Party time.

C79-4Christmas Party at an old peoples’ lunch club in Tower Hamlets, 1975. © David Hoffman.

As Christmas draws near, The London Column’s seasonal offering is these two exquisite photographs by national treasure David Hoffman.

C81-29© David Hoffman 1975.

I would like to wish all our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year. D.S.

 


Urban Myths no. 5: tales from a ghost club.

Props outside the Old Vic, London, 1989.Props outside the Old Vic, Waterloo. © David Secombe 1989.

From Ghost Club by Andrew Martin and David Secombe:

Synopsis: The three members of the North Yorkshire Paranormal Investigation Society are engaged in a night-time vigil at a country house on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Moors.

Act Two, Scene 1:

It is now 11.30 pm. We find the three in the middle of their second ’session’. They occupy the three disparate seats, as before. Everyone looks jaded and more disheveled, but at least the electricity appears to have been restored – the lighting is from the Anglepoise lamps set up on the table. Quite atmospheric. As before, the aim is to maintain silence in hopes of contacting the beyond. PETE has commandeered a second seat, for the purpose of resting his legs and is reading a paperback – Elmore Leonard or similar. 

                                                        IAN:
Pete … have you had any experiences that really gave you the, like, willies?

                                                        PETE:
How long have you got?

Pause; considering something.

Actually …  No, forget it.

                                                        JOHN:
No, actually – what?

Pause. PETE looks at both his companions in turn. Puts his book down.

                                                        PETE:
I worked as a security guard once. In London. After I left college.

                                                        JOHN:
Yes, Classics is hardly the most useful degree –

                                                        PETE:
On my first day, they sent me to an abandoned maternity hospital in Finsbury Park that was waiting to be demolished. My job was to sit by the front door and patrol the place twice in an eight-hour hour shift. That’s all. I arrived at seven a.m. on a bright summer’s day, relieved the night shift – who I noticed was sitting outside – and sat down in the old reception booth and tried reading P.G. Wodehouse. But I couldn’t shake off a feeling of being watched. There was a telephone ringing somewhere in the building, but all the lines were supposed to be dead: I had to communicate with my manager via a callbox in the street. My first round was at ten. The place was an absolute shambles. God only knows what had gone on in there. It was a hot day but a storm was brewing. By the time I did my second round, at three, the sky was so dark it was difficult to see into the corners of the wards. Up on the second floor the heat from the day seemed to vanish and the air was very cold. That’s when I heard footsteps. First I thought they were my own echo: but they seemed to carry on after I’d stopped. They seemed to be getting closer each time, gaining on me.

                                                          IAN:
Then?

                                                          PETE:
I felt it was time to leave. I ran out of the building and used the call box to phone in my resignation. They were very apologetic: seems it was someone’s idea of a joke to send me there on my first day, as no-one liked working the place.

Pause – then PETE tells another one:

Later on, I was working at a club in Shoreditch. Used to be a pub, but it was all leather and sparkly lights when I knew it. The building was Georgian, but you’d hardly guess from the front. It had been bombed in the war and during rebuilding they came across medieval corpses. An unhappy spot. Didn’t stop them turning the basement into a dance floor. It was always cold; we’d try turning up the heating but the walls just ran with condensation. The landlord’s rottweiler refused to go down there. Once, I found some traumatised queen bleating that he’d followed someone into the toilet and seen them walk through the wall. Not quite the encounter he was expecting.

                                                            IAN:
Oh …

                                                           PETE:
I was cleaning up one morning-after-the-night- before, and I distinctly heard a voice close to my ear say “This one’s not afraid to be down here on his own”. … You’d have some nights down there and I used to wonder how many live bodies we had in and how many from the other side. You’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

Silence. JOHN pours himself some more wine.

© Andrew Martin & David Secombe 2008-2013.

Ghost Club has yet to have a proper airing, although an earlier draft was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010, featuring David Warner as JOHN, Miles Richardson as PETE and Kieran Hill as IAN. We present this excerpt as our annual Halloween offering.


Tommy Cooper.

Tommy

Tommy Cooper, Thames Television Studios, 1967. Photo © John Claridge.

On Tommy Cooper by Garry Lyons:

FRANKIE:
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.

TOMMY:
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.

This post appeared on The London Column in 2011; we are reposting it as John Claridge’s photos of Tommy Cooper are currently showing in the auditorium of the Museum of Comedy, implausibly located the crypt of Hawksmoor’s St.George’s, Bloomsbury.  Museum of Comedy, The Undercroft, St Georges Church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SR (open Tuesday – Sunday 12pm – 5pm).

 


Urban Myths no. 4: Spring Heeled Jack.

Spring Heeled Jack in Hendon (1)Spring Heeled Jack in Hendon. © Tim Turnbull 2014.

From the South Barnet Recorder*:

Dean and Jeanette Jackson were returning from a night out celebrating their son’s Ricky’s birthday party when they saw a mysterious figure darting across the A41 just north of Hendon.

Mr Jackson, forty, an office supplies salesman from Mill Hill, said: “I saw a man on the other side of the carriageway, a tall geezer wearing this big black cape and I reckoned he was going to a fancy dress do or something. I couldn’t see a car, but then he ran across two lanes, vaulted up the bank and vanished from sight – all in just a couple of seconds. He had no face as such, he was wearing a sort of mask that lit up like a toy robot. We were well baffled and voiced our startlement straight away. He was dead quick, and could jump like a Grand National champion.”

Mrs. Jackson, a beautician – thirty-seven – added: “Dean and I have slept with the light on for the past six nights. It is far and away the strangest thing to have happened to us since we moved to Mill Hill from Worcester Park. Every year something special happens on Ricky’s birthday. Last year it was the Pope, this year it’s Spring Heeled Jack.”

* Not real news item. However, Spring Heeled Jack was an urban myth of the Victorian era. A mysterious dark figure reported to be responsible for a string of attacks in the 1800s and known for his ability to leap great heights, was first sighted in Wandsworth in 1837 and given the SHJ sobriquet by the penny dreadfuls of his (or its) day. For further reading, see The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack.  

See also: The Supermarket Spider, Airport Caterpillars, The Discarded Artist’s Statement.

Tim Turnbull’s poems have appeared in these pages before; this is the first time he has contributed as an illustrator. See: Clapham Common Clowns, Black Cab Blues, Frankie Howerd, Robert GravesThe Last Squat in Hackney.