The comedian Les Dawson excelled as a stand-up and as an actor. What is often overlooked is his whimsical mastery over the English language.
Laugh With Les,
BBC REB 346,
To celebrate Les Dawson solely as a reliable and rapid deliverer of crude mother-in-law jokes, is to do him a great disservice. True, he delivered many a gag about his wife over the years, as well as her supposedly gorgon-like mother, but Les Dawson had many other comedic talents that are underappreciated. There was the character actor who brought to life scripts and plays by the likes of Galton and Simpson, Roberto Cossa and Alan Plater. There was the comedian equally at home in TV sketch shows as he was performing stand-up late into the night at a boisterous working men’s club. There was the consummate quiz show host ever so slightly at odds with the lavish television sets, forging a rare intimacy with contestants and audience alike. And then there was the writer and novelist, the constructor of intricate fanciful prose as whimsical, rich and playful as anything ever heard on a comedy stage.
In his 1985 autobiography A Clown Too Many, Les Dawson describes Collyhurst, the Manchester suburb where he was born back in 1931. The words that he uses, the turns of phrase he conjures, and the images he conveys emerge every bit as vivid and evocative as an LS Lowry street scene. The grimy dark streets wreathed in smoke are a world full of, “teeming running fighting children, never pausing for breath as they dart down drain-blocked alleyways…” The poetic turns of phrase and literary leanings of Les Dawson find full reign in that description, inspired by his hard upbringing, thwarted ambition and multifarious struggles. Time and again, that same mastery over words would appear in his comedy.
The various working class areas of Manchester where Les’s family lived over the years did not provide the sort of environment that would normally encourage any intellectual leanings or idle comic musings. Career aspirations for Les and his neighbours did not extend much beyond ‘learning a trade’ or if really lucky, securing a steady job in a shop or an office. A mediocre student at best, Les Dawson left school at the age of 14 and embarked on the first of many ill-suited jobs in the drapery department of the Co-Op Manchester. He would go on to be an equally inept electrician, newspaper reporter, dishwasher and door-to-door salesman.
It is perhaps only the fact that Les Dawson proved so utterly hopeless at every single trade and profession he attempted to make a living from, that the British public were able to eventually enjoy his comedic output. Les’s breakthrough into comedy was driven by a fierce and relentless ambition. Not the sort of ambition that propels someone to instant overnight fame and stardom, but rather an obdurate sense of determination that allowed him to take risks, suffer multiple failures and setbacks, until success eventually came.
Les’s narrow horizons were expanded and ambitions first stirred during his National Service in post-war Germany. While no better at being a soldier than he was an electrician, and equally as dangerous to those around him, Les found that his piano playing abilities were enough to keep him ingratiated with his comrades. They also kept him out of military jail on a constant litany of charges caused by his unfailing ineptitude. After his spell in Germany, demobbed and back in Manchester, it was not long before Les felt the urge to try his luck on the continent again and decamped aboard to try his luck in Paris. Piano playing in brothels did not prove lucrative enough to sustain his dreams of living a bohemian aesthete’s life on the banks of the Seine and he returned once again to Manchester.
One further trip away from Manchester might have proved enough to squash most aspiring showbiz ambitions. An unexpected and potentially lucrative offer to work with celebrated comedian Max Wall in London proved a false start as Wall became embroiled in an extra-marital affair which saw his career stall amid the prudish atmosphere of 1950’s England. And so, with his big break gone, Les Dawson returned to Manchester, and became resigned to his familiar world of vacuum cleaner selling and occasional gigs on the Northern club circuit.
Les Dawson developed his act gradually over the years mixing his piano playing skills with comedy until, in 1964 and at the insistence of his wife he took the decision to apply for Opportunity Knocks, then the biggest TV talent show of the day. Les would go on to win the studio vote with his own unique blend of self-deprecation, world weary cynicism and earthy Northern humour, an act honed in the many years playing desperate soul-destroying gigs across the UK. That successful TV debut earned Les appearances on the televisual spectacular Blackpool Night Out. Performing an act forged in adversity and hardship made him stand out amongst the usual polished slick cabaret acts of the time, and in 1969 Les Dawson earned his first headlining TV show, Sez Les. He was at last a success, after only 38 years of toil! Les Dawson was rarely off the TV screens from 1969 until his untimely death in 1993, earning a place in the nation’s heart that few comedians can aspire to.
