Speciality Acts. Photo: David Secombe, text: Claire Muldoon. (3/3)

Terri Carol, Hackney Empire. © David Secombe 1990.

From the Obituary column of The Guardian, 19 March 2002:

Terri Carol by Claire Muldoon

What was unique about the music hall performer Terri Carol, who has died aged 87, was that she bridged the gap between pre-television era variety and the variety which re-emerged in the 1980s. Terri was a paper tearer – she balked at the term origami – and became a symbol of the resurrected Hackney Empire in London’s east end.

Her presentation stunned modern audiences. Coiffured, magnificently gowned, the grand old lady – who called people “darling” or “sweetie” – astonished young audiences with her skill. The act was a series of age-old paper tricks, accompanied by a patter delivered as asides. “If the government,” she would observe to the incredulous onlookers, “gave me a bit more pension I wouldn’t have to do this bloody thing.

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke,” she would add, “but I’m not a spoilsport.” The show proved it. Out of a flurry of paper would be launched ships, palm trees, lace doilies, steering wheels, occasionally enhanced by a dash of audience participation. The performance culminated with her astounding “tower of progress”, a 30ft- tall paper ladder which she would dedicate to a cause dear to her heart.

The daughter of a music hall paper tearer, Terri was born in a Mitcham funeral parlour. She was educated at a convent school until, at the age of nine, her father taught her the paper tearer’s art and carried her off on a world tour with Sir Harry Lauder. The act, her father opined, was clean, and it would make her a living. By the time she was 12, she reckoned she had circumnavigated the world twice. She played Tokyo, took Paper Capers to the Radio City in New York, and claimed that, while doing seven shows a day in the US, she never saw the light of day.

Her career peaked in wartime and she was described by the Daily Mirror in 1942 as “the pluckiest girl in showbusiness”. She performed with her baby in a crib, in the care of a stagehand in the wings. She played with Buster Keaton (“never sober to tell you the truth”), Carmen Miranda, Phil Silvers, Lena Horne, Max Miller and Laurel and Hardy. There was even a time when, she said, she lived in Park Lane, complete with a maid.

Terri was married three times. Her first husband was killed, and after a brief marriage to a Pole she met on a train to York, she married Bill Lowe, one half of a popular comedy double of the 1940s whom she met – with his then wife – on a troop plane back from Germany. As the music hall declined, she toured the continent in the early 1950s, but by the mid-1950s her marriage had collapsed.

Her father’s advice did earn Terri a living, apart from a spell which began in the 1960s when variety was dying. So she worked in the civil service at the ancient monuments department. A decision in the early 1980s to move to South Africa – and visit one of her daughters – was a disaster.

Back in London and virtually penniless, she moved into sheltered housing in Croydon. But then, after the Hackney Empire reopened in l986, I spotted Terri performing in a “good old days” show, and became her agent. She subsequently appeared on Wogan, Friday Night Live, Barrymore, the Generation Game, and the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal; she toured the New Variety circuit in London and went back to Japan for Nippon TV’s Comical Performers. There she was the only person present able to recall pre-war, pre-fire-bombed Tokyo. She performed for the Eurythmics in Nice, and at Tina Turner’s 50th birthday party.

Terri retired officially when arthritis finally took its toll at the age of 80, and she found it too difficult to tear paper, yet she was still planning to perform for the reopening of the Empire’s main auditorium later this year. She is survived by two daughters.

Terri Carol (Ivy Rosina Victoria Morse), entertainer, born May 25 1914; died January 31 2002.

David Secombe:

This photo of Terri Carol was taken in the foyer of the Hackney Empire as part of a series on ‘Speciality Acts’ which I shot for The Sunday Times Magazine.  The feature was facilitated by Claire and Roland Muldoon, sponsors of new and old Variety theatre by virtue of their heroic work managing performers and rescuing the Hackney Empire from its fate as a defunct Bingo hall. Some might say that their achievement has not been properly appreciated: without their effort and enthusiasm, this grand Frank Matcham-designed theatre would have been pulled down in the 1980s. Some of the most magical nights I have ever experienced in a theatre have been at the Hackney Empire; sadly, since the Muldoons departed, the theatre may have said to have lost its pristine sense of purpose. The love has left the building. If there was any justice in the world, the Muldoons would still be in charge of the finest Variety Theatre in Britain and there would be a statue of Claire, Roland and Sid the balloon-juggling dog outside Hackney Town Hall.

See also: Comics 1 (Spike Milligan)

Comics. Photo John Claridge, text Spike Milligan (1/5)

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.