Born: 30 July, 1925, in South Wales. Died: 26 November, 2013, in Cardiff, aged 88
WITH his distinctive grey moustache and eyebrows along with his silver hair, Stan Sennett was a popular performer in several branches of the entertainment industry.
He was a fine jazz musician playing in many of the premier venues throughout the UK and then a stage actor and comedian. His ease on stage led the BBC in Wales to introduce a radio programme (Welsh Rarebit) which brought him early attention and in the 1960s Stennett compered the BBC’s then uncontroversial hit show the Black and White Minstrel Show.
Stennett brought to all these shows much grace and a laid-back charm. He then progressed to play soap-opera roles in both Coronation Street and Crossroads and in the latter playing Sid a garage mechanic with much gusto. Once Stennett saw a woman having problems starting her car, “Thank heavens it’s you, Sid,” she said. “You’ll be able to get me out of this.” Stennett politely mentioned that he was Stan, an actor, not Sid the mechanic. He was, however, able to get the car started.
Stennett was brought up by his grandparents when his mother died in his youth. During the war he drove a bus in the army and learnt to play jazz guitar. After the war he found work as a driver for the band leader Ivy Benson and her swing group but he was keen to make music his career.
One of his first professional shows was a summer season in 1948 at the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr. As well as leading a trio of musicians – with Stennett on guitar and trumpet – he told gags and did impersonations. Also on the bill was a young dancer called Lionel Blair.
Bookings continued to come his way and Stennett supported such stars as the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Ken Dodd. His abilities as a comedian gradually won the recognition they deserved, particularly a zany character he created who played a tiny guitar with a cigarette dangling from his lips wearing a hat with an arrow through it.
The Black and White Minstrel Show was created by the musician George Mitchell and first seen on BBC television in 1958. For 20 years it attracted huge audiences (regularly more than 18 million) and played to packed theatres throughout the UK when it toured. It was a lavish show that included mostly American minstrel songs. Stennett (along with Leslie Crowther and George Chisholm) did the introductions and provided comedy interludes. The show eventually drew vocal detractors and was ruled offensive in its use of blacked-up characters, a US tradition which itself drew on racist stereotyping and widespread segration for its popular appeal. It was discreetly withdrawn from the schedules in 1978.
Stennett won considerable renown for his contribution to the show which won a prestigious Golden Rose at Montreux in 1961.
His acting became central to his career when, in 1976, he was cast as Hilda Ogden’s brother (Norman Crabtree) in Corrie. Acting alongside Jean Alexander as Hilda he ran the local fish-and-chip shop. Stennett had already appeared in Crossroads in 1971 as Harry Silver, a US soldier on the run. He returned to the soap in 1982 as the loveable rogue Sid Hooper, the mechanic. He was only contracted initially for a short run but the character proved so popular with the audience – not least because of the sympathetic way Stennett’s character treated the disadvantaged Benny (played by actor Paul Henry). Stennett became a key character for more than seven years only leaving when he heard new bosses planned to close the show.
On stage Stennett appeared on the same bill as stars such as Danny Kaye, Johnny Ray, Laurel and Hardy, Les Dawson and Petula Clark. His pantomimes were an institution in Wales and two of his most popular creations were Billy and his cross-eyed dog, Bonzo. Stennett remained in demand for cameo roles in TV dramas such as Heartbeat, Casualty and Doctors.
He bought the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, and put on a wide variety of shows. In 1984 he arranged for life-long friend Eric Morecambe to do a solo evening which Stennett hosted. The show was a huge success and the audience gave Morecambe and Stennett a standing ovation at the end. After the sixth curtain call, the two friends walked into the wings and joked, “Thank goodness that’s over.” Morecambe then collapsed, suffering a third and fatal heart attack with Stennett by his side.
Stennett was a keen golfer and a former director of Cardiff FC. For many years he had held a pilot’s licence and enjoyed flying himself about the country to fulfil engagements. He was made an MBE in 1979 and published his autobiography, Fully Booked, in 2010.
He is survived by his wife Elizabeth and their two sons.