Sunday, 11 July 2010

Up the Swanee

Had what can only be termed a Russell Davies moment a few minutes ago. Which made me realise I may have been unnecessarily harsh in my dismissal, during an earlier entry, here, of that seasoned broadcaster's favoured method of selecting music for his show. But before elaborating on that - and in a transparent attempt to entice the reluctant reader onwards - let's go back ... back ... back ...

Back, in fact, to some unspecified date - which, I realise, isn't terribly satisfactory, although I can probably place it in 1997 or before. I was in Argyle Street, just off Oxford Circus (probably walking to Marshall Street Pool, which closed that year), walking past the London Palladium, when I espied none other than ... Phil Pope.

If you're American the name may not mean much to you but Phil Pope, along with Steve Brown, had the UK song parody field all sewn up in the 1980s. If it wasn't one, it was the other. Radio, TV, live theatre - I still remember Steve Brown's Barry White parody Aerobic Love, sometime in the eighties at the Edinburgh Fringe which culminated (the song, not the festival) in his getting up from the keyboard to reveal a perfectly constructed paunch.

Phil Pope gave us the Hee Bee Gee Bees, whose masterpiece can be heard above, and as the spoof radio station Radio Active has been repeated on BBC Radio 7 recently, there has been an opportunity to remember that it wasn't just the Gibbs at whom Pope had a pop: there were pitch-perfect smacks at the Eagles, the Hang-My-Hat guy and many more (meaning I can't, for the moment, remember any others - but search for "hee bee gee bees" on youtube and lots of examples will make themselves known). Steve Brown, meanwhile (see his myspace page here) wrote songs for such shows as In One Ear, which diverted me on many a night of guarding an art deco building in the mid-eighties, was doing much the same thing. When he wasn't in Edinburgh.

Yes, as I say, if it wasn't Pope it was Brown. Or vice-versa. Which brings me to my problem, momentarily transfixed in Argyle Street. You see, having clocked Phil Pope, it was half on my mind to walk up to him and thank him for a favour he had done me, all unknowing-like. He might have been annoyed that no money entered his coffers or he might have good-humouredly shrugged it off, as the piece of work in question wasn't a parody of a song but the song itself, with newly (and briefly) topical lyrics added by him.

Only - I'm thinking to myself in that moment of recognition - is it him? I mean, it was Phil Pope, alright, but was it Phil or was it Steve who had cheekily added that moustache to a musical Mona Lisa? And for all I know there might be a deadly rivalry between them, especially if getting confused for the other was a regular occurence. Did John Lennon smile and shrug it off when a restaurant band struck up Yesterday? Probably not, especially if he was being played by Christopher Eccleston at the time.

But no, this is not the time for a searing review of Lennon Naked. I'm reliving that moment where ... ah, Phil Pope is rapidly jogging out of my orbit, sparing me any further agonising about whether to approach ... yep. He's gone. (So many missed opportunities, like seeing a certain Scottish actor at the interval in the Barbican and thinking "Shall I remind him of that conversation about ..." No. Best not. It's gone, anyway. Stop thinking about it almost ten years later.)

The issue of royalties aside, however, I'd like to think that Phil (or Steve) might have been amused about the additional use to which I put the lyrics which one of them had penned about about ten or fifteen years earlier. They had originally been written for a topical radio comedy show called The News Huddlines, named after and starring Roy Hudd, who had been involved, I think, in TW3 or its successor (if I had Roger Wilmut's excellent From Fringe to Flying Circus to hand I would check, but it would involved going over to my bookshelves and possibly losing the thread of this), then starred in a solo show on BBC 1, whose opening credits included his adopting a supercilious expression which we termed "the Roy Hudd look" on those occasions when we recognised something remarkably similar crossing our father's features for strictly non-comedic purposes.

Hudd then had a period in the wilderness, careerwise, for some reason, although a commercial for a brand of teabags which involved his getting up as a sergeant major and referring to his "little perforations" presumably helped tide him over, and he also recorded an album of music hall songs which still sound good today - the two tasks conveniently combined in an edition of the album below:

But I digress. The News Huddlines ran for many years on Radio 2 and was a fairly gentle smack at recent events. It was squarely aimed at an older audience who would have recognised Roy Hudd's appropriation of Max Miller in his opening monologue or references to Gert and Daisy (don't ask). So it was entirely in keeping with the show that when there was a bit of bother in what might loosely be termed a showbiz dynasty that the conflict should be commemorated by the tweaking of ditty which went back several decades.

