Archive for the ‘tv’ Tag

Jake Thackray – Not the North Country Noël

So much more than just a North Country Noël Coward, singer-songwriter Jake Thackray produced some enduringly witty and well-observed songs.

Jake Thackray - Jake’s Progress

Jake Thackray – Jake’s Progress

Jake Thackray,
Jake’s Progress,
Columbia SCX 6345,
1969

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It seems that Jake Thackray is often compared to Noël Coward. Certainly his erudite, clipped, staccato tones are reminiscent of Coward’s measured delivery, and it’s true that both performers deliver self-penned songs infused with carefully observed wit and hilarity. But listen to the works of Jake Thackray and you will discover so much more than a singer in thrall to Noël Coward. For all Thackray’s politely delivered words, his ditties so often deliver a turn of phrase or accent that instantly signals his upbringing in Leeds and his honest passionate love of the people and places of Yorkshire.

It is hard to imagine Noël Coward tackling the sort of topics that Jake Thackray does. Though both were born into unremarkable suburban families, Coward soon became part of the theatrical elite, adopting the airs and graces of the upper class to affect an accent and lifestyle far from that of his birth, gradually becoming more upper class than most of the upper class. Jake Thackray though wrote gleefully of jumble sales, buxom lasses, poultry and North Country buses. If Noël Coward had experienced the rough pleasures of any of those earthly delights, then his usually forthright and frank biographers have failed to record it.

Born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1938, Jake Thackray initially flirted with the notion of becoming a priest after attending St Michael’s College in Leeds. Thankfully for the sake of music he instead decided to become a teacher and left the priesthood well alone to those of a more sober disposition. After graduating from Durham University, Jake spent almost four years teaching English in France, roaming across the country to schools in Brittany, Lille, the Pyrenees, and for a brief period Algeria. Upon his return to England in 1964, he took up a teaching position back in his native Leeds.

His French travels proved an important part in developing the Jake Thackray style of singing, far more than any cursory study of Coward’s compositions he may have casually undertaken. It was in France that Jake Thackray first heard the likes of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, deeply passionate singer-songwriters in the chansonnier tradition who performed lewd, crude songs of love, suffering and desire. Thackray went on to collaborate with Brassens on tracks such as Brother Gorilla (Le Gorille). Initially though he remained a teacher, performing his songs in the classroom to a captive audience and in local pubs and clubs around Leeds and Bradford to a slightly less captive, but equally enthusiastic audience.

Regular spots on local radio and television brought Thackray’s work to the attention of composer Brian Fahey who recommended him to the EMI record producer Norman Newell. Lured down to London, Newell recorded the sessions which would become Jake Thackray’s 1967 debut album The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray and would go on to oversee all of Jake’s subsequent studio releases.

Jake’s Progress, Jake Thackray’s second album released in 1969, bore witness to the fruits of his labours since the first album. Occasional appearances on the regional TV show Look North, had earned him a chance in 1968 to appear nationally on the BBC show Braden’s Week, hosted by Canadian consumer champion Bernard Braden. Now broadcasting nationally, viewers were apparently appalled by the rough Yorkshireman with his bawdy suggestive songs. Jake’s natural charm soon won the TV audiences over though and he stayed with Braden’s Week until Braden himself left in 1972, subsequently joining the show’s natural successor That’s Life. The demands of the weekly topical consumer show format meant that Jake had to write and perform a song every week. While other performers could afford to craft their songs over months and years, Jake Thackray worked dedicatedly and diligently to produce the songs that made his name.

Jake’s Progress showcases many of the regular themes of Jake Thackray’s songs. The opening track Country Girl for instance, is that perfect blend of an outwardly respectable composition which hides a barely concealed licentiousness amongst its rough bucolic verses. Amidst the goat milking, church hall dances and catalogue clothes, there lurks a lustful maiden who thinks nothing of lying down in moonlit bracken with her many lovers before brushing the straw from her hair and returning to respectable society. If ever a song served to distance the earthy, shameless, observant humour of Jake Thackray from the staid considered wit of Noël Coward, then it would be this one.

More pastoral love scenes are enacted across the album. On The Blacksmith and the Toffee-Maker, Jake Thackray spins a comic yet tender tale of a shy blacksmith wooing a village toffee-maker pining away into a lonely spinsterhood. Salvation Army Girl features the respectable titular heroine playing her bugle in village pubs while all the time whispering sweet lusty promises to Jake. On the Shelf also features a woman on her own, coping and getting on with life without tears. It too is a sensitive and tender paean, devoid of false pity and with the very merest touch of lament and melancholy. Nurse is all innuendo and lust, in the finest Carry On tradition. The dramatic pay-off to all the yearning and pleading is truly wonderful and sadly, far too clever for me to reveal here.

