Bill Kerr was a distinguished Australian character actor who made his name on radio in Hancock’s Half Hour
29 Aug 2014
But Kerr was also a character actor of distinction, giving memorable performances as a racketeer in My Death is a Mockery (1952); as the bomber pilot Micky Martin in The Dam Busters (1955); and as a mentally disturbed crook in Port of Escape (1956), co-starring Googie Withers and Joan Hickson. His other films of this period included Appointment in London (1952), You Know What Sailors Are (1954) and The Night My Number Came Up (1955).
After more than two decades in Britain, in 1979 Kerr returned to Australia, where he had been brought up from early childhood, settling in Perth. The British entertainment industry’s loss was Australia’s gain, as Kerr continued to forge a successful career on both stage and screen.
William Henry Kerr was born in Cape Town on June 10 1922. Both his parents were in showbusiness and they took him on stage when he was still in infancy. “My mother took about 10 weeks off to have me, 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,” Kerr said in 1995. “So you could say my stage career began when I was only a few weeks old.”
By the time the family moved from South Africa to Australia, Bill was old enough to go on tour playing child parts such as Little Willie in a production of East Lynne. By the age of eight he had started in variety. He appeared in his first film, a short called Harmony Row (in which he was credited as Billy Kerr), in 1933, and from the age of 16 he was taking part in children’s broadcasts from the Australian National and commercial radio networks.
Having served with the Australian Army in the Second World War, Kerr arrived in Britain by ship in 1947, immediately securing roles on radio programmes in which he was billed as “the stand-up comedian from Wagga Wagga”. After a spell performing at the Camberwell Palace, he toured the Moss and Stoll theatres.
Kerr was one of a host of repertory stars in Variety Bandbox, playing alongside names such as Frankie Howerd and Reg Dixon on “steam radio”. His droll, lugubrious character had the catchphrase “I’ve only got four minutes”, and after the laughter this generated had subsided he would come back with a riposte such as: “I don’t want to worry you, but you people in the balcony — those pillars don’t look too safe.” For audiences of the late Forties, this counted as black humour.
His first British film was a programme-filler called Penny Points to Paradise (1951), which also featured Peter Sellers, Alfred Marks, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe.
During this early period of his career Kerr was also active on the stage, in productions such as Pommie; The Bed Sitting Room (alongside Spike Milligan) at the Mermaid; and Son of Oblomov at the Comedy.
In 1954 he joined Hancock’s Half Hour, which ran on the radio for six series and later moved on to television. As Hancock’s Australian lodger at the dilapidated 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, Kerr appeared as the gormless, slow-on-the-uptake butt of his landlord’s humour. The role made Kerr a household name in Britain, and he later resumed his partnership with Sid James in the first series of the television comedy Citizen James (1960).
Kerr’s other television appearances in Britain included one of the Doctor Who stories, “The Enemy of the World” (1968), alongside Patrick Troughton; and the BBC soap opera Compact, created by the same team that went on to devise Crossroads.
On the big screen, he had parts in The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), and in two of the “Doctor” films, Doctor in Distress (1963) and Doctor in Clover (1966).
For much of the 1970s, Kerr concentrated on theatre. He appeared in Cole at the Mermaid; The Good Old Bad Old Days, co-starring with Anthony Newley at the Prince of Wales; and in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime at Sadler’s Wells. He charmed audiences as Sakini in a national tour of The Teahouse of the August Moon; was a forcefully ingratiating Devil in Damn Yankees; and proved a hit as Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam at the Globe.
After settling in Perth he played serious roles in a number of Australian films, including in the Peter Weir pictures Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). He also co-starred in Razorback (1984), about a murderous wild boar running riot in the Australian outback.
He was active on the Australian stage — in My Fair Lady he was a critical success as Alfred Doolittle — and appeared in numerous television series, including Return to Eden.
Bill Kerr, who was three times married and had four children, is said to have died while watching television at his home.