Sparkling wit catapulted Blackpool's Lennie Bennett to centre stage
September 26 2020 will mark the birthday of a Cleveleys born, Blackpool bred former Gazette journalist who made a move into showbiz and rose to become one of Britain’s top entertainers at the peak of his career.
The fondly remembered and much missed Lennie Bennett.
Born Michael Berry in 1938, he attended the former Palatine Secondary School and went onto a career in journalism with the West Lancashire Evening Gazette, where he became a show business reporter.
The experience evidently rubbed off on the young Berry as he began writing comedy material and originally formed himself part of a double act called Mike and Tony Angelo.
This ended in 1964 when he elected to go solo as a stand up and renamed himself Lennie Bennett.
Lennie spent the rest of the decade working the Lancashire clubs and then at the Leeds City Varieties, where he was spotted by the BBC and booked to appear on The Good Old Days in 1969, marking his television debut.
He was then picked up by ITV for the joke contest show, Jokers Wild, and became a regular panellist over the following five years, rubbing shoulders with some of the top names in stand up at the time.
During one appearance with Les Dawson, Lennie cheekily delivered a spot in the style of Dawson’s trademark verbose delivery, to which Les commented “It may be crap, but it’s my crap.”
With his trademark permed hair and three piece suit, Lennie went onto become to regular guest spots on further ITV shows such as The Comedians, Saturday Variety and Celebrity Squares hosted by Bob Monkhouse.
Then in 1978, he was paired up by producer Ernest Maxin with Yorkshire singer and funny man Jerry Stevens to host the BBC2 variety show International Cabaret.
It was around this time that the BBC’s flagship double act Morecambe and Wise defected to Thames Television, and Maxin suggested promoting Bennett and Stevens to their own show as a replacement for Eric and Ernie, given they sparked so well as co-hosts.
The Lennie and Jerry Show began on BBC 1 later in 1978 and followed the format of Eric and Ernie very closely, even bringing in their writer Eddie Braben to contribute material along with Bennett and Stevens themselves.
It was the familiar formula of big name stars, sketches and stand up banter with Lennie as the cheeky figure making jokes about his partner, usually with regards to his diminutive stature as Morecambe often did with Wise.
On one edition when guest Joan Collins announces she wants Jerry Stevens to be leading man in her next film, Lennie protests “You want an answer to The Stud, not the incredible shrinking man!”
Not surprisingly critics regarded them as a manufactured double act, though they surprisingly got a seal of approval from Eric Morecambe himself who felt they had a bright future.
However, Lennie became less convinced and sensed that variety to be on the way out, so at end of contract in 1980 he decided to go solo again.
The BBC had Lennie host the talent contest series Rising Stars, which was recorded at Blackpool’s ABC Theatre during 1979.
The series was renowned for introducing young pianist Jacqui Scott who won the final which also marked the last public appearance of Charlie Cairoli.
For those who attended the recordings, Lennie’s off air banter with the audience between the acts was the most entertaining part of the show, though not suitable for broadcast at times.
Lennie moved to London Weekend Television in 1981 to become host of the popular quiz show punchlines, which he did for three years.
During this time he also hosted a topical chat show Bennett Bites Back which only lasted one series, something he put down to “it wasn’t bland ego-massaging”.
In 1988 Lennie moved to Anglia Television and hosted the weekday morning game show Lucky Ladders.
This ran until 1993 by which time he observed that television comedy was changing and more “the likes of Blackadder”.
Consequently, he decided to step back from the medium to concentrate on corporate events and the after dinner speech circuit.
This change of direction was undoubtedly also influenced by a serious heart attack Lennie suffered in 1994, resulting in a bypass operation and a subsequent scaling down of work.
He did go on to make a couple more TV appearances, by now minus his trademark permed hair, one being as a contestant on a game show host themed edition of The Weakest Link with Ann Robinson in 2003, and the ITV series After They Were Famous in 2004.
Lennie continued to live a quiet life at his home near Cleveleys, though not a reclusive one as he was often seen to out and about in clubs and showbars around the Fylde.
He was usually in company of drinking buddy Michael Stenhouse who once related a story of the pair of them attending the 1970s themed club, Flares, where a group of women persuaded them to try on some permed hair wigs.
When Lennie put on his, one of them exclaimed “You look just like Lennie Bennett”, which he took with good humoured irony.
Sadly, Lennie passed away aged 70 on 8 April 2009 following a fall at his home.
He was taken to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary but failed to regain consciousness.
His funeral subsequently took place at Carleton Crematorium.
Lennie is seemingly best remembered as a game show host, but his career also boasted no less than twelve Royal Variety Shows and a three week run at the London Palladium with Vince Hill and Shirley MacLaine who was headlining the show.
He also had a shrewd understanding of the entertainment business, once commenting about his formative years “You learn more in one season in a theatre than in all of five years in clubland.”
In the annals of Blackpool entertainment history, the name of Lennie Bennett will continue to shine.