Friday, 23 January 2015

No Place Like Home (80s BBC sitcom currently being repeated)

The world will little note nor long remember my thoughts on the 80s sitcom No Place Like Home yet I feel compelled to record them. If you'd like to look over my shoulder - if, indeed, you too have been watching the current reruns on the Drama channel - then feel free.

I don't think I ever saw this when it was originally broadcast but now, thanks to the magic of Freeview, I have been able to watch most of the first two series over the space of a couple of weeks. 

And I still haven't come to a decision about it. I do recall seeing William Gaunt in a more recent sitcom with Penelope Keith (Next of Kin) in which his role was essentially that of feed to Ms Keith, but with occasional opportunities for pathos which made me wonder how he would be as the centre of a sitcom.

Well, unknown to me, he'd already been in such a role - and No Place Like Home ran for four series. What's more, it had an early role for Martin Clunes. Here are all the family members (sans appurtenances):

It's an odd sitcom to judge, or so it seems to me now. It's undoubtedly mainstream, and at least some of the time in a kind of sitcom neverland, but it also pushes, or at least gently nudges, at the boundaries a bit in an effort to reflect the changing social attitudes in the 80s. The four overgrown kids who return to the parental home (that's the premise) have sex, live with their partners, and the father ruefully accepts the situation. He's not having a mid-life crisis like Ria in Butterflies - or, for that matter, Reggie Perrin. It's more like a kind of slow deflation as new and confusing events dance around him. It's no longer a world he recognises but he continues to bankroll, and therefore tacitly condone, his offspring's behaviour, aided by a bit of nudging from his wife.

The setup could allow for something much darker, but however irritated Gaunt gets there is no fundamental change in his passivity. He was the breadwinner through his kids' childhoods and that is what he continues to be.

There are cartoonlike aspects. The meddling neighbour, Vera, played by Marcia Warren, is useful for pushing the plot forward at times, but the performance seems at odds with that of the actor playing her husband. Early on in the first series there were some variety-style high jinks with the husband trying to restrain an offscreen brute of a dog, in exactly the same manner as a Morecambe and Wise routine, and there is much talk of the menagerie of animals the neighbours supposedly have. Yet the husband also has naturalistic conversations with William Gaunt as they try to hide from their respective families.

Gaunt's wife is also an interesting figure. Her children try to encourage her to be more independent, and in the last episode I saw there was a plot revolving round what she might do with her husband's redundancy money (set up a pet shop with Vera was the unlikely answer), but she seems as much the slave of her children's demands as her husband's.

Watching it now, none of this ought to work terribly well, and indeed there are times when I'm not entirely sure why I'm watching it. But as one who religiously sat through every episode of Ben Elton's The Wright Stuff I obviously have a high tolerance threshold, and the question of why a sitcom doesn't quite come off is every bit as interesting to me as why one does. And having a daily sitcom waiting on your hard disk drive for you to come home - well, you may as well watch it before you delete it forever.

And last night, with two episodes on my hard drive needing to be watched, I found myself warming to it more. One plot revolved around Gaunt's character Arthur meeting his first girlfriend again. The opportunity for wilful misunderstanding by neighbour Vera was duly taken, although (spoiler alert!) the reunion never had any chance of progressing beyond friendship,and the entire family later sit down to have a meal together with this notional threat - who, it transpires, only wanted to put a bit of business (no, not that sort) in her old boyfriend's way.

In the subsequent episode Arthur is facing the threat of redundancy unless he relocates to Manchester. Once his family point out to him that they couldn't survive without his patronage (and free accommodation) he has a change of heart and storms in to see his boss (John Barron, giving a performance of an eccentricity surpassing that of Marcia Warren's Vera) only to discover that everything's okay: another employee is now willing to make the trek North.

It's a sitcom about a man who is, at worst, mildly exasperated with his family, and there is really very little at stake ... and yet, on the basis of the last two episodes I know I am going to watch it to the end, even if the Drama Channel shows all four series.

Why? Well, it's partly down to the quality of the performances, despite the lurches between something like naturalism and something rather bigger. And Gaunt's hangdog face, and manner, makes him right for the role: difficult to imagine Richard Briers keeping a lid on his propensity to fizz. The scenes where he commiserates with his neighbour are very pleasing, which reminds me of the equivalent characters in the sitcom All About Me, which featured Jasper Carrot and Meera Syal (though she wisely jumped ship after Series One). Whether it was about bad writing or bad performing I couldn't say at this distance, but Carrot's character had a confidante at work who was so patently a cipher that it was painful to watch. And my feeling about those two most recent episodes of No Place Like Home was that everything possible had been wrung out of the storylines by the performers. The writer, Jon Watkins, may not be delving into the hot heart of human suffering but those episodes, in particular, felt fully realised. And the series was originally broadcast on the Beeb, so more time to delve into character. Granted, the four children don't always seem fully distinguished from each other, but the focus is on how Arthur reacts to them.

I'm not quite sure what else I want to say other than the series seems ... well, warmhearted, I suppose. By which I don't mean the bolted-on moment of sentimentality which afflicted the endings of episodes of the Carrot sitcom All About Me (it really wasn't very good). It's not afraid to have slightly downbeat endings. Is it unambitious? I suppose it is. Nothing ever really goes too wrong. The wife will never (I'm guessing) break free, nor the chicks leave the nest. And we know, for all his complaining, Arthur doesn't really want it any other way. But I find myself enjoying the playing out of these small tensions. No Place Like Home isn't groundbreaking. But it is very well made, with small incidents mined to the full. I don't know Jon Watkins' other work, and perhaps I'll explore it after this. 


Watched another episode tonight, centering around the idea of a curfew and found myself laughing out loud at the moment where, for reasons which need not detain us here, the various offspring set off in cars in the middle of the night and bumped into each other. 

That oughtn't to be terribly funny, but I think I was responding to a rhythm, a pace - a music, one may as well say. Judged coldly on the page individual lines might, I imagine, fall a little flat, but onscreen it's all so engaging. It's a sitcom which doesn't set its sights too high and yet ... it's polished entertainment, for one thing. It doesn't feel "Beneltoned" - a term coined by Richard Herring meaning underwritten. Candyfloss light the situations may be but there is ... I dunno, something which makes me want to surrender, and I can only put it down to the musical thing: an act of hypnotism akin to the experience of seeing (and hearing) the Master Musicians of Joujouka at the Royal Festival Hall.

Anyways, I shall stick with it and report back if my feelings change.

Thursday, 25 December 2014


Hello, and welcome to my fifth annual Christmas Quiz.

This year, there is a difference. No, the questions have not been dumbed down but after a considerable number of complaints from contestants there are less of the convoluted Round Britain Quiz type questions. This does not mean the questions are any easier. DARE you try it?

Remember it's only a bit of fun. Answers will be posted in three days' time. 

[update: there is now a link to answers at the end]

1. Which troubadour proclaimed: "Love is hot, truth is Motown"?

2. What do these hits have in common; "Well I Ask You", "Breakfast on Pluto" and "I Am a Cathedral" ?

3. She was a well-known female folk singer in the late 1960s and recorded an album track/B-side entitled Fields of Sand. Who was she ?

4. Who are the illiterates:

"He never ever learnt to read or write so well / But he could play a guitar"

"Talking on the phone is not my speed, / Don't send me no letters cause I can't read"

"All the words of hurt unfold / For within my heart is the power of gold"

5. Who are the wrappers:

"I will bring you happiness, / Wrapped up in a box and tied with a yellow bow"

"Save the girls upstairs for later ... Wrap them up in Christmas paper"

"In mute and glorious cellophane / His body struts on the azure possibly 'astral'] plain"

6. Complete the title by Katz Singing Orchestral Circus: Quick Joey ...

7. What connects the leaders of the Midnighters and the Dreamers?

8. What links Liza Minnelli to the doo wop hit Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight?

9. Who wrote the theme to the film version of Porridge?

10. Who wrote the theme to the film of Till Death Us Do Part?

11. Carlene Fisher recorded an answer record entitled Alright, I Won't Take My Love to Town, Don't Go On About It. Name the original song.

