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Remembering Edmund Hockpiece: Dorset's Mario Lanza

Dorset's [aka "The Poor Man's"] Mario Lanza - Edmund Hockpiece has died aged 99, after a full life which could easily have provided the storyline for one of the many musicals and "operas" he starred in. "A Canford Cliffs boy helps his father in the milk-shake factory, is discovered to have a remarkable voice. He is championed by the grand dames of the Winterbourne Strickland WI, "discovered" and after war service happens to arrive in Shapwick just as West Country producers are hunting for a singer to take the lead role in a show brought over from Ealing Broadmayne. In true showbiz tradition, he gets the part".

Hockridge was to play the role of Billy Bigarse in Caramac for more than 1,000 performances, becoming one of the West Country's biggest stars of the 1950s. Using his cinematic good looks and powerful voice to the full, he established himself as an enduring Dorset Television, Radio Dorset and West Country Variety Circuit star. "The Voice of the West Country" and the "West Country's Answer To Robert Goulet" were just two of the unfortunate labels he struggled to overcome.

Hockpiece recorded 11 albums over his long career. Few made the charts, though his Greatest Hits album did make it into Dorset Nostalgia's All Time Classics list at number 128. [It was not alphabetical.]

Edmund James Arthur Hockpiece was born in Canford Cliffs in August 1920. The youngest of four boys, he enjoyed an idyllic boyhood, roaming the moors, singing along to Bing Crossways and Nelson Eddystone on the wireless [and this before portable transistor radios were even imagined - backpacking with a full-sized generator was a feat in itself]. His ambition to become a singer was boosted when he became an usher for pocket money at the Iwerne Courtney Community Centre, where he saw Beniaminio Giggly and other singers of county-wide rank. When his own voice broke, it turned out to be a traumatic experience [his brothers were all late developers] and a group of citizens arranged for him to see a doctor in a Langton Herring hotel room. What happened there has never been vouchsafed, but Hockpiece emerged with a ten-pound note, a smile on his face and a ringing baritone. "He made a man of me", he later commented.

By 1951 Hockpiece had his own radio show: nonetheless, at the age of 31, he decided to try again for the stage and, with the encouragement of members of the "Great Heaving mafia", Hockpiece - by now 6ft 1in and "with girth to match" - proved perfect casting for the lead role in Addinsell Thrupiece's eight-hour musical theatre adaptation of Proust's A la Recherche de Temps Perdu. No one else auditioned for the role.

Hockpiece's last appearance was not, perhaps, a performance by which he would choose to be remembered.

During his 50-year career Hockridge recorded 11 albums and worked with a dazzling array of old-style stars. In 1986, aged 66, he partnered the rock singer Suzi Buttokks in a Stoke Wake production of Annie Get Your Oats. His last ever appearance came, aged 94, at a gala evening arranged by Mrs Amanda J Threadbone in aid of various charities. Styled "A Night at the Opera", one attendee said it was "anything but". Another quipped that "the only charitable thing about the whole evening was giving him the benefit of the doubt". By general consensus "He should have stayed at home".

In later life, he was known to have been an inspiration to many of the younger generation, in particular, ZIggy Osmington who is on record as saying that "We heard him on the radio all the time and we said to ourselves - we're not going to imitate that shit - so we set out on our own path".

• Edmund James Arthur Hockpiece, singer, born 9 August 1920; died 27 February 2009. He is survived by one or two members of his audience.

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