The story, to put it as briefly as possible, is that Harry Corbett, the Lancashire man behind the glove puppet Sooty, had sold the rights to his creation to his son Matthew (top image), after serious health problems which had prevented his completing a theatre season and Matthew, after some family pressure, had stepped into the breach.

The trouble was that when Harry recovered he began to do shows with Sooty again in a small way (local hotels and the like) but then began to venture further afield; a scale of operations which escalated to a point where children were becoming confused about who was the "real" Sooty man - and Matthew Corbett was becoming concerned about his investment. The whole - and the real - story can be found in Geoff Tibball's book about Sooty, if you can find it (below is what I believe to be an image of the branch of Waterstone's by the Mander Centre in Wolverhampton, where I found a copy around 1990; I don't know whether the shop is still there - or was it a Dillon's then?).

Things were never so bad that Corbett fils didn't turn up at the family home for Sunday dinner, but it was a source of friction nevertheless, compounded by the strong emotional investment in the teddy bear by the father - who on one memorable occasion could not leave on a family holiday without taking his puppet with him. So selling Sooty on to his son was never going to be straightforward.

News of the father and son disagreement reached the papers, which is where Steve Brown or Phil Pope comes in. The News Huddlines often added topical lyrics to a well-known song (capitalising on Roy Hudd's interests, it might be a music hall song), and in this case the song given to Roy to sing, in a show around the early eighties, was ... Swanee. Part of the parody ran:
Sooty, how I miss ya, how I miss ya,
My dear old Sooty!
I'd give the world to be
Back with my hand up
S-O-O-T-Why'd you leave me?
Come back, cherry pie me, custard pie,
You naughty Sooty,
And until then, I'll just sit and cry ...
So bye-bye, everyone, bye-bye.
If you're American, the above won't mean anything to you, but if you are British and of a certain vintage, you will hear in your head, the soft Lancastrian tones of Corbett pere in that final line, so often used to sign off Sooty shows - and showing remarkable fortitude after the speaker had been soaked with a water pistol and sundry other humiliations. If I remember the Tibballs book correctly, Harry's favourite routine was putting Sooty to bed - which suggests there was a father-son kind of relationship with the furry glove.

Anyway, I heard this when first transmitted and was amused by it. In 1993 or 1994 in Wolverhampton I discovered the Tibballs book (which is pretty good and doesn't try to play the story for laughs: it is, primarily, the story of a fulfilling career which settled upon an unlikely but deserving man) and remembered that song again.

At the time, in dominie mode, I had given a number of assemblies about topics which were of personal interest to me; I took a great deal of pride and satisfaction in trying to fashion talks which would be accessible to an audience which ranged from about twelve to ... well, whatever age my most elderly colleagues might have been.

Energy which might have been better expended in trying to improve the performance of my regular duties, some would say - although I was gratified when, having been firmly told by one colleague that my talks were unimportant, I received an additional payment from our leader accompanied by the remark that my performances had added to the common good of our workplace.

I cannot say, however, that this particular assembly was my finest moment if judged purely on its ability to impart useful information. There was a real story at the heart of it, but my little concoction was essentially a deadpan spoof: I had decided that I wouldn't be constrained by the facts on this particular occasion, so in my account Matthew Corbett didn't turn up for din-dins at the family homestead every Sunday but instead, goaded into violence, confronted his father in a hotel room (why a hotel room?), put his hands round Harry's neck, hissing: "If you ever - EVER! - put your hand up that puppet again ..."

And I wove Swanee into the proceedings by claiming that Corbett had met George Gershwin at a Royal Variety performance in the early sixties and thereafter had been in the habit of making long distance phone calls to the great composer, asking him for advice about how to deal with his son; Gershwin wrote the song, I said, primarily as a way to stop Corbett calling all the time. Especially with the Lancashire man's inability to grasp the concept of different time zones. Pleasing it was to have a choir singing the words quoted above as I and a colleague (brought in to supply the voice of Harry Corbett and others) had Sooty and Sweep glove puppets making intermittent appearances more or less in time to the music.

There wasn't, on this occasion, any congratulatory comment from our leader - but as I had to scoot off immediately after delivery of my sermon perhaps I'd like to think this was simply a lack of time and opportunity.

So - if you have endured so long - what is the Russell Davies link? Well, the answer is that I was absently listening to Radio 3 earlier this morning when the announcer mentioned that today, the 11th of July, was the anniversary of George Gershwin's death.

In 1937.

So thank you, Phil Pope - or possibly Steve Brown. If you ever read this. Or is it, perhaps, I who should be thanked for have squeezed a little more life out of a parody you have probably forgotten you ever dashed off?  

At least, I hope you have.

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