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, somewhat reluctantly, 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.
Frankie’s uniquely hesitant and incompetent delivery saw him leave the army in 1946 and transfer straight 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 less gentle 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 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 relived 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?
Veteran actor and presenter Bernard Cribbins has been performing since the early 1940s. In 1962 he launched himself onto the music scene as an interpreter of some perfectly formed comedy records.
A Combination Of Cribbins,
Parlophone PMC 1186,
Where in the complex space time continuum should I begin chronicling the career of Bernard Cribbins? An actor for over seventy years and with enough landmark performances dotted over the decades to make him an important part of many people’s lives. Whether people know him as the voice of the Wombles, as a Jackanory regular, as Dr Who companion to Peter Cushing and David Tennant, as the voice of avian telephone advocate Buzby, as the rescuer of Jenny Agutter in The Railway Children, as the star of classic British film comedies (including three Carry On films), or as the only guest to have successfully assaulted Basil Fawlty, Bernard Cribbins occupies a special place in the pantheon of British light entertainment.
Born in Oldham in 1928, Bernard’s career started during the Second World War. After leaving school at the age of 13, he joined a local amateur dramatics group who were raising funds for warships at the Oldham Coliseum. After the fundraising was finished, and with the generous offer of 15 shillings a week salary proving too good to resist, Bernard stayed on as assistant stage manager and actor for the next eight years. During this time he managed to appear in over fifty plays, breaking only to complete his national service in Palestine with the Parachute Regiment. Keen eyed viewers will of course have spotted Bernard’s Para badge worn with pride as part of the costume of Wilf in Dr Who.
Bernard’s West End debut came in 1956 playing two roles in a musical version of The Comedy of Errors. That debut success led in turn to his casting in the revue And Another Thing, which after a provincial tour enjoyed a long run at London’s Fortune Theatre, also featuring Anna Quayle, Lionel Blair, and Joyce Blair. The songs in the revue were written by Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge and their imaginative, witty, often dark and mischievous lyrics would bring Bernard Cribbins to the attention of Parlophone’s novelty record enthusiast George Martin.
Ted Dicks had quit his job as a teacher to pursue a career as a composer, collaborating with Barry Cryer on material for Danny La Rue. Ted first saw aspiring actor Myles Rudge on stage in Julian Slade’s Salad Days and the two soon became friends and writing partners. Collaborating together on And Another Thing proved their chemistry and they would go on to collaborate for many years, penning songs for Jim Dale, Joan Sims, Petula Clark, Matt Monro, Val Doonican and most successfully for Ronnie Hilton on his 1965 hit A Windmill in Old Amsterdam. The duo even produced On Pleasure Bent, an entire album’s worth of songs for Kenneth Williams to tackle in his own inimitable style.
Geroge Martin in his wisdom decided that a recording of two songs from And Another Thing would be a useful addition to the world of popular music. And so in 1960 Bernard Cribbins’ debut single Folk Song was released, with co-star Joyce Blair duetting with him on the b-side My Kind Of Someone. While not a hit itself, George Martin liked the results of his experiment enough to commission Dicks and Rudge to write some more comic songs for Cribbins to record. The results of that second experiment were a little more successful and managed to make Bernard Cribbins, briefly, a genuine 1960s recording star.
Bernard’s two Dicks and Rudge chart hits are a succinct introduction into his recording career and are still well known some fifty years on. His two most successful singles Hole In The Ground and Right Said Fred both made the UK Top Ten, with Gossip Calypso (written by actor Trevor Peacock ) nudging somewhat recalcitrantly to number 25 over the Christmas of 1962-3. For whatever reason, and with a rich abundance of songs to choose from, only Gossip Calypso earned a place on Bernard’s debut album, also released in that annus mirabilis of 1962.
Most songs on the album are Dicks and Rudge collaborations. Exceptions such as Gossip Calypso fit neatly into their mad world though. For those unfamiliar with it, Gossip Calypso is a musical silliness brilliantly crafted by George Martin’s wizardry into an authentic sounding Caribbean anthem. The lyrics reach ludicrous heights of absurdity, with gossip doing the rounds concerning husbands having their kneecaps scraped, ladies wearing fruit in their hair, and obese women trapped inside trunks being freed by oxy-acetylene torches. It is hard not to picture jolly housewives leaning over fences in their hairnets and curlers while the song plays.
