Friday, November 25, 2005

Geoff Collins Salutes Arthur Askey, the Silly Little Man

It should be noted that Arthur Askey is the Silly Little Man, and not Geoff Collins, although maybe I am silly in attempting to evaluate a comedian on whom opinion is divided so strongly. Arthur Askey is brilliant - or incredibly irritating; and sometimes both.

"Walk this way" he says to the television cameraman on a live show from the BBC's White City studios in the 50s; and as the camera tracks him doing the exaggerated bow-legged walk of a cowboy who doesn't realise his horse is missing, he adds: "If I could walk this way I wouldn't need the talcum - I know the gag!" - cutting to the punchline of this very old joke without even bothering to put in the buildup. And all the time he's enjoying himself immensely. No stage fright - he never ever suffered with this dread affliction.

Bob Monkhouse (for whom Arthur was "an immediate lifetime hero"): "He made you realise the fact you were laughing at him was absurd. He was a silly little man, and we're all laughing and you're silly for laughing. And that was part of the double whammy that he used on an audience. So he got away with murder that way.... the great trick he had was: you do a joke, and the audience laughs - or doesn't laugh - and then you MOCK it. Constantly undermining what he was doing - but making it all the funnier."

Arthur Askey: "Now this is where the show picks up! No make-up - only Polyfilla!"

And, on another occasion, during a pantomime version of a Bud and Lou money-changing routine: "You may have seen this done before - but never better!"

September 30, 1939. World War 2 has just started. On BBC radio's Band Waggon, Big-Hearted Arthur Askey and Richard "Stinker" Murdoch are attempting to complete their National Registration forms, or as Arthur calls it "International Refrigeration". Arthur explains that he was named Arthur Mafeking Askey because he was born "on the day after the Battle of Trafalgar".

Not quite true. Arthur Bowden Askey was born on D-Day, although he didn't know it at the time - 'cos he was a baby: June 6, 1900, in Liverpool "the birthplace of so many great comedians" (I put that in inverted commas in case anyone thinks of Ken Dodd - don't get me started on him!!!). After years of concert party and seaside summer shows, along came Band Waggon in 1938 and suddenly Big-Hearted Arthur, this tiny red-headed man, was a huge star; and so was his straightman, tall, upper-class Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. No typical double-act aggression here; these fellows were obviously great pals, Arthur's schoolboy impudence well matched by Dickie's mild but totally false disapproval. Really "Stinker" is just as childish as "Big" - but he feels SOMEONE has to take charge; and their mutual affection is as genuine as Bud and Ches.

For your entertainment and approval, my all-time favourite Big and Stinker moment, from "The Proposal", a recording of a radio broadcast from "somewhere in France" and issued on His Master's Voice ( C 3173 ):

Arthur: Well, that's just it, old boy. I want to propose to the girl and I don't know how to go about it.

Dickie: Well, thank your lucky stars you've confided in me.

Arthur: Why ?

Dickie: Well, don't you know who I am ?

Arthur: I've got a rough idea - you're not the Ozzard of Wiz, are you?

Dickie: I'm Auntie Fanny of Muriel's Paper!!!

Arthur: Ooooohhh Auntie!!! (laughs) I've written to you SEVERAL times! Yes, never mind, I got rid of the blackheads! - I mean, I should worry! [to audience] Nice Tasty Comedeeee!!!

Disgusting - or hilarious? This is the whole point with Arthur Askey: you either love him, or you hate him. Indifference doesn't come into it. Or you haven't heard of him at all - which is why this blog exists, and why he's on it. A few years ago Pete Waterman, a devoted fan of Arthur's, bought up the video rights to all of Arthur's movies - so come on Pete, what have you done about it? The marketplace is hardly flooded with Arthur Askey DVDs. No wonder the poor little guy's obscure.

By the early 'forties Arthur and Dickie were well-established as movie stars. Arthur's "silly little songs" - "The Bee" being the immortal one - had featured in the Pathe newsreels for several years, but in 1939 came the film version of Band Waggon, followed by Charley's Big-Hearted Aunt and then, most notably, The Ghost Train, a remake of Arnold Ridley's..... Whoa, there, gentle reader. Enough! This is where we examine the whole point of Arthur Askey. We think he's funny, no question about that - but apart from (and sometimes even including) Stinker, everybody else in the film hates him and wants to kill him because he's so IRRITATING!!! In Arthur's defence it must be said that his adversaries are usually stuffy, pompous and entirely humourless; they deserve everything they get from him, the usual recipe being lots of childish gags, face-pulling, funny walks and an unsolicited song which is greeted with thinly-concealed fury, the total effect in this case being heightened by this movie's claustrophobic one-room set.

