Billy Connolly – The joys of copping yer whack

Poised on the brink of superstardom, Billy Connolly released his 1974 album Cop Yer Whack For This to an eager and appreciative audience.

Billy Connolly - Cop Yer Whack For This

Billy Connolly – Cop Yer Whack For This

Billy Connolly,
Cop Yer Whack For This
Polydor 2383 310,
1974

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If there is one thing everybody knows about the pre-fame Billy Connolly, it is that he was once a welder in a Glaswegian shipyard. By Connolly’s own admission, those five years spent serving his apprenticeship at Stephen & Sons, did precious little to develop either his comedic or musical ability. Although to be fair, they also did very little to develop his ship-building ability. Today those years spent on the banks of the Clyde represent only a brief fleeting moment in his life. Since then, Connolly has spent fifty glorious years as a comedian, actor, musician, legendary wit and Weegie raconteur.

Remarkably, there was life for Billy Connolly even before his stint in the shipyards. Born in 1942 in Anderston on the north bank of the Clyde, Connolly left school aged 15 in 1957 and took his first job delivering books for John Smith’s academic bookshop in Glasgow. The following year he swapped books for bread, delivering orders for Bilsland’s Bakery. Billy quit the delivery jobs in 1960 and with a clutch of engineering certificates somehow obtained from his otherwise unproductive school years, joined the shipyards as an apprentice welder.

During his time at the shipyards Connolly remained restless and unfulfilled. A stint in the Territorial Army first gave him the taste for performing, singing songs and playing his banjo to amuse his part-time comrades in arms. By 1964 Connolly and his banjo had become a regular on the Glaswegian folk music scene, playing venues such as the Atlantic Folk Club in Clydebank, and the Scotia Bar on Stockwell Street. Around this time, Connolly formed his first band, the wonderfully named Skillet-Lickers, followed by the equally wonderfully named Acme Brush Company.

In 1965, after completing his shipyard apprenticeship, Billy travelled to Biafra in Southern Nigeria where he worked building oil rigs, afterwards travelling to Jersey where he worked on the construction of a power station. Arriving back in Glasgow with money in his pocket he took the brave decision to walk out of the shipyards for good and follow a musical career. Connolly formed The Humblebums with guitarist Tam Harvey and set about cementing his place on the local music scene. After a gig in Paisley the pair were pestered by a young guitarist who insisted on showing them some songs he had written. The duo expected little but indulged the earnest musician. The young man was Gerry Rafferty and Connolly and Harvey were both immediately impressed by the brilliance of his abilities. Rafferty joined the band there and then.

Such was Rafferty’s brilliance that Tam Harvey, unable to keep up with the increased professionalism in The Humblebums and unwilling to follow the direction they were heading, soon left. Rafferty and Connolly recorded their debut album in 1969 for Transatlantic Records, initially as The New Humblebums in deference to the departed Harvey. Soon though it was Connolly who was beginning to feel the pressure of performing professionally in a group containing the brilliant singer/songwriter Rafferty. While Rafferty took time to perfect his lyrics and melodies on stage, Billy found himself compensating by filling in the space between songs with ‘funnies’. His rambling yarns and inimitable humorous tales of urban life were soon the highlights of his stage appearances. Billy’s skills were clearly leading him from playing second billing as a musician and towards top billing as a comedian. In 1971, after the third Humblebums album, Billy Connolly once again took his banjo and walked out of steady employment towards an uncertain future.

After a debut comedy show in Musselburgh, Connolly wisely decided to leave folk music behind for good and embarked on a second apprenticeship, this time gigging through the working men’s clubs of Northern England before taking up residency once again in Glasgow. Connolly’s fame spread and it was not long before Transatlantic Records saw a chance to capitalise on the appeal of the comedian they had once had under contract as a folk singer. Recorded live at Glasgow’s City Hall, Billy’s debut solo album Live was released in 1972 and proved popular enough to earn an immediate follow up.

Billy Connolly’s album second LP Solo Concert was released in 1974 and was an audacious and entirely untypical comedy album. Recorded live at The Tudor Hotel, Airdrie, rather than the conventional two sided gag-heavy comedy album put out by most other comedians Solo Concert was a rambling double album that featured coarse Glaswegian language, lengthy vulgar anecdotes as well as sizeable amounts of blasphemy thanks to Billy’s notorious Crucifixion sketch. It was also, again untypically for a comedy record, a monster hit, spending 33 weeks in the UK album charts and reaching number eight. A change to a major label soon came and Polydor helped to maintain the upwards trajectory of Billy’s ever increasing popularity with 1974’s Cop Yer Whack For This.

