Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Neil Brand's original radio version of Stan

If you read the earlier post about Jeffrey Holland's Stan Laurel play I bring the happy news that the Neil Brand radio play, Stan, can now be heard on here.

I have to admit that I hadn't got around to listening to Stan until today - I mean, ever, even though I'd been presented with a CD of it. Having been put off by the TV version the original incarnation wasn't an immediately exciting prospect, despite a former colleague's praise.

Well, now I have heard it and she was right: it's very good indeed. The TV version isn't simply the radio script plus visuals but has been considerably reworked: we see scenes from the pair's past rather than their simply being recounted by the elderly Stan. Nothing wrong with that, but there's no doubt that the intimacy of the radio play, and in particular that feeling of luck and privilege in being magically present, unseen, at the last meeting of these two great clowns is diluted.

Hardy is an audible presence in the radio play, though mostly wordless, but in effect we are Hardy, listening to Stan trying to battle through the fog of his friend's illness. It is up close and personal, and even though it's my experience that radio producers often counsel that radio drama can be epic at considerably less expense than TV or film, Neil Brand's Stan is a powerful reminder that it also does intimate pretty darned well.

I don't know whether or not Neil Brand, or others involved, made the right decisions for television. Like they used to say on quiz shows, the radio play is yours, Mr Brand, we can't take it away from you. So why not treat the TV opportunity as something different? And since the studio-bound, shot-on-video drama seemed to go the way of all technology by the early 90s I'm not sure whether a general audience (as opposed to fans) would tolerate two men in a room talking for forty five minutes. Packaging it as a kind of mini-biopic may perhaps have been a contributory factor in the TV film being made; I don't know. But I do know that the radio version is the one to which I'll be returning - and not because of those jarring brahn eyes (I ask yer!) lodged in the sockets of  the telly actor playing the young Stan.

If you have read the Jeffrey Holland post then you will know that the premise is essentially the same for his stage play (well, actually written by, or in collaboration with, a playwright): Stan goes to visit his sick friend and partner.

Having seen the Holland play so recently, however, I have to say it's my impression that Brand has the edge. Holland's performance was great, and it's that which has left more of an impression than the play itself. Which was, I hasten to add, absolutely fine, only Brand feels more incisive. Comparisons - especially without the scripts to compare - may be unfair, however, and it could be said that Brand has the advantage of an extra texture to beguile his audience: we can go some way to interpreting Hardy's reactions from the noises he makes, as opposed to having to invent him purely out of the lines given to Laurel in the stage play. And he doesn't have to solicit laughter from the audience, or not in the same way. (I recall the creator of that great radio curmudgeon, Ed Reardon, explaining to an interviewer that the onstage version couldn't just be a worked-up radio script: the writing had to be different: larger, less subtle and designed to provoke solid laughs rather than fleeting wry smiles.)

Against that, when, at the end of his Jermyn Street Theatre performance, Holland motioned for the audience to applaud the bedframe which represented Hardy it felt right. And the sharing of an experience with a theatre audience is a different sort of intimacy from the one experienced via headphones. So I'm not really comparing like with like and ought to shut up and simply be grateful for the fact that so many people - writers and audiences in whatever medium - still care about, and want to understand, the men behind those unforgettable, loveable and supremely human idiots.

I read recently that there is going to be a proper feature film biopic, so in the fullness of time I may come back to this subject. But for now, please to imagine business with tie.

Oh, but I realise I have altogether forgotten to credit Tom Courtenay as the radio Stan. From my memory of a radio interview with Laurel in his later years the quaver in Courtenay's voice is a good fit. Which makes it rather annoying that on the BBC Radio Extra website the image on the page for the play is taken from the TV version, complete with brahn eyes for the actor playing Stan.

Ouch. Some insect needs to get their hair combed with lead for that.

Related posts:

Jeffrey Holland stage play
Various Laurel and Hardy plays
Radio play about Laurel's first stage appearance

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Gnome Thoughts ... 38 (Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks)

I thought this series of posts about David Bowie's musical inspirations had come to a natural end, but something I read online today demands to be recorded here. Searching for the Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks song Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer, I happened across a transcript of Bowie chatting to fans in 2001. Asked if he likes the Carry On films and Kenneth Williams in particular, Bowie replies:
Ken Williams had a wonderful album out in the 60s, the name of which I can't remember. But it contained a delightful track track called "Minnie Dyer" which went something like: "sheewer deeyoooweeee Minnie Dyer...and her dum dum dum dum dum...." so there you are! My memory never fails me!
The memory may not be too detailed, but his sense of rhythm is certainly precise: the number of "dums" is spot on. And what makes this interesting is that the album, entitled On Pleasure Bent, was released in 1967 on the Decca label. I haven't been able to find the precise date of release so I don't know whether Bowie might have heard it before starting work on his debut album - released on 1st June, along with one Sergeant Pepper - but in a way that doesn't matter. The point is that it's an acknowledged connection with the "larky" songs of Rudge and Dicks.

The lyricist Myles Rudge's sleevenotes for On Pleasure Bent, declare:
TOLL THE BELL FOR MINNIE DYER is a folk song but not, for once, about political disturbances in our late lamented colonies. It tells of the love of a simple country girl for her bicycle.

