. He was very happy walking alone, living alone, eating alone, taking holidays alone and going to see shows alone. I often wonder whether he needed anybody else in his life at all…except perhaps a cameraman”. – Bob Monkhouse

On Easter Sunday morning in 1992, and just two hours after he had been speaking to a television producer about yet another come-back, 75 year-old Frankie Howerd collapsed and died of heart failure.

Benny Hill, seven years younger than Howerd, was quoted in the press as being “very upset” and saying, “We were great, great friends”. Indeed they had been friends, but Hill hadn’t given a quote about his fellow comedian, he hadn’t even been asked for one – he couldn’t have been – because he was already dead.

The quote about Howerd had come from Hill’s friend, former producer and unofficial press-agent Dennis Kirkland who had not been able to get in contact with Hill for a couple of days and was starting to worry.

It wasn’t until the 20th, the day after Howerd had died, that a neighbour noticed an unpleasant smell coming from Flat 7 of Fairwater House on the Twickenham Road in Teddington.

Benny Hill at home in 1991. Exactly where he was found a year later slumped on the sofa watching TV

Fairwater House on the Twickenham Road in Teddington

The neighbour contacted Kirkland, who was a regular visitor to the Teddington apartment block, and it wasn’t long before the television producer was climbing a ladder and peering through the window of Hill’s second floor flat. Inside he saw his friend surrounded by dirty plates, glasses, video-tapes and piles of papers slumped on the sofa in front of the TV. He was blue, the body had bloated and distended, and blood had seeped from the ears. Hill had been dead for two days.

Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill had both been part of a big wave of ex-servicemen comedians that came to prominence after the second world war. This amazing generation of performers, in some form or other, would eventually almost take over light-entertainment, initially on the radio and subsequently television, in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Benny Hill,  although he was still known by his original name Alfie Hill, had first come to London during the war. He arrived at Waterloo station on the Southampton train in the summer of 1941 having given up his milk-round and sold his drum kit for £8 to fund this next stage of his life. He had no other plan in his head but to succeed as a comic performer on the London stage and had three addresses of variety theatres in his pocket. He was just seventeen.

Young Benny Hill

More by luck than judgement and after a week or two of sleeping rough in a Streatham bomb shelter, the naive Hampshire boy managed to get a dogsbody job from a kindly agent. Hill remembered this in 1955:

At the Chiswick Empire they did not want to know about Alf Hill. I had much the same reception at the “Met”, but at the Chelsea Palace I was lucky enough to arrange to see Harry Benet at his office the next morning.

Harry Benet offered Hill £3 per week to be an Assistant Stage Manager (with small parts) for a new revue called Follow the Fan. Years later Hill would often joke that although he was no longer an ASM he still had small parts.

12 months or so later Hill, now eighteen, had become eligible for conscription. He was having the time of his life and he naively thought that by travelling around the country (he was now with Send Them Victorious, another revue) he could pretend he had never received the OHMS manila envelope ordering him to enlist.

The ruse worked until November 1942 when the revue was at the New Theatre in Cardiff for the last engagement before the pantomime season. Two military policeman presented themselves at the theatre stage door and Hill was ‘advised’ to ‘give himself up’. Within a month Hill found himself a private in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a driver/mechanic.

He couldn’t drive and knew nothing about engines and Alfie Hill played no useful part in the war. After VE day, and when he was in London on leave, he applied to be part of the services’ touring revue called Stars in Battledress.

Benny Hill in the army

There was one problem, Hill didn’t have ‘an act’ and he had 24 hours to create one. For inspiration he walked to the Windmill Theatre in Soho as it was the only place in London where you could see comedians during the day.

He noticed one Windmill comic in particular, a man called Peter Waring whose scripts were written by Frank Muir, at that time still attached to the RAF. Hill would later say:

Waring was the biggest influence on my life. He was delicate, highly strung and sensitive…when I saw him I thought, ‘My God, it’s so easy. You don’t have to come on shouting, “Ere, ‘ere, missus! Got the music ‘Arry? Now missus, don’t get your knickers in a twist!” You can come on like Waring and say, “Not many in tonight. There’s enough room at the back to play rugby. My God, they are playing rugby.

The Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street in 1940

Archer Street, which is on one side of the Windmill Theatre, in the late-forties. Musicians and performers looking for work would meet up with small-time agents here.

Windmill Theatre

The Windmill Theatre on the corner of Great Windmill street and Archer Street, just off Shaftesbury Avenue, was a magnet to many of the new wave ex-servicemen comedians, of which there were many. The theatre was infamous for its risque dancing girls and nude tableaux but it was a tough crowd for comedians who would make up part of the show. Not too many patrons were there for the jokes.

The theatre had been bought in 1930 by a 70 year old ‘white haired, bright eyed little woman in mink’ called Mrs Laura Henderson whose late husband “had been something in Jute”. At the time it was a run-down old cinema called the Palais de Luxe (actually one of the first in London) but she had the building extensively rebuilt, glamourously faced with glazed white terracotta and renamed it the Windmill Theatre.

Under the careful guidance of her manager Vivian Van Damme, a small neat man who more often than not would be smoking a cigar, the theatre slowly became a success. The ‘Mill’, as it became known in its heyday, started to present a non-stop type of revue that was a winning combination of brand-new comedians, a small resident ballet, a singer or two and, of course the infamous static nude tableaux. The terrible title of the show assimilated the word ‘nude’ and ‘revue’ and was called Revudeville.

Revudeville cover

Vivian Van Damm

The elderly Vivian Van Damm showing Benny Hill how its done.

Van Damme, amusingly known as V.D. to everyone backstage, had an astute judgement of both English sexual taste and of what the Lord Chamberlain – the national theatre censor – would allow. “It’s all right to be nude, but if it moves, it’s rude,” said Rowland Thomas Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer who was the Lord Chamberlain at the time.

On the Sunday night before a new show opened Van Damme would invite the Earl of Cromer to a special performance. To make the Lord Chamberlain’s mood amenable to what he was about to see V.D. made sure there was generous hospitality before the curtain was raised. It was said that the Lord Chamberlain never delegated his responsibilities on these occasions.

During the war the Windmill Theatre became one of the first theatres to re-open after the Government initially ordered compulsory closure of all the theatres in the West End (4-16 September 1939). It stayed open throughout the rest of the war with five or six performances a day and open from 11am to 10.35 at night.

Windmill Girls

Windmill Girls

Windmill Girls

Once the audience arrived in the morning some of them would stay and watch all the six shows throughout the evening and night. Des O’Connor, just one of the comedians who got an early break at the Windmill, was on his fifth show of the day when he completely dried up. Somebody, who had been at all the previous shows that day, shouted out: “You do the one about the parrot next!”

During the latter performances the audience that were sitting in the back of the stalls would wait for those in the front rows to get up and leave. When they did the men at the back would quickly leap over the seats to get to the front. This was known as the ‘Windmill Steeplechase’.

During the worst of the Blitz it was sometimes too dangerous to expect people to get home and the stagehands and performers often sheltered in the lower two floors underground. Around 1943 the theatre created its famous motto – “We never closed” – although this quickly became “we never Clothed”.

Life magazine featured the Windmill Theatre and its girls during the war.

Windmill Girls sleeping in the basement of the theatre during the Blitz

Windmill girls in the dressing room

In fact the ‘Mill’ became internationally famous for staying open for business despite the constant threat of the German bombers. Extraordinarily, this reputation of defiance, together with Van Damme’s tasteful’ girl-next-door version of English femininity, made the Windmill theatre a major symbol for London’s ‘Blitz Spirit’ all around the world.

This indestructible gesture of defiance was summed up at the theatre when one naked young woman broke the ‘no moving’ rule by brazenly raising her hand to thumb her nose at a V1 bomb that had exploded nearby. She earned herself a standing ovation.

