Thursday, 27 December 2012

"Sykes and A Life..." Eric Sykes, the man and his work...

In this age of comedy, with stand-ups, sketch shows and panel games. Its it refreshing to think back on a time when silence was golden, with the passing of Eric Sykes this year this seems like a perfect time to look back this breed of comedy film where the actions speak louder then words as well as the man himself.

Eric Sykes was born in Oldham, Lancashire in May 1923 but owing to complications from his birth, his mother died three weeks later. The second and younger of two children, Sykes had an older brother called Vernon and when his father remarried when he was only two years old, he gain a half-brother called John. Schooled in Oldham, Sykes joined the RAF in World War Two as a wireless operator and a rank of Leading Aircraftman. But the war was to have effect on what Sykes was going to do afterwards in peace time, whilst ensconced with a Special Liasion Unit, he met Flight Lieutenant Bill Fraser.

Afterwards Sykes came to London to try his luck, but arriving in the capital during the coldest winter in living memory at that time in 1946, renting lodging to stay in at the end of his first week in them, he was cold, hungry and penniless but a chance meeting with Bill Fraser who was performing comedy at the Playhouse Theatre himself, invited Sykes along to a performance and offered him food and drink, but he had invited Eric there to ask him if he would like to write material for Fraser. Sykes accepted the offer and before long he was scripting for both Bill Fraser and Frankie Howard as well. When he formed a writing partnership with Sid Colin, they worked on BBC's radio's Educating Archie Andrews featuring Archie Andrews and his ventriloquist friend Peter Brough, but working on the show lead Eric to meet fellow performer Hattie Jacques, who would share a vast majority of his career with her playing Sykes' long time identical twin sister in the television series bearing Sykes' own name.

The 1950's was to see Sykes to move to television with him writing episodes of series and also one-offs for performers, in 1954 he wrote the The Big Man which starred Fred Emney and Edwin Styles, also he made his first ever performance on film Orders Are Orders with Sid James, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Bill Fraser and Donald Pleasence as well. Eric shared an office with Spike Milligan at this time in Shepherd's Bush writing above a grocer’s shop, though later on Sykes and Milligan were to form Associated London Scripts which was a co-operative, not for profit writing agency, which was Eric's idea for writers to be in one place to do their writing. Sykes and Milligan were the first two writers to take space later with Tony Hancock, Johnny Speight, John Antrobus taking offices alongside with Dalek creator and Doctor Who writer Terry Nation plus with a friend of Alan Simpson, Beryl Vertue who eventually became the firm's business affair manager and agent being the in-house agent, by 1957 the co-operative had over thirty writers eventually moving to Baywater Road adjacent to Hyde Park. By 1967 impresario and producer Robert Stigwood brought a controlling interest in ALS, which Galton and Simpson agreed to but Sykes and Milligan did not. The reason that Galton and Simpson had agreed to it because at that time Stigwood was moving into film productions, so they sold their share to Stigwood but they sold their share in Orme Court where they were based to Eric and Spike, but Milligan sold his share to Sykes and meant that Sykes held onto the freehold until into the 21st century. Meanwhile Beryl Vertue went with Stigwood becoming Stigwood's Deputy in the group and that lead her to becoming a leading independent producer and also still working with Eric as well.

Sykes' most famous film with Tommy Cooper was The Plank, this silent film with two of comedy's masters involving the titular plank itself, was filmed in 1967 by Associated London Films, written and directed by Eric Sykes following the journey of two workmen who require a floorboard for a house they are building. This may seem easy enough, go to the timber yard and by the plank so it can be measured and cut to size. But its the return journey which is fraught with incident as the plank itself causes a whole heap of trouble for people who come across it. The actual plank itself from the film sold for over one thousand pounds at auction in December 2011, showing its place in British comedy as one of most key props. But what about the cast of the film itself? Cooper and Sykes were the two main stars, the supporting cast reads like a who's who of comedy, light entertainment and even acting for the next twenty years after it was made. Jimmy Edwards of Take It From Here and Whack-O! fame plays a police constable who has to deal with all the chaos left behind by the plank, Edwards was later to take a role in the next Sykes silent film project in 1969's Rhubarb.

From the world of comedy and entertainment come first of all from the Carry On world Hattie Jacques, Jim Dale and also Roy Castle. Jim Dale fresh like Jacques from the Carry Ons was already a big household name from those films as well as his time presenting Six-Five Special, Thank Your Lucky Stars and also as compère of Sunday Night at the London Palladium as well. Roy Castle had already found fame for his own BBC show during the mid 1960's and was to join the Carry On team during the next year for Carry On Up the Khyber. Plus with the additions of Bill Oddie, Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenny Lynch to name but three others who appeared in The Plank.

The set pieces owe a lot to the vaudeville style and also the silent films of early Hollywood, though it could be said that it had a lot of influence on the young Sykes seeing these films not only on his comedy career and the music hall/vaudeville as well. So routines which could have been seen on the stage were transferred on the screen by the comedians of the age and reused in different ways. Though the slapstick style can been seen in the Goodies body of work with Jim Franklin later to be their producer using the style with their writing, so it is interesting that Bill Oddie appeared in The Plank and also the similar style is seen in the Goodies' series as well.

