Bob Todd

Bob Todd

With a rubber face that was as at home portraying pompous outrage as it was idiotic befuddlement, he was the ultimate unsung hero of television comedy

Bob Todd remembered by Brian Slade

When people recall Benny Hill’s shows, there were two bald sidekicks they might remember. One was the diminutive Jackie Wright, if not remembered by name then by his many appearances being slapped on the head by Benny. But the other gentleman of little hair in Benny’s supporting cast was a military hero in the war and an unsung and somewhat unlikely comedy feed to many of television’s greatest comedians. While providing many a comic turn for some of the era’s greatest, it is for his time on The Benny Hill Show that most people will recall Bob Todd.

Born in Faversham in 1921, Bob Todd had far from a traditional route into acting. Educated at King’s, Canterbury, his first call was the dentistry profession, where he studied until volunteering for the RAF in the Second World War. His time in the forces as a bomber navigator saw him escape unharmed from five crash landings, later claiming to have led a charmed life in the forces despite suffering nightmares from more than 800 hours flying time in battle.

When he left the RAF, Todd didn’t return to dentistry, but nor did he head for the comedy or acting professions. Instead, he decided to indulge his love of animals and went into business breeding cattle in Tunbridge Wells, a choice doomed to failure. Eight years of farming ended in bankruptcy, so he turned his hand to showbusiness. He had some minor roles in movies, but he eventually arrived on the television scene in his forties, making a number of appearances in Sykes and in 1962 appearing in a Comedy Playhouse episode, The Channel Swimmer, with Michael Brennan, Frank Thornton and Warren Mitchell.

Bob Todd

His appearance in Citizen James was his first sustained success, along with joining the zany gang of Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World, and by now he was gaining a reputation not so much as an actor but as a perfect foil for leading men of comedy. He provided the support for a host of famous names, including Jimmy Tarbuck, Dickie Henderson and his great friend Tommy Cooper, while continuing to have minor acting parts.

While Todd’s fall guy roles continued on screen, he gained a fine reputation as a mimic on radio. By 1966 he had been picked up for the Nicholas Parsons satirical programme on Radio 4, Listen to this Space and subsequently its successor, Follow This Space. His impersonations included one that tweaked the interest of Downing Street as he developed a catchphrase of ‘To be perfectly frank, honest and responsible’ when impersonating Harold Wilson.

As his radio and television career took off, so did Todd’s stage work. He appeared in The Bed Sitting Room at the Mermaid, the brainchild of another Goon in Spike Milligan, and had a long run in the West End farce Uproar in the House, a product of Listen to This Space - writers Anthony Marriott and Alistair Foot and again pairing him with Nicholas Parsons.

Bob Todd

Unfortunately, Todd did begin to develop a reputation for alcohol consumption. In one performance of Uproar in the House at the Whitehall, he ended up collapsing into a fountain on the set, and it was also said that he was initially fired from The Benny Hill Show for his drinking. Ironically, however, it was Hill’s brand of knockabout visual humour that played so perfectly to Todd’s talents and helped him become an instantly recognisable face (as well known as the test card, as Barry Cryer said at Todd’s This Is Your Life!)

Todd’s first appearance on The Benny Hill Show was when Hill was at the BBC in the 1960s, but once Hill found his feet at Thames, viewing figures soared as high as 21 million and Todd was in the vast majority of episodes. Inevitably his comedy roles would be physical in nature, and most likely to be portraying the victim of some upcoming misfortune in a slapstick routine. In between his performances, he continued his stage work, often appearing in pantomime.

Bob Todd

Todd’s destiny was to play a supporting role. His one shot at stardom was a 1972 sitcom called In For a Penny, an LWT effort in which Todd played a lavatory attendant. It was a flop (The Times called it ‘time and talent down the drain) and failed to attract enough of an audience to get a second series and so Todd remained a supporting player.

When The Benny Hill Show was so unceremoniously axed in 1989, Hill and Todd’s careers largely disappeared. Hill was due to work again, but it was not to be as he died in 1992 at the age of 68. Bob Todd died later that same year at the age of 70.

Bob Todd was the ultimate comedy professional. Trusted by almost every television comedian across three decades, this was a man who came into the business comparatively late and yet became the go to stooge for the most respected writers and comedians of his era. With a rubber face that was as at home portraying pompous outrage as it was idiotic befuddlement, he was the ultimate unsung hero of television comedy, and one of the many real heroes of World War Two.

Published on January 17th, 2024. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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