Harry Hemsley was an early 20th-century British music hall comedian and radio presenter. In the late 19th century he was a cartoonist for Ally Sloper's Half Holiday too. Hemsley is best remembered for his popular radio show 'Ovaltiney's Concert Party' (1934-1939), which spawned its own comics magazine: Ovaltiney's Own Comic. He also wrote and illustrated comics and picture stories based on the characters from his radio show.

Early life and career
Harry May Hemsley was born in Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1877. His father was a scenery artist and little Harry grew up in a family of seven children, of which he was the third. This may explain his gift for imitating children's voices, even as an adult. Hemsley learned to draw from his father, who hoped that his soon would follow in his footsteps. But instead of making scenic artistry, Hemsley became a cartoonist for the first comics magazine in history, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, based on Charles Henry Ross and Marie Duval's eponymous comics character. Yet Hemsley's real heart was in music hall. He was eight years old when he first appeared on stage. One of his first roles was a bit part in Arthur Sullivan's opera 'Ivanhoe' (1891), where Hemsley's father provided the scenery. The boy was 14 years old at that time.

Actor and singer
In the 1900s Hemsley became a full-time music hall actor and singer. He was a bass-baritone singer at The Follies concert party and also quite skilled in playing the cornet. He wrote and composed his own songs, among them 'Lather Father Mister Barber' (co-written with Emmie Joyce, 1928) and 'Dirty Little Tinker' (1934). Hemsley served his country during the First World War as part of the Army Service Corps Mechanical Transport, since he was already near 40 years old. In a funny coincidence this corps had the nickname "Ally Sloper's Cavalry". Hemsley was furthermore a skilled vocal impressionist. In his stage act he imitated many famous British people of the time, among them actor, playwright and manager Wilson Barrett. But his real gift was imitating children. Hemsley could mimick their voices eerily well. He made his act even more realistic by actually studying books about children's psychology, which allowed him to actually think and talk as an infant. When he performed in front of crowds he usually held his hand, a book or a newspaper across his mouth to hide his lips.

Radio star
Naturally Hemsley's vocal abilities made him a natural for radio. In 1923 he started appearing on various variety shows on BBC radio. From December 1934 on he hosted his own weekly radio show 'Ovaltiney's Concert Party' (1934-1939) on Radio Luxembourg. The broadcast was sponsored by Ovaltine, hence the title. Every episode Hemsley presented the fictional family Fortune, which consisted of a father, a mother and their two sons, Johnny and baby Horace, and two daughters, Elsie and Winnie. He played all parts himself, except for the mother who was performed by Gladys Young. A running gag was that baby Horace could only talk gibberish. This would lead to the father's famous catch phrase: "What did Horace say, Winnie?". Daughter Winnie would then translate what her kid brother had garbled. The line "What did Horace say?" remained a part of English popular culture decades after the show went off the air. Even today it occasionally pops up in comedy shows, talk shows and newspaper articles, even though most people have no idea of its origin. Hemsley's ability to imitate children's voices was so convincing that many listeners were fooled that he was talking to actual children. Even when listening to his recordings today - and with preconceived knowledge that he is doing the voices on his own - his imitations sound extraordinarily believable.


'Ovaltiney's Own Comic' from 3 July 1937, presumably with art by S.K. Perkins.

Ovaltiney's Own Comic
'Ovaltiney's Concert Party' was so popular that a fanclub was established. By 1939 it already had about 5 million members! Hemsley was actively involved with the merchandising spin-offs. While his radio family were invisible characters, he drew official portraits to be used for publicity spots and a spin-off comics magazine, Ovaltiney's Own Comic. The first issue was published in 1935 by Target Publications in London. Each issue was four pages long, and distributed as a giveaway with comics magazines like Rattler, Dazzler, Chuckler and Rocket. Ovaltiney's Own Comic featured cartoons and comics by artists like Harry Banger, Bert Hill, S.K. Perkins and G. Larkman, and perhaps also Hemsley himself. Publisher Louis Diamond also wrote and drew contributions. Although Ovaltiney's Own Comic was based on a media craze it had a longer lifespan than most magazines in that genre. It ran up to 128 issues before its eventual cancellation in 1938.

Later career
Hemsley also wrote and illustrated several picture books based on the show. Among them: 'Harry Hemsley's Stories for Children' (1938), 'All About Horace, Not Forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny' (1938), 'Horace at the Zoo, Not Forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny' (1944), 'Horace on the Farm, Not Forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny' (1946), 'Horace and the BBC, Not Forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny' (1948) and 'Wireless Songs That Winnie Sings' (1948). He furthermore published a poetry book, 'Imagination' (1939) with illustrations by H.M. Brock, and books like 'Harry Hemsley's Songs For Children' (1941), '16 Recitations for Children or Child Impersonators' (1941) and 'Harry Hemsley's Painting Book' (1942). The versatile artist kept performing on stage, in short films, on children's records and early television broadcasts. Hemsley even ventured into animation. In 1940 he made a rudimentary animated short in which his characters promote Rinso laundry soap. In 1951 Hemsley suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital but nevertheless died the next day at the age of 73.


From: 'Harry Hemsley's Stories for Children'.

Harry Hemsley at Vintage British Comedy

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