But the 1960's saw the launch of Sykes and A... written in collaboration with Johnny Speight, the original idea was to have Eric living with a wife but Sykes saw the opportunity to changing it so he would have a sister as a housemate and giving greater scope for the scripts being written and allow them to have romantically interlinked with other characters, see the dynamic change and where it would lead the script in that way.

1969 saw the Rhubarb starring once again Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards starring again along with Jacques, Harry Secombe as a vicar with Graham Stark and Gordon Rollings, remarkably to later on to both play in a slapstick scene in Superman III. The origin of rhubarb come from radio dramas and productions, where extras in a crowd scene or a party scene would mutter the word over and over again to make it sound like people talking. But The Goons would use the phrase to make to sound there was more people in a scene then Peter Seller, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe themselves though they would say it loudly and clearly with the occasional shout of “Custard!” to break the monotony of it. In Rhubarb, Eric Sykes as the Police Inspector and the Vicar played by Secombe play a round of golf, but the inspector uses one of his constables played by Jimmy Edwards to manipulate his ball from awkward lies but Secombe asks for devine intervention when it is needed to help his vicar character. Even all the signs, any of the number plates plus a baby holding a sign, they all had the word Rhubarb on them. Though
it is plausible that this project happened and included Harry Secombe in it, that Eric Sykes was friend and close collaborator of The Goons.

The actual silent comedy golden era in the 1920's and 1930's, which was prevalent before the age of 'talkies' made names of the stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to name three. Though the approach of producers such as Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, made sure that their stars were the ones who were making people laugh with 'sight gags', 'prat falls' and other types of slapstick. The timeless nature of the style has meant that even today, Shaun the Sheep can link itself back to these great days with it being a silent comedy relying on comedy and slapstick for its plots, Mr Bean is another one with no talking from its main character plus also some of Benny Hill's silent sketches as well. It is no wonder that the world of silent comedy exports around the world so well
and that film directors Blake Edwards and Mel Brooks revived the art of the silent comedy with The Great Race and Silent Movie respectively, the slapstick remains in the movies today, maybe in different forms and those forms have been pushed further but the idea remains.

In the 1972, the BBC had decided to revive Sykes and A... calling the new series Sykes again with Hattie Jacques, Eric himself, Richard Wattis and Derek Guyler as the irrepressible PC “Corky” Turnbull. But these episodes were re-working of scripts of the 1960's shows, forty-three episodes to be exact, a total of sixty-eight episodes were made between 1972 and 1979 including a reworking of the episode Sykes and a Stranger which had originally Leo McKern later played by Peter Seller in the 70s revival. The series ended in 1980 when the death of Hattie Jacques from a heart attack, made the series impossible to carry on.

Come the 1980's having remade The Plank for television again with Tommy Cooper in 1979, went back to remaking Rhubarb also for television in 1980 and with It's Your Move in 1982 a remake as well. The popularity of all the films being remade for television, showed that the art which was created and formed wholly, meant Sykes star was still shining brightly at this stage of his career with a further starring role in Mr H is Late in 1988, its safe to say that these films brought Eric Sykes to a whole new audience as well as comedians who appreciated his talent for writing and directing as well. Even in 1993 when writing and directing 'The Big Freeze' featuring Bob Hoskins and Spike Milligan in a tale of a father and son team of plumbers trying to their job in freezing temperatures at an old people's home in Finland.

Sykes did all that with being hard of hearing, so much that he had to wear specially designed glasses frames that fitted bone conducted hearing aids, that Eric could hear. Though his hearing had been going for a long time, after waking up from a second operation in 1954, he found himself hard of hearing plus his eyesight went over the years due to macular degeneration. But this was not a barrier to Sykes and his writing that he kept on doing it day after day and with Eric Sykes taking a voice-over part in the Tellytubbies. Come the new millennium, he was starring in a adaption of Meryvn Peake's Gormenghast which also had a part for Spike Milligan as well, though the were not on the screen together at any point but it was to mark the last time they would appear in anything together. But for the early part of the new century, it was film where Sykes' career would lay. In 2001, he starred alongside Nicole Kidman in supernatural thriller The Others as a servant and four years later he took the role as Frank Bryce in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. He fame spread with all ages with these film roles, plus with Sykes working with roles in Last of the Summer Wine and New Tricks in 2007 and an appearance in a Poirot story entitled Halloween Party.

For all his long career taking the great days of BBC Radio, television, the advent of Colour, through his films both written and directed plus others as well. His light maybe gone, but for all what Eric Sykes did, we will remember the man and the body of work he has left behind.

Monday, 24 December 2012

A little Christmas present for you all... A bit of That's My Dog...

Hello and Merry Christmas to you all, here as a Christmas Present to you is an as yet unpublished bit of TV Nostalgia from the feature I write for... My take on that cream of game shows... That's My Dog... Be sure to look back in the next couple of days when I look at Eric Sykes and his silent films...