Other non-Dicks and Rudge songs include an upbeat jazz arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson song My Resistance Is Low, on which Bernard seems happy to display his singing ability rather than relying on daft lyrics. Bernard also tackles a straight lounge music version of the Lerner and Loewe classic I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, amidst much swirling strings and laidback piano.
It is the marriage of George Martin’s arrangements, Dicks and Rudge’s wonderfully silly lyrics and Bernard Cribbins’ deadpan spot-on delivery that make the album the comedy classic it is though. From the supremely daft Overture which sees Bernard travel with a reluctant lover around London before signifying his indifference with a well-blown raspberry, to the closing track I’d Rather Go Fishing, a clarinet-led tribute to Bernard’s favourite hobby, the album is a refreshing and entertaining listen.
The Tale of a Mouse, which relates the gratifyingly unlikely story of a mouse marrying an elephant, is a children’s song inside which can be seen the seeds of the later Dicks and Rudge work for Ronnie Hilton. Double Think manages a spoken word exploration of amorous paranoia over a gently swinging jazz trio. One Man Band sees George Martin arrange the titular musician’s instruments into a gradual crashing cacophony accompanied by some classic Dicks and Rudge lyrics. I Go A Bundle conjures up some fantastically random words (such as asparagus, aquariums and euphoniums) and drops them into what would anywhere else be a fairly serious love song.
Bernard and his collaborators do leave their comedy song comfort zone occasionally though. With Verily they successfully realise a lewd madrigal. Clad snugly in mock Tudor architecture, using such phrases such as ‘swingeth’ and ‘clout on the farthingale’ the song addresses some pressing contemporary issues such as Bernard’s woeful love life. On Sea Shanty, a passably maudlin nautical yarn is weaved with Bernard’s doleful voice and George Martin’s full sound effects library of gulls and foghorns, as HMS Cribbins gradually sinks and sings beneath the heaving storm-tossed waves.
My only regret about A Combination Of Cribbins is that it is, like Bernard’s recording career, over far too soon. He recorded a few more singles over the years and 1970’s The Best Of Bernard Cribbins gathered together the three chart hits for the first time along with some b-sides and the majority of his first album. I personally would have been quite happy if Bernard Cribbins had continued recording Dicks and Rudge songs for the next twenty years of so and racked up a sizeable library of comedy albums. But, there it is. George Martin had other projects to occupy him in the 1960s and it’s not as though Bernard Cribbins hasn’t been kept busy himself since 1962. Oh well, I shall make do with the wonderful songs they did leave behind rather than lament what could have been.
With that in mind, here is a track that has yet to make it onto any Bernard Cribbins album. Oh My Word is the (far superior) b-side to Bernard’s 1967 attempt at The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty Four. As Bernard himself said on his debut album, verily it do swingeth.
Famous for playing a conniving schoolboy, Cardew ‘The Cad’ Robinson was also a subtle witty comedy writer. His 1967 album Cream Of Cardew contains many examples of his silly songs and sketches.
Cream Of Cardew,
The late 1960s should have been a much more successful time for Cardew Robinson than they were. An over-the-top, scene-stealing performance in 1968’s Carry On Up The Khyber, a long run as Pellinore in the original London production of Camelot, and his 1967 debut solo album Cream Of Cardew, should together have heralded a glorious future for the gangly horse-toothed comedian. By the end of the decade though, Cardew Robinson had returned to taking bit parts in obscure films and occasional appearances in the dodgier sex comedies of George Harrison Marks. His 1970 book How To Be A Failure is a tongue in cheek work which seems to sum up his career quite succinctly.
Born in Goodmayes, Essex, in 1917, Cardew Robinson first performed regularly while still at school. Nearly six feet in height even then, as thin as a particularly emaciated rake and with teeth that would scare the rear end off a donkey, a career on the stage was probably the best place to utilise Cardew Robinson’s unique talents. After leaving school, he answered an ad in The Stage from Joe Boganny who was recruiting for his touring troupe, the Crazy College Boys, an act which cheerfully ripped off old Will Hay routines to the acclaim of audiences across the country. Especially those who had never seen a Will Hay film.
