Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

On the piano with Reg Varney

Reg Varney - On the 88’s at Abbey Road

Reg Varney,
On the 88’s at Abbey Road,
Columbia SCX 6518,
1972

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In 1969, when Reg Varney landed the starring role in On the Buses, he was already 52 years old. Fair enough you may think. There are plenty of 52 year old bus drivers around. There’s probably one driving the 73 round the corner from you, an aged bitter curmudgeon with a distaste for human company and a penchant for watching old ladies falling over. Stan Butler though, the character Reg played, was no average 52 year old bus driver. For starters, even at his advanced age, he was still single and still living at home with his overbearing shrieking mother, dowdy retarded sister and idle sarcastic brother-in-law. Despite these gross impediments, he was still apparently something of a sex symbol down the bus depot, and pursued naive pretty girls young enough to be his grand-children, with an unhealthy and unsettling  fervency. He was aided in this deviant sexual activity by his best friend Jack Harper, played by Bob Grant, a bus conductor whose startling horse-like appearance didn’t seem to be a barrier to menacing the bright young popsies in their short enticing skirts.

It must have been a terrifying prospect for any young attractive actress making a bid for stardom back in the 1970s. Fresh from their classical trading at RADA, how they must have dreaded  their first big telly break consisting of five minutes of charmless grappling on a moth-eaten nylon sofa with the elderly dwarf Reg Varney, or the even more terrifying prospect of somehow snogging his deformed snaggle-toothed co-star. The likes of Bernard Bresslaw and Sid James may have been unlikely Lotharios in the Carry On films, but Reg and Bob stretched the credulity of the British public to breaking point with their gruesome romantic exploits.

On the Buses proved phenomenally successful despite all this, perhaps even because of it. The British public for some reason forgave the unlikely situation, the wafer-thin plots and the dreadful griping characters shouting their mirthless lines for all they were worth. Indeed it’s pretty fair to say they loved On the Buses! Feature film spin-offs from popular sitcoms were reasonably common at the time but On the Buses was popular enough for three cinematic films to be made. The first of the three was the top grossing British film of 1971, even managing to out-perform Diamonds Are Forever. But it didn’t stop there, oh no. Critics will record that 1972 was the year that The Godfather inexorably changed the face of modern cinema, but for most of the UK cinema goers it was the year that Stan and Jack sexually molested clippies in Mutiny on the Buses and as ever annoyed poor Inspector Blake.

Reg Varney, had of course, been around on the variety scene for many years before On the Buses made him a huge showbiz star. Performing since the 1930s, he had a long career that included a spell in a double act with Benny Hill, as well as a major role in the successful sitcom The Rag Trade. He was also an accomplished pianist and this record is very much a chance for Reg to show off his musical talents.

The album starts in breezy style with The Dark Town Strutters Ball,  a pleasing romp through some jaunty musical numbers with a bit of genuine Varney banter thrown in for good measure. It is a gentle friendly way to lure the listener in as chatty Uncle Reg introduces his musicians Alf, George and Harry, all very much imaginary and sadly for them, they never appear again. The made up companions all serve to encourage the audience to enjoy the stomping rag time party that seems to be raging in Reg’s head.

Reg is at his best when he is tinkling away on the piano with genuine aplomb. He excels on tracks such as You Were Meant for Me and Laura for instance, the jolly piano romps matching perfectly Reg’s cockney singalong style.  Where it goes wrong are the occasions when Reg for some reason feels the need to stretch his repertoire a bit and attempt to stake his claim as the world’s shortest opera star. On songs such as Together for instance, Reg seems highly uncomfortable while attempting to emit some rich tenor tones, and on If You Were the Only Girl in the World his attempts at romantic ballad crooning are simply stultifying rather than the hoped for sultry.

The two real standout tracks are Come on and Tickle My Fancy and Best Pair of Legs in the Business. Both tracks were taken from a 1968 ITV Playhouse episode, also called The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, written by Kevin Laffan. The darkly comic play seems to have resonated with Varney, its tale of Sherry Sheridan, a fading washed up variety star playing out a dismal drag act in a distinctly seedy holiday camp was genuinely haunting and elegiac.  Two years after this record was made Reg returned to the play, adapting it for cinematic release in what proved to be his last major film role. Even Reg Varney didn’t make it through the last series of On the Buses when it shuddered to a spluttering halt in the summer of 1973. The drag act campness of Sherry Sheridan was far removed from the superannuated bluff macho laddishness of On the Buses and seems like a brave and deliberate attempt by Varney to shake off his Stan persona and leave the character of the sexually frustrated bus driver behind him.

In fact, the whole record seems like an attempt to avoid stereotyping. It is a bold statement by an established performer with a long and successful career, refusing to let his best known character overwhelm him in the twilight of his long career. The album is intended to showcase Reg Varney’s ability to sing and play the piano, and prove to the public that he was so much more than the bus driving chimp that On the Buses attempted to turn him into. It is not wholly successful in that respect, but it is however a really interesting musical showcase, and I would defy anyone not to fall in love with the glorious madness that is Come on and Tickle My Fancy. Resist no more though, there’s always room for one more on top. Ding ding!

