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.
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,
Parlophone PMC 1111,
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. It does though start with a very well delivered song, namely the velvety 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 on his part.
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 the performances of 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: