Frankie Howerd, at home in Devon, 1991. Photo © John Claridge.
That’ll Only Make It Worse by Tim Turnbull
No. Stop it. Get a grip on yourself, Francis.
We know it’s not RADA or the RSC,
darling – [purse lips] hardly. No, the brilliance
is in the ooing and arring, campery,
leavened with baritone working claas plum –
ideas above station, dear – and we’re blessed;
for are you not belovèd, pallay-di-um
of the national character – it’s true –
and repository – as I said to Thing –
of the cardinal comedic virtues:
Shame, Insubordination and Timing.
So, enough with the Grimaldian hangdog:
… for The London Column © Tim Turnbull 2011
Tommy Cooper, Thames Television Studios, 1967. Photo © John Claridge.
On Tommy Cooper by Garry Lyons:
It’s all for you, isn’t it, Tommy? All the time – even offstage – you’re thinking: how can I get noticed? How can I get a gag out of this? You’d piss in the gutter to make a drain laugh, wouldn’t you? You’d shoot your granny for half a titter.
You leave that gutter out of this.
These lines are a characteristic interchange from the two eponymous comics in my play Frankie and Tommy. Frankie is my dad aged 23, as I re-imagined him. His oppo is none other than Tommy Cooper. The play tells the story of their brief and ill-fated double-act, entertaining the troops in Cairo in 1946.
It was commissioned by John Godber for the 21st anniversary of Hull Truck Theatre Company, and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. It caused a bit of a stir. I didn’t see my play as an exposé of a celebrity so much as a bitter-sweet Everyman tale about lost opportunities and faded dreams. For me, the story was a universal one about the shadow cast over youthful illusions by a brief, fleeting brush with true genius. It was about lost opportunity, and coming to terms with one’s failures and mediocrity.
The play is like a variety show Amadeus, with my dad as Salieri and Cooper as Mozart. It’s as much a professional tribute to Cooper’s stage brilliance as it is an unveiling of Cooper the man. It was an attempt to show the fez-wearing buffoon in all his perfectionist complexity, an artist in whom emotional inadequacy was the spur that drove his hyper-nervous and shambolically skilful act – an act full of fumbled magic tricks and painful wordplay acting as armour-plated defence mechanisms from too much inquiry into the inner self.
The invented dialogue of Frankie and Tommy – which owes a lot to Morecambe and Wise, Barker and Corbett and similar duos – is full of puns and evasions in which Cooper constantly undercuts a serious point with a wisecrack or non sequitur. It’s the technique of the inveterate joker who can’t bear to face reality, yet in dodging it not only makes us laugh but often presents us with an even more profound truth.
Perhaps, in the end, that is the enduring force of Cooper’s humour. He wasn’t, as some have claimed, the first ‘alternative comedian’. There was nothing politically anti-establishment about his mainstream, commercial television style. But it was certainly subversive in the way it used ineptitude as comic strategy, satirising the empty slickness of much light entertainment and reminding us that at heart we’re all fools within.
… for The London Column. © Garry Lyons 2011.
Spike Milligan, The French House, Soho, 1989. Photo © John Claridge.
[The first Goon Show was broadcast in May 1951.]
Excerpts from Peace Work* (1991) by Spike Milligan:
I must get up to London. Harry has a week out from Variety, I can get him on Gerrard 0081. I dial out, a lady answers ‘Kidston Villas’.
‘Can I speak to Harry Secombe?’
‘Just a minute.’
I hear her call Mr. Secombe – Mr. Secombe – I hear his distant chattering.
‘Coming- Coming – Hello, Hello, Secombe here.’ His voice is expectant. ‘Hello, Hello,’ he repeats in a police voice.
I say, ‘Mr. Selcon, it’s about this thirteen year-old girl’
We arrange to meet at Jimmy’s that evening. When we do arrive Jimmy [Grafton] invites us up to his lounge for dinner – his wife Dorothy serves us. ‘What’s the matter with your face?’ says Jimmy.
I said, ‘I shaved.’
Jimmy laughed, ‘Well, I shave but that doesn’t happen to my face.’
‘Well, it bloody happened to mine’
‘I told you you shouldn’t have let him come’ giggled Secombe.
‘You Secombe, I pointed with a quivering finger, ‘you shall be accursed, all your sons will have wives with moustaches and three legs.’
Dinner now proceeded. ‘Is he always like this dear?’ said Dot to her husband.
