Peter Sellers excelled in films, radio and TV over a long and glorious career. He also released some brilliant virtuoso comedy records.
Songs For Swingin’ Sellers,
Peter Sellers like many other comedians before and since was an insecure and neurotic man. Whether or not his many achievements and talents brought him any great or lasting happiness it is hard to know. I suspect not. What he did leave behind after his death in 1980 aged just 54, was an amazing comic legacy that is unrivalled in its range and its accomplishments. Three Oscar nominations, numerous BAFTA wins and some iconic performances on TV, radio and film only manage to give a small idea of the scale of Peter Sellers’ magnificent abilities. He also left behind a family divided and bitter by his behaviour, and a will that still divides and frustrates them to this day. Such sordid details are best left to The Daily Mail though I feel.
Peter Sellers was born in the Southsea area of Portsmouth in 1925. His parents Peg and Bill were both vaudeville entertainers, who toured the country playing in musical revues. Peg sang and Bill was a musician specialising in the piano and the ukulele, an instrument which Peter would also later master. Peter Sellers made his first debut onstage at the age of just two weeks, paraded to the appreciative audience of The King’s Theatre in Southsea where his father was appearing. By the age of three he was already performing in his own right, regaling audiences with his take on the Albert Chevalier number My Old Dutch.
After the family moved to London, Sellers attended St Aloysius College in Hornsey. It was a Catholic school, and seems an odd choice for a young boy whose parents were Jewish on his mother’s side and Protestant on his father’s. In fact there are probably at least a couple of dozen sitcoms just waiting to be written about that peculiar arrangement. After being bombed out of their house in the London Blitz, the Sellers family moved to Ilfracombe in Devon where Sellers’s uncle managed the Victoria Palace Theatre. Here Peter would develop his stage craft and pursue with some cacophonic gusto a musical career on the drums.
In 1943 Sellers joined the RAF. With his eyesight not sufficient enough to allow him to fly aircraft, a career needed to be found for the shy young serviceman. The profession on his official papers was listed as ‘entertainer’ and so with true military efficiency he was very quickly shipped off to India to tour with the legendary Ralph Reader’s RAF Gang Show. With a mixture of comedy, impressions and frantic drumming, Peter Sellers kept the troops entertained successfully until he was demobbed in 1946. Back in civilian life, he carried on with comedy and wisely left the drumming to others. A stint in the infamous Windmill Theatre and a spell supporting Gracie Fields at the London Palladium gradually built up his profile back in England.
These appearances led to Sellers being booked onto a number of BBC radio shows, notably the popular Ted Ray series Ray’s a Laugh. As documented in many places over many years, this then led to him throwing his lot in with three slightly mad ex-servicemen friends from a pub he used to frequent to form The Goons, possibly the single most influential modern comedy troupe there is.
On air, Sellers was the powerhouse behind the Goons. Milligan provided the scripts certainly, and Secombe provided enthusiasm and raspberries, but so many characters were brought to life by the vocal talents of Sellers that it is hard to imagine the show existing without him. Sellers seems to have only been comfortable inhabiting another character, playing a scripted role that allowed him to conquer his shyness and hide his true feelings. He would go on to create many definitive roles over the next thirty years, showing a diversity and range that few actors, comic or otherwise, have ever matched. The rest, as they say in every good cliché ridden career résumé, is history.
Songs For Swingin’ Sellers was Peter Sellers’ second album, released in 1959 a year after his debut The Best Of Sellers. Like its predecessor, and despite its title, Songs For Swingin’ Sellers does not actually contain many songs. In does though start with a very well delivered song, namely the very smooth You Keep Me Swingin’, credited on the album to a ‘Mr Fred Flange’. Flange was in fact Matt Monro, who with his career languishing in a fairly deep slump by the late 50s recorded the track for Sellers to imitate and practice singing to. So impressed was Sellers with the resultant effort though, the track stayed on the album as it was. The producer of the album, that jolly old knob twiddler man George Martin again, saw to it that Matt was signed immediately to his Parlophone label where he would go on to enjoy a much lauded career resurgence in the 60s.
