Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page
Double acts need a special dynamic to work. Brothers Mike and Bernie seemed inseparable but Bernie’s decision to fill Mike’s place in the act with a dog speaks volumes.
Mike and Bernie Winters,
Mike Winters was born in Islington, North London, in 1930, followed by his brother Bernie two years later in 1932. They were the sons of a Jewish family then going by the much more authentically Jewish sounding name of Weinstein. Their mother Rachel was descended from Romanian Jews and their father Samuel from Russians. Both families had fled the threat of pogroms in their homeland and found safety in England. By all accounts performing came naturally to the Weinstein children; sister Sylvia sang, Mike did impressions and Bernie, well Bernie sort of grinned inanely and looked a bit simple.
While on holiday in the fashionable Essex riviera resort of Canvey Island Bernie won a childhood talent contest. The brothers decided to take the possibility of a professional showbiz career a bit more seriously and set about perfecting their musical skills. Mike Winters became an accomplished musician, going on to study clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music. Recruiting his annoying younger brother Bernie on drums, Mike formed a jazz trio and took to playing some of the seediest venues that 1940s wartime London had to offer. The brothers simultaneously worked on an embryonic stand up career, aided by rudimentary jokes and an equally rudimentary ukulele. That burgeoning comedy career looked to be over before it began when Mike, aged 17, was conscripted into the merchant navy. The brothers’ act could have stopped for good there had Mike not been diagnosed with sinusitis and immediately discharged without ever leaving port. With sinusitis also precluding him from the army, the coal mines may have been Mike Winters’ lot for the duration of the war had Bernie not entered them as a double act in a Manchester talent show. The brothers won the competition, and the Canadian army won the services of Mike and Bernie Winters, and not long after (probably as a direct consequence) the Second World War.
The brothers continued with their act after being demobbed and pursued their career as one of London’s least in demand satirical drum and clarinet comedy acts. During these long lean years, Bernie supplemented their collective income by selling condoms while his brother sold stockings, both commodities much in demand in a London full of returning servicemen and women carelessly discarding their underwear. The brothers stumbled through various setbacks, failures and rejections until in 1955 Mike, tired of looking like so many other double acts and desperate for success, decided, for reasons best known only to him, to dress Bernie in a ridiculous oversize suit. The first audience to clap eyes on the professional debut of Bernie’s new clothes laughed uproariously and after Bernie uttered a nervous ‘eeeeeeeeh’, professional showbiz success was guaranteed. After so many years trying, all it really took was poor tailoring and a bit of gurning.
By the early 1970s, the fraternal love and camaraderie that Mike and Bernie Winters had shared through all that adversity in wartime London was in short supply. A suggestion by Michael Grade to retire Bernie’s oversized novelty suit had seen the brothers start to struggle for inspiration. Mike and Bernie took to arguing about every aspect of their act and decided to break up the act for good, though not immediately. No, they decided that a five year period of notice would be a much better way of conducting their professional breakup, allowing them to reflect soberly on a future career and plan for a life apart from each other. What happened though is that they instead used that five year period of notice to really develop their bitter acrimony and discover new and ever more rancorous ways to despise each other. By the time the end of the act finally came in 1978, the brothers were not spending any time off stage together and were steadfastly refusing to speak to each other, a refusal which held until the early 1990s.
Post break up, Mike retired from performing and immigrated to the United States where he ran nightclubs and wrote a number of successful books. Bernie, bereft of his straight man and with a solo TV show It’s Bernie looming, took the inspired decision to replace Mike with a massive St Bernard dog. I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time in showbiz, but Bernie replacing his brother with a panting sweaty dog shows just how much their relationship had deteriorated over the years. At least during this time Mike wasn’t speaking to Bernie, so couldn’t leave insulting messages on his answering machine.
Bernie and his dribbling overweight canine sidekick Schnorbitz went on to enjoy a decade together, hosting and appearing on various panel shows and chat shows until Bernie’s death in 1991. Together Bernie and Schnorbitz were more famous and successful than the strictly human only act had ever been. Now in his mid-forties, Schnorbitz eventually eclipsed even Bernie in popularity. Long after the passing of Bernie Winters, Schnorbitz continued performing in his own Blackpool show with illusionist Richard De Vere, enjoying all the acclaim and glamour that Mike Winters chose to turn his back on.
