Three Months in a Brown Paper Bag in a Septic Tank(Before Monty Python)

In late 1969 I watched the first TV series of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” with my Mum. Dad was more vocal about things he disapproved of on the idiot box. “Top of the Pops” was never not interrupted by “I can’t hear the words” & “Is that a boy or a girl ?”. While I struggled not to fall off the sofa in convulsions of laughter Mum’s silence was only interrupted by regular tutting. That was OK, an example of the “generation gap”. I was 17, living in the swingingest country in a dynamic decade, Mum was ancient…36 ! Anyway, don’t you hate it when old people think they are down with the kids ? As my sides were splitting over Bicycle Repair Man, Nudge Nudge & Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, Mum was wondering quite what the world was coming to.

Monty Python is now regarded as a high watermark in comedy (not just British), a ground-breaking New Wave of hilarity. My friends & I had an interest in any seriously funny business & the series was a much anticipated collision of talents who had already been making us laugh for some time.

Despite the increasing hegemony of television the BBC, the monopoly provider of UK radio, continued to commission popular comedy programmes. I was too young for “The Goon Show” but Spike Milligan’s anarchic tomfoolery was built to last & still around.         The interest in political satire, sparked by the decrepit Tory government of Harold Macmillan, had been past my bedtime but Peter Cook & Dudley Moore seemed to be the funniest men in Britain.  They had come to notice in “Beyond the Fringe”, a tremendous success, a merging of the best talent from Oxford & Cambridge university revues. Comedy became a career option for graduates of these establishments & the Beeb eagerly signed up the next generation of side-splitting scholars.

Image result for i'm sorry i'll read that againWhen the 2nd series of “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” moved to the Light Programme from the Home Service (I know…what the…!!) in 1965 it soon became essential listening.Satire was played out, we had a new Labour government, the first for 15 years, & it wasn’t only comedians who were cutting them some slack. The young cast of “I.S.I.R.T.A” reverted to their teenage Goonery & spliced it to the iconoclasm that Britain was getting pretty good at in the mid-1960s. The new rules were that there were no rules &, often, no punchlines. In the helter skelter of hilarity the stand out was John “Otto” Cleese. His parody of the oleaginous “bubonic plagiarist” (©P. Cook) David Frost nails the vacuity of the chat show format. Frost was not the last self-obsessed, talking loud saying nothing, TV host to prosper in the US.

Image result for john cleese ronnie barker ronnie corbettIt was on the BBC’s “The Frost Report” that we first got to see the 6’5″ Cleese in our telly. Sketches with, in descending order of height, Cleese & the two Ronnies, Barker & Corbett were the stand out in a successful series. Frost’s production company (he was always a busy…) assembled Cleese, his writing partner Graham Chapman &, from “I.S.I.R.T.A”, Tim Brooke-Taylor for 1967’s “At Last the 1948 Show”, a mix  which included older university revue stuff & sketches which would later be used by Python. The cast was completed by the “lovely” Aimi McDonald (& she was) & Marty Feldman who had a reputation as a writer, for Frost & “Round the Horne”, a very popular radio series, not as a Image result for marty feldman 1948 showperformer. Marty had much more going on than the bulging exophthalmic eyes that gave him a face for comedy. He roughened the intellectual edges of the others & brought along his own brand of mischievous anarchy. The ramshackle improvisation & corpsing in this cross-dressing cop sketch still makes me laugh out loud. “…the 1948 Show” replaced “Ready Steady Go” as the must-see TV show, another night that I was on my quiet, best behaviour so that bedtime came a little later.

Meanwhile at teatime, children’s TV was getting more interesting. “Do Not Adjust Your Set” ran for 2 series from December 1967 to May 1969. Eric Idle (Cambridge), Terry Jones & Michael Palin (both Oxford) were touting their sketches around to the successful comedy shows already mentioned & were enthusiastic about writing & performing their own show. They were joined by Denise Coffey & David Jason ( as not-so-superhero Captain Fantastic), later to find his own place in the British comedy pantheon. Neither lampooning the worthy but patronising tropes of British children’s TV  (& about time too) nor being funnier than other comedy for kids was particularly difficult but “Do Not…” did both with imagination & energy. It was an opportunity for the 3 young writers to find out what worked & what didn’t. I was of an age where kids’ TV was no longer interesting but this was a reason to rush home from football practice, ask my sister & 3 brothers to move on over & let me watch my show.Then we all had to hush up while Dad watched the News !

Related imageFor the musical interludes, direct from “Magical Mystery Tour”, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were now sending up their novelty trad jazz roots, dropping the Doo Dah & becoming the funniest rock group on vinyl. A regular TV slot & a free rein allowed them to develop their visual style & expand their audience. By the end of 1968 “I’m the Urban Spaceman” was in the UK Top 5 & we were rolling around to the classic LP “The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse”. In the second series the guy who contributed short illustrative inserts, Terry Gilliam, a young American, was given more to do. “Beware of the Elephants” (with the UK’s most prominent racist, Enoch Powell, promoting sludge that keeps everything “white, white, white”) is perfectly Pythonesque. We all know now that the world is a better place for having Gilliam around.

Image result for monty python“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was not something completely different for us 16 year olds who liked to laugh. It was a merger of talents who had been making us do that very thing for some time & was eagerly anticipated. I guess that we thought that this new troupe would attract a cult following (that would be me) before the BBC decided that it was just too silly & pulled the plug. It really did not take long (Episode 8, the Dead Parrot sketch, Ep 9 the Lumberjack Song) before British youth were committing this funny business to memory & knowing that it was built to last.20 years later, on a quiet Mayfair street, on a quieter Sunday morning, I met John Cleese & he politely acknowledged my rather effusive greeting. I didn’t ask him to do a Silly Walk or perform the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Morse Code, just paid the respect & thanks due to a Comedy Don.

Leave Him Alone Lennon Or I’ll Tell Them All The Truth About You (Richard Lester)

Richard Lester was in the right place at the right time just too many times for it to purely down to his luck. He was a bright kid, graduating from college at 19. Within a year of becoming a stage hand at a Philadelphia TV station he was directing live shows. That sounds like the fast track but television was a new thing, the whole operation still seat-of-the-pants. If you said you could direct then you got to have a go, if you didn’t screw up then you got the job. In 1953, still only 21, he moved to the UK where his US experience & his ability to talk a good fight found him work with the new commercial station. Lester has said that he wanted to direct films so that he could shoot a second take. Whatever, the films he made in the 1960s retain the spontaneity & vivacity of someone with a liking for pointing a camera & seeing what happens.

 

The Goons were THE deal in 1950s British comedy. “Goonery” was a tangle of surreal wordplay, Army barrack room disregard for authority & the iconoclastic genius of Spike Milligan. The trio (Milligan, Peter Sellers & Harry Secombe) were looking to move from radio to TV & cinema. Richard Lester was the American, the outsider, with a developed & perverse visual sense who helped to do that. You know how Monty Python had Terry Gilliam…exactly like that. There were a couple of small British films, one for Walter Shenson who was to produce a film that the world & their teenage daughter was waiting for. John Lennon was a major fan of the Goons, he knew who Richard Lester was. The director was in the best place at the best time & got the job of his life.

 

 

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) had to be a lot of things to a lot of people. United Artists may have wanted a cheap, quickly made film to cash-in on this temporary Beatlemania. Fans & their money were easily parted but there was a fascination with the personalities of 4 young Liverpudlians who made the almost irresistible music. Lester’s film contributed to the Mop Top iconography, presenting sanitized characterisations of each Beatle. It did a whole lot more & did it in the correct style. “A Hard Day’s Night” is a Day In The Life mockumentary, black & white, expeditious. There are nods to the French New Wave, the music video is invented before our very eyes for the best music around. The humour is gentle & knowing whether from the Fab Four or the excellent support cast of comedy actors. Oh & Paul’s Grandad (the incomparable Wilfred Brambell) is “very clean”. The film was a great success. I loved it as a young boy & over 50 years later it still rates 99% over at Rotten Tomatoes.

 

So England was swinging like a pendulum do & Richard Lester was helping out because we were so busy. Before he directed “Help”, the Beatles as an international phenomenon, in colour, on location & a little too zany, he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with “The Knack…& How to Get It”, a satire on the new sexual morality since the death of Queen Victoria in 1960 (© Spike Milligan). “The Knack”, though dated, is the quintessential British Mod movie. It’s stylish & energetic without making too much sense & stars Rita Tushingham, our kitchen sink princess. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966) was a little too busy, a musical-comedy that could use more of both. Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers &, in his final appearance, Buster Keaton are three good reasons to see the film.

 

In 1966 John Lennon gave some of his time & more of his hair to play Musketeer Gripweed in “How I Won the War”, an anti-war movie made with sharp wit & fast pace. “Petulia” (1968) with Julie Christie was made in the US & is very highly rated. It’s so long since I’ve seen this film…I’ll get back to you on this.

 

 

“The Bed Sitting Room” (1969) is, according to the Wiki,  an absurdist, post-apocalyptic, satirical comedy…it’s even better than that sounds ! Adapted from the play by Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the 20 British survivors of a blink & what just happened nuclear war attempt to preserve a degree of the old ways on the giant rubbish tip they are left with while dealing with unlikely & surprising mutations. The script is hilarious, the filming inventive & the cast is perfect. There are classical actors, Ralph Richardson, in the title role, Michael Hordern (I saw his King Lear that very year) & Mona Washbourne, a couple of Goons, stalwart comedy character actors including Arthur Lowe & Roy Kinnear & there’s Rita Tushingham. The show is almost stolen by Marty Feldman (Nurse Arthur) while Peter Cook & Dudley Moore were never funnier on film than they are here. “The Bed Sitting Room” is the bridge between the Goons & Monty Python, thought-provoking, very silly & from the top rank of British comedy movies. God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake !

 

In the next decade Lester’s budgets got bigger. “The Three Musketeers” (1973) became a bit too much of a comedy-action epic & was eventually released as 2 separate films. The starry cast were surprised by “The 4 Musketeers” (1974) as they had only been paid for the one movie ! “Juggernaut”, a shipboard disaster movie, didn’t really cut it & the following year’s “Royal Flash”, starring Malcolm McDowell, so disappointed writer George MacDonald Fraser that he blocked any further cinematic adaptations of his character.Richard going to Hollywood was inevitable but while these films were accomplished & entertaining, the individuality & vibrancy of his earlier work was diluted. By 1976 he was back on it & his next 2 releases are certainly a return to form.

 

 

In “Robin & Marion” (1976), our outlaw hero returns to England wearied by 20 years of full-on crusading. The Sheriff of Nottingham is still set in his evil ways & the verdant venturer is not about to walk away from a fight. Then, of course, the love of his life, Maid Marion, is still hanging out with the forest folk. Post-James Bond Sean Connery chose his film roles well & his gnarled knight schools Costner, Crowe or any of the other men in tights. The final showdown between Connery & Robert Shaw (the Sheriff), tough guys going at it right, is classy mid-70s cinema. Such a masculine Robin Hood needs a worthy Marion. The film’s coup was to persuade a great star to return to the movies after almost a decade away. Audrey Hepburn was no longer Holly Golightly but the camera still loved her. Her strong, beautiful even luminous Maid completes a lovely, mature, romantic film. I saw it again last week & absolutely enjoyed it just as much as 40 years ago.

 

OK, that’s three very good films so no room here for “The Ritz” (1976), an update on the screwball that gets it right. It’s a 1970s American comedy from the same top shelf as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks & Neil Simon. Lester had a continuing relationship with the producers of the musketeer movies who had moved on to the “Superman” franchise. The first film, starring Christopher Reeve, was a major success & when director Richard Donner was unavailable to complete the follow-up Lester re-shot “Superman II” (1980) & directed “…III” (the one with Richard Pryor). This was big box office stuff but there was not much more to come. The Musketeers were reunited for “The Return of…” (1989) which went straight to cable in the US & the Beatle connection got him the gig for “Get Back” (1991), a McCartney concert film.

 

Richard Lester’s films have not always aged well but they retain the energy & imagination of the 1960s. He worked with some major talents & made a major contribution to transferring their abilities on to the big screen. The 3 films I have highlighted here are of the highest quality. The others are pretty much a blast too.

 

 

 

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Beatles (George Martin)

If anyone gets to be the Fifth Beatle & it’s not Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best or Neil Aspinall then I guess that it’s George Martin. From the first auditions in 1962, attempting to get the group to record other people’s songs, to “Abbey Road” in 1969 his name was on all the records except “Let It Be” as producer. Martin’s classical background & arranging skills undoubtedly provided the Beatles with an expansive musical palette to serve their ambitious, imaginative development. As the tour became more magical & mysterious he may have been just the guy who sat in the Abbey Road booth waiting for the group to work it out for themselves but that booth was his office & had been for some time before the Fab Four came down from Liverpool.

 

Born in 1926 George Martin served in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II before resuming his musical studies & then, in 1950, joining Electrical & Musical Industries, E.M.I., as assistant to the head of Parlophone Records. Five years later he inherited the label, an incongruous mix of  classical, original cast & novelty recordings. Martin, like many of his generation, was a fan of The Goon Show, a cutting edge comedy radio programme whose irreverent, anarchic humour, forged in barrack rooms across the Empire, reflecting a growing British lack of deference & respect for convention, was very funny stuff. Comedy records became the thing that George Martin did in the late 1950s.

 

Peter Sellers was very busy in 1959. The year was topped & tailed by the 9th & 10th series of The Goon Show. As a shape-shifting character actor he starred in 4 British feature films. “I’m All Right Jack”, a cuspate satire on industrial relations, was the most popular movie of the year. Sellers’ nuanced portrayal of shop steward Fred Kite  is a candidate for a Top 3 of his cinema performances, a field that was to become more crowded over the years. He also found the time to record the George Martin produced “Songs For Swingin’ Sellers”, an hour of inspired lunacy, more gentle than his Goonery. The LP has continuity, music hall influences & even a sitar on “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely”, so has “Sergeant Pepper’s…, too much…probably.

 

Sellers had his eye on bigger & better things & though “The Millionairess” is no “Dr Strangelove” or “The Pink Panther” the film matched him with Sophia Loren. Martin commissioned the writing of “Goodness Gracious Me” as a duet for the pair.The song wasn’t used in the film but Martin devised “Peter & Sophia”, a whole LP of songs & skits. “Bangers & Mash”, an Italo/Cockney culture clash, was written by the same team as “Goodness…”. Peter was, understandably, infatuated with his co-star & I’m sure he was enthusiastic about spending time with her in a recording studio.

 

 

“Songs For Swingin’ Sellers” & “Peter & Sophia” were both Top 10 hits in the UK then, in 1961, Martin produced a #1 hit record. The Temperance Seven had been founded in 1904 at the Pasadena Cocoa Rooms on the Balls Pond Rd (or not !). Their slick, arch take on 1920s jazz was appealing for a while & “You’re Driving Me Crazy” was a super smash. George Martin used the increased cash & influence to make more comedy records. There was a Goon album, George had become a very good friend of writer Spike Milligan. “The Bridge Over the River Wye” had a title change after threat of legal action by the producers of a current film. The diminutive Charlie Drake had UK hit covers of US hits before recording “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”, a song about an Aborigine boy who lacked skills. It was funny when I was a kid but the more politically correct grown up I have become finds the offhand stereotyping less so. It didn’t seem to bother the Australians & it was a #1 hit Down Under.

 

Bernard Cribbins was part of the same comedy/cabaret revue circuit by which actor-comedians made their living after the demise of the music halls. In 1962 he & Martin made 3 chart singles. “The Hole in the Ground”, a cracking story of a workman & a bureaucrat, was chosen as a Desert Island Disc by Noel Coward, a master of wit & economy. “Right Said Fred” is about the struggles of 3 shifters with an unspecified awkward object. The guys dismantle the object, knock down a wall & drink plenty of tea before giving up & going home…been there. I had not seen this animated clip since children’s TV in ancient times. It is, of course, fantastic !

 

For many of these records Martin provided imaginative arrangements & sound effects. For other acts he had little more to do than point some microphones. “Beyond the Fringe”, a blend of talents from the Cambridge Footlights & the Oxford Revue, debuted in Edinburgh in 196o, By February 1963 UK comedy had gotten all satirical, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook & Dudley Moore were the toast of Broadway & JFK was in the audience. The transfer to vinyl of this phenomenal success was handled by George Martin.While the quartet was in New York the satire boom was brought to the masses (12 million of them) by way of the “That Was the Week That Was” TV programme. Once again when TW3 made an LP it was the go to guy that they went to.

 

 

Michael Flanders & Donald Swann were a different cup of Earl Grey altogether. Friends from schooldays they were the best dinner guests at Gosford Park ever, needing only a piano to sing their quirky, erudite songs for their suppers. Their revue “At the Drop of a Hat”, just the two of them, ran for 800 performances in that London before transferring, in 1959, to Broadway for another 200 plus. The pair were posh, educated & literary but the elements of silliness & social commentary made them very popular. Both had experienced run-ins with the Establishment, Swann was a conscientious objector in World War II, Flanders was refused permission to resume his studies at Oxford after a bout of polio left him reliant on a wheelchair ! Flanders & Swann may seem a little anachronistic, a genteel kind of cabaret.The bottom line of any comedy is to be funny & that they were. There was further success with “At the Drop of Another Hat”, both best-selling recordings of these shows were produced by…you know.

 

Ringo and Spike

Well, that’s a parade of the hierarchy of British comedy in the early 1960s  passing through Abbey Road. George Martin was looking to gain an entry into rock & roll for his label & when the Beatles showed up they knew who he was. John Lennon was a massive fan of Spike Milligan & The Goons, his book of nonsense “A Spaniard in the Works” being heavy on the Milliganisms. Did he know that this was a band that would change popular music ?Not a chance but by the end of 1963 Martin was too busy to make the funny records. The Mersey Beat was taking over, Brian Epstein’s boys, The Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas, were monopolising the #1 spot on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. All 3 acts made records “produced by George Martin”. This was the big time…only bigger.

 

Shooting Pool With A Comedy Legend (Malcolm Hardee)

I have never read Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography, “I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake”. Such a beguiling & worthy title surely demands the attention of us all. Malcolm was a pivotal figure in London’s (particularly South East London’s) comedy domain. He was a comedian, compere, club promoter, manager, parliamentary candidate & (my favourite) “amateur sensationalist” (The Guardian). He may have been a King of Comedy or a court jester, I’m not sure & Malcolm would not have given a toss. I do know that, while I have not been keeping score, I have seen Malcolm’s impressive genitalia more times than any other man’s ever.