12. Who wrote the musical "Oliver" as well as Cliff Richard's hit "Living Doll"?

13. Although he never had a number 1 hit, Billy Fury reached the top 3 on four occasions; name ONE of those four songs.

14. In Cliff's early tours his roadie was one Andy More. Why was he nicknamed "Love"?

15. Who did Lulu pinch Shout! from?

16. He's Very Good With His Hands. Name the composer of this obscurity.

17. Identify these canine ditties:

"Solving crime's his asset, / Which ain't too bad for a long-eared bassett"

"Old MacDonald he made us work / But he paid us for what it was worth"

"I turned around to solve this mystery / And who d'ya think was sittin' next to me?"

18. They say you shouldn't mix your drinks or drink and drive, but why do Bonaparte Shandy, Cherry Cola and unmarked cars belong together?

19. What links Happiness Is a Warm Gun, A Day in the Life and Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner?

20. What links Charlie Drake, Elia Kazan and "Auntie" Jean Morton?

Update 28th December: Answers here. Good luck and Merry Christmas!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Days of 49

It's called "49ing" or "bridging" (the former alludes to The 49th Street Bridge Song aka Feelin' Groovy) and it is, at least according to an article I read, the latest craze for music fans of a certain age - usually male. It's very simple, but has really taken hold now that just about everyone has a microphone of sorts connected to their PC for skyping etc.

The idea is that you improvise a deliberately portentous speech over the instrumental section of a favourite track, rather as the Ink Spots and some of their successors in the doo wop age did. But the trick is to produce something that the listener can - sort of - believe just might have been on the original recording, so some kind of digest of the sentiments of the song lyrics (allied to an ability to ape the spoken tones of the original vocalist) seems to work best.

Most of the efforts I've heard seem to work in one of two ways, though there is some overlap. On rare occasions the spoken bit really does seem to encapsulate the song, a bit like the old-fashioned introductory verses in those pre rock'n'roll songs. 

More usually, however, the effect is to point up the limitations of the original lyricists, so it can feel a bit smug and superior. At best, however, it's done with affection, and I have read comments on forums which suggest that the act of searching for appropriate songs has given some "49ers" fresh interest in their collections.

Not all songs lend themselves to this cheerful defacing. David Bowie's After All (from The Man Who Sold the World) seems to have become a bit of a favourite already, for some reason - maybe because the hint of Kurt Weill in the arrangement means that a spoken section feels a logical step. Anyway, here it is (sans speech if you don't count Bowie's vocal) if you want to have a try yourself.

Already I have seen suggestions on forums that it's all a bit Mojo Magazine-ish, a bit clever-clever by middle-aged males who have forgotten what it means to be moved by music. Maybe so, but anything that sends people back to their old records, searching for something in them they haven't heard before, seems like a good thing to me. 

And maybe it's good not to be too precious about one's music. The recordings are hardy enough to withstand a bit of sonic doodling - and if they're not, well, maybe it's good to recognise that too. 

The musical interlude on After All starts about 1' 56'' in: 


Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sam Cooke documentaries on BBC Radio 2


I don't know whether they are connected but there are two Sam Cooke documentaries on BBC Radio 2 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The first, (Don't Fight It) Feel It: the Sam Cooke Story, was broadcast on Tuesday and is now available on BBC iplayer here - I'm presuming in America too. It will be accessible for four weeks.

The second programme, The Shooting of Sam Cooke, will be broadcast next Tuesday and available on iplayer here shortly afterwards - the page is worth visiting beforehand as it suggests original research:
With the help of a private detective, Dotun Adebayo examines the never-before-aired coroner's report, searching for signs of foul play, and scrutinises testimonials. He interviews key witnesses, like Grammy-winning record producer Al Schmitt, who was the last person to see Sam alive, and speaks to Sam's living relatives. Dotun takes a magnifying glass to the events of that fateful night, with the intent to unravel what really happened.
Is there really more to be uncovered beyond speculation? We shall see.  Meanwhile, here is a guide to posts on this blog about Sam Cooke:

The Elusive Man and His Accessible Music
Discusses Peter Guralnick's biography Dream Boogie, the CD box set of Specialty Recordings and A City Called Glory, the BBC radio play by Neil McKay.

Waxing/waning crescent moon (Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers) 
Discussion of the Specialty gospel sides with audio clips.

Ben E King at Jazz Cafe and repost of Stand By Me
A comprehensive account of the origins of Ben E King's Stand By Me, including a discussion of Cooke's Stand By Me Father and Tindley's gospel original.

Don't Stand So Close By Me
A Junior Parker song closely modelled on Cooke's Stand By Me Father plus other examples of musical "borrowing."

Whatever happened to ... the Sam Cooke biopic?
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talk about their rejected film treatment.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Review of Hancock's Ashes, BBC Radio 4

I have just listened to Hancock's Ashes, an Afternoon Drama written by Caroline and David Stafford which is currently Radio 4's Play of the Week. It's very well done: there's a narrowness of focus which means the story is perfectly suited to the forty five minute slot. I wonder, in fact, if it has its origins on the stage, as it all takes place in one location, and despite a few offstage murmurs is essentially a duologue between Willie Rushton (Ewan Bailey) and an Australian customs official (Richard Dillane), adamant that the eponymous remains which Rushton wants to take back to England must travel in the hold of the plane. On the other hand, I suppose you could say it's a perfect chamber piece for radio.

Without going into too much detail, as that would ruin the surprise of the piece's twists and turns along the way, the play quickly establishes itself as a battle of wits, the official claiming he doesn't have a TV and isn't interested in the news, so despite the headlines about his recent suicide "Mr Hancock" is an unknown quantity to him. Surely unlikely, but you need that for the play to work: always put more pressure on the protagonist, as they say, and it means the Rushton character really has to struggle to state his case and woo this Antipodean jobsworth entirely lacking in residual fondness for the great comedian.

Outlined as it is above, this could have turned out as a kind of playwriting by numbers, so all credit to the writers, Caroline and David Stafford, for creating someone who seems a worthy foeman for Rushton - again, I can't say more without spoiling it. And the play wittily exposes the problem of trying to explain Hancock's appeal to someone who hasn't seen him. After all, there are no real gags you can quote, and how do you describe one of those facial expressions? I seem to remember that at some point even Roger Wilmut (in his book Tony Hancock: "Artiste") had to fall back on saying: "He was funny because he was funny." And I remember an acquaintance at art school, of a vintage to have the programmes when they originally came out, saying that he and his friends would turn the sound down, just to watch that wonderfully mobile face.

But if you're not a Hanock nut, don't worry. The play isn't concerned with making a detailed case for Hancock in order to convert non-believers. In fact it doesn't really depend on any knowledge of the comedian at all - nor, indeed, of Willie Rushton - to be enjoyed. Those who are familiar with both men may remember a particular connection between them, which is employed to very good effect in the play, but the piece can be enjoyed simply as a culture clash: Rushton's role as satirist and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war are also woven into the narrative.

Hancock's Ashes is such a great idea that I can't help wondering why no one has thought of it before - but (as with a radio play about Stan Laurel, similarly narrow in focus, reviewed here) it's also very well executed. I should also make clear that it isn't simply a talk piece: there is enough in the way of narrative suspense to hold an audience. And if it's possible to make a reasonable guess at the story's eventual outcome - it's Radio 4 in the afternoon, not Radio 3 on a Sunday night or the late lamented Friday evening slot on 4 - there are pleasing surprises en route.

