Life after Lofty: where did it all go wrong for Don Estelle?

Don Estelle with his It Ain't Half Hot Mum co-star Windsor Davies
Don Estelle with his It Ain't Half Hot Mum co-star Windsor Davies

In the summer of 1975, Don Estelle was at the peak of his powers. As Gunner ‘Lofty’ Sugden, he starred in the BBC sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, which was attracting more than 15 million viewers every week, and his novelty pop song Whispering Grass, a duet with actor Windsor Davies, was a number one hit, earning the pair an appearance on Top of the Pops. “I felt on top of the world,” said Estelle.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the glory days had vanished. Estelle was struggling hand-to-mouth as he undertook one of the most dismal UK music tours of all time, selling cassette tapes and CDs out of a suitcase as he performed impromptu gigs in provincial shopping malls and high streets, using a hand-held mic and a decrepit amp.

The concert he gave outside Sainsbury’s in Dalston was sadly typical. Many bemused shoppers had no idea as to the identity of the diminutive singer (a collapsed vertebra had reduced his height to 4’ 8”), wearing his trademark Lofty pith helmet, bottle-top glasses and comically oversized khaki shorts. The few who recognised Estelle were shocked and saddened by his pitiful fall into obscurity.

When he returned to his home in the Dunkirk Rise tower block in Rochdale, Estelle poured out his frustration about his reduced circumstances in Sing Lofty: Thoughts Of A Gemini: The Autobiography Of Don Estelle, the oddly triple-titled book from 1999 that remains one of the most bonkers celebrity memoirs of all.

Much of his venom was directed at the BBC executives – men he branded “faceless wonders, blinkered, nose-bag accountants” – who axed It Ain’t Half Hot Mum after the 56th and final episode aired on September 3 1981. The decision to drop the show was damaging enough, but the BBC also halted repeat screenings, a move that cost Estelle and his fellow cast members a small fortune in residual revenues. The critic Roger Lewis said that his friend Estelle remained “very bitter” about the decision, blaming a “militant minority” for scaring television bosses into this cancellation. “There’s no way the show was racist. Lots of Asian people tell me how much they enjoyed it,” said Estelle.

The eight seasons of It Ain’t Half Hot, set in the fictional village of Tin Min in Burma during the last months of the Second World War, featured white British actor Michael Bates as the Indian bearer Rangi Ram (wearing a turban and plastered with brown make-up), along with frequent jokes about the “slant-eyed Japanese” enemy. As Battery Sergeant Major Tudor Bryn, Davies regularly denigrated Melvyn Hayes’s cross-dressing character Gunner ‘Gloria’ Beaumont. The Sergeant’s regular insult for the soldiers under his command was to call them “a bunch of poofs”. In 2014, the Telegraph reported that the outgoing head of Ofcom described It Ain’t Half Hot Mum as too racist, sexist and offensive to be shown on the BBC ever again.

The programme divides the woke and the woke-nots. Jimmy Perry, who along with David Croft co-wrote Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, admitted that “the language was homophobic”, but said the writers were simply representing the truth of what it had been like serving in a Royal Artillery concert party in the Far East. That was exactly how people spoke, Perry insisted.

Estelle was still a child when Perry and Croft were taking part in the war. At eight, Estelle was evacuated to live in the Lancashire town of Darwen, where he leaned to sing at Holy Trinity church. Estelle, born Ronald Edwards, was the son of a small-time merchant who worked Blackpool beach, selling song sheets and bric-à-brac from his donkey-pulled cart.

The Partridgesque quality to Estelle’s memoir starts on the opening page. “I was born in Manchester on 22nd May, 1933, the day Herr Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He was to give many evil fruits to the rest of the world a few years later. It is strange that elements of today’s generation are glorifying Hitler as if he was something wonderful. They parade in uniforms of that age, heedless of all the suffering and death he brought into the world. It’s as if it was a dream; something comical to these people, but it’s not a dream to the brave people of the British Legion.”

After working as the warehouse manager for a carpet firm, Estelle – who took his stage surname from a ladies' fashion shop in Levenshulme called Estelle Modes – stepped up his bid to make a career in entertainment, swapping his first name Ron for Don. In 1962, Estelle met Davies at The Garrick Theatre in London, and the pair became friends, embarking on a double-act tour of theatres and clubs for the next four years.

Don Estelle in 1981 - Rex
Don Estelle in 1981 - Rex

Despite enjoying the chance to sing in public, Estelle was keen to break into television acting and pestered Granada Studios for work as an extra. They gave him a few inconsequential roles. He played the part of ‘Short Football Hooligan’ in an ITV Playhouse production of a David Nobbs drama, and was an extra in Coronation Street, throwing darts in the Rovers Return pub.

