When, at the height of his success in the 1970s, The Stage described Duggie Chapman as the “Delfont of the North”, it seemed to many of his peers to be simply stating the obvious. By then the former child actor was the biggest pantomime producer in the UK and had two variety shows on the road whose runs would extend into decades.
Already widely hailed as Mister Music Hall, any variety artist who hadn’t worked for the Burnley-born performer-turned-impresario was the exception to the rule. With one of the largest and busiest theatrical agencies, Chapman’s reach was national (and later international), with a raft of artists that included a veritable who’s who of speciality acts and star names such as Tommy Trinder, Ben Warriss, Ruby Murray and Danny La Rue.
Born in Burnley, Lancashire, Chapman developed an interest in performing at school where he was spotted, aged 13, by a film producer and subsequently cast in the 1949 film The Cure for Love, starring Robert Donat.
Possessing a fine soprano voice, he left school at 15 to tour with the Four Blue Pages before being booked by Carroll Levis for an eight-month variety tour supporting the Liverpool comedian Dudley Dale.
When his voice broke, Chapman turned to comedy, serving his apprenticeship in revues, variety bills and on the touring circuit before an appearance at the now-long-gone Collins Music Hall in London led to his debut on radio – the first of more than 100 broadcasts – in the Vic Oliver-hosted Variety Playhouse.
A rising radio profile bolstered his live appearances and saw him travelling throughout the UK and as far afield as Australia, Scandinavia and South Africa.
His introduction to music hall came via an invitation from female impersonator Billy Wells to chair a variety bill in Jersey. In 1964, he launched Chapman’s Music Hall Revue in Skegness and by the turn of the decade was touring it to number one theatres with solid bookings throughout the year and regular accolades for breaking house box office records. Chapman would go on to present the show in the Lincolnshire resort for the next 35 years.
He produced his first pantomime at the Civic Theatre in Barnsley in 1968 and was soon presenting seasonal shows throughout the country, serviced by his own scenic workshops.
In 1975, he made a tentative move into theatre management when he secured a three-year lease for the Alexandra and Victoria Pavilion theatres in Ilfracombe, although he withdrew from the venture the following year.
At the time, Chapman all but dominated the summer and Christmas seasons while maintaining a healthy presence throughout the rest of the year. Cigar in hand, he became a familiar figure as he kept one watchful eye on his own productions and the other on the lookout for new talent. His travels – which he told The Stage in 1976 averaged 2,000 miles per week – were made more amenable by the Rolls Royce car his success had brought him.
In 1978, he premiered what was to be another long-running offering, the Al Jolson Minstrel Show, and in 1983 was appointed general manager of the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas, on the Isle of Man. There he continued to demonstrate his career-long knack of attracting audiences substantial enough to set new box office records.
Surviving serious injury in a car crash in 1990, he was back at work within months with the launch of his Video and Film Company to develop and produce pilot programmes for television.
He ventured into directing, too, with the Ronnie Parnell comedy The Cabinet Minister and the Massage Girl at the Pavilion Theatre, Worthing in 1993.
After a 46-year interval, he appeared in his second film in 1995 alongside Hollywood legend Jerry Lewis in Funny Bones, written by Peter Chelsom and Peter Flannery. Fittingly, his next appearance was as a music hall colonel in the 1998 portrait of Florence Nightingale.
In the second half of the decade, he mounted three hugely successful tours with Danny La Rue, with whom he also brought a full-scale summer show back to the Pavilion Theatre in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens for the first time in more than two decades in 2000.
He reunited with La Rue for a summer tour of The Good Olde Days in 2002 and mounted the wartime nostalgia revue We’ll Meet Again in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
Having made his home in Blackpool in 1973, Chapman saw the once popular destination’s appeal to audiences dwindling in later years. Poor ticket sales prompted the early closure of The Two O’Clock Show, his 2006 summer offering starring Paul Shane at the town’s Grand Theatre, just two weeks into a three-month run.
If such disappointments seemed to mark the end of an era that had been in no small part sustained by Chapman himself – he produced more than 400 shows – the inveterate workaholic remained undeterred, continuing to devote himself to work until weeks before his death a day after his 81st birthday.
Among his many awards were the first Roy Castle trophy (as voted by readers of Encore magazine), a lifetime achievement award from the British Music Hall Society and an MBE in 2009 for services to light entertainment and charity.
Douglas ‘Duggie’ Chapman was born on March 31, 1936, and died on April 1. He is survived by his partner of 43 years, Beryl.