Don Estelle (22nd May 1933 to 2nd August 2003)

 

As a lad I never saw It Aint' Half Hot Mum on television for some reason. I don't think my folks watched any of the 56 episodes spread over seven years. Perhaps it was on at the same time as Top Of The Pops, Columbo, The Dukes Of Hazard or The Waltons. One of the main cast was Don Estelle and here I am by his grave in Rochdale Cemetery.

 

He was born, lived and died in the north west. He was born and brought up in Crumpsall in Manchester. When the Second World War commenced he wasnít shipped off to the top of Scotland but just twenty miles away in Lancashire. There he started singing in the church choir and found he had a decent tenor's voice. Performing got under his skin and after the war he joined the Manchester Kentucky Minstrels, a charity group. He toured the northern club circuit in the evenings (meeting fellow actor Windsor Davies) and worked as a warehouse manager through the day. He was a bit of a late starter and was 36 before he got a small part in Dad's Army. Another five years before he got most famous part as Gunner "Lofty" Sugden in It Ain't Half Hot Mum. It was worth the wait as this popular comedy series became part of the British television furniture.  At its peak the series was watched by 17 million viewers. Although set in India during the Second World War the jungle scenes were shot in Norfolk and the desert scenes in Sussex.

 

Though Don was short (4ft 9 inch tall) his voice wasnít short of quality and he had a Number 1 with a semi-comic version of Whispering Grass. For time a decade his star ascended but dropped steeply when the series was axed in 1981. It was the birth of political correctness and the hyper-sensitive thought the comedy was a slur on Indians (who appeared in the series as local "wallahs".) However it was well known that Indian's loved the show as it reminded them of their origins. Even though Don appeared in three films heíd had his time in the sun and for a few years he did commercials, summer season shows and pantomimes. Later life he made for a sorry figure, clinging onto the past. Wearing his "Lofty" outfit he rented market stalls, set out a range of his cassettes and sang to passers-by to make a few pounds. Over the years he married twice.

 

Nearing the end of his life he needed a liver transplant but was too ill for the operation. He died here in Rochdale aged 70 and is buried where Iím stood near the road that bends round the cemetery. He was buried with (or wearing) his oversized pith helmet worn in It Ainít Half Hot Mum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don singing and signing autographs in shopping centre...