The success story of Sandy Powell

The success story of Sandy Powell

By Antony Clay | 28/05/2021

The success story of Sandy Powell

 

PUB-GOERS in Rotherham may remember a drinking spot in the town with an unusual name — The Comedian.

The popular pub — opened in 1970 but now long gone — was on St Ann’s Road, just outside the town centre.

Some may not realise that this place of refreshment was named in honour of one of the country’s best-known comics of yesteryear.

Sandy Powell was a well-known celebrity on the music hall stage in the 1920s and 30s, and a famous radio voice to boot.

He was also a Rotherham lad, born in the town at the start of the last century.

Famed for his catchphrase “Can you hear me, mother?”, Sandy was also ahead of the pack by becoming a best-selling recording star, selling a staggering seven-and-a-half million 78rpm discs in his long career.

He worked alongside Lancastrian singer Gracie Fields and Coronation Street star Pat Phoenix, and was celebrated on TV show This Is Your Life in 1971.

Sandy was a member of a generation of performers whose fame came largely from endless touring of the incredibly popular music halls, criss-crossing the country, day after day.

There was no TV, so the comics and singers and dancers had to work hard to be seen and remembered.

But for those who made it, the new technology of radio offered an opportunity for a wider audience, as did the near endless stream of British-made films featuring the likes of popular entertainers George Formby, Old Mother Riley, Norman Wisdom and Sandy Powell.

Sandy, who was awarded an MBE in 1975, was also a ventriloquist — with an act in which his dummy fell apart — and a writer.

Three-times married Sandy was born Albert Arthur Powell on January 30, 1900, and attended White’s School in Masbrough.

He died aged 82 on June 26, 1982, after suffering a heart attack.

A blue plaque (pictured) was unveiled by British Music Hall Society president Roy Hudd in 2015 at Sandy’s home on Elms Avenue, Eastbourne, in a ceremony watched by more than 100 people including the town’s mayor and ventriloquist Steve Hewlett who brought along the deceased entertainer’s old soldier dummy, which is now kept in the museum of the performers charity the Grand Order of Water Rats.

Sandy started young — aged just seven — by helping his mother perform a marionette show.

His mother was known on stage as Lily le Maine and had a popular variety act.

At nine, he began to perform songs, dressed in a velvet suit and lace collar, which clearly put treading the boards well and truly in his blood. On leaving school, he took to the music hall scene with enthusiasm.

He was often seen sporting a kilt as part of his show.

As Sandy became better known among the public thanks to his endless touring, new opportunities — for the time — were opened up.

He made films such as It’s a Grand Old World, The Third String, I’ve Got a Horse, Soft Lights and Sweet Music, Home from Home and Cup-Tie Honeymoon, making him the country’s fifth most successful box office star in 1939. He made eight feature films in total. Radio also beckoned in the 1930s, and Sandy’s famous catchphrase became a favourite with audiences.

It was first used to cover up Sandy dropping his script during a performance — but stuck, and audiences began expecting him to use the phrase in his act.

The first ever regular BBC radio variety show was Sandy’s Hour, which began broadcasting in 1928.

Under various guises, it continued to be a popular show for many years.

But it was in the field of record sales that Sandy really made a mark, which is perhaps surprising.

Back then, buying 78rpm records, which were notoriously breakable and not particularly cheap, was still a fairly new phenomenon — the technology only being invented around 1900.

In total, Sandy made a staggering 85 records of humorous sketches — some say more than 100 — between the years 1929 and 1942, something which would put most modern recording stars to shame.

He sold an equally impressive seven-and-a-half million records in his career which earned him — at the rate of a penny a record — about £70,000, a tidy sum indeed in those days.

Sandy sold half a million copies of his first record, The Lost Policeman.

He had luckily turned down a flat fee of £60 to make it for the Broadcast label.

But the fact that he worked continually for decades in various media — stage, radio, records — made Sandy one of the country’s most popular and enduring entertainers and helped him survive the decline of music hall.

But in an interview, he showed a quite humble side of his character.

The comic said of his success: “With the help of God, and my friends in the profession, and they were countless, disaster turned into pure gold.”

He did Royal Variety performances; seasons in Eastbourne, Blackpool and the Isle of Man; and tours of New Zealand and South Africa.

Sandy toured extensively, particularly in the north of England and in Scotland, but was unusually a northern comic who made it big down south.

He played an impressive 21 consecutive summer seasons in Eastbourne, where he eventually lived and became known as Mr Eastbourne.

This south coast run ended in tragedy when the theatre he performed at — along with all his props and scripts — burned down. At this time, Sandy was aged 70.

But the true performer was not put off and continued in the career that he loved. He was still seen on TV, heard on radio and performing on stage.

Sandy also appeared in Canada aged 76, with shows both there and in the USA a year later.

His last Royal Variety performance was just a year before he died.

In all his career, Sandy never told a rude joke to audiences, which made him a reliable, family-friendly performer.

He often performed in the most family-friendly shows of all: panto — oh yes, he did!

Sandy was married three times — to Katie Hughes, Peggy Whitty and, at the time of his death, Kay White. Kay often appeared in performances with him.

He was popular with other comedians and performers, as well as audiences, and was described as a quiet man off-stage.

When asked how his career had been so exceptional, he simply replied: “I was lucky.”