The album In Toyland was first released in 1967 by CBS and again in 1972 on the Hallmark label, with a new cover courtesy of Diddymen creator Roger Stevenson. It is a snapshot of Mike and Bernie’s act etched into vinyl for posterity, whether posterity wanted it or not. Bernie is quite clearly the funny one and Mike remains resolutely the straight man. Bernie is not just silly or idiotic though, on In Toyland he seems to be some blubbering overgrown idiotic man child trapped in the body of a bumbling 35 year old comedian. He is so simple that if Bernie were alive today, the record would probably alert social services and see Bernie heavily sedated and dragged from the streets into a secure care facility.
Take for instance Schooldays, the closing track on the album. Bernie is inexplicably preparing to go to school aided by Mike who has taken it upon himself to get Bernie ready. Bernie is, you will recall, 35 years old. But more is to come. Bernie has trouble getting out of bed for school, and the reason for this is hinted at on a number of other tracks on the album. You see, our hero Bernie has great difficulty sleeping. On the track Jigsaw Man, this insomnia is remedied by Mike singing him a bizarre nonsensical tale of a man who sits on a see-saw with a tin can on his head. The track is written by Mike Winters and in a parallel universe may well have influenced The Beatles’ Mean Mr Mustard. Which of course it didn’t. Bernie’s insomnia is further examined in There’s An Elephant In My Bedroom, a domestic arrangement which is neither hygienic nor in any way conducive to a good night’s rest.
As you would expect from an album called In Toyland there are plenty more silly songs designed to appeal to children. On tracks such as Ali Baba a glimpse into the Winters brothers panto routine can be discerned through the layers of sound effects and dodgy middle eastern accents. Mike plays it straight, Bernie plays the mentally stunted imbecile and struggles to say ‘open sesame’ with stuttering and slurring hilarity. Elsewhere Mike is allowed to indulge his inner Von Trapp on the tracks Edelweiss and Do-Re-Mi, with Bernie playing all the children’s parts as idiotically as he possibly can.
The real nugget is the brothers’ version of That Man Batman. Written by Harold Spiro and Phil Wainman (who would go on to produce most of The Sweet’s chart successes in the 1970s), it is a fully fledged theme tune in desperate search of an official endorsement. It is a swinging beat era comic book tale with Mike as a cool level headed superhero and Bernie as, predictably, an idiotic blundering moron of a sidekick. The song was released as a single in 1966 with another Mike Winters album track Insky Spinsky Spider as a b-side. It did not trouble the pop charts but probably did trouble the litigiously minded lawyers of DC Comics.
So, here to play us out are Mike and Bernie battling the criminals of Gotham City in a mini-drama which frankly walks all over anything Christian Bale or Michael Keaton ever achieved in the role of the caped crusader.
Stanley Unwin, the narrator of psychedelic classic Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, had recorded many odd and peculiar stories long before The Small Faces came calling.
Rotatey Diskers With Unwin,
Pye NPL 18062,
‘Unique’ is a much abused word. It means something that is one of a kind. It is not a comparable adjective and a thing cannot said to be ‘quite unique’ or ‘very unique’. It is an extremely simple grammatical rule to grasp and an easy one to remember, and yet if I had a penny for each time I heard the word ‘unique’ misused, well I would quite literally be made of money.
Comedians and their acts are often described as being unique, yet is any comic truly unique? Each generation is influenced by the one before and in turn influences the next. There are many comedians who are unusual or odd but few, if any, who are really truly ‘unique’. One comedian who really does deserve the qualifier ‘unique’ is Stanley Unwin.
Stanley Unwin’s act may be unique simply because it is far too difficult to copy, and often far too baffling for most audiences to follow. There were no jokes or punch lines in a Stanley Unwin monologue. There were no comic situations, such as those that arose in a Stanley Holloway monologue, and no physical comedy or tomfoolery on display on stage. An address by Stanley Unwin was a sustained assault on the ears and the brain, a non-stop barrage of prattling gibberish and nonsense fashioned from mangled words and garbled gabble. Stanley took the English language and administered a through beating to it and audiences either enjoyed the experience or wondered what on earth was happening to their head.
