Posts Tagged ‘Frank Muir’

Sketches of Comedy Writers and Broadcasters Frank Muir and Dennis Norden

November 26, 2022

Frank Muir

Dennis Norden

Muir and Norden were a duo of comedy writers who together were responsible for some of the radio comedy hits of yesteryear. I think they may have started out with Take It From Here before producing possibly their best-known series, The Glums. This was their response to the one of the first British soap operas, Life With The Lyons. The Lyons were a very clean, respectable family. This was well before the gangsters, crims, adulterers and murderers now populating British and international soaps. Their answer to this was to create a comically horrible family. This consisted of the blokey Mr. Glum, played by Professor Jimmy Edwards, his gormless son, Ern played by Ian Lavender, and Ern’s girlfriend, Eth, played by June Whitfield.. Mrs Glum never appeared as a distinct character, except for growling heard coming from upstairs. The episodes usually began with Mr Glum in the pub. As the landlord rings the bell for last orders, Mr. Glum orders one last pint before recounting that week’s tale of comic woe to his cronies. The series was adapted for TV in the 1970s, the scripts were collected and published as a book, and the series is also available on DVD.

Apart from writing, the two also appeared on a number of TV and radio panel shows. Dennis Norden appeared on My Music, with three other singers and experts: John Amis, the opera singer Wallace, and Arthur Marshal. After his death, Marshal’s biography appeared in the book Three Gay Lives, along with two others. This revealed that during the War, Marshal had been part of a team sent to hunt down one of the leading Nazis – I think it may have been Himmler. Marshal himself commented wryly that he was a strange choice for such a project. He had a gentle, camp manner, but appearances can be deceptive. Sometimes the men with gentlest or most camp demeanour can be some of the toughest. But possibly not in Marshal’s case. Norden was a specialist in the peculiar hits of yesterday. I particularly remember a hilarious rendition he gave of the 30s pop song, ‘I Love Me (I’m Wild About Myself). This has stayed with me so much, that when I found the sheet music for it in a secondhand shop in Cheltenham, I immediately bought it.

Muir and Norden also appeared together on another BBC 2 show, Call My Bluff. In this show, two teams competed to present the definitions of obsolete words. Three were given for each word, but only one was correct. The object was to deceive their opponents into choosing the wrong definition, while guessing the right meanings themselves. Both My Music and Call My Bluff were originally broadcast in the evening. After the original series of Call My Bluff ended, it was later revived as an afternoon show.

They also appeared on another panel show, this time on the radio, My Word. The teams were given a famous saying or literary quote and asked to make up a story inspired by it, ending with a pun on the original saying. In one edition, they were given the phrase, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. This was turned into a story about how tall men have small wives, who stop them getting to sleep at night with their snoring. This culminated in the pun, ‘The massive men need wives of quiet respiration.’ In yet another edition, they were given the line from Pepys’ diaries, ‘And so to bed’. This inspired a very convoluted story which produced the final, punning line, ‘And saw Tibet.’ These stories and their inspiration were also collected and published.

I also remember that Dennis Norden also had his own afternoon show in the 1970s, in which he took the audience back to the cinema of yesteryear. But the films he chose were obscure, rather than the big cinema successes, and he definitely had a taste for entertaining B movies. These were often films so bad, they were entertaining. One of these was a fifties movie which featured a great White hunter staggering out of the jungle before collapsing. As he did so, a voice intoned, ‘He came out of the jungle drained of man’s essence’. I think the story was about how he’d been captured by a tribe of women, who then banged him till he escaped utterly exhausted. This seems to have been part of a series of films of the time in which male explorers stumbled on all-female societies. This was a particular favourite in Science Fiction. There was one about earthmen landing on such a female society on Venus, and another one where the matriarchal society was on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. Hammer also contributed to this particular theme with the 1948 Devil Girl From Mars. In this flick, a Martian woman lands on Earthy on a mission to kidnap men for use as breeding stock on her homeworld. As the taste for such terrible movies increased and they became a genre in themselves, Badfilm, aided by the Medved brother’s Golden Turkey Awards and Michael Medved’s 1980s Channel 4 series, The Worst of Hollywood, this film was reissued on DVD in the ’90s. I wonder if these films were part of crisis in masculinity caused when men returned from the War to find that women had taken over their roles in industry and society when they had been away fighting. One of the other films he commented on was Glen/Glenda or I Changed My Sex. This was a tale of one man’s struggle with his transvestism. It’s quite a daring subject, considering the very conservative morality of the time. It could have been done well if intelligently handled. A few years ago, the Beeb broadcast an autobiographical play by ceramicist and transvestite Grayson Perry, Mr. Misunderstood, about how his own shame and struggle over his crossdressing. However, Glen/Glenda was one of the demented products of Ed Woods, whose films have become bywords for spectacularly bad films. His Science Fiction outing, Plan 9 From Outer Space, about UFOs invading Earth and causing zombies to rise from their graves, was voted the worst film of all time. I think its place may now have been usurped by the recent Badfilm, The Room. Glen/Glenda isn’t that bad, but it does boast leaden dialogue, a dream sequence in which furniture moves about for no reason, and Woods’ friend Bela Lugosi, appearing as God, saying, ‘Dance to this, dance to that, but beware of the little green dragon sleeping on your doorstep.’