Other songs do occasionally poke their tiny little heads up and muscle in on the action between the lengthier sketches. Sellers’ old music hall number My Old Dutch is given an outing, with Peter singing as a decrepit old codger in a style that is ridiculously overwrought and maudlin. The song’s denouement of an actual Dutch wife emerging from the kitchen to berate the singer is a wonderfully daft payoff that never fails to amuse me. I Haven’t Told Her, She Hasn’t Told Me (But We Know It Just The Same) sees Sellers revisit another old vaudeville favourite, this time with his trusty ukulele and without so much as a trace of a silly voice or daft punch line in evidence.
The sketches performed on the album are typical Sellers. Just as in many of his films, if there is limelight, then Peter Sellers needs to hog it. The only other artiste even so much as allowed to raise a whisper on the record is Irene Handl, famous for playing cuddly grandmas throughout much of her career and quite the most barmy comedienne of her generation. These two titans of British comedy are brought together most successfully for Shadows on the Grass, a warm and comforting comic sketch written by Handl, which sees her batty old widower seduced by by Sellers adopting a French accent straight out of the comedy foreigners Christmas selection pack. Irene Handl, here playing an elderly temptress from Dalston (aka “the Frinton of E8”), has the best of the repartee and delivers some wonderful malapropisms. Given Sellers’ many later neuroses and megalomania, it’s a refreshing example of generosity.
Other than The Critics, where Handl also appears reviewing books that neither she nor Sellers have managed to read, every other voice (male or female) is Sellers. In The Contemporary Scene 1 for instance the female interviewee Miss Lisbon and the bluff irascible Major Ralph she is sent to interview are both played by Sellers. As is the dim-witted pop star (Cyril Rumbold aka Twit Conway) that the Major appears to keep locked up in his house. Just the names of the equine stable of pop stars are a wonderful exercise in silliness from writers Ron Goodwin and Max Schreiner. Who can fail to want to hear the hits of acts revelling in names such as Lenny Bronze, Clint Thigh and Matt Lust, or not to watch such unlikely groups as The Fleshpots or The Muckrakers?
Other than Schreiner and Goodwin, Dennis Muir and Frank Norden handle much of the remaining writing duties, with the exception of the penultimate track We’ll Let You Know which is written by Sellers himself. Here, Sellers plays both the forgetful old duffer of an actor single-handedly destroying Shakespeare’s reputation, as well as the disdainful wearied casting director more intent on gossiping in a muted whisper to his chums than listening to the act. The fact that the actor goes by the name ‘Warrington Minge’ should alone make this album an absolutely essential purchase for any lover of innuendo and comedy. Quite what contemporary audiences made of that ludicrous moniker back in the 1950s is anyone’s guess.
So, if booking into a hotel under the name ‘Warrington Minge’ isn’t amusement enough for you, here is Peter Sellers singing George Gershwin. Take it away Mr Sellers.
Double acts need a special dynamic to work. Brothers Mike and Bernie seemed inseparable but Bernie’s decision to fill Mike’s place in the act with a dog speaks volumes.
Mike and Bernie Winters,
Mike Winters was born in Islington, North London, in 1930, and his brother Bernie two years later in 1932. They were the sons of a Jewish family then going by the much more authentic sounding name of Weinstein. Their mother Rachel was descended from Romanian Jews and their father Samuel from Russians. Both families had fled the threat of pogroms in their homeland and found safety in England. By all accounts performing came naturally to the Weinstein children; sister Sylvia sang, Mike did impressions and Bernie, well Bernie sort of grinned a lot. After Bernie won a childhood talent contest while on holiday on Canvey Island, the brothers decided to take the possibility of a professional showbiz career a bit more seriously and set about perfecting their musical skills.
Mike Winters became an accomplished musician, going on to study clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music. Recruiting his annoying younger brother Bernie on drums, Mike formed a jazz trio and took to playing some of the seediest venues that 1940s wartime London had to offer. The brothers simultaneously worked on an embryonic stand up career, aided by rudimentary jokes and an equally rudimentary ukulele. That career looked to be over before it began when Mike, aged 17, was conscripted into the merchant navy. The brothers’ act could have stopped for good there had Mike not been diagnosed with sinusitis and immediately discharged without ever leaving port. With sinusitis also precluding him from the army, the coal mines may have been Mike Winters’ lot for the duration of the war had Bernie not entered them as a double act in a Manchester talent show. The brothers won the competition, and the Canadian army won the services of Mike and Bernie Winters, and not long after (probably as a direct consequence) the Second World War.