After a bout of heckler bating to quell the querulous rabble gathered in the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, the album starts in a very Glaswegian tone with Three Men From Carntyne. Written by the Fife folk singer John Watt, the song warrants some ad-libbed audio subtitles from Connolly for the record buying public as the three titular men ‘went to join the parish’, or sign on the dole. It soon settles down into a simple guitar led stomp through East Glasgow life, before a slight punchline is delivered. It is though a joyous journey.

Billy Connolly’s act at the time is well represented by the ensuing album. There is for instance, the rambling stand up material represented by Lucky Uncle Freddie (a suitably daft tale of a war hero), Tam The Bam (about STD clinics and fearful teenage groping) and What’s In A Name (a wonderfully painted and fully realised picture of oddly named children frolicking in the idyllic picturesque highways and byways of Govan and Partick).

There are also fairly standard stand-up jokes such as Funny Thing Religion which tells of a Jew wandering through Ulster and which throws in a fairly usual Irish gag into the bargain. Billy also delivers sketches such as Late Call in which he preaches a spoof religious sermon, attempting to explain the mysteries of life in terms of ashtrays and sardines before recalling his inadvertent encounters with eager ladies of the night in Glasgow’s Blythswood Square.

Traces too can still be found of Billy Connolly’s folk roots. On Cripple Creek he plucks his banjo competently through the traditional Appalachian folk tune. It is a serious and sustained piece of musical virtuosity that seems lost amid so much comedy. The same could be said for Sergeant, Where’s Mine? This sober reflection on a squaddie’s bleak experiences in Ulster, contrasted with the glamorous promises of the recruiting office, is a fair reflection of the kind of protest folk that Connolly specialised in back in the Glasgow folk scene of the ‘60s.

The best track is saved for last though. These days Billy Connolly’s novelty banana boots are an exhibit in Glasgow’s People’s Palace museum. Back in 1974 they were just a stage prop. As explained in the track Scottish Highland National Dress, wellington boots were an essential piece of all year round fashion for the inhabitants of Partick. It is therefore only right that one of Glasgow’s finest comedians celebrates the sartorial history of his home city in the exuberant singalong that is The Welly Boot Song:

 

The official Billy Connolly website:
http://www.billyconnolly.com/

Benny Hill – Hill’s thrills and bellylaughs

Before achieving global fame with his long-running Thames TV show, Benny Hill enjoyed a successful career as a writer and performer of comedy songs.

Benny Hill - Benny Hill Sings?

Benny Hill – Benny Hill Sings?

Benny Hill,
Benny Hill Sings?,
Pye NPL 18133,
1965

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Before the comedy begins, it’s time for a little of yer actual erudition and education. It won’t last long so please try not to fidget and do feel free to take notes if you wish. Now then, in his definition of tragedy, this ancient Greek bloke Aristotle stated that the tragic protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, and that his fall should come about as the result, ‘not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character’. The tragic reversal of his fortunes (peripeteia for those of you still taking notes) should be brought about by a fatal flaw in character (hamartia), leading to self-destructive actions taken in blindness and ignorance. Did you get all that? Good, because that 2350 year old snippet of dramatic theory pretty much sums up how Benny Hill’s magnificent 50 year career ended so abruptly and tragically with his death in April 1992. See, now you’ve learnt something.

I’m sure that every comedy fan is well aware of the story that tells the decline and fall of Benny Hill. It is a story told many times, in various books, magazine articles and documentaries. Everyone knows the ending, as well as its pathos, tragedy and poignancy. They know too of the tale of a millionaire comedian feted by the world destined to die alone in front of a television set in an empty flat. But few know of the early days of Benny Hill, the successes that came before his fall from favour and the wonderful work he achieved. By the end of his career he may have been the stereotypical dirty old man relying on the recycling of elderly gags, but in his prime he had been creative, innovative and inventive.

That Benny Hill had been born at all was a matter of chance along with a fair amount of luck. In 1912, his father Alfred Hill had been lured away from a career as a circus performer and itinerant fairground worker to Southampton, tempted by the enticing prospect of a job serving aboard the Titanic. Thankfully for British comedy, that particular job offer fell through, and Alfred instead found employment in a medical supplies shop, Stanley & Co, that specialised in the discreet selling of condoms to the sailors and citizens of Southampton. Alfred Hill certainly didn’t seem to sample any of the wares he sold, as in 1921 a liaison with Benny’s mother Helen resulted in a pregnancy and a very hastily arranged wedding. Benny’s brother Leonard was born not long after, and in 1924, Benny arrived, initially billed as Alfred Hill Junior.