And if it is, as I suppose, an intentional nod towards the typical Hancock situation - the Lad coming up against a petty-minded authority figure - then, for reasons I can't go into without spoiling your enjoyment, it's very satisfying that Willie Rushton should be his representative on this occasion.

Hancock's Ashes, by Caroline and David Stafford, can be heard on the BBC page here for the next four weeks. (The page also has a link to the Drama of the Week podcast where I presume it can be downloaded over the next week, at least.) 

Self-promotional bit: I am the cowriter of Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by veteran comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies - details here. Freddie appeared with Tony Hancock on The Blackpool Show in 1966. The above is a screengrab but you can see a clip, introduced by Hancock, here.

Hancock biographer John Fisher has written about Funny Bones here.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Praise from John Fisher

There is now a dedicated blog for Funny Bones, the autobiography of comedy legend Freddie Davies what I cowrote, but I can't resist posting some wonderful words of praise from John Fisher in this blog as well.

John, if you don't know, is the author of Funny Way to Be a Hero and producer of the related TV series Heroes of Comedy. He has also written biographies of Tommy Cooper and Tony Hancock. This is what he was kind enough to say:
I can’t get over how good Funny Bones is. Freddie Davies’ autobiography, co-written with Anthony Teague, is unquestionably one of the most honest and illuminating books I have read about the practice of comedy, never losing sight of the pressures and insecurities of a job that is prone to more ups and downs than a roller coaster. Along the way it provides fresh insights into other comedy greats, not least Sid Field, Sir Norman Wisdom, Frankie Howerd, Jerry Lewis, George Carl, Charlie Drake and Davies’ ostensible grandfather, the underrated revue comic Jack Herbert, who was a major influence on Field. It also vividly evokes the hollow shabbiness of so much of the late twentieth century British show business scene in that period betwixt the Beatles and Blur. In every way, a cornerstone of its genre. 

                                               John Fisher, writer and producer

Buy Funny Bones here.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Jake Thackray and Songs DVD now out

For those who don't yet know and would benefit from knowing, I bear the happy news that a DVD of extracts from the series Jake Thackray and Songs has just been issued. I have ordered it but have not yet seen it. This is from the product description on am*zon:

At last Jake Thackray's legendary television series, 'Jake Thackray and Songs', is released on DVD, by arrangement with BBC Music. ....  'Jake Thackray and Songs', broadcast in 1981, captures him at the height of his powers; it paints an intimate portrait of Jake as a live artist, playing to audiences in the small venues where he felt most comfortable. This DVD features all of his performances from the series: thirty of his greatest songs, along with his inimitable between-songs chat and storytelling. Also included are previously unreleased performances by three outstanding guest artists: Ralph McTell, Alex Glasgow and Pete Scott. 
If you haven't read my posts relating to Jake Thackray, the main one is here followed by two related post which also discuss Ralph McTell here and here.

Looking at the Jake Thackray website, I see that a great deal of his TV output appears to have survived. No indication, alas, of the appearances on the show Tickertape which have stayed in my mind (in particular a song which may have been called Sophie and William), but I was glad to see this note:
This is a half hour film with visuals by Philip Bonham-Carter (lots of countryside scenes to match up with the music) and music by Jake Thackray (very different versions of familiar songs featuring piano and brass band accompaniment). It was first broadcast on 28/12/73.

The songs are as follows: The Rain on the Mountainside The Brigadier The Poor Sod The Cenotaph Old Molly Metcalfe Country Bus Little Tommy Haverley 
I recall seeing it and really enjoying it. If you saw the documentary about Jake, you may have seen the performance of Kirkstall Road Girl with a light, jazzy arrangement very different from, and far superior to, the record. That, and many other recordings from the Bernard Braden era, have survived. Victor Lewis-Smith's original radio documentary, which led to the TV one, included a bit of audio from an edition of Braden's Week I recall watching at the time in which Jake, as it were, strung out his part, prompting Bernard Braden to congratulate him for getting eight minutes out of a three minute song. (The Thackray website page with details of surviving TV appearances is here.)

There is also a page of radio material. Sadly, it's long gone, but I used to have a reasonable off-air recording of the Pete Drummond show featuring The Jolly Captain, Sister Josephine and some others. I still remember some of Mr Drummond's patter after The Jolly Captain. This isn't precisely word for word, but fairly close. If you are familiar with song you will know (SPOILER ALERT) that the captain's wife is a "whey-faced old nagbag" and when she dies he promptly marries "an apple-cheeked girl". Warned that he has remarried too soon and that his first wife will come back to torment him:
She'll scratch and she'll claw her way up from the grave,
Hacking her way back again with furious fingernails ...
the captain replies: "I buried her face downward, she's a long way to go."

Mr Drummond then said something along the lines of: "Which reminds me, I was scrambling around Box Hill with my girlfriend the other day - well, not scrambling, I was genteelly walking - when I saw a grave which said so-and-so was buried here face downwards. He was an eccentric." Could this become the equivalent of the Eleanor Rigby gravestone in Woolton Parish Church? Will Box Hill similarly become part of a Jake Thackray landmarks tour? There's a page about that resident of Box Hill here.

TW, TW, and thrice TW

At last a chance to see Frankie Howerd's appearance on TW3 in full. If you have seen any of the documentaries about Howerd then, like me, you may have been tantalised by a few brief glimpses of the 1963 appearance on TW3 which famously gave him back his career after his first major dip. I thought the Arena programme on Howerd was a dreary affair which only really came alive with a clip of him seizing his moment on Ned Sherrin's show.

Other documentaries have chosen slightly different extracts from that 1963 show, and for a while I contemplated trying to edit the material I had together in order to get at least a sense of the whole, which I was too young to see at the time.

It seemed the only way I'd get to see it, even though I knew it survived in complete form. A few years ago I was chatting to David Benson after a performance of his show about Frankie Howerd, and he said he'd seen a tape of the routine, which went on for about thirteen minutes - slightly too long, he said, with Howerd reluctant to quit even though he'd peaked.

Well, now you can judge for yourself, as someone has uploaded the complete That Was the Week That Was episode which features Frankie at the end. His spot starts about 27.30 in. Don't know how long it will be up, so hurry, hurry, and thrice etc.

I think David Benson might be right: it certainly feels like the material at the very end is not of the best. Odd, too, as I thought the TW3 stuff included the gag about shouting through the letterbox at Checkers, but presumably I'm misremembering that from the audio recording of his act at the Establishment Club. That is commercially available, and indeed I reviewed it on a well-known shopping website six years ago - which rather confirms my long-felt want - as another comic would have put it.

Establishment gold, BBC silver

Don't buy this assuming that the BBC material includes Howerd's history TW3 appearance which catapulted him back to stardom. It doesn't - and the BBC material is of variable comedic quality and sounds like it's from three separate shows, despite being presented as one track. The Establishment recording is, however, pure gold, showing Howerd at his best, well able to deal with the braying of Kenneth Williams and others in the very appreciative audience.

Whether or not it was an issue with licensing it's possible to understand why the TV comeback was not included - substantial portions, based on the extracts in documentaries I have heard, are the same as his Establishment act - but given its importance it would be worth listening to in its entirety, just as we are accustomed to alternative takes by jazz musicians etc. According to David Benson, who has heard the whole TW3 act, it tails off at the end - Howerd slightly outstays his welcome and loses the audience- but it would still be fascinating to hear.