There was a hustler element to Estelle’s character and, after bumping into actor Arthur Lowe in Manchester, he hatched a plan to land a part in Dad’s Army alongside Captain Mainwaring. Estelle contacted Croft and told him that Lowe recommended he got in contact about a possible part on the popular show. “Don Estelle had swum into my ken by claiming to be a very good friend of Arthur Lowe,” Croft later told writer Graham McCann. “In fact, he had met Arthur once for about 15 seconds, and Arthur wasn't sure he even knew him as well as that.”

Amused at the chutzpah of the pushy would-be actor, Croft gave Estelle a small role as a tetchy Pickfords removals man in a 1969 episode called Big Guns. It went well and he appeared again in Dad’s Army as one of Chief ARP Warden Hodges’s sidekicks. Croft and Perry saw enough potential in Estelle to develop the character of Lofty in the new sitcom they were planning, judging him to be the perfect foil for the bombastic Davies, whose catchphrases of “shut up” and “lovely boys” became a noted part of 1970s television culture.

Don Estelle in a 1969 episode of Dad's Army - Youtube
Don Estelle in a 1969 episode of Dad's Army - Youtube

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum made its debut on 3 January 1974 and turned Estelle and Davies into national celebrities. Davies recalled that in February 1975 Estelle came up to him during rehearsals and suggested they sing as a double act again. “I said, ‘damn good idea, Welsh Laurel and Yorkshire Hardy,’” Davies recalled, admitting that he always “found it difficult remembering the words”.

The two old pals recorded a comic version of Whispering Grass, a song composed by father-and-daughter songwriting team Fred and Doris Fisher, one that had been a hit for vocal group The Ink Spots in 1940. The two Ain’t Half Hot Mum stars were not the first people to cover the song (Ringo Starr and Sandy Denny both cut versions earlier in the 1970s), but EMI recording manager Wally Ridley saw its potential and issued it as a single. His instincts were right: the version by Estelle and Davies struck a chord with the public, selling more than a million copies. It spent 12 weeks in the charts, including three weeks at No1 in June 1975, when it knocked Stand by Your Man by Tammy Wynette off the top spot.

After appearing on Top of the Pops, Estelle gave an interview to Record Mirror reporter Jan Iles, admitting that “with my height and shape I just couldn’t go on stage and sing a straight romantic ballad, let’s face it! Without the comedy element I doubt if the song would have taken off.” Estelle told her that doing Top of the Pops had been a “frightening, traumatic experience”, although one he’d enjoyed. “I’m an actor first and foremost, love, but this singing lark’s really great,” said Estelle. “My wife and three teenage daughters are in stitches about me being a pop star. They think it’s great.”

Ruling the hit parade made the pair a highly marketable act. They appeared on the Basil Brush Show and the Benny Hill Show and even sang at the wedding of actress Lynda Bellingham (they jumped out of a giant cake and sang Whispering Grass) and were handed a lucrative contract to promote Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. In the confectionary advert, they were dressed in their Ain’t Half Hot costumes, with Davies urging Estelle to show “self-control, lovely boy,” warning him that “a little lad like you has got to be careful”.

The cast of It Ain't Half Hot Mum
The cast of It Ain't Half Hot Mum

In 1977, Estelle and Davies recorded the album Sing Lofty, which reached the top 10 and sold 330,000 copies, making it one of EMI’s top 20 bestselling albums. Estelle then set up his own Lofty Records and issued four more albums in quick succession: Lofty Sings, Time After Time, Don Estelle Sings Songs for Christmas and Beautiful Dreamer. He even sang a duet with David Prowse called The Green Cross Code song.

However, everything went into a downward spiral for Estelle when It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was flushed away by the BBC. “Working in TV is like a public toilet. Nobody is there long enough to make it their own,” Estelle later ruefully remarked. While Davies went on to have success in the sitcom Never the Twain, Estelle’s roles were limited to bit-parts, most notably portraying the tailor Starveling in a BBC adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Bob Hoskins. He also had minor roles in the 1984 Alan Bennett film A Private Function and, a year later, Santa Claus: The Movie.

There was always pantomime, of course, but even those festive rescues became less glamorous as time went on. At the peak of his fame, Estelle had been joint top-of-the-bill with Davies in a Wimbledon Theatre production of Babes in the Wood (alongside a 25-year-old Jim Davidson) but over the next two decades, he had to make do with desultory roles in Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Norwich. Stage Magazine referred to him as “a forgotten comic actor”.