Maybe this has infected the opinions of the general public. As I said earlier, people who have heard of Arthur Askey either love him or hate him. This anomaly even extends to his fellow professionals.

Jimmy Grafton: "I remember trying to confine Arthur Askey in terms of sketches, and it was impossible because he was always playing to the camera."

Brian Tesler [television director]: "Arthur was a bit of a pain because... Arthur enjoying the effect of the ad-lib on, not just the audience of course but the studio crew, that Arthur was "over-running Arthur". I never did a show... it didn't matter how many minutes you reduced the material to, in order to allow "spread" for laughs, he still beat you. It was all fun, you know. There's a camera there, and there's a man operating it, and it was his aim in life to be funny about that camera, and about that cameraman, and at the end of a show if he hadn't got the cameraman creased once or twice, then he hadn't really succeeded."

Betty Driver detested Arthur; and she has written about the frustration of appearing with him in stage farces as he persistently ignored the "fourth wall" and addressed countless ad-libs at the audience. All of this is true. He does it in the films; he's never quite inside the movie, and seems to mock the idea of having to say the lines. Frankie Howerd does the same thing; and it's not to everyone's taste.

On the other hand, Arthur's daughter Anthea spoke of many occasions on which she was greeted with great warmth by stage doorkeepers: "Oh we loved your dad here - what a lovely man!" And Arthur was genuinely loved by many of his colleagues, including Cyril Fletcher who referred to him, bearing in mind that Arthur was born in 1900, as "The Turn of the Century". Val Doonican put it more simply: "He was lovely!"

As with all comedy, of course, it's a matter of taste. Aficionados of anything since the Goon Show may find Arthur old-fashioned and corny - and let's face it, those Band Waggon scripts are hardly great literature. Yet Arthur's generation - those to whom he was a cheerful little morale-booster - will find something like Monty Python entirely bleak and joyless, with no heart in it. Neither opinion is "the correct one"; and we could recycle this argument for any comedian you care to name. Arthur was very much of his time - but as late as the 1970s he was still around, as cheeky and irrepressible as ever, and at the very top of his form.

I saw Arthur at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in August 1970 (he announced one of his songs "I sang this in one of my classic British comedies" and then held his nostrils to signify "it stinks") and again at a radio recording of Does the Team Think? four years later. On both occasions he glowed, with warmth, good humour and the sheer joy of living. He was truly a National Treasure.

And you can still see him today wherever his movies are shown (are you reading this, Mr. Waterman?), or on www.britishpathe.com where he's one of the few comedians not unnerved by the lack of a studio audience. He just gets on with it.

Roy Hudd: "It was the blending of the words and the silly movements that went with it - that's what he was a genius at. You sense that Arthur made up these songs as he went along."

But he didn't. He did write some of them, but the majority were composed by Kenneth Blain - and is there any comedian in the world more obscure than Kenneth Blain? He might do the piano accompaniment for some of Arthur's Pathe clips, but apart from this he's completely vanished. Come on, readers, more information please. Kenneth Blain wrote lovely catchy little songs for Arthur, getting ruderies past the censor as in "Chirrup": ("a sort of come and kiss me Willie little bird, what lives up in theee skyeee"). Watch Arthur perform this on Pathe - it's mis-titled "A Pretty Bird" which is a different song altogether: he skips about like an English Eddie Cantor, full of confidence and optimism, the eternal cheeky schoolboy. Entering a bleak, clinical-looking TV studio in the movie of Band Waggon, he says gleefully "Ooohhh, it's the dentist's! Where do we spit?" No other line sums up Arthur Askey better than this.

And if you can't get to see Arthur on film, try, please try, to find a copy of his book Before Your Very Eyes. Like all the best biographies [can I get away with mentioning Cyril Fletcher again?] it's totally honest and you can hear the voice of the author as you read it. As Arthur says in his deliberately badly-spelled, scruffily-handwritten introduction:

UNLIKE MOST THREATICAL BIOGRAFFIES I ROTE THIS ORL BUY MISELF - NO "GOASTIN" OR "ASISTED BUY" RUBISH.

And he assures us:

URE IN FOUR A BLUDDY GUD REED.

So what do I think of Arthur Askey? Is it admiration or irritation?

You've probably worked it out by now. He was the best.

Arthur Bowden Askey. June 6 1900 - November 16 1982.

Goodbye Arthur. Ay Thang yow!!!

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