Which seems precisely the right introduction. Here is Myles Rudge's lyric in full, corrected from an entry on the excellent mudcat site.
by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks

She were dewy, Minnie Dyer, as a soft September morn,
With 'er cheeks as red as apples, an' 'er 'air as gold as corn,
But the wanderlust was in 'er and it caused a lot of talk
When 'er bought an old bicycle so 'er wouldn't have to walk.
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer.
Tell the organist to play.
'Ad 'er not 'ad that flat tyre,
She'd be 'ere today,
She'd be 'ere today.

'Er went peddlin' round the village and 'er travelled near an' far,
And 'er lifted up 'er saddle and 'er dropped 'er 'andlebar,
So when she was comin' at you, it was not so bad at all,
But as soon as 'er went past, you 'ad to turn and face the wall.
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer.
Fill the church from end to end.
Ev'ry member of the choir
Feels he's lost a friend,
Feels he's lost a friend.

'Er 'ad trouble with 'er steerin' but 'er didn't pay no mind,
Up in front 'er little basket and a big red lamp be'ind.
All night long 'er bell would tinkle and the old uns used to chat:
"Hark, my duck, 'tis Minnie Dyer - us do know what 'er be at!"
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer
While the lads sing loud and clear.
Both the parson and the squire
Wipe away a tear,
Wipe away a tear.

'Twas a wonder and a marvel how her tyres stood the pace,
And 'er kept 'er puncture outfit in an unexpected place.
'Er could stand up on the saddle sort of acrobatic-like,
But there's one thing even Minnie couldn't manage on a bike.
Toll the bell for Minnie Dyer.
Tell the verger pull the rope.
'Er have gone to someplace 'igher,
Or at least we 'ope,
Or at least we 'ope.
Perhaps surprisingly, one mudcat contributor says of the song:
it mystifies me. It seems to be lacking a punch line. How exactly did Minnie die? What was the one thing that Minnie couldn't manage on a bike, and how did it (presumably) lead to her death?
In case there may be others who feel the same way the answer, I think, is obvious ... even though the fun - as in the description in the sleevenotes - is in not having it spelt out in the song. So if you already get it, please look away NOW.

Those familiar with an earlier post about the songwriting pair may remember their producer, George Martin, lamenting the effect that television had on the style of song Rudge and Dicks favoured:
People started listening with their eyes instead of their ears, and that altered what we were doing.
Several years on from their triumphs with Hole in the Ground and Right Said Fred, television must have had more of a stranglehold on the nation by the time On Pleasure Bent was released, but it doesn't sound as though there has been any dumbing down in the writing.

In brief, then, for the confused: Minnie's purchase of a bicycle has enabled her to become "friends" - yes, in that way - with just about the entire male population of the village, from the highest to the lowest, occasioning much gossip. I initially thought the suggestion in the song was that she met her end when ambition overtook her and she tried to perform The Deed while cycling, but as there is no mention of a punctured parson or caved-in choirboy lying by the roadside I think it's more likely to have been a case of the flat tire mentioned earlier.

And in answer to the bafflement of the mudcat contributor, I don't think there is a punchline as such. The wit of the song is in the gradual revelation of the number of Minnie's lovers, from choirboys to parson and even village squire, along with the inventiveness of the innuendo-laden description of the bicycle:
Up in front 'er little basket and a big red lamp be'ind.

'Twas a wonder and a marvel how her tyres stood the pace.
There is, however, a final twist at the end, in the half-acknowledgement that her conduct, however valued by the village's menfolk, may be viewed less indulgently by her Maker:
'Er have gone to someplace 'igher,
Or at least we 'ope,
Or at least we 'ope.
I suppose it's possible for a contemporary audience to find offence in this song - I don't know how old the use of "bike" as derogatory term may be, but Minnie is indvisible from her machine, and even if never spelt out in the song the association may have been intended.

Against that, it has to be pointed that she is remembered with affection rather than scorn. And the, the song is not dissimilar in spirit to Jake Thackray's later (1969) Country Girl. Like Thackray's heroine, Minnie could be seen as a life force, linked to nature ("cheeks as red as apples" - though, granted, the fruit does have a specific biblical connotation as well). 

Then again, maybe the opening lines are simply a case of Rudge's mischief-making. They suggest we are in for the kind of inoffensive bucolic idyll Lucky Jim's Professor Welch would have enjoyed but before long the rug is being gently tugged from under us.

The arrangement by Barry Booth, arranger and MD for the whole album, helps to lull us into that false sense of security. It is simple and sombre at the beginning before the mention of the bicycle brings in other instruments, and the arrangement continually evolves during the song. Having listened to it several times I have the ghost of a suspicion that there may be moments when it's too busy for Williams' vocal, but I wouldn't put it any more strongly than that; after all, this is not a laugh-out-loud-type comedy song in the Rambling Syd Rumpo mode.

And that seems to be reflected in Williams' vocal, too, which is appropriately subdued. It is a reined-in Rambling Syd, allowing words and music to do their jobs and not getting in the way: in short he plays it comparatively straight, and I would love to know whether there was any coaching there, given his excesses elsewhere. (Was his first crack at a line like "Wipe away a tear" quite so controlled, for example?)

