Archive for the ‘British comedy’ Tag
As the TV series Steptoe And Son drew to a close, Harry H Corbett sought to release his debut solo album, a collection of traditional British folk songs and music hall tunes.
Harry H Corbett,
Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles,
Ra Records RALP 6022,
First broadcast as a pilot episode in January 1962 as part of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse, the TV series Steptoe And Son was an unlikely but immensely popular hit. Should anyone need reminding, it was set in a dilapidated and decrepit junkyard and featured a father and son who loathed and mistrusted each other. The series ran for twelve years, with a five year break between the black and white and colour episodes, finally ending on Boxing Day 1974 with a Christmas special. Spawning a number of vinyl albums, radio episodes, foreign adaptations, live shows, tours, and two big screen spin-off films, by rights the two stars of the show Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett could have (and should have) cashed in on their enormous fame and mass appeal when the series came to an end. If Harry H Corbett for example, had wanted to release a novelty single or two, or maybe a full album of daft comedy songs, then I’m sure that no-one would have blamed him. I’m equally sure that there would have been a record buying public eagerly waiting to receive such comedic recordings. Harry though was a man with strong convictions, and he clearly wanted to take his career in a different direction.
Harry H Corbett was no stranger to comedy records. At the beginning of Steptoe-mania in 1962, he had released the suitably rag and bone themed up tempo single Junk Shop. Wilfrid Brambell’s own much more maudlin but similarly themed effort Secondhand followed in 1963. Wilfrid Brambell seemed content with his sole foray into a recording studio, but Harry H Corbett certainly wasn’t daunted and released a number of other novelty singles during the ‘60s. While none of those records would trouble the charts (something of a running theme around here) the two stars of the hit sitcom would have better luck as part of a double act. The single Steptoe & Son At Buckingham Palace was a live recording of their 1963 Royal Variety Performance, released as a fund raiser for the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund. Reaching number 25 in the charts over Christmas 1963, it was also released in Australia and New Zealand, helping to build the sitcom’s popularity outside of the UK. Over this period two Steptoe And Son soundtrack albums also made the charts, with 1963’s Steptoe And Son LP reaching an impressive number 4.
Way before all of this mass adulation and chart success, Harry H Corbett was but a jobbing suburban repertory company actor. Born in 1925 in Burma where his father was a sergeant in the Colonial defence forces, the young Harry was sent back to England aged only 18 months after his mother died of dysentery. Initially he lived with his aunt in Ardwick, Manchester, and then later in Wythenshawe on what was then the largest council housing estate in Europe. After serving with (and later deserting from) the Royal Navy during the Second World War, Harry returned to Manchester where in 1948 after a series of menial jobs he gave into his childhood dreams and joined the Chorlton Repertory Company.
In 1951 a production of Ewan MacColl’s play Uranium 235 saw the much more radical Theatre Workshop share the same theatre as Harry’s Chorlton Rep. It was one of the workshop’s members, David Scase, who persuaded Harry to turn away from the safe world of rep and take a chance with the various militant communists and left wing actors that made up The Theatre Workshop. Formed in post-war Manchester by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl, both veterans of previous radical left wing theatrical ventures, the company saw drama as a means of communicating their fanatic revolutionary fervour to the masses. Soon after Harry joined the resolutely northern troubadours though, the chance came for the Workshop to secure a lease on the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. Joan Littlewood seized the opportunity and took the company south to fight her insurrectionary battles with the West End elite, while Ewan MacColl left to concentrate on his career as a folk singer. Harry went to London and The Theatre Royal, a place where he and many others would make their names with Joan Littlewood and the plays staged in her legendary personal East End fiefdom. Absent though he was, departed Workshop member Ewan MacColl would also have a lasting influence on the career of Harry H Corbett.
Collaborating with folk song collector and performer AL Lloyd, Ewan MacColl released a 1955 album The Singing Sailor on the Topic label. Although Lloyd and MacColl (and even the concertina player Alf Edwards) were credited on the sleeve, Harry H Corbett’s then not particularly famous name was omitted. But there he was, lurking away on side two of the album, holding his own with the two giants of the contemporary folk scene. Even though most shanty songs are largely a series of gruff salty bellows followed by an even gruffer saltier shout by way of a response, Harry’s lone track Blow the Man Down was a competent enough example of the genre to earn a place on the record, as well as on several reissues and compilations of the MacColl and Lloyd sessions over the years. So, to return to the narrative began much earlier, it would seem that some twenty years after this record, Harry H Corbett reflected on his brief but satisfying career as a folk singer and felt the need to revisit his early triumphs. Rather than release yet another novelty record on the pop charts at the very height of his fame, he would instead return to the world of sea songs and folk, with a bit of vintage music hall thrown in for good measure.
