Posts Tagged ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’

Sketches of Another Three British Comedy Heroes

November 22, 2022

Here are three more pictures of British comedy legends of a certain era for your enjoyment: Ken Dodd, Tony Hancock and Michael Bentine.

Ken Dodd is also remembered for the Diddymen from Knotty Ash, which I think was the suburb of Liverpool where he came from. I can remember him being on television with them when I was very young. They were originally puppets, but I can remember a later programme in which they were played by children in a musical number. Dodd was a real trouper, carrying on performing right to the end of his life. He was also notorious for running well over time. I heard at one performance in Weston-Super-Mare, a seaside town just south of Bristol, he carried on performing so long after he was supposed to have ended that the janitor threw the keys onto the stage. As well as the Diddymen his act also involved his notorious Tickling Stick. It was years before I realised it was an ordinary duster and you could get them in Woolworths.

He ran afoul of the taxman in the late 80s/ 90s, and I’ve heard two versions of that story. One is that he really was dodging taxes and had all the money he owed the Inland Revenue hidden in boxes in his attic. This was supposed to be because he had a very poor childhood and that had made him reluctant to part with money. The other version I heard was that he sent it all to the taxman, as demanded, but didn’t say which department and so it just got lost. His problems with the taxman was at just about the same time the jockey Lester Pigott also got caught not paying it. This resulted in a postcard I found in Forever People in Bristol showing Ken Dodd and Pigott on stage in pantomime. Pigott was riding a pantomime horse, while down from the sky was a giant hand pointng at them, saying ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell undeclared income!’

Although he’s been off the TV for years now, there are still DVDs of his performances, particularly the Audience he did on ITV. And way back in the 90s I also found a tape of him telling jokes. Since his heyday in the ’70s, comedy has become far more observational, but his jokes were still funny. One I remember went, ‘What a day, what a day, missus, for going to Trafalgar Square and throwing white paint over the pigeons shouting, ‘Hah! See how you like it!’

Tony Hancock – what can you say? He truly is a British comedy legend. He’s been called a genius, though one critic said that his genius really consisted in performing the scripts written by Galton and Simpson. Even so, they were absolute classics of British comedy and a couple of them, The Radio Ham and The Blood Donor, really are comedy classics. On the radio he was supported by a cast of brilliant actors – Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques. This was cut down to Sid James when the series was transferred to TV, and then even further until Hancock became the sole regular character. His series were on record – I used to listen to them when I was at school and are also on DVD. He also made a series, not written by Galton and Simpson, when he was in Australia. That’s also available, I think, though I deliberately avoided watching it. It may just be prejudice, but I didn’t think it could ever be a patch on Galton and Simpson’s scripts.

Paul Merton, who seems to have given up performing comedy for appearing on panel shows, is a massive Hancock fan. A few years ago, he performed as Hancock in a series of remakes of classic Hancock episodes. I deliberately didn’t watch them, because with remakes I find that it doesn’t matter how good the actors are, you’re always comparing them with the original stars, and they just can’t compete. One of the cable/ satellite channels a few years back tried to remake Yes, Minister with a different cast. This flopped. I think it may have been that the audience it was aimed simply far preferred to see repeats of the original series with Paul Eddington and co. As well as TV, he also appeared in a number of films, such as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and starred in two: The Rebel and The Punch and Judy Man. The Punch and Judy Man, in which he plays that character in a seaside resort, is supposed to be the better film, but I prefer The Rebel. In this movie he plays an office clerk, who gives it up to become a painter in Paris. He’s a failure but becomes a celebrity artist after passing off a friend’s paintings as his own. It all comes crashing down when he’s invited aboard a millionaire’s yacht and the man’s wife wants to run off with him, just as he’s run out of the other fellow’s paintings to sell. Again, he has an excellent supporting cast, including John Le Mesurier as his exasperated boss and Irene Handl as his landlady, outraged at the nudity of his sculpture ‘Aphrodite at the Waterhole’. It’s also on DVD, and I think it’s brilliant.

Michael Bentine – another great actor and writer. He was, as I’m sure many people reading this well know, a member of the Goons, whom he left quite early on. He also had a number of his own series, including Square World and the one I remember, Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. This featured small ‘Potty’ puppets acting out various historical events, like the Battle of Waterloo. He had a similar puppet series, the Bumblies, which got MI5 interested in him. The Bumblies were puppets, but they were supposed to be operated by remote control. This would have been quite an advance at the time, as radio control was impossible because it interfered with the cameras and other equipment. According to Bentine, he left his house and got on the bus to go to work as usual one morning when he was met by someone from the security services, who asked him to follow him upstairs for a little chat. He wanted to know how the Bumblies worked. Bentine explained that they were puppets and not radio controlled at all. ‘Oh thank God!’ said the Man from the Ministry, ‘we thought you were going to defect!’ That gave Bentine the vision of Bumby Six hurtling towards Russia on a missile.