Some shows can claim to be award winners, while others cannot but for the lack of them, they can be a lot of fun. That's My Dog can be said to be the latter, a game show where the main contestants were canine! Where Norwich was famous for Sale of the Century, Plymouth was famous for this.

Backed up by their owners, they would both try and eventually win a top prize of £500 in the end game where the dog sniff out the money which had been covered in their owners own scent. Before that, the canines would go through a maze to see who did it in the quickest time to gain points as well as the human owners answering doggy based general knowledge questions both about breeds and when the show's vet came on about medical questions on their pet.

University Challenge it may not have been, but it amused viewers for almost five years between 1984 and 1988 as ex-New Faces host Derek Hobson and his hostess or as the programme called her a 'Kennelmistress'. The first series, had the family's surnames they had the dog's name on the front of their podiums, any viewer tuning in might have been confused as to why a family's surname would be called 'Rex' and that was half the fun of this strange, confusing show. That's My Dog, a show ready to roll over and have its belly tickled!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

"Follow those stars..." - The story of Christmas Night with the Stars and its ITV rival, The All Star Conedy Carnival

Christmas brings many things, presents, food and television in abundance. As the schedules have been released for this year the usual soaps and also big hitting programmes dominate, but it wasn't always like this. At one time there was a one stop shop to see all your stars in, the BBC coming together if you will. The show which dominated the big day itself for more than fifteen years was Christmas Night with the Stars, a place where the stars shone so bright and you could get the likes of Cliff Richard rubbing shoulders with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Usually in ten minutes sections of the most popular sitcoms of the year, the best light entertainment shows and the biggest stars. This was a show of might by the BBC to show the viewers their selection box of personalities.

The first show in 1958 was hosted by magician David Nixon, performing tricks himself as well, the line-up was a stellar one with the cream of British comedy appearing in sketches such as Ted Ray, Charlie Chester, Charlie Drake combing with future stars Tony Hancock and Kenneth Connor, the nature of the show meant that Dixon of Dock Green appeared with Billy Cotton and also the Beverly Sisters performing, though the interest comes in the cast with future Benny Hill writer Dave Freeman performing with Charlie Drake and the writers of the show reads like a who's who of comedy writing. The partnerships of Galton and Simpson are there with Muir and Norden plus Charlie Chester as well. This was the cream of the talent the BBC had, meaning something was there for everyone. To say that the BBC wanted to get a march on the fledgling ITV franchises was an understatement, though this showed ITV on the biggest occasions that the Beeb were willing to fight for their audience. Plus with the Light Entertainment department getting new directing and producing talent into their ranks, this would set the BBC up for the 1960's.

With the BBC's intentions clear to fight for the audience which was out there, the sixties was to be a decade which would change light entertainment for ever. A decade of pushing the boundaries, where Britain would change in itself. At the start of the decade with the opening of the new Television Centre in 1960, one of the newest purpose built television studios in the world. The raising of the standard, made the programmes even better. The first show of the new decade featured Sid James from Citizen James, Harry Worth on film plus regulars David Nixon and Jimmy Edwards. It might seem the programme had hardly changed at all, but by 1962 Eamonn Andrews has taken on the role of presenting The Black and White Minstrels, Dixon of Dock Green and The White Heather Club. But backing these favourites up were two shows which were new and were to show the BBC had started to change in its comedy output. The Rag Trade starring Peter Jones, Reg Varney with support of Miriam Karlin and Esma Cannon, the show had been on the air since 1961 but 1962 was the first time when the honour of appearing on the biggest show of the year was bestowed on it.

By 1964, the programme had moved away from including shows with a dramatic narrative. So Jack Warner became the host as Eamonn Andrews had moved to ABC, but the focus was more about the light entertainment stars. The Black and White Mistrels were present with Billy Cotton, the traditional had there place in there but with pop starting to rule the roost, the show acknowledged this with appearances from Kathy Kirby and The Barron Knights. Two stars who were to become two of comedy's biggest stars performed sketches in the form of Benny Hill and Dick Emery, their comedy seemed the same by the end of the decade Hill had moved to Thames Television and Emery was still present on BBC1. Though with comedians there was a place for the all-round entertainers as well, Roy Castle being one of them. The future Record Breakers host had his own show, singing and dancing showing off his talents on a weekly basis, Castle was very much a British 'Sammy Davis Jnr.' , though his career though bubbling along didn't hit the heights as many people thought he would do at that time. Alongside Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, Freddie Frinton and Thora Hird performed a shortened version of their sitcom Meet the Wife, but 1964 also saw the launch of BBC2 and one their biggest comedies which had been repeated on BBC1, The Likely Lads was asked to film an insert for the programme with Rodney Bewes as Bob and James Bolam as Terry reflected on the Christmas season in their own inimitable way. It was a sign that a new wave was sweeping through light entertainment.

