Dickie Henderson is something of a forgotten figure in show business these days, but between the end of the Second World War and his death in 1985, he was a big star. Truly an all-round entertainer, he sang and danced well, and had a great eye for visual comedy. He undermined his outwardly suave manner constantly with slapstick routines, the most famous of which involved a microphone cable and a clueless stage hand.
In 1957, Brian Tesler, the BBC’s brightest young light entertainment producer, was wooed away to join the commercial television company ATV. However, for his first show at the new place, a Val Parnell Saturday Spectacular, he was offered a lacklustre bill of Harry Worth and a ditzy panellist from the game show Yakety Yak, with Lew Grade protesting that everybody else was busy in pantomime. Tesler knew who he wanted, and decided to mark his territory by refusing to budge. When I interviewed him in 2005 for my book Turned Out Nice Again, he told me the story:
“I went away so miserable. I didn’t want to do a variety bill. Two of the last things I’d done at the BBC had been with Dickie Henderson Jr. One was a Billy Cotton show in which I had Bill and young Bill with young Dick and old Dick. The two old men and the two young men, with a very good script written by Jimmy Grafton. It had gone very well, and I had great admiration for Dickie. He was in the American idiom. He sang, he danced, he had a great sense of humour. The microphone routine was terrific, just a terrific routine. And he’d also been the guest on the last Pet Clark show at Riverside studios. They’d done a duet, and I thought if I can get the chance, I want to do a show with Dickie. I phoned him, I phoned Jimmy, and I said ‘Look, I’ve got a date and I don’t like what they’ve given me, I’d like the three of us to do a show’. They said terrific idea, so we met for lunch, and it was obvious it was going to be great.
“I went back to the office and I phoned Lew. I said ‘Lew, I know it was very nice of you to offer me Harry Worth, but I really want my first show to be my show. I’d like to do the Dickie Henderson show’. He said ‘Val won’t like it’. Dickie had been the star of a series that Dickie Leeman had produced for ATV, called Young at Heart, that hadn’t been at all successful. So I went to Bill Ward, who was head of department, told him what had happened. He said ‘I’ll have a word with Val’. He came back and said ‘Val says all right, but it’s not going to be called The Dickie Henderson Show, it’s just going to be a Saturday Spectacular with Dickie Henderson.’
“So I was very naughty, we were all very naughty. The side of Wood Green had the stage, and down where the orchestra pit had been there was just a hole. Down the other side, the side of the wall, there was an area, it was very narrow, but you could use it. I put black material with stars on it with beautiful showgirls in glossy dresses in front of it, and had the camera crabbing along the line. Terrific music, the first caption, star-studded, said ‘Val Parnell presents Val Parnell’s Saturday Spectacular’ And there was Dickie standing by a hat rack, with a clapped out piece of cardboard that said ‘The Dickie Henderson Show?’. So we didn’t really call it the Dickie Henderson Show, and it wasn’t spectacular, because it had a question mark, but we got away with it. It was a very good show, it had some very good things in it, and bless his heart, Val sent me a telegram, and said ‘It was a terrific show, you can do more Dickie Henderson shows in future, and they can be called The Dickie Henderson Show’.
“That established me at ATV better than I could have expected, because I hadn’t done what was expected and taken what I was given. So from then on I was able to do what I wanted to do. If they gave me stars, and they very often did, I never turned another show down, and I never had any problem with budgets.”