Of the songs on Bowie's first album the one which I'd say is most like Toll the Bell ... is She's Got Medals. It might seem an odd one to compare but in both cases there is the sense that we're not being told everything. I suspect there is less potential for confusion with the Bowie song, however, as a loutish choir (Bowie doubletracked?) periodically reminds us about the unfeasibly large pair of clues in the song's title.

Listen to Toll the Bell for Minnie Dyer and the rest of the On Pleasure Bent album on Barry Booth's website here

Gnome Thoughts ... 18 on Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks here.

On the PopGeekHeaven blog here there is a post about Barry Booth's album Diversions; I note that it includes He's Very Good With His Hands with lyrics by Michael Palin. You can hear it on Barry Booth's own website here

Guide to other posts in the Gnome Thoughts series here.  

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Jeffrey Holland in play about Stan Laurel at the Jermyn Street Theatre

I have just seen Jeffrey Holland in ... And This Is My Friend Mr Laurel, a one man show about Stan Laurel at the Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday. It's an ideal venue for what is an intimate experience, starkly staged, with a chair and the frame of a bed as the only props (plus, of course, the inevitable hat).

As with Neil Brand's radio play Stan (subsequently adapted for television) this has the elderly Laurel talking to an unresponsive Hardy, felled by a stroke. I don't feel inclined to compare the two plays, however, because this undoubtedly has its own power. Holland, when shifting into Stan's comic persona, summoning up some of the pair's famously stupid exchanges (he does Hardy as well), really does convey a sense of him , but it's to playwright Gail Louw's credit that this hour is not a Greatest Hits with a flimsy storyline connecting the gags. It is, in fact, an essentially melancholy spectacle: a man being prompted (by the illness of his partner) to look back on the failures and dissatisfactions in his life, puzzled or saddened by some of them, angry at others, but above all brimming with obvious affection for the man who has shared his professional life for so long.

As with some other shows, like the TV dramatisation of Morecambe and Wise's early days, I'm slightly hampered in assessing this by knowing too much. There was a Q&A in the second half and I was astonished to discover that just about everything in Laurel and Hardy's offstage, or off-camera, story seemed to come as news to everyone else - with the honorable exception of Roy Hudd (of course), who happened to be in last night's audience. I mean, it's not as if those two main John McCabe books have just come out, is it, let alone the many other tomes which followed. (Read Charles Barr if you're in a hurry.)

And Roy Hudd prompted Jeffrey Holland to recount the wonderful story about Hardy clambering up that stairs to Ray Alan's dressing room at the end of a UK tour to get the vent's autograph (a tale which happens to be included in this book) ... though the payoff, not mentioned last night though almost certainly known to Messers Hudd and Holland, is that the face of Alan's most famous dummy, Lord Charles, was subsequently based on that of Stan Laurel.

If you are coming to the show without a huge amount of knowledge about the pair's private lives, then, there will be an additional dimension of surprise, but for me it was more than enough to have such a vivid evocation of Laurel in later life, facing the possibility that everything, good and bad, is now behind him. The ending is uncompromising, which felt right. So if  you are in London or within reach, I recommend that you try to catch Jeffrey Holland's show, which is on until Saturday (2nd July); details here. There is also a matinee on the Saturday.

Other blog posts about Laurel and Hardy can be found here and here.


Rereading the above, I see I haven't quite conveyed the particular power of this conjuring of Stan Laurel. It's that he - as would seem to be the case from the letters Laurel wrote to so many correspondents in his later years - strives to be sunny side up, so that the sadness and occasional outburst of anger or pain seem to be torn from him when he is caught up in his thoughts, momentarily unaware of Hardy, and then just as quickly brushed off, just as one imagines the real life Laurel would not solicit pity.

There is a bit of "But why am I telling you all this?" when recounting the pair's history, but there's no doubt that Laurel speaking to Hardy, as opposed to an interviewer, is a far more powerful choice. And the plain, unadorned bed frame works too: we only need an indication of Stan sees and our imagination - thanks to Gail Louw's script and Jeffrey Holland's performance - does the rest.

In one of the other blog posts linked to above, I mention that a former colleague disliked the TV adaptation of Neil Brand's radio play Stan. It was, she said, because our actually seeing the bedridden Hardy changed and coarsened the play. This may not be the same piece but I think I get her point now.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Barely Remembered Lil's

So 53 Rupert Street, once the home of Cheapo Cheapo Records, has transformed itself once again. Having been a mango dessert cafe, then a restaurant called Lil's, I passed the site on Saturday to see that it is now offering Italian fast food (excluding pizza, it seems) under the name of Mister Lasagna.

It only launched a month ago, and more can be read about it here, if you are so inclined. Apparently "Lasagna pans and fresh sandwiches line the counter as diners walk through the door and there’s a subtle waft of garlic in the air."

It's a long way from its former use, although the top image found online, in which the very top of the "Lil's" sign can just about be seen, is a reminder that nothing stays the same, and once there may have been people who lamented the passing of C. Solomons' antique shop.

