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: