Leslie Crowther – Swings and roundabouts
Famous towards the end of his career as a consummately slick game show host, Leslie Crowther was for many years a popular children’s entertainer, a role preserved for posterity in this swinging 1968 album.
Songs For Swinging Children,
Pye NPL 18247,
It’s a very difficult feat for a children’s TV presenter to make the successful transition from kiddies favourite to bona fide adult entertainer. Blue Peter presenters for example have, over the past fifty-five years, proved remarkably adept at making plastic spaceships out of household rubbish and engaging with a succession of temperamental pets, but few have built lasting careers outside of the programme. For every Matt Baker or Richard Bacon who have enjoyed a high profile career after leaving Blue Peter behind, there is an Anthea Turner or John Leslie pursuing an inexorable descent into ignominy and obscurity.
In 1968 Leslie Crowther made the bold decision to leave the long-running children’s TV show Crackerjack. Born in 1933, he had been with the show since 1959 after being spotted by the producer Johnny Downes while performing in a winter season with the itinerant seaside theatre troupe ‘Fols-de-Rols’. Crowther had been with the beach-side players since 1954, touring each year, with annual forays into pantomime to break up the routine.
For Crackerjack, Leslie Crowther was booked initially as a comic. His chosen straight man was the eccentric theatre veteran Peter Glaze and together they wrote and performed in a succession of comic sketches that cemented their place in the affections of the nation’s children. When the show’s MC and respected elder statesman Eamonn Andrews bowed out in 1964, like an ingénue in a Broadway musical, Leslie stepped eagerly up from the chorus line and took over as host.
In his 1994 autobiography, The Bonus of Laughter, Crowther describes his fear at being typecast forever as a children’s entertainer, to say nothing of the dubious pleasures of being followed around and hounded in public by hordes of excited children out to meet their hero. With the offer of a long run in Let Sleeping Wives Lie (a Harold Brooke and Kay Bannerman farce produced by the King of the medium Brian Rix), Crowther left Crackerjack behind with few regrets and was off to pursue a new career.
There were to be many highs and lows over the next few decades. Touring plays, further summer seasons, sitcoms such as My Good Woman with Sylvia Syms, endless Stork SB commercials and a long battle with alcoholism all lay ahead. It’s probably fair to say though that Crowther’s chief talent and greatest successes after leaving Crackerjack came as a game show presenter, first with the twee panel show Whose Baby? and later The Price Is Right and Stars in Their Eyes. The transition from hosting a weekly interactive show with excitable, unpredictable children to doing the precise same thing with adults was a logical step that he took in his stride.
Songs For Swinging Children was released in 1968, the year that Crowther left children’s TV behind. As a farewell to all things juvenile it’s a jolly wave goodbye rather than a tearful parting. The general theme is of jaunty child-friendly novelty songs made with a very slight nod to the musical tastes and social trends of the 1960s. Something similar had been attempted by Max Bygraves on the Leslie Bricusse penned 1961 album Nursery Rhymes For Grown-Ups. The majority of the songs on Leslie’s album are written by him with a few exceptions, and while they are less satirical and outright comical than Max’s earlier record, they are certainly no less enjoyable.
Most of the songs are clearly intended to appeal directly to children and the album is peppered with jaunty novelty numbers. Tracks such as Trafalgar Square Dance, an upbeat and most unlikely tale of swinging London and the various birds that dance around its streets and squares, as well as Little Red Bus and The Unicorn are all great examples of songs that would keep any overactive toddler quiet for a few precious minutes, with their silly noises and simple tinkling melodies.
The Clowns Are Coming In is another song designed to appeal to children but is instead more than just a little bit sinister and demented. The discordant off-key organ music and manic vocals adopted by Crowther in truth inspire nothing but the onset of coulrophobia. With each repeated chorus, the clowns sound ever more ominous and sinister until even the bravest listener is a quivering nervous wreck, waiting in dread for the clowns to burst in and slit their throats with a novelty rubber knife.
Like some of the best comedy aimed at children, there are also many things on the record that adults can find to enjoy. Commercial Calypso for instance owes a great debt to Lance Percival’s popularisation of the comedy calypso on That Was The Week That Was. Despite an extremely dodgy West Indian accent (something Lance was also prone to on occasions) it is an enjoyable melange of various slogans and taglines from contemporary TV commercials.
While the Egg Marketing Board are fairly quiet these days, adverts extolling the benefits of marrowbone jelly, skin creams, washing up liquid, and baldness cures are still seen often enough for the humour to endure. The final track on the LP, The Great Christmas Pudding Song, takes its inspiration from Leslie’s Caribbean vocalisations and introduces a couple of dozen new racial stereotypes and makes a number of offensive remarks that it’s probably best to gloss over entirely.
London’s Up For Sale introduces the merest sprinkling of contemporary comment. With Leslie playing the role of a dodgy cockney spiv, he tells a story regarding the sale of London Bridge to an American developer in 1968, and goes on to offer other notable London landmarks in a Monopoly board style bargain basement sale. Dear Old Carnaby Street is another contemporary number that offers little for children. A hymn to the epicentre of Swinging London, the song details some of the more outlandish 60’s fashions, such as hippy hair styles, miniskirts, military uniforms, fox furs and kipper ties. Leslie plays the chirpy cockney on this track too, jigging his way around the West End with a cheeky grin and a bad case of rickets.
Cool Lullaby is probably the most musically sophisticated track on the album. More beatnik than hippy, it seems more a product of the early 1960s rather than a song from the end of the decade. A swinging tale of hippy parenting and switched-on hep rock and roll toddler care, it’s a novelty song for adults that might appeal to children, rather than the other way round.
So next time you are watching a children’s TV presenter prancing around on a brightly coloured set, riding an invisible horse, talking to a glove puppet or pretending to be a bus, spare a thought for the frustrated actor, pop star or game show host lurking deep within them. And pray that their career takes a more favourable course than most of their fellows and ends up with the TV success that Leslie Crowther enjoyed, rather than the Flake-sponsored wedding photos and nude snake-wrangling of Anthea Turner.
So here is the aforementioned Cool Lullaby. Sing it Leslie!