His final television appearance was a novelty role as Little Don, the keeper of the Roundabout Zoo, in two episodes of The League Of Gentlemen in 1999. That year’s self-published memoir, promoted as “a tale that if full of hardship, joy and sadness”, could easily have sprung from the pen of someone in Royston Vasey.

Sing Lofty: Thoughts Of A Gemini: The Autobiography Of Don Estelle is mesmerisingly weird and awful. Although Estelle had worked with a number of interesting people – including Dudley Moore, Michael Palin, Maggie Smith and Roy Kinnear – there are no anecdotes about these Hollywood stars in the book. There are, however, two pages devoted to the time Estelle was invited to inaugurate a steam engine on a private railway. There are so many mentions of his appearances at the now defunct Spalding Flower Show that one trade reviewer wrote that the book begins to feel like “Groundhog Day in Lincolnshire”.

Personal recollections are bafflingly absent from the memoir. Estelle’s first wife, Mary Birkett, whom he married in 1955 and divorced in 1972, is never mentioned by name, earning instead the dubious honour of being referenced alongside a tragic news story of 1967. “I went back to give my marriage a second chance, but it didn’t work out. About the same time, speed king Donald Campbell was killed in his Bluebird,” recalled Estelle. Some events in his personal life remain shrouded in mystery because of the opaque nature of his recollections. “We had a lot of trouble in Buckingham, which I don't want to repeat, but our survival was at risk,” he writes. How or why his life was at risk is deemed unworthy of explanation.

The sheet music for Whispering Grass, Don Estelle's hit duet with Windsor Davis - Alamy
The sheet music for Whispering Grass, Don Estelle's hit duet with Windsor Davis - Alamy

There is also a mystery about how many children Estelle actually fathered. The “three teenage daughters” he mentioned in the Record Mirror interview do not appear in the memoir. Presumably one of them was his daughter Sheila Anne Edwards, who is buried alongside him, having died in April 2016, aged 58. His son Philip, who helped carry the coffin when Estelle died in 2003, is also absent from Sing Lofty. We do at least learn that Estelle once visited Moscow, because he recounts being so distracted by “the most beautiful pair of boobies”, that it caused him to fall down a hole and break the Pentax zoom camera he loved. “Ladies certainly make the world go round, don’t they?” he adds.

The text is littered with mistakes (Frankie Howerd is described as “a depressant”) and repetitions. Along with blow-by-blow accounts of disastrous house moves, the book reads like a love letter to Rochdale, a town which he calls “the most convenient place to be in the country” – only if you want to get to Oldham, perhaps – and which, he says, is full of “warm, friendly, salt-of-the-earth people”. Rochdale Town Hall, incidentally, is “one of the best looking in the country”.

Estelle’s rambling musings take in devolution (“a complete disaster”), the problems of warfare (“sometimes I ask myself how could God condone killing other people by bombs or in hand to hand fighting, when in peace time you might be having a drink with them or visiting their country for a holiday”) and the qualities of the motor car he bought in Southport, an epic event honoured with its own illustration and the caption, “delivery of my new Rover 3.5 1978”.

Perhaps news of Chernobyl did not reach Rochdale, because the whole of 1986 is covered in just 48 words: “1986 was as before, Trade Fairs, cabarets, personal appearances. For three days, in May, I took part in a promotion for Novatal, theme communications out of the jungle, guess it – yes, you have it – CAR PHONES! More work promoting my records, more of the same. This concludes 1986.”

His own peculiar philosophising includes his belief in a protective spirit – “I have, I am sure, a Guardian Angel, maybe a lower level Angel, in the heavenly firmament, because I am not good enough to get special dispensation of incredible things, with the higher up Angels, who glow better” – along with more routine observations lamenting the transience of life. “It’s as if you’re on an express train, which of course you are – a Time Train!”, writes Estelle.

But what marks Sing Lofty out as a truly hypnotic autobiography is the all-pervading bitterness and Estelle’s strange flight-of-fancy outpourings of bile. Here are five of Estelle’s pet hates:

1. "New Wave" television producers

“The tight-crutched, white trousered morons who rule the roost at the moment, with no background or history… they know about as much about entertainment as a visiting Martian. Hundreds of ‘entertainers’ look like they’ve come from space. They lack warmth or feeling. There are those who sound as if they are swinging from their genitals, if they have any sex gender at all.”

2. The lucky work-shy

“You can work hard all your life and never achieve anything, but some congenital idiot can pick six numbers in the Lottery, in Great Britain, and walk away with six million pounds.”

