Willie Rushton - Films, TV and Radio

Films, TV and Radio

When TW3 was cancelled in anticipation of the 1963 election, Rushton and some of the TW3 cast as well as some of the members of the Cambridge University revue Cambridge Circus (including future-Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie) went on tour in America as David Frost Presents TW3. Rushton and Barry Fantoni (another Private Eye contributor) entered a painting Nude Reclining, a satirical portrait of three establishment types, for the 1963 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under the name of 'Stuart Harris' which excited much controversy. He also began a career as a character actor for films in 1963. Rushton was involved as one of the hosts in the early episodes of another satirical programme in late 1964 Not So Much A Programme, but drifted away as it became the vehicle that launched David Frost as a chat show host. In 1964 he appeared as Richard Burbage in Sherrin and Caryl Brahms musical of No Bed for Bacon, while his early stature as a personality was confirmed by a cartoon advert he devised for the Brewer’s Society proclaiming the charms of the local pub. Rushton did his own host duties for New Stars and Garters, a variety entertainment show in 1965, where he first met Arlene Dorgan. Rushton also appeared as a guest in programmes including Not Only... But Also with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

During the later '60s Rushton spent much of his time in Australia, following Arlene Dorgan back to her homeland. He married her in 1968. He also had several series of his own on Australian television, Don’t Adjust Your Set - The Programme is at Fault and From Rushton with Love. He said of Australia, “They’ve got their priorities right, they're dedicated to lying in the sun, knocking back ice-cold beer”. During this period he found time to model for She magazine and also appear in a 1967 stage production of Treasure Island as Squire Trelawney, alongside Spike Milligan and Barry Humphries at the Mermaid Theatre in London. It was on one of his return visits to the UK in 1968 that he also brought back the late Tony Hancock's ashes to the UK in an Air France bag - “My session with the Customs was a Hancock Half Hour in itself."

He appeared in cameo roles in films, including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust (1969). He played Tim Brooke-Taylor’s gay husband in Sharon Tate’s last film before her murder, 12 to 1. As an actor in the 1970s he appeared in episodes of popular programmes as different as The Persuaders!, Colditz Episode: The Guests: (Major Trumpington in a kilt) and Up Pompeii! as the narrator Plautus. He was Dr Watson to John Cleese’s Sherlock Holmes in N. F. Simpson’s surreal comedy Elementary, My Dear Watson. In 1975 and 1976 he appeared in well-received pantomimes of Gulliver’s Travels; in 1981 in Eric Idle’s Pass the Butler; and in 1988 as Peter Tinniswood’s irascible Uncle Mort in Tales from a Long Room. Rushton also wrote two musicals:

  • Liz of Lambeth in 1976.
  • Tallulah Who? in 1991, with Suzi Quatro and Shirlie Roden.

His last major solo TV project was Rushton's Illustrated (1981). By now he was an established guest on quiz shows and celebrity panel games: Celebrity Squares, Blankety Blank, Countdown and Through the Keyhole. When asked why he appeared on these "ludicrous programmes," his answer was simple: "Because I meet everybody there."

For 22 years, he was a panellist in the long-running BBC Radio 4 panel comedy game show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue which he joined as a regular team member from the third series in 1974, and continued until death in 1996. In its later years, the show's wealth of silliness, smut and appalling punning was drawing audiences of up to a thousand people for its recordings. No permanent replacement has been found for Rushton; instead his seat has been filled by a series of guests. Producer, Jon Naismith has said that "As befits such an irreplaceable character, he has never been formally replaced." In 1990 he teamed up with his co-panellist Barry Cryer in their own show Two old Farts in the Night, performing to full audiences at the Edinburgh festival, the Albert Hall, and the Festival Hall, touring the country irregularly until Rushton's death.

His manner and voice meant Rushton was in constant demand for adverts, voice-overs and presenting jobs. It was in the mid-70s, reading Winnie the Pooh for BBC's Jackanory that he won over a whole new audience of young children. He would also be fondly remembered for providing all the voices for the claymation animated series The Trap Door in the late 1980s. He was a popular choice for narrating audio books, especially those for children. In particular he recorded 18 of the books by the Rev. W. Awdry for The Railway Stories series. He also recorded adaptations of Asterix books and Alice in Wonderland, and provided the voice of the King in the early animated Muzzy films. In the early 1980s he wrote and illustrated a series of children’s books about "The Incredible Cottage", and was a prolific illustrator of many children‘s books.

Rushton had not been involved in Private Eye since the latter part of the 60s, other than a brief stint illustrating "Mrs Wilson's Diary" when the Labour Party came back into power in the mid-70s. Rushton returned to Private Eye in 1978 to take over the task of illustrating "Auberon Waugh's Diary". The cartoons perfectly complemented Auberon Waugh's scabrous and surreal flights of invective, and when Waugh moved his column to The Daily Telegraph as the "Way of the World" in the mid-80s, Rushton followed. The Victoria and Albert Museum, recognising his accomplishments, commissioned 24 large colour illustrations that were collected as Willie Rushton's Great Moments of History. (Rushton had previous experience with the V&A when he had pulled a prank on the institution by labelling an electric plug socket in one of the galleries: "Plug hole designed by Hans Plug (b.1908)" which remained for a full year – to the great annoyance of a cleaner who had to use a hefty extension lead for 12 months so as not to damage the exhibit.) This large scale excursion into the use of colour was good practice for the monthly colour covers he created for the Literary Review when Auberon Waugh became its editor in the late 80s. Rushton drew these covers along with the fortnightly caricatures for Private Eye's literary review page, until his untimely death.

Rushton had always been conscious of his weight, listing his recreations in Who's Who as "gaining weight, losing weight and parking", and in 1973 he had been the host of a slimming programme Don’t Just Sit There. His first major health scare had been the onset of diabetes (the cause of his father's death in 1958). Having to give up beer, Rushton became, according to Ingrams, "quite grumpy as a result, but his grumpiness had an admirable and jaunty quality to it." A sudden loss of three stone had prevented him from playing in Prince Rainier's XI at Monte Carlo, Monaco. Rushton was always passionate about cricket. His father had sent him for coaching at Lord's before he went to Shrewsbury. His cricket and general knowledge were called upon in his role as a regular team captain on BBC Radio 4's quiz show Trivia Test Match with Tim Rice and Brian Johnston which ran from 1986 to 1993. Rushton was always an enthusiastic cricketer, playing in the Lord's Taverners, a charity celebrity cricket team.

In 1989 he performed in The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball. His act consisted of singing Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and acting out the lyrics which left him standing in top hat, white tie, and tails — but no trousers. In his later years he was part of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and even had the “privilege” of being invited back to Shrewsbury to open a new wing at his old school, the entirety of his speech being “The bugger’s open.”

He went into Cromwell Hospital, Kensington, for heart surgery, and died there from complications on 11 December 1996. According to Rushton's widow, his last words included a message to his long-time friend and comedy partner, Barry Cryer: "Tell Bazza he's too old to do pantomime."

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