Les’s first vinyl album, An Evening With Les Dawson , was released in 1976. Recorded both in Manchester and London, the record was a mixture of live sketches featuring his by now well-known and established TV comedy characters, as well as two novelty songs recorded in the studio. When Dawson left Yorkshire TV to make programmes for the BBC in 1978, it consolidated Les’s reputation and produced his second album in 1979.
Gathering material from his BBC Radio 2 series Listen To Les as well as the BBC One TV series The Dawson Watch, that 1979 record Laugh With Les contains many wonderful examples of what made Les Dawson an enduring and cherished comedy star. The tracks are split into ‘dissertations’ (that is to say convoluted rambling jokes), long musings on various topics, as well as tracks performed with Roy Barraclough, with the two comics in character as the gossiping housewives, Cissie and Ada.
The first dissertations delivered is The Barnsley Dracula, a rambling yarn that tells of Yorkshire’s very own vampire, a certain Albert Shufflebotham killed by a consignment of silver tipped tripe only to be raised from the dead and married off to a pub landlady. Other dissertations deal with alien invasions and a continental coach holiday on a decrepit bus powered by ‘swamp gas and bat droppings’. These long discourses allow Les to give full flight to his fancy and absurd imagination and are sprinkled with wonderful turns of phrase.
For all the killer one-liners, fanciful monologues and brilliant wordplay, it is the Cissie and Ada routines that are the undoubted highlights. Ada, played by Les is a lusty dreamer, thwarted in love and ambition, her speech peppered with malapropisms and innuendo. Cissie, played by Roy Barraclough, is her slightly more well-to-do friend, pretentious and with an affected air of refinement and superiority. Both are united in their love of gossip nattering and intrigue, and no topic is off limits as they discuss, love, money, robust Canadian soldiers, infirmity and scandal.
Cissie and Ada are easy to picture sipping tea in their garish frocks and curlers, putting the world to rights over a macaroon while engaging in the sort of philosophical symposia that Plato could only dream of. Here then to play us out are the erudite and learned logicians of Lancashire, Cissie and Ada, discussing how best to make ends meet. Their own ends, one hopes.
So much more than just a North Country Noël Coward, singer-songwriter Jake Thackray produced some enduringly witty and well-observed songs.
Columbia SCX 6345,
It seems that Jake Thackray is often compared to Noël Coward. Certainly his erudite, clipped, staccato tones are reminiscent of Coward’s measured delivery, and it’s true that both performers deliver self-penned songs infused with carefully observed wit and hilarity. But listen to the works of Jake Thackray and you will discover so much more than a singer in thrall to Noël Coward. For all Thackray’s politely delivered words, his ditties so often deliver a turn of phrase or accent that instantly signals his upbringing in Leeds and his honest passionate love of the people and places of Yorkshire.
It is hard to imagine Noël Coward tackling the sort of topics that Jake Thackray does. Though both were born into unremarkable suburban families, Coward soon became part of the theatrical elite, adopting the airs and graces of the upper class to affect an accent and lifestyle far from that of his birth, gradually becoming more upper class than most of the upper class. Jake Thackray though wrote gleefully of jumble sales, buxom lasses, poultry and North Country buses. If Noël Coward had experienced the rough pleasures of any of those earthly delights, then his usually forthright and frank biographers have failed to record it.
Born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1938, Jake Thackray initially flirted with the notion of becoming a priest after attending St Michael’s College in Leeds. Thankfully for the sake of music he instead decided to become a teacher and left the priesthood well alone to those of a more sober disposition. After graduating from Durham University, Jake spent almost four years teaching English in France, roaming across the country to schools in Brittany, Lille, the Pyrenees, and for a brief period Algeria. Upon his return to England in 1964, he took up a teaching position back in his native Leeds.