The brothers continued with their act after being demobbed and pursued their career as one of London’s least in demand satirical drum and clarinet comedy acts. During these long lean years, Bernie supplemented their collective income by selling condoms while his brother sold stockings, both commodities much in demand in a London full of returning servicemen and women carelessly discarding their underwear. The brothers stumbled through various setbacks, failures and rejections until in 1955 Mike, tired of looking like so many other double acts and desperate for success, decided, for reasons best known only to him, to dress Bernie in a ridiculous oversize suit. The first audience to clap eyes on the professional debut of Bernie’s new clothes laughed uproariously and after Bernie uttered a nervous ‘eeeeeeeeh’, professional showbiz success was guaranteed. After so many years trying, all it really took was poor tailoring and a bit of gurning.
By the early 1970s, the fraternal love and camaraderie that Mike and Bernie Winters had shared through all that adversity in wartime London was in short supply. A suggestion by Michael Grade to retire Bernie’s oversized novelty suit had seen the brothers start to struggle for inspiration. Mike and Bernie took to arguing about every aspect of their act and decided to break up the act for good, though not immediately. No, they decided that a five year period of notice would be a much better way of conducting their professional breakup, allowing them to reflect soberly on a future career and plan for a life apart from each other. What happened though is that they instead used that five year period of notice to really develop their bitter acrimony and discover new and ever more rancorous ways to despise each other. By the time the end of the act finally came in 1978, the brothers were not spending any time off stage together and were steadfastly refusing to speak to each other, a refusal which held until the early 1990s.
Post break up, Mike retired from performing and immigrated to the United States where he ran nightclubs and wrote a number of successful books. Bernie, bereft of his straight man and with a solo TV show It’s Bernie looming, took the inspired decision to replace Mike with a massive St Bernard dog. I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time in showbiz, but Bernie replacing his brother with a panting sweaty dog shows just how much their relationship had deteriorated over the years. At least during this time Mike wasn’t speaking to Bernie, so couldn’t leave insulting messages on his answering machine.
Bernie and his dribbling overweight canine sidekick Schnorbitz went on to enjoy a decade together, hosting and appearing on various panel shows and chat shows until Bernie’s death in 1991. Together Bernie and Schnorbitz were more famous and successful than the strictly human only act had ever been. Now in his mid-forties, Schnorbitz eventually eclipsed even Bernie in popularity. Long after the passing of Bernie Winters, Schnorbitz still performs to this very day in his own Blackpool show with illusionist Richard De Vere, enjoying all the acclaim and glamour that Mike Winters chose to turn his back on.
The album In Toyland was first released in 1967 by CBS and again in 1972 on the Hallmark label, with a new cover courtesy of Diddymen creator Roger Stevenson. It is a snapshot of Mike and Bernie’s act etched into vinyl for posterity, whether posterity wanted it or not. Bernie is quite clearly the funny one and Mike remains resolutely the straight man. Bernie is not just silly or idiotic though, on In Toyland he seems to be some blubbering overgrown idiotic child trapped in the body of a 35 year old comedian. He is so simple that if Bernie were alive today, the record would probably alert social services and see Bernie heavily sedated and dragged from the streets into a secure care facility.
Take for instance Schooldays, the closing track on the album. Bernie is inexplicably preparing to go to school aided by Mike who has taken it upon himself to get Bernie ready. Bernie is, you will recall, 35 years old. But more is to come. Bernie has trouble getting out of bed for school, and the reason for this is hinted at later on in the album. You see, Bernie has trouble sleeping. On the track Jigsaw Man, this insomnia is remedied by Mike singing him a bizarre nonsensical tale of a man who sits on a see-saw with a tin can on his head. The track is written by Mike Winters and in a parallel universe may well have influenced The Beatles’ Mean Mr Mustard. Which it didn’t. Bernie’s insomnia is further examined in There’s An Elephant In My Bedroom, a domestic arrangement which is neither hygienic nor in any way conducive to a good night’s rest.
