Very sadly Derek passed away after a very short illness on 17th February 2013.
However, this is his story, told in his words.
Some of you reading this will be old friends from my radio, television and stage shows. Some of you quite possibly have never heard or seen me but, to all of you, I say welcome to our website.
I was born on 8th August, 1928, in the small town of Brampton in Cumbria, where my father had a soft drinks and beer bottling business, inherited from his father and where, a few miles away, my mother’s father was vicar of a small parish. How’s that for a start in life? One grandfather a brewer and the other a vicar!
I was educated at the local council elementary school and then won a scholarship to the local grammar school where, possibly my greatest achievement, was to play cricket and soccer for the school first teams.
We lived next door to the little factory where my dad manufactured his own brands of soft drinks and from where he produced a ‘clear’ lemonade which won the Gold Medal as the Best in Britain in 1936. He also bottled Guinness and beers for major brewers and supplied many pubs and other outlets in our local area. One of these was our nearest theatre, Her Majesty’s, in Carlisle and, in return for allowing them to stick an advertising poster outside the factory, he got a few complimentary tickets for every show there.
I clearly remember as a youngster looking forward to Friday nights, when we went off to the theatre to see whatever was ‘on’. I’m sure that this was where I cultivated my love of show business and was fortunate to see many of the great Variety acts of the time perform there. Names like, Sir Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe, Robb Wilton, Ted Ray, Arthur Askey and many others come to mind, including A. C. Astor, who not only owned the theatre but, at that time, was one of our leading ventriloquists. It was in 1940, partly through his influence, that I bought myself a “cheeky boy” ventriloquist figure. The price of this ‘doll’ was actually ‘three guineas’, – a posh term used in those days, – or three pounds and three shillings in everyday terms and I saved up for it, partly from my pocket money and partly from my winnings at dominoes with my dad who I’m sure pretended not to notice when I occasionally played a four on a five to win our penny-a-game matches!
I practised ventriloquism in front of my bedroom mirror – that is up to the time when I heard a sort of ‘squeaking’ noise behind me one day and turned round to see our window cleaner just about to fall off his ladder at the sight of a 12 year old boy talking to a wooden doll in a mirror!!
However, apart from the ‘B’s, P’s and W’s’ which I never really mastered – (try saying them yourself without moving your lips!) – it was 1940 and I was soon doing a very bad vent act for local wartime charities raising money for welfare parcels and other comforts for local troops fighting abroad.
On leaving school in 1944, my dad insisted that I got ‘a proper job’ — He’d seen my act! I became articled to a Carlisle firm of accountants where I studied and took exams, at the same time continuing my semi-professional show business work in local clubs, concert parties and occasional theatre shows.
All of this was interrupted in 1946 by National Service in the RAF, where they kept me for two and a half years, even though I did my vent act at Services concerts!
It was during leave from the RAF that I met a pretty young lady who lived near to our home and, when I was demobbed in 1949, Edith Gray and I got engaged and in on 16th September 1950, she became Edith Batey.
Our first real home together, was in the lovely little Lake District village of Caldbeck – famous for John Peel, – where I was employed as an accountant by a small firm of agricultural merchants. However, still I carried on with my semi-professional entertaining, becoming quite well known around the pubs, clubs, children’s parties and froth blowers hot pots’, as Ken Dodd might say-
Daughter, Diane, came along and my family and working life was a very happy one, made even happier by an unexpected phone call from the BBC – a call that was to signal the beginning of my broadcasting career.
It was from a producer called Dick Kelly, a man who was to have a great influence over my career and, after an audition in a small studio in Carlisle, Dick contacted me to tell me that he would like me to take part in several variety shows he was planning. Yes, he booked me, a ventriloquist, for a sound radio series, but then, Peter Brough did it with Archie Andrews and, honestly, its not difficult being a vent on radio!
The series, happily, was successful and I was booked for several more shows until, one day, Dick Kelly wrote me a letter that rather gloomily began, ‘While ventriloquism is all very well in its way ………,’ However, he went on to say that he felt my talents could be put to better use and called me for an audition as a compere and presenter of programmes.
So that was the end of my career as a radio ventriloquist, but I continued to entertain at clubs and children’s parties, where daughter, Diane, had now become ‘the little volunteer from the audience’.
Fortunately, my second audition was satisfactory and my radio career took off in a new direction, this time as a compere of radio variety shows and, more seriously, as a reporter on local events. Eventually, I became ‘The Voice of Cumberland’ on a radio series of that name and I was a regular contributor to Points North, a radio show from Manchester, introduced by Brian Redhead.
Remember now, that I was still working as an accountant with the Caldbeck firm, freelancing as a broadcaster and appearing as a vent in cabaret several nights a week. I had three careers and a frantic lifestyle that was to catch up with me when, what I thought were a few aches and pains, were diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis and I was confined to bed for four months, with the prospect of permanent illness,
Once again, fate smiled on me and I made a full recovery and, in 1957, made my first television appearance as an interviewer on a news magazine programme. A year later, Dick Kelly recommended me to the BBC network and I was asked to become one of the comperes of the, then peak time, high rating, Come Dancing Series.
