Hylda Baker was a successful comedian with a career spanning over sixty years. So how come most people only know her for one solitary shambolic appearance on Top of the Pops?
Arthur Mullard & Hylda Baker,
Band On The Trot,
Pye Records PKL 5576,
Few comic entertainers are allowed the luxury of planning the last act of their life, cementing forever how they will be remembered by the general public. A farewell tour bidding adieu to an adoring public for example, or maybe that one last starring role in a major film. A chart hit after years of trying, a choice Shakespearean part after years of treading the boards in years of formulaic bedroom farces and exhausting summer seasons. It’s a fair bet that Hylda Baker never thought her last public act as an actress and comedienne, with a career spanning over sixty year years, would be wearing ill-fitting leather trousers and a blonde wig on Top of the Pops, while she and Arthur Mullard subjected a song from Grease to a musical kicking that brought new dimensions to the word ‘shambolic’.
Born in Farnworth near Bolton in 1905, the daughter of music hall comedian Harold Baker, Hylda made her stage debut at the age of just ten in pantomime at the Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells. Young Hylda soon took to the music halls herself, initially as a singer and dancer, and then as she grew older and more confident, into a comedienne. She soon took to writing all her sketches and songs and formed a revue company that would tour the country.
It was a bold move for a young female performer in such a male-dominated world, even more so for Hylda who as well as being responsible for the scripts, also designed the costumes and scenery and took on all the financial responsibilities of a touring company. A marriage to Ben Pearson in 1929 lasted only until 1933 as the variety act took up more of her time, and Hylda worked hard gradually building her reputation.
The most fondly remembered part of her stage act from this period featured Hylda (standing at just 4’11’’) chatting with her comedy partner ‘Cynthia’, normally a tall man in frumpish drag who would tower over her while maintaining an aloof barely comprehending silence. Hylda would hold lengthy one-way conversations filled with typical Lancashire humour and inspired malapropisms. Thankfully, unlike many contemporary variety acts, this act has been preserved on film, and was the one that brought Hylda Baker the success she had always struggled for, though there were to be a few setbacks along the way.
In 1950, with her career stalled and money hard to come by, Baker took a break from performing and opened a chip shop in Farnworth. It provided welcome income but in March 1955 an appearance on the music hall themed television show The Good Old Days, alongside another ‘Cynthia’, brought Baker’s act to a national audience and earned her instant fame, after a mere four decades of treading the boards. Her career was kick-started and by 1957 Hylda Baker would be the star of her own TV show Be Soon, a title take from one of the many catchphrases directed at Guy Middleton, the latest in a long line of Cynthias.
There were many further TV shows built around the talents of Hylda Baker, starring roles in acclaimed films, various novelty singles and West End theatre. Hylda deserved all the fame and all the praise. So how precisely did she end up on Top of the Pops, cavorting like a prosecco fuelled drunken auntie at a wedding reception, while attempting to seduce a lumbering Arthur Mullard? Step forward ‘flamboyant’ showbiz agent and publicist Eric Hall
‘Flamboyant’ is an adjective frequently used when describing Eric Hall. It’s a polite way to decry him as an insufferable, nerve-grating, irritating, gormless idiot without appearing rude. ‘Flamboyant’ is a way of noting that he conforms to all the hackneyed clichéd stereotypes of a cocky, pushy, East End, Jewish showbiz agent without appearing in any way denigrating or anti-Semitic. ‘Flamboyant’ is shorthand for all the exaggerated accents, cigar chomping, banal catchphrase spouting, arm-waving mannerisms that you would expect of a showbiz agent if you were not particular good at casting someone as a showbiz agent in a tacky 1970s comedy show.
Eric Hall rose to national fame in the 1990s when he first discovered football and learned what a glorious cash generating business it could be. Representing such glamorous clients as Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock and Dennis ‘The Twat’ Wise, Hall was everywhere spouting his catchphrases and waving his cigar about. Back in 1978 though, Hall was only a 30-year-old record plugger and publicist for EMI, keen to find the next big thing. He had worked with the likes of The Sex Pistols and Marc Bolan so he knew what the kids wanted. Novelty songs had always proved popular in the British charts, so Eric Hall of course decided that what the kids wanted was Arthur Mullard in a wig and Hylda Baker in black leather trousers, dancing to popular hits of the day and recording a whole album full of daft novelty songs. Of course!
Hall called on the services of producers Kenny Lynch and Rob Boughton. Kenny Lynch, often more famous for being a close showbiz chum of Jimmy Tarbuck, had enjoyed a long career as a singer, writer and performer in his own right. Rob Boughton was just embarking on a career as a writer and producer. What did they know about propelling the likes of Hylda Baker on to pop stardom? Well, plenty as it turned out.
Lynch and Broughton had just finished work on the eponymous debut album for the pop duo Blonde on Blonde. As contrived a concept as Mullard and Baker, only much better looking, Blonde on Blonde were Nina Carter and Jilly Johnson, two former Page 3 topless models who had decided to launch a pop career. Lynch and Broughton obliged with a well-produced mixture of popular contemporary hits by artists including The Bee Gees, Boney M, a few numbers from the film musical Grease, and a couple of by Lynch and Broughton, just to keep the royalties trickling in. It worked well enough, launching Blonde on Blonde towards a ‘big in Japan’ kind of pop career as well as bit parts in various TV and film appearances, and for Nina Carter a marriage to progster Rick Wakeman. And so the concept piece that is Band On The Trot was born.
The surprising thing is that just how good the album sounds. Okay the singing of the two lead vocalists sounds like two tone deaf badgers fighting for air in a muffled hessian sack full of gravel, but just take in that production for a moment. What wholly unnecessary professionalism! Kenny Lynch and Rob Broughton certainly gave it their all, when they could well have been forgiven for polishing the LP off in a single afternoon before clearing off down the pub with a wad of Eric Hall’s cash.
The album includes Sweet Kind Of Guy, their song written for Blonde on Blonde, as well as Lynch’s Small Faces’ hit Sha La La Lee. There is a cover of Dancing On A Saturday Night written by Barry Blue and Lynsey De Paul. There is also the Tavares song The Mighty Power Of Love. And then of course, just as they did with the album Blonde on Blonde, Lynch and Broughton threw in a well-produced mixture of popular hits by The Bee Gees, Boney M, a few numbers from the film musical Grease, and the job was done. Monster monster etc.
The act was daft and preposterous enough for the single to catch on and sell in ‘monster’ quantities, earning Mullard and Baker that now infamous appearance on Top of the Pops performing their cover of You’re The One That I Want. With a promotional video shot in a rundown fairground of the sort normally frequented by Scooby Doo and creepy psychotic caretakers, the single was already a number 22 hit by the time Mullard and Baker delivered their unique interpretation to a bemused nation live on Thursday night telly.
It was such a chaotic, messy, disorganised, and utterly tuneless performance that almost uniquely in Top of the Pops history it caused sales of the record to drop rather than rise. After a chart run of six weeks it fizzled away into the discount bin of history. The album bombed and the follow-up single Don’t Go Breaking My Heart also failed to trouble the charts. And with that Hylda Baker’s pop career ended. She attempted to capitalise on her new fame with tours and nightclub appearances, but the early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease soon put a stop to any chance of cashing in on the odd British cultural phenomenon that was Band on the Trot.
With a career spanning over sixty years, Hylda Baker deserves to be remembered for much more than that single performance of You’re The One That I Want. None of us quite deserved it to be honest. There is much to be celebrated and remembered in her lengthy career. Think of her fondly. After all she knows, you know.