From The Times
June 6, 2008
Obituary: Jonathan Routh
Prankster who was one of the leading spirits behind the immensely successful television hoax programme Candid Camera
Jonathan Routh was a supreme practical joker and hoaxer whose star reached its zenith with Candid Camera, the hugely successful Sixties television series in which unsuspecting members of the public were duped into making fools of themselves while filmed with a hidden camera, to the delight of viewers. It was one of the earliest examples of television voyeurism.
Routh was also a primitive artist and an author who led a charmed, eccentric, bohemian life in which, by his own admission, he relied heavily on the kindness of wealthy friends, living in a succession of smart addresses and eating at the best restaurants. “I have never had any money. Never,” he once confessed.
Candid Camera — a concept imported from America and the forerunner of Game for a Laugh and Beadle’s About — was presented by Bob Monkhouse, with the lugubrious, beetle-browed Routh and Arthur Atkins as the pranksters who would spook hapless participants with talking pillar boxes and cars without engines. Jennifer Paterson, who later found success in the cookery show Two Fat Ladies, would sometimes nudge victims into shot while disguised as a cleaner.
A tailor was persuaded to make a suit for a chimpanzee. Tourists were coerced into propping up a “leaning” Nelson’s Column. Once Routh dressed up as a tree, stood at a bus stop and asked: “Does this bus go to Sherwood Forest?” On another occasion, he stuck his head out of a coal hole and told passers-by that he was looking for Baker Street Underground station. It was innocent stuff by today’s standards, but considered frightfully daring at the time.
Among his most celebrated hoaxes was posing as a driving instructor and demonstrating to a nervous woman pupil the proper way to drive. He crashed four times in five minutes. On another occasion he dumbfounded an airline receptionist by removing the wheels of her car, painting the windows and taking out the seats when she called at a garage for two gallons of petrol.
Routh once organised a “silent recital” by “an unknown Hungarian pianist” at the Wigmore Hall. “Tomas Blod” performed “Transmogrifications, Opus 37, by Sandal” in which he sat at the piano and played not a note. Routh thought it “a quiet success”.
On another occasion he posted himself from Sheepwash, Devon, to the offices of the Daily Mail in Fleet Street, claiming that he was too scared to go to London on his own. As “livestock”, parcels had to be accompanied at all times, he was put in a postman’s care for the duration of the journey and delivered for £2. The postman was silent throughout. Routh thought this episode demonstrated the height of English tolerance and good manners.
John Reginald Surdeval Routh was born in 1927 and spent part of his childhood in Palestine where his father was a colonial governor. He was educated at Uppingham School, from which he was expelled for putting up a banner in the chapel which read: “Vote Routh, Communist”, while campaigning in a mock election. He read history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, revived the moribund Footlights Dramatic Society and edited Granta, one edition of which was described by a chaplain as “the most obscene item I have ever seen in print”. As an indication of things to come, Routh took a group of undergraduates off to “measure” Bletchley for a bypass, and then collected signatures condemning the fake proposal. After 18 months or so he was invited to leave Cambridge.
Finding himself at a loose end, Routh, who by this time had changed his first name to Jonathan, invented Jeremy Feeble, an 18th-century poet whom he contrived to get mentioned in the Times Literary Supplement and on the BBC Third Programme.
His first job was as showbusiness editor of the now-defunct Everybody’s Magazine, which published a piece he filed from India in 1951 while on location with Jean Renoir, who was filming The River. He wrote that shooting had to be suspended when the cast was struck down by “dhoti rash, a virulent infection contracted from low-caste washerwomen”.
This job was followed by a spell as “Candid Mike” on Radio Luxembourg. In one broadcast he conducted a bizarre conversation with a London Transport inspector who had caught him travelling with a grand piano on the Underground.
Candid Camera was launched on an unsuspecting public in 1960 and became an instant success with viewers, who relished the misfortunes of Routh’s hapless victims. In the first programme he pushed an engineless car into a garage and told the mechanic that it had just broken down. The garage man opened the bonnet to find nothing there. Routh played dumb. Utterly bewildered, the mechanic then looked under the car and in the boot before summoning his mates to see if he’d missed something. Eventually, one of them pronounced to general astonishment that, indeed, there was no engine.
The programme ran until 1967 and turned Routh, with his distinctive simian features, dark, brooding eyebrows and deadpan expression, into a familiar figure. Not all the stunts went according to plan. On one occasion Routh, who for all his fearlessness was a gentle man, was given a black eye by an irate friend of a victim to whom he had just sold two “left-handed teacups” in a Shepherds Bush hardware shop.
When Candid Camera came to an end he turned his hand to writing potboilers. He had already written his autobiography, The Little Men in My Life, in 1953. The Good Loo Guide was a tongue-in-cheek if meticulous appraisal of the best and worst of the capital’s public lavatories. The Guide Porcelaine to the Loos of Paris and The Better John Guide to those of New York, written with Serena Stewart, followed. Other books included one on hangovers; a book on disasters entitled So You Think You’ve Got Problems; and Leonardo’s Kitchen Note Book, “translated” with his second wife, Shelagh, and based on the premise that all the machines in drawings by the Old Master were for making pasta.
