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Submitted by Roger P Mellor
(23 December 1909 - 24 July 2002)
The Independent - July 26, 2002
Actor of many characters and voices
Maurice Denham, actor: born Beckenham, Kent 23 December 1909; OBE 1992; married 1936 Margaret Dunn (died 1971); died Northwood, Middlesex 24 July 2002. Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne were taking a seasonal stroll around Much Binding in the Marsh. They encountered numerous villagers.
"Morning, Mr Blake, have a nice Christmas?"
"Good marning, deah boys!"
"Have a good Christmas, Miss Clingbine?"
"Yes, thank you, sir."
"Happy New Year, Percy."
"Yes, isn't it, what?"
"Good morning, Mrs Dimsdale."
"Getting' on nicely thanks, ducks!"
"Good morning, Mr Denham."
There came a pause. Then, "Er - oh yes - good morning!"
For the first time in that long- running 1940s radio series Much Binding in the Marsh, Maurice Denham appeared as himself, instead of virtually everybody else. Best remembered of the many characters he played was Dudley Davenport, well-spoken and polite. "Good morning sir, Dudley Davenport at your service, sir!" But the catchphrase that brought the audience applause was "Oh, I say, I am a fool", followed by a curious chuckle, "keogh! keogh! keogh!"
This highly individual laugh had been borrowed by Denham from an officer in the army, with whom he later had a somewhat embarrassing encounter in Horne Brothers. Other Much Binding characters by Denham were Fred (pronounced "Fraid"), who answered yes ("yaice"), Group Captain Funnybone, Lt-Gen Sir Harold Tansley-Parkinson, Winston the dog, Gregory the sparrow and Nigel the silkworm.
Much Binding was Denham's post-war triumph. Just before the Second World War, he had joined the team of Itma, as It's That Man Again would soon be known. Shipped out to Bristol with the evacuated BBC Variety Repertory Company, he was commandeered by the Tommy Handley company for their second series of the show, starting 19 September 1939. Enter alongside Sam Costa (Lemuel the office boy), Vera Lennox (Dotty the secretary) and Jack Train (Funf the German spy), the new boy Denham as Mrs Lola Tickle, the first Itma char. "Oooh Mister Itma," Mrs Tickle cried, "I always do my best for all my gentlemaine!" The sound of "her" voice echoes down the corridors of time to stir the soul of every wartime evacuee who was allowed to listen in.
Denham's record as a British actor-cum-entertainer is second to none - by 1989, the 50th anniversary of his first appearance, he had made 985 radio broadcasts; more than 100 films; and more television appearances than one can easily count.
He was born in Beckenham, Kent in 1909, the son of a dental surgeon. Maurice Denham made his stage début at the age of five as "the Spirit of 1917". Educated at the Abbey School, he moved on to the public school at Tonbridge where, he recalled, he "acted the Fool in King Lear".
Those early stage shows gave him a taste for the theatre but, to please his parents, he signed on for a four-year apprenticeship with Waygood-Otis, lift-makers to the élite. These included the actress Jessie Matthews, then rehearsing for Evergreen. "She had a wonderful sylph-like figure. The job should have taken half an hour. I was able to swing three days out of it," Denham recalled with considerable relish. He also oiled the lifts at the home of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, as he reminded them many years later when they attended a royal broadcast of Much Binding. Perhaps the oddest coincidence was that he helped to instal the lifts in the newly-built Broadcasting House, long before he ever dreamed how many times he would use them when he became a radio star.
After a few amateur theatrical performances in Beckenham, Denham told his parents he wanted to turn pro. To his surprise they agreed and, after answering an advertisement in a trade paper, he embarked for Hull Repertory Theatre. He arrived on Wednesday, was sacked on Saturday, re-engaged on Sunday and on stage on Monday. His pay was £2 a week, as was that of another keen young beginner, Stewart Granger. "I played anything and everything," Denham remembered, "from Oxford in Richard of Bordeaux to Ratty in Toad of Toad Hall." At Hull, he met the actress Margaret Dunn, and they were married in 1936.
Denham's special ability at playing all manner of characters, of virtually any age or nationality, blossomed throughout his long years in weekly rep. After Hull he acted at Croydon and Brighton, finally making his London stage début in 1936, in Rain Before Seven at the Arts Theatre Club. This led to a better role in the detective thriller Busman's Honeymoon at the Comedy. Whilst stuck in this play's long run, he sent a letter to the BBC for an acting audition. It took his name a whole year to work its way to the top of the list. He passed with flying colours, immediately being cast in a radio documentary written by John Pudney, The History of Flight, broadcast on 13 March 1938.
