An energetic, trumpet-playing, tap dancing dynamo, Roy Castle was for many years the face of BBC’s Record Breakers. Jazz and obscure trivia, what more could you want?
Glenmore Records GLR 626,
Last month I seemed content to state that Rolf Harris was the roundest of all-round entertainers. Perhaps I should have qualified that statement by adding the word ‘living’, as I was obviously forgetting the one-man concert party and very roundest of all all-round entertainers, the late great Roy Castle. An accomplished dancer, actor, singer, comedian and musician, he excelled in all these fields. Okay so Roy might have struggled to play a wobbleboard while drawing a kangaroo, but it’s hard to imagine Rolf Harris tap dancing with quite the gusto and aplomb that Roy Castle could muster.
Born in Holmfirth in 1931, shortly before the second series of Last of the Summer Wine was to make it famous, Roy Castle started tap dancing at the age of seven. Tap was, and still is, a strange discipline but having grown up wearing wooden clogs to stride around the cobbled streets of Yorkshire, it does sort of make sense that the young Roy took to it so well. Adding songs to compliment his Billy Elliot skills, Roy managed to turn professional at the age of just twelve, answering an ad in the Huddersfield Examiner for young talent. A short audition piece of tap later and he was accepted on the spot and off to tour in the show Youth on Parade. After a short interruption for National Service in 1950, Roy’s career resumed with a two-year-long stint in Frank Randle’s chaotic show Randle’s Scandals and continued until his untimely death in 1994.
Despite everything he managed to cram into that exemplary fifty year career, for people of a certain age (like me) there remains one thing above all others that Roy Castle is famous for. As accomplished a film actor, comedian, jazz musician and entertainer as he was, Roy Castle will for many always be the face of the long-running children’s TV show Record Breakers. The show was essentially The Guinness Book of Records brought to life, with Roy being aided and abetted by the two-man living Wikipedias that were Ross and Norris McWhirter.
Back in the day The Guinness Book of Records used to be a serious reference tome. These days it’s little more than a random collection of celebrity driven nonsense and records that require someone to perform an irrational and pointless act quite a few times in quite a short space of time. However, in the good old 1970s the book was stuffed full of really useful facts concerning wasps, suspension bridges, oversize-shoes and cave systems. Exactly the sort of facts children could impress their friends and parents with by regurgitating them verbatim during any suitably quiet moment. I pity children now, being lumbered with a book of useless facts about One Direction and the Twilight series as by and large they will be all but forgotten in twenty years’ time, while I still like to make a point of knowing the longest cable stayed suspension bridge in the world at any given moment. It’s currently ‘The Bridge to Russky Island’ before you ask. I know it sounds like an Abbott and Costello film, but it is apparently a bridge near Vladivostok, and according to a fact I just made up, the bodies of over 100 of Vladimir Putin’s political opponents were used to build its foundations.
To help children remember all these complicated facts about mineshafts, oil terminals, oversized marrows and giant budgerigars, Roy Castle managed to come up with a different song each week. His musical mnemonics were powerful and helped even the tiniest of tots to remember both the height and weight of Robert Pershing Wadlow (8 foot 11.1 and 35 stone) as well as other useful things such as the size of Robert Earl Hughes’ trousers (very big). What a great teaching method! If today the sum total of all human knowledge was drummed into children at an early age by a tap dancing jazz trumpeter there would be no need for the internet as everyone would have brains as enormous and as fact-filled as Norris McWhirter in his heyday.
The songs on this album, apart from the opening and closing numbers, detail the complex minutiae of various records. The aforementioned Robert Earl Hughes and Robert Pershing Wadlow both get the Roy Castle treatment in tracks that celebrate their morbid obesity and freakish height respectively. The rest of the record forms a lengthy roll call of obscure trivia and abstruse facts crammed into songs delivered in an eclectic range of musical styles and genres.
Mauna Kea, a track extolling the virtues of the world’s tallest mountain (if measured from its base deep beneath the sea), is for example an excellent pastiche of Hawaiian style lounge music. It’s the sort of laid-back tropical island exotica that would not sound out of place on a Wout Steenhuis recording. The track Taumata also gives Roy a chance to explore his Pacific Ocean lounge music leanings with a track dedicated to the longest place name in the world, namely Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu. Which Roy of course pronounces perfectly.
Elsewhere, Laxey Wheel celebrates the water-wheel on the Isle of Man in a bizarre bluegrass banjo-plucking style. World record sneezer Trisha Reay (filed under ‘records no sane person really wants to break’) is also celebrated eponymously with Roy’s country sound. Both odd choices given that Trisha Reay was from Sutton Coldfield, even further from the outskirts of Nashville than the Isle of Man.
We are also rewarded with a couple of chirpy cockney style knees-up numbers. Cold Baked Beans details the eating of the said tinned vegetable using only a cocktail stick, in a Rockney manner that Chas and Dave would have been proud of, while May’s Amazing Maze urges everyone to jig on down and raise a drunken East End toast to the various mazes of Longleat.
The real oddities, if bluegrass cockney lounge surf exotica weren’t odd enough for most people’s taste, come at the beginning and end of each side. Pete the Feet which appears at the end of side one allows Roy to indulge his skills as a jazz musician and a trumpeter to great effect. He could be tapping a stick on the floor of the recording booth but I suspect Roy actually did tap dance throughout this astonishing funky jazz medley. The other tracks Recordbreakers, You’ve Gotta Be Best and Dedication are all sexy jazzed up versions of various themes from the Record Breakers TV series, which for copyright reasons remained off of the record. While the lawyers of the BBC must have been satisfied with themselves it did mean that Roy gets to let rip with his trumpet to great effect. Reminding the trivia-obsessed fact fans and autistic savants who bought this recording just what an extraordinary musician he was and what he was capable of when he wasn’t explaining various eating records to the under eights.
So to play us out, what else could it be? Remember kids, dedication’s what you need:
The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation: