Morecambe showbiz legend, pantomime dame and Harry Hill’s TV dad dies at 86

Ronne Coyles starring in Red Riding Hood at the Floral Hall in Southport in 1999.
Ronne Coyles starring in Red Riding Hood at the Floral Hall in Southport in 1999.

One of Morecambe’s greatest ever showbiz stars has died aged 86 – leaving a kind gesture by his TV celebrity friend sadly unfulfilled.

Ronné Coyles was due to move into a renowned nursing home for retired entertainers thanks to his television co-star, comedian Harry Hill.

Ronne working with his friend, TV ventriloquist the late Keith Harris and Orville the duck.

Ronne working with his friend, TV ventriloquist the late Keith Harris and Orville the duck.

But Ronné, who suffered a stroke before Christmas, passed away in hospital on Friday just days before he was due to move into Brinsworth House in London.

The beautiful Twickenham mansion house is funded by the Royal Variety Performance and many famous stars of stage and screen have lived there, including the late Dame Thora Hird who was also from Morecambe.

Ronné enjoyed a renaissance to his 70-year showbiz career when he appeared on the comedian’s TV shows ‘Harry Hill’s TV Burp’, ‘The Harry Hill Show’ and ‘Shark Infested Custard’ in the noughties – sometimes playing the part of Harry’s dad.

Paying tribute to his friend, Harry said: “He was a great bloke. He used to send me postcards. I used to write to him and start with ‘Dear Dad’.

“I knew he was living on his own in Morecambe and was getting more frail and I know the guy who runs the Royal Variety charity.

“Ronné was due to go in there today (Tuesday).

“He was always smiling and he loved showbusiness. I had great respect for him as a performer and he was a great guy.”

Ronné was also famed as a pantomime dame who worked at theatres around the country for nearly seven decades.

He was also known for his fancy dress shop in Morecambe and in the 1970s and 80s was resident entertainer at the town’s Palace Theatre.

He also appeared on the Michael Barrymore TV show and worked with everyone from The Beatles to Dame Barbara Windsor.

But in his later years, he became more reclusive following the death of his life partner and business manager, Bob Pettigrew, and after he had to retire from showbusiness due to ill-health.

He had a stroke at the beginning of December.

Friends found him collapsed in his flat on Nicholson Crescent in Morecambe when they became concerned that he’d not been for his daily walk to collect his newspaper.

He went into hospital but his nephew Rob Coulson said he never really recovered.

“It did lift his spirits when he received cards from Barbara Windsor and (TV ventriloquist) Keith Harris’ widow wishing him a merry Christmas,” said Rob.

“I visited him in hospital and he was very down and uncommunicative. But when my little daughter started talking to him about Harry Hill it really lifted him. He had so much respect for Harry.”

Ronné is survived by his brother Jack and sisters Hilda, Glennis and Vivian. Funeral arrangements are to be confirmed.

GREG LAMBERT looks back at the life of the great Ronné Coyles.

Few people can truly lay claim to the title of ‘Mr Morecambe’.

But Ronné Coyles could more than most, thanks to the highest possible endorsement.

Ronné used to tell a story about how Eric Morecambe gave him the moniker when the comedian came to switch on the town’s Illuminations in the mid-70s.

“I said to him, ‘You’re Mr Morecambe’,” said Ronné.

“But he said ‘No, YOU’RE Mr Morecambe, you’ve done more for Morecambe than I ever did’”.

Eric said this with good reason.

Ronné Coyles was one of the town’s most beloved entertainers of all-time.

His death at the age of 86 comes after a lifetime of bringing smiles to millions of faces.

Whether he was performing as a song and dance man, as a pantomime dame for almost seven decades, or in later years as comedian Harry Hill’s TV dad, pint-sized Ronné was a consummate professional and a true gentleman.

Ronné was born on March 9 1930 in Blyth, Northumberland; the second of six children.

He started in showbiz at the age of 14 as a boy soprano.

In his early years he tried his hand at everything from juggling with blocks of ice to being a trapeze artist.

As a young man, Ronné also appeared in films made at Ealing Studios in the 1940s including ‘Grand Escapade’ and ‘Nothing Venture’.

One of his main skills was as a tap dancer. Even in his later years Ronné could dance at a rapid and exhausting rate.

Harry Hill tells a story of how Ronné was always first on the dance floor at the ‘wrap party’ for his TV show and has a clear memory of a sprightly Mr Coyles dancing with Rick Parfitt from Status Quo!

But he really made his name as a pantomime dame. Every year for almost 70 years he worked in panto at theatres all over the country, alongside big showbiz names like Dame Barbara Windsor and Keith Harris and Orville.

The story of how Ronné first came to Morecambe can be traced back to 1964 when he was appearing in a Blackpool show alongside Johnny Ball (Zoe Ball’s father).

Morecambe impresario Archie Collis came to see Ronné afterwards and asked him to compere a summer season cabaret show at the Empire Buildings in the town.

Ronné came to Morecambe in 1965 and his season at the Ocean Room was such a success he was invited back the following year.

At the end of his second season Ronné’s life partner and manager Bob Pettigrew persuaded him to move from London to live permanently in the town.

They bought a flat in Nicholson Crescent, Morecambe, where Ronné remained until his final days.

Ronné used to joke: “Ken Dodd came here one year to do a charity show and he said ‘Morecambe must be all right because Ronné Coyles came here to do a show and he stayed!’”

In 1972 Sybil Sheldon, the owner of the Palace Theatre on the Battery Promenade, asked Ronné to top the bill at a new variety revue show.

He stayed for 10 years as resident entertainer and loved every minute.

Every year from May to October audiences would flock to the Palace to see Ronné in everything from lavish song and dance productions to stand-up comedy.

At its peak the Palace would run three shows a week, all hosted by Ronné, called ‘This is Showbusiness’, ‘This is Music Hall’ and ‘This is Command Performance’.

Ronné also appeared in panto at the Palace on five occasions, working alongside Morecambe dance choreographer Joyce Warrington.

After Ronné finished at the Palace in 1982 he and Bob opened up a costume shop in the West End of Morecambe.

‘Ronné Coyles Fancy Dress Hire’ remained on Lancashire Street, down the side of The Carleton, until 2004 when the shop closed and he sold his stock of costumes to the owners of the Fancy That fancy dress shop on Pedder Street.

In 2001 Ronné enjoyed an unlikely renaissance as the diminutive sidekick of Harry Hill, playing the TV comedian’s dad on a series of ITV programmes.

Ronné appeared in comic sketches dressed up as everyone from Noel Gallagher to the Queen.

He loved every second of being Harry’s little sidekick and was so proud of his TV fame in the twilight of his career.

When The Visitor introduced its Sunshine Awards in 2010, there was nobody more fitting than Ronné to be the recipient of our first Personality Award for services to Morecambe.

In his later years Ronné kept himself to himself but always had a kind word for friends and neighbours, and for passers-by when on his daily walk down South Road to collect his paper.

The town never forgot Ronné and it was appropriate that in 2016, a mosaic of him was produced for use in the Victoria Street art project.

Ronné was a great all-round, old-style entertainer who was versatile enough to work across many decades in many different forms of variety.

I will remember him as a humble, polite and friendly man who was also a fantastic storyteller.

He once told me a story about the time he met Princess Margaret at the New Theatre in Cardiff in 1983.

“I was playing the Queen of Hearts and I had this wig on which was about a mile high.

“We were all being introduced to her and as she was getting nearer I said to Keith Harris and Bobby Crush ‘I’m the dame, should I bow or curtsey?’

“I took her hand and I bowed but I forgot about the wig. It fell off and nearly hit her.

“As she screamed two detectives rushed forward because they thought I was attacking her.

“But I managed to get the wig back on and the place erupted in laughter!”

That is how I will remember Ronné. He was one of a kind and will be very sadly missed.