When I moved to London I was lucky enough to live around Greenwich & Deptford. The River Thames provided a natural border to the North which kept out the crosstown traffic & meant that if anything socially or culturally interesting was going on then pretty much the same crew showed out, I liked this, friendly, funky but not chic. . Malcolm was around this scene. His youthful petty crimes had led to prison sentences but he decided that “Prison is like mime or juggling – a tragic waste of time”. He hooked up with Martin Soan, an actual real-life Punch & Judy Man, in The Greatest Show On Legs, a comedy trio. At this time “alternative” comedy was becoming a thing. There were many new acts performing in the upstairs rooms of pubs & GSOL’s random, even surreal, humour not only fitted right in but was a delight. I’m sure it beat working for a living.

By the time GSOL performed on the comedy show “O.T.T.” in 1982 I had seen the Balloon Dance a few times. I knew it as the “Romans In Britain Cha-Cha” after a Howard Brenton play which was unsuccessfully prosecuted for obscenity when the solicitor of a noted puritanical busybody, sitting at the very back of the theatre, thought that he may have seen something which may have been a penis.  It really is amazing how memorable the TV appearance was. The Greatest Show On Legs were never a big name, you would explain that they were the most enjoyable night in London to blank looks. Drop the Balloon Dance though & a light would go on.

Malcolm & TV were never a perfect fit. In his work with Martin there was a lovely art to the near-chaos. Their Red Arrows display to the theme from “Dambusters”, the properly nuts parody of a game of snooker, were both shambolic & hilarious set pieces with a beginning, a middle & an end just not always in that order. Television with its precise time slots just did not suit Malcolm’s approach to comedy. Similarly you will have to trust me that his putdown of a heckler, “F*ck off, you’re the c*nt”, was genuinely funny if you were there. It was the spirit of the thing, the casual catchphrase “F*ck it” was not said aggressively but genuinely stressed that whatever it was it was not that important.

Similarly many of the stories about Malcolm involve him exposing himself. I have seen people shocked by such a splendid sight but (this may say something about the type of person I hang with) never appalled. On a sunny afternoon on the Crossfields Estate in Deptford  the balloons were replaced by A4 posters of our Lady Prime Minister. The sight of a naked Malcolm, his unit protruding through Thatcher’s face, is a permanent memory, but in a good way you know. There was a night at the stylishly retro Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley billed as a “farewell” when all GSOL’s former members participated. On the way home Carol announced that she had seen more cocks tonight than she had in the last 5 years. Oh how we laughed. That night we approached Malcolm to tell him how much we enjoyed his work. It was not a goodbye but it might have been so it had to be said.

I never went to the celebrated Tunnel Club which Malcolm started in 1984. It was not the bearpit reputation, an act was likely to be booed off but could also be booed on. A comedian who began “Good evening, I am a schizophrenic” was heckled “Well, you can both fuck off !”. It was just too far away from my new manor in Camberwell. Stuck out on the arse end of Blackwall with no tube it would be a long late night trek to get home. But, as any fool in South East London knew, the Albany Empire in Deptford was the best place for music, theatre, comedy, drinking, dancing or hanging out. The weekend cabaret shows became The Fez Club, startlingly random evenings overseen with a lightness of humour by Mr Hardee. Guests for the weekend ? A day traipsing around the tourist “attractions” & a night out at the Albany, 100% good time guaranteed. That 2.40 a.m. night bus got you home at 3 a.m. whatever state you were in. Win-win.

Next it was “Up The Creek”, his club at the Greenwich end of Creek Rd. He had tartly described the Albany as a club for social workers from Blackheath, only in Deptford. There was a touch of this on the packed weekends at the Creek. it was the less crowded Sunday night, open mic slots, a loose, more extemporary set from the headliner, which was the scene to make. An hour of Johnny Vegas’ seemingly drunk, possibly deranged, certainly dangerous Butlins Redcoat gone wrong act is the funniest thing I have ever seen. Malcolm drank in the Lord Hood before the show. Once a month he ran that pub’s quiz night, not to be missed. I knew him well enough to be on nodding terms by now. After beating him at pool I returned to my friends & claimed I had just beaten a comedy legend. There was no dissent because it was true.

By 2005 he was running a floating pub, living on a houseboat on the Thames. Malcolm loved the river though stories from those who visited him do seem to involve both drink & an element of jeopardy. In February of that year his body was discovered in Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe close to his home. A verdict of accidental death was recorded. Greenwich without Malcolm…unthinkable.

There are memoirs of Malcolm round the Internet written by people who knew him very well. So many comedians testify to the help & encouragement he provided & to the money he owed them. Everyone has a story involving drink, recklessness & laughter. There’s an absence of spite, nastiness & regret. I just want to remember a man who contributed to many happy nights out with my friends & one of the funniest men I have ever seen on a stage. Oh yes, he did steal the £4,000 birthday cake off of the lead singer off of Queen. he gave it to a local nursing home so the police were unlucky when they showed up at his home…looking for crumbs ! Oy Oy, Knob Out !

