Archive for the ‘folk’ Tag

Harry H Corbett – A broken glass half full

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

Harry H Corbett – Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles

Harry H Corbett,
Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles,
Ra Records RALP 6022,
1974

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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:

 

 

 

Max Boyce – Know your arias from your elbow

Who would have expected an album recorded in a small Welsh rugby club would create a major superstar of 1970s comedy?

Max Boyce - Live At Treorchy

Max Boyce – Live At Treorchy

Max Boyce,
Live At Treorchy,
One Up OU 2033,
1974

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Nationalism can do odd things to people. I don’t feel there is anything intrinsically wrong with believing your nation to be a fairly decent place full of thoroughly decent people leading highly decent lives. That nation of yours is going to be there every time you gaze out of a window or open your door, so you might as well try and like it, or at least feign some sort of passing interest. It is though, a short step from believing your respective country to be the best and by far the most decent, to experiencing a strong desire to conquer the known world and subjugate all other nations until they reach your required state of taste and decency.

Along with wanting to vanquish all the people of the world, nationalism also seems to bring with it certain other odd desires that are not entirely natural. Take for instance the sudden urge to address huge baying crowds from a balcony. Or the need to adopt emblems and insignia, and to wear stylistically improbable items of clothing. With their crisp black shirts, natty armband accessories, leather jackets, polished metallic eagles and shiny knee-length boots, nationalists have always managed to look stylish and cut a certain dash while they attempt to vanquish their foes and crush the peoples of the world. Apart from Nicola Sturgeon of course, who manages to look like a school dinner lady all dressed up for a night at the bingo.

Striding about the stage of some random Welsh town hall, adorned from head to toe in red with matching scarf and hat, Max Boyce certainly looked the part of the ardent nationalist. Add into that equation an enormous rosette the size of a cart wheel and a giant leek that was taller than Max himself, and you have the living embodiment of Welsh nationalism and its greatest ever comedian. Even Hitler or Mussolini in their prime would have felt underdressed and a tad shabby watching Max Boyce in his prime.

It wasn’t always like this. The covers of Max Boyce’s first two albums In Session and The World Of Max Boyce, both first released in 1971, show him in his pre-giant leek days. His chunky knitwear adorned with hues of brown and beige, his hair long but tamed, Max looks every inch a jobbing folk singer. By 1974 when Live At Treorchy was released, Max Boyce’s amazing transformation from folk singer to the very personification of Welshness was well under way. Gone is the brown woollen uniform, replaced instead by the ubiquitous leek and Welsh rugby wear that he would make his own. The leek is just a regular vegetable at this stage, and Max’s hair is still un-permed, but the puckish grin shows that he is well on his way to becoming the most Welsh person to have ever walked the valleys or waved a daffodil in anger. With the exception of 1977’s The Road And The Miles…, which sees Max flirting with rock superstardom in denim flares and a shirt open to his navel, the red and white clad rugby obsessive was a look that would serve him well.

Much of the appeal at Live At Treorchy comes from the instant rapport between Max and his audience. Born in 1943 in the mining town of Glynneath, Max Boyce worked in the mines himself and his tales of hard toil and of the emotional release offered by rugby and beer come from the heart. There is no affectation or effort to ingratiate himself with his audience. It is simply a man at home in his surroundings and the response of an audience who recognize one of their own. The material and topics Max sings about are instantly familiar to his crowd.

Much of the material on Live At Treorchy makes reference to Welsh rugby, which enjoyed a period of exceptional skill and dominance during the 1970s. I could devote a doctoral thesis to investigating whether it was the dominance of Welsh rugby which gave rise to the mass appeal of Max Boyce or vice versa. Suffice to say, the album both begins and ends with rugby related comedy, with only a few non-rugby related songs included to prevent the audience from rising from their chairs in a frenzied state of nationalism and marching immediately on London to overthrow the government.

Opening track 9-3 tells for instance of the 1972 defeat of the mighty New Zealand All Blacks by the Carmarthenshire club side Llanelli. The match is still talked about and mythologised forty years on and the details are now a matter of sporting legend, but Max Boyce explores much more than just the minutiae of the match. He tells of the atmosphere that the match generated, the camaraderie and mass elation that the result provoked, and of the Felinfoel beer induced revelry that caused many a headache and absence from work the next day. And probably the day after that as well.

More rugby tales follow on The Scottish Trip which relates more about the experience of travelling to a match than it does about the enjoyment of watching the match itself. It is a tale of hard working men bonding on a rare day off, and also of the scarcity of toilets on the motorways of the early 1970s. A similar track Hymns And Arias finishes the album, telling this time of a trip to Twickenham, detailing the songs sung and the various ways the Welsh got one over on their English hosts. It is a rousing crowd pleaser on which to end the record, with the line ‘Wales defeated England’ inevitably earning the loudest, most raucous cheer of the night.