Piccadilly Circus, about a hundred yards from the Windmill, in the black-out during the Blitz

Benny Hill, who by now had changed his name (Jack Benny was one of his favourite comedians), had two auditions at the Windmill. On both occasions, and after barely finishing his first gag, Hill got a dreaded ‘Thank you, next please’ from Van Damm somewhere in the darkness of the stalls.

He wasn’t the only comedian who would later go on to become a huge star but be rejected by the Windmill theatre. Both Bob Monkhouse and Norman Wisdom also failed to get past the one-man Van Damm judging panel.

The list of comics that did perform at the Windmill, however, is extraordinary, and included Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock, Arthur English, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Bruce Forsyth, Dave Allen, Alfred Marks, Max Bygrave, Tommy Cooper and Barry Cryer.

There was a comedy revolution taking place. Performers, who in a sense had wasted years of their young adulthood to the war, were desperate to make up for lost time and they had a connection with each other like no generation since.

For Hill, after failing his second audition at the Windmill, it was back to the working men’s clubs in places like Dagenham, Streatham, Tottenham, Harlesden and Stoke Newington. In those days the Soho agents never actually mentioned money and used to show the amount that was to be paid by laying fingers on the lapels of their jackets. One finger, one pound, two fingers meant two pounds – but it was nearly always the former for Benny in those days.

However his act was getting more and more polished and in 1948, in some rehearsal rooms across the road from the Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street, he had an audition as Reg Varney’s straight-man in a revue called Gaytime.

There were two people auditioning for the part but after Hill had performed an English calypso (this would have been pretty rare just after the war) which he sang to his own guitar accompaniment:

‘We have two Bev’ns in our Caninet/Aneurin’s the one with the gift of the gab in it/The other Bev’n's the taciturnist/He knows the importance of being Ernest!’

After his act, Hill was told by Hedley Claxton, an impresario who specialised in seaside shows, that he had got the job. The other contender for the role that afternoon in 1948 was a young impressionist from Camden called Peter Sellers. In 1955, Hill astutely told Picturegoer: “Watch Peter Sellers. He’s going to be the biggest funny man in Britain.”

Hill and Reg Varney’s double act was a success and they were signed up for three seasons of Gaytime and subsequently a touring version of a London Palladium revue called Sky High.

Gaytime with Reg Varney and Benny Hill. Twenty years later Varney would be the first person to use the first ever cashpoint machine in Enfield.

Around this time Hill appeared on BBC radio a few times but struggled to make his mark. A damning BBC report on Benny Hill, dated 10 October 1947 says:

Ronald Waldman: The only trouble with him was that he didn’t make me laugh at all – and for a comedian that’s not very good. It’s a mixture of lack of comedy personality and lack of comedy material.

Harry Pepper: I find him without personality and very dully unfunny.

In the early fifties, unlike many performers and agents who either feared it or thought it would be a flash-in-the-pan, Benny realised that television would be massive. He knew, however, that it gobbled up material and could end the career of Variety artists who had successfully performed the same material all their lives. So Hill started to write hundreds and hundreds of sketches and eventually submitted them in person to the same Ronald Waldman who had said just three years before written ‘he didn’t make me laugh at all’.

This time Waldman, now BBC’s head of light entertainment, was actually very impressed and offered Benny Hill his own show right there and then.

‘Hi There’ went out on the 20th August 1951 at 8.15pm. The 45 minute one-off show featured a series of sketches wholly written by Benny Hill and was relatively well-received. It wouldn’t be until four years later that Hill had his own series and in January 1955 the first ever ‘The Benny Hill Show’ was broadcast on the BBC. Hill was always an uncomfortable performer on stage and the new medium of television utterly suited his “conspiratorial glances and anticipatory smirks” to camera and after a shaky first episode the rest of the series was a huge success.

Benny enjoying his new found success. He had paid his dues though.