If You Really Love Me Buy Me A Shirt (The Freshies)

Michael Fassbender, crazy German name, crazy Irish guy, is as hot as any film actor in the world today. The title role in Ridley Scott’s movie “The Counselor” is done & dusted. The new X-Men, a Terence Malick joint, “Macbeth”,as the Thane, “Prometheus 2”, possibly “Assassin’s Creed”. Hot, hot, hot. Busy, busy busy. Then there’s “Frank” currently in post-production & the one of this long & heavyweight list which is most likely to get my cash. The imaginative yet deranged character of Frank Sidebottom, a naif with a papier-mache head from Timperley in Cheshire, was created by Chris Sievey. Frank was an endearing, hilarious character to whom I am most partial, a luminary in the pantheon of British comedy. There are those who fail to discern humour in his work…well…move right along because we probably disagree on a whole bunch of stuff. Anyway, before Frank there was Chris Sievey & there was the Freshies.

Young Chris really, really, wanted to be a pop star. At just 16 he hitch-hiked to that London with his brother, headed for Apple HQ & demanded to see a Beatle ! They left after playing a song to the head of A&R then heard no more. You know, I really do hope that that story is true. By 1974 Chris had a scrapbook full of rejection letters & his own Razz label on which he released his cassettes. By 1978 the Freshies were a band & their tunes were being pressed on vinyl. The optimistic “Straight In At Number 2” EP failed to live up to its’ name but the 6th single released by the band in 1980 (those were the days !) stood out from a crowded market & got itself played on the radio.

“I’m In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk” is a powerpop companion to the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love…”. It charges along & has a similar Mancunian self-deprecating humour. The record was picked up by a major label, the brand name removed from the title &, 40,000 sales later, reached #54 in the UK charts. That was a commercial high point,as  good as it got for the band & I’m just not sure why. “I’m In Love…” is a good song but  there are songs like “Tell Her I’m Ill” with a little less novelty, the same dry humour, which pack a punch & deserve a hearing.

“Wrap Up The Rockets” was the follow-up. It’s just as good but perhaps nuclear disarmament or annihilation doesn’t appeal as much as unrequited love. I certainly did not know much about this song until recently (Jah bless the Internet). There is a Y-tube clip of the band playing this at a “Rock Against the Missiles” gig in Alexander Park, Manchester 1981. It’s tipping down, the audience are getting wet through & the sound is poor. Just another grand day out with the Freshies. “Scrap our defence plans. That’s 12 grand each for everybody in the UK. I’d buy a sports car but I wouldn’t go far just go to Rhyl”. That is good stuff & it is funny stuff, with a musical tip of the hat to Thin Lizzy too.

“I Can’t Get Bouncing Babies By The Teardrop Explodes” is another song of  Freshies’ frustration. This time it’s not a girl but a rare record which is out of reach, maybe it’s a metaphor. This was the last of the 3 singles released by MCA, a third strike & the band was back on the Razz. There were other releases but if the Freshies did ever have a shot then the opportunity had gone. Those wry songs concerning life’s small but vexatious torments could break through. Chris would loved to have been as big as Squeeze, hell, he may have settled for one hit like Splodgenessabounds. Anyway this time we get to actually see Chris & the band & that’s great. Any poignancy regarding the stymied record collector is undermined by the “Boing, Boing” refrain but the Freshies liked things to be funny.

There were a couple of solo records in 1982/3. “Camouflage” is a 7″ single with 3 programs for the Sinclair ZX81 home computer written by Chris. There are 2 versions of a game, “Flying Train”, & a video for the aforementioned song. Any of you familiar with this antediluvian form of technology will know that hardly any of the attempts to load the program were successful. Here are the fruits of a very painstaking obsessive’s labour, doing things we don’t understand with machines of which we have even less comprehension. A similar device was used later by Pete Shelley on his electro “XL-1”. This is the 2nd brush with the Buzzcocks on this post…no coincidence.

There are bands who have recorded just one song as good as “Camouflage” & are regarded as powerpop paragons. In 2005 Cherry Red Records compiled “The Very Very Best of the Freshies: Some Long & Short Titles”. It is 23 tracks that got away. There was no more music from Chris. In 1984 he put on the papier-mache head & embraced his inner Frank Sidebottom. It’s a pity that the Freshies were overlooked but a world without Frank would be a worse place. You know it would, it really would. Thank yew !

