Pam Ayres – Poetess laureate
Pam Ayres won the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks with her witty poems and has remained a wry commentator on life ever since.
Some of Me Poems and Songs,
Despite what Simon Cowell would like the world to think, he did not invent the concept of the talent show or pioneer the format on television. That accolade, at least in the UK, belongs to the strangely manic and often demented TV presenter Hughie Green, a man every bit as self-centred and as arrogant as Cowell but without the plastic surgery and ridiculous trousers. His show Opportunity Knocks ran for around thirty years on TV and radio with Green at the helm, and later in a revived format with Bob Monkhouse and Les Dawson presenting.
What the likes of Cowell and Green ideally want from their talent show format (other than perhaps a chance to overthrow the government and enslave us all) is a reasonably talented singer with a non-offensive voice who can storm into the top ten with a hastily released single, and perhaps trouble the album charts with a LP cobbled together in time for Christmas. That the second album disappears without trace selling a dozen or so copies is of no concern to the talent show moguls. They will have made their money and moved on to the next impressionable ingénue, rubbing their hands in eager anticipation. Opportunity Knocks had Millican and Nesbitt, The X Factor had Steve Brookstein and Britain’s Got Talent had Paul Potts. Where once these artistes filled stadiums and appeared on television, most can now be seen singing in provincial shopping centres for loose change or tins of food. They collectively stand as much chance of scoring a future chart hit as they do of walking on the surface of the moon and should act as a grim warning to anyone who considers a television talent show to be a route to superstardom. Yet still the TV shows continue to suck in new hopefuls and spit them out once the cheques have been banked.
What the likes of Cowell and Green ideally don’t want from their talent show format (other than perhaps a half-decent lawyer pointing out that the format they make millions from wasn’t actually their invention) is a winning act that doesn’t immediately present an opportunity to release a best-selling album. To their enduring chagrin, the involvement of the general public in voting systems means that the most marketable acts are not necessarily those that win. Britain’s Got Talent seems to thwart Cowell on an annual basis with its series-winning dance acts and performing dogs. Opportunity Knocks was much the same.
Pam Ayres was one such unlikely winner back in 1975, with her recitations of self-penned humorous poems. Initially, Pam failed to win Opportunity Knocks, after the man working the clapometer’s needle decided that the pop group Pendulum were the better prospect. The show though allowed viewers to vote through the post for their favourites and with no thought for Hughie’s cut of future album sales, it was Pam they voted for in their droves. What must have poor Hughie Green have thought about a young Berkshire poet with an accent thicker than the contents of a curdled milk churn winning his show?
Pam Ayres tied for first place on her second appearance on the show and then on her third appearance placed second. And that should have probably been the end of that, were it not for the sheer dogged determination and drive of Pam Ayres. Born in the Vale of White Horse in 1947, an area struggling with rural poverty in post-war Britain, Pam Ayres had certainly waited long enough for her chance of stardom and was not going to give up her showbiz career without a struggle.
Through years of menial clerical jobs, Pam was always determined to make something of her life. Little was expected of her as a young woman and very little was demanded. A four-year spell in the Women’s Royal Air Force working in Singapore and Germany only served to further whet her appetite for adventure and excitement. Through the burgeoning folk scene of the early 70s she finally found her voice and her love of performing was born.
Though initially a singer and guitarist, Pam’s jokes and poems soon became an ever more important component part of her act, before taking over completely. Scribbled in her rented flat on an ironing board, the poems were immediate hits in the clubs. A homemade book was compiled and printed and sold at Pam’s gigs. Sales of the book proved to be more financially rewarding than the money she was actually being paid for her gigs, and provided her with enough confidence to make her first tentative entry on Opportunity Knocks.
The self-deprecatingly titled Some of Me Poems and Songs is a record of Pam’s act at that pivotal moment in her life. There are still some of her folk club songs included on the album. Don’t Sell Our Edgar No More Violins for instance is a gloriously dark Pam Ayres written comic song about the trials of a family enduring the musical scrapings of a young musical prodigy. Pam manages to falteringly pluck her ukulele through the Father Dear Father Come Home With Me Now and also sings on the bizarre whimsical tale of the lascivious cyclist Minnie Dyer, a song written by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks for Kenneth Williams’ 1967 album On Pleasure Bent.
What of course stands out on the record is Pam’s poetical musings. Though a capable if hesitant singer Pam was, by her own admission, not willing to stay on the folk club scene as just ‘one more floor singer with an average voice’. The poems are where she excels and are after all, what cemented her enduring reputation. The album was recorded live and the first track The Battery Hen reveals Pam’s nervous state as she fumbles her way through an introduction to the hearty approval of the audience. Once in her stride she never looks back and the guffawing of the crowd is constant throughout.
Included on the record are her two Opportunity Knocks audition pieces Oh I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth and Pam Ayres And The Embarrassing Experience With The Parrot. These are now staples of her repertoire and over the years many an impressionist has grumbled about dentists and fillings in a very rough approximation of a Berkshire accent.
The album Some of Me Poems and Songs made quite an impact on the album charts on its release, climbing as high as number 13 and staying on the charts for around 26 weeks. The accompanying book, with the same title, collected together much of Pam’s work and remained on The Sunday Times bestseller list for an astonishing 46 weeks. Initially released on the small Galaxy Records label, the album was subsequently reissued by EMI and many other vinyl recordings followed for that most revered of imprints.
In the early days of her career, Pam’s accent was strange and hard for people to place. Accents of any description were not heard on television that much, certainly not those as rustic as Pam’s. Much like Tommy Cooper’s outlandish appearance, her voice was enough to make people start laughing and warming to her act before she had even started one of her recitations. That initial reaction though is disarming and belies how very clever Pam Ayres’ act actually is. Pam chooses the words in her poems precisely, each turn of phrase is apt and so very carefully considered. Don’t ever let the quaint rural tones of her warm country voice fool you though. That she has managed to pursue a forty year career as a poet is testament to her drive and determination. While many other performers and acts from the early 70s have drifted away from the public eye Pam remains as popular as ever, noting the wry peculiarities and quirks of everyday life with a rare and incisive wit.
To play us out, here is Pam Ayres demonstrating her now seldom heard singing voice on a plea to irresponsible music shops everywhere, Don’t Sell Our Edgar No More Violins:
Explore more poetical musings at Pam’s official website