Kenneth Connor (1918-1993)

Kenneth Connor, the comic actor, has died of cancer aged 74. A sailor’s son, Connor was born in London in 1918 and made his first public appearance at the age of two as an organ-grinder’s monkey. He later studied at the Central School of Drama, where he won the Gold Medal, and began his career at the Old Vic.

During the Second World War he served with the Middlesex Regiment and became a popular star of Forces shows. Afterwards his big break came when he took over from Peter Sellers in Ted Ray’s popular radio comedy series Ray’s A Laugh and was soon celebrated for the camply conspiratorial tones in which he murmured “Hello, my name is Sidney Mincing…ho-ho!” Ted Ray took Connor with him into his television show and the two also appeared together in the third Carry On film, Carry On Teacher.

However, Connor had already made his film debut in Poison Pen (1939) and later appeared as a taxi-driver in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955). He starred in the very first Carry On film Carry On Sergeant in 1958, went on to do Carry On Nurse and Carry On Teacher and thereafter appeared in a further 14 instalments of the long running movie series. His fellow stars, Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Bernard Bresslaw are all dead and the director Gerald Thomas died in October.

A wiry, diminutive figure, Connor deployed a repertoire of strangulated mannerisms in the Carry Ons; he was a master of affected drawls, machine-gun guffaws and cross-eyed leers. He specialised in crushed perplexity, fiery fuming and enfeebled lechery, as seen in such roles as Frederick Bumble in Carry On Girls, Hengist Pod in Carry On Cleo and Captain Melly in Carry On England. Few performers could rival his technique in expressing lubricious delight in pulchritude with his catchphrase, “Phwooaahrr!!”

While unfailingly cheerful and universally popular on the Carry On set. Connor had ambivalent views about his typecasting in seaside postcard farce. He yearned for what he called “serious roles that pose unique problems of our time; an all-round progression in all types of parts, that is what I want. I would have loved to have played the priest in The Nun’s Story.”

Later, however, he maintained that he enjoyed the flippant parts enormously and would not want anyone to think he hankered after King Lear. “Laymen think we have an easy life,” he observed of the Carry On series, “but they will never know what energy goes into making these films.” His ideal would have been to combine the broad comedy with meatier roles, such as the bigamist he played with such panache in Somerset Maugham’s The Round Dozen on television.

In 1958, he was approached by Gerry Anderson to join the small group of voice artists that he was assembling for his puppet series Torchy The Battery Boy. Connor found himself working alongside Olwyn Griffiths, Patricia Somerset and Jill Raymond to tell the adventures of the clockwork boy who is sent by cardboard rocket to Topsy Turvy Land to recover a group of lost toys. For the series, Connor voiced both Mr Bumbledrop, the creator of Torchy, and King Dithers, ruler of Topsy Turvy Land. Jill Raymond remembers, “Kenneth was wickedly funny and made some very rude remarks, usually just before we recorded a section. It was very difficult to keep going sometimes as we all fell about laughing.”

Connor’s role in Torchy led to his perhaps better-known Anderson appearances in the next puppet series, Four Feather Falls, in 1959. The marionettes on this show featured crude  prototype lip-synch techniques which were later used to great effect in Supercar, Fireball XL5 and the subsequent Supermarionation series. Four Feather Falls followed the cowboy adventures of Tex Tucker, Sheriff of Four Feather Falls, Kansas at the turn of the century. A fantasy element in the show, in the form of four magic feathers – given to Tex by the Indian Chief Kalamakooya in return for saving the life of his son – allowed Tex’s horse, Rocky, and dog, Dusty, to talk. Both voices were provided by Connor, who also voiced the Mexican bandit Pedro, a regular villain in the series.

In the West End theatre, Connor enjoyed successful runs in the revue One Over The Eight and in the musicals A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (which he subsequently directed on tour) and The Four Musketeers, with Harry Secombe. He was also seen in Carry On London at the Victoria Palace and went on an extended tour of My Fat Friend. He was appointed MBE in 1991.

More recently, Connor found new fame on television for his performance as Alphonse, the amorous undertaker, in the French Resistance sit-com ‘Allo ’Allo. Notwithstanding his ‘dodgy  ticker and tricky truss’, Alphonse steadfastly pursued Madame Edith (Carmen Silvera) in the popular Secret Army spoof, despite Connor having only originally been engaged for a one-off cameo role in the show. He brought such relish to the part that creators David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd wrote Alphonse into the show as a regular character. The series ran for ten years, from 1982 to 1992.

Kenneth Connor made his final screen appearance on Telly Addicts in November, just one week before his death. He leaves a wife, Margaret, and a son.

Originally published in FAB 13.