Archive for the ‘British TV’ 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:
The comedian Les Dawson excelled as a stand-up and as an actor. What is often overlooked is his whimsical mastery over the English language.
Laugh With Les,
BBC REB 346,
To celebrate Les Dawson solely as a reliable and rapid deliverer of crude mother-in-law jokes, is to do him a great disservice. True, he delivered many a gag about his wife over the years, as well as her supposedly gorgon-like mother, but Les Dawson had many other comedic talents that are underappreciated. There was the character actor who brought to life scripts and plays by the likes of Galton and Simpson, Roberto Cossa and Alan Plater. There was the comedian equally at home in TV sketch shows as he was performing stand-up late into the night at a boisterous working men’s club. There was the consummate quiz show host ever so slightly at odds with the lavish television sets, forging a rare intimacy with contestants and audience alike. And then there was the writer and novelist, the constructor of intricate fanciful prose as whimsical, rich and playful as anything ever heard on a comedy stage.
In his 1985 autobiography A Clown Too Many, Les Dawson describes Collyhurst, the Manchester suburb where he was born back in 1931. The words that he uses, the turns of phrase he conjures, and the images he conveys emerge every bit as vivid and evocative as an LS Lowry street scene. The grimy dark streets wreathed in smoke are a world full of, “teeming running fighting children, never pausing for breath as they dart down drain-blocked alleyways…” The poetic turns of phrase and literary leanings of Les Dawson find full reign in that description, inspired by his hard upbringing, thwarted ambition and multifarious struggles. Time and again, that same mastery over words would appear in his comedy.
The various working class areas of Manchester where Les’s family lived over the years did not provide the sort of environment that would normally encourage any intellectual leanings or idle comic musings. Career aspirations for Les and his neighbours did not extend much beyond ‘learning a trade’ or if really lucky, securing a steady job in a shop or an office. A mediocre student at best, Les Dawson left school at the age of 14 and embarked on the first of many ill-suited jobs in the drapery department of the Co-Op Manchester. He would go on to be an equally inept electrician, newspaper reporter, dishwasher and door-to-door salesman.
It is perhaps only the fact that Les Dawson proved so utterly hopeless at every single trade and profession he attempted to make a living from, that the British public were able to eventually enjoy his comedic output. Les’s breakthrough into comedy was driven by a fierce and relentless ambition. Not the sort of ambition that propels someone to instant overnight fame and stardom, but rather an obdurate sense of determination that allowed him to take risks, suffer multiple failures and setbacks, until success eventually came.
Les’s narrow horizons were expanded and ambitions first stirred during his National Service in post-war Germany. While no better at being a soldier than he was an electrician, and equally as dangerous to those around him, Les found that his piano playing abilities were enough to keep him ingratiated with his comrades. They also kept him out of military jail on a constant litany of charges caused by his unfailing ineptitude. After his spell in Germany, demobbed and back in Manchester, it was not long before Les felt the urge to try his luck on the continent again and decamped aboard to try his luck in Paris. Piano playing in brothels did not prove lucrative enough to sustain his dreams of living a bohemian aesthete’s life on the banks of the Seine and he returned once again to Manchester.
One further trip away from Manchester might have proved enough to squash most aspiring showbiz ambitions. An unexpected and potentially lucrative offer to work with celebrated comedian Max Wall in London proved a false start as Wall became embroiled in an extra-marital affair which saw his career stall amid the prudish atmosphere of 1950’s England. And so, with his big break gone, Les Dawson returned to Manchester, and became resigned to his familiar world of vacuum cleaner selling and occasional gigs on the Northern club circuit.
Les Dawson developed his act gradually over the years mixing his piano playing skills with comedy until, in 1964 and at the insistence of his wife he took the decision to apply for Opportunity Knocks, then the biggest TV talent show of the day. Les would go on to win the studio vote with his own unique blend of self-deprecation, world weary cynicism and earthy Northern humour, an act honed in the many years playing desperate soul-destroying gigs across the UK. That successful TV debut earned Les appearances on the televisual spectacular Blackpool Night Out. Performing an act forged in adversity and hardship made him stand out amongst the usual polished slick cabaret acts of the time, and in 1969 Les Dawson earned his first headlining TV show, Sez Les. He was at last a success, after only 38 years of toil! Les Dawson was rarely off the TV screens from 1969 until his untimely death in 1993, earning a place in the nation’s heart that few comedians can aspire to.