Less drunken tracks, such as The Outside-Half Factory, relate a tall yarn of Welsh rugby players being constructed deep below the ground, hidden from the scheming gaze of English rugby league scouts. There is also Asso Asso Yogoshi, a cheerful tale of glib casual racism blessed glossed over, that despite its obvious affection for the touring Japanese rugby side and their brave sporting spirit, is just the sort of song that gives the 1970s a bad name. Wales has yet to issue Japan a formal apology for the track…

Astonishingly though, there are songs which are not about rugby or annoying the English. The Ballad Of Morgan The Moon is a long rambling story/poem which tells about how the eponymous Welsh inventor made it to the surface of the moon in a coal powered rocket fashioned from an old winding-engine.

The non-rugby songs also showcase the serious side of Max Boyce. Duw It’s Hard is a reflective lament for the lost pit in Max’s home town of Glynneath which generates a moment of genuine pathos amidst all the musical merriment and rugger. Max is honest enough to acknowledge that life in the mines was tough and full of hardship, but the replacement of the pithead baths with a supermarket imbues the song with a reflective sadness at the inevitability of change and the loss of communities. Ten Thousand Instant Christians is another reflective number which marvels at the empty chapels dotted around Cardiff on the day of a rugby international, while inside the stadium hymns such as Calon Lân and Cwm Rhondda can be heard ringing out with such faith and devotion.

Did You Understand? is a track written about the 1972 colliery strike, the indifferent decision makers in power and how the nation’s sympathies with the striking miners faded over time. With its portentous piano chords playing over Max’s piercing vocal lament, it is a powerful moment of social commentary that reveals the folk club origins of much of Max Boyce’s act.

For all its parochial Welsh charm, Live At Treorchy achieved great success for Max Boyce outside of his own safe heartland of support. The blend of working class humour and gentle comedy saw the album sell by the thousands, spending 38 weeks in the charts and reaching number 21 in the run up to Christmas 1975. The follow up album We All Had Doctors’ Papers achieved even greater success becoming (so far) the only comedy album to have reached number one in the UK charts. Which, given the competition, is quite an achievement.

To end then, here is Duw It’s Hard, Max’s wistful farewell to the mining industry that made him and thousands like him into proud Welshmen.

Pam Ayres – Poetess laureate

Pam Ayres won the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks with her witty poems and has remained a wry commentator on life ever since.

Pam Ayres - Some of Me Poems and Songs

Pam Ayres – Some of Me Poems and Songs

Pam Ayres,
Some of Me Poems and Songs,
Galaxy GAL6003,
1976

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Despite what Simon Cowell would like the world to think, he did not invent the concept of the talent show or pioneer the format on television. That accolade, at least in the UK, belongs to the strangely manic and often demented TV presenter Hughie Green, a man every bit as self-centred and as arrogant as Cowell but without the plastic surgery and ridiculous trousers. His show Opportunity Knocks ran for around thirty years on TV and radio with Green at the helm, and later in a revived format with Bob Monkhouse and Les Dawson presenting.

What the likes of Cowell and Green ideally want from their talent show format (other than perhaps a chance to overthrow the government and enslave us all) is a reasonably talented singer with a non-offensive voice who can storm into the top ten with a hastily released single, and perhaps trouble the album charts with a LP cobbled together in time for Christmas. That the second album disappears without trace selling a dozen or so copies is of no concern to the talent show moguls. They will have made their money and moved on to the next impressionable ingénue, rubbing their hands in eager anticipation. Opportunity Knocks had Millican and Nesbitt, The X Factor had Steve Brookstein and Britain’s Got Talent had Paul Potts. Where once these artistes filled stadiums and appeared on television, most can now be seen singing in provincial shopping centres for loose change or tins of food. They collectively stand as much chance of scoring a future chart hit as they do of walking on the surface of the moon and should act as a grim warning to anyone who considers a television talent show to be a route to superstardom. Yet still the TV shows continue to suck in new hopefuls and spit them out once the cheques have been banked.

What the likes of Cowell and Green ideally don’t want from their talent show format (other than perhaps a half-decent lawyer pointing out that the format they make millions from wasn’t actually their invention) is a winning act that doesn’t immediately present an opportunity to release a best-selling album. To their enduring chagrin, the involvement of the general public in voting systems means that the most marketable acts are not necessarily those that win. Britain’s Got Talent seems to thwart Cowell on an annual basis with its series-winning dance acts and performing dogs. Opportunity Knocks was much the same.

Pam Ayres was one such unlikely winner back in 1975, with her recitations of self-penned humorous poems. Initially, Pam failed to win Opportunity Knocks, after the man working the clapometer’s needle decided that the pop group Pendulum were the better prospect. The show though allowed viewers to vote through the post for their favourites and with no thought for Hughie’s cut of future album sales, it was Pam they voted for in their droves. What must have poor Hughie Green have thought about a young Berkshire poet with an accent thicker than the contents of a curdled milk churn winning his show?

Pam Ayres tied for first place on her second appearance on the show and then on her third appearance placed second. And that should have probably been the end of that, were it not for the sheer dogged determination and drive of Pam Ayres. Born in the Vale of White Horse in 1947, an area struggling with rural poverty in post-war Britain, Pam Ayres had certainly waited long enough for her chance of stardom and was not going to give up her showbiz career without a struggle.

Through years of menial clerical jobs, Pam was always determined to make something of her life. Little was expected of her as a young woman and very little was demanded. A four-year spell in the Women’s Royal Air Force working in Singapore and Germany only served to further whet her appetite for adventure and excitement.  Through the burgeoning folk scene of the early 70s she finally found her voice and her love of performing was born.

Though initially a singer and guitarist, Pam’s jokes and poems soon became an ever more important component part of her act, before taking over completely. Scribbled in her rented flat on an ironing board, the poems were immediate hits in the clubs. A homemade book was compiled and printed and sold at Pam’s gigs.  Sales of the book proved to be more financially rewarding than the money she was actually being paid for her gigs, and provided her with enough confidence to make her first tentative entry on Opportunity Knocks.

The self-deprecatingly titled Some of Me Poems and Songs is a record of Pam’s act at that pivotal moment in her life. There are still some of her folk club songs included on the album. Don’t Sell Our Edgar No More Violins for instance is a gloriously dark Pam Ayres written comic song about the trials of a family enduring the musical scrapings of a young musical prodigy. Pam manages to falteringly pluck her ukulele through the Father Dear Father Come Home With Me Now and also sings on the bizarre whimsical tale of the lascivious cyclist Minnie Dyer, a song written by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks for Kenneth Williams’ 1967 album On Pleasure Bent.

What of course stands out on the record is Pam’s poetical musings. Though a capable if hesitant singer Pam was, by her own admission, not willing to stay on the folk club scene as just ‘one more floor singer with an average voice’. The poems are where she excels and are after all, what cemented her enduring reputation. The album was recorded live and the first track The Battery Hen reveals Pam’s nervous state as she fumbles her way through an introduction to the hearty approval of the audience. Once in her stride she never looks back and the guffawing of the crowd is constant throughout.

Included on the record are her two Opportunity Knocks audition pieces Oh I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth and Pam Ayres And The Embarrassing Experience With The Parrot. These are now staples of her repertoire and over the years many an impressionist has grumbled about dentists and fillings in a very rough approximation of a Berkshire accent.

The album Some of Me Poems and Songs made quite an impact on the album charts on its release, climbing as high as number 13 and staying on the charts for around 26 weeks. The accompanying book, with the same title, collected together much of Pam’s work and remained on The Sunday Times bestseller list for an astonishing 46 weeks. Initially released on the small Galaxy Records label, the album was subsequently reissued by EMI and many other vinyl recordings followed for that most revered of imprints.

In the early days of her career, Pam’s accent was strange and hard for people to place. Accents of any description were not heard on television that much, certainly not those as rustic as Pam’s. Much like Tommy Cooper’s outlandish appearance, her voice was enough to make people start laughing and warming to her act before she had even started one of her recitations. That initial reaction though is disarming and belies how very clever Pam Ayres’ act actually is. Pam chooses the words in her poems precisely, each turn of phrase is apt and so very carefully considered. Don’t ever let the quaint rural tones of her warm country voice fool you though. That she has managed to pursue a forty year career as a poet is testament to her drive and determination. While many other performers and acts from the early 70s have drifted away from the public eye Pam remains as popular as ever, noting the wry peculiarities and quirks of everyday life with a rare and incisive wit.

To play us out, here is Pam Ayres demonstrating her now seldom heard singing voice on a plea to irresponsible music shops everywhere, Don’t Sell Our Edgar No More Violins:

Explore more poetical musings at Pam’s official website

Kenneth Williams goes rambling

Kenneth Williams - The Best of Rambling Syd Rumpo

Kenneth Williams
The Best of Rambling Syd Rumpo

Starline SRS 5034
1970

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There’s probably not much I can say about Kenneth Williams that hasn’t been said many hundreds of times already. The details of his life have been picked over and analysed by many noted writers and scholars, and the results displayed in various books, biographies, dramas and documentaries. Chief among those analysts is Kenneth Williams himself, a meticulous and obsessive chronicler of his own life who compiled an immense diary that included every minute detail of his life and thoughts for over forty years. Yet despite all that huge wealth of material, despite all the many attempts to scrutinise Kenneth Williams’ life, more material still keeps appearing year after year. So just what is the fascination with Kenneth Williams?

Kenneth Williams was a consummate comic actor, he had few equals in his profession and he brought joy and pleasure to millions of adoring fans. It wasn’t those remarkable talents that ensured Williams’ enduring fame though, his work was astounding by anyone’s standards but it was not enough to perpetuate the intrigue and interest in him. Instead, what fascinates people to this day and provides inspiration for writers and dramatists, are the strange contradictions and dichotomies that surround Kenneth Williams and the unique and peculiar personal world that he constructed.

Kenneth Williams was an incredibly skilled actor who could turn his hand to anything, and yet he refused all overtures to work in America. He was a relatively uneducated cockney who through self-study became an incredibly knowledgeable and pedantic scholar. He felt contempt for much of his work, professing to love the theatre above all other media, but he soon become bored and tired when performing on stage. He desperately craved attention and yet was privately tortured by being recognised in public places. He revelled in the company of others and yet he spent his entire life painfully alone. He projected an outrageously camp homosexual persona in much of his work and yet he remained introverted in reality, unable to form a meaningful relationship with another person, perpetually tortured and sexually frustrated until his death.

And so all those complex riddles and enigmas power the myth and legend, and the Kenneth Williams industry rolls ever on, producing more material each year in an attempt somehow to move closer to unlocking the complex conundrum that was his life. Will anyone ever satiate the public’s continuing desire for titillation and information in relation to Kenneth Williams? I doubt whether any writer will ever definitively prove or solve anything either way. In fact I wonder after all this time just what it is they are still trying to prove. What will undoubtedly remain for posterity is Kenneth Williams’ remarkable body of comic work. Kenneth Williams excelled in whatever he did; in the theatre, on television, in films and, via his radio work, also on vinyl.

The character of Rambling Syd Rumpo first appeared in the radio series Round the Horne. This popular show ran from 1965 until 1968, evolving from the earlier series Beyond Our Ken. Both shows were built around the talents of Kenneth Horne, a sober authoritarian figure who presided over the camp madness of Kenneth Williams and the rest of the cast. Horne revelled in playing the pivotal role of an avuncular uncle somehow aloof from all the surreal comedy surrounding him, and was the perfect droll comic foil for Williams. The series ended abruptly after Horne’s death, evolving once again to become the Kenneth Williams fronted Stop Messing About. Round the Horne was a tough act to follow though, the series missed Horne’s tremendous talents and was quietly cancelled after just two series.

Rambling Syd was a crazed yokel folk artist who mangled many familiar folk standards with his own brand of ludicrous innuendo. Bizarre nonsense words were liberally sprinkled throughout his songs thanks to the writing talents of Barry Took and Marty Feldman. Words such as ‘nadger’, ‘grunger’, ‘splod’ and ‘artefact’ were used to infer who knows what. As can be heard on the various recordings Kenneth Williams made as Rambling Syd, audiences enjoyed drawing their own conclusions and found each subtly inferred innuendo hilarious in the extreme.

The track below is taken from the 1970 album The Best of Rambling Syd Rumpo on the EMI imprint Starline. Given the major label backing and the popularity of the Round the Horne radio series, it’s quite a shoddy affair. The cover image of Williams (for some reason not portrayed in character as Rambling Syd) is shot in black and white and printed on what feels like quite cheap card. In fact there is no colour anywhere on the sleeve and the whole effort feels like a major cash-in on Williams’ talents. What is great though is the content, don’t judge a record by its cover as someone probably said once upon a time. Williams is on top form as is his regular guitarist Terry Walsh. The audience hang on Kenneth’s every ludicrous word and relish every single tortured West Country vowel. They bray at every innuendo and howl with raucous regularity at every slight insinuation of the merest remote possibility of an innuendo.

Kenneth would return to the character of Rambling Syd throughout his career with great affection. It was a characterisation that brought him and his adoring public a lot of joy. So to play us out, here’s Syd with that traditional West London lament, The Black Grunger of Hounslow.

Further such Carryings On at:
The Whippit Inn

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