As you would expect from an album called In Toyland there are plenty more silly songs designed to appeal to children. On tracks such as Ali Baba a glimpse into the Winters brothers panto routine can be discerned through the layers of sound effects and dodgy middle eastern accents. Mike plays it straight, Bernie plays the idiot and struggles to say ‘open sesame’ with stuttering and slurring hilarity. Elsewhere Mike is allowed to indulge his inner Von Trapp on the tracks Edelweiss and Do-Re-Mi, with Bernie playing all the children’s parts as idiotically as he possibly can.
The real nugget is the brothers’ version of That Man Batman. Written by Harold Spiro and Phil Wainman (who would go on to produce most of The Sweet’s chart successes in the 1970s), it is a fully fledged theme tune in desperate search of an official endorsement. It is a swinging beat era comic book tale with Mike as a cool level headed superhero and Bernie as, predictably, an idiotic blundering moron of a sidekick. The song was released as a single in 1966 with another Mike Winters album track Insky Spinsky Spider as a b-side. It did not trouble the pop charts but probably did trouble the lawyers of DC Comics.
So, here to play us out are Mike and Bernie battling the criminals of Gotham City in a mini-drama which frankly walks all over anything Christian Bale or Michael Keaton ever achieved in role of the caped crusader.
Stanley Unwin, the narrator of psychedelic classic Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, had recorded many odd and peculiar stories long before The Small Faces came calling.
Rotatey Diskers With Unwin,
Pye NPL 18062,
‘Unique’ is a much abused word. It means something that is one of a kind. It is not a comparable adjective and a thing cannot said to be ‘quite unique’ or ‘very unique’. It is an extremely simple grammatical rule to grasp and an easy one to remember, and yet if I had a penny for each time I heard the word ‘unique’ misused, well I would quite literally be made of money.
Comedians and their acts are often described as being unique, yet is any comic truly unique? Each generation is influenced by the one before and in turn influences the next. There are many comedians who are unusual or odd but few, if any, who are really truly ‘unique’. One comedian who really does deserve the qualifier ‘unique’ is Stanley Unwin.
Stanley Unwin’s act may be unique simply because it is far too difficult to copy, and often far too baffling for most audiences to follow. There were no jokes or punch lines in a Stanley Unwin monologue. There were no comic situations, such as those that arose in a Stanley Holloway monologue, and no physical comedy or tomfoolery on display on stage. An address by Stanley Unwin was a sustained assault on the ears and the brain, a non-stop barrage of prattling gibberish and nonsense fashioned from mangled words and garbled gabble. Stanley took the English language and administered a through beating to it and audiences either enjoyed the experience or wondered what on earth was happening to their head.
Despite appearing to be the quintessential English eccentric, Stanley Unwin was born in South Africa in 1911 to a British émigré family. Following the death of his father in 1914, Stanley’s mother returned to England with her children just before the outbreak of World War One. Stanley was placed in a succession of temporary billets and children’s homes before settling in the National Children’s Home in Congleton. While residing there, a day trip to the Belle Vue amusement park in Manchester proved a valuable experience for young Stanley.
Present at the fair that day was a very early BBC outside broadcast unit. The mass of coils, wires and aerials pushed along on a large trolley intrigued Stanley and a lifelong fascination with radio and sound was born. Amateur wireless building became his hobby and Stanley qualified from a nautical training school determined to build a career in the new broadcast medium. After seasickness put paid to a career twiddling radios at sea, Stanley joined the electronics firm Plessey, which at the time was busy building radio sets for Marconi. There Unwin remained until the outbreak of the Second World War, when ready to do his bit for the war effort he joined that great refuge of eccentrics, the BBC.
Initially working at the BBC’s Daventry transmitter as an engineer, Unwin followed the troops into Europe in 1944 as part of the BBC’s War Reporting Unit, broadcasting from across France and Italy. After the War he stayed with the BBC, engineering many an outside broadcast. Unwin’s peculiar brand of nonsense gobbledegook was initially performed to amuse himself and to test the radio equipment before the broadcasts began. His nonsense had been noted by other radio producers and had reached a small band of admirers. Fate soon saw to it that Unwin would reach a much larger audience though.