Come the end of the decade, with the new ITA franchises in place and the BBC looking towards newer talent, it gave the 1968 a new fresh look which would start the new era of light entertainment at the BBC. In this year, the show was a powerhouse, the host being the newly arrived from ATV, Morecambe and Wise hosted the programme. Just having Eric and Ernie on Christmas Day was a bonus, allowing them to perform at their best, though the supporting cast was one which the BBC could be proud of. The personality led variety show had come to define light entertainment by the end of the decade, ITV had led with the Tom Jones show but the Beeb could count on Cliff Richard to do pretty much the same job but in a more boy next door style, the might of pop was important to the very important teenage audience so both Lulu and Petula Clark were included too. Both performers would go on to have their own personality led variety show the same as Cliff Richard with in the next five years following the programme.

Though the biggest star the BBC could offer was Rolf Harris, this antipodean bundle of many talents had his own show on a Saturday night inviting the top singing stars of the day, performing dance routines with Duggie Squires' Young Generation containing a future Blue Peter presenter in Leslie Judd and future Light Entertainment executive who would put his own mark on the genre in the 1990's, Nigel Lythgoe. Add in the combination of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, comedy from Marty Feldman and with new to that year comedies Not in Front of the Children and more importantly Dad's Army filming sketches for the programme, it is little wonder what the new ITV companies did for 1969, they thought back. They launched the All Star Comedy Carnival, taking the best of what ITV had to offer from all the regional franchises and showcasing them in one place. That first year one of the main attraction was the Granada series 'The Dustbinmen' featuring a pre-Are You Being Served Trevor Bannister.

With the start of the 1970's, it saw the death of Tom Sloan in May 1970. The head of the Light Entertainment group had been influential in bringing so many shows which would define the BBC's output in the 1960's such as Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Dad's Army, the Val Doonican shows and even Dixon of Dock Green. His influence over the BBC's biggest department meant that he could persuade the performers to make appearances on Christmas Night with the Stars, but all backed up with his team behind him like Stewart Morris, Yvonne Littlewood, Roger Ordish, Terry Heneberry, Michael Hurll and most importantly Bill Cotton Jnr. Cotton Jnr. himself had been a producer for in house BBC productions since 1956 including his own father's Band Show, so he was the natural choice to take over the role. The 1970 cavalcade of stars had Cilla Black appearing with Dick Emery, Terry Scott, June Whitfield and Stanley Baxter. But the star power the show had meant, Clodagh Rogers could be seen alongside Nana Mouskori, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis contributing to give a transatlantic feel but none could top an appearance by Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra that's without noting the 'Galloping Gourmet' Graham Kerr as well. This provided a combination of laughs, music and even cooking as well, all the things for a perfect Christmas party.

So with this wealth of talent on the one programme, what could ITV do for their All Star Comedy Carnival of that year? Well, at 6.30pm, the programme started with the mixture of The Lovers with Paula Wilcox and Richard Beckinsdale, Hark at Barker meant that Lord Rustless would get a place in the Christmas schedules for Ronnie Barker, the Doctors in the House were there from London Weekend with the jokes coming thick and fast from Yorkshire Television's Jokers Wild with Barry Cryer presenting and his future Kenny Everett writing partner Ray Cameron on writing duties. To add in variety, Des O'Connor brought a snippet of his own show with Des singing, even down in Weatherfield there was a seasonal visit to Coronation Street with the regulars of the Rovers Return pondering about the festive season in a especially written mini-episode. This of course pre-cursing the days when the soaps and their story lines would become a integral of the Christmas Day schedules. All linked together by Max Bygraves and with musical accompaniment from Geoff Love and his orchestra as well, even popular BBC sitcom stars Warren Mitchell and Rodney Bewes turned up on the programme. Though it is surprising that the programme that followed the show On the Buses wasn't part of the comedy carnival itself with it being one of ITV's top rated shows at the time, but maybe keeping separate from all the other shows meant the rest of ITV's comedy and entertain could be showcased without them being overshadowed by a mini-episode of such a popular show. On reflection, ITV's effort may have seemed weaker in comparison for that year to the BBC's effort but it did offer an alternative to the BBC though.

1971 saw more change with the BBC's Light Entertainment department bringing new shows to their schedule with the Generation Game, Parkinson and the Two Ronnies, Messrs Barker and Corbett being reunited with each other. Bill Cotton's stamp was firmly on the department now, but come Christmas Day the stars were rolled out once again including mini episodes of Dad's Army, Till Death Do Part sharing the limelight with efforts from Lulu and her show, Mike Yarwood making an impression on the audience both in the studio and at home. It was a show of force once again from the Beeb, but ITV counteracted pretty much with the same shows of the previous years but with the inclusion of The Fenn Street Gang and Please Sir! Which they had left behind, Father Dear Father came from Thames and Lollipop loves Mr Mole from ATV. Plus Les Dawson made a mini-episode of Sez Les which was doing great business for himself and also Yorkshire Television as well. Mike and Bernie Winters hosted this year, they themselves had made a contribution of a music item with Opportunity Knocks' Hughie Green on trumpet/guitar, ITN newsreader Gordon Honeycombe on sax, illusionist David Nixon on double bass, Eamonn Andrews on trombone and the whole of the World of Sport team providing the rhythm section, plus Mike Winters playing the clarinet. This is one of those occasions where you wish the footage has not been lost, just to see this spectacle. Not only for the sight of Dickie Davies on drums or the fact what song they actually played, with the Christmas TV Times of that year handily saying it would be an old favourite.

But with this chance at the BBC came a new policy to do with Christmas television, all the stars who had roughly ten minutes to showcase themselves and their programmes during Christmas Night with the Stars seemed such a tight time to do so. So it was that 1972 was the last Christmas Night with the Stars for another twenty four years, introduced by The Two Ronnies after their success with the own show in the previous year. As in previous years Dad's Army and Mike Yarwood did mini-episodes of their own shows, with this year two additions to the line up of The Liver Birds and The Goodies, themselves fresh from their own success on BBC2. Plus Lulu appeared as well as The Young Generation with this year Nigel Lythgoe being credited as the choreographer of their dance routine, the credits for this show read like a who's who of the BBC Light Entertainment department, the Two Ronnies directed by Terry Hughes, Dad's Army by David Croft, Jim Franklin producing The Goodies as well as Michael Hurll and Sydney Lotterby. In addition to both musical directors Ronnie Hazelhurst and Alyn Ainsworth and a stellar list of writers including Michael Palin and Terry Jones, Barry Cryer and Neil Shand to name a few. This was the way to go out, as from 1973, the Christmas specials would out on their own and longer then before. The BBC worked out that each show could do even more by each production
being able to work on their own efforts, thus focussing the talents of the crew, the writers and the performers. That idea was to have massive success as the Christmas schedules of the BBC would continue to dominate for many years to come.

The swansong for the All Star Comedy Carnival would come for ITV in 1973, up against the BBC's new style Christmas Day schedules. They could offer Jimmy Tarbuck in a mock house with the going on with Man about the House, Les Dawson making another appearance with Sez Les, My Good Woman from ATV and Billy Liar from LWT plus Spring and Autumn from Love Thy Neighbour's Vince Powell. But not even the might of the Wandsworth School Choir and Fyfe Robertson could overthrow BBC1's offering. So it was not surprise that after this year's edition that ITV took the same approach as the BBC of pitching the best of their shows up against each other, for Christmas Night with the Stars, the style of that programme was used for the Funny Side of Christmas in 1982. Again the best of BBC comedy all in the same place and with revivals in 1994 on BBC2 featuring the likes of Steve Coogan performing and again ten years later in 2004 presented by Michael Parkinson, but this version seemed more like an extend version of his chat show. For the All Star Comedy Carnival, the idea has not been revived by ITV and looks likely not to be any time soon.

Some people may say that these programmes, maybe they were of their time. But however without them we would not have got to the Christmas Day schedules today, they were the first to introduce soaps on Christmas Day, they were the first to have the leading comedies of the day back to back, they were the first to have top variety in the same place and they were the first to introduce new comedies to a wider audience. Whatever way you want to look at it, Christmas would not have been brighter places without them. 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The night of several thousand stars.. - 100 years of the Royal Variety Performance

2012 marks a significant anniversary for entertainment in Britain, as it is one hundred years since the first Royal Command Performance. But the Royal Family had been closed associated to the performing arts, his highness King Edward the Seventh had a love of those who performed in the theatre counting actress Lillie Langtry as one of his closest confidants. Though before that performers could be called to the royal residences could have been 'commanded' to perform for the Royal Family, amongst the performers called to do so was music hall comedian and actor Dan Leno. Leno famous for his appearances in music halls up and down the land and for his role at London's Drury Lane in its pantomimes between 1888 and 1904 was said to be one of the Royal Family's favourite performers.

Where as ballet and opera had royal patronage, where each had gala performances for them both, music hall and variety seemed out on a limb also as not quite a worthy thing for the Royal Family to lend their name to publicly at all. The likes of music hall giant Marie Lloyd, hugely popularly with the general public was not seen to be of the right taste for the royals with some people in higher society deeming her act as too vulgar to be performed in front of royalty. As when the first-ever Royal Command Performance was announced to take place in 1912, King George V and Queen Mary, Ms Lloyd was not invited to appear on the bill though it may have been her support for the 1907 strike that may have been the reason for her omission. Though Marie Lloyd did strike back robustly by saying 'All of my performances are by command of the British Public..'

The first-ever Royal Command Performance was held at the Cambridge Theatre in London in 1912, in aid of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund who were raising money to build an extension to its home for elderly variety artists at Brinsworth House in Twickenham. Nearly all of Variety finest were present at this event, if they were not performing that night, they had a walk on part in the finale subtitled 'Variety's Garden Party'. The likes of comedian Gus Elen, 'blackface' performer G.H. Chirgwin, magician and illusionist David Devant, Australian comedienne Florrie Forde, prevalent musical theatre star Lupino Lane to name but a few. The cream of Variety was on show, make the occasion extra special for the royal guests, but over the years the Royal Variety Performance has always had the pulled of the best of entertainment and variety. The second show in 1919 featured comedian Harry Tate, who stole the show that year with his act. This versatile comedian offered up a feast of sketch comedy, but although Tate was clean shaven he was remembered for a moustache worn during his sketches, greeting great play from having it wiggle around from it being clipped to his nose, using it as a tool to get even more comedy into the act.

