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.