Aside from his sardonic observances on the machinations of love and lust, Jake’s Progress also contains many moments of humour which demonstrate Jake Thackray’s unique and lively sense of wit. The Hole is pure whimsy, telling a tall tale of Jake sticking his finger through a hole in a door to relieve the boredom while waiting for a bus. As the ludicrousness escalates, police, dogs, and reporters from the BBC gradually gather before Jake is taken to court, pleading an excuse of ‘justifiable curiosity’.

There is plenty of self-deprecating humour at Jake’s expense too. On Family Tree, the Thackrays are revealed to be a reprehensible clan of uncouth sinners, whose only brush with the aristocracy came with the rape of a duchess and the offer of some Woodbines to the Queen. Jake delves further into the misdeeds of the Thackrays on Grandad, another degenerate relative whose cast-iron constitution and dipsomaniacal habits lead Jake to suspect that the old man will fight off the clutches of death and escape from his grave as soon as the pubs open.

The song which best demonstrates the heights of Jake Thackray’s preposterous whimsy, is perhaps The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle. A wonderful tale of suburban devil worship, thanks to the deft subtle touches of Jake Thackray, it is easy to picture the scene as Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady (and three or four more married ladies) practice their unspeakable pagan rites. These North Country witches have no need for fancy, expensive props and familiars, instead relying on their ‘Woolworth’s broomstick and a tabby cat’. I could wax at length about the joys and horrors to be found in the ‘upstairs aspidistra’d room that’s lit by candlelight’, but it’s perhaps best you listen and enjoy the antics of the Castleford Ladies yourself. Take it away Mr Thackray.

John Le Mesurier – Turn on, tune in, conk out

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’s Going to Become of Us All?

John Le Mesurier – What is Going to Become of Us All?

John Le Mesurier,
What is Going to Become of Us All?,
Reprise K54080,
1976

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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:

Su Pollard – No more shilly-chalet

Best known as potty chalet maid Peggy in the long-running sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, an unexpected 1986 chart topping single presented the actress Su Pollard with the chance to become a bona fide pop star.

Su Pollard - Su

Su Pollard – Su

Su Pollard,
Su,
K-tel ONE 1327,
1986

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On New Year’s Day 1980 a new sitcom called Hi de Hi introduced the world at large to the peculiar talents of actress Su Pollard. She had previously starred in the 1979 sitcom Two Up, Two Down with Paul Nicholas but with an audience barely making it into double figures, Hi de Hi was her real breakthrough. She burst onto the scene as chalet maid Peggy Ollerenshaw and has continued bursting all over the small screen whenever and wherever the chance presents itself ever since.

I can’t have been alone at the time in thinking that Su Pollard’s interpretation of the role of Peggy was inspired. On paper at least, the role was a small one and the part fairly undemanding. In the large ensemble cast of Hi de Hi, Su’s contribution could well have been lost amidst all the various exaggerated comedy stereotypes and countless catchphrases and pratfalls. What she did though was to build the role in a careful considered manner so that eventually, some eight years later,  the final episode of Hi-de-Hi! (as it came to be called)  finished with Peggy becoming the focus of the show and finally winning her long-coveted yellow coat.

Peggy Ollerenshaw grew in stature to become a whirling dervish of comedy during those eight years. The frequent on-screen description of her as being a bit ‘potty’ seemed well observed. Gauche, demented, outrageous and gushing with no sense of shame or reason, Peggy was a tour de force of acting that required an actress with boundless energy and verve. Or so I thought…

It gradually dawned on me, as well as many other people I’m sure, that Su Pollard needed no acting ability at all to play the role of Peggy. What we saw on screen was very much Su Pollard’s own character dressed up in a pinny and handed a trolley load of cleaning products to push about. With each demented maniacal appearance on Pebble Mill at One or Whose Baby? it became clear that Su was even more demented and maniacal in real life than she was in Hi-de-Hi! and that Peggy was simply an extension of Su Pollard; an over-eager, maniacal, puckish hobgoblin of comedy filled with boundless energy and annoying to the very core.