He was also very much into the paranormal, following his father, an engineer who was keenly interested in psychical research. Like the other Goons, he also fought in the Second World War, though he was a member of a bomber crew in the RAF. He was deeply anti-Fascist, and strongly believed that the Nazis had come to power through real black magic. In the 90s he toured the country with his one-man show, From the Sublime to the Paranormal. I and a few friends went to see him when it came to Bristol. He was a hilarious raconteur, especially when describing how the army chased him round Britain to get him to join up when he was touring in repertory theatre. Wherever they were playing, his name was naturally on the cast list. When he asked the army, why they had ignored the posters for the theatre company when they finally caught up with him, they replied that they thought it was a ruse! During the performance he also demonstrated the power of the Nazis use of light and sound to mesmerise their audience. He described the Nuremberg rallies and the way it would start with the great searchlights blazing up into the sky as a ‘temple of light’. Then the drumbeats would start up, performed by the Hitler Youth, the twisted version of the boy scouts, and the soldiers and Nazis would start chanting ‘Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Fuhrer!’ He repeated this, getting louder each time, and the lighting in the theatre dropped. The atmosphere immediately changed, became far more sinister. Then he snapped out of it, and said, ‘Sorry to scare the sh*t out of you.’ A friend of mine told me later that wasn’t the reason he cut that bit short. He reckoned it was because some people were responding to it in the way the Nazis intended. He asked me if I hadn’t noticed the pair in one of the boxes who were nearly out of their seats giving the salute. He was very critical of the power of television and the way it could be used for propaganda and mass brainwashing and urged people to complain if they saw anything they found offensive.

I think he was also very scientifically interested and literate. He appeared a long time ago on the Beeb’s popular science programme, Tomorrow’s World, presenting his own scheme for turning the Amazon jungle into productive farmland. And then there was the flea circus. This was entirely mechanical but was supposed to be worked by fleas performing high dives and so on. He was interviewed by Wogan when the dulcet-toned Irishman took over from Parkinson back in the 1980s. He told the broadcasting legend that he’d been stopped by customs when he tried to take it into America. The customs officer thought that he was bringing real fleas into the country. And so Bentine had to show him the entire act in order to convince him that it was, indeed, mechanical.

From the Sublime to the Paranormal was broadcast on the radio back in the ’90s. I don’t know whether it’s available on CD or on YouTube. He also wrote his autobiography and two books on spiritualism and the paranormal, The Door Marked Summer and Doors of the Mind. He was truly another great titan of British comedy.

Sketches of Another Three Great British Comic Talents – Spike Milligan, Dick Emery and Terry Thomas

November 21, 2022

Spike Milligan is, in my opinion, a genuine comic genius. He wrote the Goons, one of the great classics of British comedy. I have wondered if the pressures of writing it contributed to his nervous breakdown. The contracts at the time were for 25 episode series, and I got the impression that he was one of the writers, whose mind was blank right at the start of the week and only got their inspiration almost at the very last minute, when the show was due to go on air. As well as the Goons, he wrote his war memoirs, which are really funny despite the horrific nature of the subject. Milligan was left shell-shocked from the war after his gun emplacement was hit by an Italian shell. The Goons were a radio show and according to the cast, bitterly hated by the Beeb management. They believed it was due to the fact that they had served in the War, and they hadn’t. They also had their suspicions about some of the servicemen’s slang Milligan put into the show. Hence, when it first aired the Corporation insisted on calling it The Junior Crazy Gang. The Goons also briefly appeared on the box as The Telegoons. And after that there were the Q series. John Cleese has said that he admired Milligan and his silliness, and he influenced Monty Python, which amazed me when I first heard it, as the Pythons seemed to be aimed at the university level or come from that academic level with some of its material. Milligan also wrote children’s poetry, was an accomplished musician and he was also an environmental campaigner in the 1950s. For the sketch I selected a picture that showed him as I remember him – in middle age, but still bright, energetic and radiating his comic craziness. So, you got this picture of him in a vest wearing a very ragged hat.

I think Dick Emery is probably mostly forgotten today, but for a long time he was one of the country’s foremost comic actors. In the 1970s he had his own Saturday night comedy show, in which he played a range of bizarre characters. This included a Anglican vicar, a moronic young lad, with the late Roy Kinnear playing his father, a middle-aged woman desperate for younger men, a flamboyant gay man, and another young woman, whose conversations with men ended with her saying, ‘Oh, you are awful, but I do like you!’, followed by a shove with the hand which sent the unfortunate male flying. The comedy’s obviously very dated now, especially the gay character, who is stereotypically camp and dressed in colourful, effeminate clothes. While it grates on contemporary sensibilities, I really don’t think it was meant spitefully. It was just part of the general stereotype and attitude towards gays in the 1970s following the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968. He also appeared in a number of British comedy films, some undoubtedly best forgotten. He also appeared in a number of other British comedies, including Michael Bentine’s Square World. Bentine described one incident in the show’s career in his one-man show, From the Ridiculous to the Paranormal in the 1990s, in the show reported that China had declared war on the UK. The show’s cast sailed up and down the Thames in a junk, with Emery dressed ‘as Fu Manchu’, firing rubber rocks at parliament. This was before the Troubles and real terrorism. Eventually a police launch sailed towards them to investigate. One of the cops on board hailed them, and asked ‘Do any of you gentlemen speak English?’ Outside his screen appearances, he was also patron of the Airfix Club, run in one of the war comics in the 1970s, for all the boys and no doubt some girls who like sticking plastic models of WW II airplanes and tanks together. I’ve tried to show as the toothy vicar.

And Terry Thomas is British comedy’s greatest and most notorious cad, appearing in films from The School for Scoundrels with Ian Carmichael to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, with Tony Hancock and Eric Sykes playing his put-upon servant. I heard a while ago that the characters Dick Dastardly, the villainous air ace, and his dog, Muttley, in the Hanna Barbara cartoon were based on Terry Thomas and Sykes in the above flick. He’s still remembered by today by the younger generation. I’m sure I’ve seen his fizzog gracing the sign for a nightclub in Bristol.