Posts Tagged ‘June Whitfield’

Sketch of June Whitfield

November 29, 2022

No list or depiction of the great female comic actors of the late 20th and early 21st century would be complete without June Whitfield. She had a long, brilliant career starring in many of the favourite comedy series on British radio and television. She was Eth, the girlfriend of the utterly gormless Ron Glum in both the radio and TV versions of The Glums. And for a long time in the 1970s she played one half of the titular couple in the Beeb sitcom Terry and June, with Terry Scott playing her husband. This was a rather safe, conventional sitcom that went on just a little too long and was eventually overtaken by the new, fresher ideas and comics of the 1980s. 2000 AD had a dig at it in a ‘Future Shock’, which seemed to owe something also to the SF movie Harrison Bergeron. This was set in a dystopia in which everyone had to be exactly the same, so that all the married couples were called Terry and June. After it finished, I think its name was deliberately spoofed by the gay sitcom starring Julian Clary on Channel 4, Terry and Julian. Then in the ’90s she returned to the small screen as the confused grandmother in Absolutely Fabulous, with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley as the endlessly partying fashionistas Edina and Patsy and Julie Sawalha as Saunders’ screen daughter. She also continued to appear on the radio in series such as Radio 2’s satirical The News Huddlines with Roy Hudd. Even before Ab Fab Whitfield had appeared in some slightly risque material. In 1971 or so she and Frankie Howerd released a spoof of Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’aime. This had Whitfield panting and whispering enticements while Howerd tried to put her off with cries of ‘Oh, give over! I’m trying to get some sleep. Oh, no, now you’ve taken over all the bedclothes’ and so on. It’s tame stuff and is available on YouTube if you want to hear it. But it was too much for the Beeb at the time, who banned it along with the original. Ah, how times have changed!

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.

Three More Heroes of Comedy Sketched – Alan Coren, John Wells and Roy Hudd

November 24, 2022

Here’s another three sketches of some of the people I consider to be great comedy talents – the satirist Alan Coren, and the actors John Wells and Roy Hudd.

I’m not quite satisfied with the picture of Alan Coren, as he really wasn’t jowly or fat in the lower face. But I do think he is one of this country’s greatest comic writers of the 20th century. He was for many years the editor of Punch, and just about the only reason in its last years to read the magazine. Coren’s method was to take a ridiculous story from one of the papers, and then write a ridiculous piece about it. Thus, a story about a ‘sexy actress’ missing her pet tortoise turned into a tale of the said reptile making an excruciatingly slow bid for freedom before finally getting caught. The beginning of package holidays to Spain with booze included turned into a tale of a totally blotto bloke trying to write back home. 1984 is rewritten as if it was about 70s Britain, where nothing works. The press runs headlines like ‘Come Off It, Big Brother’, the Youth Spy is annoying brat who shouts to its mother that Winston Smith has a lady friend, and Room 101 isn’t really terrifying because due to supply problems they can’t get a rat. They offer Smith a hamster instead, but he isn’t afraid of them and annoys them by telling them so. They inflict the hamster on him anyway, and he has to pretend to be frightened. Coren has been accused of racism because of a series of pieces, The Collected Speeches of Idi Amin, and More of the Collected Speeches of Idi Amin, in which he depicted the thug using the stereotypical Black pidgin English. I dare say it is racist, but as it’s directed at a brutal torturer and mass murderer, I honestly don’t care. Amin deserved far worse, and I don’t see Coren as personally racist.

At the same time as he was editing it, Coren also appeared as one of the contestants on Radio 4’s News Quiz, facing Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop on the opposing side representing Private Eye. I read Private Eye now, but back then I far preferred Punch, which seemed more genteel and funny without being vicious. Punch died the journalistic death after Coren left it to edit the Radio Times, but he still continued to appear on the News Quiz until his sad death in the early ’90s. He eventually stopped editing the Radio Times and took up writing a column in the Times giving his humorous view of life in Cricklewood. These pieces are funny, but the really good stuff was earlier in Punch.

His pieces were collected in a number of books, some of which had deliberately bizarre names. In an interview on Pebble Mill he revealed how one of them got its particularly striking name. He rang up W.H. Smith to ask them what their bestselling books were about. They told him, ‘Cats’. He then asked them what their second bestselling books were about. ‘Golf’, they replied. He then asked them what the third most popular books they sold were about. They told him it was the Second World War. So, he called it Golfing for Cats and stuck a swastika on the cover. For his next book, he contacted them again and asked them what the most popular product they sold was. They told him it was tissues for men, so that’s what he called it.