The only problem with a much-loved popular comedian wanting to record an album of traditional folk songs and obscure music hall numbers, is of course that no major record company would ever see anything remotely commercial in such a venture and want to be responsible for releasing it. Had Harry returned to singing silly songs about second hand furniture or battered bric-a-brac, then I’m sure he could have found some outlet for his muse, but folk songs were a different prospect. Hence why Harry instead found a home on the obscure Torquay based label Ra Records. Owned and run by Tony Waldron, with a roster of artists including local football clubs, brass bands, holiday camp entertainers, and most importantly many Devon based folk acts, it was a perfect fit. There were no marketing departments to please, no publicity budgets, no targets to meet, just an enthusiastic record label owner hobnobbing with a TV star, producing a great album and having a whale of a time in the process.
Backed by Ra Records regulars Faraway Folk, everyone does seem to have a jolly time. The album kicks off with the title track Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles which is the only original track on the disc, written by Harry H Corbett and Tony Waldron. This is the nearest the record ever gets to downright comedy nonsense, narrating an unlikely tale of an unemployed Corbett being told by the labour exchange to grab his tennis racquet and head down to Hackney. Naturally assuming he is to be employed as a pro tennis player, which I’m sure must happen all the time, his overhead lobbing skills are instead needed to smash glass down at the bottle works. Again, I’m sure that must have happened all the time back in the 1970s. It’s a jaunty novelty number and Harry is at his most Steptoe-like as he tells the story. The only downside is the rather annoying chorus which is repeated over and over again. It goes something along the lines of, “cringle ingle bingle bong, ingle bingle bangle bong”. I hope I spelled that correctly. After you’ve heard it shouted once over the jarring sound effects of breaking glass you’ve probably heard more than enough.
From the world of traditional folk there are tracks such as The Fillin’ Knife, a song adapted by Dominic and Brendan Behan from the Irish street ballad Hand Me Down Me Petticoat. Where the original deals with a woman in a Magdalene Laundry bewailing her lost soldier love, the newer version is more concerned with the more mundane travails of a jobbing painter. Side one is also home to the Jacobite anthem Johnny Cope, which celebrates a rare victory for the Stuart supporters at the 1745 Battle of Prestonpans. Side two sees more traditional folk in the form of the Liverpudlian maritime favourite Maggie May, and the Cornish miners’ ballad The Sweet Nightingale. On the shanty Captain Kydd Harry eschews all maritime heaving and toiling and instead delivers the song as an extended Robert Newton style piratical audition piece, snorting, snarling and growling away over nautical sound effects of waves and seagulls. One can almost see his wooden leg pacing the poop deck and catch a faint whiff of stale herring and tar in the air.
The music hall is well represented too with tracks such as the cockney anthem Your Baby Has Gone Down The Plughole. Most memorably recorded by Cream on their album Disraeli Gears, the song has long been a warning not to wash skinny babies in sinks, and also to the dangers of mind altering drugs and how their misuse can lead to drummers taking lead vocals on rock albums. Household Remedies is another music hall tune written by Harry Randall and Edgar Bateman, which became a popular hit in Dorset for no readily apparent reason. Originally entitled It’s A Wonder I’m Alive To Tell The Tale, the song’s message of unlikely cures for toothache, bile and boils is brought alive by Harry in his lively jaunty version.
Cushy Butterfield, the Geordie music hall classic is also there, written by George Riley who is most famous for his Blaydon Races. The album finishes with the comic masterpiece The Night I First Played My Macbeth, originally written by William Hargreaves in 1922 and made famous on the music hall stages by Billy Merson. Harry acquits himself well on this old favourite with his stentorian Shakespearean monologue, puffed full of starchy pretensions, delivered in spite of various heckles and asides from other characters, all of course played by Harry.