But it took until 1921 for the Royal Variety Performance to become an annual event, in that year King George V became patron of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund with himself or a representative would attend a performance once a year to show the support the organisation was doing for Brinsworth House. Though five years later the first-ever Royal Variety Performance was broadcast by the BBC, but they broadcast the show with a broadcaster providing commentary on the performance much like a sports event would today, to fill in the silences of whilst the acts were going through the performance on the stage. By 1930, a simple broadcast of the show was occurring on BBC radio. Though the 1930's were to bring other events and the 1938 held at the London Coliseum was to be the last owing to the outbreak of World War Two.

Post war, the Royal Variety started to grow from strength to strength. The area of variety theatre was going strong at that point and stars like comedians Will Hay, Sid Field and Tommy Trinder were on the bill plus the likes Wilson, Kepple and Betty, Beryl Kaye, Jerry Desmonde, The Nine Avalons proving that variety was still very much alive and growing all the time, the strength of the variety agents and theatre owners meant year on year, each performance was the best that the industry could offer by the 1950's with the advent of commercial television that the face of variety was going to change all together. Those stars were available on television each and every night, whilst also appearing in variety theatres up and down the country. But with the advent of commercial television came the calls to put the Royal Variety Performance on television with the vast majority of the owners of the new ITV franchises being from variety backgrounds used this angle to be able to schedule their programmes and the biggest was 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium'. The power was with the Grade family, Lew and Leslie as well as their brother Bernard Delfont, but the ultimate power laid with the Royal Family. But even as that was going on 1955 had two Royal Variety Performances, but no-one was to know what was to happen in the next year,
so maybe it was fate that the 1956 performance was cancelled. At that time the Suez Crisis was taking place, with that year's Royal Variety about to take place, the bill was arranged with the Crazy Gang having prepared their own version of A Midsummer Night's Dream in their own imitable style plus Laurence Oliver, Vivien Leigh and John Mills due to make appearances, though Liberace was said to have broken down in tear at the news the Queen was not to be attending the show that night because of the current crisis. The show was cancelled at four hours notice before curtain-up.

Though within five years, the show was to have one of its most proudest moments. The sixties were bring many changes. In variety itself, the onset of pop music meant that more and more younger were interested in this new branch of entertainment though when bands performed at that time in concert, they was usually an accompanying variety comedian as a compare. But television had gripped the nation as the medium everyone wanted so it was only right that the Royal Variety Performance was broadcast on television, first of all by ATV. They got round the problem of doing a Sunday Night at the London Palladium show by cancelling that Sunday's edition and moving it to the Monday night, effectively meaning that although it was ATV London filming the show, with it being broadcast on a Monday, ATV in the Midlands held responsibility for the show's broadcast though still by their playout in Foley Street, London. The 1960 bill contained The Crazy Gang, making fun appearing as 'bridesmaids' at a recent wedding, although with a nod and wink the public knew they were meant to be bridesmaids from the recently marriage of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The world of pop was accounted for by Adam Faith and Cliff Richard making appearances, the Times newspaper said about Richard that he radiated 'chubby good humour throughout his most sultry songs'. Lonnie Donegan who had just come off the number spot in the charts appeared with his fellow musicians dressed as dustmen naturally to perform 'My Old Man's a Dustman'. Sammy Davis Junior became the first-ever show stealer of the television age with his performance holding everyone in awe, the first of many from over the Atlantic to do so. He came, he saw, he conquered the audience in the auditorium and at home.

In 1963 came the new age of pop with The Beatles opening the show, but the actual rocket to the show came when John Lennon on the performance of their last song Twist and Shout of their set saying “For our last number, I'd like to ask for your help... If the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and rest of you rattle your jewellery...” It was the impact that was needed but it was also the acceptance that the establishment had recognised pop music was here to stay. The moment has go down into legend now, but the recognition of this made for a key moment in the Royal Variety Performance's history. With The Beatles setting the way, on the back of them came Jimmy Tarbuck and Cilla Black, two performers also from Liverpool who were to become two of Light Entertainment's biggest names in the 60's, 70's and 80's as well. Tarbuck's cheeky patois, opened the show up to a wave of Northern comedic talents such as Les Dawson, Freddie Starr, Victoria Wood and latterly Peter Kay to find new and wider audiences for their material.

Though a spot on the Royal Variety can be memorable for many other reasons too with Catherine Tate pushing her material as far as it could go in performing her 'Lauren, the Teenager act' to the Royal Box, Shirley Bassey almost missing her cue whilst changing outfits at the end of the 1999 Royal Variety Performance. It was the recently passed Larry Hagman which gave the show in 1980 a moment to remember or forget, whichever way you want to look at it. In his set, he was meant to sing about his J.R. character but he dried on stage forgetting the lyrics to the song, but when looked all was lost his mother and star of South Pacific on the Broadway stage, Mary Martin was standing on the side of the stage waiting to come on realised this, she took it on herself to come on and save him from any further embarrassment. The reaction of her coming on was amazing and they carried on with the set in hand, performing together a song about him being her son and her being his mum. Afterwards when they had come off stage, one of the production staff on the show from the BBC said that they could edit out all what had happened Hagman turned around and simply said “Don't you dare! The old girl got me out of a lot of trouble there, leave it in!”

