Charlie Drake – Hobgoblin of comedy

A diminutive malevolent cherub, Charlie Drake was a firm fixture of British TV for over twenty years but is rarely seen these days.

Charlie Drake - Hello My Darlings

Charlie Drake – Hello My Darlings

Charlie Drake,
Hello My Darlings,
Music For Pleasure MFP 1310,
1968

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Madam Fame can be a most tricksy and fickle mistress. While I don’t begrudge the ensemble cast of Dad’s Army their fees for all those episodes that have been repeated again and again over the last thirty years (actually I do), there are many much more deserving comedians and comic turns that haven’t seen a penny since the heyday of their fame. As a comedy fan, I would dearly love to see someone other than Ian Lavender appearing on prime time television every Saturday. It’s not that he isn’t charming, and few can wear a claret and blue coloured scarf with such skill and aplomb, but there really have been better comedians produced by this country over the last two hundred years than Ian Lavender.

Take for instance Dick Emery, a comic great discussed on this very blog. Working his way up from bit player to star, he was at the very top of his profession for the best part of twenty years and yet if you see him on television today you’re a much luckier person enjoying substantially better TV reception than me. Another cruel example of Madam Fame’s capricious vacillations is Charlie Drake.

Born in 1925 and a stage performer from almost as soon as he could walk, Charlie Drake started his career as an accomplished if somewhat tiny romantic crooner (5ft 1in on a good day). During the war, while serving with the RAF, Drake teamed up with fellow singer Jack Edwardes (6ft 4in on a bad day) to form a musical double act. A very astute RAF officer unimpressed by their singing remarked drily that the mismatched pair would enjoy a better career as a comedy duo then they would as singers. Despite disregarding the officer’s advice a seed must have been sown, as after the war on a day when both Drake and Edwardes had failed an audition at the notorious Windmill Theatre, they decided to become comedians and leave singing to the professionals.

As Mick (Edwardes) and Montmorency (Drake) the pair earned their own eponymous BBC children’s TV show in 1954 after appearing in the comedy magazine show Jigsaw.  The pair played a couple of hapless handymen who would change their job every week to predictably ineffective and disastrous results. After two years on the Beeb, Mick and Montmorency were lured to ITV where they carried on until 1958. By the end of their run on commercial television Drake felt that the duo had done all they could as children’s entertainers and they split as amicably as they could and went their separate ways.

Charlie was rewarded with his own adult orientated BBC comedy vehicle, the puntastic Drake’s Progress while still part of the children’s double act. Drake’s Progress ran from July 1957 until May 1958. An ITV programme simply called The Charlie Drake Show followed in August of 1958. The Charlie Drake Show switched between ITV and BBC for the next ten years until 1968 and firmly established the character for which Charlie Drake would be known, ie that of a hapless red-headed moon-faced hobgoblin, eternally put upon by figures of authority and useless at almost anything he turned his hand to. This character also served Charlie well in the series The Worker which took the Mick and Montmorency premise of inappropriate employment to its ultimate conclusion with Drake performing every profession imaginable with utter ineptitude until 1978.

Charlie Drake became restless despite his fame as a comic, and after The Worker finished he became better known for his attempts at serious acting.  In his twilight years he settled into a life of retirement broken only by seasonal stints in Jim Davidson’s bawdy pantomimes where the fluffed lines and missed cues of elderly comedians were positively encouraged.

As well as enjoying a long and successful career on TV, Charlie Drake was once also a bona fide comedy rock and rock chart star. Hello My Darlings is a 1968 release which gathered together all of the 50s and 60s hits by Drake, along with a liberal sprinkling of b-sides and EP tracks.

Charlie’s debut release, a 1958 cover of Splish Splash was released almost simultaneously with Bobby Darin’s tad more serious original (it’s about taking a bath for goodness sake), and as happened in the 1950s Drake’s sillier version proved to be the bigger hit. Drake attacked the track with all the manic energy and gusto he could muster and it fairly rocks and splashes along. Other than the spoken word intro and comedy plughole noises courtesy of George Martin and the boffins at Parlophone, Splish Splash was a bona fide rock song and certainly no madder than many others released around the late 50s.

Drake followed up Splish Splash with another opportunistic cover, namely the 1958 Eurovision song contest hit Volare (aka Nel blu, dipinto di blu) by Domenico Modugno. Although only placing third behind André Claveau’s Dors, mon amour, Volare proved popular in the British charts and has been covered many times since. Drake sings ably on the track, once again revealing his latent singing talents. The silly voices and high pitched wailing soon overwhelms the crooning though, and if Drake’s rendering isn’t offensive to Italians then they have thicker skins than most other nationalities.

Mr Custer released in October 1960 set the tone for most of what was to follow in the recording career of Charlie Drake. Gone are any attempts at subtlety and singing, instead the oppressed cackling midget of Drake’s TV work takes over and the record is swamped with silly voices, impish shrieking and sound effects galore. As Charlie attempts to report sick for the Battle of Little Big Horn, the galloping hooves and explosions fly around the vinyl like so many badly aimed Sioux arrows.

Then there is of course 1961’s My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, Charlie Drake’s biggest hit thanks to an American release which inexplicably saw Drake take the track to 21 in the US charts, paving the way for The Beatles, one of George Martin’s other popular novelty acts of the period. The booming frog chorus provides stout backing for Charlie to work through a range of bizarre accents and insane comedy noises as he tells the rather convoluted story of an inept Aborigine. Racially insensitive, rambling and lacking any form, sense or structure, it remained Charlie Drake’s last top 20 hit, despite many more years trying.

You won’t see him on telly any time soon, so with apologies to Ian Lavender, here is Charlie Drake on vinyl, enjoying the simple thrills of bumping his head and cracking his skull on Bumpanology, the b-side of 1964’s Charles Drake 007:

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