All well and good, but the truly unique appeal of this album is that Harry H Corbett chose to deliver all of these songs, traditional and music hall alike, in the regional accent from whichever part of the British Isles they originated. So Johnny Cope is blessed with a Scottish accent, Household Remedies with a West Country burr, and Fillin’ Knife with an authentic Irish brogue. Most work quite well but the Geordie accent on Cushy Butterfield seems to wander around the far north east of Burma as opposed to Tyneside, while the cover of Irish broadside Jack Of All Trades is inexplicably covered in a Caribbean accent over a calypso rhythm. Which is just wrong on so very many levels.
Where the accents work, they work very well but not all hit their mark. Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles was a brave attempt by an established star to experiment musically and to try something different to what was expected of him. Harry and the Faraway Folk toured the album around the UK with some success and I can only wonder what audiences must have made of Harry’s various accents. On the off chance that the tour took him to Birmingham, here is Harry H Corbett singing I Can’t Find Brumagem, a lament for a lost West Midlands buried under various Bullrings and Spaghetti Junctions:
In the early 1980s an anarchic group of young comedians sought to change the world with violence, Marxism and quite a lot of swearing.
The Comic Strip,
The Comic Strip,
Springtime Records HA HA 6001,
Bowels aside, by and large there are no great ‘movements’ in comedy today. Today’s generation of comedians seem to be out only for themselves. As long as the country’s motorway service stations are supplied with a steady stream of hilarious CDs for sales reps to listen to, then all is well with the world and no great or establishment-challenging art has to take place. The career progression for aspiring young comedians these days is clear and easy to follow: start as a guest on a topical news quiz, chair a panel show, host an ironic gameshow, then look forward to your own regular night of compered variety fun on primetime TV and yet more DVDs for the service station racks. Along the way the venues get gradually larger, from dingy comedy clubs, via corn exchanges and provincial guildhalls, to arenas and finally stadiums. And then you’ve made it. Maybe go to America and annoy them for a bit, make a few appearances in a film few people will see, or just fill out an arena every couple of years if something in the local Ferrari dealership catches your eye.
There used to be some accepted wisdom that post-war comedy would always have groups of similarly minded individuals come along every so often. Groups who would radically change the scene they inherited and shake up notions of what comedy was meant to be. From the wartime anarchy of the Goons, through Beyond The Fringe, Monty Python, Not The Nine O’Clock News, and right on into the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s, there have always been groups of young talented people ready to evolve comedy, to react against social norms and perceived methods of working, to challenge, to dare, to experiment and rail against the madness of the modern world. Not now though. Now we have nothing. Just endless bloody panel shows and endless Russell bloody Howard. Future generations will pity us, they really will. Sadly though, we won’t even be able to take offence at their condescending patronizing pity, as we will be too sedated from the soporific effects of watching Russell Howard to even notice or care what is happening. Russell Howard. Russell Russell Howard…
The story of the young radicals who would become the Comic Strip began collectively around 1979, with a group of comedians performing in the newly opened Comedy Store in London. There, in shows compered by angry Scouse Marxist Alexei Sayle, established double acts such as The Outer Limits (Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer) and 20th Century Coyote (Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson) performed lively anarchic comedy that would soon come to be referred to as ‘alternative’. Alternative comedy as a concept and a term was invented by Tony Allen, also a regular at the Comedy Store, and came as a reaction against hackneyed gags that relied on stereotypically easy targets, those joke staples of established club comics such as ethnic minorities and mothers-in-law.
The prime mover behind the Comic Strip as a coherent group was Peter Richardson. Keen to stage a play, he found a cheap venue in the Raymond Revue Bar, a strip club that after it closed and was cleared of naked women and lecherous tourists, was suitably empty, cheap and in a prime Soho location. Soon the idea of the play was abandoned but Richardson recognised that the venue would make the ideal late night comedy venue. Luring his chums from the Comedy Store to perform at the venue, along with lugubrious stand up Arnold Brown and double act French and Saunders, the scene was set for a comedy revolution.
