Roy Hudd worked hard to maintain a safe place in the nation’s affections for more than half a century. He progressed from face-pulling, guitar-strumming beanpole in the 1960s to character actor, panto stalwart and tireless music hall archivist.
He once said he enjoyed stretching himself, so long as the elastic didn’t break.
Born in Croydon in 1936, Hudd was brought up by his grandmother, Alice Barham, after his mother killed herself. It was Hudd’s choice to live with his gran rather than his father, a painter and decorator, who remarried and moved to Kent. They barely survived on gran’s state pension, but she fostered young Roy’s interest in the world of showbiz by taking him to Croydon Empire to see the great variety acts of the time – Max Miller, Flanagan and Allen and Jimmy James.
At school he was, by his own description, “skinny and weird with little National Health glasses”, but he kept the bullies at bay by playing the fool and, on one occasion, composing a sentimental prayer about mothers that made the other kids cry when he was called on to recite it in assembly, because they knew he didn’t have one.
A year after his grandmother’s death, Hudd did his National Service, working as an RAF telephonist at Waterbeach, near Cambridge. He had already experimented with comedy routines as an enthusiastic member of a boys’ club concert party, but it was playing banjo and singing in the RAF station’s trad jazz band that set him on the path to becoming a professional. Working at Butlin’s in Clacton, Essex, in the mid-1950s, one of his fellow Redcoats was a fashionable lad with a quiff named Harry Webb, who later became Cliff Richard.
Hudd was already married by then to dance teacher Ann Lambert, who believed he was talented enough to give up the day jobs – commercial lettering, window displays, shovelling sugar at a chocolate factory – and become a full-time entertainer. He got his first TV break with an early ITV sitcom, Tell It to the Marines, in 1960, followed a few years later by Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life.
But it was a long-running series of TV commercials for Lyon’s tea bags, in which he played a leery sergeant-major, that established Hudd in the public consciousness and gave him the longed-for financial security to buy a house and branch out into legitimate drama.
He went on to play Pistol in Henry V, and a brace of Stoppard roles, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at London’s Young Vic when it was run by Frank Dunlop.
Hudd returned to TV in the late 1960s with his own sketch series, The Illustrated Weekly Hudd, followed by The Roy Hudd Show, in which he managed to combine topical comedy with his love of variety.
Though it wasn’t to come along for another five or six years, The News Huddlines, which was broadcast on Radio 4 from 1975 to 2001, boasted the same mix of broad comedy and current affairs. Hudd considered the radio show as his bread and butter, sustaining him through some difficult times professionally. He was named Radio Personality of the Year twice by the Variety Club of Great Britain.
In between the twice-yearly series of Huddlines, he would tour the country in shows he’d created, such as Just a Verse and Chorus, a tribute to the music-hall songwriters Weston and Lee, in which he appeared with his friend Billy Dainty and Underneath the Arches, a show about Flanagan and Allen of Crazy Gang fame. He also wrote and appeared in countless pantomimes, not to mention writing books and documentaries about his beloved music hall – he was president of the British Music Hall Society.
The playwright Dennis Potter suggested him for the role of Harold Atterbow, a seedy, voyeuristic cinema organist, in Lipstick on Your Collar. It immediately catapulted Hudd into a different league of character actors and led to a comedy role opposite Edward Woodward in the series Common As Muck, the po-faced butler to Peter O’Toole’s Lord Emsworth in Heavy Weather, and a bespoke role in Potter’s final work for television before his death, Karaoke.
The two men shared a love of the old variety comics – Robb Wilton, Norman Evans and Jimmy James – and Hudd kept the ailing Potter amused with a fund of anecdotes on what was to be his last TV project.
On stage, Hudd continued to set himself challenges: in 1991 he played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and at the same venue in 1999, the wise-cracking slave Pseudolus in Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was a role that stretched Hudd’s talents to the limit, yet he carried it off triumphantly.
In 2002, he joined the cast of Coronation Street as the irrepressibly jovial undertaker Archie Shuttleworth, who might easily have been a variety veteran with a penchant for corpsing. Having left the series in 2003, Archie was recalled to preside over the funeral of Fred Elliott, played by John Savident. Filming was brought to a dramatic halt when Hudd suffered a minor heart attack as he was making an adjustment to Fred’s coffin. Savident, realising Hudd was in pain, jumped from the coffin to assist his fellow actor.
In 2004, Hudd was awarded an OBE and in 2007 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia.
In 2016, Hudd achieved a long-held ambition of playing a pantomime dame when he took on the title role in Mother Goose, which he also wrote, at Wilton’s Music Hall, London. His last stage appearance was a tour of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance last year, playing the bibulous Reverend Daubney.
Roy Hudd, comedy actor and writer, was born in Croydon on May 16, 1936 and died March 15, 2020.
He is survived by his second wife Debbie Flitcroft, and by his first wife, Ann Lambert, and their son Max.