Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page
Grandad Requests ‘Permission to Sing Sir’
Music for Pleasure MFP 5211
I have already remarked elsewhere in my musical ramblings how the 1970s threw up odd pop stars such as Don Estelle. Most music critics today would have us believe that the entire decade consisted of five strictly monitored years of glam and then, following a formal handover ceremony in 1975 between John Lydon and Noddy Holder, five further years of punk and shouting. There may also have been a noodling load of prog rockers skulking somewhere in the incense infused shadows, growing their hair and releasing quintuple concept albums about aliens and Westphalian peace treaties, but they didn’t impinge on the public consciousness to any great degree. Unless the public in question happened to be geography students at a provincial university. The true history of 1970s music has been repressed and glossed over. Lest we forget it was a decade that started with Rolf Harris ruling resplendent at number one with Two Little Boys and ended with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall. A record which despite all its miserablist pretensions was a glorified one-off novelty hit in spirit, complete with chorus of out of tune children. Perhaps Pink Floyd and their chorus of disaffected youths took inspiration from the other odd pop star of 1970, the doddering Methuselah of novelty music Clive Dunn, and his colossal hit record Grandad.
Born in 1920 in Brixton to a mother and father who were both dedicated theatrical types, Clive was an early starter in the world of comedy, making his film debut in 1935 at a fee of one guinea and a packed lunch per day as an extra in the Will Hay comedy Boys Will Be Boys. Thanks to his father’s entertainment connections, a promising career as a clapper boy beckoned for Clive when he left school. The film company he was to work for soon folded though and Clive’s behind the camera career was postponed in favour of larking around in front of the camera. Clive Dunn the budding director joined the famous Italia Conti school to become Clive Dunn the budding actor. A further minor film part in A Yank at Oxford and the role of Slightly in a touring production of Peter Pan was his reward. And then Hitler rather rudely started the Second World War, putting a temporary end to Clive’s acting career. Though he would be grateful for the war giving him the chance to play Corporal Jack Jones many years later, his initial enthusiasm for combat was dampened somewhat when he was captured by advancing German troops in Greece. Clive spent four years in prisoner of war camps before the war was over.
Returning to London in 1946 a faltering TV and stage career was revived when Clive fell in with the famous Players Theatre, a troupe of extraordinary performers who recreated the sights sounds and smells of Victorian music hall. Clive specialised in odd character roles, his far from matinee idol looks ensuring he would never play romantic leads. When his friend Tony Hancock needed an odd-looking character actor to play an aged foil in his new TV series, Clive Dunn was the obvious choice. The die was cast, as was Dunn, and from then on he made a speciality of playing ancient duffers, confused pensioners and mad old men. Further old man roles followed, and Clive consolidated his reputation as the grand old man of British comedy when aged only 40 he landed the part of ‘Old’ Johnson, a wizened Boer war veteran and gentlemen’s club waiter in the popular ITV series and Army Game spin-off, Bootsie and Snudge.
Greater acclaim was still to come though. In 1968 Jack Haig, another celebrated character actor, turned down the part in a new sitcom based on the exploits of the Home Guard during World War Two and the part was offered to Clive Dunn. No actor reading through the initial script of Dad’s Army could have known what fame, critical acclaim and popularity lay ahead for them. With the exception of Ian Lavender the cast were old reliable acting veterans, none were huge stars in their own right but certainly familiar to the public. Over the show’s nine year run they would become some of the most popular actors in Britain.
Clive of course played an old man. Aged only 48 he was seen as a natural to play the part of Corporal Jack Jones, born in 1870 and a much-decorated veteran of the Battle of Omdurman under Lord Kitchener. Dad’s Army was an immediate success with TV viewers and Dunn’s character with his catchphrases and quirky physical comedy was a hit. But how best for Dunn to capitalise on this? A chance meeting at an after show party at Quaglino’s with Herbie Flowers saw Flowers agree to try his hand at writing a song for Clive. Flowers and his group Blue Mink had just had a number three hit with Melting Pot, but it was his collaboration with Clive Dunn which proved to be his finest musical moment. Okay, so he later played bass for Lou Reed on Walk on the Wild Side, but come on, this was Clive Dunn!
Most of Clive’s debut album was written and produced by Candid Camera producer Peter Dulay and comedy writer Ray Cameron. Ray Cameron is more famous nowadays for being the father of the sweaty, grinning, over eager to please, stand up comedy cocker spaniel megastar Michael McIntyre. But back then before young Michael was even born, Ray Cameron was proving to be quite the up-and-coming comedy writer and would go on to script The Kenny Everett Show. The material that Cameron was producing was good enough and suited Clive’s old codger character perfectly. Cameron scripted many of the songs himself and threw in a few oddities like the 1965 Bacharach and David number What the World Needs Now Is Love, but the album desperately needed a killer track. When Herbie Flowers popped round to Clive’s house with Grandad, a track he had written in collaboration with The Creation front man Kenny Pickett, they had their hit.