A lot happened very fast in the life of the collective Comic Strip regulars. Within a year of forming, a national and international tour had been mounted, followed by a TV special and the production of this vinyl artefact which all raised the group’s profile. By 1982, with the persistence and enthusiasm of Peter Richardson being the main driving force, both the BBC and the newly created Channel 4 had signed up the Comic Strip players in the shape of The Young Ones and The Comic Strip Presents…
With the faces and personalities now so familiar to comedy fans after almost forty years of exposure, it’s easy to forget just what an impact these comedians once made. The individual members of the Comic Strip are these days members of the establishment themselves. With respected bodies of work, and long critically acclaimed careers they seem somehow safe and reliable. It is easy to forget that they were once the outsiders and that their work was seen as subversive, corrupting and dangerous.
Alexei Sayle for instance is now only an occasional comedian. His career as a writer has largely taken over but anyone who needs to remind themselves why he was once so feared needs only to listen to his contributions to this record. Plucked straight from a live Soho performance in the Comic Strip with no studio finesse or post-production polish, Sayle’s contributions are visceral and raw. No effort is made to tone down his act and he, perhaps more than anyone else on this record, evokes what it must have been like to witness the arrogance and self-assurance of the Comic Strip in their prime.
Sayle in the album opener Introduction sets out his stall as an ‘alternative’ comedian from the off. Jokes referencing Marxism and Enver Hoxha sit alongside more traditional gags about beer and curry. A rudimentary ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor? (Sayle’s unlikely 1982 Top 15 hit) can be briefly heard towards the end of his set but his full album closer Stream Of Tastelessness has to be heard to be believed. Never mind comedians, there are few individuals lucky enough to live outside secure prison wings that could sustain such a level of insane invective, shouting, swearing and spittle for the full nine and a half minutes that Alexei Sayle does!
The other acts on the record also show glimpses of what they would go on to achieve. Nigel Planer debuts a prototype Young Ones creation on The Outer Limits track Neil At Wembley, complete with self-deprecating commentary, terrible maudlin material, and long tedious songs about depression. Elsewhere on Lenny Flowers, Planer and Richardson experiment with an extended narrative sketch about a heavy metal band reforming which must surely have inspired Edmondson’s later creation, the degenerate rockers Bad News. Performing aside, Peter Richardson’s other main contribution is showing his keenness for organising and structuring the anarchy around him. As well as producing the record, Richardson ropes in future creative partners Pete Richens and Ben Elton for script writing duties on the track Page 3 Girls.
In the performances of Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall it is immediately apparent that they are comfortable with their own brand of comedy, that now familiar blend of unbridled anarchy, social awkwardness and casual violence that would serve them well for the next thirty years of their career. Listening to Mayall recite his angry and very awful poetic verses on the two tracks devoted to Rik’s Poetry, it is clear that Rik, as with Planer’s Neil, is ready to step straight into his Young Ones role.
Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders too seem remarkably comfortable in their sole contribution to the album, Psychodrama. Adopting the personas of two vapid and health obsessed American tourists, their skill at accents and subtle observant acting stands out from the rest of the more brash confrontational comedy on offer. That’s not to say their routine lacks bite or ability to shock. As the two Americans descend into ever more spiteful competitiveness and mutual loathing, the piece doesn’t look quite so out of place.
Before DVDs, VHS, and even before TV executives began to notice them, The Comic Strip as an album was a calling card for a group who were determined to forge a new style of comedy. It was a clear and bold statement of intent from the outset that didn’t compromise or make any concessions to listeners’ sensibilities. The ripples that this album caused are still around today, from the many comedy clubs that have proliferated across the country, to any mainstream TV show that bills itself as somehow edgy or dark. That all these once daring, dangerous comedians are now respected documentary makers, presenters, novelists, film stars, and in some cases just plain dead, is not their fault. They were young and they tried to change the world and I applaud them for that. The fact the modern world is such a mess is Russell Howard’s fault, and I blame him entirely for that.
So to finish on a high, here is Rik Mayall, with help from Adrian Edmondson on toy gun, reminding us why they were so ruddy brilliant and dangerous in the first place:
Kenneth Horne was an unassuming and dedicated businessman but also one of the biggest stars of radio.
Round The Horne,
Pye NPL 18291,
To reach the top in show business can often be a battle. Many ruthless determined people succeed and many of those who falter are cast by the wayside. Occasionally though, decent, modest and humble people can prosper without ever resorting to heartless scheming behaviour. One such person was Kenneth Horne. There were few performers as laid back and as casual about fame as him and his life of modesty, generosity and temperance should serve as an exemplary tale for any aspiring performer.
Kenneth Horne was born in 1907, the youngest son of the Reverend Charles Silvester Horne who like his father before him was a Congregationalist clergymen. Kenneth’s father led a very active life caring for his busy and impoverished parish in London’s inner city before leaving to become the Liberal MP for Ipswich. He died very young at the age of just 49 whilst on a lecture tour of Canada, leaving behind his wife and seven children.
At first, Kenneth Horne did not look like he would be anything other than a solid pillar of the community as his father and grandfather had been before him. After prep school his uncle Austin Pilkington, of the famous glass-making family, saw to it that Kenneth was offered a place at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His work soon suffered though as Horne became more interested in cricket, squash, golf rugby and athletics, rather than his academic studies. During this time he also became firm friends with tennis player and future Wimbledon finalist Bunny Austin, often playing doubles with him. While his sporting prowess was never in doubt, in 1927 after attending barely any lectures Kenneth Horne was sent down from Magdalene and forced out into the world of work.
The generous glass-making uncle Austin helped once again and recommended Kenneth to a friend of his who was a director in the Triplex Safety Glass Company and in 1927 that is where he started his career. There Kenneth Horne may well have remained for the rest of his life were it not for the Second World War dragging him away to serve his country. Kenneth volunteered for the RAF Volunteer reserve. Perhaps expecting a life of thrills and spills in the skies over Europe, Kenneth was instead posted to the RAF’s 911 Squadron, to experience life in a barrage balloon base in the glamourous fields of Sutton Coldfield.
In 1939, to combat the seemingly endless boredom, Kenneth helped stage a concert party at the base. That concert was watched by the BBC producer Bill McClurg who immediately engaged Kenneth and his troop to take part in a radio broadcast for BBC Birmingham, entitled ‘Ack-Ack Beer-Beer’ (service slang for Anti-Aircraft Balloon Barrage). Few who listened to that obscure broadcast could have had an inkling that broadcasting history was being made. In 1943, Horne was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander and posted to the Air Ministry in London. During his spare time he continued with his broadcasts, this time for the Overseas Recorded Broadcasting Service (ORBS) which produced shows for troops in the Middle East.
As luck would have it, the Lieutenant that Horne shared his ministry office with was Richard Murdoch, an established radio comedian who had formed a popular double act with Arthur Askey in the BBC show Band Waggon. With the vivid and fertile imagination of Horne and Murdoch their ORBS shows soon became much talked about, principally for their creation of the fictional airbase Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. The comic conceit of an RAF station beset by red tape and complicated bureaucracy, resonated with troops everywhere and the show was soon taken up by the BBC where it was to become a firm favourite running from 1944 to 1954, via a brief stint on Radio Luxembourg.
Despite all his successes as a popular broadcaster of note, throughout all of his many successes and triumphs in front of the microphone, Kenneth Horne was content to continue with his career as a director of Triplex until 1956 when he left to join the toy company Chad Valley. Forced to retire from his boardroom positions in 1958 after suffering a stroke, Kenneth Horne concentrated full time on broadcasting, creating in the process classic radio shows that remain popular to this day.
His first project was Beyond Our Ken, scripted by Eric Merriman with the assistance of Barry Took for the first two series. Beyond Our Ken ran until 1964 when Eric Merriman made the decision to concentrate on television work. The BBC, understandably reluctant to lose one of its top shows, brought back Barry Took along with Marty Feldman and after a name change, Round The Horne was born.
More anarchic, revolutionary and subversive than its predecessor, Round The Horne built on the solid foundations of Beyond Our Ken, using the same cast and format but adding ever more grotesque and outrageous comedy into the mix. With the comic abilities and vocal talents of Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden, Bill Pertwee and announcer Douglas Smith, it might be expected that Kenneth Horne, the staid and diligent business executive might fade into the background. Horne though became the ringmaster of the crazy circus that revolved around his sober and subdued presence. It took a lot to control the manic impish mischief of Kenneth Williams but Horne certainly managed it. Only a master of deadpan could ever have appeared on equal terms with Williams and Paddick once they slipped so elegantly into the roles of Julian and Sandy.