Denham's début in radio comedy was in Mr Muddlecombe, a series starring Robb Wilton as the magistrate of Nether Backwash, where he sat in the Court of Nothing Common Place. Then came his extraordinary casting as a little cockney boy, Reggie, son of Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy, a variety double-act starring as Mr and Mrs Neemo. This ran from 5 September 1938 and was scripted by Vernon Harris, later a great name amongst cinema screenwriters.
Pre-war television also made good use of Denham, and he appeared in a number of plays and revues transmitted from Alexandra Palace, supporting the two Hermiones (Baddeley and Gingold), Edward Cooper and the young ballerina Wendy Toye. He also enjoyed moonlighting from the BBC by using his many voices for commercial programmes from Radio Luxembourg.
Jack Hylton, whose dance band backed up the Itma broadcasts in the early months of the Second World War, was an emergent impresario and helped the writer Ted Kavanagh fashion a stage show built around the programme. Using Billy Cotton and his band, plus Tommy Handley's famous First World War sketch, "The Disorderly Room", as the first half, the Itma cast performed the second half of the bill. Denham, in drag for the first time, opened the show as Mrs Tickle calling for her "Oooh Mister Itma!" Denham never forgot the experience: "It was wonderful getting my first laugh from a packed audience."
Denham had been an officer in the OTC at Tonbridge School and in May 1940 was enlisted as a Captain in the Buffs, which were converted later to the Mediums, Royal Artillery. He was made responsible for a series of armed forces shows in Belgium and France. At Christmas 1943 the Allies captured a theatre in Brussels and Denham was ordered to hold inter-regimental auditions in search of suitable performing talent. On D-Day he was stung on the mouth by a Normandy wasp, resulting in an agonising swelling that worried him far more than the German bombardment. He was mentioned in despatches for bravery.
Demobilised in November 1945, Denham made his cinematic début just four months later. It was in a documentary called Home and School, a Crown Film Unit production and no great start to what would become an almost unique film career His second film was more auspicious, although the part was small. This was as a policeman in Daybreak (1946), produced by Sydney Box, who had employed Denham before the war to play the voice-over for "Mr Therm" in a cinema commercial. Box had rocketed to feature film fame with The Seventh Veil (1945), and was now taken on board by the cine-magnate J. Arthur Rank and put in charge of Gainsborough Studios to produce a feature every month. The first actor he put on contract was Denham.
Denham made a dozen films or more a year, in parts both large and small, whilst under contract to Box, often causing confusion in the make-up department. Titles range from The Man Within, Take My Life, The Upturned Glass, Captain Boycott and Jassy (all in 1947) to The Purple Plain (1954), for which he won a British Film Academy nomination. Large parts were usually in smaller films, such as the role of Otto Fisch the nasty Nazi who sought stolen gems hidden in a ball in the Basil Radford/Naunton Wayne comedy It's Not Cricket (1949). Probably his greatest role, and one he loved to remember, was unseen. He performed all the many voices in the Halas & Batchelor feature-length animation Animal Farm (1954): pigs, horses, Farmer Jones et al.
Between films, Denham remained a stalwart of the stage. A selection of titles includes the double-bill of Fallen Angels and Fumed Oak at the Ambassadors (1950), a selection of G.B. Shaw one-acters at the Arts (1951), the dual role in The Daisies Grow at Windsor (1952), John Mortimer's double-bill at the Garrick, The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline (1958), Macbeth at the Old Vic (1960), The Andersonville Trial at the Mermaid (1961), and a version of Uncle Vanya (1979) directed by Harold Pinter.
Television appearances included Giles Cooper's Pig in the Middle, Len Deighton's Long Past Glory, Bill Naughton's Chance in Life, Jimmy Sangster's I Can Destroy the Sun, Edward and Mrs Simpson, The Return of the Saint, Minder, The Hope and the Glory and Rumpole of the Bailey. On radio, programmes included Inspector Maigret, and, in 1998, The Oldest Member, based on P.G. Wodehouse's golfing stories. One could select a completely different catalogue of titles, so vast was Denham's repertoire.
"People are seeing me on the films as a spiv, a clergyman, a country yokel or an RAF officer," he remarked back in 1949. "They hear me on the radio as half-a-dozen characters. There's a danger that they might forget about me!" I think not.
Denis Gifford died 20 May 2000.
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