His French travels proved an important part in developing the Jake Thackray style of singing, far more than any cursory study of Coward’s compositions he may have casually undertaken. It was in France that Jake Thackray first heard the likes of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, deeply passionate singer-songwriters in the chansonnier tradition who performed lewd, crude songs of love, suffering and desire. Thackray went on to collaborate with Brassens on tracks such as Brother Gorilla (Le Gorille). Initially though he remained a teacher, performing his songs in the classroom to a captive audience and in local pubs and clubs around Leeds and Bradford to a slightly less captive, but equally enthusiastic audience.
Regular spots on local radio and television brought Thackray’s work to the attention of composer Brian Fahey who recommended him to the EMI record producer Norman Newell. Lured down to London, Newell recorded the sessions which would become Jake Thackray’s 1967 debut album The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray and would go on to oversee all of Jake’s subsequent studio releases.
Jake’s Progress, Jake Thackray’s second album released in 1969, bore witness to the fruits of his labours since the first album. Occasional appearances on the regional TV show Look North, had earned him a chance in 1968 to appear nationally on the BBC show Braden’s Week, hosted by Canadian consumer champion Bernard Braden. Now broadcasting nationally, viewers were apparently appalled by the rough Yorkshireman with his bawdy suggestive songs. Jake’s natural charm soon won the TV audiences over though and he stayed with Braden’s Week until Braden himself left in 1972, subsequently joining the show’s natural successor That’s Life. The demands of the weekly topical consumer show format meant that Jake had to write and perform a song every week. While other performers could afford to craft their songs over months and years, Jake Thackray worked dedicatedly and diligently to produce the songs that made his name.
Jake’s Progress showcases many of the regular themes of Jake Thackray’s songs. The opening track Country Girl for instance, is that perfect blend of an outwardly respectable composition which hides a barely concealed licentiousness amongst its rough bucolic verses. Amidst the goat milking, church hall dances and catalogue clothes, there lurks a lustful maiden who thinks nothing of lying down in moonlit bracken with her many lovers before brushing the straw from her hair and returning to respectable society. If ever a song served to distance the earthy, shameless, observant humour of Jake Thackray from the staid considered wit of Noël Coward, then it would be this one.
More pastoral love scenes are enacted across the album. On The Blacksmith and the Toffee-Maker, Jake Thackray spins a comic yet tender tale of a shy blacksmith wooing a village toffee-maker pining away into a lonely spinsterhood. Salvation Army Girl features the respectable titular heroine playing her bugle in village pubs while all the time whispering sweet lusty promises to Jake. On the Shelf also features a woman on her own, coping and getting on with life without tears. It too is a sensitive and tender paean, devoid of false pity and with the very merest touch of lament and melancholy. Nurse is all innuendo and lust, in the finest Carry On tradition. The dramatic pay-off to all the yearning and pleading is truly wonderful and sadly, far too clever for me to reveal here.
Aside from his sardonic observances on the machinations of love and lust, Jake’s Progress also contains many moments of humour which demonstrate Jake Thackray’s unique and lively sense of wit. The Hole is pure whimsy, telling a tall tale of Jake sticking his finger through a hole in a door to relieve the boredom while waiting for a bus. As the ludicrousness escalates, police, dogs, and reporters from the BBC gradually gather before Jake is taken to court, pleading an excuse of ‘justifiable curiosity’.
There is plenty of self-deprecating humour at Jake’s expense too. On Family Tree, the Thackrays are revealed to be a reprehensible clan of uncouth sinners, whose only brush with the aristocracy came with the rape of a duchess and the offer of some Woodbines to the Queen. Jake delves further into the misdeeds of the Thackrays on Grandad, another degenerate relative whose cast-iron constitution and dipsomaniacal habits lead Jake to suspect that the old man will fight off the clutches of death and escape from his grave as soon as the pubs open.
The song which best demonstrates the heights of Jake Thackray’s preposterous whimsy, is perhaps The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle. A wonderful tale of suburban devil worship, thanks to the deft subtle touches of Jake Thackray, it is easy to picture the scene as Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady (and three or four more married ladies) practice their unspeakable pagan rites. These North Country witches have no need for fancy, expensive props and familiars, instead relying on their ‘Woolworth’s broomstick and a tabby cat’. I could wax at length about the joys and horrors to be found in the ‘upstairs aspidistra’d room that’s lit by candlelight’, but it’s perhaps best you listen and enjoy the antics of the Castleford Ladies yourself. Take it away Mr Thackray.