I became the regular ‘front man’ for the team of dancers representing the North of England and presented several shows from ‘exotic’ spots like, Wigan, Wakefield and Newcastle. Looking back on those shows in the mid to late 1950’s where I had to mention how many yards of tulle there were in the ladies’ dresses and how many sequins they had “sewn on by hand,” it never occurred to me that 50 odd years later I’d be sitting watching Strictly Come Dancing – but I do miss those great ‘formation teams’!
I remember Peter West was the show’s compere in London, along with people like Joe Loss and dancing experts as judges, while youngsters like Michael Aspel, Alex McIntosh and myself, were introducing the show from ballrooms around the country.
My next big career move came in 1960, when I was asked to meet with a group who were tendering for the ITV franchise, for a new company to be called Border Television and who wanted me to join them.
This was my biggest decision. Should I, at the age of 32, give up my accountancy career and, by now considerable, freelance work and become a full time broadcaster. After hours of debate with my wife, the choice was made and I went on the air in Border’s first ever programme on 3rd September, 1961.
My official job title with Border was Presenter/Interviewer, but my accountancy and administrative skills were so useful in those early days, that I found myself organising facilities, film units and studios and before long I was doing what I had always done, several jobs at once! I combined my screen work with my desk duties and was given the title Production Manager. The title I got, a rise I didn’t get!!
During the years that followed, I produced and presented almost every conceivable type of programme. I travelled with the Royal Family, covering their visits to the Border region. I wrote and sang calypsos for a weekly ‘Country Style’ music programme. I did sports programmes, political programmes, religious programmes, quiz and talent shows and filmed in Sweden and New Zealand. I became Head of Production, which meant I also hired and fired production staff. Among my successes there, being Richard Madeley, who worked on our nightly magazine programme and who is now one of our top TV personalities.
In 1967 my career took another twist when I saw a tape of a show called ‘Mr & Mrs’. I liked it and decided to run a Border TV version of it for 13 weeks. The response from our viewers was fantastic and it stayed in our local schedule every year from then, until daytime television opened up in 1973, when it was taken by the full ITV network and was an immediate hit nationally
Later in that same year, I devised the show, ‘Look Who’s Talking’ and persuaded Ken Dodd to do the first of the series. A few weeks later ITV, having looked at Ken’s programme, commissioned the series for the network and, just to make the 70’s my most wonderful times, I was asked to take over the top Sunday night, early evening programme, ‘Your Hundred Best Hymns’ and I was faced with the enjoyable problem of being three times a week on ITV.
The other 70’s milestone for me was that we decided to take ‘Mr & Mrs’ onto the stage and cabaret circuit and, after an opening season at the Winter Gardens, in Morecambe, we moved to the Central Pier in Blackpool in 1975 and did 12 years of Sunday night shows there, in addition to one ‘night stands’ all over the country.
Around that same period, I was voted onto the committee of the Entertainment Artists Benevolent Fund and served many years working for this Charity Organisation, which helps to arrange and produce the Royal Variety Show each year among other big events.
Behind the scenes, my wife and daughter worked tirelessly, arranging my schedule and travel and making sure that I was always smart and tidy on screen and stage. It is to their credit that TV Times viewers voted me, on two occasions, as one of the 10 Best Dressed Men and I was voted Head of the Year by the National Federation of Hairdressers in 1980.
Among the show business honours and acknowledgements that have come my way, I regard my election to the Grand Order of Water Rats as one of the greatest, as to be invited by your fellow professionals to join the most respected and select brotherhood of performers in the world, is something of which you dream. There are only 200 Water Rats worldwide at any one time and all the great names in entertainment have been members in the 100 years that the Order has existed.
Speaking of these 100 years, I was delighted to write and produce a one and a half hour documentary, tracing the history of the Water Rats. It is called ‘A Century of Stars’ and was shown and repeated on Channel 4. In recognition of my work for the Rats and my efforts for many charities, I was awarded the honour of ‘Water Rat of the Year in 1984.
Somewhere around 1978/79, I was asked to join the Board of Directors at Border Television, which meant that I had worked my way right through the company, from Newsroom to Board Room and ‘Mr & Mrs’ and Look Who’s Talking were still running and did so until around 1987/88, when I retired from Border to take life a bit easier and to end up averaging eight ‘Mr & Mrs’ shows a week for 20 weeks every summer and in huge demand for cabaret, clubs and after dinner speaking. Mind you, my record for appearances stands at 35 in one week when, as Chairman of the Trinity Hospice in the Fylde Day Centre Appeal, I spent a week of my life making personal appearances and doing ‘Mr & Mrs’ shows and managed to raise around £30,000. If you are interested in statistics, I presented my ‘Mr & Mrs’ show over 500 times on television and over 5,000 times on stage.
After leaving Border, Edith, Diane and I moved to lovely St. Annes-on-Sea on the Fylde Coast and took my family of ventriloquist dolls with us. The original one, Alfie, is now 75 years old and is still wearing a pair of wartime ‘utility’ black leather shoes, bought in Brampton in 1940!
We are fortunate enough to spend part of our lives now in the sunshine of Gran Canaria and Florida, watching happily as “Mr & Mrs” continues to be successful on ITV1 in the UK and is slowly spreading worldwide. Perhaps I should end this section of the website by saying, as my pal the late Les Dawson once said, “Thank you for your support – I shall wear it always!”