Phillips 6382 006,
Harry Secombe was a great comedian and a prolific recording artist. Sadly for me though, nearly all of his recording output is of a non-comedic nature. I have the highest regard for Secombe’s work in The Goon Show and I am a great admirer of his many comic talents but there comes a point where I can no longer justify buying yet another Harry Secombe record from yet another charity shop. Once you have just one record of Harry interpreting popular classics with his customary gusto, or attempting intense operatic arias you really do have enough. If Harry Secombe had released a dozen records of silly noises and daft songs I would diligently track each and every one of them down, but as it is I think I shall stick with the few records I do have. For now at least.
Like many comedians of his generation, Harry Secombe’s first forays into show business came during the Second World War while he was stationed at a Royal Artillery depot in Italy. It was here that he developed a novelty shaving act, acting out in an elaborate physical pantomime the different ways in which people shaved. As bizarre and as unentertaining as that sounds, Secombe’s ebullience shone through and the act proved popular enough with the troops for him to be promoted to the position of the depot’s principal comedian.
The novelty shaving act stayed with Secombe after he left the army and was enough to earn him his first professional theatrical run at The Windmill in Soho. The Windmill was a strip club which saw many famous comics pass through its doors. Well I say strip, it was actually a lot more passive and tame than that. Under the tight regulations of the day, ladies were allowed to appear naked on stage but were not allowed to move. A stationary nipple being of course a lot less arousing and dangerous to public health than one in motion. The comic acts were charged with keeping the furtive mackintosh-wearing clientele entertained while naked girls hiding behind the curtain were shuffled around on stage into carefully posed static tableaux. This was no mean feat, for the average pervert was apparently more interested in getting to the front of the seats before the curtains went up than watching Harry Secombe have a shave. Strange times.
To keep his sanity, Harry also developed blowing raspberries at the theatre. It was a neat and easily executed rejoinder to the waves of apathy which greeted him and every other comic ever to appear on the bill at The Windmill. Harry Secombe survived his various ordeals and its hordes of indifferent voyeurs and made a name for himself on various variety tours and BBC radio broadcasts, his powerful raspberry blowing ability elevating him inexorably up the bill.
Around this time Harry, along with a lot of other aspiring comics, spent a lot of time at the Grafton Arms. The pub run by Jimmy Grafton was something of a haven for ex-forces types carving out a show business career. It was at the bar of the Grafton where the Goons formed and where they first performed the ground-breaking routines that would change the face of British comedy forever. But as I have lamented before, it is not Harry’s comic skills that I am concentrating on.
Harry Secombe’s singing career took a great leap forward during his appearances on the BBC radio show Educating Archie. As ludicrous as a motionless strip show sounds, a radio show featuring a ventriloquist act is infinitely more daft, and yet Educating Archie was a long-running and highly popular show. Ventriloquist Peter Brough wasn’t the greatest ventriloquist in the world but by appearing on the radio he really didn’t need to be.
Harry was given a song to sing in each programme and would rush from the microphone where he delivered his dialogue to the one where he delivered his songs, often leaving himself breathless. The producer decided to tackle this problem and through the programme’s musical associate, Wally Ridley, Secombe was put in touch with the singing tutor Manlio di Veroli who turned him from an amateur variety singer into the powerful booming operatic foghorn that we know and love.
The serious singing continued in tandem with Secombe’s comedy career and he went on to many triumphs in the West End and on Broadway. He found particular acclaim for his Dickensian roles in Oliver and Pickwick, where his large frame and deafening operatic roar were ideally suited to the larger than life roles.
The songs on his 1966 Christmas album White Christmas are nearly all traditional ones, arranged by comedy music regular Walter ‘Wally’ Stott, who later changed his name and gender to become Angela Morley. The oddity amongst all the ‘trad arr Stott’ tracks is the wonderful That’s What I’d Like for Christmas which featured in Harry’s pet project Pickwick. Written by Leslie Bricusse with music by Cyril Ornadel, it’s jolly and upbeat and fits in perfectly with Harry’s interpretations of all the other established Christmas classics.
Sadly, due to Harry’s lawyers being as mean and unseasonal as Dame Vera Lynn’s lawyers I am unable to upload a single track off of the album, so you will just have to take my word for it. I’ve put up an entirely unrelated clip of Harry singing but it’s a poor substitute. Bleeding copyright lawyers. Never mind Harry, If I Ruled The World they would be the first against the wall.
Harry Secombe was a loud, anarchic, oversized bundle of zany energy and mirth. His singing and hard work being holy on Highway may have obscured his comic talents over the years but for a while he successfully combined both strands of his career.