Chesney Allen

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists


Ches by Ted West R

Portrait by E. Hamilton West, courtesy The Guardian.

CHESNEY Allen had got himself into a bit of a state. The survivor of variety’s greatest double-act had agreed to see me even though for 20 years he had been turning down such requests. Then he had second thoughts and proposed that the interview be conducted through a combination of questions submitted by post and follow-up telephone conversations.

After a flurry of increasingly confusing calls and letters it became obvious that this wasn’t working too well, so he finally said he would meet me at an office he used on London’s Oxford Street, opposite Selfridge’s. Ches was visibly disconcerted by my youthfulness when I arrived and became quite agitated a few minutes later when The Guardian’s photographer, E. Hamilton West (known to all as Ted), turned up and started pointing a camera at him.

bud and ches 1

He was a tall, stooped, dignified man, still imposing and attractive at 78, courteous and charming in spite of his nervousness with me and displeasure at the presence of Ted – I thought he had understood that a photographer had been organised – and he had something about him that suggested a retired solicitor, the occupation for which he had once been destined.

But the story he had to tell had nothing of the dryness of law; it was about a remarkable and wonderful friendship born in the horrors of the First World War trenches and forged ten years later in the hurly-burly of music hall into an act that reached the very pinnacle of show business as Flanagan and Allen produced hit after hit record, sold out theatres all over Britain and, with other members of the legendary Crazy Gang, starred in 16 films through the 1930s and 40s.

Go into any large music store today, or check online, and you will find Flanagan and Allen; switch on the television and you will hear those lilting voices singing Run Rabbit Run or one of the other hits behind an ad somewhere, or Bud asking Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler? over the titles in a re-run of Dad’s Army.  The two unlikely but dear pals may be long gone, but Flanagan and Allen live on, true immortals of the music halls, and Ches put his finger on the simple reason. “I think we were a part of the people,” he told me. “There was no barrier.”

Here’s a clip of them singing Round the Back of the Arches, from a 1942 Listen to Britain feature.

Ches and Bud young R

In their very earliest days.

A PART of the people. These two men from wildly-contrasting backgrounds had a relationship that was unique among double-acts on the British halls. It was far from the traditional bullying, supercilious straight man and buffoonish comic; audiences sensed that Bud and Ches had become social equals through shared hardship. As one writer put it: ‘Seldom absent from their songs was a concern for the underdog of society, for the gutterspun philosophy that equated poverty with riches. One knew instinctively as they sang that the attitude to life embodied in their songs had itself been conditioned by their own experiences in leaner times, that there had been occasions when the rain had entered their shoes, when their dreams and schemes had fallen on stony ground.’ (1)

Often played out against a backdrop of The Embankment, their act was built around two men, down on their luck, chancing across each other and sharing jokey banter and a song or two before seeking shelter wherever they could find it; nights spent on cobblestones in all weathers, waiting for dawn and the hope a new day might bring. It always finished the same way. Haunted by a single spotlight, they slowly strolled the length of the stage, swaying slightly to the music: Bud in voluminous raccoon coat and battered straw hat, his high, lamenting cantor’s wail soaring to the back of the gallery, and Ches behind, hand on Bud’s shoulder, shabby-dapper and deadpan, emphasising the words in a mellow half-spoken croak a split-second behind the beat . . .

Ches Underneath the ...R

 Pavement is our pillow,                  
 No matter where we stray.
  Underneath the arches                  
  We’ll dream our dreams away.’

A week or so after our meeting, I received a letter from Ches that brought into focus the prickliness of an old-timer no longer in the limelight, the poignant and understandable vanity of a once-handsome man who preferred audiences to remember him as he had been in 1946, when he retired from performing, the gulf of years between us, and an assumption about my domestic circumstances (I lived in a small furnished flat on the outskirts of Manchester) that made me smile.

Accompanying the letter was a gift, a newly-issued LP of Flanagan and Allen’s greatest hits. ‘You may like it,’ he wrote diffidently. ‘In any case, you maybe have an elderly daily help, and she might like it. I have received the photographs from Mr Hamilton West. They are remarkably like me I’m very sorry to say! However, I suppose one must accept these lines on the face (more than there are at Clapham Junction!) when one is over 40.’ He ended with a more upbeat postscript: ‘Did you hear the two characters on Coronation Street singing Underneath the Arches last night?’

WILLIAM Ernest Chesney Allen was born into the solid middle-classes in Brighton, Sussex, in 1893, the son of a well-to-do builder. He began training for a career in law at a barristers’ office near the Law Courts on The Strand but in 1910 threw it all up to go on stage as an actor in stock when he was still a teenager, touring in melodramas and popular fare of the East Lynne variety. Through playing a wide variety of parts, he began to acquire the timing skills that would one day make him variety’s greatest straight man.

ches young R

“Timing is not difficult if you have the basic theatre training. In my case I had a short spell when I was 16 at a stage school in Clapham Road, London, then I went on the legit stage playing in stock – rep, it’s called nowadays. Six plays a week. Dramas, playing heavies or juveniles for a couple of years, and then farce and music hall. If you’re doing drama you’re improving your timing all the time, and this training helped me to get the laughs when I went into comedy. You have to have perfect timing to get the best out of a gag.”

That was all Ches would say on the subject of timing. But to be a top straight man you needed prodigious skills. Another star who began his career on the British halls as a straight man, Cary Grant, once commented: “The   straight man in a double act is the conductor of the act, responsible for the tempo and the success of the performance. The comic has to say his lines funnily; the straight man has to know when to cut into a laugh, when to let a laugh ride, the exact point at which the laugh starts to fade so he can feed the comic another line. He drives the act, timing it, alert to any small change in audience response.”

In 1915 Ches enlisted in the 9th Lancers, was sent overseas and rode as a cavalry soldier. He was part of the mounted escort to the 14th Army Corps Commander, General Lieutenant The Earl of Cavan, KP, and on more than one occasion was escort to the Prince of Wales. “I don’t care what they say about the Prince of Wales – he was a very brave man,” said Ches. “They had to stop him going to the Front Line eventually. Any man with two stripes on his arm was given orders to prevent him going to the Front Line at all costs, because he was too valuable to lose.”

Ches ww1 R

Ches served as a Sergeant in the 10th Battalion Royal West Kents.

When the cavalry was transformed into infantry, he saw service in Bapaume as a Sergeant in the 10th Battalion Royal West Kents and was twice gassed. After going to Italy, the West Kents returned to France for a German offensive during which they were so badly cut up that only about 50 men were left to answer roll call. He went back to Britain to recuperate and then returned with his Battalion to France.

It was in a Flanders café in 1917 that he started chatting to another weary and begrimed soldier and found that they had the stage in common. Chiam Reuben Weintrop was then calling himself Robert Winthrop and he was to become Bud Wayne and Chick Harlem before settling on his final stage name. “You’re a bastard,” he had told an antisemitic Sergeant Flanagan, “and one day I’m going to make your name the laughing stock of England.”

Bud fleshed out the historic meeting a little in his autobiography: ‘The village, or what was left of it, was Poperinghe, which boasted a couple of frowsty estaminets. I wandered into one of them for egg and chips. The place was crowded, but one table for four had only three at it, so I sat down, gave my order, and started a conversation with a spruce-looking soldier. He was in the Royal West Kents and had been a legitimate actor in peacetime. His name was Chesney Allen. I told him I was a comedian, and after a few beers we said goodnight. He went his way, and I went mine.’ (2)

BUD’S youth had been a good deal more chaotic than that of Ches. He was one of ten children born in Whitechapel in 1896 to Wolf and Yetta Weintrop, Polish Jews who had fled to London to escape persecution. By the age of ten he was working as a call-boy at the Cambridge Music Hall and in 1908 made his stage debut as a conjuror in a talent contest at the London Music Hall, billed as ‘Fargo the Boy Wizard.’

When he was 14 he walked to Southampton and, claiming to be a 17-year-old electrician,  blagged his way on to the SS Majestic and jumped ship when the liner reached New York. The teenager had many adventures in the States, including selling newspapers, touring with a vaudeville troupe, farm labouring, boxing (as ‘Canvasback Cohen’) and being thrown in jail for vagrancy. He later claimed he sang in a brothel for the price of a cup of coffee, but it should be noted that a number of sources mention Bud’s propensity for embellishing the truth.

He returned to England in 1915 to enlist in the Royal Field Artillery and was sent to France. In March 1918 he was with a gun team when two German shells went off nearby. Wounded and temporarily blinded by gas, he was taken to hospital in Deauville and demobbed in February 1919. ‘War turned him into the kind of tragic-comic hero who found humour in adversity and solace in the company of the lowly, the poor and the scared,’ wrote Maureen Owen, the Crazy Gang’s biographer. (3)

Ches Billy_Williams r

After the war Ches went back into the theatre. He was still a straight actor, but even before he joined up he had acquired a taste for music hall, playing in three-handed dramatic sketches sandwiched between comics and jugglers on various bills, and in that atmosphere the germ of an idea for a double-act began to grow. Allen and company were once barnstorming at the Willesden Empire in a sentimental sketch called Dear Old Charlie, and it was their unenviable task to follow a skilled and volatile comedy star, Billy Williams, ‘The Man in the White Velvet Suit.’ An Australian, Williams popularised chorus songs such as Tickle Me Timothy, The Kangaroo Hop and When Father Papered the Parlour.

“Well, it was impossible to follow this man! He used to milk the audience – looking up at the gallery, looking at his watch, then doing a bit more. That kept them all going. Anyway, we followed with our sketch as best we could. Now we had on the bill a pair or comics called Fine and Hurley. Johnny Hurley was a relative of Alec Hurley, who was one of Marie Lloyd’s husbands, and Fine and Hurley were a front-cloth double-act. Fine asked me what I was getting paid and I told him £2 a week. He said: ‘You want to do a double act like Johnny and me. We’re getting £20 a week here.’

Here’s Billy Williams with When Father Papered the Parlour.

“That was fabulous money to me. It stuck in my mind, and when I got out of the services I was working as an actor in the West End – although I was never a West End type of actor really! I had a very small but showy part in an American light comedy at the Globe called Ready Money. I used to come on every so often and say: ‘I’m looking for a little girl. She comes out here and she goes in there.’ I was a fop, and I had to wear a monocle. That part made me realise I liked working in comedy. But I had to carry on as a straight actor for a while because the comedian I wanted to team up with, Stan Stanford, was in the Army in Ireland and couldn’t get out. So I went on playing in dramas until Stanford got out, and then we teamed up. We weren’t very successful, I suppose, but we got a living.”

Early in 1920 Stanford and Allen joined Flo and Co, the touring company of  the great singalong star Florrie Forde, who had many magnificent songs associated with her name, among them Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, It’s A Long Way to Tipperary and Down at the Old Bull and Bush.

Florrie Forde

“Then, in Mansfield one day, I happened to meet Bud again, and he stuck in my mind afterwards. He was in blackface, doing an act called Harlem and Bronx with a girl. Stanford and I were on the same bill. Stan wanted to leave the act when we were with Florrie Forde, but Florrie said she wanted me to stay on. I always liked the business side of entertainment, and I started to handle Florrie’s business and became her manager, and eventually I was producing the whole bag of tricks and booking the artists and so forth.

“I was with Florrie Forde for many years – nine or ten. I met my wife, Aleta Turner, in one of Miss Forde’s pantomimes. She was the Principal Girl. I really think Florrie Forde married us – she arranged everything, bought a house in Streatham for which we paid a ridiculously small rent. I cannot thank her enough for her many kindnesses. She was a wonderful, wonderful woman, very generous and particularly kind to the smaller people – chorus, wardrobe and stage staff. Aleta and I have been married for 48 years now, a little unusual in our profession.

“And one time in 1924 when we playing Glasgow with a Scots comedian called Wullie Lindsay – he was wonderful in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but when he came South nobody could understand a word he was saying – I found that Bud was playing at Kilmarnock. His name was Bud Wayne then, I think. So a meeting was arranged and we teamed up as Flanagan and Allen from then on.”

Florrie Forde had been the prime mover in getting them together. She saw something in the emotional, undisciplined, insubordinate, clownish Bud that would perfectly fit with the meticulous, impassive, detail-obsessed Ches. She groomed Bud during the years he was with Flo and Co, correcting his poor timing and drumming into him the virtues of self-control. He had been all over the place, exploding on stage like a firework, forcing himself on audiences and alienating them by trying too hard. She pointed to Ches as a model of relaxed self-confidence. It seems likely that Forde also gave him his stage name, whatever Bud claimed he had told that unpleasant sergeant during the war; Flanagan was her maiden name and also the title of one of her biggest song hits.


Ches and Bud 2 R

THEN the economic slump hit Britain, and by 1931 Florrie Forde found that touring big shows was no longer viable. Ches and Bud decided to try the variety circuit on their own and arranged a trial run at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead. They walked the streets together discussing ideas, remembering gags and routines that could be reworked and structuring the act. Both agreed that a song Bud had written a few years earlier, Underneath the Arches, would be a perfect finish.

Their debut was received a lot of favourable attention and on foot of it Val Parnell of Moss Empires wired to offer Flanagan and Allen a double contract at the Palladium and the Holborn Empire in London. Their opening eight-minute spot at Holborn overran by 16 minutes and left the audience yelling for more. “When our first big success came, we had the world at our feet,” Ches said almost apologetically. “Forgive me for saying this, but I have to tell the truth. I was the businessman of the act, and after our first week at the Holborn Empire we had films offered us, Ziegfield contacted us from New York, an Australian tour was offered. We had everything.”

Listening to the old records, their cross-talk style doesn’t sound too funny now, but it was evidently refreshingly different at the time. It involved quickfire back and forth interplay based around an immigrant’s malapropisms and misunderstanding of the language, but there was a slyness to Bud’s delivery that suggested he might be playing the knowing fool and secretly mocking his dignified interlocutor. When Bud arrived at the correct word he would shout “Oi!” echoed by the band.

THE act always featured a number of songs – nostalgic or patriotic or, more likely, evoking hard times and the camaraderie of ordinary people bonding against misfortune. And they invariably ended with that song, which had been growing slowly in popularity.

Underneath the Arches was written by Bud, words and music, in some digs in 1928,” said Ches, “and we sang it for two or three years before it really caught on. In those days, you see, a lot of people really did have to sleep under the arches and I think the song was written partly with them in mind. Bud had roughed it a lot earlier. He’d been a taxi driver and he’d been to America and roughed it there. He once walked from London to Glasgow. So he did know something about ‘the arches.’ Then, in 1934, the song became the best-seller in this country. Later on it was a tremendous seller in America after the war, too, because American soldiers used to come over here and they got to know the song.”

Ches WandererTheir relationship was quite complicated. There was quite obviously a tremendous and genuine affection – a love, even – between these men. “Bud was Jewish, I’m Christian and it was a wonderful combination,” said Ches, misty-eyed behind his glasses.

“Our personalities complemented each other perfectly. And he really was one of the loveliest men you could ever hope to meet. Money meant absolutely nothing to him. He never worried about money at all. We loved golf and we were once appearing at the Pavilion, Glasgow. We were having a round of golf in the middle of the week and Bud said to me: ‘Here, Ches, how much are we getting here?’ I told him and he said: ‘Are we? Oh well, I can buy another club then.’ And that was when we were right at the very top. He loved life and he spent a lot of money and he lived well. He was a wonderful man and it was a wonderful partnership. Bud and I, with our wives, were friends offstage, of course, but we didn’t meet too often socially because that might spoil the business arrangement. But we were very, very friendly.”

bud ches 2

They bonded through, among other things, an intense patriotism. Bud had rushed home from America in 1915 to join up and fight for the country that had provided sanctuary for his parents and siblings, and in the same war Ches had been entrusted with guarding the life of a future King. Then there was their love of racing – during the thin time just before their breakthrough success at the Argyle they had considered quitting and going into business together as bookmakers.

They may not have socialised constantly but when Flanagan’s only son, Buddy, died of leukemia and was cremated in the States in 1955, it was Ches, accompanied by another close friend, bandleader Jack Hylton, who met Bud off the plane at London Airport. He was always there for his pal when it mattered.

He may have found Bud to be “one of the loveliest men you could ever hope to meet,” but his opinion was not generally shared in show business. Bud was said to be extremely difficult to work with, moody, demanding and boastful, with an insecurity-driven tendency to always get the upper hand, to demonstrate that he was better than the next man.

WHEN Flanagan and Allen were with the Crazy Gang, the diplomatic and self-effacing Ches often had to step in to soothe ruffled feathers when Bud had antagonised one or other of the usually easygoing and mischievous troupe. Ches was defender, protector and apologist as well as friend. The cynical might suspect that Ches, ever the astute businessman and canny gambler, was just guarding his investment, but there seems much more to it than that.

It was as if Ches felt a strong personal responsibility towards his aggressive and volatile partner and saw him as an emotionally vulnerable friend, and that he also assumed professional guardianship over the wild, sprawling comic invention of Bud Flanagan that he was able to control and mould into a viable act.

crazee 2

It was in 1932 that Flanagan and Allen joined the anarchic Crazy Gang. I asked Ches how it came about. “Well, it was started by Nervo and Knox in the first place. They started a thing called The Young Bloods of Variety and they brought in these things that had never been done before, like interruptions from the boxes, and the artists walking down the auditorium. Really crazy things. They did it at the London Palladium and had a very successful two weeks there. Then George Black the impresario decided that he’d like to have a Crazy Month in 1932, and that’s when we joined the show. There was Nervo and Knox, Naughton and Gold, Flanagan and Allen and Caryll and Mundy, and it was a huge success. The month ran to six weeks, then eight weeks and eventually we ran for eight months – twice nightly, two matinees, 14 shows a week.

“We probably played to more people than The Mousetrap has played to in 20 years, and when the Gang went off after eight months Bud and I stayed on. We did summer shows with Jack Hylton and Harry Roy. They used to last eight to ten weeks then we’d have a couple of weeks’ holiday then go into another Crazy Gang show. We made sixteen films, which we enjoyed because we were doing something different every day.”


The films, from The Bailiffs in 1932  to Here Comes the Sun in 1945, though ramshackle, stand up reasonably well after all these years. The Gang was a bunch of funny little men – pencil-moustached Teddy Knox, bald baby Charlie Naughton and pixie-faced Jimmies Nervo and Gold – and it is interesting to note that Ches, though more laconic than the others, rarely distanced himself as straight man to the ensemble but joined in the chaos and slapstick with just as much gusto as his colleagues. However, because he was taller and better-looking, and had a more authoritative voice, he tended to take the lead when something needed to be explained or planned.

A scene from Okay for Sound (1937) typifies the Gang’s popular image. They are buskers during the hard times, trying to entertain a theatre queue with a motley collection of makeshift musical instruments. There are a few deft sight gags from Naughton and Gold, and some verbal interplay between Nervo – known as ‘Cecil’ to his partner – and Knox, who always affected a speech impediment: “You don’t ’alf shay shome shilly things, Sheshil.”

If the others in the Gang seem to be unemployed working men, or down-on-their-luck theatricals, Ches is obviously from a slightly higher social echelon, and more dapper in spite of his curling collar and worn cuffs, but he never places himself above his pals in any way – he is like their pet ‘toff’ but he does not patronise them, nor they him. Hardship has once again proved to be the great leveller: these men may be down, but they will never be out as long as they have each other, the price of a bun and a cup of tea and the shelter of the arches for the night. The sequence ends with Flanagan and Allen singing Free, which finds solace and value in the reduced circumstances of these ‘six tumbleweeds,’ with the rest of Gang joining in towards the end. It is still a charming and touching scene.

And here it is . . .

Films had to be carefully-structured, of course, but there was more scope for improvisation on stage. “In the Crazy Gang stage shows we used to ad-lib a good deal. We’d go on and Bud would say ‘Say something that’s not in the script, Ches,’ and I’d say something and we’d take it from there and build it up. We often made it up as we went along. We rarely said the same things two nights on the run, but I always brought Bud back from his flight of fancy in time for the songs.

Ches letter R

A letter from a legend.

“I would say that I was rather a con-man in the act, always tricking Bud and I was never presented as a fool, except at the end of the act when I would make a little speech and Bud would be taking the mickey. I would be thanking the audience and Bud would be pulling my hair and saying ‘Just a wig, you know,’ or ‘This is just makeup you know. My God, he doesn’t look a bit like this offstage!’ And the audience loved this because I was always rather well-dressed and dignified on the stage.

“Managements didn’t mind if we ran a few minutes over. We had a set routine, though, as a framework for all this. We’d push off with a racing skit. Then Bud used to do a comic Jewish speech, followed by me doing a straight monologue as a broken-down swell. While this went on Bud would be changing and then we’d open a new scene with us both on a park bench and talk about imaginary people. All very fast.

“Hello Gonnigan,’ Bud would say, and I’d look round.


“Bud would say: ‘He’s gone again.’

“We’d do a few songs and always finish up with Underneath the Arches. Audiences used to love that song. It may be corny, but I think it had a message. It wasn’t ‘I love you I love you I love you,’ like nowadays.”

ches 99

Ches – going it alone.

Their peak as recording artists came during the Second World War when they, along with Vera Lynn, came to represent resolution, determination and stoicism in the face of the unthinkable. Some of their songs from this period are overtly patriotic, such as (We’re Gonna) Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line and FDR Jones and others more subtle, like the thinly-disguised attack on Germany in Run Rabbit Run, but most involve a kind of wistful longing – Miss You, We’ll Smile Again – or the joy of reunion: There’s A Boy Coming Home on Leave.

ches songsheet outside R

IN 1946 Flanagan and Allen split up at the height of their fame. Ches’s health had been poor for some time; a masseur had to be standing by each night to get him in shape to go on stage. “During the Second World War we worked hard and that’s what really finished me and set off this osteo-arthritis. We went overseas, up the line, doing shows from jeeps. I had to give up my stage career with the greatest reluctance. I went to see a specialist and he told me to give up the stage. We were playing at the Prince of Wales Theatre and Bud was waiting there for me when I got back from seeing the specialist. I just looked at him and I said ‘It’s the finish Bud.’

“I went to see Jack Hylton and booked Bud into the Adelphi Theatre as Buttons in pantomime, and then I went into a nursing home. When I came out I just didn’t know what to do. You can’t just retire when you’re 51. I walked my dog around the village and by the third week I was going crazy. Now I could have done one of three things. I was very friendly with John Baxter, the film director at British National, who made all the Lucan and McShane Old Mother Riley films and also four for the Crazy Gang, and I could have gone in with him. Or I could have gone into bookmaking. Or I could have gone into management. In the end I went into an agency which had about 20 stars on its books as well as the Crazy Gang and I had another long career as an agent – 25 years.

bud ches

They still got together sometimes.

“When I got tired of the agency side I started producing and promoting summer shows. I did two Royal Command performances after I retired and I still made the occasional stage appearance with Bud for sentiment’s sake and we made one or two records and four TV appearances, just singing the songs.”

I asked him which he preferred, appearing on stage or working behind the scenes. “In front of the footlights, of course. There’s no business like show business – corny but true. One would be a hypocrite if one did not admit, appreciate and feel happy at the adulation which success must bring. It was a wonderful time, and I’d like it to happen all over again.”

Ches handled Bud’s business affairs until the great comedian died in 1968, aged 72. One of the last things he was able to do for his old partner was negotiate on his behalf for the Dad’s Army signature tune. Bud had enjoyed a successful career as a solo act or with the rest of the Crazy Gang until they died or got too old to carry on. After the Gang’s last Royal Variety Show, Prince Philip asked Bud what he would be doing next. “Well,” he replied, “I’ve got a crate of brown ale in the dressing room. I thought we might all go back to your place.”

Ches Dads-Army-1

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?

His former straight man lived quietly on the South Coast with Aleta – they were described to me as an elegant and rather courtly old couple – and was an avid follower of snooker and racing:  “I have owned a few horses but not now. It is far too expensive. Both Bud and I always loved racing. I think we got the bug from Florrie Forde. She would ask me when booking the tours to be sure and get some Race Weeks, so we would find ourselves at Doncaster for the St Leger, York for the Ebor or September meeting and Ayr for the spring meeting etcetera.”

Because he had been retired for so long, Ches was rarely recognised when he was out and about, but if he was obliged to disclose his identity older members of the public often became quite excited, and he found himself being thanked for the pleasure he and his partner had brought to so many people for so many years; thanked, most of all, for a song that started life as a sentimental tribute to the underdog during the Depression and which became – and remains – a lasting paean to old-fashioned comradeship and loyalty.

And that is where we will leave Flanagan and Allen . . . underneath the arches, Ches’s steady hand on his dear, difficult pal’s shoulder as they stroll into history, dreaming their dreams away.

                                                                     Goodbye to the arches, Ches . . .

Ches Ted West 2 R

Roy Hudd, Ches and Christopher Timothy

IN spite of the ill-health that had forced him into retirement in 1946, Chesney Allen outlived the rest of the Crazy Gang, and after keeping himself out of the limelight for 25 years emerged in the late 1970s to enjoy a glorious last burst of public acclamation.  He made several television chat-show appearances, and in 1981 talked about his career and sang some of the old songs in an episode of the BBC series The Old Boy Network.

The following year a musical based around Flanagan and Allen, Underneath the Arches, opened at the Chichester Festival and later transferred to London’s Prince of Wales Theatre. Roy Hudd or Bernie Winters played Bud, and Christopher Timothy or Leslie Crowther was Ches. Occasionally, as Hudd and Timothy strolled the length of the stage singing the title song, Timothy would slip into the wings, to be replaced by the real Chesney Allen. It was reported that the roar of delight from the audience when this happened nearly lifted the roof off the theatre. Variety’s greatest straight man died, aged 88, in 1982.

A last look at Ches and the rest of the Gang, again from Okay for Sound. They’re sailors this time, and their comic routine is followed by famed tenor Peter Dawson (a somewhat elderly naval rating, and gurning horribly as he sings) before the boys re-appear for the finale. Currently you can find the full-length movie, plus Alf’s Button Afloat (1938) and The Frozen Limits (1939) on YouTube.

All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. A shorter version of this story appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the 1970s. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.

Other sources:

(1) Funny Way to be a Hero, By John Fisher. Frederick Muller, 1973.

(2) My Crazy Life, by Bud Flanagan. Frederick Muller, 1961.

(3) The Crazy Gang, by Maureen Owen. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.

Don Ross and ‘Thanks for the Memory’

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists


Thanks Don by Don R

Portrait by Don McPhee, courtesy The Guardian.

HE was a tall, tanned, silver-haired man, strikingly handsome in his mid-seventies, and he still had the grace of the acrobatic dancer he had been fifty years before, plus the instinctive comic timing of the old pro. We talked at his elegant apartment at Hove, near Brighton, and after offering me a sherry, he accidentally snapped the stem of the expensive-looking glass as he was pouring. Looking from the broken glass to the sherry bottle, then to me, repeating the routine for maximum effect, he pursed his lips wryly: “I think the phrase is ‘oh shit’,” he said.

DSC_0004Don Ross was the real thing: a man completely steeped in music hall. He had  known many of the great performers as friends, hired several of them in shows he produced, acted as agent for others, and had been married to the legendary singer Gertie Gitana,  billed as The Star Who Never Fails to Shine, who made her debut at the age of four in 1892 and went on to immortalise the ballad Nellie Dean.

Ostensibly I was there to discuss Ella Shields for a centenary piece on the Burlington Bertie male impersonator The Guardian had commissioned. Ross had employed Shields – plus Nellie Wallace, Hetty King, Lily Morris, G.H. Elliott, Randolph Sutton, Talbot O’Farrell and many others.

And talking about Ella Shields meant talking about his famous show Thanks for the Memory. As he gently reminisced, sherry in hand, a story began to unfold, a story of great love and intolerable loss; of laughter and tragedy; of fading stars regaining their lustre to bask in the limelight one last time; of loyalty and rivalry; geriatric crankiness and warm camaraderie . . . an American woman who pretended to be a man, a white man from Lancashire who pretended to be an Afro-American, an Englishman named Parrot who pretended to be Irish. Magic and illusion, smoke and mirrors . . .

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AT the end of the century before last, Stoke-on-Trent was at the heart of the British ceramics industry, and Gertrude Mary Astbury, who was to become Gertie Gitana, was born in the Longport area of the town in 1887. Her father laboured in the giant kilns of the pottery factories as a lowly saggar-maker’s bottom-knocker, though he later rose to management status, and when his tiny daughter was spotted singing in the street by someone from the local Tompkinson’s Royal Gypsy Children’s Troupe, economic circumstances dictated that he agree to let the infant join the company. Billed as Little Gitana – gitana being the Spanish for female gypsy – Gertie was touring Britain by the age of eight.

So precocious was her talent that some audiences refused to believe she was a child, and she was on occasion outrageously billed as:

                             England’s Premier Midget Comedienne

                                        Wonderful Little Gitana

                     The Unapproachable Liliputian Song and Dance Artiste.

                     Tyrolean Yodeller, Male Impersonator and Paper Tearer

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A skilled saxophonist and step-dancer, she became a massive star on the halls and in pantomime and was associated with many hit songs, including Silver Bell, with its intricate yodeling intro, the plaintively resigned Never Mind and, of course, Nellie Dean.

There’s an old mill by the stream,
Nellie Dean.
Where we used to sit and dream,
Nellie Dean.
And the waters as they flow
Seem to murmur soft and low.
You’re my heart’s desire.
I love you,
Nellie Dean.

