Rodney Stephen Hull (13 August 1935 – 17 March 1999), better known as Rod Hull, was a popular entertainer on British television in the 1970s and 1980s. He rarely appeared without Emu, a mute, highly aggressive arm-length puppet of such a bird. However, Hull was careful to tailor its conduct according to his audience, and always ensured that it displayed a friendly demeanour when in the company of children.
Hull was born in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, England in 1935. He attended Delemark Road School and the County Technical School, Sheerness. When he left school, he trained as an electrician but moved to Australia in the early 1960s.
His first job in television was as a lighting technician with TCN Channel Nine in Sydney. He then began appearing on-air, notably as Constable Clot in Channel Nine's Kaper Kops, a regular segment in its children's afternoon programming. Clot proved very popular and soon gained his own segment, Clot in the Clouds, which depicted Constable Clot daydreaming about having other professions, such as a world famous brain surgeon, 'Blood Clot'.
Later he worked as co-host of a children's breakfast TV programme, The Super Flying Fun Show, playing a wacky character named 'Caretaker Clot', an extension of his Kaper Kops role. Hull first used Emu as a puppet in this show. There are conflicting reports as to how this came about: Hull stated, "Sure I found him in a cupboard but I had put him there in the first place. I concocted him, nobody else." However, a Channel Nine producer, Jim Badger, recalled that he had requested a reluctant Hull to use Emu. The bird subsequently became a regular part of Hull's set on cabarets back in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Hull returned to Britain in 1971 and signed with International Artists (after Emu tore up the office). Soon after, his Australian success translated to his native country with Hull appearing on several children's and adult light entertainment shows.
He began on an ITV show, Saturday Variety, but it was his appearance in the 1972 Royal Variety Performance that provided his springboard to national recognition.
Hull's puppet represented a side of his personality that enabled the entertainer to create a kind of gleeful havoc, while seemingly being not to blame for it. This was aided by the simple yet effective conceit of a false arm attached to Hull's jacket, which cradled the emu, therefore making it appear that the neck and head moved of its own volition. This seemingly independent movement gave the illusion that the bird had its own personality, which entailed sudden, unprovoked and aggressive attacks on anyone and anything that came too close. During these, Hull would make half-hearted attempts to pull the badly-behaved bird away from its victim but would often become embroiled in the fracas, rolling around on the floor to create a scene of mayhem.
When Hull left The Super Flying Fun Show and Australia, a duplicate of Emu was made so the character could continue on the show, much to Hull's annoyance. Comedian Martin "Marty" Morton took over Hull's co-hosting position and, in Australia, became almost as well-associated with Emu as its originator.
It was during the 1970s that Hull and the uncontrollable Emu made their most famous appearances. The bird repeatedly attacked Michael Parkinson during a 1976 edition of his eponymous chat show, eventually causing the interviewer to fall off his chair. Fellow guest Billy Connolly threatened, "If that bird comes anywhere near me, I'll break its neck and your bloody arm!". Perhaps mindful of his professional future, Hull swiftly got his "pet" back on best behaviour. In later years, Parkinson always lamented the fact that despite all the star guests he had interviewed during his career, he would always be remembered for "that bloody bird".
There were no apparent boundaries for Emu's outrageous behaviour. In 1972, it ate The Queen Mother's bouquet of flowers during the after-show line-up at the aforementioned Royal Variety Performance. During an appearance on The Tonight Show, he even attacked Richard Pryor in one of the comedian's first public appearances after undergoing major emergency reconstructive surgery on his face. Hull and Emu were regulars on the Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, which aired for one season as a Saturday morning kids' show on CBS in 1974.
During the 1980s Hull was a multi-millionaire, thanks to his anarchic puppet, and enjoyed huge success with Emu's World and Emu's All Live Pink Windmill Show. The record viewership for his main show, Emu's Broadcasting Company (1975–1980), was 11 million. However, he later suffered financial difficulties and was declared bankrupt in 1994.
In the late 1980s Hull bought Restoration House in Rochester for £387,000, but went bankrupt renovating it. The house was repossessed, Hull's Australian wife left him and he moved to a shepherd's cottage in East Sussex.
Hull was in the public eye less frequently during the 1990s, appearing in pantomime and television commercials, and winning the 1993 "Pipe Smoker of the Year" award. Nonetheless, his name remained well-known.
A 2003 Channel 4 documentary, Rod Hull: A Bird in the Hand, revealed that Hull nursed an increasing resentment towards his puppet, believing that the success of the bird prevented him from pursuing other avenues in showbusiness. He saw himself, according to the programme-makers, as a talented performer who could have developed a more varied career in the entertainment industry had he not been forced to repeatedly play the '& Emu' role. Hull once complained, "I want to write but Emu doesn't leave me the time. I want to be a comedian in my own right, but again Emu won't let me do it."
Hull married twice and had five children. He died in March 1999, at the age of 63. Six weeks after he died, following an inquest, the East Sussex Coroner, Alan Craze, recorded a verdict of accidental death. Hull died following a fall from the roof of his home at Winchelsea, near Rye; he was attempting to adjust the TV aerial in order to get a better picture of the Inter Milan v Manchester United Champions League Quarter Final, 2nd Leg. He fell through the adjoining greenhouse and subsequently died as a result of a massive skull fracture and chest injuries.
Upon Hull's death, Michael Parkinson reminisced that he had found him to be "a very charming, intelligent and sensitive man — quite unlike the Emu." He observed that the puppet "was the dark side of Rod's personality, and very funny, provided it was not on top of you."
His son Toby brought Emu out of retirement for the first time since his father's death during the 2003 pantomime season, appearing in Cinderella at Windsor's Theatre Royal. Toby Hull and Emu now appear in their own series on CITV.