Too Naked For The Nazis

The Arts

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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.

11 comments on “Too Naked For The Nazis”

  1. Tom Ruffles says:

    Luke Mckernan has written an excellent blog post about them, with plenty of clips:

    http://lukemckernan.com/2015/11/28/wilson-keppel-and-their-betties/

  2. Jo W says:

    Ah,how many times have I,on seeing the names on a solicitors office window, wondered if they also do a good sand dance at the office Christmas party! and which one was Betty? đŸ˜‰

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The group has been mentioned here before but I’d never seen them perform. That second routine was really quite good, but the first one on the stairs was pretty uncontrolled and windmilly. What happened to Betty in the second one? I read books over again, I enjoy music over again, so it isn’t surprising that people enjoyed vaudeville acts over again, although the stairs would pall fairly quickly, even if set to different music each time.

  4. Vivienne says:

    Kepler and Betty is sort of ingrained in my mind. I must never have picked up the Wilson. My father referred to them often, but it was one of those references you just ignore as a child. No videos, or You Tube, even television. iIf they hadn’t been performing locally, how would you ever know what they were really like? Two chances of seeing an act like that would have been fairly difficult I’d have thought, so they would have been pretty fresh for all their audiences.

  5. snowy says:

    They started at the height of Eygpto-mania, Howard Carter was still working through the massive amounts of material in the tomb of the ‘Boy-King’ he discovered 7 years earlier. Cinemas were being built with an Eygptian styled interiors and Boris Karloff was about to hit the screens as ‘The Mummy’.

    While bendy men doing funny dances has an eduring appeal, it would be a mistake to discount the appeal of the original Betty, the bikini was decades away and the ‘harem costume’ was quite daring in its day. She went on to have a second and arguably more interesting career as a war correspondent.

    [Now if I could only remember which film has a chase sequence, which is interrupted when the pursuers happen across a patch of spilled sand and break into an impromptu routine.]

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I saw two boys doing a routine like this in front of Egyptian displays in the British Museum and if the rumours are correct we’re about to have another round of Egyptomania as they open what appears to be another tomb in Tut’s tomb. (How could so many people have gone in and out of that place and not notice the other room even if there was a mortared up entrance.

  7. Roger says:

    “Betty completed the trio, and her dancing outraged Hermann Goering”
    …and the other two didn’t? How did Goering come across them? Were they on a Europrean tour or did English appeasers take him to a music-hall as a treat?

  8. admin says:

    Incredibly, I was at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn last night and they did a Wilson, Keppel & Betty tribute sand-dance onstage.

  9. chris hughes says:

    I was taken to see a show in the last run of the Crazy Gang at Victoria Palace and there was a sand dance act which I’ve always wondered were actually Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Whoever they were, I fell about laughing till I cried – well, I was only thirteen. Ostensibly they did nothing funny, just danced, but the seriousness they performed it with just made it funnier. I wonder, though, whether it’s one of those acts like Denny Willis doing The Fox Has Left Its Lair that could only be funny once.

  10. Charles (another one) says:

    Didn’t there use to be a tribute act version busking in and around Leicester Square in the 60s/70s, to the entertainment of queues for cinemas and theaters? It can’t have been the originals. I seem to remember they had a sand paper rectangle to do the dance on.

    There was a story that when they were on tour to Las Vegas (which in itself seems highly improbable) they took their own Bedfordshire (?) sand… I hope its true.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Of course they would have taken their own sand! The sand is like an instrument so the sound quality is vital. You don’t want it so coarse it makes dancing difficult or so fine the sound doesn’t carry properly. You want the pitch just right, too. If what they’re happy with comes from Bedfordshire….

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