Frankie Howerd reinvented his act many times during his career, but his most important moment came during a bleak period in the early 1960s .
At The Establishment & At The BBC,
Decca LK 4556,
Born in York in 1917, Francis Alick Howard was never the most comfortable or natural of performers, and yet from an early age that was really his only ever ambition. If ever anyone was unsuited to a showbiz lifestyle though it was the comedian soon to be known to a nation as Frankie Howerd. He lacked, in all honesty, almost everything that any competent performer usually needs to build and sustain a successful career.
A writhing, squealing mass of nervousness, anxiety and stammers, Frankie Howerd was never confident performing. Success eventually came when Howerd embraced his nerviness and fear, moulding all of his various tics and curious nervous quirks into a unique persona that became the essence of his act for almost fifty years. For every well scripted gag delivered in Frankie’s stage show, there would be a dozen more exasperated sighs punctuated only by raised eyebrows, groans, gasps and nagging admonishments to the audience.
Rejected by RADA and a failure in numerous amateur talent shows as a struggling youth, like many people of his generation, it took the advent of the Second World War and the need for troops to be entertained for Frankie Howerd to really make a mark. Frankie was conscripted in early 1940 and immediately applied for ENSA, the army’s entertainment organisation which did their best to amuse troops across all theatres of war. But, with an abundance of talented performers who had more than a string of failed auditions and amateur dramatics on their résumé, he faced yet more rejection as ENSA announced they would not require his services. For Frankie, rather than a showbiz tour of military hotspots he would have to settle for life in the Royal Artillery defending the coast of Essex from the Luftwaffe.
Not to be deterred by his posting, Shoeburyness Barracks soon saw Gunner Howard of B Battery organising and starring in weekly concert parties. It was in these Sunday night frivolities that he learned to make the most of his nervousness, honing it and taming it to form the basis of an act. Essex also witnessed the first appearance of a deaf apathetic pianist in Frankie’s act. The first time in Southend it was for real, for the next five decades it was usually a carefully rehearsed but always hilarious act.
When he left the army in 1946, Frankie brought his uniquely hesitant and incompetent delivery to the top BBC Radio show of the time, Variety Bandbox. Initially Frankie Howerd floundered in this new medium and his confidence ebbed with each passing week as his co-host Derek Roy garnered the praise of the audience and the admiration of BBC bigwigs. A chance meeting with a writer, the young and newly demobbed Eric Sykes, while in panto at the Sheffield Lyceum would rescue Frankie’s career and propel him to new heights.
Through many tortuous turns and failed forays into film and TV, by 1961 Frankie Howerd’s career in comedy was all but over yet again. Work was thin on the ground and his reputation as a ‘difficult’ cantankerous individual was making gigs ever harder to find. In his mid-forties, reasoning that he had enjoyed a long and fairly successful career and despairing at ever finding decent work or mass acclaim again, Frankie had determined privately to quit showbusiness for ever and invest what little money he had left in a London supper-club.
Committed to a summer season and a pantomime after that, Frankie resolved that once those dates were fulfilled, his career would be over. During the final days of his pantomime appearances in Southsea, an offer came in which Frankie found intriguing. He had been invited to present the 1962 Evening Standard Drama Awards at the end of January in London’s Savoy Hotel. Feeling that his career deserved to reach its conclusion in an atmosphere a little more dignified than a seaside production of Puss In Boots, he accepted gladly. It was another chance meeting with a young writer, much like that one some 16 years earlier, that would change Frankie’s mind about abandoning showbusiness and propel him on to greater fame and acclaim than he could possibly have imaged in those cold dark days in panto.
Buoyed by a lack of concern about his career (and quite a lot of gratis booze) Frankie lit up the awards show with a vintage tour de force, polishing old material and slipping in newly scripted gags with ease. In the audience that day accepting numerous awards were the young geniuses behind the ground-breaking new revue, Beyond The Fringe. Impressed by the veteran performer’s compering, Peter Cook was one of the first to congratulate Frankie after the awards dinner. Cook extended an invitation to Frankie to perform in his newly opened Establishment Club in Soho, then by far the most fashionable comedy club in the land frequented by each night by an eager audience of university educated satire fans.