Hmm ... did Cheapo immediately supplant Solomons, or is there a long trail in between? There's your Daniel Kitson-type show just aching for crowdfunding right there.

The story of my coming to terms with the loss of Cheapo Cheapo Records can be found in the posts collected here.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Freddie Davies Performing Masterclass London, May 31st

Within reach of London? If so, this is to let you know that Freddie Davies, the man also known as "Parrotface" - and a comedian, actor, producer, you name it, with over fifty years' experience - is about to present his performance masterclass in London, at the Hippodrome, Leicester Square, on Tuesday May 31st. Full details including booking are available at the Stage One Productions website here. (A student discount is available.)

This is not just for comedians but magicians and speciality acts of all kinds - who need to talk directly to an audience. It's a rare chance to learn the stagecraft required to present yourself effectively from a man who has been doing it all his life.

An earlier presentation in Manchester was oversubscribed so you are advised to book early. Magician Quentin Reynolds said of an earlier event: "I implemented one thing Freddie said that got me a standing ovation at The Magic Circle in London. And that was simply using one of the many techniques he taught and demonstrated."

More information and booking for the London Freddie Davies Masterclass here

Buy Freddie's autobiography here

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Flamingos # 2: That's My Desire

The opening blast of unison singing seems to herald a performance more suited to rowdy boozer than the "dim cafe" of the lyrics, but the Flamingos' rendition of That's My Desire, a song best known via Frankie Laine's earlier hit, is mainly an exercise in emotional restraint. Discreetly aided by a sympathetic backing band, passion is allowed to build gradually, in stark contrast to some later doo wop recordings of the tune.

The side comes from the group's first session for Chance Records in 1953, so could the introduction have been an attempt to capitalise on whatever airplay the fledgling recording artists could get? Easy to imagine that raucous, attention-grabbing start cutting through the static of an AM signal and the competing wails of other groups, when the disc was first spun by Chicago DJ Al Benson or whoever (Benson himself certainly took notice as he later signed the Flamingos to his own label).

Alternatively, it could be that the introductory roughness was prompted by their rejection, on two separate occasions, by another Chicago company, United Records, according Robert Pruter's Chicago Doo Wop. Zeke Carey, quoted in that book, says:

Monday, 21 March 2016

We ask: "What's the deal with Martin Kelner's sacking from BBC Radio Leeds?"

Very sad to hear that Martin Kelner (above) has been sacked from his lunchtime slot at BBC Radio Leeds. Although I am not a local listener, I acquired the iplayer habit a couple of years ago via a certain psittacine comedian - Martin interviewed Freddie Davies when our book Funny Bones was still looking for a publisher - and the regular, wholly pointless but compelling film club competition (a daily excuse for weak puns) soon got me hooked - not that the regular diet of Northern Soul and sixties and seventies pop proved any kind of hindrance in this matter, you understand. And for a few shining hours - I mean days, or possibly even a week or two - there was even a regular doo wop slot, though it didn't seem to attract much attention from anyone other than me and was quietly dropped.

No matter. The main point about Martin Kelner as a broadcaster, and the real reason why what he describes as his "charmless" sacking is such a pity, is that he gets it: he knows, that is, precisely how to pitch such a show, which is a rarer talent than you might expect. He revels in the essential triviality of much of the content, but switches to more serious topics don't seem a lurch. You know throughout that you're listening to an intelligent man at play rather than someone wearing a bright mask of affability.

Or rather you were. According to a lengthy piece on Martin's own website, which explores not just his sacking but the state of local radio generally, he is already "getting cards and letters from people I don't even know, in a Glen Campbell stylee, so there will be some interesting little jobs to do."  I certainly hope so.

Although part of me is, I have to admit, selfishly glad about this enforced liberation. I have lost count of the number of mornings I have logged onto twitter and lost myelf for forty five minutes or so in thinking up film-based puns for that day's show. Others might have been able to let go after a few minutes, but not me. It got to  the point where I would be going through the New York Times' list of 1000 Greatest Movies, scanning each title for possible wordplay. I mean, that ain't right. Recently I was contemplating writing a Prospero-type speech on this blog renouncing my interest in film title puns and vowing thereafter to resume my pursuit of more creative endeavours.

Well, now the decision of BBC Radio Leeds' Managing Editor Sanjiv Buttoo to sack Martin Kelner has rendered such a speech unnecessary, and if I don't produce a theatrical or literary masterpiece at some point in the future I shall no longer have any spurious film clubs to blame. Still, I suppose it's a new start - which I hope is how Martin sees it (for himself, I mean). But his talents were so specifically suited to that sort of show it's difficult to understand why BBC Leeds thought he was dispensable.

You can read his account of the sacking below:

Martin Kelner: My Sacking, and a Plausible Plan for BBC Local Radio 

And if you are one of the unlucky few who have not yet purchased a copy of Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, the autobiography of Freddie "Parrotface" Davies, you can find out more about it below:

Funny Bones blog

And I thoroughly recommend Martin Kelner's When Will I Be Famous?, a account of showbiz acts at the more modest end of the business which is, like his late lamented radio show, perfectly pitched. 

