“We had no idea he was comedian. He was always quiet and didn’t mix with the lads or with women but he was always very polite.”
These are the words of a 94-year-old D-Day veteran who helped launch the career of comedian Benny Hill, having served with him during the Second World War.
Eric Thurston from Theydon Park Road, Theydon Bois, first encountered the comedian as a reserved and respectful 17-year-old driver when he was assigned to his Army unit in 1942.
Mr Thurston described the young Alfred Hill, as he was then known, as an “absolute loner" and remembered hime spending most of his time in his room.
It was only after the conflict the entertainer showed his ability to make people laugh.
This came to light when Mr Thurston and Hill stopped at a cafe returning from Calais to Hanover.
Mr Thurston said: “He was only in there for 10 minutes and he had the whole place in laughter doing impressions of the Germans.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen him being funny.
“As we drove back the next day he was making comments about the
girls we passed on the road which he had never done before”
Mr Thurston was so taken with his driver’s performance he arranged for him to meet with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), which gave him an audition and immediately requested his services.
Mr Thurston said: “Three of four weeks later I organised a trip to the theatre and as we went in there was a great big poster of Alfie [Benny Hill].
“Everyone was in stitches that night, he was really on form.”
Mr Thurston stayed in touch with the comic and spoke to him after both his radio and television debuts.
He said: “I called the BBC and they said he wouldn’t speak to anyone but I told the man on the phone to tell him my name and a minute later he was on the phone.”
Mr Thurston last saw the performer around 1950 when he came to his mother’s house in Shelley Road, Ongar, for tea and biscuits en route to an event in Dunmow.