While Nellie Dean seems a song that should rightly be sung by a man, in Gertie’s rendition a young girl recalls idyllic trysts, and the endearments whispered by the boy she loves. By the time she was 15 she was getting £100 a week, more than her father had ever earned in a year. And she had become a steely and audacious pro. There is a famous showbiz story about Gertie playing Cinderella in panto. When everyone has gone to the ball she sits in her rags weeping in the kitchen, then brightens and exclaims: “Here I sit, all alone – I think I’ll play my saxophone!’ Reaching up into the chimney she produces the instrument and goes into her standard music hall act. (This apocryphal tale – Don Ross always smilingly refused to confirm or deny it – is matched by the later one about variety comedian Issy Bonn, playing the Genie in another panto, saying to Aladdin: “I can grant you three wishes. What is the first?” to which the lad was obliged to reply, probably through gritted teeth: “I’d like to hear Issy Bonn singing My Yiddisher Mama.”)

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Don and his dancing partner, Joy Dean.

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Don tried circus in his early days.

DON Ross was born into the middle classes near Leicester in 1902, and though his father wanted him to try journalism or stock-broking, the boy was stage-struck and left home in his late teens to join Papa Cragg’s Gentlemen Acrobats, leaving to tour as a solo act once he had learned to dance. In the 1920s, as fashions changed, Gertie Gitana had switched to revue in a series of successful shows, and in 1926 she auditioned Ross for the leading role of Billy Rodgers in Dear Louise. He got the part, they became lovers in spite of a 15-year age gap, and were married in the following year. Gertie always called Don ‘Bill’ or ‘Billy’ because of his role in Dear Louise, and so did most close friends and colleagues.

After Louise, Ross went on the halls in a dancing act with his partner Joy Dean, often on bills topped by his wife, who had returned to touring in variety. An astute businessman, in the early 1930s he took over the management of Gertie’s career and teamed her with G.H. Elliott in a successful revue called George, Gertie and Ted (a very young Ted Ray) which toured for four-and-a-half years. Gertie and Don spent 1935 in the United States, and when war broke out in 1939 Don passed his medical for the army but his work providing morale-boosting entertainment was considered a reserved occupation, and he was not required to fight.

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Throughout the war he toured a theatrical version of traditional circus around the halls, and was also the first producer to bring striptease to the British stage. Eve Started It!  in 1942 was described on posters as ‘a frisky frolic’ promising ‘8 Hotsy Totsy Girls!’

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Don Ross around the time he launched Thanks for the Memory

Gertie, meanwhile, had retired. She was quite wealthy, had worked hard since the age of four, and did not want to appear on stage in her fifties. Then her husband came up with the idea for Thanks for the Memory in 1947. . .

Don Ross was not the first producer to revive music hall entertainment. Stalwarts of the halls from the 1890s such as George Robey, Gus Elen, Marie Kendall, Harry Bedford, Kate Carney and Harry Champion had been starring in nostalgia shows from around 1930 onwards. Nor was he the last – when he stepped back from Thanks for the Memory he passed on the baton to Chesney Allen, Don Ellis, Audrey Lipton, Arthur Lane and others who continued to tour Old Time Music Hall shows until the end of the 1970s, ceasing only when the last of the old stars died or became too infirm to perform.


Here’s one of the great old performers who made a comeback in the early 1930s in music hall revival shows: Gus Elen.

And another was Marie Kendall, here singing her great hit Just Like the Ivy.

But Ross was, quite simply, the best, and Thanks for the Memory is regarded as the finest of its kind, playing to rapturous publicity and capacity audiences during its touring years and featuring to great acclaim in the 1948 Royal Variety Performance alongside Julie Andrews and Danny Kaye. Much of Thanks for the Memory’s appeal lay in the way he structured the show. Rather than being a self-indulgent nostalgia-wallow, it was a fast-moving, zippy production featuring many younger supporting artists, and the old stars were mostly required to go on, do their stuff as briskly as possible, and get off, appearing together only in the glittering finale. And the main reason for the show’s success was an extraordinary chemistry that sparked between the performers, some of whom had been friends for decades.

GERTIE Gitana was prepared – even eager – to emerge from retirement to support her husband’s project, and Ross began to cast around for the rest of the company, each star representing some different facet of music hall. First he approached the great comedians Nellie Wallace and Lily Morris. But it turned out that they disliked each other and were not prepared to be on the same bill, and, anyway, Morris was fully retired and Wallace, busy nursing her only daughter, who was extremely ill, was concerned about the show’s age profile – “bath chairs at the stage door and all that” – even though she was herself in her seventies.

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Ella Shields, the great Burlington Bertie.

Next he tried to hire a male impersonator. Hetty King’s unacceptable demands had ruled her out of the show, so Ross began to make enquiries about Ella Shields, the great Burlington Bertie, who had not been seen in Britain for several years. Shields was one of the most enchanting artists to emerge from the halls; a chuckling, warm, American-accented performer who, unlike Vesta Tilley or Hetty King, never expected audiences to believe she was actually a man. She was just charmingly herself, dressed in male attire but at the same time wholly feminine.

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Wee Georgie Wood.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1879, she toured the States as a singer and made her British debut at Forester’s Music Hall in London in 1904. After success in pantomime, she first appeared as a male impersonator at the London Palladium. She had many famous songs in her repertoire – Adeline, Show Me the Way to Go Home, I’m Not All There, Cecilia and If You Knew Susie – but her best was, of course, the imperishable Burlington Bertie from Bow, written in 1914 by her then-husband (she later divorced him for cruelty) William Hargreaves as a parody of a successful Vesta Tilley song.

Ross happened to bump into Georgie Wood (a midget performer who had a famous act in which he impersonated a little boy, assisted by his stage ‘mother’ Dolly Harmer) on Tottenham Court Road and asked him about Ella Shields. All Ross knew was that she had gone back to America at the beginning of the war.

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Ella had been reduced to singing in bars in New York.

Wood turned out to be a friend of Ella’s, and it was a sad story he had to tell. She’d had a hard time in America and was pretty broke; she’d been reduced to working in bars and honky-tonks and for a time even served behind the costume jewelry counter at Macy’s store in New York.

Then, said Georgie, she got a break of sorts and was currently working in New Zealand in some kind of big touring tent show. Ross contacted her and she cabled back that she’d be delighted to join Thanks for the Memory.

Even though she had sabotaged her own chances of appearing in the show, Hetty King was nonetheless enraged by the inclusion of Shields, whom she quite unreasonably detested and resented. “Hetty was always very spiteful about Ella,” said Ross. “She once did a press interview and the reporter said to her: ‘There were three famous male impersonators, were there not?’ and Hetty said: ‘Three? Three? Well, there was Tilley. And myself. But three? Oh,’ she said as fake realisation dawned, ‘you must mean that Little Miss Shields’.”

Here’s a clip of Ella Shields singing one of her big hits, Adeline.

ROSS then got in touch with his old friend G.H. Elliott, who was on holiday in Switzerland, and, after some prevarication – Elliott laboured under the amusing delusion that he was about to crack the youth market and, like Nellie Wallace, was reluctant to be identified with an old-timers’ show – the Chocolate Coloured Coon agreed to come aboard. Perhaps at this stage we should make a slight digression to examine the phenomenon of the music hall ‘coon’. Today the notion of a white man  from Rochdale blacking-up and dancing around the stage singing about Carolina plantation fields and ‘palpitating n*****s’ (Lily of Laguna) is both ludicrous and deeply offensive. In the unlikely event of anyone trying it now, they could possibly be prosecuted under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.

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G.H. Elliott, the Chocolate Coloured Person.

But in G.H. Elliott’s heyday it was part of a tradition of racial stereotyping – the lazy or happy-go-lucky darkie, rarely sinister – that went back to the minstrel shows of the 1830s and is an important part of American theatrical history, whether we like it or not. Jewish performers such as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, whose families had fled to America to escape poverty and discrimination, began their vaudeville careers in blackface (examples of one persecuted minority impersonating another) and few turned a hair when Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and even Shirley Temple appeared on film blacked-up.  It all-but-vanished as a quantum in British entertainment with the demise of The Black and White Minstrel Show in 1978, though blackface characters have appeared on TV’s Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen in recent years, now safely cloaked in the smirking irony that permits material considered unacceptable.

George Elliott was born in Rochdale in 1884 and shortly afterwards his parents moved to America. He made his stage debut playing Little Lord Fauntleroy in New Jersey and at the age of nine joined a minstrel troupe as a singer and dancer. He moved back to Britain in 1902 and, after the death of Eugene Stratton (the original singer of Lily of Laguna) in 1918, Elliott became the foremost ‘coon’ artist in Britain.

From talking to his widow, June Franey, and friends and colleagues of his, it seems that Elliott was not really a racist in today’s sense of the term. He was certainly ignorant about the real lives of people of colour, or, indeed, much else outside the make-believe world of theatre.  But, then again, racism has its roots in ignorance, doesn’t it? There were very few black faces on the streets of Britain during the great days of the music halls, and Elliott’s white-suited, dandified ‘coon’ was a romanticised fantasy figure with no links to any reality. “Old George was only about fifty at the time [he was actually 64] but he seemed much older,” said Thanks for the Memory accordionist and dancer Terry Doogan. “I wouldn’t say he was naïve, but he wasn’t a worldly gentleman, really. George just lived for his act – it was the only thing in his life, really.”

Here is the only known clip of G.H. Elliott, singing one of his big hits, Sue Sue Sue in the movie Music Hall (1934), directed by John Baxter. Racial issues and cultural appropriation aside, his stagecraft is impeccable and his charm immense. It is easy to see why audiences loved him.

NEXT, Ross contacted Randolph Sutton. Born in Bristol in 1888, he had been billed for thirty years as Britain’s Premier Light Comedian. Sutton, a performer of tremendously twinkling charm and cheekiness, always immaculate in top hat, white tie and tails, could be described as a kind of sophisticated George Formby, delivering a similar type of innuendo-laden song but in an endearing West Country burr that made them seem less thuddingly-smutty. The lyrics to some of his songs left little to the imagination; You Ought to Know Better, a Big Girl Like You has a mother advising her daughter:

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Saucy . . . Randolph Sutton.

                     Just lead him up the garden but don’t let him pick the flowers.

                     Remember what your mother said,

                     And keep him off the parsley bed.

                     You ought to know better, a big girl like you! 

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He inherited his most famous number, the sentimental On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep, from early music hall star Fred Barnes, and when Sutton was gone Danny La Rue made it his own, the song thus passing through three generations of gay entertainer.

Although Sutton lived with Terry Doogan for more than 30 years, he had been married, to Nellie, and fathered a son, John, who went on to become a musician and made several records as ‘Randolph Sutton Jr.’ John also had a son, John Randolph Sutton, who was active in show business as a singer, comedian, cruise entertainer and agent until his death in 2016. In fact John Randolph Sutton and I were Facebook friends! Judging from photographs I have seen, Ran, Nellie and Terry seem to have got on famously, and all three sometimes attended public events together.

Terry Doogan: “Randolph Sutton had retired after doing a week at Chiswick with Henry Hall and His Band. The audiences weren’t very good and he was disappointed, so he retired. He didn’t work for about eight months. Then Don rang around various people that he wanted, including Ran, and Ran said he was interested in it and asked who else was involved. Don told him who he’d got and Ran said okay but ‘the boy’ – that’s me – had to be with him, because I looked after him. So Don said: ‘I’ll arrange for him to do an act with some girls.’ Ran said: ‘I’ll give you four weeks, then, and if I’m not happy then will you release me?’ Of course, after the four weeks it was obvious that it was a much bigger success than anyone thought it was going to be, and Ran stayed with the show for the entire run.”

Here’s Sutton with one of his sauciest . . .

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The Essence of Eccentricity.

SUTTON also proved to be instrumental in getting Nellie Wallace to change her mind about Thanks for the Memory. Doogan: “Nellie was going through a bad time with her daughter, who was dying of cancer, but Norah, the daughter, thought it was a good idea for her to go into the show, so Nellie rang up Don and asked: ‘Who else have you got?’ and she agreed to be in it when Don told her Ran was involved, because Ran and Nellie were very good pals.”

An extremely odd person offstage as well as on, Wallace, born in Glasgow in 1870, was music hall’s most beloved female grotesque comedian. Known as The Essence of Eccentricity, sometimes The Quintessence of Quaintness, she had buck teeth and a huge, beaky nose and her skinniness was heightened by a little hat with one tall, quivering feather. She wore big boots and a tatty fur stole she called her “little bit of vermin,” and had been a top star since 1910 with her surreal patter and bizarre songs such as Three Times a Day, The Blasted Oak and Let’s Have A Tiddly at the Milk Bar, and Under the Bed, one of her best:

                           My mother said: ‘Always look under the bed.

                            Before you put the candle out, see if there’s a man about.’

                            I always do. But you can make a bet

                            That I’ve never had the luck to find a man there yet!


Here’s Nellie with one of her great favourites:

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Billy Danvers.

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Talbot O’Farrell.

DON Ross also hired singer Talbot O’Farrell and comedian Billy Danvers. O’Farrell was billed as The Greatest Irish Entertainer of All Time but he was, you will be unsurprised to learn, nothing of the kind. Born William Parrot in the north of England in 1878, he first went on the halls as Jock McIvor, Scottish Comedian and Vocalist. Jock didn’t catch on, so he switched to an Irish impersonation and never looked back. O’Farrell’s Irishman, in frock coat, check trousers, white gloves, spats and grey top hat, was about as convincing as Elliott’s negro or Shields’s man; O’Farrell didn’t try for a brogue, for example, and did his act in his natural Northern accent. His songs were lachrymose – How Ireland Was Made, That Old-Fashioned Mother of Mine, The Lisp of A Baby’s Prayer – and by the late 1940s his voice had deteriorated into a quavering bawl, but O’Farrell was still a canny choice on Ross’s part because he was also a fine comedian, his relaxed patter between songs clever and appealing, and audiences adored the old fraud.

To see Talbot O’Farrell with typical patter and a sentimental Irish ballad, click here.

Billy Danvers, billed as Always Merry and Bright or Cheery and Chubby, was an unpretentious, old-style, red-nosed, front-of-tabs comic. Born William Mikado Danvers in Liverpool in 1884 – his father was appearing in Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas at the time – he provided an element of robust gaggery that perfectly balanced out the whole Thanks for the Memory package.

Each of the seven stars was on a straight salary of £100 a week.

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Nellie Wallace was later replaced by Lily Morris.

REHEARSALS for the show began, though Nellie Wallace was absent for many of them because of the gravity of her daughter’s illness. She would appear from time to time, however, rushing into the theatre shouting: “Don’t speak to me! I don’t want anybody to speak to me!” During these unpredictable attendances she would sometimes wander around backstage squirting a disinfectant spray-gun into nooks and crannies, muttering: “Dirty beasts! Filthy beasts!”

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Elliott, Sutton, O’Farrell, Danvers, Shields. Sitting: Gitana.

Ella Shields was much easier to deal with. Ross: “She arrived for rehearsals bubbling over with ideas and innovations. She wanted the girls on the stage dressed as costers while she sang Burlington Bertie from Bow, plus a coffee stall. So we decked the assistant stage manager as a coffee stall attendant and built the stall. Then on the first night she decided she’d do it without the girls. Then she changed her mind about the stall. But we didn’t mind. We loved her. Too many people who do Burlington Bertie nowadays wear immaculate evening clothes. All wrong. Ella wore a slightly shabby dinner jacket, a topper that was just a little dull and dented and gloves that were almost threadbare. She judged it so carefully. Not a swell. Not a tramp. Just a rather philosophical fellow a little on his uppers.”

Doogan: “The girls and I were having a break and sitting on the floor of the stage and in came this lady in a black and white costume and a nice little hat and a short haircut. And she came over to us and in that lovely American accent she said: ‘Oh, I believe you’re Terry. I’m Miss Shields, and Mr Ross says you’re going to be doing something for me before I go into Burlington Bertie.’ I’ll always remember her walking onto the stage of that theatre, in this little costume that looked as if it didn’t belong to her and which, we discovered later, she’d borrowed from her daughter to come over in, because Ella wasn’t very flush at the time. Ran thought Ella was a superb artist – beautiful. And as a person he loved her. Onstage she was like Ran, in a way. You see, Ran would take a song, or a picture number, like his circus or his dog songs, and he could turn it into something where people would imagine they were at the circus, or they could see the little dog, and Ella could do that in the same way with her numbers.”

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Terry Doogan and the girls.

Ross: “Ella was a bit sloppy. She never bothered much about clothes. When she came back from New Zealand she came off the boat and she looked just like a little housewife, chatting to other housewives. Offstage her figure was rather dumpy: she had very wide hips and was bit pear-shaped. Onstage she managed to hide this by the way her jackets were cut, and she always looked elegant. She didn’t bother about her make-up too much. She used to tuck a paper napkin into her collar to stop it getting on her shirt and quite often she’d go onstage with it still tucked in and at the beginning of her first number it would fly up over her face. She’d just laugh it off because she had tremendous confidence onstage.”

Less so off, however. Sometimes she would say to Ross: “I’m a great artist. And a great woman. I am, Bill, aren’t I? Aren’t I?”

“Ella was basically a very lonely person,” said Doogan, “because apart from being very reserved she didn’t have a lot of money. Also, in Thanks you had Gertie, who was married to Don, so that was a twosome; you had Billy Danvers and his wife, who traveled with him; there was Talbot O’Farrell and his pianist, who was always with him, and his wife used to come up quite a lot when we were on tour; there was June and George; and, of course, Ran and I were together. Nellie was away a lot looking after her daughter. So Ella was the odd one out on her own, so that’s why at times she felt a little lonely.

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“As far as I can remember, from seeing it in her ration book – because I often used to go and get her ration slips for her – Ella had a husband named Buck. But as far as I know nobody ever saw him. Minnie Goss, who was Ella’s dresser, and had been with Ella for years, right since before the war, said she married this man Buck on a boat either going to or coming back from America, and that was all there was to it. They never saw each other again. It must have been a kind of shipboard romance.”

Ross: “He was, according to Ella, a cowboy of Adonis appearance and fantastic physique, and much younger than her. Whenever she spoke of Buck she turned her eyes up to heaven and said: ‘Oh, my dear!’”

“There was no problem over billing in Thanks for the Memory,” said Doogan, “because George Elliott, who was a darling man, and loved by everybody in the business, always insisted that he should be First Top and so everybody agreed. They all had the same size billing, so it wasn’t like being First Top really. Everybody in the profession loved George, and all the stars in Thanks for the Memory said ‘Well, let George be Top’ and they also let him have the Number One dressing room, because that was George’s life, and if he’d have thought that he was going to be Second or Third Top, in Number Four or Number Five dressing room, he would have been just broken up. So everybody gave way to him.”

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THE first night at the Empire Theatre, Brixton, in February 1948, was an unqualified triumph, with fans besieging the stage door and The Performer newspaper commenting: ‘One of the greatest music hall happenings for a generation. Seldom if ever in its long and colourful history has the Empress witnessed such stirring scenes as those which greeted the premiere of Don Ross’s Thanks for the Memory.’

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Randolph Sutton.

Ross played me his own private recording  – on vast, breakable 78rpm discs – and there is also in existence on CD a BBC radio broadcast that was made of the show, so it is still possible to savour the atmosphere of Thanks. After tenor Paul Conrad sang the theme song, which had been popularised by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in the movie Big Broadcast of 1938, a dancing act, The Six Silver Bells and Terry Doogan, set the scene, followed by an acrobats Marguerite and Charles.

Then Randolph Sutton skipped on to deliver one of his sauciest numbers, My Girl’s Mother, which was fairly unequivocally about a man having affairs with both a young girl and her mother:

                         My girl’s mother, my girl’s mother.

                         Though she’s over forty,

                          Still, she’s very sporty . . .

                         Who says ‘Now, Maisie, you go up to bed

                         And come here on the sofa and cuddle me instead?’

                         My girl’s mother, my girl’s mother,

                         She’s more than a mother to me.

Sutton closed with On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep, charming the audience into singing along simply by cupping a hand to his ear and smiling encouragingly.

Nellie Wallace followed, introduced in voice-over: “A funny hat . . . a long feather . . . a bit of skunk . . . a little muff. Who could it be but – Nellie Wallace!” Her act was both extraordinarily lugubrious and exceedingly funny as she squawked dementedly away about death and suicide, and began with one of her best-known songs, which was about pies:

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Nellie: pie-crust.

                          I can’t stand my mother’s pie-crust.

                          Eat it? I would sooner die first!

                          I’ll tie it round me neck, and tomorrow I will be

                          Down at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

She then told a cheery little story about the death of her father: “My poor, dear father. I can see him now, just before he died. He said: ‘Can you see me, my pretty one?’ [laughter] . . . the doctors wanted us to take him to the seaside. But we couldn’t afford it. We had no money! So what did I do, his noble daughter? I sat by his bedside and fanned him with a kipper.”

Another chorus of Mother’s Pie Crust and then it was: “That ideal of ideals, the evergreen Burlington Bertie – Ella Shields!” She sang chucklingly of young love in Cecilia and then went into I’m Not All There, a rather uncomfortable talk-song about someone who can get away with all kinds of bad behaviour because he encourages others to suppose he is mentally subnormal. It would be unthinkable that her last number would be anything other than:



                                I’m Bert. P’raps you’ve heard of me.

                                Bert. You’ve had word of me,

                                Jogging along, happy and strong, living on plates of fresh air.

                                I dress up in fashion and when I am feeling depressed

                                I shake from my cuff all the whiskers and fluff,

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                                I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten-thirty,

                                And saunter along like a toff.

                                I stroll down The Strand with my gloves on my hand

                                Then I stroll down again with them off.

                                I’m all airs and graces; correct, easy paces;

                                So long without food I forgot where my face is . . .

                                I’m Bert, Bert, I haven’t a shirt,

                                But my people are well-off, you know.

                                Nearly everyone knows me,

                                From Smith to Lord Roseb’ry.

                                I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow.

Here she is singing Burlington Bertie from Bow in a clip from a filler presumably intended for cinemas in the 1930s. The picture quality isn’t great – but at least this record of her singing her greatest song survives.


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Talbot O’Farrell closed the first half with his bogus paddywhackery and excruciating songs, and the second half opened with more dancing from Terry and the girls. Then on tripped Gertie Gitana, looking nothing like her sixty-one years by all accounts, though the voice was little trembly.  She sang Silver Bell, accompanied by a small male chorus and topped and tailed by her trademark yodeling, then performed a medley of her old songs, closing, of course, with Nellie Dean.

Fruity-voiced Billy Danvers was on next, describing himself as “the youngest veteran in captivity.” After a quick song he went into his patter. One of his best gags – used not here but in subsequent Thanks for the Memory productions – went: “Three men were stood in a pub having a drink, you know, all boasting about their wives – it’s very seldom you’ll hear a man boasting about his wife, especially when she’s not there. One said: ‘My wife has the most beautiful eyes in the world; they’re pale blue.’ The other said: ‘That’s nothing. My wife’s got lovely eyes as well. They’re grey eyes.’ So they turned to the third man and said: ‘Tom, what’s the colour of your wife’s eyes?’ And he said: ‘I don’t know. I’ve not noticed. I should have done. I’ve been married long enough.’

“And it worried him. So he went home but he couldn’t find her in the slavery – the kitchen – so he went into the lounge and there she was sat on the settee in her dressing-gown, reading, so he went straight up to her, looked right into her face and said: ‘Brown!’ And a feller got up from behind the settee and said: ‘How did you know I was here?’”

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Elliott: thistledown.

G.H. Elliott closed the show with I’m Going Back Again to Old Nebraska and Lily of Laguna, featuring his distinctive and beautiful dancing, described by one observer as: ‘He drifted around the stage like thistledown.’ As the audience sang along at the end of Laguna, Elliott used their chorus to riff against in counterpoint. Only one movie clip of Elliott seems to exist, performing another of his numbers, Sue Sue Sue, and while the racial condescension of his portrayal jars, the overwhelming charm and total command of the audience is obvious.

For the finale there was a platform at the back of the stage with a long table covered in flowers and bottles of champagne. As it slowly moved to front stage the seven veterans sitting or standing around it toasted each other and the audience, laughing and blowing kisses.  Thanks for the Memory was 1848’s biggest stage success, touring Britain to packed houses, playing for a fortnight at the London Palladium and featuring in that year’s Royal Variety Performance.

WITH such an elderly cast, it was inevitable that Thanks for the Memory would be beset by health problems as it trundled around the country. Nellie Wallace was sometimes absent as her health went downhill along with that of her daughter, her place on the bill taken by Renee Houston and Donald Stuart, and Talbot O’Farrell was a diabetic and had gangrene. In spite of his lifetime in the business, and his relaxed and confident act, Randolph Sutton suffered badly from stage fright, and also had sciatica. Doogan: “On the first tour, at the Empire, Newcastle, on the Wednesday second house, Ran stooped down to the footlights and then found that he couldn’t get up again. So he finished the chorus and the tabs closed but he couldn’t take a bow because he couldn’t get up. So I dashed on with the stage manager, and we got him off the stage. His back had locked and he couldn’t finish the week.”

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Ella Shields and her dresser, Minnie Goss.

Personality clashes were also inevitable. Doogan again: “When Ella had been  with Thanks for about 12 months, and she had got a bit of money behind her, she got all her jewelry out of hock in America. She got some friends of hers who were going over there to get her jewels and a couple of fur coats. They took the tickets and got them out. One of Ella’s great delights, during the second year of Thanks, in the four-week break, was going back to America in all her furs and jewelry and deliberately snubbing all the people who treated her badly when she was a little bit down and out.

“On the first occasion people had to share dressing rooms, Ella was sharing with Nellie Wallace and in between shows I went into the prop room for some reason   and there was Ella, sitting on some old discarded prop from panto. A king’s throne, I think it was. And she’s sitting there reading a newspaper. So I said: ‘What are you doing here, Ella?’  And she said: ‘I cannot stand that woman’s language a minute more.’

“Nellie was very down-to-earth. She was a darling, but she was a very awkward woman to get on with, though Ran and I understood her. I said: ‘What are you talking about, Ella?’ And she said: ‘Nellie, upstairs. Her language is terrible and I can’t stand it.’

“So I went upstairs and into our dressing room and I said to Ran: ‘Poor Ella’s sitting in the props room because she can’t stand Nellie’s language.’ So Ran went in to Nellie and said: ‘Look Nellie, keep your language down a bit because of Ella.’

“And Nellie said: ‘Oh shit! Who does Lady Muck think she bloody is?’

“Now Ella had this big American theatrical trunk that she traveled. The next night we go to the theatre and there’s a knock on our dressing room door and Nellie came in and she said: ‘Ran, is the boy there?’ He said I was and she said: ‘Terry, I want you a minute. Get this bloody trunk out of the dressing room. We can’t move in here. This dressing room’s too small for the two of us and this bloody trunk.’  So I pushed the trunk outside into the hallway outside the dressing room and left it, and about ten minutes later there’s this knock on the door and it’s Ella and she says: ‘Terry, could you come and help me? I don’t know who’s done it, but someone’s pushed my trunk out into the hall, and I must have it in the dressing room.’ So out I go and I pushed the trunk back into the dressing room and that was that.

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Nellie: “Who does Lady Muck think she is?”

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Ella: ‘That woman’s language!’

“Then the next night there’s another knock on the dressing room door and it’s Ella. I said: ‘What do you want, love?’ and she said: ‘I can’t find my reading glasses anywhere. I’m sure they were in my handbag but I’ve got an idea that Nellie picked them up and put them in hers. Now I know you are a friend of Nellie’s – would you come in and have a look?’ So I did and, sure enough, there were Ella’s glasses in Nellie’s bag. Just the one pair. Now ten minutes later there’s another knock on the door and it’s Nellie: ‘Is the boy there? I want you a minute.’ So I go into her dressing room and she said: ‘That woman! She’s got my reading glasses! I can’t find them anywhere.’ I said: ‘Are you sure?’ She said: ‘Yes – they were on the make-up tray and they’re not there now. Look in her handbag.’

“I said: ‘You look.’

“She said: ‘No, you look in her handbag.’ So I looked in Ella’s bag and there were Nellie’s glasses as well as her own. And that’s how the week went on – not exactly squabbling with each other but certainly not getting on together. Then on the Thursday Nellie was off with a cold and she was staying at the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds and on the Friday we went to see her and we’re sitting talking to her in the hotel bedroom and she says: ‘You know what, Ran and Terry? I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one person in this show that understands me and that’s Ella.’ We just had a quiet laugh.”

Here’s a clip of Nellie Wallace ‘at home’ rather unconvincingly doing some housework and gardening and trying to feed an apple to a dog. The original footage is silent, and is here accompanied by her singing Under the Bed. About two-thirds of the way through another woman joins her – there is a strong facial resemblance, so it could be either a sister or perhaps her daughter.

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In Edinburgh: Nellie Wallace, Gertie Gitana, June Franey (Mrs G.H. Elliott), Don Ross, G.H. Elliott and Ella Shields.

WHEN Thanks reached Edinburgh the cast were astonished to find the city council had provided an open landau carriage, complete with horses and liveried coachman, waiting outside the hotel to take them on a tour. As the carriage door was opened for her, Ella said: “I’m all for showmanship, but isn’t this more like a circus?” Nellie slapped her on the bottom and said: “Get in the bloody thing.”