3. Modern comedians

Spouting “insults and down-right rudeness, and suggestive sex garbage which reflects their stinking minds.”

4. Modern music

“Aimed at the bestial, basic, sex mad, drunken louts with an IQ of morons.”

5. Modern conformist society

“All the duplicated clones who walk about, looking like one another, self-assertive, confident, unsmiling, saying, ‘Look at my even larger CV, and ego, coming out of my head’. Head is the wrong word of course, but I am sure you know what I mean.”

The book, now a sought-after commodity when it appears on eBay auctions, has one final curiosity: the back page contains a plug, partly in capital letters, for his new CD DON ESTELLE with SIR CYRIL SMITH: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (plus 5 other tracks), which is listed as available from P.O. Box 7, Rochdale, Lancashire OL12 6UR. His choice of duet partner was not a good one for posterity, either. Smith, a former Liberal MP for Rochdale, was revealed after his death in 2010 to have been a predatory paedophile, who raped and abused scores of boys in his Rochdale constituency and beyond.

Estelle is listed as the producer of his album with Smith, an EP which included his own composition The Crazy Years (“it’s the crazy years when we shared our fears”), a phrase that aptly summed up Estelle’s fate in the remaining section of his life.

Estelle, like his father before him, was well used to hawking goods around. As well as his experiences as a soft-furnishing salesman, Estelle had once run a gang of students in a leaflet delivering business. In 1999, he hoped to make enough money to subsist by selling his book and music in “personal appearances”. As well as regularly pitching up in Rochdale’s Exchange Shopping Centre, Estelle travelled up and down the country selling his goods. McCann provided a description to of this downbeat spectacle. “Estelle, sometimes assisted by a lugubrious-looking friend in a flat cap, was dressed in his by-now yellowing and extremely well-worn 'Lofty' costume, complete with a hummus-hued pith helmet planted on his head.”

The singer, now in his late 60s, sang karaoke-style versions of popular songs he had recorded, including If I Said You had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold it Against Me, Rhinestone Cowboy and Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. You can find footage online of Estelle selling his tapes and singing along to Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You in one mall at Christmas. It has all the rapidly-diminishing-celebrity-status vibe of Barry from EastEnders in an episode of Ricky Gervais’s Extras.

When I chanced on seeing him at the Woolworths in Wimbledon in this era, the customers had more interest in the pick ‘n’ mix than they did in the ludicrous-looking figure delivering a particularly woeful rendition of Drive, by The Cars. Lots of people subsequently shared memories of seeing this fading star. One person who encountered him at the Stockport branch remarked that “the worst part was no one gave a s___. It was a really sad spectacle”; another tweeted his memory of seeing Estelle at Woolworths in Doncaster, adding “the store was empty, Don Estelle was behind the record counter singing songs from his album to an audience of none.”

Growing increasingly short of money, and back to his ways of “drinking a lot”, Estelle reached his nadir in 2001 when he was paid a miniscule fee to pretend to be the late Benny Hill, playing a “dirty old man” in the promotional video for Sun ‘Page 3 Girl’ Jo Hicks’s single Yakety Sax.

Estelle had developed a small following in New Zealand over the years, and he toured that country five times in the late 1990s. In January 2003, after his UK swansong in a variety show at the Bedworth Civic Hall, the Manchester Evening News reported that the former It Ain’t Half Hot Mum actor had “sold up everything” and left to live in Christchurch, New Zealand, for good. Although he enjoyed his time there – during which he sang with a 10-piece blues band called Blutopia – there was no great cathartic climax to his career. Instead, there is forlorn footage online of a gaunt, shrunken-looking Estelle warbling to disinterested visitors at the Classic Fighters 2003 Air Show in Blenheim in March that year.

In July, in need of a liver transplant, the 70-year-old returned to the UK, just weeks before his death. “He had moved to New Zealand, but one day he turned up on my doorstep saying it had been a disaster and he had come home to Rochdale… his voice was very weak and the last time I saw him he couldn’t have weighed more than five stone,” Cyril Smith told the Rochdale Observer. Old friend Lewis said he invited Estelle to London for a book launch party at the Groucho Club. “Don was too broke, he confessed to me on the phone, to afford the train fare,” the critic wrote in The Oldie.

Estelle’s second wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1974, was at the entertainer’s bedside when he died on Saturday 2 August 2003 at Rochdale Infirmary. “He had a lovely singing voice; he regretted it was not more well known,” she said.

He was buried with his oversized pith helmet at St Chad’s Parish Church, as Whispering Grass played over the loudspeakers. “In the end we are,” as Estelle put it so poetically in his memoir, “just so much mashed potato”.