Routh also discovered a talent for naive painting. He restricted his subject matter principally to Queen Victoria and nuns because, he said, “faces, arms and legs were beyond me”. For Victoria he created imaginary journeys that she undertook to exotic places such as Jamaica, where Routh eventually settled as a semi-recluse.
Nuns were depicted drinking Coca-Cola, bouncing on trampolines, being shot from cannons, driving racing cars, flying balloons and picnicking in the jungle. The pictures were incorporated into a succession of children’s books, including The Nuns Go to Africa, The Nuns Go to Penguin Island, and Jamaica Holiday: The Secret Life of Queen Victoria. There were also a number of Mona Lisa paintings, showing her naked, drinking tea, smoking a cigarette and holding a tin of spaghetti.
Routh had small parts in several films including Casino Royale (1967) and 30 is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia (1968).
In 1976 there was a short-lived attempt to revive Candid Camera, which was retitled Nice Time and starred Routh, Kenny Everett and a coquettish Germaine Greer. But viewers had tired of the format.
In 1948 he married Nandi Heckroth, a film costume designer, the daughter of Hein Heckroth, the German Oscar-winning film-production designer and painter. Their marriage foundered in 1969 when Routh took up with Eileen “Bobbie” Hamlyn, wife of the publishing magnate Paul Hamlyn. Divorced by her husband in the same year Mrs Hamlyn committed suicide in 1971 after Routh left her for the wealthy heiress Olga Deterding. Nandi Routh died at the wheel of her car when it hit a tree in 1972.
Like Routh, Deterding was a bohemian, but lived in style in a penthouse triplex overlooking the Ritz hotel in Piccadilly. Routh moved in, along with a flock of stuffed sheep which he kept in the sitting room. He would sometimes put on a chauffeur’s cap and drive Deterding around London in her Rolls-Royce. “We went round the world several times,” he said. “There was a lot she wanted to see. I liked that idea of ‘let’s go to Africa tomorrow’.”
But their relationship was far from serene. She once summoned the police to have him thrown out after he suggested lighting a “Boy Scout fire” in the middle of the floor. Routh eventually left to continue his social butterfly existence among London’s smart addresses. In 1975 he married Shelagh Marvin, a film star publicist, and they settled, for a time, in Rome. Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve 1979, Olga Deterding, now dependent on drugs, died with a champagne glass in her hand, having apparently choked to death on a piece of food in a restaurant. That same evening Routh and his wife, fearing for her state of mind, had come up to London to try to reach her, without success.
In 1980 Routh and his wife moved permanently to Jamaica to live in a three-roomed wooden hut, with no mains water, electricity or telephone, overlooking the sea, west of Montego Bay. It was a typically eccentric set-up where anything up to a dozen local children from overburdened families were sometimes given a temporary home. Routh would paint in an octagonal studio that he built next to the hut, heedless of the rough and tumble all around him.
With no electric light, he would often rise at 5.30 and paint, with a break for lunch and a siesta, until dusk before heading off to discover what the evening might bring. “Mr Jonathan’s” not inconsiderable bar bills and restaurant bills were often paid for with a Queen Victoria picture. It became a pattern that every year in the European summer he and his wife would borrow a house in Tuscany, then spend a few weeks in London — the walls of his favourite restaurant, San Lorenzo in Beauchamp Place, are covered with his paintings.
The softly spoken Routh was an engaging, mischievous, social anarchist with an acute sense of the absurd and an iron nerve. He eschewed money, preferring to barter with his paintings, especially for restaurant meals, and remained entirely unworldly.
He is survived by his second wife and two sons from his first marriage.
Jonathan Routh, practical joker, broadcaster, painter and writer, was born on November 24, 1927. He died on June 4, 2008, aged 80
Broadcaster responsible for Candid Camera who wrote The Good Loo Guide and painted nuns.
Jonathan Routh, the broadcaster, artist and author who died on Wednesday aged 80, became Britain's first television prankster in 1960 when he co-starred in Candid Camera, the hidden camera show that became an ITV staple for the next seven years; he also wrote The Good Loo Guide (1968) and later became a prolific, albeit eccentric, painter.
In Candid Camera, Routh's hidden lens recorded the chaos resulting from carefully-planned comedy situations – for example, his search for Little Louis, a performing flea accidentally mislaid in a London taxi. Although Routh had imported the Candid Camera format from America, there was something essentially British about it. At its heart lay practical joking which, although often cruel, had been a national sport in the leisured days of the 18th and 19th centuries.