As part of the tour they visited a trade exhibition, where a salesman of patent remedies tried to interest Nellie in a glass of health salts, exhorting: “C’mon, gel, have a go. It’s great for your bowels.”

Nellie turned to Don Ross and said haughtily: “Mr Ross, will you kindly inform that gentleman that Miss Wallace’s bowels are in excellent working order.” Still fuming, she added: “I don’t know what the country’s coming to. Here we are at this lovely exhibition, being treated like ladies and gentlemen, and some upstart interrogates one about the state of one’s bowels. Presumption, my dear. They would never have asked Vesta Tilley about her bowels. But, then, perhaps the poor bitch never had any.” (1)

Ella Shields was just as eccentric in her own quiet way. Ross: “In the contracts it was stipulated that the artists were not to make curtain speeches because they held the production up and, anyway, all the audiences wanted to do was sing along to the old songs. But one night Ella decided to make a curtain speech. Afterwards I said to the stage manager: ‘Could you ask Miss Shields to come and see me please?’ When she arrived I said: ‘Look, Ella, for a start I don’t think you knew what you were saying. Do you realise you wished the audience Merry Christmas and  a Happy New Year – and its only September the 26th? And that you said . . .’ And I couldn’t go on because I saw her lower lip begin to tremble and she put a hand up to her mouth. So I said: ‘Look, darling, we’ll have a bottle of champagne together in a little while and forget all about it.’ So it passed off – but she didn’t make any more curtain speeches. Not until the very last night of Thanks, anyway, when all the artists did.

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“Another time she claimed that the cats’ eyes running down the middle of main roads worked by electricity, and nothing we could say to her would shake this conviction. She said: ‘I know the man who invented them. He’s a very dear friend.’ So one day I stopped the car and said: ‘Look here, Ella. You can see that they’re just reflections – bits of glass.’ And she said: ‘You can’t fool me. They wouldn’t switch them on during the day’.”

She may have been whimsical and scatterbrained in private, but onstage Shields was totally magical. Ross: “I was taking Harry Lauder and his niece Greta through the pass door after our opening performance at the Glasgow Empire and he stopped in the passage and held the lapels of my jacket. ‘I’ll tell you something,’ he said, ‘and I’m a Scotsman, if you know what I mean. I’d pay my admission money just to watch Ella Shields walk onto a stage and take her calls and walk off again. She’s so perfect. Man, she’s exquisite’.”

Late in 1948 Nellie’s daughter was moved into a hospice. She died on a Thursday, was cremated on Saturday, and Nellie was back with the show the next day. The company tried to rally round to comfort their old pal in her grief, but she rebuffed all approaches, refusing to eat and spending long periods alone in her dressing room, weeping. Ross managed to persuade her to see a theatre doctor, who told him Nellie was desperately ill. She pleaded with him to let her work on, and he agreed on condition that she rested all day and had constant medical supervision. Thanks for the Memory at the The Royal Variety performance was Nellie Wallace’s last appearance on any stage. Three weeks later she died in a nursing home, aged 78, when a valve in her heart burst.

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Lily: stepped in.

HER replacement, in January, 1949, was her old rival Lily Morris, tempted out of retirement because of the outstanding success of Thanks. Morris, born in London in 1884, made her first stage appearance when she was ten. The possessor of a fine contralto, she went on to become a chorus singer with many hits: Don’t Have Any More Missus Moore, Only a Working Man, In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree and her best, Why Am I Always the Bridesmaid?

                         Why am I always the bridesmaid – never the blushing bride?

                         Ding-dong, wedding bells

                        Only ring for other gels.

                        But one fine day – oh, let it be soon –

                        I shall wake up in the morning on my own honeymoon.

Although this is essentially a song of loneliness and despair, about a portly, middle-aged woman seeking a husband but continually being passed over, Morris made it irresistibly funny, even when recounting how her own mother seduced and then married one of her suitors (“being a widow,” explained Morris, “she knew what to do”). All through the song she put in hilarious little bits of business: casting herself to the ground in supplication, peeping coyly from behind the wilting bunch of flowers she carried. The side-splittingly funny bit came at the end, when the tempo increased and Morris lifted her skirts to expose chubby, bloomer-clad legs and hob-nailed boots and then rushed around the stage in the most wonderfully-mad dance, somehow seeming to defy the laws of anatomy as she rotated her legs at the knee, tap-dancing, prancing and curtseying with tremendous vigour while every few seconds the lower part of each leg went round in a circle.

It looked physically impossible, and in a lifetime of watching great eccentric dancing I have never come across anything else quite like it. You don’t need to take my word for it; thankfully, film of her singing Bridesmaid and demonstrating this quite astounding legmania survives in the early British musical Elstree Calling (1930), part-directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

And here it is . . .

Because she had been retired for so long, on her first night with Thanks this great trouper was as nervous as Ran Sutton, grabbing Don Ross and insisting he accompany her to the wings. “Come with me, Billy-boy,” she said. “Don’t leave an old girl in the lurch.”

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A later Thanks for the Memory, from the 1960s. Only Danvers remains from the original company.

THE final curtain of the first Thanks for the Memory fell at the Brixton Empress, where it had started two years before, on December 2nd, 1950. There would be further versions, with new/old names coming in – Sandy Powell, Albert Whelan, Billy Russell, Marie Lloyd Jr., Cavan O’Connor and a chastened Hetty King – and Sutton, Doogan and Danvers continued touring with the show right through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Thanks for the Memory meant many things to him, Don Ross told me. It was the professional highlight of his career, it brought him into direct contact with stars he had admired since boyhood, it acquainted a new generation with the fabulous entertainment of the past, and, most of all, it represented a last showcase for his adored Gertie.

And so we say farewell to Thanks for the Memory with a little poem Nellie Wallace often recited to close her act at London’s bawdier halls:

“The morning sun can kiss the sky.
The flower can kiss the butterfly.
The morning dew can kiss the grass.
And you, my friends, can . . . goodnight!”



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Thanks for sharing the memories, Don


Gertie: ‘Be happy, darling.’

AFTER the final performance of the first Thanks for the Memory tour in 1950 Gertie Gitana lived in blissful retirement with her beloved ‘Bill’ at their home in Hampstead, which they called Neldean. Her reputation as one of the brightest of all music hall stars was secure, Nellie Dean was still sung in pubs all over Britain at closing-time, and a street near her birthplace had been named after her. She resisted all suggestions of another comeback and developed a passionate interest in the Stock Market. In 1957 she died of cancer, aged 70. On her last morning her husband was sitting at her bedside when she suddenly woke and said: “Fancy them naming that street in Hanley after me.” According to Gitana’s biographer, Ann Oughton, Don placed his head on her pillow, his face close to hers. “Somehow she managed to find the strength to put her hand at the back of my neck and press my face closer to hers. She held it there for a time and whispered: ‘Thank you, Bill, for all your kindness, all your goodness to me, dear, and for all your love. Don’t try to live with me when I am gone. Nobody should ever live with the dead. Be happy, darling’.” (2)

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Ella: ‘I was Bert.’

ELLA Shields continued to take Burlington Bertie around the variety circuit after Thanks for the Memory. In August 1952 she was engaged as guest artist at Middleton Towers holiday camp. At the band call the 74-year-old star complained of feeling tired but refused a chair and did the rehearsal standing. During the show that night her physical condition deteriorated and, for the first time in 40 years, she changed the intro to her famous song. Normally, the band would vamp indeterminately while she prowled the stage doing bits of comical business with her cane, cuffs and topper and then she would go to the microphone and croon “I’m Bert” – the first line and the signal for the band to go in to the accompaniment proper. But that night, instead, she said in a musing and sad way: “Yes . . . I was Burlington Bertie,” finished the song, walked into the wings and collapsed from a cerebral haemorrhage. She died in hospital three days later without regaining consciousness. At her funeral the floral tributes were dominated by a gigantic wreath with just a name scrawled on the card: Buck.

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Ran: ‘No more nerves.’

RANDOLPH Sutton performed with tremendous verve in music hall revival shows until his death at the age of 80 in 1969. He made several television appearances and even featured as a pub singer on Coronation Street. Ran topped the bill at the City Hall Theatre, St Albans, just a week before he died and on the day of his funeral he had been due to go into the studios to re-record some of his old hits.  He left most of his estate of £26,760, plus his stage poodle, Pierre – who had delighted audiences by running onstage at the end of the song Your Dog’s Come Home Again – to Ernest ‘Terry’ Doogan, his companion of 33 years, and an annuity of £312 to his wife Nellie, from whom he had been separated for more than half a century. For many years an In Memoriam notice appeared in the pros’ newspaper, The Stage, on each anniversary of his death. It read: ‘Sleep tight, Ran. No more nerves. From Terry (The Boy).’ Terry died in 2005, aged 83.

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Elliott: ‘Tired.’

G.H. Elliott died at his home in Brighton in 1962, aged 78. In a piece in The Guardian in 1971, Keith Dewhurst recalled meeting The Chocolate Coloured Coon ten years previously, when he was appearing for a week in Wigan: He was lean and dry and twinkly, and his voice had a fascinating hoarseness. He had dark eyes that looked straight at you and made you feel very special, and his suit was very dapper in an Edwardian style that hid the wearer’s social origins behind a sort of gentlemanly rakishness . . . And I can remember that just as my first shock had been to see Elliott so spry and eager, so my second was to realise that he was, in fact, old and tired. His hair, I imagine, was a little dyed and the sheer effort of being so welcoming and amusing exhausted him. At pauses in the conversation he grinned but had nothing to say. Finally, his wife said: ‘It’s time for Mr Elliott’s rest.’

When he laughed at this he seemed young again, and when he shook my hand with his own that had many times shaken the hand of Marie Lloyd, his grasp was firm again and he did a little shuffle so that I looked down at his feet and saw how neat they were and how his shoes twinkled with polish. Whatever he thought about me or his predicament, whatever vanities or humiliations were troubling him, his courtesy was immaculate. He was perhaps a shade too keen to welcome me and a shade too obviously glad to leave me, and yet when he said he must be rested for his performance he implied not his own failing powers but an ideal of professionalism. (3)

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TALBOT O’Farrell, aka Jock McIver, aka William Parrot, was already quite ill during the last few months of the first Thanks for the Memory, and he died aged 74 in1952, as did the great Lily Morris. Billy Danvers continued to be Always Merry and Bright for many years and was working full-time until just two weeks before his death aged 80 in 1964.

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AFTER Gertie died Don Ross became reclusive for a while then shook himself out of his depression and picked up his career as a producer and agent. With Ray Mackender and Gerry Glover, he founded the British Music Hall Society – still going strong – in 1963 and was its first chairman. As Britain’s leading authority on the subject, he was often called upon by the BBC to contribute to radio or television programmes about the halls and the stars who populated them. He tried to retire in 1966, moving to Somerset, where he happily tended his kitchen garden and fruit trees. But it was hard to avoid the lure of the entertainment world, and two years later he accepted an offer from impresario Billy Marsh of Bernard Delfont Management to take charge of a show at Great Yarmouth and he remained in the business for the rest of his life. He died aged 78 in 1980 after a stroke, and was laid to rest beside Gertie at Wigston Cemetery after a service at St Paul’s, the actors’ church in Covent Garden, at which John Betjeman read the lesson.

All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. A shorter version of this story appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the 1970s. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.


Other sources:

(1) and (2) Thanks for the Memory: A Biography of Gertie Gitana, self-published by Ann Oughton (Pentland Press, 1995).

(3) The Guardian, June 30, 1971.

Sandy Powell

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists


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Portrait by Don McPhee, courtesy of The Guardian.

SANDY Powell’s best-remembered routine, buffed to a dazzling shine over half a lifetime, was still very funny in the 1970s even though the art it parodied had dwindled almost to a footnote in theatrical history.

“Ventriloquism! That is the thing of the day,” his asthmatic old soldier would wheeze confidently at the start, and during the inevitable series of disasters that followed – from a severe injury caused by the ceremonial sword hanging from his baggy scarlet guardsman’s uniform to the total disintegration of the malevolent and motheaten military dummy – the expression on those crumpled features gradually transformed from bland smugness to helpless, testy  resignation as control of the act slipped from his grasp along with the doll.

The bedraggled false moustache that hid his lips fell off a number of times and had to be stuck back on. The dummy sang while Sandy ostentatiously drank a glass of water; the curtains behind him ‘accidentally’ parting to reveal it was his assistant providing the piercing falsetto. “Now they’ll all know ’ow it’s done,” Sandy grumbled wearily.

He stared balefully out at the audience. “Can you sing and drink a glass of water at the same time?” he demanded. “It’s impossible!”

Further signs that his initial confidence had been misplaced began to be evident as he introduced the dummy to his assistant.

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Sandy and his wife, Kay White.



Sandy: “Now tell the lady where you come from, my little man.”

(Dummy makes unintelligible spluttering and choking noises).

Assistant: “I beg your pardon?”

Dummy: (with great difficulty) “Nullgerangton.”

Assistant: “Where?”

Dummy: “Nullgerangton.”

Assistant: “Where?”

Sandy (shouting): “WOLVERHAMPTON!” (Muttering to himself): “I wish he’d said Leeds.”

Sandy became distracted and his hand stuck out of the dummy’s neck-hole, waving around the stick to which its head was attached. “Oh dear,” he sighed. “I seem to have given the game away again.”

THE act was a master humorist’s brilliant evocation of all that had been tired and third-rate in variety, hilarious and strangely poignant, each pause and inflection part of a masterclass in comic timing for those who cared to watch and learn. But there was nothing third-rate about Sandy Powell himself. He had been one of Britain’s wealthiest and most successful entertainers, star of a series of movies tailored to his particular talents in the 1930s and 1940s, and he had sold a staggering seven-and-a-half million gramophone records of comedy sketches and monologues. He created radio’s first real catchphrase: “Can you hear me, mother?”

For fifty years he was also a top pantomime performer, moving from Buttons to Dame as he aged, and at least one of his innovations still lives on: he is said to have been the originator of the routine based around the phrase: “Look out – he’s behind you!”

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The shrewd Yorkshireman had been prescient, in the 1930s anticipating the kind of tie-ins and merchandising now considered obligatory in the selling of any performer. There was a 75,000-strong children’s club, the Sandy Powell Gang of Good-Deed Workers (Rule 6: Whenever you meet the Chief Gangster, that is myself, you are to fold your arms, walk straight up and say ‘Hello Sandy’), enamel lapel badges and ceramic mugs bearing his likeness.

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Sandy’s musical mugs. Picture courtesy Alan Roberts.

The dumpy, bespectacled little comedian was as old as the century and appearing in The Golden Years of Music Hall with Leslie Sarony, Bob and Alf Pearson and other survivors when I first met him in Manchester in 1971. In his dressing-room after the show he was the soul of affability as his wife Kay – it was she who had been discovered behind the curtain when the dummy sang – fussed around sorting out his props and making cups of tea. The shock of thick white hair had a ginger rinse through it to keep it still vaguely sandy-coloured, and dye now and then trickled down his forehead as we chatted, to be wiped away by Kay with an exasperated “tsk.” His nylon shirt had several burn holes on the front from the dropped cigarettes he used in another of his celebrated set-pieces, The Incompetent Magician.

I’d watched him doing it earlier. During the act, during which he never spoke a word, he dramatically covered his hand with a cloth and pulled it away with a flourish to reveal a bobbing white dove that he stroked as it perched on his fingers. After the applause died down Sandy wearily folded the dove in half and stuffed it into his pocket. He was not like Tommy Cooper, an inept magician who knew he was bad and laughed along with the audience. Sandy’s stance was ambiguous – it was never clear if he was a terrible magician who suffered from delusions of competence, or just an exhausted old trouper, nearly at the final curtain, past caring if the audience “know ’ow it’s done.”

Time for a clip of Sandy’s ventriloquism routine, from the 1980 Royal Variety Performance.

Whichever, Sandy was deconstructing the basic conventions of music hall in a way that had been unusual and rather daring for its time – having the bravery to go on stage and deliberately be rubbish and risk the audience not getting the joke. He liked to tell the story of overhearing two men on their way out of the theatre. “That magician in the first half was bloody awful,” said one. “I know,” said his friend. “But he wasn’t as bad as the ventriloquist in the second.”

But almost everybody did get it, of course, because he was Sandy Powell, Britain’s best-loved comedian. That gave him the confidence to go out on a limb. He didn’t need to; he could simply have pelted the audience with gags and suggested they go out and buy his records – typically, when he started recording he had set up a royalties deal that had helped make him a millionaire. But Sandy was intrigued by how far he could push comedy, where the safety nets were and whether or not they would catch him. And, unlike more recent boundary-stretchers, he managed to do it without ever being aggressive, sweary or blue.

And here’s the magician.

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Ready for panto – Sandy in his youth.

HIS mother Lily, who had been born in a Yorkshire workhouse, was a small-time turn who toured the smaller halls in the North of England in the 1890s with a puppet act, Lillette’s Living Marionettes. In 1899, when she was eighteen, she married a stagehand and the couple set up home in a tiny terraced house in Rotherham, where Albert Arthur Powell was born in January 1900. Powell Snr, who called the baby Sandy because of his bright red hair, was a drunk and a womaniser who disappeared four years later.

Penniless, Lily had to go back on the road to support her child, getting stage jobs whenever she could but mostly working as a singing waiter in pubs, Sandy hiding behind the piano in the bar. The boy had virtually no education, even though the law required him to attend school at each town where Lily was working. Sandy reckoned his whole schooling amounted to less than six months. Lily taught him to read and write. She also groomed him in stagecraft, and he first appeared before the public as a boy soprano planted in the audience and invited to stand up and sing by Lily. When he was nine Sandy went on stage alone (with a fake birth certificate to hand; children were not allowed to appear alone under the age of eleven) as a singer, and he also helped Lily in the marionette routine. Offstage, he was developing an act tap-dancing and mimicking stars of the day.

“My voice broke in 1912 and that’s when I first started to do comedy. I started at the old Empire Theatre in Easingdon Colliery, County Durham. My great favourite then – my idol – was Harry Weldon, and I based my style on his. And pinched his gags! He was doing Stiffy the Goalkeeper and he was absolutely my idol. Then I saw him at the Palace, Manchester, playing Buttons in Cinderella. And I used to go into every show while my mother was working the pubs around Manchester. I used to go in the gallery – twopence-ha’penny I think it was – every performance to see Harry Weldon.”

Weldon had a curiously sibilant delivery, whistling on every ‘s’ in his patter, and his Stiffy the Goalkeeper characterisation – an idle but loquacious player doing everything in his power to avoid the ball coming near him – had long been a favourite with provincial audiences. He had another act, The White Hope, in which he introduced a popular catchphrase: “Tell them what I did to Colin Bell” (Bell was a famous heavyweight boxer), adding more quietly, “but don’t tell them what he did to me.”

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The young star.

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Harry Weldon.

As mother and son trundled around the tattier music halls and dismal theatrical lodgings, often reliant upon public soup kitchens or the kindness of strangers, Sandy learned other lessons, too, about self-sufficiency and the value of money, about how a good deed would always be rewarded somewhere down the line. Financially astute as he became, Sandy was never less than open-handed and generous – when he was a top-earner he would be the first to discreetly slip a few quid into a struggling old pro’s  pocket, or give a leg-up to a talented youngster, or volunteer to take a pay cut if a show wasn’t doing too well. And his innate decency did find its reward towards the end of his career, when the world of British show business rallied round to support him when he suffered a devastating professional blow.

He and Lily were working a double-act when the First World War broke out and they continued to tour on the halls and in cine-variety. On one bill the only other act was a young girl named Grace Stansfield, later to become better known as Gracie Fields. “We used to go round the ‘smalls’ and the cinemas, where they used to have two turns while the projectors cooled down. Then we got on to the cheaper music halls, like the City Varieties in Leeds.”

When times were particularly tough Lily went back to the pubs and Sandy got casual jobs labouring in factories, and he also had brief stints looking after the donkeys on Blackpool beach. He was fifteen years old, still basing his act around Harry Weldon, struggling to find his own comic identity, when the big break came.

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In the 1930s.

“Mother and I were at the Empire Theatre, Dewsbury, and there happened to be a London agent in the theatre, a young man named Bertram Montague, and he sent a note round asking if we would meet him in Leeds the following morning, and he told us that he was going to try to get us a trial with the Stoll tour. Now if you got a Stoll tour in those days then that was the hallmark of success. He got me a two-week trial at two shillings and sixpence a week at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, which is now the BBC television theatre, and the Ardwick Green Empire – I’m afraid there’s just a blank space where that lovely theatre used to be – and I did all right, thank goodness, and I got more Stoll dates. Then we worked for Moss Empires and that started me being successful.”

Sandy was now appearing on bills with top names such as George Formby Snr, Little Tich, Marie Lloyd, Chirgwin the White-Eyed Kaffir, Nellie Wallace, Tom Costello, George Mozart, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King. When it became obvious that her son worked far better on his own, Lily retired.

“The first time I topped a bill at a good theatre was at the Palace, Blackpool, in 1918, and that was the first time I could call myself a star. Then I did a pantomime, Handy Andy, at the Princess Theatre, Glasgow, which ran for 18 weeks. Well, time went on, and I went around the smalls, with occasionally a good theatre, and then in 1928 I did a summer show at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool and I also made my first radio broadcast. It was from a little room at the Tower.”

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The Lost Policeman had further adventures.

THE next year came the record that changed his life. “They asked me to make a record and I asked them what they wanted me to do, because I can’t sing. They asked me what I was doing on stage that week – I was at the Palladium – and I said it was a sketch called The Lost Policeman. I did a test record of it, and I was booked to go to South Africa just afterwards. The recording company said: ‘We think that’s all right and we’re going to put it on the market.’ Well, I was in South Africa for three months and when I came back, to my great surprise, the recording manager came round and he said ‘I’ve got good news for you, Sandy. The Lost Policeman is a great success.’ And he handed me a royalty cheque for £175, which in those days was a hell of a lot of money. The record sold half a million, and I earned a ha’penny a record.”

Vocalion had offered Sandy a lump sum of £60 for the recording, with all rights retained by the company, or £30 as a recording fee and a royalty of a farthing a side. His instinctive decision to go for the royalties earned him a vast amount of money. Over the years he made nearly 100 records – “we churned them out like sausages” – for a variety of labels, and his income from royalties alone peaked at £12,000 a year, huge money in the 1930s.

The Lost Policeman opens with Sandy on his beat, ruminating to himself in his trademark slow, grumbling whine: “Oh what a life, what a life to be a policeman. You know, I’ve been on my beat all day and I haven’t had one case yet, not one case. Hullo – here’s a little boy coming along. I wonder what he wants. Hello, son. What’s the matter?”

Percy: “Can you tell me where I can find a policeman, please?”

Sandy: “I beg your pardon?”

Percy: “Can you tell me where I can find a policeman, please?”

Sandy: “What do you think I am, a sea-lion or something? Why? What do you want a policeman for?”

Percy: “Our ’Erbert’s fell in the river.”

Sandy: “Your ’Erbert’s fell in the river? Oh I am sorry, I really am. Your ’Erbert’s fell in the river, eh? Oh it is a shame. Has he – er – has he been in the river very long?”

Percy: “Oh no, just now.”

Sandy: “Just now? Well, that isn’t so bad then. He’ll get used to it when he’s been in a bit, you know. Has he ever been in a river before?”

Percy: “No.”

Sandy: “Oh well, it’ll be a change for him, then. Can your ’Erbert swim?”

Percy: “No.”

Sandy: “Oh well, now’s his chance to learn, then. Well, I’ll take a few particulars down if you don’t mind . . .”

And so The Lost Policeman rambles on, with Sandy continuing to take measured and irrelevant notes while Our ’Erbert presumably threshes about in the river, drowning. This type of comedic stance – trivialising mounting disaster and treating it as a distraction or nuisance – was used by other comedians besides Powell. Perhaps the most famous example is Robb Wilton’s Fireman Sketch where, as a harrassed station officer, the comedian reminisces amiably and chats inconsequentially – “What’s the address? Grimshaw Street – Grimshaw Street . . . now wait a minute, I know it as well as can be, but I just can’t place it. No, no, no . . . don’t tell me, let me try and think of it for myself. Grimshaw Street – oh, isn’t that annoying” – while a woman’s house is burning down.

Here’s a sketch that runs along similar lines, from 1930, as Sandy blandly welcomes home a neighbour on whose home he has been keeping an eye. Click here

Over the next ten years Sandy performed many other gramophone occupations equally unsatisfactorily in sketches mostly written by himself, including mountaineer, dirt-track rider, jockey, fireman, tram-driver, solicitor, plumber’s mate, zoo-keeper, MP, doctor, taxi-driver, barber, grocer, boxer, burglar, farmer and window-cleaner. He found himself ‘amongst the loonies,’ swimming the Channel, on a South Sea Isle, joining the nudists and, in Sandy Joins the Short-Shirts, flirting with fascism.

‘THEN I started putting on my own shows – road shows – in 1930, just as the talkies were coming in. The talkies murdered variety and the theatres but, through The Lost Policeman and my other records, I happened to stay successful. It was a cheap show I put on, but it continued until the war started. By this stage my record sales  were averaging a million a year. That may not be many these days, but it was a hell of a lot then. And my little road show was doing very, very well.

Sandy radio pictorial

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It’s A Grand Old World.

“Now, about my catchphrase, ‘Can you hear me, mother?’ It was about 1931 and I was doing a record called Sandy at the North Pole, and it was being broadcast live at the same time. I was doing this sketch and I had to say: ‘Try and get my mother. I want to talk to her. She’ll be in the saloon bar of the Pig and Whistle.’ Anyway, I said: ‘Are you there, mother? Can you hear me, mother?’ This was just an ordinary line in the sketch that was repeated at intervals. I had a bit of patter and then: ‘Can you hear me, mother?’ and so on. This went on, and then I dropped my script on the floor and all the pages got mixed up. I was filling in and ad libbing and I said: ‘Can you hear me, mother?’ a few more times.”

It was only when people shouted the phrase after him in the street the day after the broadcast that he realised it had become identified with his name. “I didn’t intend it to be a catchphrase. It sort of caught on, and it’s never really been forgotten. Nearly all the famous catchphrases have been like that. Arthur Askey and ‘I-thang-yow.’ He just said that one day and it caught on. Robb Wilton with his famous ‘The day war broke out . . .’ I happen to know that he never meant it to be a catchphrase. It just goes to show that you can’t kid the people. They pick what they fancy, no matter how you try to push them.”

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His first Royal Variety Performance, at the London Palladium in 1935, led to West End audiences becoming more receptive to his simple Yorkshire warmth, and Sandy’s radio shows in the 1930s, for the BBC or commercial stations – Radio Luxembourg’s series Around the World With Sandy Powell in 1938 was sponsored by Atora Shredded Beef Suet – were vastly popular. The BBC dropped him only once, on December 11th, 1936, when Edward’s abdication speech was deemed even more important than Sandy Powell.

It was inevitable that he would go into films, and he starred in eight between 1932 to 1948: The Third String, Can You Hear Me Mother? Leave It to Me, It’s a Grand Old World, I’ve Got A Horse, All at Sea, Home From Home and Cup-Tie Honeymoon. The films were unpretentious, homely fare, far more popular in Lancashire and Yorkshire than in the snooty South, and those I’ve seen seem laboured and unfunny now.

“When war broke out I was too old to join up, so I was one of the first to volunteer to go abroad and entertain the troops. I went to Italy, Morocco, Algeria and all the North African coast. I came back in 1944. Now in those days I lived in Russell Square, right in the heart of London. I came back when they told me something that surprised me. They said there were aeroplanes which came over and dropped bombs but which had no pilot. This was the doodle-bugs. Anyway, the first night home in England one of these things came down right in the middle of Russell Square, so the following morning I went straight to Drury Lane, which was the headquarters of ENSA, and I volunteered to go abroad again. So off I went to France with Florence Desmond and Flanagan and Allen.”

Sandy sings the title song from It’s A Grand Old World (1943), directed by Herbert Smith.

AFTER the war Sandy, like many another old variety pro, found himself less in demand as the theatres closed down and jazz, swing and crooners became the vogue. With the foresight he showed throughout his career, he saw that he and Kay, who was his third wife (his first marriage ended in divorce and his second wife died), could find a cosy and lucrative niche for themselves in summer shows if he operated as producer as well as star. “I used to do a summer season at the Pier Theatre, Eastbourne. When I saw the red light going up for variety, I thought ‘I must get into this summer season business’ in 1950, and I stayed there for twenty years. We produced and put on the show at the pier there every year and then, in 1970, we had a disastrous fire and the theatre burned down.”

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The Powells lived nearby and watched helplessly as fire crews unsuccessfully battled to save the theatre. The old comedian’s investment in scenery, props – everything – went up in flames.  Heartbroken, he turned to Kay: “I said to my wife: ‘Well, this is it. It’s the beginning of the year and we’ve lost our theatre for the summer. What on earth are we going to do? I’m seventy years old. This is the end.’

“And then things seemed to go the other way. The management of the Eastbourne Hippodrome, our opposition, who were presenting The Golden Years of Music Hall, said: ‘Sandy, make it twenty-one years in Eastbourne. Come and be in our show at the Hippodrome.’ Now I’d already managed to book something for the summer with Bunny Baron, who did a lot of summer shows, and Bunny rang me up and said ‘Sandy, make it twenty-one years. Go to the Hippodrome. I’ll release you from your contract.’ I thought that was a grand thing to do. It was a lovely gesture.