If they didn’t have the model trains they wouldn’t have gotten the idea for the big trains. (Christopher Guest)

A constant part of my Friday routine was to drop by my local independent record shop, (remember those, much missed), to lighten the pay packet in my back pocket in exchange for some lovely new vinyl. Graduate Records, later to make some money when they started a little label & signed UB40, sold import American LPs which I could only covet. When they put them all on sale I was stood over the owner’s shoulder waiting to take advantage of his generosity. When I had helped myself to those records I knew I needed I started to take a chance on the ones I hoped that I needed. Here’s a record that I was lucky enough to just stumble upon.

There are supergroups & there is Freud, Marx, Engels & Jung playing “Lemmings Lament” the theme to ” Woodshuck: Three days of Peace, Love & Death”, National Lampoon’s masterly parody of Woodstock. I am not going to ignore the singer Paul Jacobs (classic “Ellen Foley error”, worked with Meatloaf before writing for “Sesame St”) or Alice Playten (well, hello !) but a rhythm section of John Belushi & Chevy Chase does tend to draw the eye. In a few years the whole world would be laughing along with this pair in “Animal House” & “Caddyshack” respectively (Lacey Underall ! Oh my aching sides). The final member is the 5th Baron Haden-Guest of Great Saling, the impetus behind some of the funniest films I have ever seen &, of course, the voice of Stanley, cousin of SpongeBob SquarePants.

“Lemmings” was not only my first exposure to Belushi & the Chevster but in the credits were Doug Kenney, Tony Hendra, P J O’Rourke & Sean Kelly, a generation of American humorists who led the way for the next decade. These guys either burned out or faded away but Christopher Guest is still making great films. Movies which you can see over & over again & still find new funny moments.

I was lucky enough to see “This Is Spinal Tap” in the week it opened in London in 1984. I would watch it tonight if it is on my TV. “The Big Picture”, the first film Guest directed, is a subtle satire of Hollywood. “The Princess Bride” & his turn in “The Long Riders”, a film where siblings played siblings & he was a Ford brother alongside his own brother, kept him around. In 1996  “Waiting For Guffman” established a pattern for 3 subsequent films which set the standard for American comedy in this century. (The 1998  Chris Farley/Matthew Perry movie “Almost Heroes” is now written out of history).

Christopher Guest’s films are improvised character-driven “mockumentaries”. The ensemble cast portray self-obsessed, delusional Americans but there is such a heart to these stories that while the humour is absolutely spot on it is never malignant. “Waiting For Guffman” is about a community theatre in Blaine, Missouri, the “stool capital of the United States”, and their unrealistic hopes for the production of “Red, White & Blaine”. “Stool Boom” celebrates this 3-legged alternative to the chair. Regular players Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, the “always watchable” Parker Posey & Guest himself (playing the director Corky St Clair, ” he can act and he can sing and he can dance. There’s only one other person in the world who can do all that, and that’s Barbra Streisand”) are as delightful as they always are in these movies.

“A Mighty Wind” got the band back together & how great it was to see Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer playing music together. This time around it was not the moronic metal of Tap but the frivolous folk music of the early 1960s when that shit almost caught on. The film centres on a reunion concert featuring 3 folkie blasts from the past &, unsurprisingly, the music is an absolutely perfect parody. It’s a tough choice between the title track, Levy & O’Hara’s “A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow” & this from the one-hit wonders The Folksmen. This simulacrum of a 60s TV show & the line “there’s a nurse on duty if you don’t feel right” clinches it for “Old Joe’s Place”. I wont spoil the movie but the Folksmen were a Kingston Trio copy but continue as a Peter, Paul & Mary deal nowadays !

There has been no film by Christopher Guest & his company since “For Your Consideration” in 2006. It would be a pity if there were no more because these are the only films where we settle down for a new one waiting to see what the cast have for us this time around, knowing that it will be expertly played and similarly be pitch-perfect comedy. No matter, the movies that are already made stand repeated viewing there will always be some business that you missed last time around.

Ain’t no queue for the summertime booze

Adam Buxton and Garth Jennings’ 90 second film, shot on what seems like a very dangerous beach, always makes me laugh. Guitar Wolf are the self-styled “World’s Greatest Jet Rock & Roll band”. They take about 6 rock cliches and make it noisy. Too awesome to tune their instruments and happy to approximate  the English lyrics, their Y-Tube clip of “Summertime Blues” is as entertaining as the homage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxlS919JTS8

Promo and film director Garth Jennings made a good fist of turning “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” into two hours of cinematic entertainment. I’m a  devotee from the radio show through the books to the TV adaptation. With increasing age there has come an unlikely maturity. I am less precious now when Hollywood raids my cultural treasure chest (see also “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” & “A Scanner Darkly”). To do the saga justice any director would need, at least. double the time and that is not going to play well at the provincial popcorn palaces. Inevitably the humour ended up somewhere in the mid-Atlantic but I do look favourably on the work of messrs Def and Rockwell. Of course, as is the way of the world, the new Marvin the paranoid android is not as good as the old Marvin but…life, don’t talk to me about life !