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Weald (play by Daniel Foxsmith at the Finborough with David Crellin)

I have just seen Weald by Daniel Foxsmith at the Finborough Theatre. Unfortunately this is its last night, so I can't drum up business for it, but I want to explore why it was so good.

First of all it's the mesmerising performance by David Crellin, owner of a small stable of horses, a man who never achieved his dreams, and whose remaining props are tottering. It's a two hander, and Dan Parr as Jim, the young man who has returned to this remote rural location after a spell in London, gives fine support, but it's Crellin's character, the older Samuel, who has the more painful journey and is pushed over to the edge, though their fates are intimately intertwined.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces (BBC Radio 2 series currently available on iplayer)

Fans of the late Hubert Gregg who have happened upon this blog may be interested in a series of three hour-long programmes currently available on BBC Radio 2 iplayer. The last episode was broadcast a few days ago so don't hang about if you want to hear them: at the time of writing (January 30th) there are thirteen days left to hear the first show. Links are provided at the end of this post.

Presented by Dame Edna's alter ego, the show's title is Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces, and there are many selections of the sort which Hubert Gregg used to play on his Thanks For the Memory programme. I may be right, I may be wrong, but I'm perfectly willing to swear that the Beverley Nichols-penned Little White Room, sung by "Johnny" Mills (yes, that one) and Frances Day hasn't been heard on Radio 2 since the debonair Gregg left his square chair once for all.

A charming number in the mode of Noel Coward's A Room With a View, I've long suspected that it also played a part in inspiring Sandy Wilson's pastiche A Room in Bloomsbury. And as those iplayer links won't last forever, and I know the internet generation have issues with delayed gratification, here it is on youtube:

Monday, 7 December 2015

Some posts about John Lennon


Paperback Writer
 An account of a spoof Beatles biography with an unexpectedly serious centre plus a moment of shame for me after seeing Nowhere Boy

The Man From Mendips
Transcribed interview with Colin Hall not used in the LENNONYC documentary

Fifties Britain
An overview linked to the previous post

Notes From Nowhere Boy

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Flamingos # 1: Cross Over the Bridge

Listening to the audio clips in a recent post about Clyde McPhatter, here, I was struck by the difference between the Dominoes and the Flamingos. While Sollie McElroy's voice is not unlike that of Clyde McPhatter, hearing You Ain't Ready immediately after those McPhatter-era Dominoes records was mildly disconcerting: it felt like there was something missing, something I hadn't been aware of before. I had always believed that the Flamingos' records for Chance, jump blues and ballads alike, were uniformly superb.

This sent me back to Robert Pruter's book Chicago Doo Wop for guidance and succour. Here's what he says:

Thursday, 1 October 2015

NRBQ (Not Round Britain Quiz)

Round Britain Quiz will be starting soon on Radio 4 ... or will it? There are no clear indications on the Beeb's website. Still, that gives me an excuse to collect the attempts at RBQ-type questions scattered through this blog. Some were actually sent to the programme and not used, but (a bit like Keith Richards) we are not concerned with your petty quality control restrictions. So why not find a partner from the same region, book yourself into a remote but luxurious location and pretend that you are one of the RBQ teams? If you are not from Northern Ireland or Wales, please substitute alternative places.

Q1  Northern Ireland

A Lawrentian betting aid; a Beatles album before a Family intervention; a hillbilly's tribute to the military; seventies popsters who went sky high. In what sort of concerto might you reasonably expect to find all of these and why?

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Clyde McPhatter

Prompted by Colin Escott's book on Clyde McPhatter (above), I have now listened to a representative sample of McPhatter's work with the Dominoes and the Drifters plus his solo work on Atlantic, so here are a few more thoughts.

First, no real surprises about the solo sides: my vague recollection of the arrangements being rather poppy and old hat was confirmed. But the less cluttered they are the better, as with A Lover's Question or Deep Sea Ball - or the classic Without Love, which reeks of gospel: you are hearing a sermon being preached. True, it ain't just a piano backing but the arrangement is restrained and supports the vocal, never overwhelming it.

Nevertheless, the solo work on Atlantic isn't a case of a performer being forced to betray his deepest instincts: Jerry Wexler says that "Clyde wanted to be Perry Como" and the material was slanted to the pop market, though he maintains Atlantic didn't go in for "vomitacious" productions - in fact the only regret he expresses is about their decision to use a white backing group. Ahmet Ertegun, however, talks about the "leaden feet" of the arrangements, likening the resultant recordings to a chrome-heavy 1940s car which has dated less well than a sleeker earlier model.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Few Thoughts on Clyde McPhatter

"A few thoughts" is right in this instance, as this is by way of a note about a forthcoming post which is likely to be sketchy. Influential as he was, there is no mammoth biography of McPhatter to draw on, and he isn't someone to whom I've been listening for years. But I recently bought a slim volume by Colin Escott billed as "a biographical essay" about the singer, and it occured to me that I really ought to write something about him, given that he features in the story of Ben E King, is lauded by Bill Millar in his book on the Drifters, and is a prominent figure in Street Corner Soul, the excellent BBC Radio 2 documentary series about the rise and fall of doo wop.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Beatles documentaries repeated

The image above is only a screengrab, so don't bother clicking, but this is to alert readers in the UK that the documentary Love Me Do: The Beatles '62 has just been repeated on BBC 4 and as a result will be available on BBC iplayer until October 18th. (As far as I'm aware American readers are only able to access radio programmes on the iplayer.) Click here for my review of the original broadcast plus a link to iplayer.

It's not only about the Beatles - they don't crop up in the first half hour - but another documentary, Produced by George Martin, was repeated yesterday on BBC 4 and is likewise available for a month on iplayer. Click here for my review and links to iplayer and two other posts about Martin-produced comic songwriters Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks (or "Dead Ticks", as Martin called him)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Theatre Book Prize judge Viv Gardner on Funny Bones

If you haven't visited the blog dedicated to Freddie Davies's autobiography Funny Bones, which I cowrote, here is a review of the book from Professor Viv Gardner, one of the judges of the 2014 Theatre Book Prize:
This is one of those stories that just have to be told. It is unique – there has never been quite such a long and varied a career as Freddie Davies’s - but it is also the story of popular entertainment over the past 70 plus years: the hey day and decline of variety, clubs, cabarets and cruise entertainment, the rise of television comedy and subsequent changes in fashion, and the shifting relationship between popular and ‘high brow’ performance. Freddie Davies has played every type of theatre in the country, from working men’s clubs and Butlins to the Royal Shakespeare Company, television and film, though his earliest memories are of the halls and variety theatres of the forties where his grandparents worked. His autobiography is replete with names and places, many long since forgotten, details of acts – his own and others’ – and whole bills. It is also a ‘back-stage’ story. Davies has worked not just as a performer, but also as a producer, so the autobiography charts not just his own stage career but also the challenges of working with and supporting other artists – the ups and downs, the nuts and bolts of the entertainment business.  A researcher’s dream.  It is a fascinating and important story, not just a personal but also a social and performance history.

Viv Gardner
Professor Emerita, University of Manchester
Judge, Society for Theatre Research 2014-15

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

More radio plays about AA Milne ... and a film

Prompted by the play discussed here, I found two other radio plays available online about A.A. Milne - not on the BBC iplayer but preserved on the blog of their author, Brian Sibley. You can find them here and here.

I listened to both at their time of their original broadcasts on Radio 4, and the impressions I retained have been confirmed by subsequent listenings.There is some overlap - both provide an outline of Milne's career - but I preferred Not That It Matters, which draws upon Milne's autobiography It's Too Late Now.

This half hour piece is announced as "a radio portrait" so it doesn't really aspire to be a drama: we simply hear Milne telling the story of his writing career with some illustrations from his work. Pooh does not make his appearance until two thirds of the way in, and the importance of Punch in the writer's career is given due prominence. There are also some tantalisingly brief clips from some of his plays, played in a bright manner which appeals.

The production also benefits from having an actor, Hugh Dickson, whose voice conveys the sense of incisiveness I imagine in Milne's. Well, I say "imagine" but you can hear a recording on youtube of his reading a passage from Winnie the Pooh (though I don't know whether he would have been all that keen on being bookended by Billy Mayerl). I'm pretty sure Milne wrote somewhere about trusting the words do the work.

Alec McCowen supplies the voice of the elder Milne in Mr Sibley's It's Too Late Now and it sounds - to my ears, at least - more petulant and mannered a performance; Dickson's Milne is comparatively flatter and drier.

This second piece has the framework of a play: Milne has a new physiotherapist after the stroke which debilitated him in later years and over several sessions tells her his story. For me, however, it doesn't quite come off: she is too obviously a feed for much of the time and we're not presented with a compelling reason for Milne to tell his tale.

Admittedly I could be an unreliable critic, burdened as I am with my own failure to fashion an effective play out of Milne's life, as briefly described here. Nevertheless, I think there are hints, in Ann Thwaite's superlative biography of Milne, of darker aspects of his later years which might have been followed up, in particular the isolation and loneliness which would justify a compulsion to talk to a stranger: this was a man who would book unnecessary massages simply to break the monotony.

And Milne's wife remains offstage, except in flashbacks, so the suggestive detail in Mrs Thwaite's biography that she was referred to by an employee as "the bloody Duchess" is not seized upon, nor is their relationship in the play's present explored.

I listened to It's Too Late Now again while revising this piece. While I still have reservations about it as a piece of drama, the folding in of passages from Pooh is well done. And it's not simply a retread of the earlier piece: this play is more full-on about Winnie the Pooh, and parental worries about the effect of publicity on the real Christopher Robin.

The identification of Milne pere with Eeyore (which Christopher Milne made in The Enchanted Places) is hammered home a bit, rather than being implied: "Not very how?" the physiotherapist says - though in fairness she is presented as a fan of the books. And if, as his son said,"such sadnesses as there were put on cap and bells" as Eeyore, then perhaps that simple acknowledgement of a sadder side is as much exploration as is necessary for a play which announces itself as being "in celebration" of A.A. Milne.

