When a letter once arrived at the Abingdon Street sorting office in Blackpool, addressed simply to ‘the world’s greatest ventriloquist’, the Royal Mail knew exactly who to deliver it to local show business star Arthur Worsley, based at St Annes Road.
First emerging in the 1940s, unlike many fan acts, Worsley thrived under the scrutiny of television cameras and became extremely popular in America where he regularly performed on the Ed Sullivan Show.
What was so different about Worsley’s act was the fact that there was no crossover conversation between him and his model. Instead, he was happy to provide a blank sheet of paper that allowed his wooden sidekick to scribble an unstoppable avalanche of insults and abuse at his expense. Each was brazenly led across the ramp to their audience, ‘Turn me son. And look at me when I talk to you. The mannequin would become more and more exasperated by the ventriloquist’s continued silence.
Worsley was more than happy to take his model’s tirades, sometimes displaying a very rare raised eyebrow or even a slight smirk. A reviewer once wrote that looking at Arthur Worsley’s lips was like watching a play by Chekhov, nothing happens.
In due course, the perennial cheeky boy Charlie would get more and more lathered up and start yelling at his master. The model had indeed become a stand-up comedian – the ventriloquist equivalent of Hylda Baker, constantly chatting about his totally silent sidekick “Cynthia”. Sometimes the bullying dummy could even fool the professionals. On one famous occasion, a radio producer asked Worsley to bring the model closer to the microphone because the sound level was not quite right. As their routine progressed, Charlie increasingly insisted on Worsley’s supposed limits as a ventriloquist. He never ceased to take every opportunity to point out what is the recurring pet peeve of every ventriloquist, the letter “b”.
âSay beer bottle without moving your lips. Keep on going.”
Silence from Worsley. By now Charlie’s head would be right next to Worsley’s, the model shouting in his face, “Say it son.” Say Beer bottle, beer bottle, beer bottle, keep saying it! “
Not a flicker from Worsley, and then Charlie, after calming down, would exclaim, “Why is that my son, that when I scream you spit in my face?”
“What did I tell you about wearing diamond rings, eh?” Was another constant complaint.
Likewise, the model turned to the audience in search of sympathy: “How would you like to go through life without guts and his hand where my kidneys should be?” “
Perhaps the biggest compliment Arthur Worsley paid over his long career was the fact that he had one of his best lines pinched by another artist. One of Charlie’s usual scoldings, âLook at me when I talk to you,â was later turned into a classic slogan by Eric Morecambe.
In this particular case, it was partner Ernie Wise who found himself constantly at the reception.
The only child of a Manchester car dealership, Arthur Wilkinson Worsley was born at Lodge Farm, Failsworth, on October 16, 1920.
Trained at Heald Place School in Rusholme, Worsley was first fascinated by ventriloquism at the age of eight.
By purchasing a second-hand model, he quickly signed up and won many local talent contests.
Eleven-year-old and billed as “the youngest ventriloquist in the world”, he made an auspicious appearance at the Casino de Rusholme. Leaving school at fourteen, and now with a homemade mannequin, he made his first radio show since Les Jardins d’hiver in Morecambe in 1935.
Later that year, after finding success on the provincial theater circuit, he moved to the capital, performing at the South London Casino.
Originally qualified as a radio officer in the Royal Navy at the start of World War II, he instead found himself visiting munitions factories and military camps to entertain civilian workers and troops, after being seconded to the ‘Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA). In 1945, when the show’s charity, the Grand Order of the Water Rats, hosted a Rats’ Revels at Victoria Palace in London, Worsley was starring alongside two legendary ventriloquists from an older generation, Arthur Prince and Fred Russell.
Russell’s last name was Parnell and when Val Parnell of that ilk was launching two major television entertainment programs, Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Saturday Spectacular, Worsley came to feature prominently on both.
With his career carefully guided by agents, Lew and Leslie Grade, Worsley was now a headliner appearing weekly on the Moss Empire Tour, becoming one of the highest paid artists in the business.
He did ten variety seasons at the London Palladium sharing tickets with Max Miller, Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn. Always elegant and dapper in appearance, he was also a favorite in more intimate cabarets, performing regularly at the Savoy and Dorchester hotels. A regular on television here, he has also toured extensively, his nascent career taking him to Australasia, South Africa and Canada.
Accompanying him would be his wife Audrey, who as local girl Audrey Hewitt was a singer and dancer and a former Blackpool Children’s Pantomime star. The couple had a child, Michael.
In 1955, Worsley, along with his wife and son, made their first visit to the United States, invited to perform on Toast of the Town, a prime-time Sunday night talk and entertainment show hosted by Ed Sullivan for CBS Television. Proving instant success, Worsley returned a dozen times to what then became the Ed Sullivan Show. In January 1957, he took part in what would be Elvis Presley’s last television appearance.
The program had an audience of over fifty million.
On other occasions he has appeared alongside Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise and The Beatles.
Once in New York, he made a detour to visit a barbershop for a haircut. On the chair next to him was the gangster Albert Anastasia. No sooner had Worsley left the store when Anastasia was shot.
Having taken up residence in the resort, Worsley has also enjoyed many successful summer seasons here.
In 1945, he appeared on Central Pier with Ray Barbour and Terry Wilson, and returned nine years later to support comedian Albert Modley.
In 1961, he was at the Palace Theater with singer Frankie Vaughan. Two years later, now supporting Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Holiday Carnival helped launch the new ABC theater. Back on the scene in 1969 alongside Cilla Black and Roy Castle, he returned three years later with Lovelace Watkins and comedian Ted Rogers.
Busier than ever throughout the 1970s, he regularly dominated the lineup of popular Saturday night variety shows at Butlin’s Holiday Camps, while also starring in Yorkshire Television’s Jokers Wild.
With ventriloquism remaining an integral part of every variety list, Worsley was constantly spinning.
However, the heavy workload was starting to take a toll on his health as he increasingly began to struggle with high blood pressure. After a last summer season in 1981 at the Festival Theater in Paignton, Charlie Brown was confined to the attic of his modest house near The Halfway House. Worsley has always maintained that outside of the stage he never spoke to the model.
He was just a well worn piece of wood with two spare heads.
It was only on stage that Charlie became a real person to him. A dry wit and flawless charm, much admired throughout the company, following a series of strokes, Worsley died at his home on July 14, 2001. He is buried in Carleton Cemetery.