Jimmy is acting as Harry’s manager with an agent called Frank Barnard. Harry is doing Variety whenever he can, his name very small on the bill.
Jimmy is writing scripts for an ex-Geraldo singer called Derek Roy, who fancied himself as a comic. Somehow or other I found myself sleeping in Jimmy’s attic office and whenever, writing scripts; it was a pretty mad establishment, with two young children James and Sally whom I told stories to. To add to it there was a rhesus monkey, ‘Jacko’ and a bulldog, Buller, plus Minty, a Siamese cat. The pub [The Grafton Arms, Strutton Ground, Victoria] was very popular and served meals, Jacko seemed a bit dispossessed, so I put a rug atop a hot water tank and it became his refuge. Alas, it was right over the kitchen stove, a lethal position when food for the pub lunches was simmering on top, and I actually saw Jacko pee – and watched it land, of all things – in the Pea Soup where Louis the cook stirred it in: mind you, this wasn’t a regular occurrence.
Harry is due to appear at the Hackney Empire so all of us arrange to see him including Hall and Mulgrew. However, Hall says no. ‘I’m not going to that fucking death hole – I’ll never forget how we died the bloody death there.’ Cheer up, woeful fellow, come and see Harry Secombe die there. But no. In the bar I meet Peter Sellers again; he is plump-faced and wearing gloves, all a cut above the rest of us tramps.
‘Oh Jimmy’ I say, is it worth £10 scriptwriting for Derek Roy, the man who kills 99 per cent of all known jokes?’
Jimmy said, ‘Patience, it can lead to bigger things.’
I tell him I don’t need bigger things, mine are big enough, ask any heavy plant operator.
‘There could be a series’ says Jimmy.
‘What of disasters? Roy is not funny.’
‘It’ll put money in your shatteringly hollow account,’ he says.
So when he’s in the bar serving I bang away at the jokes.
Jimmy organises a night with The Goons, as we have decided to call ourselves. So one evening, after hours, we have an ad-lib session. [Michael] Bentine starts the ball rolling, ‘Gentleman, now you know why I’ve called you here?’
‘No we don’t’ we murmur.
‘Very well, we’ve been besieged in this fort for, does anybody know?’
‘Forty days’ says one.
‘Fifty’ says another.
‘Any advance on fifty?’
‘Right, we’ve been besieged forty, fifty and seventy days. Gentlemen, you will synchronise watches.’
They all adjust their watches, but never say a word, the phones supposedly rings, Secombe answers. ‘Hello, Fort Agra, hello? Just a minute.’ He holds his hand over the phone, ‘Does a Mrs Gladys Stokes live here?’ No sorry Mrs Stokes doesn’t live here.
SELLERS: Someone has to go and get reinforcements.
ME: Yes, someone has to.
SECOMBE: Yes gentlemen, someone has to go and get reinforcements.
SELLERS: Good, well that’s settled.
I suppose it would only be a matter of time before someone in the BBC might use us. There was one enlightened producer streets ahead in perspicacity, Pat Dixon, totally unrevered by the BBC but directly responsible for giving us the break. Already we had produced the first comedy show on the new Third Programme (for unknown reason now called Radio 3), they can’t leave alone can they, using Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Benny Hill. It was the first comedy show without an audience, I used to go and listen through the studio door, I was desperate to be given a break as such on the media; Secombe, Sellers, Bentine are all working and earning. If I hadn’t written myself into The Goon Show, I’d never have been heard of.
© Spike Milligan Productions
[The London Column would like to thank Jane Milligan and the Milligan family for the above.]
* Penguin Books.
New Cross, SE14, 1999. Photo © David Secombe
In the South
Abandoned power stations, allotments, back gardens, badly painted public art, big sheds, Blow Up, bored au pairs, breakers’ yards, broken tumble dryer, cheap calls to Nigeria, dead riverside industry, evangelical church services, executive developments, failing schools, failing shopping precincts, forbidding pubs, half-decent football clubs, kebab shops, lock-up garages, mangy foxes, municipal parks, neglected cemeteries, prefabs, railway embankments, rats like cats, roadside shrines, second-hand shops, short-lived grand schemes, stranded Victorian villas, strangely-located nightclubs, tandoori restaurants, tattoo parlours, Turkish men’s clubs, tyre sitters, vandalised youth centres, wind off the Thames, 20,000 streets under the sky.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.