On a 1952 tour of the Mediterranean and North Africa the top billed comic, Frankie Howerd, fell ill before the show in Valetta’s naval base, meaning that a rather impromptu bill was put on in order to prevent any potential riot. Into the spotlight were thrust Frankie’s timid script writer, Eric Sykes, and the bespectacled sound man, Stanley Unwin. Both performing in front of an appreciative audience for the first time, Sykes and Unwin seized the opportunity and never looked back.
Throughout the 1950s Stanley Unwin’s fame grew, aided by numerous appearances on TV and radio shows, most notably The Spice of Life with Ted Ray. In 1956 he appeared in his first feature film Fun at St Fanny’s starring Cardew Robinson. Eventually, in November 1960, Stanley quit the BBC and concentrated fully on his showbiz career. By 1961 when the album Rotatey Diskers With Unwin was released, Stanley Unwin had become a bona fide star and well on the way to becoming a comic institution.
So, unique he may be, but is Stanley Unwin actually funny? I suppose ‘an acquired taste’ might be the best way to describe his particular brand of comedy. Side one of Rotatey Diskers With Unwin comprises recitations in a studio, while side two is a recording of Stanley Unwin in a live environment. Both sides offer an insight into how his peculiar strain of madness works.
The Pidey Pipeload of Hamling and Goldyloppers and the Three Bearloaders on side one are both familiar children’s stories (The Pied Piper of Hamlin and Goldilocks and The Three Bears for those unable to grasp the fundamental rudiments of Unwinese). Stanley excels while describing the exploits of the Pidey Pipeload luring childers and rattage to their doom, his contorted Germanic words sounding not unlike a drunk Scotsman reciting an Anglo Saxon poem backwards. The tale of Goldyloppers is even more assured and the voices of the bears and Goldyloppers are a grumbling nasal delight to listen to. Unwin also delivers lectures on the album. For those that care to be educated and are able to concentrate intently, Artycraft and The Populode of the Musicolly chronicle the entire history of art and music (I think).
The live and ad-libbed material, such as on the closing track Professor Unwin anwsery most questions on manifold subjy, works slightly less well. While it is extraordinary to hear Unwin in a live setting responding to questions without notes and scripts, his muddled jumbled words here hide the fact that he doesn’t actually have much to say. If the subject is classical music then Unwin can embark on wild flights of fancy. If though a question is raised about skiffle, Elvis Presley or Tottenham Hotspur, Unwin does struggle to say anything meaningful on the subject. If Stanley Unwin does say nothing worth hearing though, he does do it very well. A compliment, which like much of Stanley Unwin’s world, makes precious little sense.
Stanley Unwin continued speaking and performing his patented claptrap and gibberish on TV and radio until he died in 2002, fittingly enough in Daventry where he lived within a short radio wave from the transmitter where his career had begun all those years ago.
To decide for yourself whether he is funnily unique or uniquely funny, here is Stanley expounding the wonders of hi-fi sound:
A diminutive malevolent cherub, Charlie Drake was a firm fixture of British TV for over twenty years but is rarely seen these days.
Hello My Darlings,
Music For Pleasure MFP 1310,
Madam Fame can be a most tricksy and fickle mistress. While I don’t begrudge the ensemble cast of Dad’s Army their fees for all those episodes that have been repeated again and again over the last thirty years (actually I do), there are many much more deserving comedians and comic turns that haven’t seen a penny since the heyday of their fame. As a comedy fan, I would dearly love to see someone other than Ian Lavender appearing on prime time television every Saturday. It’s not that he isn’t charming, and few can wear a claret and blue coloured scarf with such skill and aplomb, but there really have been better comedians produced by this country over the last two hundred years than Ian Lavender.
Take for instance Dick Emery, a comic great discussed on this very blog. Working his way up from bit player to star, he was at the very top of his profession for the best part of twenty years and yet if you see him on television today you’re a much luckier person enjoying substantially better TV reception than me. Another cruel example of Madam Fame’s capricious vacillations is Charlie Drake.
Born in 1925 and a stage performer from almost as soon as he could walk, Charlie Drake started his career as an accomplished if somewhat tiny romantic crooner (5ft 1in on a good day). During the war, while serving with the RAF, Drake teamed up with fellow singer Jack Edwardes (6ft 4in on a bad day) to form a musical double act. A very astute RAF officer unimpressed by their singing remarked drily that the mismatched pair would enjoy a better career as a comedy duo then they would as singers. Despite disregarding the officer’s advice a seed must have been sown, as after the war on a day when both Drake and Edwardes had failed an audition at the notorious Windmill Theatre, they decided to become comedians and leave singing to the professionals.