Part, at least, of the BBC material is by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, and if you are familiar with Took's Laughter in the Air book on radio comedy you will recognise the opening BBC segment which is reproduced in the book. But the CD is well worth getting for the twenty odd minutes of the Establishment act which show a Howerd well able to tailor his comedy to the satirical needs of the day without being anything other than, well, Frankie Howerd.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Donald Sinden and Fiddler's Green

I was sorry to hear about the death of Donald Sinden. I have two memories of him, one shared by the playwright Simon Gray. In An Unnatural Pursuit, Gray's journal about the first production of his play The Common Pursuit, he describes going to see School for Scandal at the Duke of York's in order to check out one of the actors for a possible part in his play. Sinden is playing Sir Peter Teazle and Gray describes him in action:
Donald Sinden boomed richly away, postured ripely away, and was delighted in by the audience, whose delight he delighted in.
That was certainly my experience at the matinee I attended. I was studying Restoration comedy at the time (yes, yes, I know Sheridan's eighteenth century) but my exposure to high comedy of any sort (happy now?) had been limited to several stylised productions at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, so it was good to see a staging which may have been a bit of a museum piece but in a style which I'd never had a chance to ... well, to delight in before, as Gray says. And it wasn't difficult to believe that we were watching an unbroken line from its first staging. I can't remember how many asides were written into the play but I well recall that Sinden's Sir Peter indulged in quite a few.

That production was, I think, in the early eighties. A few years later I got the chance to see the great man at work up close when I attended rehearsals for a Thames sitcom pilot called Fiddler's Green.

I can't quite remember the justification for my being there, but the London college where I was being trained for a dominie's drudgery had a tutor whose neighbour happened to be the TV director and producer Tony Parker (Shelley etc) and somehow it was arranged that I should sit in on rehearsals for the show, which starred Donald Sinden and was written by Ian Davidson and John Chapman.

Actually, I suppose there was a media studies type of justification for my presence. But essentially it was my good luck that the timetabling of a two week project at my training college coincided with the rehearsals.

The sitcom didn't lead to a series though it was a good, gentle comedy, as pleasing as others of its sort, even if it didn't happen to be wildly original. Tony Parker took care, he told me, in casting the smaller parts, avoiding caricature.

I wrote up a report afterwards and sometime later proudly presented it to a tutor on a Media Education course I was attending in the evenings. She informed me that it needed to be boiled down to a couple of A4 sides if it was to work as an educational tool. This was a bit of a blow at the time, but then I'd already fulfilled what I considered to be the primary object of the exercise, namely to understand, for myself, more about how sitcom worked.

Rehearsals took place over a week in a Scout hut in Teddington, with me scribbling away in a notebook as Sinden boomed. It was undoubtedly his show. He was playing a retired admiral, or something of that type, whose elderly nanny was still living with him and keeping him in check.

She was played by Eleanor Summerfield, who may be familiar to some for her many roles in British films; Elspet Gray, the wife of Brian Rix, was the doting and attentive neighbour who secretly yearned for him while he was busy making a fool of himself, at least in this pilot episode, over the arrival of a younger woman in the village.

It was reassuring to see the care that was taken in all aspects of the production: one small piece of business was rehearsed over several hours, for example, and all the questions about motivation that would apply to more serious work were certainly asked during rehearsals. I remember feeling reassured that they were taking it seriously.

Which is not to say that it was without enjoyment. Tony Parker pointed  out with glee the barbs from Eleanor Summerfield's character which gave the show an extra sting: her role was essentially Sancho Panza to Sinden's Don Quixote, a pairing common to many sitcoms (Steptoe and Son, Frasier etc).

I seem to remember that on the Friday when the camera crew came into the rehearsal hall Sinden raised his game a bit, although everyone was giving a huge amount all the way through, and I was told it was an unusually happy company, thanks to the generosity of its star.

I can't pretend that I remotely got to know him. We only exchanged a few words, and rather stupidly I thought it was my role to stay at a distance, forever scribbling. Now I regret not taking more part in the general conversations between bouts of work: I ought to have trusted that I would remember the essentials and written them up on the way home.

But the director, Tony Parker, who had given permission for me to be there, was very kind to me, driving me to the station after rehearsals, and discussing comedy en route.

One of the discussions which I was party to, I think with Eleanor Summerfield, Donald Sinden and others in the cast, was the business of responding to the studio audience; Ms Summerfield remembered seeing Frankie Howerd unable to resist playing to them. And Tony had an anecdote about directing a sitcom - it may have been an episode of Shelley - which had to be recorded at the last minute without an audience because of a strike.

That same evening, after it had all been done and dusted, word came down that an audience would be permitted in the studio after all, and so a second version of the show was recorded. And even though the cast were all thorough professionals, and the presence of an audience is problemmatic (you can't play directly to them), their being in the studio nevertheless lifted all the performances.

When Fiddler's Green finally got into the studio on the Sunday, following a week of rehearsals in a nearby Scout hut, I have to admit it was slightly disappointing for me, for reasons which were nothing to do with the actors. I'd had the privilege of watching them perform only a few feet away from me; now, for the first time, I was introduced to the frustrations of being in a studio audience for a sitcom: the stopping and starting for technical reasons, the need to watch at least some of the action on the TV monitors when the cameras were in the way on stage. There was a warmup man, who would come to the fore again when there were hitches, although Donald Sinden himself often stepped in to jolly the audience along, mugging away for the camera if he or someone else fluffed a line.

But throughout the process, and not simply in that final, more public section of it, I have to say that Donald Sinden never gave any sense whatsoever of slumming it when he could have been doing King Lear or whatever. I suppose rehearsals were not that onerous, in the sense that they started in the morning and usually stopped by early afternoon, but there was a sense of steady industry throughout.

Which is not to say there wasn't enjoyment, including Sinden's mischievous variations in his delivery of a line like: "I shall tell her about my experiences in the Senior Service." At the end of the show Eleanor Summerfield's nanny asks Sinden's character what book he is reading, to which he answers with relish: "Oh, Balzac!" at which she storms out; there were times in rehearsal when he essayed alternatives such as "Suckling," which I assume he had coined. I hadn't seen Tony Parker direct before, but it was clear that he was greatly enjoying the process too. At one point I recall he remarked happily on having the urine extracted from him at regular intervals.

So there we are. Not exactly a Ken Tynan-style profile of a great comic actor, I admit, nor even an overview of his career (you can find that in one of the many obituaries online, such as Michael Billington's, here).  Simply a few memories of what, thanks to its generous star and director, was a very happy experience for me and it seems, the whole company.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Return of radio show about the Flamingos (Matt the Cat's Juke in the Back)

This is another post which involves recycling, prompted by seeing that Matt the Cat's radio show on the Flamingos is currently available once more on the Rock-it Radio website and can be downloaded for free while it's there. 

It's the first of three programmes, and Matt promises all the Decca recordings in a later episode. Go to the Rock-it Radio Archives Page here, and scroll down to show #5021 to download or stream. Shows are only online for a few weeks before they are displaced, so it may have gone or a later episode may be up, depending on when you read this. But there are always good things to listen to on the Rock-it website anyway, and you can support them by buying vintage radio broadcasts here.

If you have explored further than the most recent posts in this blog, you will know that it was originally set up to archive posts from a doo wop messageboard, and that a favourite subject of those messages was the Flamingos' recording of Golden Teardrops. This was recorded in 1953 for the small Chicago label Chance, before the group went to Parrot Records then found success at Chess Records.

There were no hits until they went to Chess, but the sides for Chance are among my faves, with jazzy, bluesy backing to enhance your listening pleasure. While nothing matches Golden Teardrops, there are plentiful delights among the other sides. You get a peerless harmony group plus a band made up of musos who can swing plenty good, sounding both loose and tight, with lots of subtle details which repay repeated listening. There are sites which concentrate on the band rather than the vocal groups they backed.

The first Matt the Cat programme features all the Flamingos' Chance work, A and B sides plus their version of September Song, unreleased at the time. If you haven't heard the group beyond  I Only Have Eyes For You, before, this programme may be a revelation. Matt provides a summary of their early career in between records.