Sadly Kenneth Horne was to die at the very height of his fame in 1969, when this record was released as a tribute to the genius of the man and his motley band of outlandish clowns. Made from clips taken from the third series first broadcast in 1967, all the vital ingredients of Round The Horne’s success are on display. Douglas Smith demonstrates his wonderfully intoned BBC announcer skills, Bill Pertwee’s Seamus Android interjects half-finished non-sequiturs still somehow infused with innuendo. Betty Marsden dispenses fashion tips as the velvet-tongued mellifluous columnist Daphne Whitethigh, as well as gushing breathlessly as Fiona, the love and inept theatrical muse of the equally deluded Charles played deftly by Hugh Paddick in that classic period piece Where No Hippos Fly.
Kenneth Williams makes an appearance as rustic folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo, debuting his adaptation of Green Grows My Bogling Fork, as well as dominating the show with Hugh Paddick as the outrageous and ludicrously camp entrepreneurs Julian and Sandy. J Peasemold Gruntfuttock disgusts as only he can, the Oriental adventure mystery The Maltese Brass Monkey excites and delights, and Sidney Goosecreature battles with that fearless outlaw The Palone Ranger. In short, all the usual Round The Horne lunacy reigns; chaos, anarchy and innuendo are the order of the day, and there in the midst of all the chaos is Kenneth Horne, controlling and dominating all proceedings, anchored resolutely at the still point of the turning world.
Kenneth Horne was not indifferent to fame but he was that rare thing in showbiz, a genuinely talented man who was genuinely modest. His work in radio might have begun as little more than a casual side-line but it would become his main focus. Through his effortless skills he brought joy to millions and became a true master of the medium.
Despite leaving The Goon Show after just two series, Michael Bentine found many more outlets for his crazy sense of humour and ever active intellect.
It’s A Square World!,
Parlophone PMC 1179,
As anarchic and as offbeat as the ground-breaking The Goon Show was, for the decade it was broadcast it remained very much the creation and cherished troubled child of Spike Milligan. Despite various collaborating writers working on the show over the years, and sometimes despite even the absence of Milligan entirely, it was his anarchic vision, creative imagination and fierce determination that drove the show to succeed, to the detriment of his own mental and physical health.
The other Goons were never idle during this period of success though. Peter Sellers forged the foundations of a stellar movie career and Harry Secombe found his niche as a singer and performer of some note. The only Goon to have been frustrated by constraining his ambition and talents to fit in with the vision of Spike Milligan was Michael Bentine. After a mere two series of The Goon Show, Bentine left amid a fair amount of acrimony and more than a little press speculation about his motives and the possibility of his future career outside of the group. Fans need not have worried though, as over the years the singular talents of Michael Bentine found many unusual and creative outlets.
His background was certainly exotic and unusual. As if having a mother from Westcliff in Essex was not exceptional enough, having a father from Peru certainly was. Michael Bentine’s father Adan Bentin, was the son of a silver miner and former President-elect of Peru. Sent to England to study engineering Adan was refused permission to fight for Britain in the First World War, so instead used his engineering skills to develop aeronautical innovations of his own devising, and rather obliquely, to run a music school where he met his wife and Michael’s future mother Florence. After the war, Adam (as he was now known) was offered the chance to help build a new Peruvian air force. It was back in Peru that Michael was conceived and from where in 1922, his parents returned to England in an effort to make sure that their son would be born British, as is only right and proper.
Afflicted in his early childhood by a severe stammer it was not until Michael Bentine reached Eton that, with the help of a sympathetic master, he was able to start conquering his speaking difficulties. When the Second World War broke out Michael, like his father before him, was refused permission to serve in the RAF due to his Peruvian dual nationality. Jobs as a photo journalist, and a jobbing drummer followed before Bentine decided to capitalise on his new found confidence at public speaking, and try his hand at acting. It was in October 1942, during a production by Robert Atkins of The Merchant Of Venice, that the RAF finally decided it needed Michael’s services, seeing fit to arrest him without warning as a deserter. Despite the potential ignominy, Michael Bentine remained proud to be the only British serviceman to be arrested while wearing doublet and hose for over four hundred years.
After the war, during which he eventually managed to fly in a plane, Bentine like many of his contemporaries found gainful employment at London’s Windmill Theatre. Appearing on bills with Harry Secombe and his novelty shaving act, Bentine’s act was no less bizarre. Lectures were delivered in a non-existent language of his own peculiar devising, and various props such as a walking stick, a rubber chicken, a bow and arrow, and finally the back of a broken chair were all used in Michael’s idiosyncratic and inventive new brand of comedy.
