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Rod Hull and Emu: A Bird In The Hand

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Rod Hull and Emu A Bird in the Hand

During the 1970s and 80s Rod Hull was a top ranking star of British showbiz, the darling of the chat show circuit and a multi-millionaire. His slapstick routine with an over-sized glove puppet made of raffia was an unlikely success that took him to Hollywood and back. But when he died he was worth less than £2,000.

In February 1999 Rod Hull was booked for what would turn out to be his last gig. The man who once pulled in television audiences of 11 million was paid just £500 to perform at a 30th birthday bash in a London bar. Rod’s declining years were spent eking out a living, surviving on a meagre income from occasional bookings with a sidekick that he’d come to hate. One month later he was dead, killed in a bizarre accident that put him back in the headlines for the very last time.

Rod’s first TV success came in Australia, even appearing in Skippy in the 1960s. Around this time, Rod found Emu, a discarded puppet, in the props cupboard at Channel 9. The discovery changed Rod’s life forever and led him back to England. By the early 1970s Rod was signed to one of London’s leading showbiz agents and was a sought-after TV regular. 18 million viewers saw him perform in front of the Queen Mother at the 1972 Royal Variety Performance, and he became one of the most recognisable faces in TV. His brand of anti-establishment anarchy made him headline news.

The BBC gave him his own children’s TV series, but his newfound celebrity came at a price. Emu brought Rod huge success in children’s TV, but as a mainstream act he was all too aware that he was seen as the straight man behind the anarchic bird. Rod enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the puppet, increasingly seeing the emu as an albatross. His famous 1976 appearance on Parkinson bound the two together more closely than ever.

By the mid 1980s Rod was making big money through television, merchandising and adverts. He even made it on to the highest-rating talk show in the world, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Rod was invited to Kensington Palace to make a private appearance at Prince William’s fourth birthday party. But stardom gave Rod an inflated sense of self-importance. He longed to be taken seriously, to be thought of as more than the man behind the emu.

In 1988 with Rod’s expenditure at an all-time high, ITV executives axed his show. It was a financial disaster and the recession hit him particularly hard. By the early 1990s Rod Hull had not been on TV for three years. He worked long hours for low pay on the variety circuit in an attempt to pay off his huge debts. On the 8th September 1994, Rod was officially declared bankrupt and his magnificent Elizabethan mansion repossessed. Worse was to follow when he parted from his second wife. In a few short months Rod had lost his home and his family, he was left in England with Emu, the one thing he didn’t want to hold on to.

He moved to a small cottage on the Kent/Sussex border, where he could just about afford the £20 a week rent. His new lifestyle was simple and self-sufficient, but he still had to work and survive, and this meant unpacking the hated Emu and heading back on the road.

Rod died after falling from the roof of his house trying to adjust the aerial to get a better signal for a Manchester United game. When he was buried in small graveyard in the middle of his favourite golf course, a large number of mystery mourners – women – attended the funeral. Rod Hull managed to squeeze a 25-year career out of his brilliant 10-minute act, and though he came to hate Emu, the mischievous pair’s antics were loved by millions. And if people sometimes forgot that he was the talent behind the bird, he still enjoyed a privileged and successful life. In the end, the price he had to pay was to live in the shadow of a puppet called Emu.

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