Benny with his dancing girls on the first ever Benny Hill Show on the BBC

Plus ça change...still surrounded by his dancing girls over thirty years later.

Benny Hill never looked back and was a mainstay of British television for the next thirty five years. Initially his shows appeared on the BBC and then subsequently on Thames Television from 1969 when the new London weekday franchise needed some high-profile signings.

The ‘cherub sent by the devil’, as Michael Caine once described Hill, eventually became a huge star all over the world. It seemed at one point, just as many in the UK were starting to find his comedy rather old-fashioned and sexist, that the rest of the world thought Benny Hill was British comedy.

Twenty years after Hill made his first series for Thames Television their new Head of Light Entertainment John Howard Davies invited him into the offices for a chat. Benny assumed that they were meeting to discuss details of a new series – he’d just gone down a storm in Cannes.

Davies thanked him for all his series he had made for Thames and then promptly sacked him. Hill never really recovered from the shock and considering what he had done for the company over the last two decades he was treated badly. It was only three years later that he was found dead in his apartment a stone’s throw from the Thames Television studios in Teddington.

Benny and yet more women. Again.

There is no doubt that Benny Hill had a strange relationship with women. He was very confused about the accusations of sexism in the latter part of his career. He felt that his comedy hadn’t really changed and he’d been doing almost the same thing for decades. This was true, he literally had been telling the same jokes for decades always happy to recycle his own material, but society around him had moved on and an elderly man surrounded or chased by very scantily-clad women made for uncomfortable viewing.

It appears that hill never really had a proper relationship during his lifetime. The closest he got to marriage was with a dancer from the Windmill Theatre called Doris Deal around the mid-fifties. He took her for meals in London, they held hands, and it was assumed they were seeing each other, but when Hill had procrastinated a little too long and told her he wasn’t ready for marriage she promptly left him.

There were other close albeit non-romantic relationships with women through the years including a young Australian actress called Annette André whowould eventually star in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). He may have even proposed to her but if he did she said she pretended not to notice.

It seems that Benny Hill, famous throughout the world by surrounding himself with young women, either was scared of intimate sexual intercourse or, as some un-named sources have implied, that he was impotent. It was probably a combination of the two.

Benny Hill out with friends in 1955, his girlfriend Doris Deal is front left

Benny Hill and Bob Monkhouse. Two people who failed their Windmill Theatre audition.

Mark Lewisohn, in his Benny Hill biography Funny, Peculiar recounts  a conversation Bob Monkhouse once had with Benny Hill in a cafe in Shaftesbury Avenue:
He wanted his women to be more naive than he was, women who would look up to him. He also said it was fellatio he wanted, or masturbation. “But Bob, I get a thrill when they’re kneeling there, between my knees and they’re looking up at me. And I want them to call me Mr Hill, not Benny. ‘Is that all right for you , Mr Hill?’ That’s lovely, that is, I really like that,” I asked him why and he said, “well, it’s respectful.”

Benny Hill and an uncomfortable-looking Jane Leeves (of Frasier fame) once a Hill's Angel.

Clips from BBC Benny Hill shows from the sixties.

An interview with Benny Hill from early in his career.

Benny Hill Entertains

Hmm.

Windmill Theatre today. Is it not possible to get rid of the black cladding?

The Whitehall theatre is now a lap-dancing club. The sign outside says ‘Probably the most exciting men’s club in the world…’ I haven’t been there, but I’m sure it’s safe to say, it almost certainly isn’t.

When I was a lad and crazy to get into showbiz I used to dream of being a comic in a touring revue. They were extraordinary, wonderful shows. There were jugglers and acrobats and singers and comics, and most important of all were the girl dancers. My shows are probably the nearest thing there is on TV to those old revues. – Benny Hill, 1991

Benny Hill – Lonely Boy

Benny Hill – Bamba 3688

Benny Hill – What a World

Buy Benny Hill’s Ultimate Collection here (only £2.49!)

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