Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Who Are Collinson and Dean?

While British comedy team Collinson and Dean are easily accessible today thanks to their many appearances in the Pathetone newsreel (available online), the story of their lives and careers remains largely unrecorded, leaving us in the odd position of being able to experience their most famous routines (and even witness a live performance), but know very little about them. For such a talented and entertaining team, they're remarkably obscure and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this brief overview is the most that has been written about them in years.

Will Collinson, the team's straightman, was born William Valentine Malavoire in 1882. He toured Europe, Australia, and America, as a "sketch artiste", and was well-respected among performers as a dependable writer of comedy routines. It is evident from the routines available on British Pathe that Collinson also made good use of tried-and-true burlesque routines, presumably picked up on his American visits, and which were probably fresh to UK audiences in the 1920s and 30s. In 1925, Collinson met Alfie Dean and performed with him in a sketch he had written to entertain wounded soldiers. Alfie Dean, real name Alfred Corfield, was born March 7th, 1902 in London and had begun his stage career in 1915 as a member of Gerald Mount's Juveniles. A good foot-and-a-half shorter and seventeen years younger than Collinson, Dean provided the contrast that would form the basis of the team's stage and radio act. For most of their appearances over their thirteen years together, it was the generation gap (or the intelligence gap) that fueled their skits. Collinson's most popular stage persona was as a blustery and slightly doltish middle-aged patsy. Dean commonly played foil as a wisecracking and malicious schoolboy, quickly and deftly driving Collinson, the definition of an easy mark, up the wall with inane questions, one-liners and nonsequitirs. The comedy of Collinson and Dean stands in marked contrast to most of their UK contemporaries being built as it is on the kind of near-hostile give-and-take that was common in American double-acts, but was largely unknown in England at the time. Even British teams that adhered to a similar dynamic, such as Flanagan and Allen, handled their material and characterizations with a certain degree of affection. Collinson and Dean, however, thrive on barely motivated comic anger. Will Collinson's stuffy growling only serves to entice Alfie Dean to greater heights of gleeful mental torture, bordering on outright sadism. In that regard, he's very different from such comedians as Lou Costello and Bud Flanagan who plague their straightmen out of childlike ignorance rather than malice. Dean's meticulous and deliberate use of puns and conundrums as mental torture bears a stronger resemblance with the modus operandi of Groucho and Chico Marx, but even Chico's endless punning is motivated by his own brand of willful stupidity, not antagonism.

Take for instance Collinson and Dean's interpretation of the venerable 7 x 13 = 28 burlesque routine. As performed by Abbott and Costello in In the Navy (1941), no malice or victimization really plays a part in the routine. Lou's insistence that 7 x 13 = 28 is well in keeping with his childlike personality while Bud's understandable disbelief is rooted in his role as the skeptical (and mercurial) adult. When Lou "proves" that 7 x 13 = 28 using hilariously flawed mathematics, he has asserted the clown's natural superiority over reason, carrying Bud further into his own special and improbable world, the verbal equivalent of Stan Laurel igniting his thumb like a lighter to the alarm and bewilderment of Oliver Hardy. Bud, however, can just as easily reassert his own authority with a well-placed slap to Lou's kisser. In the hands of Collinson and Dean eight years earlier, the routine is entirely about comic victimization, probably as it was customarily performed in burlesque. In this routine, Collinson and Dean appear simply as Bill and Alf, with Collinson playing his part as an amiable patsy rather than a stuffy one and Dean as sharp-witted conman. Alfie Dean uses the skewed math of 7 x 13 = 28 in order to finagle a larger share of a seven-way betting pool out of the foolish Bill, who even contributes to his own downfall as he himself "proves" that 7 x 13 = 28 by adding up the figures incorrectly. Furthering the theme, they segue into the "Magic Chalk" routine, in which Dean bets Collinson that his magic chalk will "write any color you care to name". Collinson loses again when Dean simply writes out "red" rather than write in red. And when he tries to turn the tables in order to win his money back, Dean simply names a color Collinson can't spell. Their timing in this routine, as in all of their routines, is razor sharp, almost mechanical, and devoid of the subtle character shadings that Abbott and Costello used to make any routine their own. But while the inner-logic of the routine as performed by Collinson and Dean is more rudimentary, their harsher, rapid-fire approach to the material is extremely funny in its own right.

An immediate success in 1925, Collinson and Dean's partnership lasted thirteen years, reaching its peak in a 1933 Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. They continued as a team until the outbreak of WWII when Dean entered the Army. Collinson continued the act with a new foil, Bobby Breen. In photos and footage, Breen appears to have been no taller than 4'9, giving his take on Dean's schoolboy role a certain verisimilitude. But the Collinson and Breen Pathetone clip available on britishpathe.co.uk reveals that Breen had little of Dean's sense of timing or playful tenacity. The pacing of the routine is subsequently slower and less appealing. Nonetheless, Collinson and Breen were successful on radio and the stage through 1948. By 1951, Breen was performing solo as evidenced by his appearance in E. J. Fancey's London Entertains (also featuring appearances by the Goons). Bill Collinson died in 1958 at the age of 76.


top: Collinson and Breen in one of their military sketches. bottom: trade ad from The Performer, June 13, 1946. Images (and commentary) courtesy of Geoff Collins

Alfie Dean, however, met a tragic and untimely end. After returning from the war, he began appearing regularly as a foil to Sid Field and even chalked up a second Royal Performance with him in 1946. Although Dean had appeared repeatedly in the Pathetone newsreel and in the 1938 Wally Patch musical On Velvet with Collinson, his appearance with Field in London Town in 1946, finally put him on the path towards becoming a film comedian proper. He followed up in 1948 with a role in A Date With a Dream with Terry-Thomas and was then cast in a sizable role in The Cardboard Cavalier with Sid Field. Field felt that the role "would have put Alfie with a very high rating in pictures" but it was not to be. In July, 1948, Alfie Dean was struck by a car and suffered a head injury that required fifteen stitches. After three weeks in the hospital, he resumed work on Cardboard Cavalier but began suffering "blackouts", forcing him out the production. Re-entering the hospital, Dean was diagnosed with a blood clot on the brain. He died following surgery on September 22, 1948.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great!

Bill Collinson was my Great grandfather.

Can't wait to print this out and show mum.

Thanks. Really appreciate you putting this up.

Rob

8:25 AM  
Anonymous nana said...

Hi Rob, My mother single name
was Malaviore,we were all born in london.she went to a house as a child for dnner,she told me the butler recieved her and her mother at the door. i was very happy to see the connection with you. please email me.
nana

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really interesting and well researched piece - but surely Dean was 20 years younger?

8:05 AM  

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