It was inevitable I suppose that someone as enthusiastic and as energetic as Su Pollard would eventually pursue a musical career. Like a hyperactive terrier with a mad dogged look in at least one of its two wonky red eyes, Su was always going to pursue a recording career even if all common sense and reason would argue against it. Her first single Come To Me (I Am A Woman) was released in 1985 and enough people bought it to see it hang around the crepuscular nether regions of the pop charts, reaching number 71. An achievement buoyed no doubt by the aforementioned appearances on Whose Baby?. That might have been that. The single was inoffensive enough. A typical 1980s ballad thick with saccharine sentiments and gloopy 1980s synthesizers, it is fairly restrained by Su’s standards and did not immediately suggest that her recording career would go on to become anything other than one obscure seven inch single.

Four months later though, the theme song for Desmond Wilcox’s documentary series The Marriage gave Su a second chart single and this time it would prove much more successful. Starting Together was written by Bill Buckley, then best known as a presenter on the amusingly-shaped vegetable and talking dog extravaganza that was That’s Life!. Talking dogs had not been that lucky for Su Pollard in the past, she once famously came second on Opportunity Knocks to a performing Jack Russell terrier. This though was her chance to become a chart star at last. The single climbed to number 2 in the charts, sandwiched somewhat incongruously between Billy Ocean at number 1 and punk-goth group The Damned at number 3. Ah, the 1980s.

An inevitable album followed some months later, the eponymous debut Su was released in the nation’s record shops just in time for Christmas and after selling many dozens of copies, was freely available in the nation’s charity shops by January. Where the first two singles were restrained, on the album Su really goes for it with ill-advised and irrepressible gusto. Like an over-eager stage school pupil desperately trying to win the lead role in Annie, Su warbles and trills all over the place, not just hitting a note but kicking it repeatedly until it falls unconscious on the floor in a mess of blood and treble clefs.

Su Pollard sings as she speaks on this album, breathless and gushing with high-pitched histrionics simply imploring you to be drawn into her gasping pleading earnestness. The orchestration is so 1980s it’s painful at times. The keyboards, drum machine blips and all-engulfing electronic synthesizers are layered on thicker than the cream on an obese five-year-old’s birthday cake. The hit single Starting Together is awarded the honour of being the first track on the album, and sounds exactly like the TV theme it is. Also sounding like a TV theme is the track Alright, Ok, You Win, a demented up-tempo tune in search of a demented quiz show which it could grace. Or as it grows ever more up-tempo and demented, perhaps a ZX Spectrum game.

The same over-orchestration and shrill breathless vocals are applied to all the other songs on the album, whether they needed it or not. And normally they don’t. Su is equally at home murdering pop classics such as You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling or the Holland–Dozier–Holland penned Band of Gold, as she is murdering songs especially written for her and her breathless warbling charms. Bill Buckley contributes another song, Falling For You, and further manglings of John Denver’s Perhaps and Neil Sedaka’s You Never Done It Like That complete the study in nonsense that is Su.

Thankfully Su Pollard was barred from all major recording studios after this effort and has troubled the pop charts no further. She can still be seen popping up unexpectedly on television even now, wearing the same bright yellow clothes, bizarre head dresses and garish tights that she wore in her 1980s heyday. It remains very much a trademark look that no-one has ever sought to copy. Here to remind us what we are missing by keeping Su Pollard under lock and key is her version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. While it pales in comparison to The Righteous Brothers’ original, it is a great improvement on Paul Shane’s much more notorious version:

More Pollarding action on the official Su site:
http://www.supollard.co.uk/

Dennis Waterman – The original Sweeneybopper

Dennis Waterman has enjoyed a long career in British light entertainment, starting as a child star in the 1960s…

Dennis Waterman - Waterman

Dennis Waterman – Waterman

Dennis Waterman,
Waterman,
DJM Records DJF 20513,
1977

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Yes, thanks to the efforts of the comedy series Little Britain, if anyone knows anything about Dennis Waterman’s recording career it is that he will “write the theme tune, sing the theme tune” of any TV programme he is contracted to appear in. Dennis has indeed made a bit of a habit out of singing theme tunes, with his latest show New Tricks taking the total so far to four. His biggest musical success to date, the 1980 Top Ten single release of the Minder theme tune I Could Be So Good for You, started the trend, but was, in what was probably a huge blow to Dennis’s laddish ego, in fact written by his second wife Patricia Maynard. The continued royalty payments for the track must offer her some consolation to compensate for the trauma of being married to Dennis Waterman.

