Pavement with chalk rectangle: Percy Road, W12, 2007. Photo © Jack Robinson.
From Days and Nights in w12* by Jack Robinson:
PAVEMENT WITH CHALK RECTANGLE
One morning a few months ago a packing crate was delivered to the house of the woman, Emma, who lives here. About five feet long by two feet wide by three feet high, it could have contained a library of pornographic videos, or two folded illegal immigrants, or everything she had ever lost. Apart from hers, the only address on the crate was that of a transport company in Tallinn, Estonia. The van driver and his mate unloaded the crate onto the pavement but said they were not obliged to carry it up the steps into the house. Emma waited for her boyfriend to come home. At lunchtime the crate was still there, but when she looked out of the window at five o’clock it had gone. She never told her boyfriend about the crate, and shortly afterwards they broke up.
© Jack Robinson.2011.
* CB Editions 2010.
Massage parlour: Askew Road, W12, 2010. Photo: © Jack Robinson.
From Days and Nights in W12* by Jack Robinson:
Extras? You mean, as in ‘other services offered’? She runs through a menu of the day’s specials and when they say the prices seem a bit expensive she says so is philosophy, which is what she is studying, and it’s especially expensive for foreign students and why do they think she’s working here, for the fun of it? Some of them ask her what’s wrong with a bit of fun, missing the point completely. Some of them make a joke of it, asking how much for the meaning of life. (A lot, she says; more than you can afford, little man.) Some of them suggest she should be studying economics, or at least taking a joint degree, and point out that if she charged less she might get more takers. They have a point, she admits; but she is proud of her philosophy essays and her tutor says she has a natural gift and she knows what she’s worth.
© Jack Robinson 2011.
*CB Editions, 2010
Tony Hancock in a pub near Elstree Studios, 1966. Photo © Harry Secombe/Willinghurst Ltd.
[Tony Hancock committed suicide in Sydney, Australia on June 24th 1968.]
Tony Hancock by Harry Secombe*
Comedy is the business of a comedian and laughter is the prerogative of its audience. It follows, therefore, that whereas a comedian must deliver his comedy, the audience does not have to give up its laughter. He is then, at the beginning of his act, in a state of conflict with his audience.
Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column. But if he is one of the few greats, he leaves behind a legacy of laughter when he is gone, especially – and such is human nature- if there has been an element of tragedy in his life.
Tony Hancock was one of those rare ones who are bedevilled by success. He was never completely happy in a variety theatre; the strain of doing the same performance night after night and trying to invest it with an apparent spontaneity was more than he could bear. That was why he took to television so well; it removed him from the treadmill of the music hall and the twice nightly revue and gave him new situations in which to work his magic.
Of the rampaging, drunken, self-destroying Hancock depicted in so many stories, I knew very little. I have drunk with him and been drunk with him in the days when we were both young and inexperienced comics fresh from the services, but it was all good-natured tippling then. I met him many times later and at one time stood in for him on his radio show. But I will always think of him as he was, pristine and shining with ambition at the threshold of his career. What happened to him subsequently is for others to chronicle and argue about. I found him gentle and self-mocking then. The demands of his profession shaped him, destroyed him and eventually killed him, but he served it well. If anyone paid dearly for his laughs it was the lad himself. May he lie sweetly at rest.
* First published as the preface to Roger Wilmut’s Tony Hancock ‘Artiste’, Methuen, 1978.
© Secombe Estate 2011
10 Grey Close, Hampstead Gardens, May 1992. Photo © Tim Marshall.
[10 Grey Close was where Tony Hancock lived from 1947-8. Ernie Wise – surrounded by Graham Stark, Patricia Hayes, Barry Cryer, etc. unveils a blue plaque sponsored by the Dead Comics Society.]
From Grace, Beauty and Banjos (1999) by Michael Kilgarriff:
MORECAMBE & WISE (fl1948-84)
Fools Rush In
You’re Only Young Once
Although they had worked together as early as 1940 it wasn’t until 1948 that these two gentlemen formed a permanent partnership – in March of that year at the Palace Walthamstow the young comics were billed, inaccurately, as Morecambe & Wisdom Just Two Guys.
As a double act the team was unique in that the straight man (ERNIE WISE) was the klutz while the comic (ERIC MORECAMBE) was the keener-witted of the pair. We worked with the pair when at the peak of their popularity and were interested to observe how Mr Morecambe personally directed the comedy most meticulously, with Mr Wise nodding benignly in the background.
It is surprising to discover that early in their long association their rôles were reversed, with the comic burden sustained by Mr Wise and Mr Morecambe as the feed.
[Grace, Beauty and Banjos is a magisterial summary of Variety artistes and their ‘bill matter’: the tag lines by which the acts were represented on posters etc.]
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.