Les’s first vinyl album, An Evening With Les Dawson , was released in 1976. Recorded both in Manchester and London, the record was a mixture of live sketches featuring his by now well-known and established TV comedy characters, as well as two novelty songs recorded in the studio. When Dawson left Yorkshire TV to make programmes for the BBC in 1978, it consolidated Les’s reputation and produced his second album in 1979.
Gathering material from his BBC Radio 2 series Listen To Les as well as the BBC One TV series The Dawson Watch, that 1979 record Laugh With Les contains many wonderful examples of what made Les Dawson an enduring and cherished comedy star. The tracks are split into ‘dissertations’ (that is to say convoluted rambling jokes), long musings on various topics, as well as tracks performed with Roy Barraclough, with the two comics in character as the gossiping housewives, Cissie and Ada.
The first dissertation delivered is The Barnsley Dracula, a rambling yarn that tells of Yorkshire’s very own vampire, a certain Albert Shufflebotham killed by a consignment of silver tipped tripe only to be raised from the dead and married off to a pub landlady. Other dissertations deal with alien invasions and a continental coach holiday on a decrepit bus powered by ‘swamp gas and bat droppings’. These long discourses allow Les to give full flight to his fancy and absurd imagination and are sprinkled with wonderful turns of phrase.
For all the killer one-liners, fanciful monologues and brilliant wordplay, it is the Cissie and Ada routines that are the undoubted highlights. Ada, played by Les is a lusty dreamer, thwarted in love and ambition, her speech peppered with malapropisms and innuendo. Cissie, played by Roy Barraclough, is her slightly more well-to-do friend, pretentious and with an affected air of refinement and superiority. Both are united in their love of gossip nattering and intrigue, and no topic is off limits as they discuss, love, money, robust Canadian soldiers, infirmity and scandal.
Cissie and Ada are easy to picture sipping tea in their garish frocks and curlers, putting the world to rights over a macaroon while engaging in the sort of philosophical symposia that Plato could only dream of. Here then to play us out are the erudite and learned logicians of Lancashire, Cissie and Ada, discussing how best to make ends meet. Their own ends, one hopes.
Famous for his role as Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, John Le Mesurier’s love of jazz saw him produce a wonderfully chilled and relaxed 1976 album.
John Le Mesurier,
What is Going to Become of Us All?,
Like many of the veteran cast of Dad’s Army, John Le Mesurier had enjoyed a long and successful career before the Home Guard recruiters came calling. John’s familiar, resigned, world-weary face and reassuring upper class tones can be glimpsed and heard in literally hundreds of British films from the 1940s onwards. Without ever really being a true star, John Le Mesurier carved out quite a career playing bemused authority figures and jaded members of the establishment. Butlers, police officers, judges, peers, lawyers; John Le Mesurier played them all superbly.
John Le Mesurier was born in 1912 and christened John Elton Le Mesurier Halliley. From birth, he was very much part of the establishment and much more was expected of him than the role of a jobbing actor. His father was a lawyer, there were nannies to tend to the needs of the nursery, and a life of respectability and convention seemed clearly mapped out for John. Without realising at the time, he was surrounded by the very staid and stifled authority figures that he would go on to play in his acting career.
John’s schooldays were by all accounts a dull time enlivened only by the occasional cricket match or stage play. After characteristically flunking an interview for the Royal Naval College, John was instead enrolled at the venerable institution that is Sherborne School, a famous seat of learning beloved by nearly all of its students, with the notable exception of John Le Mesurier. Four years later after a torrid time, largely spent failing to conform or succeed in anything he did, and growing increasingly disillusioned with rules and conventionality, John finally left full-time education to take his allotted place in the established order.
Easy-going as ever and predictably choosing the path of least resistance, in 1930 John joined a firm of lawyers in Bury St Edmunds, mainly it would seem to keep his despairing parents satisfied and temporarily free from despair. It took another three years of boredom, book-keeping and tedious clock-watching before John finally plucked up the courage to announce to his parents that he was leaving the law firm for ever, and contrary to all expectations and hopes for him, would be journeying to London to join the Fay Compton School of Dramatic Art. After an audition in which he recited a Jack Hulbert monologue followed by a Noël Coward poem, he was in. The former professional lawyer John Le Mesurier was now free to play the part of a lawyer on stage and screen.
Initial success was slow to come for the young actor. After drama school a succession of provincial repertory companies provided him with gainful and steady employment. A change in name from Halliley to Le Mesurier had little immediate impact on his career. When the Second World War rudely interrupted his acting career, by bombing to oblivion both his home and the theatre in which he was working, John cut his losses and reported to the army to sign up. Displaying his usual reluctance to follow orders or engage in anything more energetic than the ordering of gin-based cocktails, the army made the wise decision to make John Le Mesurier an officer and ship him off to India, well out of the way of Hitler and a place where John would be able to cause little lasting damage to the war effort.
After the war, the roles did start to come. Bit parts and supporting roles galore were John Le Mesurier’s career for the next twenty years, and many a classic British comedy film is brightened up by his languid tones and bewildered air of authority. Marriages to comedian Hattie Jacques and Joan Malin followed and his career seemed steady, predictable and uneventful. Gainfullly and constantly employed but not by any means the leading man he could have been. That is of course, until 1968 when John was offered the role of Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army by Jimmy Perry, himself a Second World War veteran of India and the Far East. Fame and acclaim quickly followed. At last, after a mere forty years of trying, John Le Mesurier was now a star.
The album is pretty much how I imagine it would be to spend an evening with John Le Mesurier; chatting amiably away, strolling leisurely between Soho jazz clubs, occasionally reclining on a leatherette armchair, nursing a sizeable glass of whisky amidst a languorous fog of cigarette smoke, and smiling contentedly as a saxophone lament plays mournfully in the background.
John doesn’t really travel out of his comfort zone on the record. Not for him the undignified novelty songs and recordings of military marches beloved of his Dad’s Army colleagues. There is jazz naturally, but in true laidback and unselfish Le Mesurier fashion, most of it is sung by Annie Ross (a particular favourite of John) accompanied by pianist Alan Clare. The songs, sketches, monologues and recitals that John Le Mesurier chose for the album are very deliberately and carefully picked, and all are clearly very dear and personal to him.
Having no doubt been gently coaxed into it, John Le Mesurier does manage to contribute a few musical numbers. With his characteristic lack of exertion they are more spoken than sung, but are tuneful and pleasing. On A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, John dismisses the song lightly as one he recently performed in a ‘show, entertainment, what have you’. He modestly fails to mention that the trifling production was the hugely popular Dad’s Army stage show which had run successfully for a year on tour as well in London’s West End. John’s stage version, sung with the assistance of Ian Lavender, can be heard on the original cast recording album. The version here is altogether more whimsical and wistful. It is subdued, sincere, sedate and delightfully warming.
There is a pretty fair and more vigorous stab at singing from John on Thank You So Much Mrs Lowsborough Goodby, a 1934 Cole Porter track that was cut from Anything Goes and remained unpublished in Porter’s lifetime. The tale of an awkward and clumsy weekend is perfect for John and he enjoys revelling in the inhibitions and discomfited manners. The themes of repression, inhibition, stifling etiquettes and stuffy convention, is also a major feature of The Awful Fate Of Melpomenus Jones, a dark and sinister comic tale from the English-born Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock. Leacock also inspires another recital from John with My Financial Career, the tale of an awkward boy presented with his first pay cheque, embarrassed by a bank manager into perpetual avoidance of banks.
Noël Coward provides two more spoken word performances with The Boy Actor, a tale that could have been taken straight from John Le Mesurier’s own childhood, one of nervous auditions and stuttering lines, as well as I Wonder What Happened to Him, a comic vignette of retired Indian officers reminiscing over scandalous gossip from the time of the Raj. It is easy to see how both pieces would appeal to John’s wry sense of humour.
Persuaded to record the album by his close friend and fellow jazz club habitué Derek Taylor, What is Going to Become of Us All? is a deeply personal and touching endeavour. It is an insight into the very personal moods and tastes of a justifiably much loved star. Spending time in the easy-going company of a man as wonderfully affable and relaxed as John Le Mesurier is a pleasure to be savoured. If you doubt me, relax with a choice malt and chill out to the strains of a nightingale, as interpreted by the amiable Mr Le Mesurier: