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.


  1. I was told many years ago that Alan Klein wrote the song "What A Crazy World" with Lonnie Donegan in mind, which was understandable in light of the fact that "My Old Man's A Dustman" was Donegan's most enduring hit. However, when Donegan was offered the song, in accordance with his opportunistic practice, he wanted both a song writing credit and the music publishing rights. Klein refused and the song was taken up by Joe Brown, with the known outcome. Pity really, because it would have been interesting to have heard a Donegan version.
    Despite numerous song writing credits to his name, there is no evidence that Donegan ever wrote anything, starting (obviously) with "Rock Island Line". Great performer, and well taught in the ways of how to make a fortune from music publishing, as Justin Hayward of Moody Blues will bitterly attest.
    A Critic & A Fan - I am not anonymous, I will respond to any comments on my comments.

  2. Interesting - he has certainly cited Lonnie Donegan as an influence so that would make sense. I have written earlier in this blog about JP Long's song which seems to have been the source of My Old Man's a Dustman: http://sweetwordsofpismotality.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/gnome-thoughts-16.html