What the BBC really thought of its stars

Archives reveal comics' reports

Some of Britain’s most legendary comedians were disliked by BBC producers in their early days, archive files have revealed.

Documents have shown how executives working for the Corporation of the Fifties and Sixties:

  • Said Benny Hill had ‘a lack of comedy material’
  • Told Kenny Everett to ‘curb the funnies and the voices’
  • Were lukewarm about Morecambe and Wise
  • Complained about Ken Dodd overrunning
  • And received complaints that Tom O’Connor was using stolen material.

The frank opinions were contained amid thousands of files stored at the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, Berkshire, and investigated by The Independent newspaper.

The most fascinating insight comes from the notes from auditions that every act wanting to appear on a BBC show had to go through. The process was so nerve-racking that Tony Hancock was physically sick before his appearance before the panel, although he still got through.

In 1947, Benny Hill made a good first impression – ‘a young man of very pleasant appearance in dinner jacket’ – but failed to wow the producers with his act.

Ronnie Waldman, later the head of TV Variety, ruled: ‘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.’

And when Morecambe and Wise auditioned in April 1948, the BBC powers decided: ‘Part of this act might be suitable. Suggestive material and dancing together should be omitted.’

Kenny Everett sent in his audition tape in 1967, when the corporation was recruiting an opening line-up for Radio One.

Comments he garnered included: ‘I found the stilted bits in bad taste but with suitable restraint and encouragement, Kenny Everett could be one of the BBC's best DJs’, ‘must be made to curb the funnies and the voices,’ and 'I found the continuous changes of voices irritating and his personality supercilious but he certainly has some talent. Would need very firm production.’

However, despite the reservations, he was unanimously accepted on to the new station.

The records also include tip-offs from members of the public about up-and-coming acts, such as Mr W Barber’s 1952 letter saying: ‘I must let you know about this future star of television. I don't want to say a lot about him. I want you to come up here and see for yourself. I will even pay your expenses. His name is Ken Dodds [sic] and … he is funnier than Norman Wisdom.’

But it took them two years to see Dodd, and by the time he made it on to radio producers were complaining about his overrunning, and his inability to produce scripts on time.

Also included in the files is a copy of a letter sent to Tom O’Connor by old-time comedian Al Read, who felt the newcomer was stealing his act – and wanted him to acknowledge that debt every time he appeared on the BBC or on stage.

The letter read: ‘Our client tells us that you have been presenting an act that in format and wording bears very close resemblance to the act performed by our client on television, radio and the stage.

‘Our client is prepared not to take any serious steps in the matter if he receives an assurance from you that, before you begin your act, you make some reference to your reliance on our client's presentation. Instead of his catchphrase, 'have you noticed', you could say, “as Mr Al Read says...”’

The BBC decided no action was necessary, saying ‘O'Connor's material appears to be more original than most comedians’.

Published: 29 Feb 2008

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