But what of the planned moments? For television and radio host Greg Scott his own memories are of Michael Barrymore's performance with The King's Own regiment performing to 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?' with Barrymore singing and the soldiers doing manoeuvres to the rhythm of the song. When The Queen was talking to Nigel Lythgoe in the line-up at the end of the performance she said “Was that truly the British Army?” to which Lythgoe replied “Yes ma'am, it was” before her majesty replied back “I should get your choreographer to do the changing of the guard...” To which Lythgoe replied “Yes ma'am, I think it would be a great idea..” Plus also he recalls the unique entrance that Brian Conley made to the 1999 Royal Variety Show when he is introduced to the auditorium and the people watching on at home, as he come on looking at the Royal Box he does a prat fall off the stage before climbing back up and regaining his composure ready to introduce the show properly.

My own personal memory has to be at the 1991 Royal Variety Performance, having seen most Royal Variety shows since the age of about five years old, the one performance of Madam Butterfly stands out for myself. These shows generally having a cultural act in them means most people usually bear through them, but one moment will stay with me forever. Anne Howard singing and from there comes an amazing sequence of the unexpected, when Eric Idle removes his mask and says 'Stop!' as the cue for best five minutes of television and variety I have ever seen. Performing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life', the song is brilliant in itself but the layer upon layer for the act just builds to a crescendo when Anne Howard sings the last line in an operatic style is a totally unique show stopping moment.

What about the show in the 21st century, it has seen a renaissance with the introduction of Britain's Got Talent allowing the winner a spot on the Royal Variety bill itself, the voting and cost of voting goes to the Entertainers Artistes' Benevolent Fund which still has its main base at Brinsworth House in Twickenham. Over the years it has supported some of our finest entertainers in their older age such as Dame Thora Hird, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman and even stars who had medical problems like Richard O'Sullivan. The work that the EABF is vital to looking after people in the entertainment industry more then ever, though it might be the star names who get the attention, it still can be those who can fall on hard time no matter how big they are or were, they get the support they need from the EABF. Entertainment has moved on, stars have moved on but the work of the EABF goes on. Some on my happiest memories are of when I went to the open days at Brinsworth House as child seeing stars lending their support to this cause. For as much how ever they raise the money, the Royal Variety and the EABF are forever linked. Some of the stars shine longer then others, but when it comes to this event, the appetite is still there with over 8.5 million viewers watching the latest Royal Variety performance either on television, catch up television or in other ways. The stars may change, but the format's the same. Through black and white and colour television up to to high definition and beyond.

The sheer facts of the effort which goes into these shows are phenomenal, from people like Bobby Warns who has worked on over thirty Royal Variety shows, Yvonne Littlewood producer for the BBC on many of these great occasions, the Grades Lord Lew, Leslie, Bernard Delfont and later Michael who have influenced the running and the televising of the show, Jack Parnell, Ronnie Hazelhurst, Alyn Ainsworth to name three of the many musical directors who have done that job. The many hosts of the show some legends in show business like Sir Bruce Forsyth, Jimmy Tarbuck, Des O'Connor to newer names such as Peter Kay and most recently David Walliams. For all the performers on the stage, all the backstage staff make the show what it is and what a show it has been for over one hundred years, with ITV taking an exclusive contract for producing the show now, it will be seen how the show develops over the next couple of years. No matter what, it will still be one of most important dates in the show business calender to come as new stars will be made and old favourites will return. Its light has yet to be lowered on this great show.

If you would like to know more about the work the Entertainers Artistes' Benevolent Fund does, please visit their website at  where you find an outline of their work today, plus also a great archive of bills from previous Royal Variety shows which this post would not have been possible without and also to Louis Barfe and his book 'Turned Out Nice Again' provided me also with information about the early years of the Royal Variety performance plus also Jamie Graham of the website Transdiffusion for reminding me to put the EABF's  website into this post and Television and Radio presenter Greg Scott for his own personal memories of the Royal show itself.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

"Here's one I made earlier..." Margaret Parnell and the story of her makes on Blue Peter

When you talk about Christmas, many things come to mind such as mince pies, home-made decorations and mince pies. But one woman link these all together and I have been interested in her story for a very long time. As a viewer of Blue Peter for many years, I had heard the name Margaret Parnell nearly ever time when a 'make' was made. I knew she lived only couple of miles from me in Hampshire, to have such a person so influential in one show was exciting to me.

