Very Peculiar British Performers Part 2
Films often struggled to find places for performers who had been hugely popular on stage doing variety in places like the Hippodromes and the Palaces. Frankie Howerd’s strange grimacing non-act of postures and false starts was utterly hilarious live (he seemed able to entirely dispense with a script) but was a tough one to fit into any film with a plot – although directors tried, from ‘The Runaway Bus’ to ‘The House In Nightmare Park’.
His biggest success came on TV with ‘Up Pompeii’, a smutty Roman farce along the lines of ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’ (which he once starred in) that became a series of hit films. He leaves behind a catchphrase (at least, I always associate it with him) that has entered the English language to mean something with an accidental double-entendre (‘Oo-er missus’). He was lonely and made bitter by his odd but expressive features, his upbringing and his suppressed sexuality. His touching biography, ‘Reputations’, is on YouTube. Here he is at the start of a show, and no further on after eight minutes.
Joyce Grenfell and Flanders & Swann came from a background of monologues and songs, and had hugely popular stage careers (it’s the sort of thing cabaret act Kit & The Widow repopularised decades later). They specialised in clever language, satire, drily witty juxtapositions and character studies. In one of the latter, Miss Grenfell attends her high school reunion and explains to her French teacher that her married name is Clinch (‘Maintenant je m’appelle Clanche‘). Her persona harked back to the era of Victorian parlour songs, so it’s amazing she remained popular into the 1970s.
In the same vein, Hoffnung did with music what Grenfell did with words, regularly giving comic musical recitals at the Albert Hall that started with him tricking everyone to stand for the national anthem with a drumroll, only to go into something entirely different. I especially like his grand overture that sounds as if it’s being played down the wrong end of a telescope (he replaced all the big instruments with small ones and vice versa).
John ‘Jake’ Thackray appeared on the BBC singing topical songs, a lugubrious chansonnier with a baritone Yorkshire accent. ‘Singing’ is an inaccurate term for Jake’s style, which might better be described as talk-moaning. His song-stories were a poetic blend of George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Flanders and Swann and Pete Seeger, but with a very British sense of seaside postcard humour, mixed in with wistful rural imagery.
Aside from being a TV and radio performer, he produced four studio albums between 1967 and 1977 containing songs like ‘Isabel Makes Love On National Monuments’ and ‘Brother Gorilla’. His strange style caused many viewers to demand his dismissal, but he was now a national celebrity making regular appearances (including the Royal Variety Performance). He hated large audiences, choosing to perform in pubs and frequently cancelling gigs. When his witty, literate stories lost relevance in the Thatcher years he suffered a disastrous loss of confidence. Despite making over a thousand television appearances he became an alcoholic recluse and declared bankruptcy, performing only at his local church, dying in obscurity in 2002.
He left behind an idiosyncratic body of work and a cult fan base. When the British admire someone they name a pub after him. ‘The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker’, the title of Jake’s song taken from a paragraph in the Laurie Lee novel Cider With Rosie, is now a pub in Angel, Islington.
Victor Borge had the same aural dexterity and also specialised in this strange idea of musical tomfoolery, adding a long and complicated story involving a man, a rope and a pile of bricks that always went down a storm. Musical jokes were especially enjoyed by British concert-goers. Here’s a typical quickfire Borge gag (better if you click without reading the top!)
Dame Evadne Hinge & Hilda Bracket came from a music hall tradition but honed their very odd act in some very rough pubs. They played musical Victorian ladies in drag, subverting operatic arias with falsetto renderings and new lyrics (some of them very rude indeed at first – they shaped up as they got famous), and audiences loved them. One always remained at the pianoforte while the other sang and told jokes of dubious taste. They went on to star on TV and radio, and appear at the Royal Opera House in ‘Die Fledermaus’.
That’s me laughing loudly on their BBC album, when Bracket says; ‘We were appearing in ‘The Gondeliers On Ice’ and Dame Evadne couldn’t get her skates off. We had to go home still wearing them and Evadne got one stuck in a tram-line, but I found that if I hooked her umbrella over the cable she went along by herself.’
They became so famous that they were even parodied by The Two Ronnies, the much-loved duo who spent a lifetime on TV linguistically mangling their sketches. The Two Ronnies is a show that’s unimaginable now; no sex, no swearing, nothing tasteless, some mild suggestiveness, filled with ad-libs, a typical British fondness for donning drag that went back to our history of pantomime, but most of all a huge love of the English language.
I suppose I’m going to have to publish their equivalent of the Dead Parrot sketch, otherwise someone will ask why it’s not here in the comments. The slow-burn ‘Four Candles’ is still a classic, even though it’s sadly set in the kind of shop that no longer exists. There’s a story that when Ronnie Barker had a series cancelled and it was suggested he was getting too old for the BBC, he submitted sketches under a flase name and they were selected simply on merit; something completely unimaginable now.
Anthony Newley occupied a unique space in film and on stage. A handsome leading man married to Joan Collins, he created a series of shows like ‘Stop The World – I Want To Get Off’) that were filled with very memorable songs (‘What Kind Of Fool Am I?’, ‘Who Can I Turn To?’, ‘Joker In The Pack’, ‘Feelin’ Good’ etc) but he had such bizarre vocal intonations it was hard to listen to him for long. Unfortunately he was also a supreme egotist who kept himself centre-stage and quickly wore out any goodwill audiences had. He counterracted this with the world’s weirdest TV show, in which he walked off set in the opening moments and wandered the streets episode after episode. His movie; ‘Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?’ was a vanity project gone mad.