Later Norden starred as the presenter of the long-running show presenting hilarious bloopers and outtakes, It’ll Be Alright on the Night. This started in the 1970s but has continued to appear sporadically ever since. Since Norden’s death it’s been presented by Griff Rhy Jones and David Walliams. Muir had a rather impish sense of humour. In a Christmas article in the Radio Times one year, he described a trick he liked to play at that time of year on his relatives north of the border. He’d include with the Christmas card a completely made-up quote from Rabbie Burns, and chuckle at them trying to work out which one of the works of Scotland’s national poet it appeared in. His voice also appeared in a comic TV advert for fruit and nut chocolate. This had him singing ‘Everyone’s a Fruit and Nutcase’ to the tune of one of Tchaikovsky’s classics.

Muir and Norden in many ways were highly influential figures in the development of British comedy and their programmes were very witty. The gentle humour of their panel games now seems to me to be a world away from today’s much more savage and cutting humour of satirical shows like Mock The Week, The Last Leg and Have I Got News For You, at least when that first came out.

‘I Love Me (I’m Wild About Myself’ was a vaudeville song recorded in 1923 by Irving Kaufman of the Avon Four. I found this original recording of it on Daniel Melvin’s channel on YouTube. I hope you enjoy its comic absurdity.

I also found these two versions of the Fruit and Nut advert on YouTube. This one’s from IanLucey1972’s channel.

And this from Findaclip.

A New Parlour Game: Obsolete Words to Describe Iain Duncan Smith and the Government

May 16, 2015

Earlier today I posted up an article about an obsolete term I’d found in the Dictionary of Historical Slang, which I thought pretty accurately described the current head of the Department for Work and Pensions. This was ‘Gentleman Ranker’, which referred to ‘a broken gentleman, serving in the ranks of the army’. In other words, this was a middle or upper class man, who had lost his money. Unable to buy a commission, he was forced to serve in the ranks as an ordinary squaddie.

This indeed suits Iain Duncan Smith, as unfortunately, although he has retained his wealth and landed property, he is rumoured to have been Returned To Unit after failing to pass the officers’ exams at Sandhurst.

Since I posted it, I got this comment from Maxwell 1957. He says that there’s another obsolete term, ‘Wancel’, which also aptly describes IDS. This is 18th century slang for a person, who was so incompetent that they were beyond redemption.

This could be the beginning of a new parlour game!

Older readers of this blog may recall the BBC panel game, Call My Bluff. This was a how on BBC 2 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which two teams competed to try and deceive each other over the meaning of obsolete words in the English language. The teams gave three definitions of a particular old, and now disused word, only one of which was correct. The opposing team then had to guess which was the correct answer. It was somewhat like the round in the Griff Rhys Jone’s show, The Quizeum, on BBC 4, where the two teams each have an object, and try to deceive them by offering a false explanation along with the object’s correct identity.

The show was led by that stalwart of British comedy, Frank Muir and with Patrick Campbell, heading the opposing team and they were accompanied by various guest celebrities. The questions were set by Cliff Michelmore, Muir was later joined by Dennis Norden and Arthur Marshal on the music quiz, My Music, and a similar game show, My Word. In the first quiz, they were asked to identify various pieces of music by the question master, Steve Race, and were joined by a Scots opera singer, whose name unfortunately now escapes me.

And in My Word, Norden, Muir and co competed to offer various shaggy dog stories to explain well-known quotations from literature. For example, they once gave a very long, and entirely spurious tale, to explain that the line from Pepys’ diary, ‘And so to bed’, really was ‘And saw Tibet!’

‘Call My Bluff’ ran from 1965 to 1988, but was revived in the late 1990s with Sandi Toksvig and then Fiona Bruce. The panellists included the great satirist and editor of Punch, Alan Coren.

So, if you know any further ancient and obsolete terms that fit Iain Duncan Smith, his massive ego and even greater incompetence and rapacity, please feel free to send ’em in. It’ll be interesting to see how many terms describe this poltroon, before the more obscure byways of the English language are exhausted.

Here’s a clip of the show from the 1970s, with Cliff Michelmore, Patrick Campbell, Edward Woodward, Frank Muir, Joan Bakewell and Mr Blobby’s criminal accomplice, Noel Edmonds, to remind you what it was like in its heyday.