Jack Douglas Obituary

From The Telegraph, March 2009.

Jack Douglas, who has died aged 81, had three claims to be a memorably idiosyncratic part of British comedy's hectic history. He persisted successfully with music hall techniques when many in show business thought that the era had long passed. He was part of the seaside postcard humour of eight British Carry On films, from Carry On Matron in 1971 to the last one in 1992, Carry On Columbus, in which he played Marco the Cereal Killer. It proved to be his last film role. He also invented the twitching, fumbling, flat-capped and mispronouncing character Alf Ippititimus, who served him well in pantomime and other spheres.

He was born Jack Roberton in Newcastle upon Tyne. Part of his childhood was spent in Streatham, south London, attending St Joseph's college, Beulah Hill. The family later moved to Blackpool. His father, John D Roberton, was a celebrated producer of pantomimes and summer shows from the 1930s to the 50s, after which Jack's brother, Bill, took over.

When Jack ran away from school aged 12 to work as a lime boy looking after the lights at Feldman's theatre in Blackpool, his father found out where he was and told the manager to give him the dirtiest jobs to put him off, but Jack never went back to school. His father then decided that if Jack wanted to be in show business, he might as well make himself useful to the family firm.

During the second world war, when Jack was waiting for his call-up, he became a spotlight operator at Feldman's. By the time he was appointed a Bevin boy, working in the coal mines, he had received training as a stage manager and director. Later, he worked entertaining the forces in Germany.

When he was 15, his father gave him a pantomime script and told him to direct it. The show included the variety stars Dorothy Ward, Shaun Glenville, Albert Burton and GH Elliott, and Douglas, in his 1970s, was apt to say that "the glow is still rubbing off me, even at my age". He joined a small combo playing drums and alternated that with his stage work.

By 19, he was working the variety theatre circuits as a comic. He made his acting debut, aged 21, in Dick Whittington. When, during the dress rehearsal of another pantomime, an actor collapsed with a heart attack, Douglas took over the role of the Captain. When an agent saw him working with the young comedian Joe Baker, who was playing the ship's mate, he inquired: "How long have you two been together?" The answer was: "Two hours and 20 minutes."
Jack Douglas, Barbara Windsor, Leslie Philips, Norman Wisdom and June Whitfield

Declaring that they were the best double act he had seen, the agent took them on. For 12 years the pair worked in panto, summer shows and variety, touring with Howard Keel and joining Cliff Richard for a Palladium pantomime. They also appeared on the television show Crackerjack, one of the top-rated shows for children from 1955 to 1984.

Alf Ippititimus, with his "Phwaay!" catchphrase, was born by accident in Butlin's, Clacton. Douglas was playing a conjuror, and when he called for someone in the audience to help him do a trick, Joe Baker was supposed to come up, dressed as a small boy, and cause chaos. Baker, however, was locked out of the theatre, so Douglas gave an impromptu impersonation of a colleague who had a nervous twitch. It had the audience in fits of laughter.

When Baker decided that he wanted to work in America, Douglas freelanced as a straight man for five years, pairing up with Bruce Forsyth, Arthur Haynes and Arthur Askey. At one point, he gave up show business and opened a restaurant in Blackpool, but that venture ended with a call from Des O'Connor, with whom he worked for 12 years on stage and television. Highlights of their partnership included performing on the 1966 Royal Variety Show and the Ed Sullivan show in the US.

Douglas often went to America, Canada and Australia to host TV shows. He played Long John Silver in a musical version of Treasure Island and Fagin in a Cameron Mackintosh production of Oliver! He wrote his own musical, What a Performance, based on the life the popular comedian Sid Field.

His stage successes, spread over many years, included tours of Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus and Michael Frayn's Make and Break (1980). On TV, he was in the film of The Shillingbury Blowers, which became the series The Shillingbury Tales and was followed by a spin-off, Cluffy, in which he co-starred w
ith Bernard Cribbins. He also appeared in the 1983 film The Boys in Blue, in which village policemen foiled international art thieves.

He said that his particular favourite was when he played Sergeant Jock Strapp in Carry On Dick, but as with all the actors, his connection with the Carry On films did not make him rich. For Carry On Matron, he earned only 12 bottles of champagne. On the later films, all performers received a mere 3,000 a film, with no residuals or cuts of the profits. However, appearing in the series gave him the feeling that he had been part of a wonderful experience, professionally and personally. He dismissed claims that the films were demeaning to women. "It was always the ladies who came off best and Sid James who got the worst of the deal," he said.

Another great interest was cooking. He had his own cookery and chat show on Channel TV and, aged 79, he produced a compilation of the favourite recipes of Carry On actors, The Whey-Hey Guide to Better Cooking.

His memoirs, A Twitch in Time (2002), were intended to record the turbulent days of music hall and variety entertainment for posterity. The book was self-published and sold from his home in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, where he had moved after a summer season at Sandown Pavilion in 1996.

"I'll only retire when I die, when I fall over," he said when playing the King in Jack and the Beanstalk at the age of 75. But Douglas's hard-working schedule helped, as he admitted himself, to wreck two marriages. He spent the last years of his life with the actor Vivien Russell.

He is survived by Vivien, the children from his first marriage, Craig and Deborah, and his stepdaughter, Sarah.

Jack Douglas (John Roberton), comedy actor, born 26 April 1927; died 18 December 2008


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