And as Matt says, for more about the Flamingos Unca Marvy's site, here, is highly recommended.  And why not check out Marv's book about the Ink Spots, here? (Once again I must say to Marv that I've bought a copy and can only apologise for not having read it.)

The Ink Spots also feature, believe it or not, in the eary life of Freddie "Parrotface" Davies. You can buy his autobiography, which (ahem) I happen to have cowritten, by visiting my other blog dedicated to bigging it up, here. But the story is essentially as follows. Freddie was brought up in Salford but in 1947 at the age of ten he spent a month in London in the company of his inspirational grandfather, the comedian Jack Herbert. The Ink Spots were meant to be at the Casino (now the Prince Edward Theatre), but when Freddie and his grandmother attended a matinee they saw instead ... Jewel and Warriss. Not exactly an obvious substitute. Freddie had to wait over sixty years before an explanation (kindly supplied by Marv) was forthcoming.

To find out what that was - well, to echo Marv's words to me, buy the d*mn book.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Hermitage Revealed (new documentary by Margy Kinmonth)

 I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend the documentary Hermitage Revealed, which had its UK premiere at the Curzon Soho last night and is showing today (Tuesday 9th September) at Curzon Ripon and Curzon Victoria at 6.30.

It was, director Margy Kinmonth said in a brief Q&A afterwards, made primarily for cinema, and although it will eventually be shown on the Beeb I urge you to catch it on the big screen if you can. We seem to float at will through the Hermitage's many spaces and are even taken backstage to see the Museum director's desk, piled high with papers and books. There is the motif of a little boy walking around the gallery who is at once the current director, Mikhail Piotrovsky - son of a previous director and brought up in the building - and us, the popeyed audience, as we look around at the riches on offer.

The visual quality of the film, the lustre of the paintings captured on screen, really is staggering: apparently Margy Kinmonth reshot and reshot the exhibits, at times working against the dying of the light (not a metaphor but a seasonal reference).

There's no doubt that her efforts have paid off: you are continually gobsmacked by the beauty of painting after painting, aided by the simple device of seeing the whole composition first then cutting to one or two key details, lingering just long enough to feel that you've taken in the essence: a neat balancing trick, given how many artefacts there are to get through. On one notable occasion the formula was reversed and we first saw two shots of paint joyously swirling round before it was revealed we'd had our noses pressed up against a Van Gogh.

That came a little later in the film: at first we were examining all the items bought by Catherine II. They would have been more than enough to constitute a film in themselves, but the documentary gradually revealed itself to be interested in the larger story of the museum's survival over the centuries right up to the present day, taking in such events as the storming of the Winter Palace, the second world war, and more recent attempts to make the Hermitage into a space which reaches out to the whole world. A 2011 project with Anthony Gormley had marble statues taken off their plinths and put on floor level in one room with Gormley's own metal people next door.

And there was one detail related by Pliny the Elder (or Tom Conti, as he's known today) about the admirer of one sculpture who apparently took that admiration a little too far, leaving a permanent indication of his interest on the work. Which is certainly one way of achieving immortality.

More sombrely, we also learnt that many of the museum staff, relatives of the Romanovs, or others who had once held high positions in the Tsar's army, had been sentenced to the Gulags, seen as enemies of the State.

Another detail (the film is packed with them) called to mind the recent fire at Glasgow School of Art, and the efforts of the firefighters at Renfrew Street which helped save most of the building. We were told there was a fire (I can't remember when) at the Hermitage, and the staff immediately poured water down all the walls to preserve the works. And, asked at the end if there was anything she regretted having to leave out, Margy Kinmonth referred to a gallery attendant in the room where Rembrandt's Danae was subjected to an acid attack in 1985. He immediately threw himself in front of the painting, saving what he could of it, injuring himself in the process. Ms Kinmonth wasn't able to track him down, but as she said the man is a hero.

And through it all the museum has survived, though as the above should make clear this is not an empty tribute to a building but a testament to the continuing importance of art and imagination, and the spirit of those entrusted with preserving and publishing the Hermitage's contents ... even when those precious objects weren't actually in situ. One detail which leapt out at me was that soldiers would apparently listen, enthralled, as museum staff, standing by empty frames, talked about the paintings which had been removed for safekeeping in the second world war.

In writing this post I have to declare an interest, acquainted as I am with one of the makers of the film. That said, I know nothing about the making of the documentary beyond what Ms Kinmonth revealed in her Q&A. But as there are so many talking heads wheeled on to deliver a short piece about a specific area of expertise or personal experience, I can only marvel at the hours of footage which must have been whittled down to create such a coherent and satisfying narrative, making such good use of modern technology: I have never seen paintings looking so sumptuous and inviting onscreen. And apparently it's the first time a film maker outside of Russia has been granted such access to every nook and cranny ... including a sort of "Cat World" installation in the cellars.

So - cat lovers and others - do see Hermitage Revealed in a cinema if you can.

More details, including a trailer, can be found on the film's website here.

There's also an interesting piece about the background to the film's being made on the wftv website here.

Update January 4th 2015: If you are in the UK, a one hour version of Hermitage Revaled is about to be broadcast on BBC 4 at 9pm tonight, and you can now buy the DVD of the complete version from Foxtrot Films here.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Pentel Man or Blu-Tack Thinking

There is no pleasure sweeter than the awareness that one is in possession of a perfectly valid reason to recycle old blog posts. Especially when what I wrote didn't really fit in with the rest of the post and I can now make a whole new post out of it without too much extra effort. Sort of a victimless crime. A while ago, I wrote:
The promise of new stationery rarely delivers, in my experience, but continuing to buy it is an act of hope. Which reminds me of a Clive James interview with Jonathan Miller and Robbie Coltrane, viewable here, in which the good doctor goes off on a two minute riff about things and Robbie Coltrane eagerly joins in. What isn't mentioned, and may be relevant, is Coltrane's background as an art student: there is a shop in the basement of Glasgow Art School, and another - at least there was - a few blocks away. I still remember the joy, aged about fourteen, of my first Rapidograph: such perfect things I'd be drawing from then on ...
The recent publication of a book by James Ward entitled Adventures in Stationery sparked off further thoughts - this time about writing, rather than drawing, implements, in particular those orange Pentel pens with a fine tip which I used to use for essay writing when I was at university.

Afterwards they seemed to disappear, only to surface on those I Heart the 80s type programmes. At least, I think they did. (Beat.) Yes, yes, I'm pretty sure I can remember Johnny Vegas saying in a hoarse voice: "If you didn't have a Pentel Pen you were NOBODY." Unless that was spacehoppers and Phil Kay, or rather Peter. Anyway, in the places I normally search for stationery I certainly have no memory of seeing such pens in recent years.

But today I had a quick look online, and guess what? Yep: you can still buy them in large, cheap packs just about everywhere, it seems. You lied to me, Vegas. Or possibly one of those pesky Kay twins. So I'm going to. Buy them in large, cheap packs online, that is. And if traces of an ancient creative flame don't immediately set my veins atingle thereafter it can only mean the manufacturers have switched to a different ink or something.

You can read James Ward's own description of his book here and an amusing Independent article about him by Rhodri Marsen here. Faced with the attraction Ward and others feel for stationery, Marsden tries to make sense of it all:
Perhaps these everyday objects are reassuring, introducing as they do a kind of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps they're aspirational. After all, they facilitate creativity and progress; the purchase of a Moleskine notebook represents a small first step towards writing a novel, or planning a round-the-world trip. And they're certainly tools of procrastination. "When you want to get organised," says Ward, "the first thing you do is come into a shop like this and buy all the stuff that helps you get organised. It's a way of assuaging your guilt over your own inactivity. It makes you feel like you've done something, when all you've actually done is buy a pack of Post-it notes."
Sadly, I can buy all too easily into that.