Abandoning a promising career in the milk delivery business, Alfie moved to London aged just sixteen to pursue a career in variety. That fledgling career was interrupted quite rudely by the Second World War, the long arm of the law eventually catching up with the now renamed Benny as he travelled from theatre to theatre, desperate to avoid the call up papers summoning him to join in the fun in Europe. Unlike so many of his showbiz contemporaries, Benny did not use the war to further his career in comedy, instead spending his time driving lorries very badly through France as the Allies advanced on Germany.

After the war, demobilized and back on the variety circuit looking for work, Benny formed a comedy partnership acting as straight man to the tiny cockney comic Reg Varney. The turning point in Benny’s career came after a disastrous audience reaction in 1951 while appearing at The Sunderland Empire with Varney in the (up until then!) successful revue Sky High. To say Benny’s contribution to the revue went badly would be an understatement. His material was dropped from the show, the double act with Varney was brought to an end and Benny Hill developed a fear of the stage that would last for the rest of his life. Crippled by the live audience’s disdainful and hostile reaction to his talents, Benny instead turned to the medium of television and it was in the safe sterile environment of the TV studio that he would create his most pioneering and enduringly funny work.

Benny Hill also created many gems in the recording studio as well. He had released a steady trickle of novelty songs from 1955’s single I Can’t Tell A Waltz From A Tango onwards. While Benny’s agent had tried to persuade EMI’s novelty specialist George Martin to take his client on, it was a link up with Tony Hatch at Pye that would start a secondary career for Benny as a recording artist. Their 1961 collaboration Pepys’ Diary (b/w Gather In The Mushrooms) saw Benny first enter the charts, with the record peaking at number 12. Another charting single Transistor Radio was released in May 1961, followed by The Piccolo Song in December. After The Harvest Of Love, released in 1963, Benny seemed content to leave his career as a vinyl star to concentrate on his preferred medium of television. Tony Hatch though had other ideas and used his persuasive powers to coax Benny into cutting his debut album for Pye in 1965.

Many of the songs on Benny Hill Sings? follow a fairly simple formula. The framework of the composition exists mainly as a means to air a collection of old music hall gags, polished and burnished with some fresh rhymes and a cheeky delivery by the roguish Benny. Old and corny the jokes may be, but the songs are beautifully arranged by Tony Hatch and deliver some clever pastiches in a range of styles that rival anything George Martin created in his comedy career. On songs such as Golden Days for instance, there is an authentic folk sound reminiscent of contemporary acts such as Peter, Paul and Mary. The song is faithfully realised and suitably wistful, but its sensible chorus comes sandwiched between verses crammed full of a stream of insults and sexism, delivered it has to be said, quite beautifully.

That formula of silly verses, quick-fire gags and sensible choruses held together by Tony Hatch’s carefully arranged music serve Benny well on most of the album’s tracks. The story-telling of his later hit Ernie is not much in evidence. Instead the songs are full of the arch stereotypes and seaside postcard grotesques seen so often in Benny’s television work. Opening track Moving On has a full range of bizarre women described by Benny on an authentic sounding sixties r&b track; landladies, rich widows, and tattooed ladies all earn a mention. The Egg Marketing Board Tango sees Benny assaulted by a girl’s father to the accompaniment of a well realised tango composition. The tracks Wild Women and Rose see more outlandish and monstrous women as former lovers of Benny. Rose offers a choice line, describing someone as being ‘slower than a midget trying to climb a barbed wire fence’. What a wonderfully vivid image!

Occasionally, Benny abandons the strict formula of setting gags to music. On tracks such as My Garden Of Love he allows full reign to his pun creation skills, conjuring up ever increasingly convoluted gardening puns. Gems such as ‘beet-root to me’ and ‘face the fuchsia all alone’ are just the tip of the wordplay iceberg. What A World lists some extreme ironies that put the rather lame efforts of Alanis Morissette to shame. Stories of sorts appear on tracks such The Old Fiddler which sees a decrepit violinist scrape his last, and Jose’s Cantina in which we follow Benny’s attempts at romance before he quite rightly gives up and goes back to his wife.