More bus related nonsense can be found waiting patiently for a Number 73 at http://www.onthebusesfanclub.com/

Rock on with Cannon and Ball

Cannon and Ball - Together

Cannon and Ball
Together
Music for Pleasure MFP 50561
1982

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The extraordinary 50 year showbiz career of Cannon and Ball started in one of the least likely places imaginable, namely a factory in Oldham. Two of the factory’s welders, Robert Harper and Thomas Derbyshire, were both part-time club singers and struck up a rapport while working there. They formed a double act singing on the Northern club circuit as the Sherrell Brothers and later as The Harper Brothers. As comedy became more and more a part of their act (supposedly because comedians could command more money from the clubs than a straight singing act) Thomas and Robert again changed their stage names, renaming themselves Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball. An unlikely sounding pair of surnames, but enough to fool me as a young child…

Clearly they were not brothers. They looked and sounded completely different, and had very different personalities. Tommy Cannon was the straight man of the act; a sensible, domineering, stern authoritarian figure whose job it seemed was primarily to control the impish malevolent Puck that was Bobby Ball. Bobby was a wire-haired attack-poodle of comedy, perpetually belligerent and angry (at what we never quite found out), as willing to assault Tommy as he was willing to smash up the orchestra, knock the cameraman’s teeth out or punch the entire audience senseless. It doesn’t sound like a winning combination I know, but their Zen influenced yin and yang like talents for mastering both order and chaos eventually won over the hearts of a confused and slightly wary nation.

Cannon and Ball’s big break came in 1968 when, fresh from the clubs, the nascent comedy duo appeared on Opportunity Knocks. Their big break then vanished in a puff of apathy as they finished in last place, probably behind a singing dog and a postman who juggled live rats, as always seemed to happen on Opportunity Knocks. They retreated back to the clubs, but the duo’s  dogged perseverance was to pay off eventually. Ten years later in 1978, after occasional appearances on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club to pay the mortgage, they were rewarded with  a slot on Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. One thing led to another and in July of 1979, the duo were granted their own Saturday prime time slot on ITV.

Overnight success after twenty years of hard graft followed. The combination of the stern and ever calm Tommy Cannon coping manfully with the angry irate goblin Bobby Ball and his humorous attempts to attack everyone he saw, like some insane comedy Rottweiler, was a winning one. As was the catchphrase used by Bobby Ball of ‘Rock on Tommy’. I still have no idea what it actually meant, but a catchphrase that is short and unfathomably inane is always sure to win over the affections of the British public. As testimony to their popularity Cannon and Ball’s sketch show enjoyed a ten year run on ITV. There was a sitcom spinoff (Plaza Patrol), the inevitable merchandise and live shows, and most unbelievably of all, a full length cinematic feature film, The Boys in Blue featuring the mattress-stuffing haired legend that is Suzanne Danielle.

So what of the record? Well it has to be said, there isn’t much actual comedy on it. Most of it consists of straight songs, built around the gravel-coated vocal talents of Tommy Cannon, with only very brief interruptions by his scowling rabid poodle-headed sidekick Bobby Ball. The album was produced by Geoff Gill, former drummer with York-based psych pop group The Smoke whose most famous hit was the trippy 1967 hit My Friend Jack. He shares writing credits with Brian McGladdery from the prog group Oscar, as well as a certain Robert Harper. The more awake of you may recall that as the real name of Mr Bobby Ball. Between them Ball, McGladdery and Gill write all the original material with the rest of the album being made up of cover versions of popular songs that alternate between the curious and the bizarre.

All bodes well for a classic comedy album as the LP starts though. Cannon and Ball ease gently into proceedings with the theme to their ITV series Together We’ll Be OK,  followed by the Harper/McGladdery/Gill original Crying. Both these songs feature duets from Cannon and Ball, the first is delivered in what could generously be called a harmony, while the second is a frantic melange of insane Ball bellowing and ranting, comic banter, casual bickering, silly voices and some growly Cannon vocals. The comedy is largely abandoned after that.

Hold Me in Your Arms is a saccharine ballad that spreads sentiment onto the turntable in big thick dollops of coagulated emotion, courtesy of a gently swaying children’s choir plus more primordial growling from Tommy.  Everybody’s Making it Big But Me is the first of two Dr Hook covers on the album, here embellished with the inevitable annoying banter and crude wisecracks as well as the a prime example of psychotic behaviour from Bobby Ball. Clearly, what the randy suburban housewives’ favourite Dr Hook always needed in order to achieve true megastar status, was to have someone shouting, “Shut your face Tommy” over their songs. Side one is rounded off with Let Me Rock You, another alternately warbling and growling Oldham ballad from Tommy, followed by Bandido, a Bobby Ball written effort in which Tommy sings forlornly of his past as a rebel and outlaw on the wide dusty plains of Greater Manchester, his earnest gruff growls betraying all sorts of wistful yearning and longing.  He also seems to be accompanied by a novelty speaking dog, straight from the studios of That’s Life, that can bark the phrase “Run, run” on command. Odd.

The second side is more of the same really. Bobby Ball has one outing on a maniacal breakneck stomp through the children’s classic Nellie the Elephant but its largely Tommy’s record. The one other stand out track is Remember the Stars which compares Cannon and Ball to the golden Hollywood stars of yesteryear while implying that no woman is safe from their sexual charms. Scary stuff. The record ends on a low note with the downbeat  track This Time. By now anyone hoping for a comedy album has probably wandered off home, as it seems has Bobby Ball.

A largely comedy free album from a highly successful comedy act at the peak of their powers and fame. What else could I play really but Nellie the Elephant? This perennially popular children’s favourite was written by Ralph Butler and Peter Hart way back in 1956 but seems ideally suited for our madcap chums Cannon and Ball. Rock on Tommy!

Further musical cannonballs may be found officially and unofficially at :
http://www.comedykings.co.uk/
http://www.cannonandball.com/

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