Dennis Waterman had enjoyed a recording career before Arthur Daley gave him a hand in achieving chart success though. His first album, the bizarrely titled 1976 album Down Wind Of Angels, and the eponymous 1977 follow up Waterman were both released at the height of Sweeney-mania.  The series started in 1975 and ran for four series, also inspiring two spin-off feature films. John Thaw and Dennis Waterman played tough guy cops Regan and Carter and had great fun driving as recklessly as they could around West London in their brown Ford Granada, beating up criminals, knocking back whisky  and firmly telling anyone who annoyed them to “shut it”. Dennis was the younger of the two leads and successfully combined the tough no-nonsense villain bashing skills that endeared him to the nation’s men, with a certain roughly-hewn Clapham charm that made him a housewives’ dreamy heart-throb.

The album Waterman certainly played on that rough and ready charm and the cover seems to offer something for both Dennis’s male and female fans. With his shirt fashionably undone, cigarettes jauntily popped in the top pocket, denim jeans and dark moody expression he is the epitome of rough 1970s female desire. For the blokes, there is the suggestion that the photographer has concealed himself in a bush to snap a photo of Dennis, after spying our hero snoring away in a public park, sleeping off a marathon drinking session , the sunglasses hiding the grim evidence of yet another colossal whisky induced hangover. As one of the tracks on side two of the album would put it, he is a ‘Cockney Cowboy’, resting in the midday sun, about to spring into action and either kick some villainous rogue in the groin or lure some unsuspecting suburban housewife away from her Mr Sheen and her dusting for an afternoon of frantic love-making on her MFI sofa. Probably invalidating its generous two year warranty in the process.

The album is an interesting artefact, without in all honesty being that good. It is a moment in time captured, a late 1970s mélange of rock, blues, jazz and sentimental balladry. Dennis is a fairly accomplished singer when he respects his limitations, his disco warblings on Something Called Love are delivered in an odd disinterested monotone and if he hits a single note on Growin’ Old, then it was probably entirely by accident.

Waterman starts somewhat inauspiciously with If I Ever, allowing a drunken sounding Dennis to rattle off a slightly out-of-tune pub rock anthem. After that it sort of settles down into the formula of gravel-throated lovelorn ballads interspersed with growly rockier numbers such as Louise, Take My Love and tracks about the butch delight of cigarettes and whisky such as Smokie Joe. Again, perfectly capturing the interest of both Dennis’s  male and female fans! Other tracks such as Yesterday’s Papers and Cockney Cowboy make the mistake of straying from Den’s familiar cockney homeland to go all American, with a faltering accent and references to trash etc. Yesterday’s Papers is possibly the most annoying song on the album, strange shifts in tempo played over a tale of a ‘country boy’, presumably not from Clapham, who drinks sherry in bus stations and sleeps in newspapers. I think he is then imprisoned, the reason why not being entirely clear to either me or Dennis.

The really interesting thing about the album though, other than the fact that yes, Dennis wrote and sang all the songs on side two of the album, is the backing band assembled to provide the music for our denim-clad, medallion-wearing, pin-up boy.  Drums and guitars are sourced from none other than rock legends The Shadows, in the shape of Brian Bennett and guitar demigod Hank Marvin. Keyboardist Graham Todd, another long time Cliff Richard collaborator, does his ivory tinkling things. Also on guitar is respected session musician Alan Parker, famous for playing the Top of the Pops theme tune Whole Lotta Love as well as performing on Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, No Regrets by the Walker Brothers and on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs LP. Hank is further helped out on guitar by Terry Britten, the writer of Sir Cliff’s multi-million selling Devil Woman as well as the bombastic Tina Turner pomp-rock anthems What’s Love Got to Do With It and We Don’t Need Another Hero. Backing vocals come from Vicky Brown, former wife of British rocker Joe Brown, and on bass is none other than Les Hurdle. It may be that Les is not as well known as the other distinguished musicians on Waterman, but he is surely guaranteed an exalted seat  in the great rock Valhalla for having played bass in Mike Batt’s chart-topping Wombles project, under the pseudonym of Tomsk Womble.

What a collection of musical personnel, and what an album. Another Bowie connection is provided by Dennis’s cover of It Ain’t Easy, a song written and first recorded by Ron Davies but made famous by David Bowie’s cover version on the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So to play us out, here is Dennis Waterman not writing, but most definitely singing the song:

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