Too Naked For The Nazis
In the days of music hall it was possible to build an entire career out of just one act, and not even a very great one. Little Tich used to walk about on elongated boots, Max Miller told lame suggestive jokes and wore a bright suit, Bob Blackman used to sing ‘Mule Train’ while hitting himself on the head with a tea tray – and Wilson, Keppel & Betty did a sand dance.
The latter trio sounded like a firm of solicitors and looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs brought to life. They were the epitome of the bizarre speciality act. The men were lanky and angular, and perfectly mirrored each other’s actions. But there’s something louche and odd about their movements – it’s dreamlike, or possibly nightmarish. The act has no jokes, no punchlines and it’s certainly not clever. So why did it capture the imagination of the nation? Perhaps we were just easily amused.
Perhaps, like the show ‘Stomp!’ that has been clogging up a beautiful London theatre for years, it works because it’s simple and transcends language. But there was also something in the British psyche that enjoyed making fun of itself – an element that has vanished from most comedy acts now.
Betty completed the trio, and her dancing outraged Hermann Goering. I should says ‘Bettys’, as they were replaced when they got too old, unlike the men, who just got stranger and thinner. They did the same damned act wherever they went and became a British institution that seemingly lasted forever. They inspired many other acts and now feel like a piece of strange performance art. I remember another sand dancer who performed nightly outside the Empire Leicester Square for years and used to collect money in his fez afterwards.
Now an excellent book has come out about the act. ‘Too Naked For The Nazis’ by Alan Stafford is the story of Wilson, Keppel & Betty, and it’s just as bizarre as the performance itself. It will go onto my special ‘strange’ bookshelf right beside my copy of ‘The Man Who Was Private Widdle’, the biography of Charles Hawtry.