With the comedian Bob Monkhouse as host, Candid Camera made Routh a cult television figure as the deadpan agent provocateur with the hangdog aspect, iron nerve and beetle brows who preyed on the unsuspecting. Viewers sent in up to 1,000 ideas for hoaxes a week, most taken in good part by the unfortunate victims.
But sometimes Routh's hoaxes backfired. A former heavyweight boxer, Sid Richardson, gave him a black eye, and another unappreciative victim chased him with a crowbar. One show proved expensive for Monkhouse when he tried selling £5 notes for £4 10s [£4.50] in Blackpool. "I thought no one would buy them," he said, "they'd think the money was counterfeit.
"The only way I could persuade Candid Camera to try the idea was by offering to use my own money. Unfortunately, I did a roaring trade." In half an hour he was sold out and £50 out of pocket.
Usually, Routh's jokes were simple: a talking postbox, a goldfish apparently plucked from its tank and swallowed whole (it was actually a piece of carrot), a flower on a restaurant table that sucked up a diner's drink, or a woman struggling to handle cakes coming off a factory conveyor belt which, unknown to her, was running at twice – and, later, three times – its normal speed.
One of Routh's most memorable wheezes was aired in his first Candid Camera programme. A car was run down a gently sloping road into a garage where the attendant was asked to change the oil. When he opened the bonnet there was no engine. The bewildered mechanic looked under the car, in the boot, and even in the back seats, all to no avail.
The show became popular with criminals, who posed as Candid Camera staff to mask suspicious behaviour in the course of committing burglaries. On one occasion, Routh and his team were in typically furtive mode when a police car roared up; unknown to them, they had been filming near a bank and an alert onlooker had dialled 999. Routh subsequently took care to notify police when filming his practical jokes.
He was born John Reginald Surdeval Routh on November 24, 1927, in Gosport, Hampshire, the only son of a British Army colonel who could trace the family's origins back to one of William the Conqueror's knights. Brought up in Palestine, John won a scholarship to Uppingham, and in 1945 went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he read history, edited Granta and revived the Footlights dramatic society. He left after his first year without taking a degree, dabbled in journalism and became show business editor of Everybody's magazine. His early excursions into hoaxing included inventing a fictitious 18th-century poet, getting him mentioned in the Times Literary Supplement and in a talk on the BBC Third Programme, and trying, in a taxi, to transport a trunk inside which a man lay groaning; for this he was arrested twice.
For two years he presented Candid Microphone on Radio Luxembourg, and in 1957 Routh set up as a professional part-time hoaxer with an advertisement in The Times reading: "Practical joker with wide experience of British public's sad gullibility organises, leads, and guarantees success of large-scale hoaxes." By then he had already caused consternation by leaving a pair of shoes daily in Kensington public library, taking a grand piano for a ride on the Tube, and sending himself through the post to Wandsworth covered in £2-worth of stamps.
When Candid Camera ended in 1967, Routh teamed up with two television newcomers, the disc-jockey Kenny Everett and Germaine Greer, then a university lecturer, in Nice Time, a fast-paced entertainment show produced by John Birt. Candid Camera returned briefly in 1976, but it looked thin and unconvincing. Given Routh's (by now) famous looks ("Harpo Marx made up to play Dracula"), The Sunday Telegraph's television critic wondered why Routh's victims did not recognise their tormentor straight away.
Vexed by his lack of editorial control in his television career, in the Seventies Routh became what he called "an itinerant painter", dividing his time between Sardinia (summer), Rome (autumn), London (Christmas), Jamaica (winter) and Hampshire (spring), living mainly in the houses of wealthy friends and bartering or selling paintings to rich patrons.
Routh began by painting nuns, because he found them easy to draw, but depicted them in incongruous situations or postures – bouncing on trampolines, for example, or driving racing cars and flying balloons.
As his technical competence grew he turned to the Mona Lisa, producing his own variations, showing her with skirt drawn up to her thighs, perched on a stool smoking, or clutching a tin of Heinz spaghetti. Later he branched out into landscapes in a naïve style, often featuring Queen Victoria as a running joke. For the Italian market he substituted the Pope, depicting him water-skiing, wind surfing or even walking across the Spanish Steps on a tightrope.
Routh also produced a successful run of jokey books, starting with The Good Cuppa Guide (1966) and The Good Loo Guide, in which he awarded star ratings to teashops and public lavatories; he also produced versions of the latter for France and America. In The Secret Life of Queen Victoria (1979) he put out a spurious story that the monarch had paid a visit to Jamaica disguised as "Mrs King". Routh's illustrations showed her playing golf, water-skiing, using a hula-hoop ("Learning to Lose Weight with Dignity") and being fired into the sea from a cannon.
Jonathan Routh had two sons with his first wife, Nandi, from whom he had separated, and who died in 1973. From 1969 he lived with Eileen Hamlyn, the former wife of Paul Hamlyn. She committed suicide two years later, after Routh had run off with the Shell oil heiress Olga Deterding, with whom he had a five-year affair. His second wife, Shelagh, survives him.