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|Born||Rodney Stephen Hull
13 August 1935
Isle of Sheppey, Kent, England
|Died||17 March 1999
Winchelsea, East Sussex, England
|Cause of death||Severe skull fracture
Rodney Stephen Hull (13 August 1935 – 17 March 1999), better known as Rod Hull, was a popular entertainer on British television in the 1970s and 1980s. He rarely appeared without Emu, a mute, highly aggressive arm-length puppet of the flightless emu bird.
Hull was born in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, England in 1935. He attended Delemark Road School and the County Technical School, Sheerness. After national service with the RAF, he qualified as an electrician. He married his first wife Sandra in 1958; they had two daughters, Deborah and Danielle.
His first job in television was as a lighting technician with TCN Channel 9 in Sydney, after moving to Australia. He then began appearing on air, notably as Constable Clot in Channel 9's Kaper Kops with Reg Gorman and Desmond Tester, a regular segment in its children's afternoon programming. Clot proved very popular and soon gained his own segment, Clot in the Clouds, which depicted Constable Clot daydreaming about having other professions, such as a world famous brain surgeon, 'Blood Clot'.
Later he worked with Marilyn Mayo as co-host of a children's breakfast TV programme, The Super Flying Fun Show, playing a wacky character named 'Caretaker Clot', an extension of his Kaper Kops role. Hull first used Emu as a puppet in this show. There are conflicting reports as to how this came about: Hull stated, "Sure I found him in a cupboard but I had put him there in the first place. I concocted him, nobody else." However, a Channel Nine producer, Jim Badger, recalled that he had requested a reluctant Hull to use Emu. The bird subsequently became a regular part of Hull's set on cabarets back in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Hull returned to Britain in 1971 and signed with International Artists (after Emu tore up the office). Soon after, his Australian success translated to his native country with Hull appearing on several children's and adult light entertainment shows.
Hull's puppet represented a side of his personality that enabled the entertainer to create a kind of gleeful havoc, while not seemingly being to blame for it. This was aided by the simple yet effective conceit of a false arm attached to Hull's jacket, which cradled the emu, therefore making it appear that the neck and head moved of its own volition. This seemingly independent movement gave the illusion that the bird had its own personality, which entailed sudden, unprovoked attacks on anyone and anything that came too close. During these, Hull would make half-hearted attempts to pull the badly-behaved bird away from its victim but would often become embroiled in the fracas, rolling around on the floor to create a scene of mayhem.
When Hull left The Super Flying Fun Show and Australia, a duplicate of Emu was made so the character could continue on the show, much to Hull's annoyance, and comedian Marty Morton took over Hull's co-hosting position in Australia.
There were apparently no boundaries for Emu's outrageous behaviour. In 1972, it destroyed The Queen Mother's bouquet of flowers during the after-show line-up at the aforementioned Royal Variety Performance, after which he appeared in many other shows. During 1976 Hull and the uncontrollable Emu made their most famous appearances when Emu repeatedly attacked Michael Parkinson during his eponymous chat show, eventually causing the interviewer to fall off his chair. Fellow guest Billy Connolly threatened, "If that bird comes anywhere near me, I'll break its neck and your bloody arm!". Perhaps mindful of his professional future, Hull swiftly got his "pet" back on best behaviour. In later years, Parkinson lamented the fact that despite all the star guests he had interviewed during his career, he would always be remembered for "that bloody bird".
In 1985 he travelled to America where he appeared on The Tonight Show, attacking Johnny Carson, even after he was told not to by the producers, and Richard Pryor in one of the comedian's first public appearances after undergoing major emergency reconstructive surgery on his face. This led to appearing on The Half hour comedy hour created by Burt Reynolds.
In the late 1980s Hull bought Restoration House in Rochester for £270,000 but the cost of renovations and an unpaid tax bill resulted in bankruptcy in 1994. Hull's second wife Cher Hylton-Hull already had a daughter, Karina, and the couple had three children together: Toby, Amelia and Oliver. Cher, who had been instrumental in his success, moved the family to her home country of Australia, while Hull remained in England, and moved to a shepherd's cottage in East Sussex.
Hull was in the public eye less frequently during the 1990s, appearing in pantomime and television commercials, and winning the 1993 "Pipe Smoker of the Year" award. Nonetheless, his name remained well-known, and comedians Richard Herring and Stewart Lee included a "false Rod Hull" character in their 1996 television sketch show, Fist of Fun, played by Kevin Eldon. This character was performed as a grotesque imitation, a character who was finally unmasked by the real Rod Hull, who appeared (minus Emu) in the last episode of the series. It was to be Hull's penultimate television appearance.
A 2003 Channel 4 documentary, Rod Hull: A Bird in the Hand, revealed that Hull nursed an increasing resentment towards his puppet, believing that the success of the bird prevented him from pursuing other avenues in show business. He saw himself, according to the makers of the programme, as a talented performer who could have developed a more varied career in the entertainment industry had he not been repeatedly forced to play the 'and Emu' role. Hull once complained, "I want to write but Emu doesn't leave me the time. I want to be a comedian in my own right, but again Emu won't let me do it."
On 17 March 1999, Hull climbed onto the roof of his house in Winchelsea, near Rye, to adjust his television aerial during the Champions League football match between Internazionale and Manchester United. In his attempt to improve reception, he slipped from the roof and fell through an adjoining greenhouse. The 63-year-old entertainer suffered a severe skull fracture and chest injuries. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Conquest Hospital in Hastings. Following an inquest, the East Sussex Coroner, Alan Craze, recorded a verdict of accidental death.
Prior to Hull's death, Lee and Herring had planned to revive their "false Rod Hull" character for their contemporary series, This Morning with Richard Not Judy, but although they filmed several sketches – in which the character would die after performing a pointless stunt – the footage was never used. Instead, the final episode of the second and final series of This Morning with Richard Not Judy concluded with a post-credits sketch featuring Kevin Eldon's Rod Hull character, fading out to a simple dedication reading "This series is dedicated to Rod Hull".
Upon Hull's death, Michael Parkinson reminisced that he had found him to be "a very charming, intelligent and sensitive man–quite unlike the Emu." He observed that the puppet "was the dark side of Rod's personality, and very funny, provided it was not on top of you."
His son Toby brought Emu out of retirement for the first time since his father's death during the 2003 pantomime season, appearing in Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. Toby Hull and Emu now appear in their own series on CITV.
- Bernie Clifton, contemporary comedian with ostrich puppet based comedy routine
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