Sign of age: being able to remember particular TV or stage characters. I tried to stiffen my lip the other night when nobody in my particular conversation could remember Lenny The Lion, or Saveen. Lenny The Lion was an outsize ventriloquist’s ‘doll’, a huge beaming face with eyelashes that fluttered, camp hand movements, and an inability to say ‘r’ (not the ventriloquist’s problem, by the way: his ‘master’, Terry Hall, who died last year, was especially talented at throwing his voice).
You don’t see ventriloquist acts any more – they seem to have gone out of fashion. It’s one of those talents I’d like to have learned (I am pretty sure there was a ‘Teach Yourself Ventriloquism’ in that celebrated series – which is still going). There was a celebrated vent in the 1960s called Dennis Spicer, who was likely to have outlasted all the competition – but who was killed in a car crash in 1964, before he was 30. Spicer was pioneering a new line in ventriloquism, too – moving away from puppets or animals (of which Lenny The Lion is alleged to have been the first, although I doubt it, as we’ll see), his speciality was making a glove into a face, or a flip-top cigarette packet into a mouth, and making them talk. Newspaper articles alleged that he was so obsessed with throwing his voice that he drove his wife mad at nights (all the clothes in the room would talk to her).
But the one I liked best was (Albert) Saveen. I saw him onstage when I was seven years old, third on a bill at the Sunderland Empire to Nina and Frederick (‘Little donkey, little donkey…’). Also on the bill were The Bachelors, who were at that time a harmonica act. But Saveen stole the audience. He was a dapper man, dressed in topper and tails, and he had a range of dolls, including a particularly popular one called Daisy May. He was one of those strange ventriloquist acts who got his big break on radio (think about it: what it meant was that his scripts were good) in the 1950s.
But his most extraordinary act involved two dogs, one of them fake, one of them real (but with a false lower jaw, as I recall). One of the dogs would run round the stage, and, presumably at a given, hidden signal, Saveen would make it talk to the dog he was holding. The dogs had different personalities. The real one had a gruff, uncompromising, rather superior voice, and was apt to start arguments. It had a catchphrase of its own: ‘Drop dead.’ I know this not only because I saw Saveen, but also because my father adopted ‘Drop dead’ as one of his own catchphrases. I also remember the fake dog being asked what he smoked. ‘Dog-ends.’ The dogs must have been going long before Lenny The Lion.
Lenny, bizarrely, hosted a pop music show aimed at children, and there is a clip which features the lion briefly introducing Joe Brown and his Bruvvers on YouTube here:
And he can also be found introducing Craig Douglas (same show):
Saveen is less well-represented, but you can catch a little glimpse of him (and the two dogs) at a TV memory site called Whirligig – here: