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Bill Kerr

Actor

Actor

Born: June 10, 1922; Died: August 28, 2014.

Bill Kerr, who has died aged 92, made his mark on radio in the 1940s, beginning his routine with the words that became his catchphrase: "I'm only here for four minutes." But Kerr hung around a lot longer than four minutes and secured a place in British comedy history as Tony Hancock's sidekick on radio in the 1950s.

In fact, Kerr's showbusiness career stretched across nine decades following his stage debut as a baby; he was born into a showbusiness family and his mother used her newborn son essentially as a prop in her act.

Although best known for comedy, Kerr also appeared in dramatic roles on radio, television, stage and films, playing Australian officers in The Dam Busters (1955) and the Mel Gibson film Gallipoli (1981), by which time he was back living in Australia, where he had grown up.

William Henry Kerr was born in Cape Town. His parents were Australian but were working in South Africa. "My mother took about 10 weeks off to have me," Kerr said in an interview in 1995, "and when she returned to the stage the producers said, rather than bother with a doll for the baby, why didn't she use me?"

At the end of their stint in South Africa, the family returned to Australia and lived in the town of Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, although Kerr toured in theatre and vaudeville productions from an early age. By his mid-teens he was working regularly in radio and had appeared in a few films.

During the Second World War, he served in the Australian Army and was involved in staging shows, along with his friend and future film star Peter Finch.

He came to Britain after the war and made much of his exotic background. He retained his Australian accent (a lot less familiar to Britons than now) and on the radio show Variety Bandbox he was presented as The Boy From Wagga Wagga.

An official from the town's museum once remarked: "The post-war British audience thought of Wagga Wagga as a comically surreal, end-of-the-earth, magical place somewhere left of Narnia."

Kerr presented a fairly laid-back, but rather downbeat persona, announcing he had only four minutes, and then immediately wandering off on a tangent, which might well include a warning to the audience in the balcony that the supporting pillars did not look too safe from where he was. The combination of deadpan delivery and black comedy proved a hit.

The radio show Hancock's Half Hour consolidated Kerr's status as a household name in the UK. He played Hancock's cousin Bill on six series of the show from 1954 to 1959, reaching an audience of up to 20 million listeners.

His unpretentious, plain-speaking character served as a contrast to the pompous, often delusional Hancock, although Bill would often encourage Hancock's crazy schemes and sometimes come up with his own, before they were thwarted by the unimaginative voice of officialdom, often in the guise of Kenneth Williams.

Initially, Kerr's character seemed smarter than Hancock's, but the show evolved as it went along. Sid James's character was expanded and Kerr's character seemed to become increasingly dim. Kerr did not feature in the television version, by which point Sid James had very much taken over as Hancock's main sparring partner.

Kerr did not appear to harbour any ill-feeling and had a regular role in the Sid James television sitcom Citizen James (1960), which was essentially a continuation of their Hancock characters.

He always maintained his links with theatre and live audiences. He appeared in The Teahouse Of The August Moon at the Glasgow Alhambra in 1956 and the original London West End production of the musical Damn Yankees the following year.

During the 1960s, he continued to work regularly in British television and was in the news when a burglar broke into his house in the London borough of Harrow. He held the intruder at gunpoint until police arrived, although it transpired, in typical sitcom fashion, that Kerr's weapon was nothing more lethal than a water-pistol.

He had a major guest star role in the Doctor Who story The Enemy Of The World (1967-68). Several "lost" episodes turned up at a Nigerian television company and were released on DVD last year.

After returning to Australia in the 1970s, he continued his career in theatre, television and films and starred in the cult horror movie Razorback (1984), in which a killer pig terrorises the countryside.

He is survived by his third wife Sandra and three children.

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