Benny Hill Sings? is a sophisticated and clever piece of comedy that delivers some superlative examples of comic songs. Sadly for such a well-fashioned piece of work, the album as well the two singles taken from it (My Garden Of Love and What A World) all failed to chart and would cause the productive partnership of Tony Hatch and Benny Hill come to an end. After a switch of record labels to Columbia, Benny would of course enjoy the hit of his life with 1971’s Christmas number one single, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West), followed by his second LP which this time made the charts.

Long before Ernie arrived on his milk round though, Benny Hill demonstrated an absolute mastery of the art of comedy songs. Here is one of my favourites, The Andalucian Gypsies, an authentically Romany sounding tale of love, intrigue, and a woman so dreadful and shocking it looks like she was won in a raffle. Oh Benny, how we miss you and your tawdry smut.

Clinton Ford – Extolling the delights of Fanny

Clinton Ford’s love of a good song, his enthusiasm for reinterpreting old novelty numbers and his sheer natural exuberance are all evident on his 1960s albums.

Clinton Ford - Clinton The Clown

Clinton Ford – Clinton The Clown

Clinton Ford,
Clinton The Clown,
Marble Arch MALS 1223,
1970

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In the 1960s, novelty songs and music hall numbers seemed to make perfect sense in that age of psychedelic experimentation and resolute British musicality that no longer felt the need to look to America for inspiration. Artists such as The Kinks and Pink Floyd crafted songs that could have transferred straight from some dingy East End musical hall, telling tales of cross dressing clothes thieves or of the need to preserve Village Greens. Equally, The Small Faces could employ the services of Stanley Unwin to narrate Happiness Stan’s hunt for the missing half of the moon. Bands could also cover songs of a much more ancient nature, with the likes of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band tracking down obscure sheet music and long-forgotten 78s for ideas.

In short, it was an opportune moment to be a lover of novelty songs and an aficionado of old music. And there were few musicians of this era who demonstrated their love of novelty numbers as much as Clinton Ford.

Born Ian Harrison in 1931 in Salford, Clinton learnt much from his musically inclined parents (his mother was a cinema pianist in the days before Clinton arrived). Called up for national service at the age of twenty, Clinton was posted to Vienna where he took to organising concert parties, often featuring himself as a headlining guitar act. During this period he also mingled with US servicemen and became a big fan of country music. After demob, young Ian Harrison as he still was, returned to the UK and signed on for a tour of duty with another famously strict and organised regiment with a reputation for nurturing showbiz talent, namely Butlins.

During his time as a Butlins redcoat at Pwllheli, trainee entertainer Ian Harrison formed the Backwoods Skiffle Group and deciding, quite rightly, that his given name lacked a certain dazzling pizazz, changed it to the much more theatrical Clinton Ford. After the end of the 1957 summer season, Ford bade farewell to knobbly knees contents and Hawaiian ballrooms and toured the variety halls before settling into a residency at Liverpool’s newly opened Cavern Club. With the popularity of skiffle soon on the wane, Clinton instead turned his hand to jazz, and formed the wonderfully named Merseysippi Jazz Band.

Signed up by Oriole Records in 1958, Clinton Ford’s first successful solo recording came a year later in October 1959 with Old Shep. Inspired by his love of country music to record the maudlin tale of a dead dog, the song was given a rock and roll makeover, a move which caused Clinton to disown the song and donate all royalties to The Battersea Dogs Home. Through time, he grew to detest the mawkish ballad even more, a fact which gleeful hecklers would remember for the rest of his career. Leaving deceased canines aside, Clinton Ford’s next chart entry was a much happier and far less mushy affair.

Fanlight Fanny provided Clinton Ford’s second chart hit in March 1962. The song written back in 1935 by George Formby, Harry Gifford & Fred E Cliff had enjoyed a successful release on 78 and also found its way into Formby’s 1939 film Trouble Brewing, along with an additional verse. The tale of a tawdry West End degenerate stuffed with booze and shoplifted goods, her bleary sights set on seeking a good time in the night spots of Soho, it was the perfect song to drag Clinton away from his attempts at country and rock and towards a genre that would stimulate and invigorate his recordings anew.

