March 2006

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Robert pays tribute to Dennis Kirkland.

March 2006

It’s been one of those horrible months completely over shadowed for me by the death of one of the greats of British comedy. Dennis Kirkland, who is probably best known for producing and directing The Benny Hill Show from 1979 until Thames unceremoniously pulled the plug in 1989, died at the age of 63. Alas, his passing didn’t attract much interest from the media but in a glittering career Den worked with the cream of post-war Light Entertainment including Tommy Cooper, Freddie Starr, Terry Scott and Ken Dodd.

I’ve just returned from his joyous funeral service which celebrated the man in great style: from a rousing performance of Ain’t No Pleasing You from Chas and Dave, which was a request from Den, to his daughter, Jo, giving a brave, brilliant and heart-breaking rendition of Someone to Watch Over Me.

For me Den was not only one of the most influential of comedy directors, he was also a smashing bloke. Always happy to meet me for an interview, as long as the meeting was in a pub in Teddington, we were seemingly always bumping in to each other when television or radio was putting together yet another ‘tribute’ to Benny Hill. Den was passionately proud of his association with Benny and would always, without fail, defend his late friend against the brickbats of sexism in his comedy. As a life long fan of Benny, Den and I always sang from the same song sheet as far as this was concerned and these rants for the media would always culminate in a beer or two at the nearest pub we could find! Den was tremendous fun and although I only had the pleasure of spending a handful of days in his company, I shall miss his encouragement, wit and totally upbeat outlook on life.

As I say, that news has really blotted out the rest of the month although it’s been a busy, fun time for me in many other respects. I was invited to the West End press night of Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane and found it every bit as funny and moving as I did in York last year. Steptoe creators Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were in attendance as was a starry audience including Barbara Windsor, Paul Merton, William Gaunt, June Whitfield and Dudley Sutton. The play runs at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, until 22nd April and is perfectly situated for the classic comedy fan to indulge in a Galton and Simpson pub-crawl from the Hand and Racquet, to the Tom Cribb and on to the Captain’s Cabin.

On 27th February I was briefly heard on – of all things – Radio 1, when the documentary Carry On Filming was broadcast. Fundamentally a reflection on the state of play within the British film industry today, I was dragged in to sum up the ‘Golden Age’ of Carry On, Hammer Horror and the Doctor comedies. My good friend David Benson linked the interviewees as both Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd.

I also enjoyed a fun trip to the National Theatre to see the legendary Terry Wogan interview the ever more legendary Eric Sykes. Plugging his autobiography, If I Don’t Write It Nobody Else Will, Eric was on sparkling form. Pretty much bypassing Wogan’s “interrogation”, he reflected on working with Frankie Howerd, Hattie Jacques, Peter Sellers, Tommy Cooper, Jimmy Edwards…and Nicole Kidman, on the film, The Others.

But still, my mind kept wandering back to the death of Dennis Kirkland. He had worked with Eric on many occasions, memorably producing the Sykes-directed Thames films It’s Your Move and Mr H is Late; a comic tale of a coffin being transported from a high rise flat to a church. That one seems particularly apt, poignant and hilarious at the moment…

See you in Swindon.

Robert Ross

Page Last Updated Wednesday, November 01, 2006 at 17:40:15