“So we went to the Hippodrome. It was a marvelous show. We had Elsie and Doris Waters, Leslie Sarony and Bob and Alf Pearson. During that year I also did quite a lot of broadcasting and television. I did my own half-hour show, Suddenly It’s Sandy Powell, I did a play, and then, to crown everything, I was chosen to appear again in the Royal Variety Show at the Palladium, thirty-five years after my first one. It was a great thrill.

“Then I was engaged to go to South Africa again, and a week before we were to sail, the management there contacted me and said: ‘Will you do a short film, a sort of trailer? We want to use it to advertise the show before you open.’ I said I would do it with pleasure, so we went along to the studio and I was doing my little burlesque ventriloquist act, and then I got the surprise of my life. In the middle of all this Eamonn Andrews came on and said: ‘Sandy Powell, This Is Your Life.’ That was the biggest shock I ever received.”

Another honour that came his way was when Bass Charrington wanted to open a pub in Rotherham named after him. Powell modestly vetoed the suggestion that it be called The Sandy Powell, and suggested The Comedian, with a Sandy Powell Lounge. “I opened the pub. I had to pull the first pint, so I was practicing with a friend of mine, who had a pub. I wanted to show them I could pull a pint. At the opening I said ‘Where are the pumps?’ and there were no pumps. Just a button to press.”

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A letter to me from Sandy.

THROUGH the 1970s Sandy gently meandered around Britain with Kay in old-time music hall shows, almost always attracting good audiences except on the few occasions he tried the clubs and, like Wall and Jackley, found that the hard-drinking audiences were not patient enough for slow, old-style humour. He had always looked after his mother Lily, keeping her in luxury until she died, and he was a caring friend, too, particularly to the formidable Hetty King – whom he described as the finest artist he ever worked with – in her cantankerous old age. Part of a letter to me dated February 16th 1972 runs: ‘Hetty was taken ill the last week in Swindon and we had to leave her there in the hospital. She was very ill with bronchitis. However, I have phoned her tonight and she came home a week ago. Says she doesn’t feel quite herself yet, but listening to her on the phone her voice sounded wonderfully clear. I told her not to go out while it was so cold.’

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Guardian photographer Don McPhee and I enjoyed Sandy and Kay’s hospitality at their home, ‘Starbourne,’ in Eastbourne, a couple of times, and it was in their living-room that he dug out his dummy and climbed into his old ventriloquist costume to be photographed. He was so kind and funny offstage, telling stories of long-ago, impersonating stars he’d appeared with sixty years before; a living link with Marie Lloyd, George Robey and Vesta Tilley. He had the charming gift, possessed by few, of radiating an instant friendship that seemed totally sincere, of making you feel that he had taken a great shine to you, that there was something about you that he really liked. You left his company glowing. He was such a very nice old man.

Unlike some of our veterans, he did not resent the stars of the 1970s who had supplanted him and his ilk. “You know, people say: ‘Ah, the good old days. The stars are not what they used to be.’ Well, I don’t agree with that. We have very, very wonderful stars today. You look at Max Bygraves, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Roy Castle, Ken Dodd. We have great talent nowadays. I’m sure that if they had been working during the great days of the music halls they would have been just as successful.

“I’ve been very, very lucky really,” he mused. “When the music halls started closing down I was able to adapt myself. And even now, thank goodness, I’m made welcome wherever I go. Perhaps one reason is that I’ve never used any blue material. I’ve never relied on blue material or sexy gags. I’ve always kept my act clean, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to carry on for so long.”

                                                          Can you hear us, Sandy?

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SANDY Powell was awarded the MBE in 1975 and continued to work hard through the 1970s – sometimes three shows a day if there was a matinee. In the early summer of 1982 he and Kay were traveling by train to Coventry and Sandy, who been feeling a bit poorly for a couple of days, suggested they have a little drink. As Kay fussed around getting out the glasses and bottle of whisky, he said: “I think I’ll pack it in. Do you know what I think we’ll do? We’ll go on a cruise around the world.” His wife told him: “I’ve wanted to pack it in for a long time, too, but you were so happy working and you loved it so much that I never liked to say it.” At the end of his act that night he told the audience that it was at that very theatre, 50 years before, that he had first uttered the words “Can you hear me, mother?” on any stage. It was the last time, too; the following day the 82-year-old comedian collapsed and died from a heart attack.

Sandy bows out with a scene from Cup-Tie Honeymoon (1948), the first movie made by Mancunian Film Corporation at their studios in a converted church at Dickenson Road, Manchester.

All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. A much shorter version of this story appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the 1970s. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.

Brinsworth House

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists



brinsworth house

IT IS known in the business as ‘the old pros’ paradise’ – appropriately enough, since most of its residents go directly from Brinsworth House to meet their Maker. Set back from a main road in Twickenham, Greater London, in an acre of carefully-tended grounds, the imposing mansion was the haven where elderly music hall performers went when they fell upon hard times. Others who fared better financially but needed full-time medical care found a refuge there, too. Many variety performers  toured Britain, Europe and further afield with hardly a break for decades, staying in hotels, lodging houses and other ‘digs,’ and never had a permanent home to retire to.

I use the past tense not because Brinsworth is no longer functioning – it is, very successfully – but because almost all the performers who worked the halls and variety theatres are now long gone, and the net has necessarily been widened to include aged actors (Dame Thora Hird passed away there in 2003), television personalities and even geriatric radio DJs (Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman was another resident).

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Hylda Baker.

Comedian Hylda Baker (“She knows y’know”) lived out her last days at Brinsworth in 1986 and cherubic Charlie Drake said “Goodbye, my darlings!” in 2006. Ben Warriss, straight man to Jimmy Jewel, was a resident, too, plus Serge Ganjou of the great adagio act The Ganjou Brothers and Juanita, Jack Wilson of Egyptian sand-dancers Wilson, Keppel and Betty, and countless others. Alf of Bob and Alf Pearson (“We bring you melodies from out of the sky, my brother and I”) celebrated his 100th birthday at Brinsworth House in 2010.

Opened in 1911, it was originally funded wholly by the profession from dues paid into The Music Hall Artistes’ Railway Association, which became The Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, which turned into The Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund to open it out to all former workers in the performing arts.

For many years it has also been funded by the annual Royal Variety Performance and, since 2007 and with a wonderful sense of circularity, part-proceeds from phone-voting in ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent. It works like this: in exchange for the funding, the EABF arranges for the winner of Britain’s Got Talent to appear on the Royal Variety Performance, which is seen by 150 million viewers worldwide.

Bob and Alf Pearson from 1932.


When I visited Brinsworth in 1972, though, it was still rich in ancient music hall comics, jugglers, singers, acrobats and musicians, most of them chirpy and bright as they chatted away and tried to top each other’s gags and tall stories in the sunny lounge; a few immobile and staring into the past, as in any other old folks’ home.

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Stan Stafford, The Silver-Voiced Navvy, entertains fellow residents. Picture courtesy Brinsworth House.Below: Stan in his prime.

THE first to totter up to meet me on the arm of a smiling nurse was 76-year-old Stan Stafford, billed in variety as ‘The Silver-Voiced Navvy,’ who had been a mainstay of demented Lancashire comedian Frank Randle’s stock company in the 1940s and early 50s.

Randle (1901-1957), an alcoholic with serious mental health problems, was a subversive and uncontrollable talent greatly loved by Northern audiences even when he took his false teeth out and threw them into the stalls in a rage.

“I was with Frank for ten years,” said Stan. “He always liked to use me. He was a great artist, and offstage he was just like he was on, except when he went off the deep end. I did character parts in his sketches and so did Jimmy Clitheroe [4ft 3ins comedian – born 1921, died 1973 – who played a naughty schoolboy all his career], who was just starting.

“Randle was successful in London in spite of what people say. I played the Adelphi on The Strand with him – it only lasted two weeks and then the following week we went to a smaller theatre in another part of London and we had to have mounted police out on the Saturday night to keep the crowds back. The place was packed to suffocation.”

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Stan capitalised on a freakish vocal attribute. “When I was ten years old I entered a competition at a fairground and won. I was a boy soprano. I went into the Navy and when I came out in 1920 I still had a soprano voice. I discovered at the age of thirty that I could also sing tenor and baritone. So I did my act in three voices. I started as a female impersonator on the halls. I was dressed beautifully and had all this make-up on, but somebody said ‘He’s got hands like a navvy,’ so that’s how the navvy character started. I used to sing soprano offstage before I came on and the audience expected a lady and I used to come on dressed as a navvy. That got a big laugh, and I used to say: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, before I was born my mother wanted a girl and my father wanted a boy, and I suppose they’ve both been satisfied.’
Stan Stafford
“I was born in Manchester, and I commenced on fairgrounds. To tell the truth, I started my real career singing in pubs in Manchester. I got seven-and-sixpence and three bitters, and sixpence if there was an encore. I was doing that for about twelve months and then I went into the music halls. I went to America and worked there for three months in 1932. We used to go into speakeasies and I met Legs Diamond in one of them.  When I was asked to go to America I thought the man who booked me said the Palace, New York, but, in fact, he said the Palace, Newark, which is in New Jersey, where I had to play four shows a day and two on Sunday. Then I came home and worked on the halls in England with Billy Merson, Bransby Williams and Fred Barnes. My career has spanned sixty years. I still make occasional appearances now. I worked a few weeks ago in Rotherham in one of the clubs.”

Here’s Frank Randle in his famous Old Hiker sketch. Warning: this may be incomprehensible if you are unfamiliar with a Yorkshire dialect delivered by a man with no teeth.

NEXT up was a tiny, 86-year-old lady of great dignity and self-composure: Tina Elliott, who had been in one of music hall’s most lavish and stately acts. “I was with the Elliott Savonas,” she told me. “I married the youngest member of the act. There were four brothers, and I married Harry Elliott. After a while one of the sisters married out of the act and I took her place, and I worked with them for fifteen years. The Elliott Savonas were a very famous musical act, a saxophone band. We girls wore lovely white wigs. It was a very well-dressed show.

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The Elliott Savonas: Tina Elliott is in there somewhere.

“Originally I started in the business when I was very young as a circus girl. I was about six years old. So I didn’t go on the music halls until I was married. I had a long career but I retired many years ago. In the Elliott Savonas there were seven of us, all on saxophones, playing the whole range of the instrument, from the largest down to the smallest. On the halls we were accompanied by the pit orchestra as well.

“When I first started, in the circus, I was a rider. It was a big switch from riding to playing the saxophone, but I must have been musical. When I joined the saxophone band it took me three months to learn to play. I was taught by other members of the act. It was a very wonderful show. We played the Coliseum, the Empire – all the big halls.

“I didn’t get to know so many of the big names of the music hall because the act was a headline act in itself, supported by other, smaller acts. It was a very happy family to be with – a very famous family. Everybody knew us. Coming from a circus, I never had a home until I retired. None of us did. We were in digs most of the time. I have a son, but he married out of the business, so the act is finished now. I’ve never touched a saxophone since I retired.”

MY next interviewee swiftly dispelled any air of (slightly forced) jollity that had been attendant on these little chats. Sad-faced little Sidney Bernard Mizuta, also known as Alan Kaye, was a 76-year-old retired juggler and acrobat, and the story he had to tell involved what was child abuse by any definition.

“My life,” he sighed. “Well, I’m afraid . . . my life, being a speciality act . . . you know what that is in show business, don’t you? Juggling or acrobatics. We call them dumb acts because we don’t open our mouths, you see. In my line of business we don’t do like comics or vocalists: go to pubs and join in this and join in that because we have to take care of ourselves. Our health, you see, is everything. We very seldom smoke, you see, because of our nerves.

“My story is almost a sordid one. In case I waste your time, is it worth telling you? Because it’s a sordid life, really, an acrobatic life. In the old days there were the speciality acts, the acrobats, the ‘risley’ acts – that is, spinning boys and girls on their feet; juggling them, so to speak while they lie down. Then there were the other  jugglers, and the trapeze artists – what we called the dumb acts.

“I was born in London but started off performing in public when I was six years of age in America with a very famous circus – still going – the Five Ringling Brothers. I started when I was six until the last . . . let’s see; I’ve been working for a firm in London eight years; I’ve been here two years next August . . . and I was seventy-six last month – so I was a juggler for sixty years.

Jack Wilson of the fantastic dancing act Wilson Keppel and Betty also ended his days in contentment among fellow-pros at Brinsworth.

“In the old days, these acrobatic troupes, they were all very cruel, even to their own children, so they could learn the tricks quick, put them on the stage and make money out of them. They used to hit them and kick them and all sorts, even their own children.

“Now my father was an artist, a painter. Coming back from his studio one day he was run over and died about three days later. My mother was an actress, but not a big-time actress. I’ve got a marvellous memory. I can remember from the age of three, when I was sat up in bed with my father’s arms around me and that’s the last I heard of my father, you see, because he died. Mother had six children on her hands and in those days we didn’t get help from the Government. It was either work or workhouse in those days, so she gave us away – literally – gave us away to the owner of a Japanese troupe by the name of Ando.

“So there we were. We went with this man. We called him ‘father’ in Japanese because I am part-Japanese on my father’s side, you see. We were brought up with this troupe, about ten people, all Japanese, and then we went to America and I started climbing up a bamboo perch about 22ft high and my sister was on the other side of the pole. We called it the double perch, because one goes this way and one goes that way and there’s a socket at the bottom where you could put a single pole in and the boss would lift us up, us only being kids, you see.


Serge Ganjou, of the legendary adagio act The Ganjou Brothers and Juanita, was also a resident.

“I was in America for about five or six years. I was with the Ando troupe in America about five years, then we came to England during the Russo-Japanese War. We were playing English dates – all music hall. There was no cinema. We played all round England and then perhaps we’d go abroad for two months. It could be Germany – the Winter Gardens, Berlin.

“I was with this troupe until about 1917. Then I broke away from them and joined another couple of Japanese in England and we went as a trio. I used to practice very hard because I wanted to be a single act. I used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, leave the digs and put in around five hours practice. I practiced, practiced, practiced until I was able to do a single and I then went by the name of Mitsuko and played England, Denmark, Holland and one or two other places.

“Then the Second World War came along and the Japs were against us so I couldn’t use a Japanese name or they’d shoot me. So I changed it to Alan Kaye. I was working in one of Moss’s theatres with Bernie Delfont, who was doing a walloping act – a dancing act – this is the business word for a dancing act, a pro’s word. So he was doing a walloping act with his brother Lew Grade. He was only a little feller, around my height. So I said to the brother, the little feller: ‘I’ll have to change my name.’ So he said: ‘Alan. It’s a lovely name, isn’t it?’ I said it is, isn’t it, but Alan what? And he eventually came up with Alan Kaye.

“Sometimes my wife assisted me. We played under the name of Alan Kaye and Gloria for quite a while. Soon the theatres began to close, one by one. I thought to myself that that this was no good. I had no other skill, so eight years prior to coming here I worked for a Jewish clothing firm – charming people – as a packer, folding ladies’ and children’s clothes.

“So when it comes to telling a story, like I’m telling you now, there’s nothing really to laugh about because it’s sordid. When I first started with a troupe a chap used to teach us. If we didn’t do it properly we used to get kicked in the shins, clouted in the face, and we daren’t speak to anybody, not even the landladies of the digs we used to stay in. If I was caught talking to anyone in the street – often a neighbour near the digs would stop me and say: ‘Aren’t you the little boy at the Empire?’

“But the boss of the act, he’d be scared in case I was asked whether I was happy. Therefore we were never allowed to talk to anybody. If we were seen speaking to anybody – crack! – right in the face. This isn’t widespread now, but in those days it was. The cruelty used to be wicked. Very bad.”

BILLIE Barclay, 76-year-old comedy performer, was a good deal cheerier.  “I worked all the time in the music halls,” she told me. “A little concert party work sometimes, but mostly music hall. I had a partner, Jack Howard, and we were billed as Billie Barclay and Partner. I was a comedienne and we finished our act on the banjos, so it was a comedy-musical act. I was not born into the profession. I was a teacher, and I had to fight to get onto the stage. My mother said: ‘Over my dead body’ . . . you know the kind of thing. I was born in Weymouth. It’s a bit off the map, and that is why my mother didn’t like my going on the stage. But I finally got on and I liked every bit of it. I’ve no regrets.

“I started doing child impressions, then someone told me I was a comedienne. They could see the comedy, and after that, of course, I went from concert parties to the halls. My partner was the straight man and he fed me with lines. I used to do quick changes and then we’d finish on the banjos because he was a very good banjoist and I learned just enough on the banjo to accompany him.

“I used to work a la Nellie Wallace without the comedy make-up on, but I had comedy clothes I used to rip off and I would have an evening dress on underneath. But when I got to Australia they didn’t want that. It didn’t mean anything over there, you know. Not the comedy clothes. Even Nellie Wallace had to work in a soubrette dress. So I just worked in evening dress over there. Have you ever heard of Coram, the ventriloquist? He was top of the bill when we went to Australia and he said: ‘Get out all your old gags.’ They used to say our act was rather American; a bit like, say, George Burns and Gracie Allen. It was very common to have a funny woman and a straight man in the early days.

“I spent a year in Australia and I was very glad to get back. They were very good to me over there but I was glad to be back after a year. That was in 1926 – such a long time ago. When I came back we always worked in music hall and variety, with an occasional revue. We appeared with a lot of the big people. Being funny always seemed to come easily to me. A man in Manchester used to write all our stuff. It wasn’t sophisticated cross-talk stuff, it was more in the music hall tradition. My partner would ask: ‘What do you do?’

“I’d answer: ‘I’m a dairy maid in a chocolate factory.’


“‘I milk chocolates.’

“I’m miserable offstage. I think it’s generally true of people who were funny for a living. Our musical director used to say to people when we were in the pub: ‘Look at her. She makes people laugh. Look at her now.’ I’ve never been happy offstage. Never.

“People say music hall is completely dead. Not completely. Frankie Howerd, Ken Dodd – they are wonderful comics. But I don’t like the pops. Music hall is coming back in the clubs, isn’t it? It started that way. A lot of people think music hall and variety was like that television show The Good Old Days at the City Varieties in Leeds, with a chairman introducing the acts and banging a hammer. Perhaps it was briefly at one time but a lot of it, in my experience, seemed very refined, with very refined people – Daisy Dormer, Albert Whelan, that kind of act. Or Bransby Williams.”

Brinsworth Tom Moss songsheet R

BRINSWORTH’S top of the bill for me was 72-year-old tenor and pioneer of cine-variety Tom F. Moss, who had been billed as ‘The Caruso of the Halls,’ a description he pinched from an earlier performer, Harry Fragson, conveniently murdered in 1913. He was also, I later discovered, the half-brother of John Major who in 1972 was already a Young Conservative and 18 years away from being Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Major’s father, music hall and circus performer Tom Major Ball, is thought to have fathered at least five children by four different women over a 42-year period. Tom Moss was his son by singer and dancer Mary Fuller, whose stage name was Marie Santoi. Mary Fuller also had a daughter who became the variety comedian and actor Jill Summers, born Honour Margaret Rosell Santoi Summers in 1910. Jill played blue-rinsed battleaxe Phyllis Pearce in Coronation Street for several years until she died in 1997. She and Moss sometimes appeared together on stage as a comedy double-act.

‘Tom F. Moss was indeed my half-brother, albeit forty years older than me,’ Sir John Major wrote to me, ‘and my family and I lived in his house in Brixton for some years in the 1950s.’ Sir John has amplified this comment in a brief section of his autobiography, and discussed further it in his book about music hall, My Old Man, including the moment when he realised that he and his middle-aged landlord shared the same father.

Tom was quite a character, refreshingly different to the rest of the placid old-timers at Brinsworth. He was a wheezing, snaggle-toothed old fellow with a drinker’s nose and gravelly Northern accent, happy in himself although he cheerfully conceded he had made some big mistakes. He blamed “booze and women” for the way his life had turned out but was scornful, unrepentant, humorous and defiant. I found him to be a very spirited and charismatic old party; he made me laugh and I liked him in spite of his tremendous air of seediness and the strong smell of drink off him.

He was looking for a publisher for his autobiography, and produced the dog-eared manuscript for my inspection. Foolishly, I was persuaded to take it away with me for appraisal, but when I got home I found it virtually unreadable: flowery, baffling and atrociously-written. An ever-present character throughout the rambling narrative was his penis, usually referred to in the third person as Rampant Caesar. The adventures of Rampant Caesar, who serviced – Tom’s word – a succession of blushing chorus girls and daughters of the gentry, each awestruck by RC’s outstanding qualities, quickly palled and I gave up half-way through, although I do remember one piece of advice solemnly offered by the author – engaging in cunnilingus must be avoided by professional singers at all costs because it rotted the vocal chords. These days we would say that Tom had ‘issues.’

Tom and Jill R

Sister Jill ended her career as a star of Coronation Street.

When we spoke at Brinsworth, he remembered with great excitement the deal that had kept him and (until she keeled over and died while appearing at the Bradford Alhambra in 1924) his mother in drink throughout the 1920s. “We had an idea in 1919 for mother and me to provide accompaniment for a film entitled Father O’Flynn [a British melodrama directed by Tom Watts set in Killarney, Ireland, and involving a peasant accused when a tenant shoots the landlord who seduced his daughter]. The company that had it couldn’t sell it. They couldn’t get rid of it. It was nothing but scenery, more or less. Very little story in it. I saw the possibilities of putting a lot of Irish songs to the film and I suggested to my mother that we take the film. I said: ‘If they will take a rent, we’ll have it.’ But we had to put a figure down. I got my mother to sell her scenery and dresses. She was sure I’d ruined her but I said ‘I haven’t.’ She even pawned her jewelry.

“For about five months I thought I had ruined her. We were playing little picture houses and we had a job to get in. After a while, when we were playing a place called the Old Swan in Liverpool, that was a new picture house, and on a Friday night a chappie  came up to me and said: ‘You Mr Moss?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ ‘Could I speak to you?’  I said: ‘Yes, come in our dressing room.’ He came in and he said ‘There’s my card: Sidney Carter.’ [Carter was an early British cinema mogul].

“Well, I didn’t know no Sidney Carter. I didn’t know the film business. He said he could offer me twelve weeks and asked me how much did I want.  I thought: ‘I’ve had me leg pulled here, and I’ve had the tale told me, so I said: ‘Whoa, twelve weeks – cost you over £2,000.’ He told me he couldn’t pay me that money. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I can give you ten weeks.’ I told him that would still be £2,000. ‘Still too much,’ he says. I told him that was my price. If he were bluffing me, I might as well bluff him. I let it go and he said he would wire me the next day.

Marie Santoi R

Tom’s mother.

“ ‘How is Miss Santoi?’ he asked and I told him she was fine; she’d gone out for a walk. Tell the truth, she were in the pub. Our rent for that week was £35 and then we had to pay for other things. So I’m asking £200 a week, as you can tell. When he’d gone I said to the manager, Frank Nolan his name was, I said: ‘I’ve had this chap to see me. Do you know him?’

“He looked at the card and he says: ‘Don’t tell bloody lies. Don’t lie! Sidney Carter, coming here?’

“I said: ‘What’s this? That’s his card, isn’t it? He brought his wife with him and he said that when we were in Scarborough he’d take us in his yacht.’

“He said: ‘Eh, don’t tell bloody lies, man. Do you know who Sidney Carter is? He’s the general manager of New Century Pictures. That man’s got a £60,000 mortgage on a theatre here and another £60,000 or £70,000 on the one across the road. It’s a millionaire you’re talking about.’

“I told him: ‘Well, he’s been here and I’ve asked him for £2,000 for ten weeks.’ He called me a bloody liar; he roasted me. Then my mother came in and I repeated it all to her. He said to her: ‘He’s a bloody liar, Marie. That man was never in here in his life. He’s a big man.’

“Anyway, I told him that he’d know in the morning anyway, after calling me a liar. I was very hurt about it. However, the next day we were in a very famous pub, the American Bar in Lime Street. Very famous pub, it was. And the phone rings, about midday. It’s from Frank Nolan, the manager of the cinema. He says: ‘Tom, I’ve got a telegram here. I’ve had the cheek to open it because I thought it might be important, and it is important. It’s from Sidney Carter. It says: Can offer you ten weeks, £1,750 best offer. Contact us Monday morning New Century Buildings, Leeds. Congratulations,’ he says, ‘and I apologise for what I said to you yesterday.’ I thanked him and he said: ‘Bloody good luck to you. I’ll buy you a bottle of champagne when you get over here.’

“I couldn’t believe it. It was incredible. I went there on that Monday morning with my mother. I leave my mother in a pub and I go and meet Sidney Carter and Sir William Durie and a bunch of old sirs and how’s-your-father. I didn’t realise who they were. I was an illiterate lad. I was only twenty then but I must have looked about twenty-six or twenty-seven. They asked me if I agreed to £1,750 for ten weeks. I thought: Well, I’ve played the game so I’d better keep it up. I said: ‘Well I don’t know if Miss Santoi will or not, but I’d better take responsibility and say yes.’

“ ‘Good fellow.’

“They brought me out a large whisky, a big cigar. They brought in a contract with seals and tapes and . . . I’ve never seen such a contact in my life since. I remember signing this and it would have been no good to them if they’d realised I was not twenty-one yet. I bluffed them in to it. And in those days, don’t forget, that was like about £3,000 a week today.

“Well, I’m not kidding you – mother and son lived up to it. We had cars and a chauffeur with our names on his hat. Oh, we were buying new cars every five minutes! Buying my mother jewelry and this, that and the other. We lived like a royal party in our own way. Best of everything. Everybody chased us, once the news got round.

“I remember we went to see old Sam Jones of the City Varieties, Leeds, who was the manager there. He bought us champagne and he introduced us to others who were also buying us champagne. ‘Show us that contract,’ they’d say, ‘with all them seals and bloody whatnot.’  I was so proud. And we never looked back. But my mother died during that period – she killed herself with the booze. And I carried on by myself, still making all that money. Some weeks I’d make £400 or £500. A manager of a cinema would say ‘I can’t pay that,’ so I’d say: ‘Tell you what, I’ll take over your films what you’ve booked. I’ll pay for them but I shan’t show them unless we need to. I’ll rent the theatre.’

john major

. . . and the half-brother.

“ ‘You’re on,’ they’d say, because a lot of them were white elephants, these theatres; they didn’t do much business. But I did, because of publicity. They call them gimmicks these days, but in the old days they just said I was crackers. I had a jaunting car and two girls dressed up as Irish colleens. There were all these Irish songs with real live people singing them. It was a silent film and I put the words on the screen to synchronise with the actors. I was the fore-runner of talkies.

“When the real talkies came in my career went up and down. I went on the halls and into revue and had a great singing act. I was a tenor. I became famous . . . fairly famous . . . topping bills here and there, and even as late as 1949 I was getting £450 some weeks. Then I collapsed with a coronary thrombosis in 1951. It ended my career. I wasn’t even allowed to lace my own shoes for three months.

“But I’ve had a marvelous career. I’ve played the best theatres, topped the bill, made records. I’ve always been known as a legend in the business, some of the silly things I’ve done. I travelled a racehorse for two-and-a-half years and I used to make my stage entrance on this horse’s back. I’ve used doves in my act, snakes – even a fox. The things I’ve done used to cause a lot of excitement and publicity.

“I sang a lot of classical stuff, and I had the cheek to sing it in variety. I was not commercial enough, but I always sang my heart out. I sang the same kind of stuff that Josef Locke did, but we didn’t compete. He’d say himself that he couldn’t compete with me. He’d tell you that himself.

“Josef Locke . . . couldn’t compete with me. He’d tell you that himself.” Tom must have been pretty good to beat the great Irish tenor of the variety circuit. Here’s Locke in a clip from What A Carry On (1949, directed by John E. Blakeley). Note top comedy double-act Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss on the sofa.

“But I’ve no regrets. I was too much of a boozer, that was my trouble. I’ve been a naughty boy. Sometimes I begin to feel sorry for myself and I have to think to myself: why? I’ve had a good life. I’m still young at heart – I don’t feel old at all. Drink and women, that’s what did for me.”

And with that the half-brother of a future Prime Minister creakily stood up, farted, ostentatiously scratched Caesar (presumably no longer quite so Rampant) and shuffled off to Brinsworth’s well-stocked bar to regale a few of the other residents with tales of the glory days when he and his mother lived the high life and had champagne for breakfast and a chauffeur with their names on his hat.

And to close our visit to Brinsworth House, The Ganjou Brothers and Juanita, filmed in 1943.

All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.

Leslie Sarony

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists

Leslie old Water Rats


very good jeeves

“I see, sir. Most disturbing.” “What did you say it was?” “Most disturbing, sir.” I snorted a trifle. “Oh?” I said. “And, I suppose, if you had been in San Francisco when the earthquake started, you would just have lifted up your finger and said: ‘Tweet tweet! Shush shush! Now now! Come come!’”

From Episode of the Dog McIntosh in the collection Very Good, Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse (1930)


Leslie lucan

After a lengthy spate of insult humor, Old Mother Riley breaks into a song (which seems to have the refrain, “I lift up my finger and I say tweet tweet, shush shush, now now, come come”), and then dances about her shop, joined not only by the rental agent, but by two female neighbors, who have been functioning as a sort of provincial Greek chorus.