Despite appearing to be the quintessential English eccentric, Stanley Unwin was born in South Africa in 1911 to a British émigré family. Following the death of his father in 1914, Stanley’s mother returned to England with her children just before the outbreak of World War One. Stanley was placed in a succession of temporary billets and children’s homes before settling in the National Children’s Home in Congleton. While residing there, a day trip to the Belle Vue amusement park in Manchester proved a valuable experience for young Stanley.
Present at the fair that day was a very early BBC outside broadcast unit. The mass of coils, wires and aerials pushed along on a large trolley intrigued Stanley and a lifelong fascination with radio and sound was born. Amateur wireless building became his hobby and Stanley qualified from a nautical training school determined to build a career in the new broadcast medium. After seasickness put paid to a career twiddling radios at sea, Stanley joined the electronics firm Plessey, which at the time was busy building radio sets for Marconi. There Unwin remained until the outbreak of the Second World War, when ready to do his bit for the war effort he joined that great refuge of eccentrics, the BBC.
Initially working at the BBC’s Daventry transmitter as an engineer, Unwin followed the troops into Europe in 1944 as part of the BBC’s War Reporting Unit, broadcasting from across France and Italy. After the War he stayed with the BBC, engineering many an outside broadcast. Unwin’s peculiar brand of nonsense gobbledegook was initially performed to amuse himself and to test the radio equipment before the broadcasts began. His nonsense had been noted by other radio producers and had reached a small band of admirers. Fate soon saw to it that Unwin would reach a much larger audience though.
On a 1952 tour of the Mediterranean and North Africa the top billed comic, Frankie Howerd, fell ill before the show in Valetta’s naval base, meaning that a rather impromptu bill was put on in order to prevent any potential riot. Into the spotlight were thrust Frankie’s timid script writer, Eric Sykes, and the bespectacled sound man, Stanley Unwin. Both performing in front of an appreciative audience for the first time, Sykes and Unwin seized the opportunity and never looked back.
Throughout the 1950s Stanley Unwin’s fame grew, aided by numerous appearances on TV and radio shows, most notably The Spice of Life with Ted Ray. In 1956 he appeared in his first feature film Fun at St Fanny’s starring Cardew Robinson. Eventually, in November 1960, Stanley quit the BBC and concentrated fully on his showbiz career. By 1961 when the album Rotatey Diskers With Unwin was released, Stanley Unwin had become a bona fide star and well on the way to becoming a comic institution.
So, unique he may be, but is Stanley Unwin actually funny? I suppose ‘an acquired taste’ might be the best way to describe his particular brand of comedy. Side one of Rotatey Diskers With Unwin comprises recitations in a studio, while side two is a recording of Stanley Unwin in a live environment. Both sides offer an insight into how his peculiar strain of madness works.
The Pidey Pipeload of Hamling and Goldyloppers and the Three Bearloaders on side one are both familiar children’s stories (The Pied Piper of Hamlin and Goldilocks and The Three Bears for those unable to grasp the fundamental rudiments of Unwinese). Stanley excels while describing the exploits of the Pidey Pipeload luring childers and rattage to their doom, his contorted Germanic words sounding not unlike a drunk Scotsman reciting an Anglo Saxon poem backwards. The tale of Goldyloppers is even more assured and the voices of the bears and Goldyloppers are a grumbling nasal delight to listen to. Unwin also delivers lectures on the album. For those that care to be educated and are able to concentrate intently, Artycraft and The Populode of the Musicolly chronicle the entire history of art and music (I think).
The live and ad-libbed material, such as on the closing track Professor Unwin anwsery most questions on manifold subjy, works slightly less well. While it is extraordinary to hear Unwin in a live setting responding to questions without notes and scripts, his muddled jumbled words here hide the fact that he doesn’t actually have much to say. If the subject is classical music then Unwin can embark on wild flights of fancy. If though a question is raised about skiffle, Elvis Presley or Tottenham Hotspur, Unwin does struggle to say anything meaningful on the subject. If Stanley Unwin does say nothing worth hearing though, he does do it very well. A compliment, which like much of Stanley Unwin’s world, makes precious little sense.
Stanley Unwin continued speaking and performing his patented claptrap and gibberish on TV and radio until he died in 2002, fittingly enough in Daventry where he lived within a short radio wave from the transmitter where his career had begun all those years ago.
To decide for yourself whether he is funnily unique or uniquely funny, here is Stanley expounding the wonders of hi-fi sound: