Sunday, 27 July 2014

It’s That Man Again, Again

During World War II he was probably only second in popularity to Winston Churchill. He was a comedian who poked fun at the establishment and kept the nation laughing. His show was filled with more catchphrases than The Fast Show decades later. His death was mourned by millions, and thousands lined the streets for his funeral. He’s now largely forgotten. That man was Tommy Handley.

Listening back to old episodes of It’s That Man Again (1939-49) – though few of the 300+ were kept – the clever word play from scriptwriter Ted Kavanagh is much in evidence, as is Handley’s rapid gunfire delivery. But with the passage of time some of the puns and broadly drawn characters that constantly drop in and out of the action make it hard to understand why the audience were whooping with delight. Today’s PC brigade would have apoplexy about Ali-Oop and Signor So-So.
One of the best remembered characters was Mrs Mopp, her cry of “Can I do you now, sir?” was one of the many ITMA catchphrases to enter the common vernacular. This scene dates from a 1942 show, make of it what you will:

F/X Door Opens
Tommy Handley: Well if it isn’t Mrs Mopp, the char with the bald-headed broom
Mrs Mopp (Dorothy Summers): Can I do you now, sir?  
TH: Yes, Mrs Mopp, I want you to pacify my landlady, Cheap Chat.
MM: Her sir? I wouldn’t lower me dignity by talking to her. She’s a woman, that’s what she – a woman!
TH: You confirm my worst suspicions.
MM: What I could tell you about her and her daughter!
TH: Some other time, Mrs Mopp. What about her daughter? Anyway, she threatens me with expulsion.
MM: How dare she! You’ve never had it, have you sir?
TH: No – I’ve had brewer’s asthma and a touch of the tantivies, but never expulsion.
MM: I could let you have a nice combined room, sir. It may not be clean, but it’s comfortable. My present lodger’s been pinched again.
TH: What – between the mattress and the ironwork? I’ll think it over. I should be very happy in Maison Mopp.
MM: I’ll get rid of the pigeons before you move in. Ta-ta for now.
TH: Hotpot for stew.
FX: Door closes

I mention all this because BBC Radio 4 Extra are today repeating – for the first time – the earliest surviving recording of ITMA. However, it’s not one of the regular editions but is a recording of the stage show performed at the Palace Theatre, Manchester and first heard on the Home Service on 18 May 1940. The stage tour, produced by the bandleader and impresario Jack Hylton, went on the road shortly after the second series had ended but was not deemed a great success.

Returning in 1941 the programme hit its stride: “a basic, if slim, storyline, sustained by an endless procession of crazy characters through the overworked door – often for no particular reason – each of whom introduced himself with the requisite catchphrase. Although he was the central figure, there was no strict division of comic and feed between Handley and this cavalcade; roles were interchangeable and laughs evenly distributed.” 

Tommy Handley himself had been a radio star from the earliest days of broadcasting. Born in 1892 he’d seen service in the First World War and became involved in concert parties. After the war he briefly formed a double-act with Jack Hylton. From 1921 he toured the music halls with The Disorderly Room, a sketch written by Eric Blore – Blore himself now best-remembered for his comic roles in the RKO films Top Hat and Shall We Dance. Handley performed the sketch in his first broadcast in 1924, a relay of that year’s Royal Variety Performance.

From 1925, having passed a BBC audition, Handley was regularly heard on the wireless in shows such as Radio Radiance (his first regular broadcast was 22 July 1925), Handley’s Manoeuvres, Tommy’s Tours and Hot Pot. In 1930 he formed the double act North and South with Ronald Frankau; they would later become Murgatroyd and Winterbottom, specialising in pun-laden topical commentaries on current events. In 1936 he appeared on Radio Luxembourg in Tommy Handley’s Watt Nots.

By the late 30s the BBC’s head of variety was looking for another “fixed points” comedy series to follow the hugely successful Band Waggon, and for Tommy Handley to be the star. The team of Handley, Kavanagh and producer Francis Worsley came together - meeting over at the Langham Hotel in Portland Place - to create It’s That Man Again. 