That brand of innovation and love of a good prop remained evident in many of Michael Bentine’s successful TV series over the years. Props, models, outlandish stunts and clever visual effects played a large part in the popularity of the It’s a Square World TV show which ran from 1960-64, and became even more integral to the later Michael Bentine’s Potty Time which starred an army of small puppets (known as Potties) all voiced by the vocal skills of Michael.
Those same ingenious and inventive ideas are also present on the It’s a Square World album which was recorded in 1962. Aided by Parlophone’s resident wizard of sound George Martin, Bentine plays with technology, sound effects and soundscapes as easily as he played with visual imagery on television. Not simply a comedy album of material transferred from one medium to another, the record is a resourceful and innovative exercise in its own right, and one which takes full advantage of the medium. All voices are the creation of Michael Bentine, and other than the extremely valuable input of George Martin’s alchemy, the record is an extraordinary and masterful solo effort.
From the opening introduction, the possibilities of using sound for comedy are explored as Michael Bentine is unchained from his cell and dragged hesitantly before a microphone. The listener is then led on to the opening track of The Horse Show, complete with reverberating public address system and of course all the requisite sound effects of audience appreciation and snorting galloping horses. The plucky Brit who demolishes the course and smashes through the fences is praised while the crafty but highly competent Italian who glides gracefully over the jumps is treated with scorn and contemptible derision. As a piece of satire it is relevant today and still just as funny.
Some of Bentine’s other ideas which were no doubt satirical and highly imaginative back in 1962 sound highly prescient today. Take for instance the Ice Cream Commercial, one of many mock adverts which break up the longer sketches. The premise of having curry-flavoured ice cream was probably quite novel at the time. Nowadays it’s probably the proposed business model for a multitude of potential trendy hipster ice cream parlours. The Holiday Commercial with its proposal that tourists visit a coal mine is now, thanks to the death of the UK’s coal industry, another example of Michael Bentine’s comic yet prophetic prognostications coming true. Even if these days tourists do not have a ton or two of coke dumped on top of them as proposed in Bentine’s sketch.
Elsewhere on the record, there are more satirical masterpieces such as the exploration of the possibilities of Dingleweed as a commercial crop. A crop that is so pointless and purposeless that it is grown only in order to grow ever more dingleweed. There are also sketches that exist solely for amusement, such as Tower Of London in which elderly and confused Beefeaters exchange keys amidst much clanking and creaking of sound effects. The record also sees a Geneva Convention of nations speaking unto nation in various nonsensical Bentine languages, interrupted by a succession of misplaced phone calls all searching for a sultry siren named Gladys.
There are also sketches which play with the medium of broadcasting. Tracks such as The Shrdlu neatly parodies wildlife documentaries with their months devoted to recording pointless animals being attacked and eaten by other pointless animals, in this case the ravenous Prairie Kumquat.
Michael Bentine also collaborates with his TV show writing partner John Law on the quite brilliant Football Results which sees a sports announcer’s excitement rise as the possibility of a pools win appears. He is let down by the dismal efforts of Huddersfield and Barnsley, and soon returns to reality with an audible and gloomy acceptance of the fickle nature of fate. The track earned a deserved release as a single along with The Astronauts as a b-side. Equally inventive, the premise for this space age track sees a Russian lunar mission adopting ever more complicated composers’ names instead of the usual NATO phonetic alphabet. Complete with humming of arias and unsolicited interference from the Americans, Michael Bentine plays each part with gusto and perfect timing.
Michael Bentine is often overlooked when The Goons are discussed. His part in that particular anarchic ground-breaking show may have been small but it was vital. The forty years he spent working outside of the Goons were never idle though and were filled with incident and innovation. Whether Michael Bentine was dabbling in various aeronautical innovations, leading the first hovercraft expedition up the Amazon, investigating the paranormal, or creating fondly remembered TV series, he approached everything with absolute enthusiasm, imagination and passion.
Here then is the last moments of the not particularly missed Desert Shrdlu, a creature exceeded only in worthlessness and irrelevance by the Prairie Kumquat.