As usual, it took much gentle coaxing and much more forthright nagging to persuade Frankie Howerd to attempt to launch his career anew. The masterstroke in Howerd’s renaissance was to come from the fruitful mind of Johnny Speight. His simple idea was not to reinvent Frankie for a hip new audience, used to the edgy satire of Lenny Bruce and the studied wit of Peter Cook, but to present Howerd as he was; a washed up, embittered vaudevillian totally at odds with his rarefied surroundings. Stepping on to the stage of The Establishment on the 26th September 1962, Frankie Howerd was reborn for a new generation of comedy fans and his legendary status was confirmed.
Thankfully, due to some remarkable foresight, that monumental moment in the career of Frankie Howerd was preserved forever by Decca Records. Bolstered with a choice script fashioned by Johnny Speight along with Galton and Simpson at the height of their powers, the triumph of Frankie Howerd still sounds remarkable. Full of self-deprecating humour and camper than ever before, the ‘music hall comedian’ Frankie Howerd is as swift to put down and ridicule his own career chairing ‘Billy Fury tours’ as he is to criticise the shabbiness of the venue and the ambitions of the Beyond the Fringe players themselves, urging them all to consider the need to ‘turn professional’. It is a remarkably mature and swaggering performance by a comedian who has tasted fame and success as well as failure and ridicule. With nothing to prove and relieved of the desperate need to succeed, Frankie Howerd delivers the routine he always wanted to, a confident domineering performance that captivates and enthrals an audience.
The routine preserved on this record saw Frankie go on to further polish his satirical skills on That Was The Week That Was but he did not remain long with the hip young things of the satire boom. Frankie Howerd would have many further moments of doubt and uncertainty again over the years, but his major triumphs all lay ahead of him. He would succeed on stage in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, on TV with Up Pompeii! and at the cinema with appearances in two Carry On films and various adaptations of his TV work.
That comedy fans (me included I am pleased to say) were still able to see Frankie performing well into the 1990s is largely due to the wonderful fanciful reinvention contained in just one vintage LP recording. Here then is how it all began second time around for Francis Howerd, titter ye not:
Before becoming a global TV megastar, British comedian and actor Tracey Ullman enjoyed a brief but spectacular career as a pop starlet.
You Broke My Heart In 17 Places,
Stiff SEEZ 51,
Many years have passed since Tracey Ullman first found fame in the BBC series Three Of A Kind alongside Lenny Henry and David Copperfield. The fast-moving sketch show ran from 1981 to 1983 and made stars of all three of its young talented cast. After three series, Three Of A Kind finished and they each went their own individual and idiosyncratic ways. David Copperfield managed a brief career as a children’s comedian before becoming a staple of ‘where are they now?’ documentaries. Lenny Henry proved he could do a lot more than eat condensed milk sandwiches on Tiswas while impersonating David Bellamy, but the really shining megastar discovered during Three Of A Kind’s short ephemeral run was undoubtedly Tracey Ullman.
After Three Of A Kind ended Ullman appeared in Girls On Top, an ITV flat share sitcom which also gave early exposure to future comedy luminaries Ruby Wax, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, alongside veteran actress Joan Greenwood and her flea-bitten stuffed dog. Important for proving that women could actually be funny without the need to snog Bob Grant or pile on the pounds to play the role of a frumpy wife, Girls On Top was a significant moment in comedy. While it shared many similarities with the boys only sitcom The Young Ones, it was distinctive enough and original enough to prosper on its own merits.
Between series one and two of Girls On Top, Tracey Ullman was far from idle and resting on her many laurels. She appeared in films such as Plenty alongside Meryl Streep and Sir John Gielgud, and in Paul McCartney’s musical oddity Give My Regards to Broad Street. She also found time to record two music albums and release a collection of infectiously catchy and popular hit singles. Little wonder that when it came to record the second series of Girls On Top, Tracey and her TV producer husband had already decamped to Hollywood to plan her next move in achieving global domination.