As Mick (Edwardes) and Montmorency (Drake) the pair earned their own eponymous BBC children’s TV show in 1954 after appearing in the comedy magazine show Jigsaw. The pair played a couple of hapless handymen who would change their job every week to predictably ineffective and disastrous results. After two years on the Beeb, Mick and Montmorency were lured to ITV where they carried on until 1958. By the end of their run on commercial television Drake felt that the duo had done all they could as children’s entertainers and they split as amicably as they could and went their separate ways.
Charlie was rewarded with his own adult orientated BBC comedy vehicle, the puntastic Drake’s Progress while still part of the children’s double act. Drake’s Progress ran from July 1957 until May 1958. An ITV programme simply called The Charlie Drake Show followed in August of 1958. The Charlie Drake Show switched between ITV and BBC for the next ten years until 1968 and firmly established the character for which Charlie Drake would be known, ie that of a hapless red-headed moon-faced hobgoblin, eternally put upon by figures of authority and useless at almost anything he turned his hand to. This character also served Charlie well in the series The Worker which took the Mick and Montmorency premise of inappropriate employment to its ultimate conclusion with Drake performing every profession imaginable with utter ineptitude until 1978.
Charlie Drake became restless despite his fame as a comic, and after The Worker finished he became better known for his attempts at serious acting. In his twilight years he settled into a life of retirement broken only by seasonal stints in Jim Davidson’s bawdy pantomimes where the fluffed lines and missed cues of elderly comedians were positively encouraged.
As well as enjoying a long and successful career on TV, Charlie Drake was once also a bona fide comedy rock and rock chart star. Hello My Darlings is a 1968 release which gathered together all of the 50s and 60s hits by Drake, along with a liberal sprinkling of b-sides and EP tracks.
Charlie’s debut release, a 1958 cover of Splish Splash was released almost simultaneously with Bobby Darin’s tad more serious original (it’s about taking a bath for goodness sake), and as happened in the 1950s Drake’s sillier version proved to be the bigger hit. Drake attacked the track with all the manic energy and gusto he could muster and it fairly rocks and splashes along. Other than the spoken word intro and comedy plughole noises courtesy of George Martin and the boffins at Parlophone, Splish Splash was a bona fide rock song and certainly no madder than many others released around the late 50s.
Drake followed up Splish Splash with another opportunistic cover, namely the 1958 Eurovision song contest hit Volare (aka Nel blu, dipinto di blu) by Domenico Modugno. Although only placing third behind André Claveau’s Dors, mon amour, Volare proved popular in the British charts and has been covered many times since. Drake sings ably on the track, once again revealing his latent singing talents. The silly voices and high pitched wailing soon overwhelms the crooning though, and if Drake’s rendering isn’t offensive to Italians then they have thicker skins than most other nationalities.
Mr Custer released in October 1960 set the tone for most of what was to follow in the recording career of Charlie Drake. Gone are any attempts at subtlety and singing, instead the oppressed cackling midget of Drake’s TV work takes over and the record is swamped with silly voices, impish shrieking and sound effects galore. As Charlie attempts to report sick for the Battle of Little Big Horn, the galloping hooves and explosions fly around the vinyl like so many badly aimed Sioux arrows.
Then there is of course 1961’s My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, Charlie Drake’s biggest hit thanks to an American release which inexplicably saw Drake take the track to 21 in the US charts, paving the way for The Beatles, one of George Martin’s other popular novelty acts of the period. The booming frog chorus provides stout backing for Charlie to work through a range of bizarre accents and insane comedy noises as he tells the rather convoluted story of an inept Aborigine. Racially insensitive, rambling and lacking any form, sense or structure, it remained Charlie Drake’s last top 20 hit, despite many more years trying.
You won’t see him on telly any time soon, so with apologies to Ian Lavender, here is Charlie Drake on vinyl, enjoying the simple thrills of bumping his head and cracking his skull on Bumpanology, the b-side of 1964′s Charles Drake 007: