Thursday, November 10, 2005

Geoff Collins Salutes Cyril Fletcher, King of the "Odd Odes"

Bedford, England; a town so dull that the local paper has headlines like "Glenn Miller Still Missing". It's January 2, 1959, a cold wintry day in the sleepy fifties. Typically, just too late for Christmas, Bill Collins brings home a television set for his wife and young son. Three-year-old Geoff is thrilled beyond words. Suddenly there's a box in the front room with people in it, talking, singing, dancing... but his joy is soon transformed into stark horror for a tall dark man with huge scary eyes has appeared on screen. He addresses the audience with the stentorian booming voice of a demented elocution teacher. Is it Nosferatu the Vampire? No! It's Cyril Fletcher, the Comedian:

"Yerse...thanking yew! Cyril "Dreamin' of Theeee" Fletchahh he-ahhh! Odd Ode Number One Coming Up! [lapses momentarily into a strangulated mock-Cockney] Pin back your lug-'oles! This is the tale of Christine Crump, who thought her figure was too plump..."

(Don't expect the full accurate text of this - it was 46 years ago).

The point is: this was the first comedian I was ever exposed to and he scared the crap out of me! I was cowering behind the sofa in double-quick time. After Cyril, Doctor Who was nothing; the Daleks were easy-peasy. It took a long time for me to appreciate Cyril's drolleries. With the passage of time, I've managed to reject many of my childhood comedy heroes : Hope, Kaye, Lewis (eugh!), Wisdom (please!!!) - and I can re-assess Cyril in a new light; but not daylight, because to this day I'm convinced he was one of the Undead, which is why he always wore dark glasses on his gardening show - he didn't like to be out before nightfall.

Cyril's autobiography, "Nice One Cyril", is a wonderful book. In the preface he playfully laments the fact that he's not mentioned in Who's Who in the Theatre, or in anybody else's memoirs, and that he had to write his own story to prove to himself that he actually existed. Yet he was a star comedian from 1936 until the 1980s, and had a great renaissance on That's Life in the mid-1970s.

Resplendent in a dinner jacket and bow-tie, sitting comfortably in a purple leather armchair and reading "amusing" stuff sent in by the viewers, he wore a blackened toupee which came to a point in the middle of his forehead. By this time he'd developed a squint and had to wear a huge pair of spectacles which made his eyes look even bigger and scarier. All this gave him the appearance of an elderly vampire relaxing after a splendid lunch. On one occasion the toupee had slipped and was seriously off-centre, but he carried on, benign and oblivious. He probably terrified an entire new generation of children.

There was a brilliant parody of That's Life on Not the Nine O'Clock News - and this is really worth unearthing - in which Griff Rhys Jones-as-Cyril referred to himself (i.e. Cyril) as a "camp old twat".

Camp old twat, indeed. But there was always a bit more to Cyril Fletcher than this. His early work seems to employ the Healy-Fields-Max Wall audience alienation technique; he's quite bravely patronising and condescending ("D'you seee?"), daring the audience to laugh at this pompous toff in the lounge suit declaiming his inane Odd Odes. By the 1970s and That's Life he'd softened a bit and was a genuinely endearing and beloved Camp Old Twat - although I still wouldn't want to meet him on a dark night. He was always an original, a one-off, not like anybody else - and you can't have too many of those.

Can I bring in a personal note here and boast a bit? I actually saw Cyril in action (not during the daytime, obviously); a radio recording of Does the Team Think at the Playhouse Theatre, London, August 29, 1974 (broadcast about six months later - it seemed like forever - and I've still got the recording of it). I was eighteen then and didn't have to hide behind the seat when he appeared. Black-wigged Cyril seemed much younger than his three team-mates Jimmy Edwards, Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, and said a lot less, but "less is more" as we all know. Edwards in particular yapped on endlessly, boringly and filthily; in the broadcast version they cut most of it out.

By this time Cyril was a re-established star on That's Life and also had a daytime (unusual for a vampire) gardening show, Gardening Today, which he presented informatively but in his typically droll manner ("This is known as the dead wood stage!"). He died on January 2, 2005 and is survived by his wife and stage partner Betty Astell, an astonishingly beautiful woman. In fact one of the most delightful aspects of Cyril's book is his obvious devotion to Betty.

It's pleasant to report that Cyril and Betty's daughter Jill - who resembles Cyril in so many ways - carries on the show-business tradition, not the least of which is her incarnation as Bolly the Clown (details under www.its-behind-you.com, and in particular, www.1st-choice-entertainment.co.uk).

Cyril only appeared in three feature films, so there isn't much of his art about (several of his scenes as Mantalini in Alberto Cavalcanti's Nicholas Nickleby (1947) were cut as the film was overlong and they didn't advance the plot) but he's worth a look on www.britishpathe.com - especially in The Careless Sneezer, which is like a tiny film noir, lit very dramatically with lots of shadows to utilise his spooky persona to maximum effect.

Now, we must ask the ultimate question: why do I find it necessary to write all this? Initially it's because Cyril was my First Comedian: and secondly because this blog is about comedians who have not received their full appraisal. Cyril was a star for fifty years on stage, screen and radio, but who's heard of him now? I have, and I'd like to share him with you.

One last thing: I work at one of the finest art galleries outside London (www.cecilhigginsartgallery.org) and one day I was discussing early television with one of the visitors, a charming lady in her fifties (this was in connection with our exhibition on 50s to 80s youth culture). I mentioned my scary first experience of Cyril Fletcher; she said that when she was a little girl she saw him as Mother Goose in a pantomime in Northampton. I asked "What was he like?" and she replied "He was terrifying!"

Cyril Trevellian Fletcher: June 25, 1913 - January 2, 2005.

Goodbye Cyril; and bless you.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Nicko said...

Geoff,

More, MORE, MORE!!!! And please, how about recounting the great English comedy stars you've encountered.

I beg of thee....

11:29 AM  

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