After a faltering start in the US, a show reel compilation tape sent to comedy producer James L Brooks was enough to earn Tracey her own eponymous prime time TV show. The Tracey Ullman Show premiered on Fox in 1987 and was an instant hit. Rarely off the screen since, Tracey’s American TV shows have been incredibly popular over the years, winning her seven Emmys in the process and granting the world its first brief crudely animated glimpse of The Simpsons. Tracey’s shows have not enjoyed a similar level of exposure in the UK though, and all but the most dedicated of Brits will have managed to keep track of everything Tracey Ullman has made in the US over the last thirty years. Americans are probably unaware of her achievements in the UK though, that is if they are even aware that there is a place called the UK.
Prior to her move to fame and fortune in America, Tracey Ullman made quite a reputation for herself as a recording artist. Her first single release was the lively bouncy pop froth of Breakaway in March of 1983. Written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley as the b-side of Irma Thomas’s 1964 single Wish Someone Would Care, it immediately set the tone for all Tracey’s subsequent single and album releases. Nostalgic and exuberant, Breakaway is a pounding retro gallop that never lets up, like a Motown hit pumped full of mescaline. It justifiably opens Tracey’s debut album, an album which has many treasures equal to Breakaway to explore.
The collection of love songs that makes up You Broke My Heart In 17 Places are all rendered in Tracey’s distinctive high pitched tones, backed up by a host of keen electronic musicians and singers including Kirsty MacColl, The Flying Pickets and Clare Torry (famous for screeching and wailing like an over emotional walrus through Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky).
Few songs manage to match Breakaway’s blistering pace, if such a thing is even possible. The album slows down immediately for the second track, a cover of Chris Andrews’ Long Live Love which provided a memorable 1965 number one hit for the shoe eschewing Sandie Shaw. Side one continues with a leisurely stroll through Wayne Carson Thompson’s Shattered, and The Dells song Oh, What a Night before picking up noticeably for a breathless tongue twisting sprint on a version of Reunion’s Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me). Seemingly name checking every recording artist and record company of the previous three decades in a babbling three minute mini-epic, Tracey manages to cling on to the song with her sanity intact and finishes the job with credit.
Side two continues with yet more cheap frothy bubble-gum pop tunes, starting with Move Over Darling, a swirling great cuddle of a song and a great start to any 12 inches of vinyl. A cover of the Doris Day film track, Move Over Darling provided Tracey with a number eight hit over Christmas 1983.
Another hit from the album came in the form of They Don’t Know, released in September 1983. Amongst all the vintage tracks They Don’t Know does stand out as a cover of a much more recent song. Originally released as a single by singer songwriter Kirsty MacColl in 1979, a strike at the vinyl pressing plant put paid to Kirsty’s hopes of a chart entry and the record disappeared from view. Tracey Ullman’s version managed to make it to number two and remains her biggest chart success. With Kirsty MacColl providing backing vocals on Tracey’s version, the success second time round must have offered some consolation for her initial thwarted attempts to release it.
Elsewhere on side two, Tracey also trills across a bold drum led cover of Bobby’s Girl, originally recorded by Marcie Blane in 1962, and a cover of (I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear by Blondie, another female led act that knew the value of vintage elegance and how best to bring class to a classic cover version. The title track You Broke My Heart In 17 Places reunites Tracey with Kirsty MacColl, who as well as writing the song also produced it for her friend.
The album You Broke My Heart In 17 Places is an affectionate pastiche, faithful to the enduring spirit of its many cover versions without ever being a straight copy. The modern arrangements and careful production imbues all the songs with a new energy and life. The LP is a homage to the joys of cheap poular music, to insubstantial love songs and the various agonies of romance. Whether the songs covered are from the 1950s, 60s or 70s, You Broke My Heart In 17 Places somehow evokes a stylish halcyon period of the early 60s, a time that may never have really existed. Oh and it’s a cracking record!
Tracey’s second album You Caught Me Out, released in 1984, contained more spirited cover versions and chart hits for her. Sadly, since then TV and film has dominated Tracey Ullman’s career and not pop music. The legacy is quite something though, who can fail to enjoy the vivacity and energy of that very first single Breakaway?