From Bela Lugosi (Midnight Marquee, 1995), in which Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) is analysed by  American academic John Soister



‘THERE’S a story behind every song, you know,” said Leslie Sarony. “In the 1920s I was appearing in Showboat at Drury Lane and one day I passed two showgirls in the corridor. They were going at it hammer and tongs, calling each other everything except ladies. So I went up to them and I said: ‘Now, girls, do what I do in a situation like this: I lift up my finger and I say ‘tweet tweet, shush hush, now now, come come.’ And so the idea for a song was born.”              

Leslie Poor Puss Cat R

Sarony, undisputed king of the nonsense song, composed, performed and recorded even sillier numbers – hundreds of them between 1926 and 1939 – Don’t Do That to the Poor Puss Cat, I Caught Two Cods Cuddling, The Sizzle of the Sausage, Icicle Joe the Eskimo, Fat Flat Fish, Ain’t It Grand to be Blooming Well Dead, Wheezy Anna, The Wedding of the Garden Insects, I Found a Hard-Boiled Egg in my Love-nest, Umpa Umpa Stick it up Your Jumper, The Dicky Bird Hop and There’s a Song They Sing at a Sing-Song in Sing-Sing, to name just a few, the majority under his own name and others under whimsical noms de plume such as Q. Cumber.

With vast numbers of variety theatres all over Britain, and a massive industry selling 78rpm records by the million, there was an insatiable appetite for novelty songs, and Sarony’s were sung, hummed and whistled on the streets and in almost every home in Britain in the 1930s. But the extraordinary Leslie Sarony was much more than a songwriter. As well as having around 400 published, he also shone as a recording artist, stage and television actor, comedian and dancer, and for many years was half of the bill-topping double-act The Two Leslies. His numbers were featured by great stars of the day – George Formby, Gracie Fields, Albert Whelan and Stanley Lupino – and he is the link between several of the artists in Voices of Variety: he wrote material that was recorded by Elsie and Doris Waters, Hetty King, Sandy Powell and Thanks for the Memory’s Randolph Sutton, and he appeared in music hall revival shows in the 1970s with Hetty, Sandy, Elsie and Doris and Nat Jackley.

Leslie Lard Song R

As a lyricist, Leslie Sarony often saw possibilities in the most mundane of everyday items. In Gorgonzola, for example, he expanded the pungent cheese’s bacterial qualities to create a sort of useful household pet.

 It’s really very handy when a dinner party  comes;
 You leave it on the table and it eats up all the crumbs.
 Gorgonzola! Gorgonzola!
 Three cheers for the green, white and blue.

I GOT to know Leslie quite well in the 1970s and found him to be great company, even though he could moan for England. He was a quick-witted, funny, scathing, outrageous, provocative little man, argumentative and highly opinionated, swift to take offence and slow to relinquish a grudge (some had lasted half a century). He was still working as hard as ever in his mid-70s – singing his famous songs, joking and dancing in summer shows, panto and old-time music hall productions, augmented by TV spots and straight theatre roles. He lived in a smallish flat in Streatham, London, crammed with knick-knacks, records and showbiz ephemera, and on the rare occasions he wasn’t working, he liked to go around the local pubs and clubs on talent nights, trying to spot stars of the future. He didn’t dwell on past glories but always looked ahead, which is probably why the wave of affectionate nostalgia that swept over anything to do with bygone entertainment in the 1970s somehow left Leslie Sarony untouched.


Napoleon Sarony.

Sarony Oscar

Wilde by Sarony.

Born Leslie Legge Sarony Frye in 1897 in Surbiton, Surrey, the youngest of seven, he came from an extremely gifted family. A great-uncle, Oliver Sarony, was photographer to Queen Victoria, and his grandfather, Napoleon Sarony, was also a photographer, creating now-familiar images of Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde and many others. The Sarony brothers were of Prussian or Hungarian extraction, and their father emigrated to Canada around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon, a fearsome-looking little man sporting a bristling moustache and fez, moved to New York and initially worked as a lithographer, and Oliver emigrated to England and set up as a pioneer photographer in Scarborough. Napoleon visited him there, became interested in the art, and when he returned to New York he too became a famous society photographer. When he came to Britain to see Oliver he was accompanied by his daughter, Mary, who fell in love with and married William Rawston Frye, a portrait painter who had several of his works accepted by the British Royal Family.

Leslie Sarony’s sister, May, was one of George Edwardes’ original Gaiety Girls, a troupe of beautiful and elegant dancers who adorned West End shows clad in voluminous Victorian bathing costumes or the latest high fashion. “When I was kid at school my parents used to take us up to see May at the Gaiety,” Sarony told me. “She was married to an army officer and I sometimes stayed with them at weekends. They lived at Buckingham Gate, and I’d meet all the big stars like Gertie Millar and G.P.Huntley and they used to give me golden sovereigns – a fortune in those days.”

may sarony R

Sister May, one of the Gaiety Girls.

It was another sister, Mabel, who encouraged the little boy’s natural talents for singing and dancing. “She played the piano, and you know how families are with kids. They thought I was bloody marvelous because when people came round we always did a show. She used to play and I danced on my father’s drawing board.”

Mabel, May and his parents persuaded him to enter amateur talent competitions at music halls, which he invariably won. Some of the venues were rough places for such a small child to be in, but Leslie, with the courage and doggedness that would characterise his whole life, refused to be intimidated. “The old Shoreditch Empire had a special matinee every month or so for amateurs and semi-pros, and I don’t mind telling you that if they didn’t like you they used to give you the bird, and the stagehands used to hook  ‘em off, round the neck. And I went on there and I did well and an agent came up to me and booked me for a week’s engagement at the Star, Bermondsey. Well, that was a jolly place, too, I can tell you. If anyone wore a collar and tie they got mugged!”

BEFORE he reached his teens he was a full-time performer. “The first time I left home and went on tour, starting in Liverpool, I was with a well-known music hall standard act called the Arthur Gallimore Trio. They were related to Florrie Gallimore, who was a well-known music hall star, on a par with Florrie Forde, and they led me a dog’s life. Used to keep me in this back room with no one to talk to. I was just a slave, and I used to go on and play this kind of page boy. I had to see to all the props and wait on them hand and foot.

“When I was with the Gallimore Trio we played Folkestone on the pier – they had a pier in those days – and I had to do a variety act, although I’d never done one, so I did a wallop to Alexander’s Ragtime Band. They played all the music halls, and I had to dress anywhere I could find. Some of the acts we were on with were very well-known. I always used to watch them. If you were interested and went up to them and said ‘How do you do this, how do you do that?’ they’d tell you, because they liked to see you taking an interest.

Listen here to three of Leslie Sarony’s biggest hits.

“Then I went into a troupe called Doc Park’s Eton Boys and Girton Girl. There were ten of us boys and one girl, and the man who managed the troupe said it’ll be a long time before you get anything as good as this. We were dressed in little bum-freezer jackets and looked as if butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths. It would, you know. And it did!”


Young star of West End musicals.

He heard about auditions for a lavish revue at the London Hippodrome, Escalade. “It was a show that was done dancing up and down staircases. There was a race between the Alhambra, the Hippodrome, the Opera house and the Prince of Wales to put the first staircase show on. I went for an audition and I crept in. I was terrified. There was a big American producer called Ned Wademan and I went up and said ‘Excuse me, Mr Wademan. I’ve got no music but I do a routine and invent stuff,’ and he said ‘Go ahead’ and he let me go right through this routine and I got the job. Then it came to rehearsals and I hadn’t got a routine worked out. One morning Ned Wademan said: ‘Listen everybody, nobody’s goin’ to leave this goddamn theatre because the show’s goin’ on tonight!’ I said to the Musical Director: ‘What am I going to do? I’ve no routine worked out.’ And he said: ‘Don’t you worry – you keep dancing and we’ll keep playing’.”

He also went on the music halls as a single turn, and it was around this time that he became friendly with another of our featured artists. “Funnily enough, Sandy Powell and I were contemporaries. He was on the bill with me at the Bradford Alhambra doing a sailor act and I did an act with immaculate evening dress and a banjolele.”

Leslie Bunkey Doodle R

A humorous look at Army life. Sarony’s reality was far different.

When the First World War broke out soldiers in uniform used to call out insults to any young civilian men they saw in the street, implying that it was cowardice or lack of manliness that kept them out of the army. These were not challenges Sarony was prepared to tolerate and he tried to enlist but was turned down several times before he got in. “When I was in the First World War I was in The London Scottish and we went through France to Salonika. Incidentally, in France there was a very famous entertainment, an army show called The Barnstormers, and me and my pal joined it and we put on a smashing show but it only lasted for a fortnight because we were sent to Salonika and then I went down with dysentery.”

Sarony didn’t seem to want to dwell on his war service when we chatted – and little wonder. His son, Peter Sarony, filled in a few details for me: “He was one of the fortunate few who survived the infamous WW1 Battle of Messines on Hallowe’en 31st October, 1914, where he was a member of 1st Battalion the London Scottish, which was the first territorial infantry battalion in action against the Germans. It was slaughter. They had to hold the line, bayonets fixed, against the Germans as their rifles did not chamber the service ammunition provided!”

Not much to laugh at there, then, but there was an upside in the periods between marching, trying to sleep in mud-filled and rat-infested trenches and fighting for his life, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat with bayonets. “It was in the army that I found out that I could write songs,” he said. “I’d always thought how marvelous it would be to write your own songs and right from the start I always tried to create songs with a silly idea behind them.”

After the war he resumed his stage career in revues, concert parties and musicals and for a while it was tough going. “I used to work very hard for very little. Used to go fishing for coarse mackerel, for food. I was stranded. It does you good. I went to South America in 1921 and got stranded there.”

leslie whirl of the world R

As ‘Dancing Jim,’ he had a show-stopping routine in Whirl of the World at the Palladium in 1924.

Then he began to get offers at a much higher level, with important song-and-dance parts in West End revues and musicals. In 1924’s Whirl of the World, which ran at the London Palladium for 627 performances, he had a show-stopping routine, Dancing Jim, and co-starred with Billy Merson, Nellie Wallace, Tommy Handley and Nervo and Knox. Jerome Kern’s Showboat at the Drury Lane Theatre four years later featured the original Broadway star, Paul Robeson, and saw Sarony in the key supporting role of Frank, singing the charming comedy number I Might Fall Back on You. “I was working on a bill at the Palace when someone saw me and booked me for Showboat – they’d already booked three comics for that part but they were all sacked. You had to be able to sing and dance and act as well, and they could do two things but not a third.”

He had the best comedy part, Chick Bean, in Rio Rita at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1930, and might have continued for the rest of his career in musicals, but various factors militated against this. As well as being very short, the impish-faced Sarony was perhaps not conventionally good-looking enough to play leads and presumably he didn’t want to be second fiddle in musicals for ever.



Here he is performing a fantastic eccentric dance routine in Rio Rita in 1930. The soundtrack has been added on, so the dancing is out of step, but it is still worth it for a glimpse of Sarony in his prime as a dancer.

Also, he had by the late 1920s begun composing songs for revues at a prolific rate – I Lift Up My Finger and I Say Tweet Tweet was written for the Stanley Lupino show Love Lies in 1929. And the songs he was writing were not about true love, loss, betrayal or any of the other staples of the West End stage. Music hall songs had always dealt humorously and earthily with the trials and tribulations of everyday life, and Sarony took this preoccupation with the mundane into territories of  inspired madness. He wrote tuneful, catchy songs about fish, cucumbers, cheese, farming, pubs, sausages, cough sweets, darts, cake and cats. Or anything else that took his fancy as he doodled at the piano (he could neither read nor write music) or ukelele. One, Don’t be Cruel to a Vegetabuel, was about vegetable-abuse. 

Fittingly, considering his gloomy fatalism, he had a minor speciality in bizarre songs about death; as well as the classic Ain’t It Grand to be Blooming Well Dead there was Three Cheers for the Undertaker and Why Build a Wall round a Graveyard? Ain’t It Grand was the first record to be banned by the BBC on taste grounds, and in spite of this went on to sell a million copies. Other titles sounded as if dreamed-up while in the throes of some kind of mild psychiatric episode: Po-Kee Oh-Kee Oh, Plinkerty Plonk, Skiddley Dumpty Di-Doh, Cor Luvaduck Crikey Coo Blimey. Some were in response to another composer’s song, such as his Jollity Farm, which referenced the earlier Misery Farm, written by W.H.Wallis and popularised by Tommy Handley.                             

For several years Sarony wrote all the novelty songs for Jack Hylton’s Band, with which he recorded extensively. “Hylton would ring me around midnight and say: ‘We’re doing four titles tomorrow – be there!’ I’d sit down, write the songs, Hylton would have them orchestrated and we’d do them the next day. They were recorded straight onto the wax. If you got it wrong you had to do the whole thing from the beginning. No editing in those days. You were very popular if you made a mistake.”

Almost all of Sarony’s output was childishly ridiculous – “infantile,” his son Peter called these songs. “I think they’re clever, a lot of them,” he added. “But they are what they are, and I don’t think their value goes too deep. Some of them I don’t care for too much because they are repetitive. But he did write ballads that were not silly songs at all, and some of them are very nice indeed.”

Because of the breadth of reference Sarony was bringing to his writing in the late 1920s, the songs stood out as being different and special even in an entertainment scene that was hardly short of daft songs.  The music halls beckoned, warm and vulgar  . . .

To see Leslie in 1931 singing his Icicle Joe and tap-dancing, click here.

THERE have been many instances of artists who made their reputations in loftier areas of theatrical endeavour throwing it all up and going on the halls. Malcolm McEarchern was a classically-trained basso profundo from the concert stage before he gleefully embraced a new life as Mr Jetsam in the comedy act Flotsam and Jetsam. Bransby Williams had been a great Shakespearian before he went on the halls doing quick-change character sketches from the works of Dickens. And there were many other instances. Leslie Sarony had not exactly come from the legitimate side of the performing world, though his home background had been artistically innovative. Nevertheless, the music halls represented a step towards the lowest common denominator of the entertainment industry.

Leslie Coom Pretty One R

Leslie Ups and Downs R

If you weren’t too snooty about high art, the halls provided regular income and the camaraderie of raffish fellow-pros as you toured the country. There were drinks to be had and girls to be romanced; there was the gratification of instant communication with a largely working-class audience. And, for a songwriter and recording artist, every appearance on a music hall bill could be used to plug the latest release.

“Youngsters today will never know what a real music hall was like. It had a magic about it. There’s no doubt that you had to be able to do something to earn a living on the music halls. You didn’t get on the bill unless you had something to offer. I went into all kinds of things – revues, concert parties, pantomime. You look at things then and you look at things now and you see how the rot’s set in. There’s no way to learn the job properly now. For light entertainment, the finest school was a concert party – they call them summer shows now. They were the finest schools. Concert party and rep.

“And all the artists were individualists. You never saw anybody copying anyone else. You knew that if you went to see a show that the acts were going to be different, and they had to be of a high standard to play in a music hall. Great artists. Great characters. Very generous. That spirit doesn’t exist any more. Now money is getting out of all proportion. It’s ridiculous. Yet today they are so mean. What do they want to do with it, die the richest man in the graveyard? I don’t say squander it around, but for goodness sake spend a bit.”

Leslies Radio Pictorial R

In 1935 he met Leslie Holmes and they teamed up as The Two Leslies, an act that topped bills for 11 years and featured in the 1938 Royal Variety Performance at the London Coliseum. “Leslie Holmes was a manager for a firm of music publishers and in those days music shops were a hive of activity – all these rooms and in every room a piano playing, and songs being demonstrated. I got to know him because his firm published my songs, and we got together and had a long partnership on radio and in the music halls.”

HOLMES, known as ‘the man with the laughing voice,’ was a tall, thin party with glasses, rather sinister-looking to my mind, and he had a dementedly cheery and avuncular manner. He played piano while Sarony told jokes and tap-danced around it, sometimes lifting his trouser-legs enticingly to expose his shoes and suspender-supported socks, the better for audiences to appreciate his nifty footwork. The duo harmonised on songs mostly written by Sarony such as Sweet Fanny Adams, The Dart Song and Teas, Light Refreshments and Minerals. When I first met him in 1971 and asked about his old partner I got a typically mordant response: “He’s a landowner these days. He owns a plot in the cemetery three foot by six.”

The Two Leslies enjoying Teas, Light Refreshments and Minerals. Click here.

Onstage they called each other ‘Mr S’ and ‘Mr H,’ and there was a running gag about Sarony always arriving late, when Holmes had already begun the act: “Come along, my little fellow,” ‘Mr H’ would humorously chide. “We used to be booked up a year ahead, always a year ahead,” said Sarony. “In the very early days stars used to be booked up five or six years ahead at an increasing salary. When I started there were 26 variety dates in London alone, without leaving the city.”

two leslies R


The Two Leslies years marked the peak of Sarony’s celebrity and short-lived huge wealth. “They were very, very big,” said his son Peter. “Each had a Jaguar car – ‘LS 1’ and ‘LH 1’. Then there was the SS Club, which stood for Sarony and Stanelli  [entertainer famous for an act where he ran up and down a row of old-fashioned bulb-horns honking out classical tunes]. They had a place in the West End and it lost Pa a huge amount of money. I think he owned a substantial part of a greyhound stadium once, and 14 properties. He was the only man I knew who lost money on property. He wasn’t lucky in some of his choices as ‘friends’ – let me put it like that. He was not a good judge of people in that way. Some of his songs were huge sellers but somehow, although he had around 400 pieces of music published, the royalties were peanuts.”

The Two Leslies split up in 1946 when Holmes got tired of show business and left to become publicity manager for The News of the World. Sarony took on a new partner, Michael Cole, but it didn’t work out and for the rest of his long career he was a solo performer.  The astonishing versatility that had taken him to the top was also something of a handicap as the halls started to decline, and there was a time in the early 1950s when he floundered a little. What exactly was he: a comedian, a singer, a dancer, an actor, a songwriter? He was all these things, of course, and excelled in each, and the public sometimes had difficulty getting a fix on him as he darted from one to another.

Leslies Aint Love Grand R

This was not helped by Sarony’s own attitude.  He was very blunt and outspoken and was not at all a jolly character unless there was an audience around. In our first conversation he was less than complimentary about most of the other old stars I was interviewing around that time, considering that some had outlived their usefulness as performers. He did admire Hetty King, however, and talked about her artistry with great respect, though he felt obliged to add, in typically Saronian fashion, that as a person she was “completely barmy.”

Leslie Rhymes R

To his credit, he always regarded himself in a very un-starry way as just a working pro who could turn his hand to anything asked of him. And he wasn’t particularly picky. “Now this is going back a few years, to 1951,” he complained to me. “I created a puppet character for BBC television and after one transmission I got all these letters from kids from all over the country. I had something really big there, and the kids really loved it. I did two more shows and then along came this bloody woman and scrubbed it all. Now that could have been as big as, say, Sooty or any one of those things.”

He never, ever stopped composing. “Not all the songs he wrote were published,” said Peter. “I would say only about 25 per cent. He wrote thousands of songs. His mind was buzzing the whole time. When we were in the car and we’d be travelling around he’d always be humming or whistling something and then he’d get a theme and he’d actually be composing as he drove along. Then later he’d get somebody in and he’d hum it to them and they’d write it down. He could play, but he could only play by ear, and he mainly used only the black notes. And he took a ukulele with him everywhere. He was naturally a very, very musical person.”

Sarony married actress Anita Eaton when he was in his forties, though they later divorced, and had three sons. Peter is a well-known gunsmith, Paul a film producer, and Neville a QC. What was he like as a father? “He was hopeless with children,” said Peter. “Hopeless. And he was absent as a parent for much of the time because he was on tour. So he didn’t really have a normal father-and-son relationship with his boys because most of the time he wasn’t there. But he was a great tinkerer and he would make these things. I remember once when we were living in Huddersfield – he’d taken the family there to evacuate us during the war – he turned up with two tommy guns that he’d made using old wooden football rattles. He was very clever like that. He loved tinkering in his shed with all his tools.”

sarony in the sweeney

As a war memorabilia dealer in an episode of the TV crime show The Sweeney.

In the mid-1950s he became more involved in straight acting on television and in films, including a glorious portrayal of Mr Pinkwhistle in the movie Noddy in Toyland (1957). Through the 1960s he was a regular on television, playing large and small roles in series such as Boyd QC, Crossroads, Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre and Z Cars. He was a semi-regular in the comedy series Nearest and Dearest, set in a Lancashire pickle factory, though he told me he loathed its star, Hylda Baker. “Nearest and vilest, I used to call it. It’s funny – I’m Cockney but I’m never given Cockney parts. I always have to play North Country.”

Leslie pic he gave me R

Leslie around the time I knew him.

By 1972 he was well-esconced with the other veterans in Voices of Variety on the old-time music hall circuit. “At seaside shows I wear a check suit of loudish design. As the band launches into I Lift Up My Finger and I Say Tweet Tweet I stroll on with one index finger upraised.”

After a chorus of this gloriously-fatuous ditty, Sarony would rattle off a series of extremely long and complicated jokes, many of them concerned with speech defects (always good for an easy laugh back in the day). His movements on stage were precise and formal, even dainty. The expressive hands seemed to betray his artistic and mixed-race ancestry as he neatly itemised the components of a joke with brisk, Cagney-like chops of the air in front of him. He was not one of those matey comics who demanded love; Sarony was more remote, seeking to captivate audiences with respect for his total professionalism.

He sang a couple more of his own compositions, then reached the climax of his act, a weird routine he had been performing since the early 1930s and which fell just the acceptable side of bad taste. “Imagine a sailor,” he said, donning a false beard and mariner’s cap, “who has only one leg but loves to dance. It would look something like this.” A cheery little song about this disabled seaman, Old Peggoty, followed and then Sarony suddenly clutched his left thigh with both hands, keeping the leg stiff as a ramrod. Using the dead leg to jerk himself around the stage, his right foot twinkled in an expert and vigorous tap routine as he capered off into the wings to tremendous applause.

To see him perform the Peggoty dance in another Pathe clip, this time from 1933, click here.

I remember him in an old-time show at Swindon, where he shared the bill with Hetty King, Sandy Powell and Fred Emney. He played a round of golf in the morning, acted in the afternoon matinee of Peter Pan then went on stage in the evening to do his variety turn. I was staying at the same hotel, and when he got back from the theatre he would often sit at the piano in the lounge regaling the other guests with songs and bawdy stories until the early hours. “You couldn’t exhaust Pa when he was in his element,” said Peter. “He had amazing resilience.”

Here’s Leslie Sarony late in life – well into his 80s – in a TV appearance where he sings The Old Sow (a traditional folk song involving bizarre vocal effects that he made his own) and his classic Aint It Grand to be Blooming Well Dead.

“Some stupid people ask me when I’m going to retire,” Sarony told me contemptuously, “and I say: ‘What for? What do I do if I retire?’ If I were no longer capable, obviously I wouldn’t attempt it, but I can assure you that nobody engages me out of sympathy. It’s a bloody rat-race. But, touch wood, I can do practically anything, and there’s very few people who can say that my voice has changed. And I play better golf than I have ever done in my life. I wouldn’t walk a yard normally but I’ll walk round a golf course all day. I can do two rounds and give 20 years to some of them. I’m seventy-four. It’s ridiculous.”

leslie xmas card

The Christmas card he used to send me.

les xmas card R

Broad as a bean.

I LIKED Leslie Sarony a lot, and kept in touch with him right through the 1970s, sometimes through personal meetings if he was working near Manchester, or I would visit him in Streatham if I had to go to London, and we exchanged letters and cards from time to time. He send me a card every Christmas, too, and he also had a kind of little business card, with a the legend ‘Leslie Sarony, Entertainist. Clean As A Whistle or Broad As A Bean.’ In 1974 he was knocked down by a motorbike outside a theatre where he was appearing in Eastbourne: ‘I’ve had a very bad time,’ he wrote. ‘I can’t dance or play golf. But I’m making good progress.’

He was in a few straight parts on the West End stage – he played the caretaker in Echoes From A Concrete Canyon, Dada in Entertaining Mr Sloane, and he was also in The Bear, by Anton Chekhov at the Royal Court Theatre  – and in 1976 was  engaged to play Nagg, the legless character who spends his whole time onstage peeping out of a giant dustbin in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, also at the Royal Court. “Well, it’s something a bit different, isn’t it? I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t received with resentment by the company. I thought they would be thinking ‘Fancy bringing in this old bastard,’ but in fact everyone has been most helpful and charming. Perhaps it’s not such a strange bit if casting, though. All comics are to some extent character actors.

Leslie Endgame R

As Nagg in Beckett’s Endgame at the Royal Court Theatre in 1971.

“The reason it’s so difficult is that a lot of the character is built up through inconsequential chat. There’s no shape to some the dialogue. Beckett will talk about something, then leave it, then go back to it then forget it then go back to it again and finally end up talking about something entirely different, so it’s not easy to memorise. It’s like trying to learn the bloody phone book.

“But I’m very fortunate in that I still have a good memory and I am also able to assimilate what people tell me. Which is just as well, because you can’t mess around with Beckett. You have to play it exactly as it is written. When I arrived at the theatre I said ‘Now I’m here to do as you want – tell me how to do it,’ and the director said ‘Try to convey what you think it ought to be,’ which was a bit daunting because at that point I didn’t understand a bloody word of it. I do now, though. You find yourself completely drawn into Beckett’s strange world. Anyway, Beckett himself saw me doing it and was apparently satisfied.”

Leslie letter 2 R

One of Leslie’s letters to me.

WHILE the name of Leslie Sarony may have become unfamiliar to new generations by the 1970s, within the entertainment business he had become a living legend, not only for his huge achievements in so many areas over so many years, but because he was the undoubted star of the annual Vaudeville Golfing Society Dinner, a hugely popular and much-anticipated annual event for pros. At the cabaret after these dinners, with the all-male audience well-oiled, Sarony would deliver a set of astounding filthiness, mostly parodies of well-known songs – The Fanny With the Fringe on Top, Pud Pud Pulling Your Pud (to the tune of Flanders’ and Swan’s The Hippopotamus Song) – and his own material: Easy Anna, a version of Wheezy Anna. All through his career a strain of salacious ribaldry ran through his material, though he was able to give full reign to it only in the company of fellow-professionals. “He was such a dirty little man,” a woman I knew, Dodie, who had been a showgirl and friend of his in the 1930s, recalled fondly. And Elsie and Doris Waters belied their cosy public image when they told me they found his x-rated material hysterically funny, so evidently he didn’t always restrict this side of his output to gatherings of the lads.

Occasionally Leslie Sarony might seem a bit sorry for himself when we met, but it was more likely that was simply enjoying yet another grumble. “People are always asking why don’t I make an LP record,” he said wistfully once. “That rests with the powers-that-be. When I’m dead and gone I suppose they’ll all be falling over themselves to reissue all the old 78s on an LP. That’s the way show business works. I am lucky, as my voice hasn’t changed. But it’s a pity I can’t re-do them myself, with up-to-date arrangements.

“My lack of vitality sometime depresses me. I can’t go round a golf course like I used to since my accident. And I think of some of the music hall people, now passed on, who didn’t know when to throw in the towel. People like Randolph Sutton and G.H.Elliott, who insisted on appearing before the public when they were well past it.”

The little man’s impish face darkened and his lower lip stuck out in that defiant and pugnacious way of his. “God forbid I should ever be like that,” he said vehemently.

                                                                   Ain’t It Grand to be Blooming Well Dead

Leslie LP R

He re-recorded his most famous songs when he was over 80.

LESLIE Sarony did get to re-record some of his old hits with modern arrangements for an LP in 1980, and soon afterwards was awarded a Golden Tuning Fork by the Songwriters Guild of Great Britain for his lifetime’s achievement as a composer. Shortly before, at the age of 82, he had scored a big success when he took over from Bert Palmer as the hilariously doddering Uncle Stavely (“I heard that! Pardon?”), who carried his old army pal Corporal Parkinson’s ashes round in a little box hanging from his neck, for the fourth series of Peter Tinniswood’s Yorkshire comedy about the Brandon family, I Didn’t Know You Cared, on BBC television. Other appearances included Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV and Minder, and in 1984 he had a showy bit part as the Gatekeeper in Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street. Also in 1984 he was on a television variety bill broadcast from Manchester. His friend Roy Hudd takes up the story:

      “I compered the show and he wasn’t very well at all. During the show he sat on a chair in the wings, looking very old and frail, but, as the band played I Lift Up My Finger, he jumped up, pulled the front of his blazer down, strode on and proceeded to paralyse them with an eight-minute medley of his hits. When he came off I could see he’d had enough. He went to sit down but the floor assistant grabbed him and said: ‘I’m afraid we missed a couple of shots. Will you do it again?’

        “ ‘No, he won’t,’ I said, but he pushed me aside and did the whole spot again with, if possible, even more energy than the first time. He came off and I apologised  to him for them making him do it twice. He said: ‘Listen – they wanted it again and that’s that. I’ve kept them sweet. Very important.’ He added with a twinkle: ‘You never know what it’ll lead to’.” (1)

Here’s a clip from I Didn’t Know You Cared, with Uncle Stavely rehearsing his duties a pageboy at  Mort’s wedding. Others in the scene are Liz Smith, Liz Goulding, John Comer, Keith Drinkel and, as Mort, the great Robin Bailey.