At his next turn at bat Jennings knocked it out of the park with a more modest but more successful movie.

“Son of Rambow” is better than that trailer. A coming-of-age film about friendship, family, imagination and the allure of Sylvester Stallone, set in 1980s England it uses broad emotional strokes which can be over-sentimental and nostalgic. However the creativity and energy of the story-telling allied to the charm of the two lead actors gives the whole a heart that is lacking from Michel Gondry’s contemporary take on guerilla film making ,”Be Kind Rewind”. To  compare “Son of Rambow” with “Kes” is a little unfair. Few films capture the unleashed potential of children and the poignancy of growing up as well as Ken Loach’s classic. It is more a “Gregory’s Girl” type of deal, an uncomplicated British story told with wit and verve which is entertaining and fun. In the 2010s we should take our fun where we find it.

Jennings and his partner, Nick Goldsmith, are currently taking a break. Unlike Gondry (who I do like) they have not been offered the super hero movies or to get to direct Audrey Tautou. Since “Rambow” they have made commercials and music videos. I hope that they do get the opportunity to make more movies because it’s in them and it’s got to come out.

Here is a Garth Jennings video from 2005 for “Hell Yes” by Beck with more charm and more robots.

“Hey Kay-hole, keep it MENCAP you f**kaneer!” (Nathan Barley)

This is the beginning of the funniest series on UK TV since “Fawlty Towers”. It is likely to keep the belt for a very long time. The 7 episodes were a collision between two very bright, angry and individual writers who had something to say about the increasingly moronic young scenesters of  new media in the Shoreditch/Hoxton enclave of East London. Having brilliantly satirised these bastards Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker have moved on to other projects. It is fortuitous that the series rewards repeated viewing as this comedy was never going to be the British  “Friends”.

Truman Capote possessed an acute and accurate sense of social milieu. In New York he identified the “talented untalented”, drawn magnetically to the city and “neurotically feeding on the fringes”  as they attempt to “make a dream”. They clustered together, reassured by a constant chatter about their creativity while creating precisely nothing. More than 40 years after Capote, Morris and Brooker saw a dumbed-down 21st century London where this emptiness was endemic and celebrated. As the tag-line for the series said, “the idiots are winning”.

Nathan Barley had originated as a “self-facilitating media node” in Brooker’s innovative website http://www.tvgohome.com/ . The transfer to the small screen changed Barley from a trustafarian former public schoolboy to a younger, less assured figure. He drinks smoked salmon coffee, adopts the ridiculous “geek pie” hairstyle in imitation of his reluctant role model of cool, Dan Ashcroft. The lack of awareness, the sense of entitlement the size of David Cameron’s (coincimental !) remain. Barley is a twat but a dark, dangerous twat.

Dan Ashcroft is played by Julian Barrett off of the Mighty Boosh who, in 2005, were rock and roll comedy as good as anyone. Ashcroft, a journalist for “Sugar Ape” (say it quickly), is our disdainful guide through this parade of grotesques. He is not just an observer and commentator. His own lack of conviction can lead him into an investigation of the “stray” scene, straight-on-straight gay sex, humiliation and hilarity ensues. There are times when he makes the scene with the worst of them. This clip concerns the “artist” 15Peter20 who photographs urinating celebrities.

Having lived for 20 years in London with a wide range of cultural interests I had encountered my fair share of idiots. The guy behind me at the Institute of Contemporary Arts loudly discussing “his” film before admitting no-one would ever see it…I should have punched him in the cock. The person who “knew” that I enjoyed my job because I was surrounded by the good vibrations from the self-help psychobabble New Age books my employer distributed…she had no cock but …why I oughta ! I always kept Capote in mind. These people were just predictable and to be avoided. I worked on the conversion of Victorian warehouses into offices for the new industries lampooned in “Nathan Barley”. One night we surreptitiously entered a new art gallery and hung the paint encrusted sweater of one of the labourers on the wall…funny.

I am not going to analyse or explain “Nathan Barley”. In Biology you dissect something and the only sure thing is that you end up with a dead thing. The Net friendly text-speak of the series is so, so funny. You do not have to know the London of these arty with a capital F fools because they are proliferating. Like much of the comedy of Chris Morris  “Nathan Barley” can be seen as dark, provocative and ahead of its time.I can only say that Chris Morris (of whom more later) has already a place at the High Table of  British comedy whatever he creates in the future. He is up there with the Goons, Cook & Moore & the Pythons. Believe.

The night we watched the whole series on DVD was a genuinely exciting occasion. “Nathan Barley” is around on your computer. You are not one of the idiots, you know what to do. Go to the Y-Tube & type in the title.

OK I’m out of here.     Peace and Fucking.   Oh, I must stop saying that.

http://www.lbi.com/uk/