But in a way, we have all been one of Margaret Parnell's children with her ideas copied and made by millions of children over the years, I wanted to find out more about this woman and how she got to supply ideas to the world's oldest Children's programme. The story starts in 1963, with Blue Peter having been on the air for five years by that stage. The programme was already doing 'makes', but Parnell decided to send in some ideas that the programme might like to use. Being a mother of two young children, being creative was always a good skill to have. In her own words “I had this idea for dolls' hats, made of crepe paper. I got them together with all the stages and sent them to Valerie Singleton. And much to my surprise, she wrote back and said they liked them and were going to use them, and had I got any more ideas.”

In reply personally to Parnell, Valerie Singleton wrote “We all feel you contributed so splendidly to the programme. Have you ever been taught art?” Parnell's answer was no, she had no formal art training but as she explained in Dear Blue Peter, a book about the letters received by the programme over the years “During the war, when you couldn't but them, I used to make toys for my little sister. That started it off really.”

From that one letter to Valerie Singleton, the production team were so impressed that they wanted to see if Parnell had any more ideas which could be used, though the key thing that her ideas used easily available materials to children on pocket money and also by using disregarded packaging such as old packaging and plastic bottles, inadvertently a new form of recycling was found before the term had been invented.

Over the years, Parnell supplied 700 original makes for the programme over nearly a forty year period. The encouragement of the presenters wanted children to ask their parents or guardians for old packaging so they could make the latest Parnell creation. It is a testament to her ideas that the memories of them being made are so vivid to viewers that they can remember them years on from when they were shown on the programme as viewer Ray Bennett remembers “The task was to turn a part of a stiff type of cardboard box, which in this case was a washing powder container, into a book-stand. In effect, we were to cut the bottom of the box off to about distance of 1½ inches high and deep but retain the ends – so an extruded "L" shape with the ends still filled in. As I recall, the demonstration went on to offer different ways of decorating the stand and, of course, any robust box would suffice. It was the only thing I ever made as a direct result of a BP insert, but as this shows, some 33 or so years later, I've not forgotten what or how.”

Though these makes always seem to have longevity and places in the hearts of their maker as Steve Williams of TV Cream remembers “My Blue Peter make story is about the Santa's Sleigh which appears in Blue Peter Book 19. It involves rolling up pieces of paper (the Radio Times, they suggest) and then covering them with papier mache to make a reindeer, then cutting up a cereal box for the sleigh. We faithfully made this in the mid-eighties and it was put under the tree every Christmas until at least the late nineties.“

The most popular was a model of Tracy Island, with the reshowing of Thunderbirds on BBC2 in the early 90's. The model play set was the thing to have for children wanting to recreate the adventures of the Tracy Brothers. So Margaret Parnell designed the same thing, but using boxes, plastic pots and packaging which could easily be found around the house, thus reducing the cost for parents of buying the model new and allowing children to create their own version, knowing that it was hand made. Such was the response, that the BBC post room got flooded by viewers asking for fact sheets of how to make it. With the make being one of the most popular in the programme's history, such so when the film version came out in the year 2000, the idea was reused where as in the 1990's Anthea Turner did the make, this time Konnie Huq made the model on the screen.

One of the problems with the BBC not allowed to have commercial endorsement was that when ever a piece of packaging was shown that the brand name was obscured by pen, but the show had interesting ways of getting around brand names too, biros became ball-point pens, plasticine became modelling clay and most famous of all Fablon, regularly used to cover household items in became the now infamous 'Sticky-back Plastic'.

The cooking items were the most popular with children, mostly done by the male presenters. But Biddy Baxter had her own ideas why the male presenters should do those items “It was marvelously encouraging for boys to see one of our boys doing the cooking. After all, some of the best chefs in the world are men.” But John Noakes used the spot to turn it into a comedy routine by call his co-presenters 'Poison Tasters' in reference to his bad cooking, rather then putting boys off this seemed to encourage them even more to step into the kitchen. How much this influenced the likes of Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumental, to take up cookery, who knows.

But what about the woman herself? Former presenter Sarah Greene remembered her “She was a sweet encouraging and very clever lady. Incredible imagination & affinity with viewers...” That was the measure of the woman, inventive and amazing though as former Blue Peter Editor Richard Marson recalls on the occasion of The Queen visting the Blue Peter studio “ I remember MP as very down to earth, unassuming and obviously incredibly creative. When the Queen visited the studio, she showed HMQ her loo roll version of the nativity scene. The Queen was more interested in the dogs and I teased MP that it was only because she had a Faberge version of the nativity at home! A genuinely lovely woman and so talented.”

Though her legacy has to be the Advent Crown, simply some wire coathangers, flameproof
tinsel and candles. But its iconic status, made sure that whenever it appeared on the programme's titles they knew there was only one more programme before Christmas. Many presenters had the pleasure of lighting the crown over the years, each and everyone having a part of the programme's history. But it was the genius of Margaret Parnell who made it so, she left the programme in 2001 after 38 years of supplying ideas. Even though the programme's moving from BBC1 at the end of the year, Parnell's ideas are still being used today.

Here's one I made earlier..” became a an iconic catchphrase loved and spoofed by some of the top comedy shows of their age, but if it was for Margaret Parnell we wouldn't know Christmas was on its way...