Fanlight Fanny inspired much of what followed in Clinton Ford’s career. An album simply entitled Clinton Ford was released hot on the heels of its success and was later re-released on Hallmark as Clinton Ford Sings Fanlight Fanny. Further recordings of novelty numbers and old music hall songs followed on albums such as The Melody Man and Oh! By Jingo, both released in 1963. In case the debt to Clinton’s breakthrough single wasn’t acknowledged enough, Oh! By Jingo also included the Wally Lindsay composition Fanlight Fanny’s Daughter, a track also released as a single.

1968’s release of Clinton The Clown (re-released in 1970 on the Marble Arch label) saw Clinton revisit his favourite Fanny yet again. Far from just simply going through the movements with an old favourite though, on Clinton The Clown he saw fit to give his Fanny a through makeover. This time rather than being Fanlight Fanny, the tarnished heroine is now elevated to the status of Fan-Dance Fanny, a renaming which does seem to make some sense and add even more seediness to the character of the decrepit night club sensation. The arrangement by George Chisholm is much tighter than his original 1962 attempt and dispenses with a lot of Clinton Ford’s bellowing of ‘Fanny’, which is perhaps a pity. The only lyrical change in the intervening six years is Fanny’s decision to wear dustbin lids on her chest rather than her earlier saucepan lids. Age can be cruel to even the frowsiest of frowsy old queens.

While mainly drawing on old songs, there are four newer numbers on the album. The fact that these contemporary covers are difficult to spot is a testament to the care and respect with which they were written. The first debut on the album is The Biggest Balalaika In the World, composed by young piano player and future EMI record producer Richard Smith. A tale of ‘Volga Olga’ and her prized collection of unlikely musical instruments including her much discussed maracas and of course the ‘biggest balalaika in the Balkans’. The innuendos are a treat and each is underlined by some frantic playing from George Chisholm and his band The Inmates.

The Biggest Balalaika In the World is a perfect suggestive accompaniment to another of the contemporary tunes, My Baby’s Wild About My Old Trombone, a track which celebrates an equally impressive instrument with similarly beguiling properties. Written by Johnny Stevens and arranged by George Chisholm, its inventory of daft innuendos sung by Clinton is interrupted by some splendidly energetic trombone blowing from George.

Other contemporary treats include The Old Fashioned Bustle My Grandmother Wore, even the title of which sounds like something from a lost Edwardian classic, and The Old Bazaar In Cairo. Both songs again fit perfectly into the mad world of ridiculous novelty songs, and both were written by Clinton Ford himself, The Old Bazaar In Cairo with the assistance of veteran comedian Charlie Chester.

The authentically ancient nonsense songs date way back to 1900 with the inclusion of Burlington Bertie, a music hall song composed by Harry B Norris and made famous by the male impersonators Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields. There are a number of novelty foxtrots included such as He Played his Ukulele as the Ship Went Down, a 1932 Arthur Le Clerq delight, and When It’s Night-Time In Italy, It’s Wednesday Over Here, a 1923 Lew Brown and James Kendis number updated by Clinton with Barbara Castle references, that is more full of gibberish and prattle than words which actually make sense.

Further treats include Leslie Sarony’s 1932 Rhymes, which offers enticingly unfinished lewd limericks for the smutty minded listener to complete. Sarony of course enjoyed another 60’s revival with the Bonzo’s treatment of his bouncy Jollity Farm. The Pig Got Up and Slowly Walked Away sees Clinton tackle a 1933 temperance song with lyrics by Benjamin Hapgood Burt. This inebriated ditty details Clinton’s efforts to befriend a disdainful condescending porker in his best drunken slur, with some fine intoxicated trombone accompaniment, once again courtesy of George Chisholm.

The Night I Appeared As Macbeth by William Hargreaves dates back to 1922 and was made popular by the music hall star Billy Merson. And finally there is Riley’s Cowshed a 1924 call and response frivolity extolling the delights of ‘Bandy Bertha’ from Stanley J Damerell & Robert Hargreaves that was covered later in the 60’s by none other than Adge Cutler and The Wurzels.

Clinton Ford continued performing into the 1980s before gradually retreating into retirement on the Isle of Man. His love of a good song, his enthusiasm for reinterpreting old novelty numbers and his sheer natural exuberance made him a popular live act, and all those traits are there to see on the albums he recorded at the height of his powers. What else can I finish with but the frowsy star of the record, the one and only faded delight that is Fanny!

Les Dawson – The Manchester school of philosophy

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.

Les Dawson - Laugh With Les

Les Dawson – Laugh With Les

Les Dawson,
Laugh With Les,
BBC REB 346,
1979

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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 dissertation 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.

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