Saturday, 29 September 2012

Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts (review of Stan Laurel play on BBC Radio 4)

Have just listened for the second time to Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts, the Afternoon Drama about the early life of Stan Laurel. It will be available on BBC iplayer, here, until next Friday and it's well worth a listen.

Without looking at the various books about Laurel and Hardy I can't say offhand where available facts end and the writer Colin Hough's imagination begins. I daresay there will be others ready to do so, though you will have to seek them out for yourself.

What I can declare, however, is that it's a well crafted play which has precisely the right narrowness of focus to fit that forty five minute slot, and doesn't force in clunky references to Stan's future pairing: there are no later catchphrases casually dropped into the dialogue. True, here are delicate foreshadowings for afficionados in such matters as choice of music, or Stan's complaint to his father that the crude early films he is showing in his theatres don't have stories, but you don't really need to know anything about Laurel and Hardy to enjoy it.

Friday, 28 September 2012

"Run away" hits

I vaguely remember a discussion about My Friends by the Strangers and These Golden Rings by the Jive Five, two songs which share the same bridge, on the Doo Wop Shop board - not, alas, among the posts archived on this blog - which suggested that the question of authorship was a sore subject.

But they are both great recordings.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Things to do with Denver while you're dying

John Walsh is what we call in the trade a good writer. Quite apart from anything else, he knows how to pitch comedy, making it part of the bigger picture, concealing the craft which some other hands make all too obvious. I've read too many personal columns (mostly in the Times Educational Supplement) and heard too many similar pieces spoken on the radio (mostly by professional writers on the late John Peel's Home Truths) possessed of a leaden facetiousness which makes you feel that the writer has his knee on your chest, forcing you to put out with at least the semblance of a grin if you want this ordeal to come to an end.

Not so Mr Walsh. I am fond of saying, and have probably said it here before, that when AA Milne became deputy editor of Punch, his writing style was an innovation: freer and fresher than his forebears. When someone complimented him that his latest piece seemed to be "funny without trying" Milne admitted "That's what it tried to be." Nevertheless, that's the best way to describe what I feel about Walsh's book The Falling Angels.

Having read and enjoyed Are You Talking to Me?, his memoir arranged around twelve key films in his life, I sought out this earlier account of his childhood and the pull between Ireland and England, the place where his parents settled.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Off-Kilter for Company (does that even make sense?)

I can't help it. I know it was only a couple of posts ago but I have to watch the video for Shirley and Company's Shame, Shame, Shame again. There is another clip on youtube which appears to have a different male sharing lead, but I find myself drawn to this particular pairing, this near-meeting of the hips, if not the hipsters. I think it's because, like Archie Bell and the Drells, they "dance just as good as we want" - which is to say, probably not that good, actually.

But who cares? They are so palpably enjoying themselves that it doesn't really matter. And even if they are miming on this occasion, the sound of the record is so great that it excuses everything else. And although dancing is often equated with sex, there is something sort of decorous about the dancing here: they are together, surrendering to those jazz-crazed rhythms, but in a kind of companionship rather than a suggestion that they will be getting it on shortly.

Beat-less is now more

If you listen to Spencer Leigh's On the Beat programme via BBC iplayer, you may have been puzzled to find that the show appeared to start mid-interview with Gerry Marsden and later gave way to a football match. The problem has now been sorted - hooray! - and you can hear the show in its entirety (two and a half hours) on iplayer until Saturday, so hurry.

If you haven't heard it before, and if you like the range of music described in this blog, I recommend On the Beat as a regular listen. Although there are references to local gigs you don't need to be in Liverpool to enjoy his interviews nor the wide knowledge underpinning them. At the end of his interview, Gerry Marsden even says that Spencer knows more about him than he does himself.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Floating Boaters or But wherefore could not I pronounce "Hooray" or "Boo"?

The BBC are currently rerunning 35 year old episodes of Top of the Pops, its now sunken flagship pop show, in sequence. I initially thought I'd store them all on my TV's hard drive but weekly exposure to the programme has hardened my heart a little.

Maybe the Beeb has picked up the story just a little too late. At some point around this time these editions first aired Top of the Tops stopped being watched religiously in our house. On occasions when I was watching on my own I began to change the channel when a boring song was on, preferring to watch James Bolam in When the Boat Comes In. Then one day, lost to history, I became engrossed in the unfolding story and didn't change back after the requisite three minutes. Not sure whether that meant I had grown up or that part of me died that day. Or both.

New radio play about Stan Laurel

A few weeks ago I was, for the first time, inside the Panopticon, otherwise the Britannia Music Hall, in Glasgow: the place where a young Stan Laurel made his first theatre appearance, without the knowledge of his father, Arthur Jefferson. I didn't have a guided tour, was just there by chance when their Penny Bazaar was taking place, and later went to watch some Laurel and Hardy films there.

Both the stage and the back of the theatre were blocked off, so a certain amount of imagination was needed in order to get the full effect from this place of pilgrimage, but I'm very glad I went. There is a group dedicated to preserving it, and you can find more details here.

There are also some remarkable panoramic pictures on a linked site here, allowing you to see rather more than I was able, though you still don't get to see the actual stage; the above is a screengrab from that site. Someone told me that there is a redundant toilet block in the stage area - built before someone twigged that there was no plumbing for it - and that at some point the original stage area will once again be revealed; indeed, I remember a lot of relish about the prospect of smashing through the accretions, restoring the space to something like itself. (Am I allowed to say "accretions"?)

There are regular events at the Panopticon and a shop nearby, so if you live in Glasgow, or even if you don't, please support it if you can. Judith Bowers, who was behind the discovery, has written a book about it.

But back to this new play, which is the Afternoon Play on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 28th September - more details here. There has, in recent years, been a radio play about Stan Laurel and his relationship with Oliver Hardy by Neil Brand, but according to the Beeb's advance publicity this new script by Colin Hough, cannily entitled Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts, focuses on the relationship between Stan Laurel and his mother and is set in Glasgow in 1906. The proprietor of the Panopticon is featured so Laurel's debut may well be at the centre of the story. I've read most of the available material about the great pair over the years but can't, offhand, think how much imagination may be necessary to conjure up Laurel's early life, but the play should be an interesting listen.

I heard the radio version of Tom McGrath's stage play Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy a few years back, which I wasn't that keen on - maybe the stylised nature of it was less suitable for radio, though I have to admit that I saw the original stage production at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow and remember thinking that the delight of a carefully recreated dance from Way Out West at the end was a bit of a con, making the audience think they had had a better experience than what had actually unfolded over the last ninety minutes or whatever. Though there were moments when John Shedden, as Laurel, appeared uncannily like him. I had also seen him earlier in another play, at the King's Theatre, and one moment when he sat down to dine seemed to have all the characteristic, comic humility of Laurel. But I ought to read the script.

I remember Tom McGrath fondly, as there were occasions when he listened to my adolescent ramblings as though much wisdom, or at least much of interest, was contained therein. Once I was on the point of asking him about the play, and how much information there had been to draw on beyond John McCabe's two books (this was the early seventies). But I didn't - and now I can't.

There exists somewhere in the archives of the Glasgow Herald a photograph of Tom McGrath wearing half a dozen bowler hats, appealing for more as the original production involved smashing one of those at each performance. It made, as the Herald noted in a pleasing phrase, for "a hattish fetish." I hope I see that photo again some day.

I haven't yet listened to Stan, the Neil Brand radio play, though I did watch the TV adaptation. I know someone in the radio drama business who has a low opinion of the latter, and I can see that it does seem like it would be a perfect radio play, with Hardy's presence felt rather than seen. But before I knew it had been wrenched from a better setting what did discombobulate me about the TV version was that the actor playing Laurel had brown eyes. Brahn eyes! I ask yer! Brahn eyes! A small detail? Not when those piercing blue eyes stare out at you from every B&W still.

Lastly - as this post seems to have become a grab-bag of Laurel and Hardy-related memories - two more things.

One is that in my dominie incarnation I once took the chance to condense into fifteen minutes what I felt about the pair. It went well, partly because I put far more care and preparation into it than my normal lessons, shamelessly roadtesting it on numerous groups of students beforehand.

On the day itself, my colleague who'd kindly agreed to operate the slide projector didn't have an easy task because, despite the rehearsal, as I became more relaxed and felt the warmth of the audience's attention, safely distanced and indistinguishable in the semi-darkness, I added further thoughts as they occured, like the detail which has always touched me about Oliver Hardy, on tour in the UK in the fifties, going up a steep flight of stairs to get Ray Allan's autograph for his and Stan's collection. (I suppose you could say that Ray Alan returned the favour, as a photo of Stan provided the inspiration for the modelling of Lord Charles.)

After a student played a little bit of the sig tune to end proceedings and I had a strange feeling which transcended ego: while it was great to be showered with compliments - something which I never attracted, I may say, for my teaching - my overriding feeling while giving the assembly was that here was a chance to say, and to have others hear, how much these two people had meant to me, a chance to repay, at least a little, what they had given.

Which reminds me of the section which another colleague, head of Media Studies, said I should cut out of my draft of the talk, and so I did. He was probably right for such a setting but I remember the passage, which was extracted from Philip Oakes' novel about a film critic, called A Cast of Thousands, or something like that.

I recommend Oakes' novels - there's another called Exactly What We Want, which draws on his early days as a reporter - and his three volumes of autobiography, not to mention his memoir of Tony Hancock.

But I digress. The point is that the excessive piece of writing came from A Cast of Thousands (or however many it was) and concerned the film critic's then girlfriend or partner who was clearly not, after all, The One. And it all came down to Laurel and Hardy. She would watch in annoyed disbelief as he practically fell off his chair watching shorts like The Music Box and the critic realises that he can never explain the magic of those long-vanished days in the Californian sunshine nor the enduring appeal of Laurel and Hardy:

Like love, they were not part of her world.

Review of Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts here


Another Stan Laurel play which ought to have been mentioned in this post is Stan Laurel: Please Stand Up!,  a one man show by Bob Kingdom

Having missed the chance to see it in an intimate theatre on my doorstep I was obliged to watch it in a less sympathetic space. But even if the laughs weren’t loud on that occasion, they were there, and the conversations in the bar at the interval showed that people were engaging with the play, which wasn't a straightforward biographical piece, nor an excuse to recreate film routines. The first act showed us a Stan who didn’t know who he was, followed by the mature Laurel in the second half and the two personae meeting at the end, giving the whole thing a satisfying and clear shape.

Kingdom also wrote the piece, which made me think about what Tim Fountain has said about writing monologues based on real characters – I don’t have his book to hand but the gist is: do all the research then forget it and make an instinctive leap towards what connects you and the character.

Mr Kingdom is currently touring with another one man show, An Audience with the Duke of Windsor - details here - but if Stan Laurel: Please Stand Up! gets another outing it is worth investigating.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The passing of Cheapo

A wonderful, painterly image of Cheapo Cheapo Records, late of  Soho, found online; another photograph provided the basis for the various images to be found at the top of this blog.

If you haven't already done so, you can click the relevant page above to read a series of posts about the demise of Cheapo, my favourite record shop, and how I found closure (of a sort).

All I need to add here is that the above photograph has the look of an Andrew Wyeth image and makes me marvel that I never realised just how steep Rupert Street is.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Farewell to the Dells

Have just read in Record Collector magazine that the Dells, who haven't performed since the death of Johnny Carter just over three years ago, are now going to bow out. Marv Goldberg's Dells page refers to one final gig at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in June of this year, so presumably the decision was taken not to do this.

Not a surprise - "his leaving has left such a huge void," says Chuck Barksdale of Johnny Carter's 48 years in the group which he joined after the Flamingos - although the demand is still there and "their voices remain in great shape", according to Garth Cartwright, writer of the Record Collector article, which draws on his book More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music as well as a more recent interview in which Chuck Barksdale considers the group's achievement.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Don't fear the peepers

I'm guessing that the above image, taken from a well-known auction site, shows more recent packaging for the joke glasses in the previous post, manufactured by the same company. Unless they are a bootleg version of a popular product; I really don't know how cutthroat things are these days in the novelty industry. 

There is undoubtedly a greater facility with English on display here: one bona fide pun ("a real spectacle") and (perhaps) a hint of double entendre in the phrase "bi-focal fun" nestling in the red oval once needed to warn purchasers that what they were getting for their pennies was not a genuine aid to vision.

But it's odd: a slicker product but, I suspect, less memorable. Is it simply that this newfound evidence of an ability to handle language takes away our smirking sense of superiority? (As noted earlier, others online have been similarly tickled by the clumsy phrase in the previous packaging.) 

Or is it that "DARING! DON'T FEAR OF MY EYES" suits the product better, being suggestive of a child striving for a portentous phrase and making do with whatever rough assembly of words first comes into his head?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Have no fear

One thing I didn't do before posting the previous entry was to check whether that singularly odd phrase "Daring - don't fear of my eyes!" had surfaced online. The answer is yes, and the toy I couldn't remember is revealed as a pair of extra large joke glasses. "Toy only!" the packaging warns, in case any purchaser with a genuine eye condition might be deceived, with tragic (or hilarious) consequences.

Reminds me of the story oft told by Barry Cryer and others about the notorious Windmill Theatre. Notices forbidding "artificial aids to vision" were prominently displayed - ie no binoculars for watching the static nudes. One gentleman had thought to buck the system, if that's the phrase I want, with magnifying lenses fitted into a pair of spectacles, but fell down a flight of steps and broke his arm (or something), because he had forgotten distances would be similarly distorted when he wasn't seated.

There also is a strange electronic track to be  found on soundcloud with that title and you can see the glasses modelled here. Saddest image to be found on the net, however, is that of the packaging without the spectacles.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

"You made blogging glance easy" and other unsolicited testimonials

In recent months my blog has attracted the attention of spammers - though as comments are screened before publication it's all a bit of a wasted effort on their part, I'm afraid. But I thought I would share some of their contributions anyway, what with it being a slow day and all.

A post about the Four Tops, for example, attracted this enthusiastic response:
It's a shame you don't have a donate button! I'd definitely donate to this excellent blog! I suppose for now i'll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to brand new updates and will share this blog with my Facebook group. Talk soon!
Alas, despite the warmth displayed above, there has been no further communication has been forthcoming from any quarter - and I haven't got round to adding a donate button so my critic's enthusiasm cannot be displayed non-verbally. My loss, I suppose.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Piggy Bank Love or A Babel of Green Shields

This Bonzos track hasn't attracted much attention - perhaps not helped by coming immediately before I'm Bored on the Gorilla album. But it's a good 'un, I think, and worth consideration here.

When I first heard it I quite wasn't sure where to place it. Who or what was it parodying, precisely? I think I've seen the Beach Boys mentioned somewhere, presumably because of the high voices, but it seems more like Penny Lane territory - though The Equestrian Statue does that more comprehensively.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Hal David

Read about the death of Hal David on the BBC's news channel and was surprised it wasn't mentioned in the subsequent news programme on the main channel. Doesn't it count as a major event, then? By way of compensation I searched my MP3 player for something to play as a kind of personal tribute, or reminder to myself of his lyrics; luckily there was Do You Know the Way to San Jose.

I remember once having a conversation with a former line manager about this song, someone of whom it might have reasonable to expect a degree of sensitivity to language, but no: for him the song was simply a jolly, bouncy thing and the lyrics a negligible part of that whole.

Even at an early age, I got it - and I think my first contact with the song was via that unlikely video of a donkey on a 1968 edition of Top of the Pops, which I'm guessing was got up by the BBC rather than provided by the record company.

Actually, not that unlikely - you could argue that the would-be stars are deceived by the thought of near-instant ("in a week, maybe two") gratification, like those poor translated boys in Pinnochio.