A few months later Leslie died of cancer in a London hospital. Active almost to the very end, at 88 he was the oldest working actor on Equity’s books. He had been an ‘entertainist’ for over three-quarters of a century. In December 2010 The Guardian asked musician Jools Holland what he’d like played at his funeral, a stock question in the paper’s Saturday magazine personality profile. Ain’t It Grand to be Blooming Well Dead, said Jools, by Leslie Sarony. And when beloved British actor Timothy Spall was asked the same question on March 15 2014 he answered: ‘Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which is very sad, followed by Ain’t it Grand to be Blooming Well Dead, a music hall song that is blackly funny.’




Nat Jackley

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists


Nat by Don R

Portrait by Don McPhee, courtesy of The Guardian.

NAT was a theatrical Lord of Misrule, the grotesque’s grotesque, more of a sideshow attraction than a comedian in many ways, the creator of a stage persona just too outlandish for television. His speciality involved a series of convulsive hops, skids, limps and lurches, like a turkey in the throes of an epileptic fit as he funny-walked across the stage, head jerking backwards and forwards dementedly on the amazingly elongated neck, legs galvanically thrusting. He looked as if he’d somehow been taken apart and put together again all wrong.  A guardsman’s bearskin hat accentuated his spindliness, and when the crazed march ended with a few nifty tap steps, he slithered towards the microphone and spoke. “Uh-thuh-fuh-fuh-thuth,” he said, his face twitching spasmodically and his eyes roving around the audience with sly madness.

Trading professionally on disability, mental illness, a speech impediment and a freakish physical oddity, Jackley, an exceptionally unassuming and pleasant man offstage, did a lot of things on it that would nowadays be considered unacceptable. But this strange performer’s skill and gangly charm were such that he never seemed to upset anyone’s sensibilities during his long career as a star comedian. And back in those days nobody told you what you could and couldn’t laugh at anyway, unless it involved sex, so people were able to make up their own minds about what they found offensive.

Bill-matter, the little descriptive phrase that followed an artist’s name on variety posters, was always important to the old-timers. For forty years Jackley’s had been ‘The Rubber-Necked Comedian,’ and his father George had been famous variously as ‘The Surprised Comedian,’ ‘He of the Stentorian Voice’ and ‘He of the Crooked Mouth.’ The Jackleys were an old circus family – George, grandfather Nathan and great-grandfather Eduarde all worked under canvas.

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An unassuming man offstage.

“My son is the fifth generation of the Jackleys to be in the business,” he told me when Don and I caught up with him in December 1972 at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool, a venue he had played many times before, where he was the Dame in Dick Whittington, third-billed to singer Frank Ifield and Roy Hudd. “He’s the youngest manager in London; he’s twenty-two and he’s the manager of the Whitehall Theatre, where they’ve got Pyjama Tops. That’s a right bloody show to have your son in, isn’t it? Naked women running about all over the place.”

HE was born Nathaniel Tristram Jackley Hirsch in Sunderland in 1909, and it became apparent from an early age that he had been blessed with what were known in circus and music hall circles as “educated legs.”

Dick Henderson George Jackley - 1924

Dick Henderson and Nat’s father, George Jackley

“I started in the business when I was eight. I did some circus work because my family were circus people. My father developed his comedy style and went from the circus into the music halls and variety. And pantomime – he starred in 14 consecutive pantomimes at the Lyceum, London.  I’ve been in the business all my life except when I was a seed packer.”

“A seed packer?”

“That’s right, a seed packer. I’d just left school and I had an idea I wasn’t going to be any good in show business, so I went as a dispatch clerk for a seed firm. I used to have to supply all these farms with seed potatoes and things. One farm wanted a lorryload of seed potatoes and then a lady got on wanting just one packet of polyanthas narcissi. Well, I got the addresses mixed up and the woman got the lorryload of seed potatoes and the farm got the flower seeds and I got the sack. So I went back on the stage again.

Nat walk Don R

Montage by Don McPhee

“I joined The Eight Lancashire Lads. That was the troupe where Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel first started, years before, and it had been revived. We were basically clog-walloping. I was with them four or five years and we went all over the world. I was taught ballet, and I suppose that’s where the basis for my funny dances comes from. Then I left and I worked with my sister Joy as a song and dance man, and eventually I turned comic.

Nat hayride R

“I developed the funny walk and the jerking neck through an accident. I had to go on for a big fat fellow who couldn’t go on, and the management couldn’t afford another act, so I said I’d do it. Anyway, I forgot and I didn’t have time to change into this big bloke’s clothes properly, just the trousers and the big coat, which flopped all over me, and no shirt. And when I went on stage, I got a big laugh. So I improvised and waggled my head up and down and jerked my legs about and that was the start of my act. I’ve always been skinny and that helped my motions to be more eloquent. I’m a visual comic, a mime, but of course I have to break it up with a few words or it becomes monotonous.”

The few words tended to be very peculiar indeed. Jackley developed a unique way of talking, an unintelligible muttering, accompanied by violent face-twitches, which has been likened to someone with a lisp trying to talk through a mouthful of toffee. Or, to put it bluntly, a psychiatric patient with a cleft palate. He usually did it in sketches where, as a humble soldier or jobless man seeking work, he had to confront officialdom, aided by stooges who acted as interpreters. It went something like this:

Official: “Name?”

Jackley: “Uh-thuh-fuh-fuh-thuth.”

Official: “What?”

Jackley: “Uh-thuh-fuh-fuh-thuth.”

Official (to stooge): “What did he say his name was?”

Stooge: “Uh-thuh-fuh-fuh-thuth.”

Jackley: “Thath rithe. Uh-thuh-fuh-fuh-thuth.”

Official: “Uh-thuh-fuh . . . doh! Now you’ve got me doing it!”

nat 4Soon everyone on stage would be talking the same way, and the audience would be in hysterics. Jackley would end the sketch by saying in his normal voice: “Oh, I’m fed up with this – let’s talk properly,” making it clear that he had been pretending to have a speech impediment just to subvert authority and have a laugh at the boss class.

HIS first appearance in London was at the Alhambra in 1928 in a piano act with Joy. He turned solo in 1931, was in three Royal Variety Performances and, in the 1940s, topped bills at the Palladium and many other London theatres. He made a few films, including Demobbed (1944) for John E. Blakeley’s notorious Mancunian Films studio. Blakeley’s murky, incoherent films, made for a primarily North of England audience and starring local favourites such as Frank Randle, Norman Evans, Duggie Wakefield, Tessie O’Shea and Jimmy James, were each made in a couple of weeks with a camera that remained mostly static in long shot for minutes on end, as if faithfully recording a stage play.  The scripts contained empty pages simply marked Business, and Blakeley would instruct his comedians: “Okay, lads, be funny.”

Since his performers were extemporising much of their slapstick material on the spot, with many scenes to get in the can every day, this invariably meant a lot of pointless barging about and falling down and tripping over things. That said, Mancunian movies usually returned a modest profit, and they do enshrine some famous variety routines for posterity.

Clip from Demobbed, with Norman Evans and Dan Young.</i?

Jackley comes off better than most in Demobbed, and has some quite well-structured scenes that show him to good advantage. Dressed as a guardsman, complete with bearskin hat, mini-kilt and outsize sporran, he gives an excellent display of eccentric dancing and legmania early on, followed by an “Uh-thuh-fuh-fuh-thuth” routine. There’s another bizarre scene where he insinuates himself upon a courting couple, that extraordinary neck gliding snake-like over the bemused girl’s upper body.

More from Demobbed. Nat’s first wife, Marianne Lincoln, is on his left.

jackley and lennonHe fared better in 1956 as the star of the comparatively lavish Stars in Your Eyes, filmed in colour, which also featured Bonar Colleano and Pat Kirkwood, and cast him as an ageing music hall comic trying to come to terms with a new era in entertainment. “Bonar was a good stars in your eyes Rfriend of mine because we both came from old circus families. But he lived too fast and died young.” (Colleano, handsome star of many British films and a nephew of Con Colleano, the first tightrope walker to perform a forward somersault on the wire, died in a car crash in 1958 aged thirty-four).

A well-remembered face (or, more likely, neck and legs) from Liverpool pantos and variety shows seen in the 1950s by the boys who would become The Beatles, in 1967 Jackley was given a showy little part in The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour as Happy Nat the Rubber Man.

marianne lincoln nat wife

Marianne Lincoln.

In his stage heyday, the 1940s and 1950s, Nat Jackley often worked with his wife Marianne Lincoln, who provided some of his material, and stories about their stormy relationship were the stuff of backstage legend. Author and actor Michael Kilgarriff wrote that Jackley was ‘one of the sweetest-natured men we have ever encountered,’ and lamented: ‘How sad it was, during our pantomime run at the New Cardiff, to see the distress and embarrassment caused this artiste by his abusive and violent first wife, Marianne Lincoln, who at the Palace Pier Theatre, Brighton, pushed her husband down the stairs. Eventually, the ex-soubrette’s alcoholic disruptiveness caused her to be banned both from the theatre and the local hostelry, a not infrequent occurrence wherever her unfortunate spouse was playing. One management wouldn’t even have Mrs Jackley in the same town.’ (1)

BY 1972, though, Nat Jackley had sailed into calmer matrimonial waters and, when not working, lived quietly and happily with his second wife, Pamela, in Coventry. He had tried his hand at television but his extravagant comic style was quite unsuited to the medium, although in 1956 he did two shows for the BBC, Nat’s in the Belfry, co-starring the terrifying Marianne. His great success in television was still to come, a few years after I met him, and not as a comedian. By 1972 he was, with most of the other veterans here, appearing in Old Time Music Hall and seaside summer seasons.

In 1980 Nat made a charming single record, Nathaniel J, in which he told his life story in verse, to a musical background.

As Nat Jackley and Company, he and his stooges toured a knockabout sketch he called Why Should England Tremble? And there was always panto, of course. He regretted that the big clubs seemed to be taking audiences away from traditional theatres, but wasn’t at all bitter. He had officiated at the obsequies of some grand old piles. When the Empire, Leeds, shut down forever after the last night of Babes in the Wood in 1961, Jackley doffed his Dame’s wig and told the audience: “When you say goodbye to an old friend, you always take your hat off.”

Nats in the Belfry R

Nat music hall R

Big cabaret venues, glorified working men’s clubs wealthy enough to attract top names, were in vogue in 1972. But they didn’t suit Jackley’s style. “Now I’m no good for cabaret clubs. I’m not a gag man. I’m a visual comic. I need to be up there facing the audience where they can see me properly.”

He was happy at Liverpool, though, and happy, too, to take third billing. “I don’t like to be a big fish in a small pond,” he told me. “I’m not a jealous performer like that.”

It was his 42nd panto, and he had his own approach to playing the dame. “In this pantomime I’m working as a man in skirts. I’m not a female impersonator like Danny la Rue or Dick Emery. I’m just Nat Jackley wearing a skirt. I keep as fit as possible, but when you get older the bruises show more and they last longer, and I get a bit of rheumatism in my hands. But I’ve always been busy on stage, doing the funny walks and running up and down. That way they can’t hit you when they throw things! We had one kid in the other day and when I was in the middle of a routine he stood up in the stalls and shouted at the top of his voice: ‘Oh you go and fuck off!’”

Nat Jackley laughed. It would take more than a cheeky kid to put him off his funny stride.

                                                                     Thath’s all, Nat . . .      

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NAT was a smart old dog perfectly willing to learn a new trick or two, and it was heartening to find him, a few years after our meeting, quietly established as a film and television character actor of tremendous dignity and still, understated power. He was in the successful series When the Boat Comes In in 1977 and played the grandad, Harry Hayward, in the ten-part series The Spoils of War in 1980. He was in Tales of the Unexpected, Minder and Juliet Bravo, and in 1981 played Snout in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Nat Jackley gave a particularly fine, sensitive performance in the 1983 film The Ploughman’s Lunch, as despicable journalist Jonathan Pryce’s father. And when he died on September 17th, 1988, aged 79, a new generation of viewers, screenwriters, casting directors and producers was sorry to see him go. How many of them knew that the gentle old character actor they so admired had once been a famous music hall Rubber-Necked Man named Uh-thuh-fuh-fuh-thuth?


All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.

Other sources:

(1) Grace, Beauty and Banjos, by Michael Kilgarriff (Oberon Books, 1998).

Max Wall

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists


Max Don 5 R

Portrait by Don McPhee, courtesy of The Guardian.

HE was the funniest comedian I ever saw, and one of the most tragic men I ever knew. Battered, truculent, often a bit drunk, ridiculous in his bedraggled wig and motheaten tights, this little music hall gremlin would stare insolently at the audience. “Max Wall standing before you, ladies and gentlemen. In the flesh, not a cartoon. Man’s answer to the peacock.”

max badgesAlone there in the spotlight in his absurd costume and outsize boots – “these heels are built-up, you know; they give me that extra two inches I’ve always wanted,” he would declare with a revolting leer – he worked the swells and troughs of the audience, starting from cold every night, moulding onto the dusty bones of some corny old routine. “Professor Wallofski’s the name, well known in the field of classical music, and also well known in the field behind the gasworks. But my visits there . . . get fewer.”

Wallofki R

The Professor

He laid bare the mechanics of his craft for all to see. After a silly little rhyme near the beginning he would announce: “That’s the sort of thing I do. You may think I’m wasting my time doing it.”

But when he was in top form, his command of an audience was total, almost hypnotic, even though by the 1970s his act, at once arrogant and self-contemptuous, had become so steeped in seedy irony that it was almost a definition of deconstruction before the term became common: a cheap, tatty old comedian telling terrible jokes, strutting and mincing – “I’m going to walk up and down for you now, and stick my bottom out, and you will find it very, very attractive” – and at the same time standing apart from the performance and mocking it. “It’s all a horrible send-up really,” he told me.

Max young R

Natty star of the 1940s

Max was at his lowest professional ebb when I first met him early in 1972. The legendary clown had once been one of Britain’s richest entertainers, at the height of his fame playing golf with King Edward VIII and socialising with aristocracy. He had lived in mansions and owned three Rolls-Royces. Before a scandal fanned by the press wrecked his career, he had starred on Broadway and in lavish West End productions and had his own TV series. Now he was just finishing a season as Mother Goose in panto at a tiny civic theatre in the Cheshire village of Romiley. And his date-book for the rest of the year was empty.

“I read in some paper that I am now in ‘semi-retirement’,” he told me with the intense gloominess that was his default stance on just about everything. “Well, what is retirement? I suppose you could call it that, but if somebody came along and said we want you to this, that and the other, then I’d do it. Because I still love the business and – most of the time – I feel as young as I was twenty-five years ago. I can still do all my stuff, and I feel I’m not dated. When I appeared at a music hall show at Greenwich a few months ago all the young people – hippies – gave me a standing ovation. The younger generation seem to like my stuff. It’s very hard to see why I’m out in the cold.

Max Empire bill R

The Irresistible Comedian

“As long as I’m capable, and people find me entertaining, I’ll do it. I shall come out of retirement – if indeed I am retired – if people want me. Retirement is horrible, anyway. I’ve been at this all my life, and as long as I’m capable I’d like to carry on. But after this show it’s all in the lap of the gods. I shall go home, and that will be it. In our business we’re all like Micawbers, waiting for something to turn up.”

He was thoroughly enjoying the panto, though, he told me miserably. “I love pantomime because I love children, and it suits me because of all the mugging and grimacing and falling around. It suits my style of work.”

Max was 64 years old, and for the previous two decades his private life had been an open book of wrecked marriages, disastrous relationships with other women, arrests for public drunkenness and drink-driving, and estrangement from his five children. There were more intimate problems, too, and he didn’t shy away from confiding them when he had a few drinks on him: “I can’t even get it up any more,” he told one startled journalist. (1)

He was also battling the taxman, and soon after our first meeting his only possessions as an undischarged bankrupt would consist of a couple of suits, his props, a guitar, a transistor radio, a typewriter and a few books. The ‘home’ he referred to was a cheap bedsit at Number One, Grote’s Buildings, in London’s Blackheath. When his second wife, ex-beauty queen Jennifer Chimes, had walked out on him a few years before she had left a note that said: ‘You will end up in one room, alone, with nothing.’

Max Don 7 R

He shrugged . . .

He had come close to suicide several times. Once he went into the garage of the house in Jersey he had shared with Jennifer, closed the doors, started the car engine and took a heavy dose of sleeping pills. “But just before I lost consciousness, some greater power stepped in and said: ‘Don’t be a cunt, Max’.”

During our conversation at Romiley, there was from time to time an insistent banging on the dressing room door, which he had carefully locked as soon I was inside, sometimes accompanied by furious cries of: “Open up, Max. Let me in, you bastard!”

Whenever it happened, the great comedian just flashed his ghastly ill-fitting false teeth at me, shrugged helplessly, and carried on talking. I was told afterwards by the theatre’s manager that Max had earlier confiscated some drugs from a woman who might have been his third wife, from whom he was thought to be separated, or a new girlfriend. The manager said she was about 35 years younger than Max and an exceedingly angry and troublesome person.

Max mott the hoople

Mott the Hoople – took Max on tour to mixed success.

By early 1972 Max Wall was virtually forgotten by the public and written-off as a funny-walking disaster by most managements. But then something wonderful happened for this magnificent comedian, surely one of the finest Britain has ever produced. And I helped kick-start the process, in an extremely modest way. The day my interview with him appeared in The Guardian, the manager of the rock band Mott the Hoople got on, looking for a contact for Max. They wanted to take him on tour.

With nothing else in prospect, Max accepted, and while some of the gigs were not too successful, he did at least receive a lot of positive publicity and was able to bring his gifts to a new – if sometimes unappreciative – generation. “They told me you’d throw things if you liked me,” he would shout as beer cans rained down on him from outraged Mott the Hoople fans.

All the same, it was the start of The Big Comeback. The following year his name was back in lights in the West End after a smash-hit appearance doing his old routines in the musical revue Cockie! and he was being hailed by The International Herald Tribune as ‘quite simply, the funniest comedian in the world.’

Max Jack Lorimer songsheet R

He was an alcoholic . . .

HE was born Maxwell Lorimer in Brixton, London, in 1908. His father was not “the Great Wall of China” as Max liked to claim in his act but Jack Lorimer, a noted Scots comedian, and he made his first stage appearance at the age of two. He wore “a wee kilt” as befitted the son of an artist billed as ‘The Hielan’ Laddie.’ His mother, Stella, also a performer, was a stifling influence on him for much of his early life, and although he came to resent her, Max, passive by nature, allowed himself to be dominated.

“My parents were in the business. My mother, father, grandmother, grandfather. My grandfather did a bit of comedy but mostly it was instrumental stuff. My grandmother was a dancer. This would be in the early days of the halls, the 1860s. My father was quite a big star, but he was an alcoholic and died when I was quite young.”

marie Lloyd

Marie Lloyd

As a child he toured Britain’s music halls with his parents, meeting many great stars and being fussed over by other women on the bill. “I am pretty sure that Marie Lloyd was among my stage aunties. My earliest memory of her is hazy, but it is of me sitting in the wings of some theatre somewhere in England, and watching her perform. Needless to say, I was a very small boy at the time, but one much given to pulling faces. You could say that I had jerky mobile features as opposed to the calm countenance. It reached the point where Marie Lloyd asked my mother: ‘What’s the matter with your kid, then – ’as he got bleedin’ St Vitus’ dance?’ She was an earthy character, of course, with a natural, ribald, Cockney turn of phrase.” (2)

By the start of the First World War the marriage of Stella and Jack was in trouble, though they continued to work together, and Stella had taken up with Harry Bentley, a successful song-and-dance man. Bentley’s real name was Harry Wallace, and it was from him Max got his stage name: half of Maxwell and half of Wallace. He always cited Harry Bentley, who was to become his stepfather, as one of the most positive influences on his life.

IN 1916, while Jack and Stella were en route to South Africa, the Germans sent a Zeppelin over London. Just before it was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, it released an aerial torpedo and a gas bomb. Both fell on the family’s Brixton home, destroying it.  Max and his older brother Alec were buried in the rubble but were saved by being trapped under the iron bed in which they had been sleeping, which overturned to form a protective platform for the brickwork that crashed down. The gas bomb fell on another part of the house where his little brother William, known as Bunty, was sleeping with an aunt who was minding the children. Both were killed. For the rest of his life Max Wall was haunted by flashbacks of hearing rescuers clearing away the rubble to get to him and Alec, and shouting for help as chinks of daylight appeared.

His earliest idols were Little Tich and the great Swiss clown, Grock, both grotesques who milked pathos from a bizarre appearance. When he was fourteen, Max became a full-time performer, billed as ‘The Boy with the Obedient Feet’ or ‘Max Wall and His Independent Legs’ and he first attracted attention in the 1920s as an acrobatic dancer.

Here’s the only existing film of Little Tich.


Max very young

Max at the start of his career.

He toured Europe with Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguet, and appeared on Broadway with Milton Berle and Helen Broderick in Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1929. “I went as a dancer and I finished up as a comedian. I stayed in America for about eighteen months and then I came back here as a comedy act.”

But managements in Britain persisted in seeing him as a tap-dancer who told a few jokes, rather than a stand-up who also danced. “You see, they liked people to do only one thing; they didn’t want you to succeed at anything else. And I was in a pigeonhole as a dancer. But it seems that one makes a success in spite of people rather than because of them.”

The following year he took part in the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. After this exposure he kept pestering managements to allow him to introduce more verbal comedy into his eccentric dancing act, but it was not until a few years later, in the heyday of radio, that producers began to appreciate the potential for drollery in those oozing vowels and nasal, staccato consonants.

“I started as a dancer: acrobatic dancing, tap dancing, funny dancing. I still use it all, as and when I can. A bit later, when I got better-known, I used to take my own show round the Moss Empires circuit – a stand-up spot, you might call it, and I also had a guitar-playing spot. I always did a spot in the first half and one in the second, and I created the Professor Wallofski thing for the second spot. You know, the character with the long hair, tights and boots. It was a satire on the old composers and pianists.

“People tell me my Professor Wallofski is a great grotesque, even in the tradition of Grock and Dan Leno. It’s become that. The first time I did it was at the Duchess, opposite the Drury Lane Theatre Royal. It was in a thing called Make it a Date. I wore the badly fitting evening dress and the short trousers. That was the start of it, and then I went to The Empire, Leicester Square. My agent suggested that I wear tights instead of trousers, to make fun of the resident ballet. So I did that and, of course, it went down terrifically well and I’ve kept it ever since.

max make it a date

“Now I’m stuck with the Wallofski routine. It’s been an annoyance from time to time. It’s such a silly act.  You know, I wouldn’t couple myself with Charlie Chaplin – I wouldn’t do such a thing – but it’s a similar pattern. Chaplin was known for his baggy pants and bowler hat and whenever he tried to break away, it didn’t come off. And I’m known, in this country at least, as Professor Wallofski.  Sometimes when I play clubs, they want me to wear the costume, even though there’s no piano to do the proper act. It’s become like a uniform.

“But I was a fine dancer. It took me fifteen years to learn to dance properly. And from that has come all the funny walks I do. The acrobatic stuff made me very loose-limbed, you see.”

Max sneer R 2

IT was after Max Wall had been invalided out of the RAF in 1943 that he because a top radio name. BBC comedy producer James Casey, son of the great Geordie comic Jimmy James, once told me that his father defined a true comedian not as someone who necessarily says funny things, but as someone who says things funnily.  This was certainly true of Max, who adored Jimmy James: “I used to love him. To me he was a marvellous man.”

Max could get a laugh with the line “I arrived tonight in a pantechnicon,” communicating to the audience his relish at simply articulating the word. Often the things he said were not jokes at all but surreal ways of dealing with mundane events – “a little hole sticking up,” he would explain after pretending to stumble. All the same, he did write some very fine gags. A particular favourite is still much-quoted: “Show business to me is like sex. When it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful. And when it’s terrible, it’s still all right.”

After many guest spots in top shows of the day, his own radio series, Our Shed, began a successful run in 1946.  Supported by a troupe of reliable comedy actors billed as “Max Wall’s Trained Troupe of Performing Zombies”, he would start the show each week by dramatically declaiming: “Ah – but they do things differently there!”

Cast (in unison): “Where?”

Max (in silly kid’s voice): “Our shed!”

A clip of one of his routines from the 1940s. There’s a great little tap dance at the end.

He was also starring in successful West End shows – Present Arms (1940), Panama Hattie (1943), Hoopla (1945) and Make it a Date (1946). A decade later he was still at the top, starring in the hit musical The Pajama Game, which ran for 578 performances at The London Coliseum, and The Max Wall Show on BBC television.

marian pola

Marian Pola, Max’s first wife and the mother of his five children.

marian and kids

Marian and the children.

To the public, the little comedian’s home life must have seemed blissful. A reporter from the weekly magazine Tit-Bits visited Max, his wife Marion Pola, a former dancer, and children in the mid-1950s and wrote: The kind of private jokes you find in all the nicest families flourish with the Walls. After Max and his wife, Marion, had their first son, Michael, it seemed kind of natural to make a corner in names beginning with ‘M’, and there are now Melvyn (aged nine), Martin (nearly five) and the four-month-old twins Meredith and Maxine.

       In the same way, because the Walls, like other couples married during the war, were eventually thrilled when they found a house with four walls of their own, they decided to call it just that, only Martin arrived and made it ‘ Five Walls’.

But in reality all was not at all well behind Seven Walls. We don’t know what went on, obviously, but whatever it was seems to have been quite dreadful. In later years Max hinted that he had been a victim of domestic violence. He admitted he made many, many mistakes. What is incontrovertible is that somehow all his children became alienated from him, and he remained more-or-less estranged from them for the rest of his life. One, at least, absolutely loathed him. Eldest son Michael said thirty years later: “I’ve nothing but contempt for him. As an artist he is a genius but as a man he is a despicable failure. I never want to see him or be associated with him in any way. I detest him so much that I won’t even use his name.” (3)

jennifer and kids

Max, Jennifer and her two children.

THIS was the black void of awfulness at the core of Max Wall’s being. He looked sad because he was sad. The comic desperation and melancholia we found so captivating on stage were projections of a profound inner desolation. Everybody in the latter stages of his career, after the comeback, loved ‘Max Wall’. He was sometimes  billed as ‘The Irresistible Comedian’. But nobody in his private life, it seems, cared much for Maxwell Lorimer. Not even his children.

max music hall 5 r

Music hall – ‘the younger generation like my stuff.’

In 1955 he left Marion and became involved with Jennifer, who was the current Miss Great Britain and 26 years his junior. She, too, was married, and had two children. The popular press of the day, with the awesome sanctimony and hypocrisy for which they were renowned, went for the jugular (when he forgot the birthday of his twins, The Daily Sketch sent round a carload of cuddly toys to Seven Walls ‘so they wouldn’t be too disappointed’).

“They say that for an entertainer there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I’m not so sure. But what people didn’t know at the time was that I was completely broken up. I was in a very bad way mentally and my nerves were screeching out. Perhaps my attitude to the press was not what it should have been. I antagonised some people, this is possible, but you can’t have people sitting in judgment on you. If I had been capable of greeting the press laughing and smiling and saying ‘come in, have a drink; look, this is what it’s all about . . .’, they might have played it down a bit. But I just couldn’t do it. Human nature, I suppose.”

Max and Jennifer were married in 1956.  In 1957 he collapsed on stage and suffered a nervous breakdown. Jennifer left him, but there were reconciliations. His work deteriorated and he often appeared on stage drunk. In 1960 he got the bird for the first time in his career; an engagement in Aberdeen was ended after one night ‘by mutual consent’. In 1962 he walked off the stage at a working men’s club near Stoke. He divorced Jennifer for desertion the same year.

Max and Jennifer Chimes R

With Jennifer.

Then, in Morecambe, he met Christine Clements. “I was up there doing a summer season with Nat Jackley. She was working at the dolphin show at the Marineland and we met at Nat’s birthday party. She was a pretty little thing. I got interested and that was it.”

Max clubs 2 R

With his career in tatters, Max worked the Northern clubs.

In his autobiography, Max’s chapter on his marriage to Christine, who was 33 years younger, consists of two sentences: ‘I’ll never forget my third marriage. Don’t think I haven’t tried.’ The chapter is headed: ‘A JOKE.’ Comedian Roy Hudd once recalled: “Max’s association with the opposite sex always gave him trouble and I remember standing next to him in the Gents in Grosvenor House. Looking down, he muttered in that unmistakable voice: ‘You, you little swine – you’re the cause of it all!’” (4)

I met this aggressive and morose man a few more times during the next couple of years, and he generally seemed vaguely glad to see me, although I was never sure whether he remembered exactly who I was. He was a fund of scandalous showbusiness stories and I enjoyed his company, except when, as sometimes happened if he’d had a few, he became unreasonable or sank into maudlin self-pity. Once, when Guardian photographer Don McPhee and I were drinking with Max and singer Karl Denver backstage at a nightclub at Denton in the North of England, he ran out of his particular brand of menthol cigarettes, of which he smoked 50 a day, and refused to perform until more were obtained. When the cigarettes were finally found and he went on, drink had robbed him of his timing and he was sour and unfunny. The audience had waited more than an hour for him, and was not best pleased.

It is interesting, and poignant, to look at clips of Max Wall from the 1940s. There he is, happy and confident in his nifty suit and little trilby hat, rather handsome, cracking gags and rolling his eyes, doing impressions, singing whimsical songs and tap-dancing so brilliantly. The Professor Wallofski he portrayed then was comical rather than sinister, the wig shaggier, the smile sunnier, the gestures broader and less crablike.

Now look at the Wallofski of the early 1970s. He’s visibly aged, obviously, but see how much the Professor has been diminished by the years of disappointment and neglect. He’s like a gargoyle: teeth too big for a head that is already too big for the body. A nightmarish, malevolent little hobgoblin. He leers down at his delightedly shuddering audience with that horrid grin. “Max Wall, ladies and gentlemen, standing before you . . .”

Some facial contortions, followed by the immortal Professor Wallofski’s funny walk.

godot leo mckern

With Leo McKern in Waiting for Godot.

After the success of Cockie! in 1973 – Max basically did his old music hall act, privately describing it to me as “just more of the same old crap” – he was back on top again, hailed as “a genius” and the pet of intellectuals and the chattering classes. He became a superb straight actor, bringing 50 years of comic technique, and intimate knowledge of life’s vagaries and cruelties, to roles in works by Shakespeare, Wesker, Pinter and, especially, Samuel Beckett, where he scored tremendous triumphs in Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape, becoming acknowledged as a major interpreter of the Irish playwright’s work. It is easy to see why. Both mined deep seams of bleakness, humour, futility, hope, hopelessness. And Max Wall’s delivery perfectly suited Beckett.


In Krapp’s Last Tape.

Professor Wallofski: “Where’s the piano stool? I want a stoooool. A stoooool. For my botty.”

Krapp: “A spoooool. A spoooool.”

“There are an awful lot of pauses in this play, Mr Beckett,” he said mischievously to the playwright, who had dropped into a dress rehearsal for Godot. “Do you mind if I do one of my funny walks?”

Beckett just smiled. They would have understood each other very well.

Max Entertainer 1 R

As Archie Rice in The Entertainer.

IN 1974 I chatted to Max in his dressing-room at the Greenwich theatre where he was playing Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, directed by the author. Osborne wryly told me Max was subverting the play because he couldn’t resist building on laughs where Archie was supposed to be dying on stage, but he didn’t seem to mind too much. Years later he wrote: ‘There was little I could do to improve on the way he melted and insinuated himself into the part. With his skill as a dancer came the gift of withholding, conjuring unimaginable surprise. He never made the smallest movement that was not felicitous and fastidious, whatever the comic outcome, whether it was opening a bottle of Dubonnet or leaning on his cane like a reflective, startled ape, peering out through the bars of his remote cage. . . . The effect was superb and almost ruined the characterisation. Archie Rice was not supposed to be funny, nor an ornament of the times.’ (5)

Writing in The Guardian in August 2016 to mark Kenneth Branagh’s new production of The Entertainer, Simon Callow recalled Max’s Archie and got it just about right:
‘Only one British actor in living memory has effaced the imprint of Olivier, and that was the great comedian (and novelty dancer) Max Wall, who played Archie in Osborne’s own perhaps over-loving 1974 revival at Greenwich theatre (it lasted nearly four hours).

‘As if in negative image, Wall reversed Olivier’s conception. In the front cloth scenes, Olivier showed a tenth-rate performer who, despite a lack of talent, was eager to make an impact. In the private scenes, he exposed the man’s despair; when he showed Jean his dead eyes, they were in fact shot through with excruciating pain. When Wall played the same scene, his eyes were unnervingly dead; during the scenes in the music hall, he presented Archie as effortlessly skillful but deeply bored, just sketching it in.

‘He nonchalantly knocked off a few steps, full of contempt for his audience, whereas Olivier put everything he had into the dancing. Wall’s performance revealed the full-blown romanticism of Olivier’s approach: he drew a tragi-comic portrait of a soul in hell. Wall’s Archie was flatly realistic, and all the more disturbing for that. The man was a dead cinder. The performance made the play seem smaller, less epic, but in some ways better, more real, less schematic. It was less entertaining and more disturbing.’ (8)

Work was what kept Max going, and only onstage, in a TV studio or on a movie set did he find a measure of contentment. Of all the bizarre, indiscreet, embarrassing, self-hating comments this strange, gifted and deeply-unhappy man made over the years, I think the following is perhaps the most heartbreaking, from an interview he gave to Woman magazine in 1975: “I’ll tell you what I dream of. I dream of owning a little cottage, an olde-worlde one. It’s in the heart of the country. Or, better still, it’s by the sea. There are lots of oak beams and crimson curtains. It’s very cosy and homely . . .”

He didn’t say if he imagined another person there to share his impossible dream.

Let’s try and leave Max on as high a note as we can manage. My favourite quote about him comes from American author John Lahr, son of Oz’s Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr, another comic who became a great interpreter of Beckett in his old age. “He was an isolated, sullen, feisty man who brought his sadness on stage and dumped the hostility that came with it hilariously in the audience’s lap,” he wrote in his book Light Fantastic. “In his sorrowful caperings, Max Wall took the audience where only a great clown can: to the frontiers of the marvelous.” (6)


Walk on, Max . . .

TO his bemusement, considering the way he’d been treated during the previous twenty years, the sad little man ended his days as something of a National Treasure. Maybe it was appropriate, considering he’d been buried for years and then dug up again. He was relieved to be out of debt, back in demand and with a few quid in the bank, naturally, but he wasn’t impressed by the accolades. It had all come a bit too late. Away from the cameras and stage lights he lived as a near-recluse in a little council flat, snubbing colleagues and well-wishers, and occasionally venturing out to the local pub, where he invariably sat alone drinking Guinness. A neighbour said: “He’s rarely seen. He seems to spend much of the day sleeping.”

Liz Smith, who co-starred with Max in one of his last films, We Think the World of You, said: “It’s very
sad. He’s a legend. Yet at the end of such a long career he seems to have lost so much. It would be nice for him to be surrounded by warmth and affection.” (7)

On May 21st, 1990, Max Wall, 82, was entertaining two friends, fellow-diners and the staff over a boozy four-hour lunch at his favourite London restaurant, Simpson’s in The Strand. As he left the building he lost his footing on the stairs and fell heavily. He died the next day in hospital without regaining consciousness. An inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death. He had fractured his skull but wouldn’t have lived much longer anyway – the inquest disclosed that he had a brain tumour and severe heart disease.

The comedian who had spent so many years broke or bankrupt left £193,000 in his will. The money went to four of his children, seven grandchildren and charity. His eldest son, Michael, was specifically excluded.

Here’s a last laugh from Max – his brilliant version of Ian Dury’s song England’s Glory, recorded in 1977.














































































































All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.

Other text sources

(1) Interview in Penthouse, 1974, Vol 9 no 3.

(2) The Fool on the Hill, by Max Wall. Quartet Books, 1975.

(3) The Sun, May 23, 1990.

(4) Roy Hudd’s Book of Variety, Music Hall and Showbiz Anecdotes. Robson Books, 1993.

(5) Independent on Sunday, May 27, 1996.

(6) Bloomsbury Books, 1996.

(7) The People, October 1, 1989.

(8) The Guardian, August 13, 2016.

Elsie and Doris Waters

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists

Elsie and Doris Don R

Portrait by Don McPhee, courtesy The Guardian.

I STOOD in their hallway, hungover and travel-weary, smiling nervously as Elsie and Doris Waters inspected me. “I dunno, Doll,” said Elsie dubiously. “He looks a bit peaky to me. What we got in the fridge?”

“Nice bit of smoked haddock, Nan,” said Doris. She addressed me firmly as she ushered me into the drawing room. “We’re not going to talk to you until you’ve got some proper food down you, young man, and that’s that. Now you sit there and look at the paper while we make something to eat.”

I humbly did as I was told. As the sisters bustled around the kitchen next door, I could hear them talking about me over the clatter of pots and pans. “Do you think he’d want some carrots or mushrooms, Nan?”


Gert (Elsie) and Daisy (Doris) in their heyday.

“Dunno, Doll. Looks like he wants a stiff drink to me – ha-ha! Poke your head round the corner and see if he’s fallen asleep.”

The voices were older and posher, but the inflections and rhythms were exactly the same as their alter egos, heard in scores of music halls and a hundred radio shows: the voluble and indomitable Cockney pals, Gert and Daisy, whose funny and inspiring banter helped Britain win the Second World War, it was said. Their ability to rally the troops and sustain national morale certainly rattled the Nazis. “Germany calling, Germany calling,” intoned propagandist Lord Haw Haw in one of his broadcasts. “The people of Grimsby must not think that Gert and Daisy can save them from the might of the Luftwaffe.”

During WWll underground stations were used as bomb shelters. Here the girls bring a bit of that old party spirit to frightened and dispirited Londoners in a scene from their best movie, Gert and Daisy’s Weekend (1942).

When hostilities ended, Elsie and Doris Waters were awarded OBEs for their war work and were personally thanked by Winston Churchill. They were clearly women to be reckoned with, and I was a bit intimidated by them before we even met, to be honest. They were not keen on seeing me initially because they were fed up with being interviewed. ‘We find some of these people extremely casual,’ they wrote, ‘and they ask the most ridiculous questions, which we find very boring sometimes. Half of them don’t seem to know what they are doing, and we often wonder what our friends think when they read some of the rubbish written about us! You can have an interview if you like.’

And so began my friendship with two of the funniest, kindest and most delightful people you could ever hope to meet.

WHEN they came up with Gert and Daisy in 1930, Elsie and Doris Waters created a new style of comedy. Observational, chatty and relatively gag-free, with the humour based on the kind of witty comments and comebacks heard in real life, they were pioneers of a more naturalistic, confiding radio manner that Tony Hancock would later use to such good effect.  There was strong audience identification with Gert and Daisy’s everyday gossip, delivered in a laconic, matter-of-fact East End drawl. Their subject matter is now dated, naturally, but their casual charm seems very modern.

In scripts mostly written by Elsie, they conjured up a whole cast to support them, whose doings and misadventures were witheringly discussed: Gert’s useless fiancé, Wally, and Daisy’s feckless husband, Bert. There was also the bane of their lives, malicious neighbour Old Mother Butler, and several more, all vividly real to listeners though they were merely referred to and not heard. It was rather like a humorous Coronation Street for radio, with just two characters evoking all the others.

Gert: “Daisy?”

Daisy: “Half a minute. Just putting Bert’s dinner in the oven.”

Gert: “Bert’s dinner?”

Daisy: “Yes.”

Gert: “What you got?”

Daisy: “Hash.”

Gert: “Hash?”

Daisy: “Hmm. Bert’s not fussy about his food, you know. Mind you, he’s a hearty eater, Gert. He’s not one of them sort of men, you know, if they made a pig of themselves it would be an improvement.”

Gert: “Ha ha. That’s good.”

Daisy: “I gave him a dish of macaroni one day, and he tried to put it   on.”

Gert: “Oh no.”

Daisy: “Ha ha ha. He did a bit of cooking himself once. Made an omelette.”

Gert: “An omelette? I say.”

Daisy: “We haven’t seen the last of it yet. Bert used to clean his bicycle with it, but now we’re using it as a kettle holder.”


Daisy: “Been to the pictures this week?”

Gert: “No, not yet.”

Daisy: “Oh, I have. Twice. Oh, what a six penn’orth. Oh, I did cry.  Used up both sleeves.”

(From the record London Pride Part 1, 1933)

The sisters quietly boasted that in their whole long broadcasting career – from the late 1920s to the early 1970s – they never once repeated the same sketch or song. They were even prouder that two elephants at London Zoo had been named Gert and Daisy in their honour. As recently as the late 1990s, Manchester United defenders Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce were nicknamed Gert and Daisy by fans, though only the older ones knew why.

Here’s a song that makes no sense unless you know that food rationing was in force in Britain during and for some years after WWll.

Recently, too, they have been embraced as feminist icons (though Elsie told me back in 1972 that “Women’s Lib would give Gert and Daisy the pip!”) and the subjects of university gender studies. “Elsie and Doris Waters are perhaps the most influential social satirists of the period,” claims Wheeler Winston Dixon, Professor of Film Studies, University of Nebraska.

A passage from an academic book written in 2003: ‘By forming their double-act around the ever-affianced Gert and the indissolubly married Daisy, they offered women an ontological choice: whether to find their meaning in themselves and with other women, or in the state of gender subalternity, through servitude to men and to patriarchy. By evoking laughter through song, music, patter, gossip, cross-talk, conversation, malapropisms, puns and jokes, through humour, wit, irony, burlesque, parody, satire, ridicule and a gynocentric misanthropy (counterbalancing misogyny), they also invoke a condition of delight, in which men and women might laugh at themselves, at their subject formations, their gender postures, their beings.’ (1)

The Ghost of Daisy: “Hark at him, Gert. Sounds like he’s swallowed a bloomin’ dictionary.”

The Ghost of Gert: “Oh, I say . . .”

THE sisters lived together at Steyning, a village near Brighton, in a large bungalow with an immense picture window in the living room that looked out over the rolling Sussex countryside – “our Constable,” they called it. They referred to each other by childhood pet names, Nan and Doll, and there was an age difference they kept quiet about during their heyday. When I first met them, Elsie was in her late seventies and Doris ten years younger.

The age gap worked well for the sisters professionally: Elsie (Gert) was more of a creator of comedy and could be called the brains behind the act, while Doris was a more ebullient performer, and funnier, so big sister gave her most of the best lines. Although they were quite old ladies when we first met, I sensed there was something of the mother-and-daughter in their relationship. Sixty years earlier, Elsie would have been a sensible young woman when Doris was still a giddy child.

elsie 1

They began their career as singers and musicians, not comedians, and Gert and Daisy came about quite by chance. “We had been doing a bit of broadcasting,” said Elsie, “and we were heard by the Parlophone record company while we were broadcasting from Birmingham, and they thought our voices were suitable for recording. And so we made around six records of songs, which seemed to be all right. And then one Friday evening – we were doing Masonic work and concerts and things – we suddenly realised that we had to do another recording in the morning.

“We thought: what on earth can we do? Anyway, we decided to do a talking record for a change. Well, what shall we talk about? Well, we thought, people like wedding bells, so Doll sat down and she wrote a little tune and I put some words to it. We called it Wedding Bells and we did a little bit of chat, and that was the first of Gert and Daisy. After we had done it, we forgot all about it.”

Doris: “But you must remember, Nan, that we did wonder what we could call the characters, and I said: ‘I’ll call you Gert, because I like saying it,’ and you said: ‘I’ll call you Daisy, because there’s always a Daisy among us.’ Because, you see, we were born in the East End, and we knew how these women thought and talked.”

Elsie: “And in the end Gert and Daisy came to dominate the act. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog. After the success of Wedding Bells, we sat down and had a think about the situation and I realised that Doll was much better at telling stories than me. So she decided to tell funny stories and we wrote some humorous songs. And we’ve written songs ever since.”

Elsie and Doris songbook

They were born within the sound of Bow Bells to an intensely musical lower middle-class family. Their father, Edward William Waters, was an undertakers’ warehouseman, and when his children were old enough he formed the amateur Waters Bijou Orchestra. Elsie: “Our parents were very strict and we were taught that there was only right and wrong and nothing in the middle. There was no room for compromise. We were given training in every conceivable thing.”

Doris: “We had elocution lessons. We went to the Guildhall School of Music. Our eldest brother, Arthur, played the trumpet, cornet and post horn. Jack played viola. Bernard, another brother, played the second violin and another brother, Leslie, played percussion. Nan played second violin and I used to play the piano and, sometimes, tubular bells, heaven help us! We used to play temperance concerts, mothers’ meetings, church bazaars. As kids we didn’t fancy it much because all our friends were out playing and we had to stay in and practice. We had singing lessons – I was soprano and Nan was contralto.”

Elsie and Doris Jack R

Brother Horace, who, as Jack Warner, became a film star and, on BBC television, the ‘ordinary copper’ Dixon of Dock Green.

(Incidentally, the Jack they referred to was Horace John Waters [1895-1981], who changed his name to Jack Warner and followed his sisters into showbusiness. After coming to prominence as a radio comedian in the 1940s, he went on to become a film star and, in the 1950s, even more famous as the eponymous London policeman Dixon of Dock Green in the long-running BBC television series.)

After the success of Wedding Bells, a big radio hit, Elsie wrote more sketches. Together they composed many songs, and Gert and Daisy became staples of pre-war entertainment, held in tremendous affection by the public. “The BBC used to ring us up and ask us to do a show and we went and did it and we never imagined that people liked it as much as they apparently did,” said Elsie.

Doris: “And it was very difficult to make a name on radio in those days, you know. There was the Midland Regional, the London Regional, the Northern Regional Service, and people would switch into any one of those. So if people decided they wanted to listen to you, they had to make a point of doing so.”

Elsie and Doris young

The sisters took Gert and Daisy around the music halls from 1935 onwards, but their debut was inauspicious. “The first time we played the London Alhambra they put us on as first turn,” said Elsie. “We thought this was terrible. We thought that if people wanted to see us, they wouldn’t have time to have their dinner. So I put an advert in the Sunday Referee, which was a paper they had in those days, which said ‘Elsie and Doris Waters. All last week first turn at the London Alhambra, three times daily, thus disproving the old saying that you can only die once.’ You know, people in the business still talk about that, and it was so many years ago now.”

They mapped out the lives of Gert and Daisy and their entourage with meticulous care and attention to detail. Everything had to have the ring of truth. “We never ask: what do we do now?” said Elsie. “We always ask: what would they do?”

Doris: “We wouldn’t say what they wouldn’t say. We know them too well, you see. Having been brought up in the East End of London, we know the way they think.”

Elsie: “I think we bring people into the picture. Everyone knows our type because our type is true. We are sincere about it. And another thing – although I don’t suppose people notice this – is that Gert and Daisy have never quarrelled. They have never been drunk. Bert was always fond of a drink, but not us. We’ve always been the homely types, which people enjoy. People can identify with us. The Manchester Evening News one time ran a competition, ‘What Do You Think Bert is Like?’ We had so many replies, and they were all different. They all thought Bert was their old man. All different kinds of women thought old Bert belonged to them. And all these characters were based on observation. We used to have a darling woman who used to come in and do the rough work, Mrs Mitchell, and she, I think, was the original of Daisy.”

Doris: “And so it goes on. I think it’s the fact that we talk about the same people all the time; otherwise, I don’t think Gert and Daisy would have lasted so long, because we get the come-back from Bert and Wally and all the other characters we have invented. You can’t run a thing on two people; otherwise, it’s just a series of gags, and that’s not what we do.”

THEY never married and always lived together. It was known that Doris had a great love affair just before the war, with an aristocratic member of the Diplomatic Corps, but wouldn’t go with him when he was posted to the United States because she felt it would harm her career and, besides, she and Elsie considered their place was in Britain as the political climate worsened. Elsie had a boyfriend, according to her niece, Pamela Lorraine, but decided not to get married.

There was a story going around in variety circles for years that at one point Elsie and Doris shared the same lover, someone high up in the BBC, but when I tentatively mentioned this to Ms Lorraine she dismissed it with an asperity that would have done credit to her aunts. ‘I have asked cousins if they know anything about lovers but nobody does,’ she emailed me in 2009, ‘and we feel it’s a shame to spread unsubstantiated gossip just because it sounds exotic!’ (2)

elsie and doris cookbook

During the Second World War the sisters worked tirelessly. Doris: “We were put on the air for a fortnight after the 6 o’clock news. It was a terrible time. They had a terrific response to these broadcasts. The Ministry of Food gave us the subjects we were to put forward, like ‘Grow More Green Vegetables’ or ‘Eat More Oatmeal,’ and we thought: ‘Gawd, what’s funny about oatmeal?’ We used to give recipes. We lived on seven-and-sixpence a week before we did this Ministry of Food business. We thought that before we did it we’d better find out what it all cost. And, what’s more, we put on weight on seven-and-sixpence a week! That was in 1940. They had 60,000 letters at the Ministry of Food in a fortnight after our broadcasts and we thought that this was something so big that we had to do something about it.

“So we asked the Ministry if they would like us to go around and attend these meetings that were arranged through the gas companies and the electricity companies. The Ministry realised that women would want help with rationing, because they lived out of tins even in those days. And we said that wherever we were appearing, we would attend these cookery demonstrations. We used to do five a day sometimes, trying to get people to save food. Nobody paid us for this, of course. This is what we considered to be our war work. As a matter of fact, during the war we hardly made anything at all. And yet that’s the time when we were at the height of our fame . . . right at the top. But we felt we had to give it all up to do the war work. We felt we couldn’t do anything else.”

Elsie: “We went abroad to entertain the troops, and it was Gert and Daisy who took us there. What made us so proud is that the boys were so pleased to see us. They used to say ‘It’s not so far from home now you are here,’ and that meant more to us than anything we have done.”

IN the 1950s they went out to cheer up the troops again. Doris: “Just before Suez, we went out to the Middle East because they told us that the boys out there were having a rotten time. We were there for ten weeks and when we came back we had to do a radio broadcast. We took a taxi and the driver said: ‘I haven’t heard you on the wireless lately.’ We told him that we had been out to the Middle East, the Canal Zone. He said: ‘What’s it like out there?’ We said: ‘Jolly good, but it was a bit dodgy getting about sometimes’ and Nan said: ‘You know, we’ve only just got used to going about without an armed escort.’ He said: ‘Blimey, what have you got to protect?’ Isn’t it lovely? We just fell about on the pavement.”

Elsie: “But a remark like that can be tucked away and used, because all good comedy should have truth. Unless Gert and Daisy speak the truth, it’s no good.”

Elsie and Doris Gert and Daisys Weekend

The sisters starred in a few films in the 1940s, of which the best is Gert and Daisy’s Weekend (1942), in which the girls escort a group of evacuee children from London to the comparative safety of the countryside. Early scenes showing Gert and Daisy entertaining Londoners sheltering in tube stations are wonderfully evocative of wartime life.

The first radio series built around the Cockney pair was Gert and Daisy’s Working Party in 1948, and a major variety series, Petticoat Lane, came the following year. Their greatest success was Floggit’s, which ran for two years from 1956, in which Gert and Daisy inherited a village general store and had to deal sternly with various characters played by Ronnie Barker, Joan Sims, Anthony Newley, Hugh Paddick, Ron Moody and Kenneth Connor.

“If the BBC had any sense, we could have been the original Coronation Street-type television show, because we talked about people,” snorted Doris. “We built up the characters of Bert and Wally, Old Mother Butler, Eadie and all the people round the corner and so on. We never said that it could have turned into a Coronation Street, but other people have said so.”

But the move to television, 1959’s Gert and Daisy, on ITV, was something of a disaster. Devised by Ted Willis, who created their brother Jack’s Dixon of Dock Green, the series had Gert and Daisy as landladies of a theatrical boarding house. The sisters were constricted by corny and unfunny set-ups, and the scripts were written by others. In the Daily Mail Peter Black wrote: ‘The dear old things did their best. The idea that any alteration of their technique could be necessary for television had not occurred to them, but as it had not occurred to anyone else one cannot reproach them too bitterly.’ (3)

The main problem was pinpointed by Doris to Philip Phillips in the Daily Herald: ‘Gert and Daisy – Elsie and Doris Waters – are angry. Their first-ever TV series has been given the thumbs down by the critics . . . Doris said: “We don’t think it’s too bad. A lot of viewers have said they like it. What do you think is wrong?” I replied: “It lacks the wit of your radio shows, and the situations are trite.”  Then she revealed: “We write all our radio scripts”.’ (4)

Elsie and Doris Good Old Days R

ELSIE and Doris weathered the setback and carried on with their stage work in Old Time Music Hall shows and the like. They would go on, chat a bit as themselves, sing a couple of songs, and then – to a tremendous cheer from the audience – reach into their bag of props for the hats and bits and pieces that would transform them into Gert and Daisy.

Elsie: “It really is very heartwarming. And taxi drivers nearly always recognise us and crack a joke, and when the trip’s over, they sometimes don’t want to take our money. We say: ‘Oh, come on, you must take this. Have a drink on us.’ And they say: ‘No, you’ve given me a good few laughs. Can’t take any money off you.’ And away they go. That kind of thing repays the hard work but, you know, in our job nothing’s hard work if you take the objective view. I mean, hard work means really fighting, but for us it’s a pleasure to go on and do it. There may be hard work attached to the thing, preparation and so on, but when you actually go on and do it, that’s not hard work. That’s a pleasure, if you’re really pleasing people.

“We can often translate a happening in our own lives to Gert and Daisy. For instance, when the war was over we gave a cocktail party and it was a real smasher! We went to Fortnum’s and told them we wanted eats and drinks for fifty people. So all this stuff came down by train, caviar and the lot, and the cars of the guests lined the lane with their lights on and somebody said it was like Derby Day. So we decided that Gert and Daisy must give a cocktail party. Daisy said: ‘Well, we’ve got a bit of bay rum – Bert does his hair with it – and there’s half a bottle of Guinness left over from Christmas, and a bit of ginger wine’.”

Doris: “So we shook all this rubbish up and Gert said ‘How does it taste?’ and I said ‘Awful! ’Orrible!’ and Bert said ‘These are very small glasses. You don’t know whether to drink the stuff or do your eyes with it.’ We didn’t invite Old Mother Butler. But she saw all the bikes lined up outside with their lights on.”

Elsie and Doris Laurel and Hardy R

Elsie: “We haven’t done a lot of television. We get offers, but they want us to do things that aren’t Gert and Daisy, and we think that people don’t want to see us do things that aren’t Gert and Daisy. We want to do the thing that we can do best. About three or four years ago Ned Sherrin wanted us to do a thing down in Brighton and he wanted us to appear as Lizzie and somebody else, but it’s just not the same. He wanted us to do Gert and Daisy and call it something else. So we wouldn’t do it.”

Doris: “We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to, thank God. We would love to play The Merry Wives of Windsor, though. We did it on the air once, during the war, but we’d love to do it on the stage. After all, they were tradesmen’s wives, weren’t they? Only a cut above Gert and Daisy.”

Elsie and Doris Waters were obviously quite well off, and played a big part in the social life of Steyning. “Sometimes we slip into Gert and Daisy when we are out,” said Elsie. “People seem to like it.”

Doris: “But some people think we really are like Gert and Daisy. We’re not. We wear very nice clothes. Old Normie Hartnell has made our evening dresses for twenty-nine years.”

PAMELA Lorraine stayed with her aunts when they had an earlier house at Steyning with a larger garden, and she shared her memories with me of holidays with Elsie and Doris Waters after the war: “They were great aunts to have, and they were also godmothers to me and my brother. Our father died when we were four and three years old. We used to go to recordings of various comedy programmes they made at a BBC studio in Regent Street, I think. We also used to see them in pantomime when they played the Ugly Sisters.

“As my mother worked as a district nurse, we often spent part of holidays with them. We usually fell in the pond each holiday and had the run of their big garden, climbing trees, helping the gardener and generally having fun.

Elsie and Doris home R

“They loved their garden and did do some weeding but most of the work was done by Bob, their gardener. They used to send hampers of garden produce to my mother to ensure we were fed properly. Very caring. They were also very strict. We weren’t allowed to come to meals without having changed first. I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers at the meal table.  The cook, cleaner and gardener called me Miss Pamela and my brother Master Bernard.  Definitely a bygone era!

“I remember going to fetes that they opened. They usually did a bit of Gert and Daisy. At home they were always telling funny stories. At bathtime they would do practical jokes, dress up, do little playlets etc. I remember one time it included spraying us with a soda siphon!

“They used to take us to the beach; they had a hut at Lancing on the pebbly beach. The water usually cold but there was tea to be made to warm you up afterwards. One time we went to Eastbourne and spent time on the beach there. Aunty Nan decided to show me how she used to vault over gates. She did it over the groyne we were sitting next to and landed on a surprised family the other side as she hadn’t checked it was clear!”

When I took my leave of Elsie and Doris Waters at the end of that first visit to Steyning, they asked me to keep in touch and, of course, I thought they were just being polite. But after my piece on them appeared in The Guardian they wrote to me: ‘It was one of the best articles we have had written about us. You are going to be a great success and we are always supposed to bring everybody luck!’

Elsie and Doris letter 2 R

One of the many letters to me from the sisters.

A warm correspondence followed for several years, and the sisters always seemed gratifyingly interested in my comparatively mundane doings. They sent me funny little gifts, and cuttings they thought I might find amusing, and were characteristically honest about what was happening in their lives. They were ignored by the BBC when the corporation’s 50th anniversary celebrations were being planned, and wrote: ‘We don’t know why the BBC didn’t ask us to do anything for the 50th anniversary, and when Jack said he was going to tell them about it, we said he was not to do anything of the kind.

‘We think they are treating our broadcasting efforts with the contempt they deserve, so we’ll leave it at that – except they telephoned yesterday and asked us to do a Desert Island Discs programme. We said ‘But we’ve already done one’. They said yes, but it was some time ago and these are coming over on December 23rd and Christmas Day, so perhaps it’s not so unfortunate after all!’

MY second and last meeting with the sisters two years later, also at Steyning, was sadder. Doris had obviously suffered some kind of debilitating illness – a stroke perhaps – and, though nothing was said, Elsie was covering up bravely and finishing her sentences for her when she seemed stuck for words. Big sister was sorting the little ’un out once more, as she had done all their lives.

They were still playful as ever, though – “Not today, thank you.  We’ll call the police if you don’t go away,” Elsie said when Guardian photographer Don McPhee and I came to the door. “Come in, Stephen, how lovely to see you again. And this must be Don.”

We chatted for a couple of hours, and then these two elegant, expensively dressed women got out their props to transform themselves into Gert and Daisy at the kitchen table for Don to take his pictures.