And is a darker play about Milne "necessary because possible", as they might ask in a Birthday Party at some distance from the Hundred Acre Wood? The restraint I referred to in Christopher William Hill's play Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! may suggest why a searing, tell-all (or at least tell-more) kind of play could be problematic. Hill's imagined meeting between Shepard and Christopher Milne was convincing because it didn't seem to contradict what is known of the two men. And the play became an increasingly fascinating story about two people who, while far from being intimates in the ordinary way of things, were nevertheless so intimately bound together in one respect that it scarcely needed to be articulated.

But Christopher Milne came to terms with his father and the legacy of the Pooh stories only in the writing of his own autobiography, long after A.A. Milne's death. There is no reported knock-down confrontation with his father to draw on for a play. And how far can you twist the facts to create a play when the son's testimony has been widely circulated?

After writing the above I had a look online for more about Milne's propaganda work for MI7 as there was a piece about it in a newspaper yesterday and found to my surprise that there is in fact a forthcoming film about A.A. Milne's relationship with his son. It is called Goodbye Christopher Robin. Details are provided in a casting call for the role of Christopher Robin in March of this year:
Written by Simon Vaughn, Ronald Harwood & Frank Cotterell Boyce and to be directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman In Gold) in the UK Summer 2015 ... playing range is from 6 to 9yrs old.
We are told "the story focuses entirely around the young Christopher Robin" but I don't know whether it means it stops at the age of nine. It seems to have been in development for some time as a synopsis on the Enchanted Serenity blog, here,  appears to date from 2010, citing a different director (Nick Hurran). Given the time which has passed the synopsis may not be wholly reliable but it does seems to indicate that the film ends with Christopher's going to boarding school and Milne's decision not to write any more Pooh stories or verses.
As Milne’s career soars, his son discovers that being Christopher Robin comes at a heavy price – other children taunt the boy while the media clamours for his attention. With a father obsessed with writing, and a mother busy luxuriating in the family’s new-found fame and fortune, Christopher Robin gets little support from the adults around him. Looming before him is the new terror of boarding school and the inevitable bullying – just for being himself. Slowly, Christopher Robin starts to withdraw into his own world. Realising the problems that fame has brought, AA Milne tries to prepare the young boy for the rigours of boarding school and the new term ahead – triggering a number of changes which rock the foundations of Christopher’s world.

Christopher’s life-long nanny and best friend, Nou, is dismissed from service, and the childish games he has always played in the woodland around the family home are suddenly discouraged. Even visits to the zoo and his friendships with other local children now seem to be out of bounds. At the same time, AA Milne is making his own sacrifices - after much soul searching, he decides to stop writing stories about the boy and his bear. As the summer draws to close, the Milne family must face up to the fact that life can never be the same again.
Hmm ... I don't know about soul searching. There was an essay Milne wrote, explaining why he wasn't going to write more stories, which seemed eminently sensible and logical. He was always keen to move on to new projects regardless of what his publishers or the general public wanted or expected from him. In his autobiography he talks about wanting to escape, "having said goodbye to all that in 70,000 words" or something of the sort. Anyway, we shall see. And some of the other details seem questionable. Someone has left a comment on the blog:
... neither of the Milnes were apt to lay their hearts very bare before others, at least compared to what many another sort of person might do, and the mere synopsis of this film emotes more sadness than Christopher's books themselves do.

On other Milne matters I am currently in the middle of rereading Ann Thwaite's biography, which I devoured on its first publication, and will write about in more detail at a later date.

Oh, and on the Today programme on Radio 4 I have just heard an engineer being interviewed about how to win at Poohsticks.

Review of Christopher William Hill's Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! here.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! (review of BBC Radio 4 play about E.H. Shepard and Christopher Robin Milne)

I have just listened to Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares, a Radio 4 play imagining a meeting between Winnie the Pooh artist E.H. Shepard and the adult Christopher (Robin) Milne, son of A. A. Milne.

It works very well, partly because of its narrowness of focus. And it's unsensational, by which I mean that although their meeting in later life (Shepard is ninety) is a product of playwright Christopher William Hill's imagination, the parallels which Hill draws between their respective situations are convincing. He even alights on a entirely plausible reason why Christopher Milne might have felt impelled to seek Shepard out at that particular time (presumably late '69 or early 1970, given Shepard's age).

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Morecambe, Wise and Nathan

Last night's BBC 2 repeat of Episode Seven of The Perfect Morecambe and Wise, a compilation series drawing on their time with both the Beeb and ATV, prompted this repost of an extract from The Laughtermakers by David Nathan, a book very influential in my life.

In the chapter entitled Mixed Doubles, mostly about Morecambe and Wise, Nathan writes about being present when the very first sketch in last night's episode, which can be viewed on BBC iplayer here until August 24th, was recorded.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Rock 'n' Roll America Episode Three (BBC 4 documentary series)

The final episode of the BBC's Rock 'n' Roll America was delayed by almost an hour - blame the corporation's decision to persist with live coverage of a golfing event - but it proved worth the wait.

I did wonder, initially, whether the need to cover all the many offshoots of rock'n'roll in this final programme meant that we might only be scratching the surface, but that was a misunderstanding of what the series is trying to do. There may have been more genres to be covered than in earlier episodes but once again the programme makers did a pretty of good job of selecting key moments and remarks which conveyed the essence of a range of styles without losing a sense of the bigger picture.

Which, in this episode, was rock'n'roll's transition into various strands of pop, for good and ill, followed by the impact of the Beatles on a moribund US chart.

We started with the main figures "missing in action" - through death, religion, the army or scandal.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Rock 'n' Roll America Episode Two (BBC 4 documentary series)

Episode Two of Rock 'n' Roll America follows the pattern of the first programme: well-chosen clips, interviews with surviving key players and sidemen, the whole a canny mix of the story's essentials and some illuminating extra details along the way for those who already know the basics. At present it can only be seen on in the UK on BBC iplayer here, but if it makes its way to the US it is well worth watching.

Incidentally, of the sidemen interviewed in the first two episodes there seems to have been a disproportionate number of drummers. Do they tend to be the survivors of rock'n'roll? I suppose having a regular workout as part of your job doesn't hurt in the longevity stakes.

By coincidence, a film about Ginger Baker (not quite new but presented as such in Alan Yentob's Imagine series) had been shown a few days earlier. After all those jokes about the supposed slowness of drummers (in the wit department) could it be that they are now having the last laugh, or at least the last word?

The focus in this episode is on the major stars once rock'n'roll was established as a force: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. The Elvis Presley material, and the business of his singing Hound Dog to an actual canine on the Steve Allen Show, will already be familiar to most readers, although it does mean something to hear directly from drummer DJ Fontana that Elvis really didn't want to do it and as a result "didn't like Steve till the day he died."

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Spaniels # 2

The previous post was a bit convoluted so I am going to add something today which will, I hope, be clearer. In the meantime I have been rereading Richard G Carter's book on the Spaniels, which can be recommended. It's not necessarily superbly written throughout, but where it scores is that there is a degree of frankness about it which made me wonder at times whether it was wise for the group to embark upon it - at least if they were expecting a PR job.

But I'm glad they did, because you really are taken into the heart of things. Although the book was published in 1994 it ends before they have gone to London, so presumably the MS was completed around 1991. There is a lot of optimism and hope from the various members at the end, though I couldn't say precisely how much success the group had in later years. Group members seem to assume they're on the verge of a huge breakthrough - or at least are entertaining the possibility - and that finally they will get the money and acclaim which is their due. Whatever level of success they did enjoy I don't think it matched up to their expectations.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Spaniels

After seeing the current version of the Spaniels in the BBC's Rock 'n' Roll America I resolved to find out a bit more about the group's various lineups. The above is a videocap from the programme; all I can say for certain is that Billy Shelton is on the far left.

From my memory of Richard G Carter's biography of the Spaniels there were two main lineups of the group which recorded on Vee Jay, and the original members were more instinctive singers than the Mk II version. It was the originals who were reunited in the 1990s and whom I saw perform in London.

Detailed information about personnel changes can be found online in Unca Marvy's R&B Notebooks, an invaluable resource for the doo wop fan. His page about the Spaniels, based on interviews with Pookie Hudson, can be read in its entirety here. Pookie's first group was formed in 1949 at Roosevelt Junior High in Gary, Indiana, when he was fifteen. Billy Shelton was a member of this, though the group which were to become the Spaniels were a separate entity:

Monday, 6 July 2015

All You Need Is Love (Tony Palmer's documentary series)

Having mentioned Tony Palmer's pioneering 1970s series All You Need Is Love, a history of the many strands of popular music, in the previous post here is a review I wrote at the time of its first DVD release in 2008.
I saw the original series when in my teens and have seen many, many documentaries on myriad aspects of popular music since then. So is this worth buying? The answer has to be a resounding yes: the original film material and the range of authorities Tony Palmer gathered together for this mammoth 70s project mean that it remains a vivid account of the genres which coalesced into rock.
Yes, some sections feel a little dull, and the quality of the film transfer doesn't help in the immediacy stakes, but Palmer has two big things going for him: recognised experts in their fields (eg Sondheim on musicals; Lyttleton on swing) wrote the scripts which became the basis of each programme and - crucially - interviewees are given ample time to talk. You get the likes of Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Caesar discussing their own songs, and there's even a bizarre turn from Phil Spector (who appears to be singing his hits in the style of Bob Dylan). Whatever the outcome, Palmer would have deserved our heartfelt thanks simply for the foresight to do something on this scale while the names involved were still around, if occasionally frail.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Rock 'n' Roll America (BBC 4 documentary series)

Just watched Episode One of the new BBC 4 series Rock 'n' Roll America, which will be available on BBC iplayer for a month (for those in the UK, anyway).

It was a particularly clear and effective retelling of what has become an oft-told tale, with enough freshness in the detail to mean that it can serve equally well as an introduction to the social roots of rock'n'roll and as a reminder of the music's importance for those who have read the books and seen the other documentaries. Archive clips seemed to have been very carefully selected and, crucially, the programme's length meant a decent chunk of time was devoted to the consideration of the contributions of key individuals. Each episode (this was the first of three) is an hour long, though the pace never seemed to flag in this debut show.

The great strength of the programme was the way in which the social background to this upsurge of a new kind of music was firmly sketched in.