Still popular in its post-war incarnation ITMA featured in the 1947 edition of The World Radio and Television Annual reproduced below:

But ITMA wasn’t universally admired. Within the BBC there was much discussion about whether the jokes crossed the line and caused offence. One listener wrote to the Radio Times and opined: “I am constantly amazed by the number of otherwise intelligent people who rave about this programme. I have tried to discover some sort of level of culture or intelligence from which ITMA fans are drawn – but in vain.”  But the programme got the Royal seal of approval when one edition was recorded before a delighted Royal Family in 1942.

The behind the scenes discussions and memos are revealed in this programme from 1979, The ITMA File, based on documents in the BBC Written Archives. Narrated by Gordon Snell, the readings are by Douglas Blackwell, Martin Friend, Garard Green, Roger Hammond, Godfrey Kenton, Peggy Paige and Eva Stuart. Unfortunately my tape of this documentary suffered from numerous audio dropouts. I have rectified most of these but about five minutes of the middle of the programme, from 17:55, are missing. The ITMA File was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 December 1979. 

ITMA came to an abrupt end in January 1949 with the death of Tommy Handley. It’s not overstating the case to say that the nation mourned. As for Ted Kavanagh he’d formed the literary agency Kavanagh Associates that included amongst its signings Denis Norden and Frank Muir. I wonder what happened to them?

At Tommy Handley’s memorial service at St Paul’s the then Bishop of London spoke for those thousands that turned out to pay their respects: “He was one whose genius transmuted the copper of our common experience into the gold of exquisite foolery. His raillery was without cynicism, and his satire without malice. From the highest to the lowest in the land people had found in his programmes an escape from their troubles and anxieties into a world of whimsical nonsense.”

Tommy Handley 1892-1949

“Don’t forget the diver…”  

The ITMA Years, The Woburn Press 1974
The World Radio and Television Annual, edited by Gale Pedrick, Sampson Low, Marston & Co Ltd 1947
Radio Comedy 1938-1968 by Andy Foster & Steve Furst, Virgin Publishing 1996  

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Radio Lives - Peter Sellers

If I had to choose my Desert Island Movies then amongst the collection would be a film starring that great comic actor Peter Sellers. But not a Clouseau or the tour de force that was Dr Strangelove. Nor the Boulting Brothers films that catapulted him from radio star to film star. No, it’s the film where Sellers, as Dodger Lane, plans to break out of jail and commit an audacious robbery in Two-Way Stretch. The perfect rainy day movie. 

Sellers’ entertainment grounding was, of course, on the airwaves of the BBC; part of the phalanx of young comedians who came through the wartime ENSA and Gang Show route.

Famously it was Peter gift of mimicry that got him his first broadcast. Friend and scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton recounted the story in The Goon Show Companion:

Impatiently waiting to hear the result of an audition, Peter decided to take a short cut and rang Roy Speer, producer of the popular Showtime programme. A leading comedy partnership at that time was Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne. It was the latter’s voice that Roy Speer heard when he answered the phone. After enthusiastically recommending one Peter Sellers as an artist, the voice of Horne handed over to the voice of Murdoch to endorse this opinion. Roy was suitably impressed – until Peter’s nerve gave out and he confessed his true identity. However, he’d done enough to convince Roy, who invited him for an interview. On July 1, 1948 Peter made his radio debut. 
That appearance on the Light Programme’s Show Time – presented by Dick Bentley and billed as “a weekly parade of Variety’s up-and-coming attractions” - kick-started Peter’s radio career. Other broadcasts that year included guest spots on Henry Hall’s Guest Night, Starlight Hour and The Harmaniacs. He was also reunited with Ralph Reader, of The Gang Show fame, in the Home Service show It’s Fine to Be Young – billed as “A Show of Youth”.

In 1949 there was the proto-Goon Show comedy show on the Third Programme. Third Division starred Sellers, Secombe and Bentine along with Robert Beatty, Benny Lee, Patricia Hayes, Benny Hill, Carole Carr, Margaret Lindsay, Robert Moreton and announcer Bruce Belfrage. Sadly none of these Frank Muir and Denis Norden scripted shows survive but perhaps the best known sketch, Balham – Gateway to the South, was re-recorded for the 1958 LP, The Best of Sellers.    

Like Third Division much of Sellers’ radio work has been lost – even The Goon Show has over 100 missing episodes – but he remained a regular voice on the BBC throughout the 1950s, in parallel to his burgeoning film career.

His big break in radio, and one that gave him regular work over five years, was providing all manner of funny voices on Ray’s a Laugh. Starring wise-cracking Ted Ray it first aired on the Home Service in April 1949 and was seen as a direct successor to ITMA – Tommy Handley had died in January of that year.  In each episode Ray would encounter lots of comic characters voiced, in series one, by Sellers, Fred Yule (who’d worked on ITMA), and the fraternal partnership of Bob and Alf Pearson.
One of Sellers’ characters was a small boy known as ‘Soppy’ with the catchphrase “Just like your big red conk” and there was a fruity old girl who would giggle and say “My name’s Crystal Jollibottom, you saucebox!” Later there was the friendly Russian ‘Serge Suit’ (this was certainly no sophisticated comedy).

Peter worked with Ted Ray over five series, from 1949 to 1954, on about 190 shows. Alongside him the cast also included Patricia Hayes, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor. Connor would go on to provide all the comedy voices, such as Sidney Mincing, when Peter left to concentrate on the Goons and by now Ray’s a Laugh was more of a domestic comedy – Ted Ray with his radio wife Kitty Bluett – than a sketch show.    
Here are a couple of excerpts featuring Sellers with Crystal Jollibottom from series one and an American character Al K. Traz in series five.

In 1950 there was an aborted attempt to find a star vehicle for Peter with the show Sellers’ Castle. Jimmy Grafton takes up the story:
To accommodate the zany characters of the others, Spike and I chose as a setting a ramshackle castle owned by “the twenty-second (FX:SHOT.SCREAM), I beg your pardon, the twenty-third Lord Sellers”. To assist his impecunious lordship in raising money for the maintenance of the estate, Mike was to play a crazy inventor, while Alfred Marks was an impresario with a singing protégé, Harry. Spike was his usual Eccles character (“Who are you?” “I’m a serf.” “What’s that man doing on your back?” “Da- serf-riding.”). Also in the cast were Janet Brown, Peter Butterworth and Robert Moreton. The script of Sellers’ Castle contained a story line with a historical flashback to one of Lord Sellers’s ancestors. In retrospect, the dialogue was a mixture of craziness and corn, but the whole thing had a shape and was tailored to the various talents in evidence at the time. Faith and optimism also played their part!

Graton organised a private recording of excerpts from the script to present to the BBC. To link the excerpts he called on “a fellow officer from my regiment”, the BBC announcer Andrew Timothy, who would, of course, go on to be the resident announcer in the early Goon episodes. Producer Roy Speer was happy with what he heard and the BBC organised a pilot. Unfortunately the show was assigned to Jacques Brown rather than Speer, who insisted on recording with a studio audience. When presented to a radio planning meeting the show was rejected as “too crazy”. Ironically a year later the go-ahead was given for Crazy People, though this time with a studio audience.

A very detailed billing for The Goon Show
on 15 February 1955

Meanwhile here’s a selection of radio shows that did make it to air, with the exception of The Goon Show for which there’s any number of books and websites:
Petticoat Lane: a star vehicle for Elsie and Doris Waters in which they make their way from stall to stall to "meet unexpected people in the most unexpected places" with Sellers providing some of the character voices. 
Variety Bandbox: a hugely popular Sunday night variety show. Sellers appeared in over a dozen editions (1948-51).
Workers' Playtime: touring the works canteens of the UK Sellers was on the bill for over 20 editions (1949-56).
Bumblethorpe: Sellers replaced Valentine Dyall in the second episode of this Home Service series broadcast on 19 November 1951. In the cast were Robert Moreton, Avrill Angers, Kenneth Connor, Graham Stark, Spike Milligan, Denise Bryer and Alfred Marks.
The Hundredth Boat Race: “in which Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley become involved in Boat Race Day on the towpath”. Broadcast live on the Home Service on 2 April 1954. Also with Arthur Askey, Valentine Dyall, Arthur English, Joyce Grenfel, A.E. Matthews, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, John Snagge, Terry-Thomas, Ralph Wightman, Jack Hawkins, Rudolf Offenbach, Noel Johnson and Frank Marchant.
The Lid off the BBC: Programme four looked at the Variety Department and in particular The Goon Show. It was written and presented by Wilfred Thomas and broadcast on the Home Service 4 May 1955.
The Listening Room: featured Sellers and some records including I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas and Dance With Me, Henry. Broadcast live on the Light Programme 28 December 1955.
Finkel’s Café: set “where the elite meet to eat” Sellers played the Irish manager Eddie in this comedy from the pens of Muir and Norden. It was adapted from an American series Duffy’s Tavern and also starred Sid James, Avrill Angers and Kenneth Connor. Nine episodes were broadcast on the Light Programme in July/August. No copies survive.  
Desert Island Discs: Sellers was Roy Plomley’s castaway on 4 February 1957.

Roundabout with David Jacobs on
14 October 1958 with a guest spot by Sellers.
Note the producer credit of Roy Speer who gave
him his radio debut ten years earlier.

Roundabout: when this Light Programme daily show started in October 1958 the Tuesday host was David Jacobs. One of the features for the first few weeks was a “Peter Sellers cameo” in From Our Own Sellers.

Forces Gala Night: programme to commemorate 21 years of the BFBS it included a shorthened version of the Goon’s I Was Monty’s Treble. Compered by David Jacobs it was broadcast on 8 November 1964 on the Light Programme and the General Overseas Service (for the final hour).  
By 1980 Peter Sellers has notched up over sixty film appearances and  was basking in the success of Being There. In July he was in London with plans for a Goon Show reunion dinner when he suffered a heart attack. He died in the early hours of 24 July. This is how the news was reported that day on BBC Radio 4. There are clips from Today presented by John Timpson with reports from Gerry Forsey and Neil Bennett, who speaks to Michael Bentine. The newsreader is Christopher Slade. This is followed by part of a news bulletin read by Brian Perkins. Finally that evening’s Kaleidoscope presented by Mark Storey who talks to Barry Took.

Between 1984 and 1987 Alexander Walker, long-time film critic of the Evening Standard wrote and presented a series recalling “the screen careers of the cinema’s brightest stars” called Film Star. From the second series comes the episode devoted to Peter Sellers. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 on 19 March 1986.

Peter Sellers 1925-1980

Postscript: Actually it was a close call with those Peter Sellers films. The day I completed the final draft of this post I also dug out my copies of The Wrong Arm of the Law - with a wonderful performance from Lionel Jeffries as 'Nosey' Parker - and The Naked Truth - "do you mean to say I get all that with such a small premium".

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Back from the Dead

With the news that Dead Ringers is to return to BBC Radio 4 later this month after a seven year break, here’s a reminder of the faces and the voices behind its original incarnation in 2002.

Meet the Dead Ringers was broadcast on BBC Two as part of their Arena: Radio Ha! Evening on 26 December 2002.

Read more about Bill Dare’s reasons for bringing back the show on the British ComedyGuide website.

Friday, 4 July 2014

More Than Two Can Play

The 1986 Peacock Committee is now best remembered for its proposal that the BBC should privatise Radios 1 and 2. That recommendation was forgotten about, though the idea still continues to appear at intervals. As for the commercial radio sector Peacock suggested that “IBA regulation of radio should be replaced by a looser regime”.

Here’s how BBC Radio 4’s Six O’Clock News reported the Committee’s findings on 3 July 1986. The newsreader is David Symonds, the reports by John Parry and John Sergeant.

A year later the Government issued the Green Paper Radio: Choices and Opportunities proposing changes to the regulatory framework for Independent Local Radio. It also signalled the end to simulcasting on both AM and FM and paved the way for the Broadcasting Act 1990 that saw the launch of the three Independent National Radio stations, dozens of local and community stations and the establishment of the Radio Authority.
This edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis titled More than Two Can Play looks at what the future may hold for radio broadcasting in terms of content and the way it’s transmitted. The programme is presented by David Wheeler, produced by Fraser Steel and was broadcast on 20 May 1987.

There are contributions from Chris Dickins, Brian Wenham, David Mellor, Brian West, Jimmy Gordon, Bevan Jones, Clement Freud, Robin Corbett, Sam Brittan, Philip Crooks, Tony Currie, Jocelyn Hay, Monica Sims and Phil Layden.
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