Our correspondence carried on for a while longer and then, for one reason or another, it petered out as they, and I, got on with life. The invitation to visit them at Steyning was always open, though, and I regret never having taken it up again. A letter from them in 1975 ended:  ‘Don’t forget where we are if you feel like a smoked haddock!

‘Much love, as ever,

Elsie and Doris.’

                                                      Ta-ta, Gert and Daisy . . .

DORIS Waters died aged 74 on August 17th, 1978, after a long illness. I wrote a formal letter of condolence to Elsie telling her how sorry I was, and said she needn’t reply. She did, though – three handwritten pages pouring out how much her dear sister and partner had meant to her. ‘We never had a cross word,’ she wrote. ‘Doris was a marvellous person. If there were more people like her, the world would be a better place.’ Elsie lived on until June 14th, 1990, dying at the grand age of 97. Her last years were spent quietly, though she was very occasionally tempted into television studios to talk about the old days of radio and variety. In 1986 she accepted the Burma Star on behalf of her late sister as well as herself, though the honour was officially awarded to ‘Gert and Daisy.’

The sisters say goodnight in another clip from Gert and Daisy’s Weekend.

































All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. A much shorter version of this story appeared in The Guardian newspaper in 1972. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.

Other sources:

(1) Song and Sketch Transcripts of the British Music Hall Performers Elsie and Doris Waters, by Paul Matthew St Pierre (Studies in Song and Dance, Vol 1, The Edwin Mellon Press, 2003).

(2) This ‘shared lover’ story was told to me by Leslie Sarony among several others. It is also mentioned in Grace, Beauty and Banjos, by Michael Kilgarriff (Oberon Books, 1998).

(3) Daily Mail, August 11, 1959.

(4) Daily Herald, August  24, 1959.

Billy Russell

Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists


Billy main

Courtesy Carol Pearson

BILLY Russell had a blobby putty nose, pitted and warped like a golf ball left out in the rough for a few years. A walrus moustache covered his mouth and a good part of his chin. He dressed like a traditional workman from the 1920s, with a squashed and oil-grimed hat, hobnailed boots, collarless shirt with red handkerchief tied around the throat, moleskin trousers secured just below the knee with string. He would clear his throat and address the audience in a crackly Birmingham whine: “On behalf of the working classes . . .”

His real name was Adam George Brown, and, billed as ‘The Son of Toil,’ he was a star comedian during decades when a considerably downtrodden section of the community needed all the spokespeople they could get, even one who could only liberate through laughter. Born in 1893, he was a native of the Black Country, and throughout his long career was always received like the prodigal son in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. ‘On behalf of the working classes’ was the opening line in a laconic act he called Old Bill in Civvies, created just after the First World War.

Billy obit

Cartoonist and serving officer Bruce Bairnsfather invented the stoical and  phlegmatic old soldier in a famous series of wartime drawings. The best-known of these shows Old Bill and another soldier up to their knees in mud in a dug-out as bombs light up the sky and shrapnel rains down on them. “Well if you knows of a better ’ole,” says Old Bill, “go to it.”

Perhaps Russell appropriated and built on Bairnsfather’s creation because he was himself an accomplished visual artist, early in his career trying his luck on the halls as Baroni the Ambidextrous Cartoonist. His Old Bill in Civvies act struck a chord with the public and, while it involved carefully structured routines, Russell would often abandon the set act completely and stroll onstage with the evening newspaper and extemporise from the headlines. “He made cutting observations and comments on the current political situation,” said one observer. “This drew as many murmurs of approval and ripples of applause as it did laughs.”

Here’s the song Billy began his act with when he was recorded live at the Tivoli Theatre, Sydney, during a tour of Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s.

Billy old bill full length R

On behalf of the working classes . . .

Billy billy dainty r

Billy Dainty, the great eccentric dancer, remembered working with Old Bill.

Billy Dainty, the great eccentric dancer and comedian, worked with him once. “We were on a variety bill in Belfast and he arrived at the theatre off the ferry ten minutes before he was due on,” Billy told me in the 1970s.  “He just had time to do his make-up and tie the string round his trousers and he was on. As he walked out of the wings, a bloke in the audience shouted: ‘Piss off!’ ‘All right,’ said Bill, very unconcernedly, strolled slowly off, undid the string from round his trousers, and was on the next ferry home. That was Old Bill.”

At 79, Billy Russell had outlived the act and the theatres where he had toured it for forty years. He appeared in Old Time Music Hall shows from time to time, along with most of the others in Voices of Variety, speaking, as ever, ‘on behalf of the working classes,’ but being an astute and adaptable man, he had forged a new career in the winter of his life as a film, stage and television actor, enlivening many one-off dramas, crime shows and soaps, being particularly remembered as Adam Lambsbreath in a BBC version of Cold Comfort Farm in 1969. He was a formidable and feared scene-stealer, and performers groomed by television stood little chance against the old man who had been quelling hecklers at the Glasgow Empire and the Argyle, Birkenhead, since before they were born. The meticulous attention to detail in his variety act carried through to everything else; on the opening night of David Storey’s The Contractor at The Royal Court in 1969, about a gang of marquee-erectors, he went round the dressing-rooms and rubbed dirt under the fingernails of all the actors “for authenticity.”

Billy Russell lived in a charming, airy, wood-panelled house at Reading; at the bottom of the garden was the river where his friend Max Miller once moored his cruiser. I had seen Russell plenty of times on television and there he gave the impression of being a large and robust old man, so the tiny, frail figure who opened the door to me came as a surprise. He shuffled along the hall towards his study in carpet slippers, and I noticed that the backs of his hands, and his bald head, were mottled and freckled like a toad’s stomach. He had several days’ growth of scrubby white beard – grown, he explained, for a film part.

At first his attitude was challenging and slightly hostile as he weighed me up with disconcerting intensity. But after a while, in that sunny study, walled with his own paintings and old variety bills and certificates testifying to his appearances in Royal Variety shows, he relaxed and opened up, the steady ticking of the grandfather clock pacing him as he ruminated about a career that had begun in the first year of the twentieth century.

‘PEOPLE often say to me that music hall and variety will never come back. ‘What do you mean?’ I always answer. ‘You can’t kill something that has existed for over 3,000 years.’ The oldest form of entertainment is the one I specialise in – the storyteller. Before people could read or write, there was always the storyteller. Three thousand years ago in the marketplaces of China and the Far East there were acts that are still being presented today. A different presentation, perhaps, but they are still those self-same acts.

billy snake charmer r

Billy new 2

Billy offstage.

“Acrobats, doing the same tricks. Conjurers, using the same principles of magic, of which there are only about seven. And the storyteller. If you go to Marrakesh in Morocco you will find a show that goes on right round the clock. They come from all over Africa to perform there. What is done nowadays is merely a new presentation of an old art.

“I first appeared on the stage in a melodrama at the Theatre Royal, Gloucester, in 1900. I was seven years old. My mother died that year and my schooling finished. I only had three years’ formal education, that’s all. I often appeared whenever a child actor was wanted, and I learned from the great music hall artists. People like Bransby Williams, who later became a very good friend of mine. George Robey. These people taught me projection and clarity of diction, which was important, because, of course, there were no microphones in those days. The audience had to hear you at the back of the gallery, and if they didn’t, then you’d soon hear them!

“I learned a marvellous lesson when I was young, working in fairgrounds. There was a tent that used to get more laughs than anything else. People would roar, and what they were laughing at was themselves, through a distorting mirror. A fellow called Roberts bought a set of these distorting mirrors and it was a bloody good investment. He had to provide nothing, just the mirrors, and people would walk around and scream with laughter. And that’s what I’ve spent my life doing. Holding a mirror up to people.

Billy Russell young R

At the start of his career.

“Before the First World War you could work around Manchester, say, for over six months. As a matter of fact, I did it. I’d finish in pantomime in Manchester and then stay near the city – this was before I got to the top, of course – working the small halls. Bury, Radcliffe, Farnworth, places like that. Round the Broadhead theatres. By the time I’d finished the rounds, it would be time to rehearse for pantomime again, and I hadn’t shifted from Manchester. And the next year: Newcastle, the same thing. Then round Birmingham. Then South Wales.

Billy new 3

Before WW1.

“That was my career in those days. I never saw ten quid a week. A fiver was as much as I ever saw. It’s a funny thing – I paid that much just yesterday for a load of manure for the garden. But I look back on those days with a good deal of affection because I was learning. It was a good school.

“About a fortnight ago one of the TV directors rang me up and said: ‘Bill, I’m in a bit of trouble. I’m doing a thing called The Pigeon Fancier and I’m an old man short.’ Ironically, I could have had the lead in that earlier, but I wasn’t well. He said: ‘I’ll pick you up today,’ so he came round and we went off to Nottingham. I asked him exactly where we were filming and he said: ‘Eastwood.’ I said: ‘Oh my God! That’s where D.H.Lawrence was born and it’s the first place I ever did a solo turn, over sixty years ago. The Empire, Eastwood. I earned fifty bob. It’s a Woolworth’s now.

“Comics today are not funny in themselves. They rely on writers. I write my own songs and I write my own jokes. I didn’t create the Old Bill character myself, of course. Bruce Bairnsfather, the cartoonist, created him. But I brought him to life on the stage. I was a bit stuck. I came back from the First World War, where I’d served with the South Staffs Regiment, and I was doing a ‘trench philosopher’ act. My father had a couple of theatres in Hertfordshire and I was working for him. The fellow who was doing bookings for him, Frank Lowery, came up from London and saw my act and he said: ‘Yes, very good, but people don’t want to know about the war. They want to forget it.’

Billy better hole R

Bruce Bairnsfather’s famous cartoon.

Billy Old Bill pipe R

Old Bill in Civvies.

“So, okay, I dropped it. I threw it away, and I started working in the scenic studios, throwing the paint on. I got an offer to go in a tatty little revue in Birmingham and when I was on the top of a tram one day I saw a bunch of fellows working on the line, a bunch of navvies. One of them looked up and, by God, it was Old Bill! I thought: ‘That’s it – Old Bill in civvies!’ And so ‘On Behalf of the Working Classes’ was born.

“Of course, even I could see that there wasn’t much to laugh at in the 1914 war, but Bairnsfather managed to see a bit of humour in it, and so did I. When I first brought Old Bill in Civvies to the public in 1919, I had to age myself. I gradually did away with most of the makeup as the years went on. I just kept the bulbous nose and the walrus moustache.

“In those days the audiences were not tolerant. If they didn’t like you, they would let you know it. Jeering, catcalls – you couldn’t be heard. You’d be drowned out. I played North Shields once and there was an act on the bill who was excellent, but the audience just didn’t want to know. They didn’t understand it and that was enough. He had a damned good act, this man, but his mistake was that he was doing impersonations of people they had never seen; stars who never got up there. Wilkie Bard, Gus Elen, people like that. It was no good doing impersonations when people couldn’t compare them with the originals. You have to know your audience.

‘ANYTHING that is easily got is not worth having. The comedian had to put in a long apprenticeship. Often he’s forty before he’s really well-known. I know, through experience. Even today, when I see myself on television, I think: ‘Oh my God.’ With seventy years experience on the stage behind me, I’m still learning.

“I learned the hard way. A season at Blackpool. You learned there because every house was different. When you don’t go down well, you can’t blame the audience. You can’t blame them if they don’t like what you are selling. You have to sell them something that they do like. I’ve done three Royal Variety Command performances – 1933, 1947 and 1954. But there’s no competition today. My God! A lot of the comedians today seem to aim at the mentality of a five-year-old. I’d say: Put on a Punch and Judy show; it’d be a bloody sight more entertaining and adult.

bruce billy

Bruce Bairnsfather poses with Billy, here made-up to look exactly like his ‘Old Bill’ creation. Picture courtesy Carol Pearson, Billy’s great-niece.

Billy new 1

Another pre-WW1 character.

“Too many artists today will settle on something and they will say: ‘Well, this is it. This will do.’ If you keep a shop, you have to keep the shelves replenished, and that’s what I have always endeavoured to do. I think complacency is very bad for anybody, and if you are an artist and you start to think that you are good enough – well, that’s the end of the road. You never are good enough. That’s been half the fun of it for me because I always like to solve problems and accept challenges.

“Not long ago I was in a late-night TV show. A young comic went on and he started up with bloody awful dirty gags. Not one clean gag. Andrew Faulds, who was in the chair, turned to me and said: ‘Now we’ll ask a veteran. Billy Russell, has humour changed much since your day?’

“I said: ‘Don’t mention it in the same breath! It’s not in the same street. What we just heard wasn’t humour. It belongs in the tap room or the barrack room, not in a place of public entertainment. You just wouldn’t be allowed to say that sort of thing in the old days.’ He said: ‘Oh, come on, Bill. What about Marie Lloyd and . . .?’

“ ‘Just a minute,’ I said. ‘You’re not old enough to remember Marie Lloyd, so whatever you are going to say is hearsay evidence. Marie Lloyd would not have been able to say half the things that are ascribed to her.’

Billy Robey drawing r

George Robey, who drew this cartoon of himself to give to fans.


Max Miller: ‘He most certainly did not!’

“They say that Max Miller said such-and-such a thing. He most certainly did not! He wouldn’t be allowed to! Suggestion, yes. Innuendo, yes. Obscenity, no. Robey, for instance, would tell stories that would throw the onus on the audience. ‘I was in a hotel in Brighton,’ he would say, ‘and in walked a lovely young couple. They were so shy, and they went up to the desk and signed in and the clerk said: “Here’s the key to your room, Mr and Mrs . . . er, Smith.”’ And the audience would laugh. Robey would look at them loftily and say: ‘As a matter of fact, that was their name.’

“I can quote by heart the Variety Artists’ Federation arbitrators’ award contract, which is a four-page document. When I first started on the stage, girls were not allowed to show their bare knees. The Brewster Sessions would object to a hall’s licence, and no hall dare risk that. They would have been closed down.

“One Monday morning I arrived at the Hippodrome, Birmingham, and the manager said: ‘For God’s sake, Bill, be careful with your material.’

“ ‘Why, what’s the matter?’

“He told me that a famous artist had been ‘done’ that week – for pretending to smack his wife’s bottom on stage. You couldn’t say ‘damn’ or ‘hell’. You weren’t allowed to refer to homosexuals or effeminacy. You would be barred. People nowadays are shocked by dirty jokes. They marvel that a comic has the audacity to say these things. But is it humour? When you break it down, there’s no humour in sex. There’s nothing funny about it. When you are doing it, it seems like the most serious thing in the world, so any humour in it must result from inadequacy.

Billy variety bill R

‘MY stories were always inoffensive. I told stories about ‘the wife’. I used to say she was too big to get in the bath. Well, she could get in, but there was no room for the water. We have to take her out into the backyard of a Friday and swill her down with the hosepipe. When it’s a bit cold, we can’t manage that so I go over her a few times with the Hoover. That sort of humour. Inoffensive.

“Or I’m working down the garden and the wife shouts: ‘Here’s your dinner.’ I says: ‘What is it?’ She says: ‘Steak and onions.’ I says: ‘Blimey, you’re kidding me!’ and the wife says: ‘I’m not kidding you, I’m kidding the neighbours’.”

Some things never change, I thought to myself as I listened to Billy’s next comments. I knew a few young comedians back in 1971, and I’ve known plenty since, and a constant complaint is the cardinal crime of joke-stealing. In the great days of the halls you could tour the same act for decades, but a routine purloined and used by the thief on television can kill it for its originator. This was obviously something that still rankled with Billy.

“In TV Times the other week there was a gag I coined about Manchester: ‘You awake in the morning to the sound of the birds coughing.’ I threw it away years ago but there it was in TV Times. A well-known comedian is currently cracking it. Another famous young TV comic has used all the records I’ve made, every side . . . ‘our street is so rough that if anyone pays the rent a copper comes round to see where they got the money. The walls are so thin that you can’t keep yourself to yourself. Every time you put a shovel of coal on the fire you’re cooking someone else’s dinner. Every time they pull the chain next door, they empty our bath’.”

Billy Russell was not a prolific recording artist, but the two live shows he recorded in the late 1930s, in London and Birkenhead, are superbly evocative examples of what it must have been like to be in a variety theatre, and have been included in several music hall compilations of more recent years. He also recorded ‘On Behalf of the Working Classes’ in Australia when he was touring there in the 1950s. “As far as my gramophone records are concerned, I made an arrangement at the Grand, Clapham. I took the date, even though the fellow couldn’t pay my salary. He was a pal of mine and he said: ‘I can’t pay you the kind of money you are asking, Bill.’

“Now Gracie Fields had made a record at the Holborn Empire, and so had Max Miller, and Regal Zonophone had approached me and asked me to do the same. So I told the chap at Clapham that I would play the date for him at the reduced money, but that on the Friday Regal Zonophone were to record my act. I fixed it up and I agreed with the orchestra that I’d pay them so much, and I made all the arrangements.

An extract from On Behalf of the Working Classes, recorded at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, in 1939. Warning: Billy was a comedian very much of his time, and the humour here is extremely sexist and, I think, rather mean-spirited.

“Well, after we’d done the recording, the musicians stepped in. They didn’t want outright payment, they said, they wanted a percentage of the royalties. They went back on their word, in fact. So I said: ‘All right, we’ll wipe it. Wipe ’em off. We’ll do the whole thing again and I’ll re-record the song in a studio.’ We got a whole load of giggers, and I suggested that, so the original musicians couldn’t claim it was them, we’d put a piano-accordion in the band to make it sound completely different. After all, it was my material. I’d written it, so why should the bloody orchestra get some of the royalties? They had to play the theatre that night in any case, and were being paid, and it was reneging on the original agreement.

billy ep again

A classic act preserved

“So I went off to do it in the studio and, you know, I just couldn’t get into the character. So my wife said to me: ‘Put your Old Bill makeup on.’ And she was right. That was it. Only just the same material, but I got into my stage togs and put the makeup on and it worked.”

Billy got quite worked-up during his diatribe about his problems with the musicians, thumping the arm of his chair and gasping for breath, and I realised how stubborn he must have been, how protective of his rights and earnings. He mustn’t have been the easiest person to work with. When his rage had subsided, he closed his eyes and was silent for a while and I thought he’d nodded off or, for an alarming second or two, died. Then he chuckled throatily and resumed his story.

‘I USED to get most of my material in pub tap rooms,” he said. “I would go into a town when I was on tour and just listen to people’s conversation. Nobody knew me because my character and appearance on and offstage were completely different. I’d listen to people and then I’d twist it a bit. For instance, a fellow I knew by sight used to go into a pub in London, the Crown. And his nose! Well, you’ve never seen anything like it in your life. It seemed to get bigger and bigger every time I saw it, and it had sprouts on it. And it set off a train of thought in me about noses. I did a whole routine about this nose, although on stage I said it was about one of the wife’s relations:

“I went out with him one night and he got so drunk that I couldn’t see him. We was staggering ’ome and he fell flat on his face on the road and his nose got stuck in the tramlines. I tugged and tugged but I couldn’t get him out. He’d be there now if I hadn’t had the presence of mind to pick him up by the ankles and push him along to the depot. I shall never forget the day he died. They couldn’t get the lid on the coffin because of his nose. It wobbled. So they bored a hole in the coffin lid, but his nose stuck through and it looked unsightly. So the undertaker sent for his carpenter and he planed it down. With a coat of varnish, it looked like a knot in the wood.

Billy Old Bill R

‘So we bung the tube down his throttle . . .’

“Another story that was a favourite of mine was the Regent Canal story. I was boozing with this fellow during the blackout, I would say, and after chucking-out time we found we’d missed the last bus ’ome, so we decides to walk along the canal bank as a short cut. All of a sudden – splash! – he’s gorn. So I walks on a bit and when I was at Park Road I sees a copper and I says: ‘Hold on a bit, my mate’s just fallen in the water back there.’

“The copper says: ‘Do you know exactly where?’ and I says: ‘No.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s no good looking for him in the blackout. We’d better go to the fire station and get the fire engine out. It’s got a searchlight on the top.’ Anyway, we finds him floating in the water, held up by the air in his raincoat. The copper gets a long pole with a hook on the end, drags him to the bank and begins artificial perspiration. Didn’t ’ave no effect.

“Well, the copper puts his hand accidentally on my mate’s stomach and a lot of water comes out of his mouth and nostrils. The copper says: ‘This water wants to come out. Just nip down the ’orspital and get a stomach pump.’ Well, I was a bit hard of hearing and I comes back with a stirrup pump. The copper says: ‘Well, that’s not what we wanted, but we’ll have to make do. Bung the tube down his throttle, and I’ll do the pumping.’

“And that’s what he done. He starts pumping, and out comes fag ends, matchsticks, orange peel and gallons and gallons of water. A bit of a crowd starts to gather, as they will on these occasions. The crowd gets bigger and bigger and more and more water comes out of my mate’s mouth. After a bit the copper says: ‘Blimey, this is going to take hours.’ And a bloke in the crowd says: ‘It’s going to take weeks if you don’t lift his backside out of the water!’


Gillie Potter, a comedian’s comedian.

“That was the kind of stuff I did. But my favourite comedian – a real comedian’s comedian, was Gillie Potter, the most academic of our comics. He did all right on the radio, but he never seemed to go down very well in the theatre. I remember one time when he didn’t get a single laugh, except for one man who responded to every gag. About halfway through his act, Gillie instructed the man working the spotlight to shine it on this bloke. ‘My dear sir,’ said Gillie, ‘would you kindly do me a favour? Arise, and let the rest of the audience see you. Otherwise, they might think you were some kind of contraption I work with my foot.”

“Brilliant! He used to open his act: ‘Last evening at approximately twenty minutes after high tide at Runcorn . . . I am talking purely to the intelligentsia, of course’ – he would look down at the stalls when he said this. ‘Those people up there in the gallery have their own form of amusement. They rarely come down. Last Friday I believe they had fried fish and folk dancing. They stay up there for months. Occasionally someone comes down to buy a pram.’

“Brilliant stuff, but it went right over their heads in those days. ‘It is customary on these occasions to offer a little vocalisation,’ he would say, ‘but I fear the symphonic layabouts of the pit orchestra are conspicuous by their absence. Has someone been giving them money? I don’t blame them. People feel sorry for them. If you have any morsels of unwanted food, by all means sprinkle them along the rails and perhaps manicured digits will arise to grasp them, but if you give them money you see what transpires – they then dash from their perfumed tents.’

“Onstage he wore an Harrovian straw hat, Oxford bags [loose trousers], and he always carried an umbrella. A brilliant man. Never got anywhere, really, except as a radio comedian. I think he was more brilliant than James Thurber. I was going to say that he was an English Thurber, but I personally think he was more brilliant than Thurber. I think he was the greatest English humorist of the twentieth century. But – unsaleable. Too brilliant. He was booked into the London Palladium on the same bill as Danny Kaye, when Kaye was at the height of his fame. On that night the place was full of bobbysoxers – kids, you know – and as Gillie walked on he quietly said: ‘I can’t handle this hysteria. Kindly collect my music, and I bid you a fond farewell.’ And he left the stage. He never came back.”

Billy old time music hall r

In common with the other old stars on this site, Billy often appeared in music hall.

‘I TELL these ‘mocky’ comics, these young ones who come along, to do what I did. I learned from the masters, those at the top of the tree. Learn from the present-day masters. Did you ever hear Bob Hope crack a blue gag? Did you ever hear Jack Benny crack a blue gag? You see, it’s there for them to see. I saw it. I saw the secret of it. It was this: don’t be clever. You be the frustrated party; you’ll get the laughs. People laugh at frustration.

“Formby, who wasn’t a comedian by any means, was always the simple one. Sandy Powell was the same – ‘Can you hear me, mother?’ All of them. Chaplin, frustrated. Hancock, frustrated. The wise guys are in the minority. The audience certainly admires their skill, but I don’t think they love them in the same way.

“Max Miller wouldn’t go above Birmingham, you know. And he couldn’t get his act over in garrison towns. Oh blimey – I played with Miller at Portsmouth and he died the death of a dog. He was here a fortnight before he died. He used to have his boat tied up at the back here and he’d often bob down to my house to see me. But Max used to pick his grounds. He wouldn’t go North.

Billy TV role BW R

Billy in Emmerdale.

“The material I see nowadays I could write without thinking. I heard one the other day about a men’s hairdresser in the West End. He’s not got male hairdressers, he’s got women. Topless! You can imagine one of those standing in front of you: ‘Now, sir, how would you like it?’ I could write that kind of stuff. There’s nothing clever in it. It’s dead easy. But, you see, there are no holds barred today. Unshackled.

Billy TV role R

They needed another old man . . .

“If there were still the halls and theatres I’d quite happily go back to being a touring comic, even at my age. I won’t work the clubs because all they want is muck, and I won’t prostitute what talent I possess. When I’m not acting I keep busy with my painting and my gardening.

“Funny thing. Not long ago I was in Yorkshire recording an episode for a television series. I was the guest star. And after I’d finished doing my acting the producer – a young chap – came over to me and the subject got on to comedy.  He looked at me and he said: ‘I believe you used to be a bit of a comedian, Bill’.”



                                                      Work’s done, Billy . . .

ON November 25th, 1971, just a few weeks after we met, Billy Russell was at the BBC studios in London, rehearsing a new play. He was sitting off-camera, supposedly studying his lines, and when his cue came, the old pro failed to respond. Thinking he was asleep, a production assistant gently shook his shoulder, but Billy had taken his final curtain.


Billy label R

While researching this site, I wrote to the address in Reading where I talked to Billy in 1971 and asked if anyone from the family still lived there. No, replied the present owner, the name Billy Russell meant nothing to him – except for this scrap of paper, uncovered beneath the floorboards by workmen carrying out renovations.




































All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. A shorter version of this story appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the 1970s. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.


Written by stephendee. Posted in Artists

Site Variety

Variety, by Stephen Dee (Stephen Dixon). Porcelain sculptures in antique printer’s tray  

SINCE childhood, I have been fascinated by Music Hall and Variety. My grandfather, Fred Elcock, who was a minor performer on the halls before the First World War, told me stories of working on bills topped by the likes of Little Tich, Wilkie Bard and Vesta Tilley. And though I was trained as a ceramic sculptor, I spent much of my working life as a journalist on British and Irish national newspapers, and it was during this period I interviewed and in some cases befriended the veterans you will meet on these pages. Putting this site together has made me feel that I am meeting them all over again, and I hope that you, too, will get to know them here . . . as performers, and as people. And now I work full-time as a porcelain artist, I still return time after time to Variety, as you can see from the piece above.

NOTE: While I still have most of the interviews I did on cassette or reel-to-reel tape, they are in pretty poor shape, certainly not broadcast quality. I will try and clean them up and incorporate soundclips onto the relevant pages soon.  

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Recent Feedback



Doesn’t ring a bell with me, Stefan, tho it’s a very typical Sarony line. Anyone? Stephen

stefan Beard


Just been reading the Leslie Sarony piece. Absolutely fantastic. Well done. A question if you don’t mind. Does anyone know the the title of the Leslie Sarony song that has the line “Oi ! how you gettin’ on? ” in it ?



I do hope you can help me. I have been searching for many years for my Great Uncle Mr Albert Edward Rayner who went under the name of Dan Rayner. I believe he worked the Music Halls but I do know for sure he worked with Fred Karno. When Charlie Chaplin left Fred in America over a Pay dispute the American backers of the tour insisted that my Great Uncle Dan Rayner be called over from England to take Charlie Chaplin’s Place. It appears Dan was liked more at that time in America than Charlie was. Another man in the troupe at that time was Stan Laurel. When the show folded Dan was asked along with Stan to stay in America. As we know Stan stayed and found he fame and fortune. Dan however chose to return to England. He was last that I can find in a play Dick Wittington at the Empire Theatre advertised in the a local paper in Durham in 1948. Unfortunately I have not been able to find when or where he died. I am hoping that maybe on your search you came across some info on Dan Rayner. I live in Australia so am unable to search all the death records for England with out it costing me a fortune. So any help you maybe able to give me would be really appreciated. I know he went to America twice and once to Australia and also once to South Africa. I do know he was married to a lady named Barbara Robinson and they had a son Conrad Paul Rayner but I have been unable to find any thing out about these two members of his family. I do know they separated before 1935 and he lived with another lady named Phyliss but as to her last name I have no idea. I have been searching for nearly 10 yrs now and I don’t think there is any thing left on the net that can help me. You it would appear maybe my last chance. I will keep my fingers crossed that you did come across some info on him or you know some one that maybe able to help. He went to America in 1913 on the Lusitania and it shows at this time he is married. He then returns to America in 1914 on the ship Adriatic. I do believe he also did a radio show after 1935 for quite some time but do not know the name of that show. I do hope you can help in my search for my Great Uncle.
I also might add my great grandfather was Edwin Richard Barwick. He was also a Music Hall performer and appeared in the first Royal Command Performance. If you get the picture and Index to that even you will see him standing next to Pavlova. I would love to hear any information you may have found out about him. I do believe he was one of the first members of the charity named water rats, I know star was spelt back wards to get the rats part. Edwin did a lot of work for this charity in his day. What I would love to know is if there is any recording of Edwin Performing and if so how I would go about getting a copy or seeing any recording. I do have a photo copy of an old theatre bill with my grandfathers name boldly written on it. Again any help would be appreciated.
All the best and I look forward to hearing back from you in the near future
Kim Rayner
my email address is