From the mid-70s to the early 80s, English-born Chic Littlewood entertained a generation of New Zealand children with his genial and gentle afternoon TV shows Chicaboom and Chic Chat — bringing to them a flavour of the traditional variety shows that he'd honed his skills on. Initially a reluctant performer — and never comfortable adlibbing in private situations — Littlewood showed no hesitation at all in front of the cameras.
Born in South East London, he was christened Cecil, but never liked the name, opting instead for an abbreviated version of his father's nickname Chico. The closest the family came to show business was having Spike Milligan as one of their neighbours (when Spike was a member of a small time dance band).
Milligan would ultimately have a more direct impact on Littlewood's career. While listening to The Goons on the radio, he discovered his gift for mimicry. But he was painfully shy; his impressions remained a bedroom secret for many years. He hoped to become a graphic designer but it was beyond the family's resources, and he followed his father into bakery in an era when he says baking was an art rather than mass production. His baking career also led to his marriage: he met his future wife while they were working as cake icers.
Littlewood eventually overcame his shyness at a talent show at a Bognor Regis holiday camp — winning the competition with an Elvis impression. Next came a semi-professional contest appearing alongside Vera Lynn and Tommy Trinder, but he lost his chance of winning after getting tangled in the curtains making his entrance. His eventual performance did get him newspaper coverage, and offers of work in the East End. He came briefly into the orbit of gangsters and nightclub owners the Kray Twins, only discovering who they really were years later.
The teetotal Littlewood's pub performances brought him to the attention of the BBC. He was offered an audition, but he had already accepted assisted passage to a new life in New Zealand for himself, his wife and their two sons. It was tempting to stay in London but, he told the Women's Weekly, "I'm the sort of person who just goes with the tide. I've never cared about making big money or had any real ambitions. I'd never planned to go into show business."
After arriving in Auckland in 1964, he quickly found work as a baker, but the allure of show business remained and he approached the NZBC for an audition. He was referred to talent show Have a Shot where his performance resulted in a slot on Howard Morrison's variety show. Opportunities quickly followed for Littlewood and his Cockney persona Golf Cap Charlie. But the stresses of also working during the day took their toll. Aware that he was barely seeing his family — and after losing two stone — he gave up his day job and became a professional entertainer.
In 1967 Littlewood was given a guest spot on the Kevan Moore-produced The Late Show, where he made an impact portraying Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in a split screen performance (pre-recorded on one side and live on the other). A year later, he was a resident artist on the show alongside singers Allison Durbin and Bobby Davis. It required more singing, but he was always conscious of the need to be as versatile as possible if he was going to maintain his career.
In the early 70s Littlewood had a regular weekly slot as the caped Super Shopper in a series of commercials. In 1975 he made his debut as a serious actor, playing a Dalmatian gum digger in South Pacific television series The Immigrants.
In the same year he began his association with children's TV when Kevan Moore asked him to put together an after school programme for the newly launched South Pacific Television. The result was a Monday afternoon show called Now C Here; and he introduced a puppet dog Nowcy (which required mastering a semblance of ventriloquism). In 1976 the show was renamed Chicaboom. It ran five afternoons a week for half an hour (incorporating Romper Room with Miss Yvonne).
In 1978 Chicaboom became Chic Chat. Alma Woods was by now a regular guest, and new characters had been added. The irascible Scottish mouse Willie McNabb — who got 6000 plus letters the first five weeks the show was on air — and the McNabb family, the terrifying but unseen Producer, and Littlewood's own Gramps became household names for a generation of kids.
With the amalgamation of TV1 and SPTV in 1980, children's programming was dropped from the new TV2 and Chic Chat shifted to TV1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The shows ran on this basis through until 1983 — but after school television was changing, bringing with it a new, younger generation of presenters like Tracey Gunn and Philip Schofield. By the time Chic Chat finished, Littlewood estimated that he'd written and presented more than 500 shows.
In 1977 Litttlewood had become the first variety performer to win Entertainer of the Year (beating out Rob Guest, Annie Whittle and Toni Williams) and in 1979 his peers at the Variety Artists Club honoured him with their supreme gong, a Benny Award.
While his concert and cabaret work continued, Littlewood was now being seen on television as an actor, including an appearance as a navy captain on adventure series Sea Urchins. In 1993 he began a three year stint on Shortland Street playing Laurie Brasch, the policeman who marries Marj (Elizabeth McRae). His other roles included appearances on Mercy Peak and Hercules, and a comical turn as a devoted fan of the main character in Just Me and Mario. Littlewood was overjoyed to be given a part as a security guard in Peter Jackson's 2006 remake of King Kong.
In 2005 he starred in short film Changing of the Guards, playing a security guard who faces a robbery, the day before he is due to retire.
Littlewood passed away in Auckland on 11 January 2015. He was 84.
Profile written and researched by Michael Higgins
John Berry, 'New Team for Late Show' - Sunday News, 25 August 1968
Brenda Hawkes, 'Hobby a Passion for New Lynn Man' (Interview) - Western Leader, 25 March 1982, page 16
Mary Morrison, 'All the World Wants to Laugh' (Interview) - New Zealand Women's Weekly, 3 November 1975, page 14
Bruce Russell, 'Chicaboom host Chic Littlewood dies aged 84' Newstalk ZB website. Loaded 11 January 2015. Accessed 11 January 2015
Lesley Sly, 'Just Who Is Chic Littlewood?' (Interview) - Western Leader, 27 February 1973
Changing the Guards press kit