In November 1970 Grandad was plucked from the album in the hope that it would become a Christmas hit single, a fairly obvious choice really. Its family-friendly sentiments are perfect seasonal novelty material at a time when elderly relatives are allowed out of their solitary world of cat food and bus passes and deemed fit to mingle with younger members of society. An appearance on The Golden Shot and relentless plugging of the single on every children’s show around soon paid off. Children wanted to buy the record for their grandads and grandads wanted to buy it for their grandchildren. If only to remind them they were still alive. The unlikely pop star Clive Dunn received the ultimate accolade when he made it on to Top of the Pops alongside Olivia Newton John and Gilbert O’Sullivan. A strike at the EMI pressing plant prevented the record from becoming number one over the coveted Christmas slot but the factories soon reopened and the record returned with a vengeance making it to number one in January of 1971. Another Top of the Pops appearance was granted to Dunn and he set off to tour the song around the country. To say the single was a roaring humungous success is still an understatement, it didn’t leave the charts until the end of June 1971, a staggering 28 weeks since it had entered, and has enjoyed a number of re-releases over the years.
So assuming that every single living person on the planet has heard Grandad at least a thousand times, here is the album track Simone to play us out, the one track on the album where brash new-fangled electronic instruments creep into Clive Dunn’s bizarre sentimental world of penny farthing bicycles, cobwebs and mildew:
Further troop movements can be saluted at The Dad’s Army Appreciation Society:
The Best of Rambling Syd Rumpo
Starline SRS 5034
There’s probably not much I can say about Kenneth Williams that hasn’t been said many hundreds of times already. The details of his life have been picked over and analysed by many noted writers and scholars, and the results displayed in various books, biographies, dramas and documentaries. Chief among those analysts is Kenneth Williams himself, a meticulous and obsessive chronicler of his own life who compiled an immense diary that included every minute detail of his life and thoughts for over forty years. Yet despite all that huge wealth of material, despite all the many attempts to scrutinise Kenneth Williams’ life, more material still keeps appearing year after year. So just what is the fascination with Kenneth Williams?
Kenneth Williams was a consummate comic actor, he had few equals in his profession and he brought joy and pleasure to millions of adoring fans. It wasn’t those remarkable talents that ensured Williams’ enduring fame though, his work was astounding by anyone’s standards but it was not enough to perpetuate the intrigue and interest in him. Instead, what fascinates people to this day and provides inspiration for writers and dramatists, are the strange contradictions and dichotomies that surround Kenneth Williams and the unique and peculiar personal world that he constructed.
Kenneth Williams was an incredibly skilled actor who could turn his hand to anything, and yet he refused all overtures to work in America. He was a relatively uneducated cockney who through self-study became an incredibly knowledgeable and pedantic scholar. He felt contempt for much of his work, professing to love the theatre above all other media, but he soon become bored and tired when performing on stage. He desperately craved attention and yet was privately tortured by being recognised in public places. He revelled in the company of others and yet he spent his entire life painfully alone. He projected an outrageously camp homosexual persona in much of his work and yet he remained introverted in reality, unable to form a meaningful relationship with another person, perpetually tortured and sexually frustrated until his death.
And so all those complex riddles and enigmas power the myth and legend, and the Kenneth Williams industry rolls ever on, producing more material each year in an attempt somehow to move closer to unlocking the complex conundrum that was his life. Will anyone ever satiate the public’s continuing desire for titillation and information in relation to Kenneth Williams? I doubt whether any writer will ever definitively prove or solve anything either way. In fact I wonder after all this time just what it is they are still trying to prove. What will undoubtedly remain for posterity is Kenneth Williams’ remarkable body of comic work. Kenneth Williams excelled in whatever he did; in the theatre, on television, in films and, via his radio work, also on vinyl.
The character of Rambling Syd Rumpo first appeared in the radio series Round the Horne. This popular show ran from 1965 until 1968, evolving from the earlier series Beyond Our Ken. Both shows were built around the talents of Kenneth Horne, a sober authoritarian figure who presided over the camp madness of Kenneth Williams and the rest of the cast. Horne revelled in playing the pivotal role of an avuncular uncle somehow aloof from all the surreal comedy surrounding him, and was the perfect droll comic foil for Williams. The series ended abruptly after Horne’s death, evolving once again to become the Kenneth Williams fronted Stop Messing About. Round the Horne was a tough act to follow though, the series missed Horne’s tremendous talents and was quietly cancelled after just two series.
Rambling Syd was a crazed yokel folk artist who mangled many familiar folk standards with his own brand of ludicrous innuendo. Bizarre nonsense words were liberally sprinkled throughout his songs thanks to the writing talents of Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Words such as ‘nadger’, ‘grunger’, ‘splod’ and ‘artefact’ were used to infer who knows what. As can be heard on the various recordings Kenneth Williams made as Rambling Syd, audiences enjoyed drawing their own conclusions and found each subtly inferred innuendo hilarious in the extreme.
The track below is taken from the 1970 album The Best of Rambling Syd Rumpo on the EMI imprint Starline. Given the major label backing and the popularity of the Round the Horne radio series, it’s quite a shoddy affair. The cover image of Williams (for some reason not portrayed in character as Rambling Syd) is shot in black and white and printed on what feels like quite cheap card. In fact there is no colour anywhere on the sleeve and the whole effort feels like a major cash-in on Williams’ talents. What is great though is the content, don’t judge a record by its cover as someone probably said once upon a time. Williams is on top form as is his regular guitarist Terry Walsh. The audience hang on Kenneth’s every ludicrous word and relish every single tortured West Country vowel. They bray at every innuendo and howl with raucous regularity at every slight insinuation of the merest remote possibility of an innuendo.
Kenneth would return to the character of Rambling Syd throughout his career with great affection. It was a characterisation that brought him and his adoring public a lot of joy. So to play us out, here’s Syd with that traditional West London lament, The Black Grunger of Hounslow.
Further such Carryings On at:
The Whippit Inn
Christmas with Vera Lynn
Music For Pleasure MFP 50315
I am no military historian and do not propose to dwell on the topic in any great depth, but there are many complex and convoluted reasons why the Germans eventually lost the Second World War. A failure to capitalise on their surrounding of the British forces on the beaches of Dunkirk? A sudden switch from the bombing of purely military targets to a civilian bombing campaign? Perhaps the powerful combined forces of the Russians and Americans joining with the Allies in 1941 made the task of the Axis powers impossible, the military odds simply too great to overcome. All of these are I’m sure valid reasons for the fall of the Third Reich, but from a purely British point of view it is hard to underestimate the vital role that light entertainment played in the long battle against fascism.
While Joseph Goebbels and the state propaganda ministry of Nazi Germany were making earnest, serious and often paranoid features intended to edify and motivate the German populace, the UK film industry was churning out hundreds of gleefully cheap films a year featuring all manner of buffoonish, slightly misshapen, yet always resolutely cheeky, cheerful and chipper stars. The likes of Tommy Trinder, George Formby, Will Hay, Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn were mobilised into action and all diligently did their light entertainment ‘bit’ for the war effort. These grinning, wonky-toothed starlets may not have actually won the war themselves, but by gum they did a sterling job entertaining and motivating all those brave souls who did eventually win the war, usually by utilising the more conventional means of guns and large khaki coloured pieces of machinery.
The glamorous (compared to George Formby at least) Vera Lynn was born in 1917 in East Ham, London, and was an attractive young girl in her early twenties when war broke out. Already an experienced performer by that early stage, having sung in big bands and on the radio since the early 1930s, she made an international name for herself with the hit single We’ll Meet Again, a deliberately mournful, yearning and wistful tune which effortlessly echoed the sentiments of thousands of families kept apart by the fighting overseas. The song was a huge hit for Vera and even inspired a 1943 film of the same name in which she starred.
After the war, Vera Lynn’s career went from strength to strength and unlike her wartime contemporaries her style and appeal changed with the times, allowing her popularity to remain steady over the years. A hit maker through the 1950s, she made the transition to become a popular variety performer in the TV dominated 1960s and 70s. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1975, in the days before knighthoods and damehoods were given out to all and sundry like cheap chocolate coins in an orphanage.
Remarkably, Dame Vera remains popular even today. Her 2009 album We’ll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn reached number one and made her, at the age of 92, the oldest person ever to reach such dizzy heights. Given the propensity of pop stars to die early from all manner of unfortunate and unlikely mishaps, often involving fancy cocktails and bad behaviour, this looks to be a record that could stand for some time. Thankfully, by the time Ronan Keating reaches an age to beat it, I will have been under the ground for quite a few years or else be a cryogenically suspended brain observing the world through a glass jar. Either way, I will safely be beyond all forms of caring about the possible consequences of any centenarian boy-band reunion and subsequent cash-in live double album.
Pink Floyd, and Roger Waters in particular, seem to be quite dedicated Vera Lynn fans. Their 1979 album The Wall featured a song entitled Vera in which Roger asked the irrevocably rhetorical question, “does anybody else in here remember Vera Lynn?” Given that The Wall stadium tour opened with a playing of Vera singing We’ll Meet Again, and also given the fact that Vera Lynn had been on telly for the last forty years warbling her heart out, it seems likely that most people did. Later on, the 1982 film of The Wall chose to open with Vera’s maudlin, heart string tugging ballad The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot. This song seemed to echo brilliantly Roger Waters’ basic themes explored in The Wall of nearly everyone in the world being to blame for poor Roger the jaded multi-millionaire being quite a bit fed up and rich and not having any friends to play with. So in that spirit, here is the aforementioned maudlin Christmas ballad, presented without a turgid heavy-going two hour rock concept album about alienation, isolation and the end of innocence tagged on to the end. Let’s hear ya Vera.