Coren’s humour was distinctive – it was dry, but also slightly silly. Answering a question on the News Quiz about one of the members of Thatcher’s cabinet, he replied, ‘Oh – this is the ministry of Gummer’. A question about Prince Philip on an edition of the show in Edinburgh prompted him to reply, ‘This is the patron of this fair city, Zorba the Scot’. When the Tory election broadcast for the 1987 general election showed Spitfires and other World War II planes zooming about, Coren remarked that it was the Royal Conservative Airforce and pointed out that when the servicemen came back from the War, they all voted Labour. He’s been succeeded as broadcaster by his daughter, Victoria Coren-Mitchell, who is genuinely erudite and intelligent, and his son, Giles, who is a right-wing snob, and who made a sneering comment about people in council houses. Although Coren edited the patrician and eminently establishment Punch, he himself was a former grammar school lad, and there was a bit of class friction in the News Quiz between himself and the genuinely upper-class team from the downmarket Private Eye. I stopped listening to the News Quiz a long time ago because I got sick of the anti-religious sneers when Sandi Tokvig was chairing it and didn’t agree with many of the views of the panellists, who seemed to be stuck in the London bubble with a contempt for the rest of the country. Previous series are available on DVD, however, and they are well worth listening to, not least because of Coren. A great comic wit, sadly missed.

John Wells. He was one of the Private Eye team and was as patrician and establishment as the people that magazine skewered. He was the headmaster and French teacher at Eton. He was also one of the writers of the Dear Bill diaries in the Eye, which were supposed to be the letters of Dennis Thatcher to Bill Deedes, one of the writers in the Times. The book’s hilariously funny, especially when it describes Keith Joseph getting egged everywhere, but no-one can work out why it’s only him that does. Other highlights include him visiting the old folk’s home in which Ted Heath and Harold Macmillan are respectively housed, with Heath hating and ranting about Thatcher while Macmillan still hates and rants about Heath. As with Bentine and the Bumblies, this work of fiction excited the interest of the security people, who asked Wells where he got his information from. Wells replied that he just made it up, and he wasn’t getting any information from anyone. ‘Thank heaven for that,’ the rozzers replied, ‘We thought there’d been a leak.’ Wells had got the tone of Dennis Thatcher’s speech and mindset exactly right, in my opinion. He also appeared as Thatcher’s husband in the farce Anyone for Dennis?, which I can remember being put on TV. There’s a piece of very Cold War humour there, when the Russian ambassador fears that a nuclear war is imminent and talks about the brave Soviet soldiers with their eyes fixed on the last dawn, before collapsing with relief when he finds out that he’s mistaken.

Wells also appeared as a guest on a number of TV shows, including Lovejoy, and the radio shows The News Quiz and Tales of the Mausoleum Club. He had a camp manner, which he knew how to use for great comic effect. For example, when the teams were answering a question about the controversial portrait of the royal family that showed them all nude, he remarked that it was glad one royal was absent because ‘that would have been really gristly’. A question about the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland prompted him to describe her as a woman, who wrote covered in small, white dogs. Tales from the Mausoleum Club was a series of parodies of Victorian classic literature. One of these was a spoof of Treasure Island, ‘Trevor Island’, in which a gang of pirates go after the treasure buried on the island of Tombola. Wells played the pirate’s camp captain, who at one point remarked, ‘Oh damn, I’ve snapped my second-best bra!’

Roy Hudd. He was on TV quite a bit in the early 70s only to subsequently vanish. I can remember him from when I was at junior school presenting an afternoon programme for the elderly. While he vanished from TV, he carried on broadcasting on the radio, where he was the star of the satirical News Huddlines on Radio 2 with June Whitfield. He also appeared from time to time on other programmes, including as an astral seaside entertainer playing the Wurlitzer on the Reeves and Mortimer revamp of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). I’m including him here as he was also an expert on the Music Hall. Back in the 1980s he appeared on a Radio 4 programme about the original Peaky Blinders, who were so notorious that they even wrote Music Hall songs about them. The one he performed was about how they could drink a brewery dry. Away from such elevated matters, he also apparently appeared as the Litterbug in the 1970s public information film against littering.