Cardew Robinson’s greatest triumphs came in the early 1950s when his ‘Cad’ character proved a hit on the BBC radio show Variety Bandbox. Developed during the Second World War while touring with Ralph Reader’s RAF Gang Shows, The Cad was an overgrown schoolboy wrapped in a long woolly scarf who frustrated and foiled any misguided attempts to educate him. The Cad proved a useful outlet for vintage scholastic jokes which were old and corny even at the time, with punchlines presumably translated from ancient papyrus scrolls.
The character was also a popular feature of Radio Fun magazine and in 1955 even earned Cardew Robinson his only starring role in a film. Fun at St Fanny’s is a bafflingly incomprehensible piece of nonsense, the plot of which seems to change at least three or four times during the course of the film. For much of the time though it feels as if the actors are simply making it up as they go along. A wonderful ensemble cast are wasted in some bizarre roles, and although nominally the star, Cardew very much plays second fiddle to the monstrous bulk of Fred Emney who portrays the headmaster Dr Jankers, snorting and snuffling his way through the cheap sets like a wild boar running amok.
Peter Butterworth throws things out of a telly, Stanley Unwin talks gibberish for a minute or so, Ronnie Corbett attempts to spread classroom dissent, Claude Hulbert lives on past schoolmaster glories and Gerald Campion appears in a rip-off of his own Billy Bunter character. Why a thirty seven year old Cardew Robinson is still at school is never adequately explained, and neither is how he manages to become a love interest to Vera Day. Fun at St Fanny’s is truly one of the great peculiarities of British cinema.
The 1967 album Cream Of Cardew was recorded in front of an appreciative audience by Norrie Paramor and is a snapshot of Cardew’s act at the time. Aided by Len Lowe and Sheila Sinclair, the tracks include novelty musical numbers and revue sketches. All of the pieces are written by Cardew Robinson and demonstrate clearly that he had talents other than the ability to dress as a schoolboy. Songs such as Cavalier Or Roundhead, which weaves a tale of dating dilemmas during the civil war, demonstrate a compelling and insightful wit. Other songs such as Trumpet Involuntary, which weaves a tale of a crumpet stuffed inside a trumpet, demonstrate a wonderful sense of the absurd and nonsensical. While Cavalier Or Roundhead earns polite applause, Trumpet Involuntary earns the heartiest guffaws from the audience, if only for its repeated use of the word ‘crumpet’, which remains to this day is one of the best words in the English language. Crumpet! There, see?
The sketches are droll and witty as well, and are performed with gusto by Cardew and his accomplices. How To Go To The Theatre is a ‘how not to’ guide to theatre attendance that also appears in Cardew’s How To Be A Failure book. It is reminiscent of Bob Newhart’s style and contains a useful set of tips that no serious nuisance maker intent on being crass can ignore. Other sketches such as Lost, which sees Cardew attempting to reclaim his mislaid reputation from a railway lost property office, is clever and surreal even though it does lack a really killer punchline. Concerns which certainly never bothered the likes of Monty Python or Spike Milligan.
Tele-Fidgets and A Walk In The Country are two more very clever sketches. Tele-Fidgets features three TV programmes mixed together in a channel surfing style, and is the sort of ingenious notion that the Two Ronnies excelled at. A Walk In The Country is a sketch which sees Cardew describe a rural idyll and assorted rustic pleasures in a style reminiscent of Harry H Corbett. Various birds with unlikely names, such as the coombe crested flange, are encountered as are their entirely similar wolf whistle mating cries. The sketch eventually morphs into a song by a gamekeeper lamenting how Lady Chatterley’s Lover has raised expectations of what a gamekeeper is expected to do for his employers.
The album ends with Love Song, a wistful tale of love and obesity which sees Cardew muse lustfully about his 20 stone lover. Given the levels of obesity in Britain today, that scenario is probably quite commonplace, but in a world of post-war rationing and austerity achieving weight like that must have taken some doing. Cardew Robinson with his emaciated frame certainly didn’t achieve it. It’s the sort of thing that just isn’t written these days, for various quite valid reasons. A sentiment which applies to most of the tracks on the album too. Cream of Cardew is clever without being show-off, well observed, witty and understated. It deserved to do a lot better than it did, and Cardew Robinson should have been a lot more appreciated than he ultimately was.
To prove that crumpet is a hilarious word, here is Cardew Robinson attempting to remove one from his trumpet, a complex manoeuvre that should only be attempted by a trained professional.