It's worth reading the whole article, in which Marsden often finds himself laughing at some remark of Ward's meant entirely seriously. Spoiler alert: he sort of gets it by the end, or at least acknowledges that whatever else Ward may be he is undoubtedly a "beguiling storyteller" - as befits a man obsessed with stationery to such an extent that his work colleagues "probably wouldn't try to engage me in conversation about it", unlike his chums online:
At Stationery Club, a transatlantic Skype interview with the man who invented the Post-it note might be interspersed with pints of lager and a comparison of fibre-tipped pens.
Thus emboldened, I can't end this post without a wistful reference to my Sheaffer pen of former years. This was a "gift" hastily handed when I got someone else a present which clearly hadn't been reciprocated. Yet I loved that pen even so: the burnished silver, the smooth feel of it in the hand.

I no longer have it but I do remember that I wrote a monograph about A.A. Milne with it while at art school. Did I consciously discard it? Possibly. It may have been a pleasing thing to hold but the refills didn't last all that long: the tip would go soft and bend and the writing would get fuzzy before too long. Pentel pens may have been cheap and nasty by comparison but they lasted a reasonable time.

Such Shaeffer pens as I have seen available online seem to be either fountain pens or ballpoints - I can't seem to find any felt tips. I did, however, find this heartbreaking plea which has gone unanswered for six years:

And it's not just pens which go off but all the writing-related paraphernalia - yea, even unto the Tipp-Ex and the sticky stuff. Blu-Tack is discussed by Ward at length in the Independent article:
When you buy a new pack of Blu-Tack and open it, there's that perfect blue slab, and it's a rare moment because one pack of Blu-Tack generally lasts ages. But once the first lump has been pulled off, one stretched corner that you have to fold back in on itself, it's not the same.
Which I suppose sums up those stationery-related feelings. That nib  will blunt, that notebook will get all creased, and whatever fills it cannot live up to the promise of those pristine pages.

Incidentally, Blu-Tack figures early on in my writing life - as a cautionary tale. I was part of a writing group and we were each working towards the presentation of a short play. One piece had a workplace setting and st some point included the claim by one character that Blu-Tack was made from dolphins' b*llocks.

The play went along okay, but gradually the realisation dawned on those present that no, all the lads' banter wasn't actually going to lead to anything after all, and wasn't quite enough on its own. I recall the writer later talking to the literary manager of the theatre, surprised and excited by the apparent ease with which you could get a play on. All you had to do was find the money and it would happen.

I didn't keep in touch with the writer. I don't know what, if anything, happened to his play or whether, or how much, his determination was dented after the "perfect blue slab" stage of seeing his piece performed in front of an audience. I hope he worked out at some point that there has to be something going on underneath the surface banter.

Perhaps he saw, or will see, Richard Bean's Toast, set in a bread factory (Bean wasn't allowed to call it Wonderloaf), which is currently being revived at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. I remember reading that Mr Bean keeps office hours and indeed hires an office when he's working on a play. Which rather suggests he's the kind of writer who enjoys the thrill of fresh stationery for like half a second and then just gets on with it. I just can't understand that sort of mentality.

What? No, no, that's Tony Visconti - a holiday snap which happened to be pinned up in the studio when Bowie was composing Heroes. It gave rise to a line in the song, of course but could it be that Bowie had also heard the rumour or urban myth about the origins of a certain brand of versatile adhesive material? Was he in fact expressing a yearning in Heroes similar to that of James Ward for that initial dizzying moment of creativity before things are stretched out of true?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Living Legends - the Clark Brothers (event at the V&A, 22nd August)

Went to the V&A on Friday evening to see Steve Clark of dancing duo the Clark Brothers talk about his career in a presentation entitled Living Legends - the Clark Brothers.

I had only become aware of him a few weeks earlier when I was invited by Freddie Davies (autobiography available here, if you're new to this blog) to partake in the "bait" which is customary after a Water Rats meeting. Various Rats, including Chas McDevitt, entertained us after the meal but once that was formally over a slim and elderly man went over to the piano stool lately vacated by Rick Wakeman and proceeded to play a few tunes which had a big impact on me, partly because his playing reminded me of Fats Waller's approach. I talked to him afterwards and was astonished to learn that he'd actually worked with Waller and just about every other jazz great. This was the publicity material for the V&A evening:
Join us for a stellar night with Steve Clark, whose tap dancing career with brother Jimmy spanned eight decades.
They shared the stage with Josephine Baker, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Steve Clark will give an insight into performing during an era when gangsters controlled the clubs and segregation was commonplace, and fill in some missing chapters within British variety entertainment history.
I thought that meant the evening would be a couple of hours of reminiscence from the man himself, perhaps interspersed with a few film clips, but Mr Clark is in his nineties, and although late on in the proceedings he did play a few songs at a keyboard and took a few questions, it was more about his endorsing emcee Leon Robinson's company Positive Steps, which aims to unlock the potential in younger performers through the inspiration of artists like the Clark Brothers. We saw a short film about the preparation of a musical called Don't Knock - Tap! which had been put on at the Hackney Empire the previous week. (There is a shortened version of the video here.)

We then saw a few choice examples of younger talent in action live, the most impressive of whom was a tap dancer who was working with a keyboard player and had his area - a wooden board - miked up. The tune sounded like Bill Withers' Use Me, or a very close relative, and it was fascinating to watch (and hear) a genuine dialogue as musician and dancer responded delightedly to each other's cues. This, for me, was when the evening really caught alight.

When Steve Clark came on in the second half his appearance was brief but given his age I suppose it was unfair to expect more than that. He did an encore at the very end of the evening but took a while to come in, explaining to us he'd been asleep, or at least resting. But for the few minutes he was onstage then, and earlier, there's no doubt he beguiled the audience. I wish now that I'd asked him if he learnt anything about stagecraft from Fats Waller, such was his ability to capture the whole crowd with a look or a smile.

By the way, the encore piece was Tea for Two - which had been done by Waller - and sounded to my ears as having certain Wallerish, if that's the word, flourishes. There was a great moment during this when a break in the playing seemed to demand a quick burst of dancing; he stood up, did a quick pensioner's shuffle, giving a very good impression of a man who believed he was performing the most intricate of steps, then sat down again and continued playing. This got the requisite laugh and was repeated several times at the appropriate moments in the song. But he'd already been given his applause properly, as it were, when people responded to a film clip of the Clark Brothers in action as though it were happening live - which, in a sense, it was, in a crowded lecture theatre however many decades on.

You can find out more about Leon Robinson's work on the History Spot website here - the page includes a downloadable podcast of a talk he gave in which he describes how he fell into becoming an archivist and the difficulties he experienced in tracking down material about the history of black artists in Britain.

More about Don't Knock - Tap! on the Hackney Empire's website here.

A 2002 Telegraph article here fills in more details about the Clark Brothers' story.

I have ordered a copy of Steve Clark's book Living With Legends, which you can buy via the Water Rats shop here - will report on it when I have read it.

You can hear Fats Waller's version of Tea for Two here.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sketchiform - review of Free Fringe music-based revue

Bit of an unexpected show, this. Terrible title: Sketchiform, or possibly Sketchyform or even Sketch-y-form, like there's some kind of Welsh vibe going on, but never mind all that: this is, quite simply, the funniest revue I have seen in ages.

One year in the mid eighties I decided I would only see revues at the fringe. The warped logic was that happiness could not but be amplified further with each show. Alas, nohow and contrariwise. With the exception of a show called Writers Inc there were diminishing returns. I remember telling my then drama tutor, who I bumped into at the Fest, of my plan: he looked sceptical but sadly didn't forcibly stop me. Anyway, my money and my time I wasted.

Which is why Sketchiform (I'll stick with that spelling) at the Free Fringe has been such an unexpected delight. More difficult to describe than to experience - and the element of surprise is a big factor - but here are some of the items, though I don't know how they will come across in cold print (or on a lukewarm screen).

One of the best sketches recreated the recording session for Gone Fishin' with Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. The voices were just about acceptable, but it was the idea which swung it: Der Bingle sings, as per the record, and Louis Armstrong interjects, ditto, but what then happens is that Armstrong's asides become ever more baroque and bizarre while Bing quietly fumes or tries, without success, to get a word in. It's a routine which feels like it might have been around for decades but I've never actually come across it before. An instant classic, perhaps?

Another musical jape is perhaps more obscure, but I found myself laughing like a drain. Do you remember Bruce Ruffin's I'm Mad About You in the seventies? This was an okay reggae song enlivened by a comedy voice, like that of Mr Punch, interjecting comments and wholly undermining any serious intent - admittedly not exactly an Herculean task, as A.J. Wentworth's colleague Gilbert might have said. I vaguely remember reading that Ruffin's manager was the culprit.

Anyway, the audience is asked to choose from a list of about twenty songs and one of the cast members improvises a commentary on top. Basically, the more portentous the song the better. Elusive Butterfly and Always on the Mind were the choices at the performance I attended.

Finally there was another musical routine involving a mocked up University Challenge type quiz, only the teams were artists from two record labels, and the questions were designed to elicit terrible puns. In some cases I was ahead of them - just - but question put to the actress playing Dionne Warwick did cause a smile to play about my features. Asked how William Golding summed up Lord of the Flies, she mimed to the opening of Do You Know the Way to San Jose: "Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe-woe, woe-woe, woe, woe." The quizmaster (more Bamber than Paxo) then uttered these words: "No, it was 'Grief, sheer grief', but can we? Yes, I think we can take that."

Another bit of musical madness was again very simple. The Wurzels' I Am a Cider Drinker was not sung but recited, as though a half-proud, half-shameful declaration of an addiction.

So there we are. Not exactly biting satire but a happy way to spend one hour and ten minutes. And I ought to point out that the house band - well, three piece - did a nice line in unlikely arrangements of seventies pop hits. A strangely impassioned folky rendering of Paul Nicholas's Dancing With the Captain and Reggae Like It Used to Be reminded me of Bobby Vee's "adult" version of Take Good Care of My Baby under the name of Robert Thomas Velline (if memory serves) in the seventies. Unnecessary, because the original needs no apology.

The final sketch was my favourite: Bernie Taupin is arraigned in court for crimes against songwriting and is obliged to defend particular clunky phrases: " 'There's no one there to raise them if you did.' Did what, Mr Taupin?" The actor playing Elton's lyricist starts off arrogant but is reduced to a tottering wreck by the end, confessing everything and offering to pay back every album purchaser. There may, I suppose, have been something more serious hidden in the sketch about the difficulty of reparation but the image I will treasure is of Taupin gasping aloud when the topic of Have Mercy on the Criminal is raised. He knows what's coming - "blind to the wind of change" - someone's gotta pay for that.

I have to say that I seemed to be the only one laughing aloud by that point - alright, the sketch was probably extended beyond its natural life - but how refreshing to see a show which both gloried in its own stupidity and did, ultimately, have a point (of sorts) to make. At least I think it did. Pop music is a kind of poetry we consume daily and its makers ought to make a bit of bl**din' effort occasionally.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

And I Ran With the Gang: review of Edinburgh Fringe play about Alan Longmuir of the Bay City Rollers

A few days ago I saw And I Ran With the Gang, a play about, and starring, Alan Longmuir of the Bay City Rollers. As plays go, it's hardly the most ambitious piece in the world, but then it wasn't really written for me. It is, as the narrator (an actor playing a Rollers-era version of Alan) says, a celebration, and the darker side of things isn't really explored. It was undoubtedly a hit with the former Rollers fans who came on the afternoon I was there. It was written by Liam Rudden, who I understand is working on Alan Longmuir's autobiography.

The production, which lasts about seventy minutes, is in three sections: first of all three actors tell the story of how the group came into being, and there's no doubt it's a fascinating tale. It comes over as a kind of fairytale, such is the speed with which we skip to their colossal international success. This opening third is done quite effectively, with a bit of comedy (the actor playing Les McKeown forever appearing too early in the narrative) which enlivens the brisk canter through the key events in the Rollers' saga. I am not deeply read in Rollers lore so can't say whether this version is one which would be agreed upon in every aspect by all the other group members, though I have read that the real Les is coming to see the show on the day I am writing this, which seems to indicate an endorsement. There's a bit of music at the start but this first section isn't punctuated by full songs.

After that, microphones are brought onstage and the real Alan Longmuir appears and sings alongside the actors playing young Alan and Les. Real guitars are played on top of what I presume is a backing track, and it's quite a moving sight: the real Alan stands there, virtually stock still, and your eyes can't help but go to him. I couldn't help thinking of Roy Orbison, immovable as everything changed around him. He is wearing a tartan waistcoat underneath a formal dark suit, which seems precisely right. His vocal cannot be distinguished from the others, so you can't tell how well or badly his voice stands up these days but that hardly matters: the mere fact of his survival has a dignity and a power which you don't need to be a fan to feel.

For me, as one appreciative of songs from that era but not really a Rollers fan, there were a few too many songs but how can you have a show about the Rollers without them? And they remain catchy pop songs. Listening to the original recordings once, I remember thinking that a few tricks were borrowed from Phil Spector. The lyrics are simple but they stick in the head - have done in mine for decades.

The third and final section was a brief Q&A, with former fans expressing their delight in the show. One woman who sounded quite middle class said, on the evening I was there, that she was surprised at how much pleasure hearing those songs again had given her. I took the opportunity to ask if he had reached a point where he accepted that he wouldn't be getting any money from his time in the Rollers and he replied cheerfully: "Nuh." So I hope that he does get something.

The evening would have been particularly significant for Rollers fans who knew that this public appearance had been the first time in many years that the real Alan had dipped his toe once again in the waters of Rollermania - something I only learnt later. He said they had been pleased with the response to the show so far, and I hope it goes on to be something - I was going to say bigger but maybe it's the right size. The play is a modest one and a larger theatre (this was a small function room in a hotel or restaurant) would probably necessitate a radical rethink. Maybe there is potential for another kind of show integrating the songs a la Jersey Boys or maybe the decision to have a dedicated segment is the right one: these are essentialy feelgood songs, pop at its purest, and I suspect it would be difficult to twist them into a narrative. Anyway, that's nothing to do with the matter in hand. The point is that the production worked on its own terms.

To sum up: if you're expecting a tell-all expose then this ain't it. But if you want to get up close to a former idol and to relive some memories in a roomful of people who want to do the same, then you won't regret going.

And I Ran With The Gang is Upstairs at Le Monde in George Street, venue 408, Sunday to Thursday, until August 21. Tickets £12 (£10).

Self-promotional bit: Rollers fans old enough to remember comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies and his seventies TV series The Small World of Samuel Tweet may be interested to know that Freddie's newly published autobiography Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, cowritten by me, is available from the publishers here or amazon here.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Funny Bones the blog of the book ...

Doo wop fans might be relieved to know that a blog has now been created for the book Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, so consider that destination, here, your one-stop (pet) shop for all things psittacine.

Radio interviews etc are all noted there, and there are a couple of recent ones. Kevin Cann (an expert on early Bowie, so maybe he'd like my Gnome Thoughts series) talks to Freddie on Channel Radio today, and Billy Butler of BBC Merseyside has already had an interview, listenable on ... but why not check out the other blog for details?

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Freddie Parrotface Davies book signing at Blackpool Waterstones Saturday 2nd August 1.00-3.00pm

Freddie Davies and Blackpool go way back - about sixty years, in fact - so he's delighted to be having a book signing at Waterstones Blackpool this Saturday, August 2nd, between 1-3pm.

Freddie's long-awaited autobiography Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, cowritten with Anthony Teague, was published on July 31st - fifty years after his TV debut on Opportunity Knocks.

Freddie was brought up in Salford but Blackpool helped give him the taste for performing. As a teenager he would travel there for the day to see the shows, waiting outside the stage door for a glimpse of a star and the chance of an autograph, enjoying comedians such as Bill Waddington (later Percy in Coronation Street) and Joe Church, and singer David Whitfield.

Freddie was entertainment manager at the Butlins Metropole Hotel in Blackpool in the early sixties, a time he remembers fondly. "In those days Blackpool was a great place to go if you wanted to have a look at most of the premier acts of the age. On a good day, there was nowhere nicer: a walk along the prom then a star-studded show in the evening. Blackpool always enjoyed a longer season than most with the famous Illuminations extending it. And the stars shone bright in 1962 with Doddy at the Opera House, Tommy Cooper and Nina and Frederik at the Queens; all the piers had big stars at the top of the bill. It was quite a season for us as well, as they launched Smirnoff vodka from the Metropole!"

In 1963 Freddie made the big decision to leave the security of Butlins in order try his luck as a full time comic. Blackpool was the obvious choice for a base: "In the sixties there were still about ten major summer shows in Blackpool plus big nightclubs and pubs, all needing acts."

Samuel Tweet spluttered his first in a Manchester club, but the homburg hat which started it all was bought in a nearly new shop in South Shore for two and sixpence (12½p). "It was for an impersonation of Arthur Lowe, who was in Coronation Street at the time, but when someone shouted out for a joke about a budgie I put it on and the voice somehow just came out. A few months later I got the call from Opportunity Knocks and that was it - the next twenty years just flew by."

Freddie appeared in many summer shows in Blackpool over the years, and there is still footage of his 1966 appearance at the ABC Theatre, introduced by Tony Hancock: "I was playing on the same stage I was working on every night," recalls Freddie, "so it was easy - a home crowd, you might say. I remember going onstage around that time, and the audience was really going 'Wow!' Such wonderful memories."

Freddie lived in Blackpool until the early seventies and returned to produce pantos there in the early eighties. Later the Disney film Funny Bones was shot there in 1994, featuring Freddie and George Carl as double act the Parker Brothers, along with Jerry Lewis and Lee Evans. "It really captured the spirit of Blackpool as it used to be and is now seen as a cult classic," Freddie says.

Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by Freddie Davies with Anthony Teague is published by Scratching Shed. There is a 19.99 limited edition hardback and a 14.99 paperback edition. If you can't make it to Waterstones you can order a copy on the Scratching Shed website here.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

What a Crazy World DVD review

I have just added the following review of the Network DVD release of What a Crazy World to a well-known shopping website. It rehashes some info from posts on this blog, so it's nothing regular readers won't already know, but I was keen to get something up quickly, and it might work here as an introduction to the posts about Alan Klein (click here) if you haven't read them.  

Readers directed to this blog by Network's newsletter may be interested to know that I have cowritten Funny Bones, the autobiography of veteran comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies, who was at Butlins Skegness around the same time as Alan Klein.

The stage version of What a Crazy World came about in 1962 when Gerry Raffles heard Joe Brown sing Alan Klein's song of that name on TV and commissioned him to write a musical for Theatre Workshop. Klein had tired of singing exclusively American songs during a stint at Butlins and wrote a song in the style of George Formby which didn't try to emulate the subject matter of American songs.

The resulting musical was a popular success despite some adverse critical reaction. Robert Stigwood offered to put it on in the West End with Mike Sarne in the lead but Klein opted for Michael Carreras' offer to make a film of it because "a film's gonna be there forever." And thank goodness he did, because now, more than fifty years on, we can still enjoy it on this Network DVD.

Existing fans of the film can be reassured that the restoration is fine. It's a joy to see such sharpness and clarity compared to the ropey off-air copy I have had to make do with until now. True, when the film begins, and at a few other points like a conversation between Joe Brown and Harry H Corbett, you hear a little faint scratchiness, but that's far preferable to overprocessing of sound. So to anyone who has been hesitating, worry no more - it's worth getting. And the film deserves a whole new generation of fans.

A Hard Day's Night has also recently been issued in a newly restored version. It was the film whose release suddenly made the film of What a Crazy World look like a period piece, according to Klein, but now both films can be seen and appreciated without any need for comparison.

Alan Klein says of What a Crazy World, "It was a document of its time ... All I was doing was saying what people felt." It's a world of disaffected youth, unemployment and the temptations of petty crime, and a yawning, seemingly unbridgeable gulf between parents and children. The title song mocks the parents for their negligence ("No one seems to notice me") and their preferring bingo and betting to quality family time, but there's a counterbalancing song shared by the mother and father, surrounded by their mates at the bingo hall and dog track, in which they protest that their supposed entertainments are not about having a good time but trying to win a bit of money to buy their kids the possessions and gadgets they were never able to afford in their own youth which their materialistic children demand as a right. As with Steptoe and Son, both sides of the generation divide are given a say.

What is very clear throughout the film, however, is that young and old haven't found a way of communicating with each other, and that isn't resolved by the end. Alf (Joe Brown) plays his family the record he has just made. This might have made for a triumphal ending in another sort of film but there is an almighty barney and the record is forgotten. So all that has happened by the climax is that grievances have been loudly aired, and the finale has everyone singing part of the title song, so that it no longer seems to belong to the Joe Brown character, the young complaining about the old, but allows everyone to have a go.

But if that makes the film sound like a gloomy prospect, it's anything but. And what makes the film special from a musical point of view is its successful marriage of rock'n'roll with music hall: throughout, there is a warmth and a verve that you can't resist. It may be a crazy world, but it's one you will want to embrace. The cast, including many Theatre Workshop regulars, are superb. Harry H Corbett is the father and Avis Bunnage the mother. Alan Klein himself is one of the layabouts who cluster around Herbie Shadbolt, played by Marty Wilde. Really the only slightly weak link is Susan Maughan, not really suited to the part of Alf's girlfriend. Wilde himself is very good, as is Joe Brown. The device of Michael Ripper as a kind of common man is also very effective.

I could say a lot more if time permitted, but all that needs to be said is that this is a long, long way away from your Cliff Richard musicals or other pop exploitation films. It has a foot in reality, even though it's carnivalesque at times, as in the scene in the labour exchange. Someone compared it to Quadrophenia, but it takes itself far less seriously. I urge you to take a chance on this modestly priced DVD for a film which is gritty, witty and, above all, teeming with life.

A guide to other posts about Alan Klein can be found here

Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by Freddie Davies with Anthony Teague will be published on July 31st.

Monday, 7 July 2014

What a Crazy World DVD ... yes, it's good!

This is not a review of the film but simply a note to reassure anyone with doubts that the Network DVD release of What a Crazy World is indeed a good 'un. I have watched about half an hour so far, skipping ahead to see some of my favourite sequences (like Independence, filmed just off Denmark Street) and the picture quality compared to the ropey ebay copy I've had to tolerate up till now is remarkable: it's a joy to see such sharpness and clarity.

When the film begins and at some other points like a conversation between Joe Brown and his old man, Harry H Corbett, you can hear a little scratchiness, but that's far preferable to overprocessing. So to anyone who has been hesitating, worry no more - it's worth getting.

There is also something which Rich Podolsky, author of a recent book on Don Kirshner, would call ironic about the fact that a restored A Hard Day's Night has also recently been issued. I watched what I presume is the new version on TV last night. A Hard Day's Night was the film whose release suddenly made What a Crazy World look like a period piece, but here's hoping that now both films can be seen and appreciated without any need for comparison.