Geoff Collins Examines the Houston Sisters! (but not too closely)
Those of us who have endured Carry On At Your Convenience [pauses for a quick shudder] may recall that the character played by Kenneth Cope was mightily dominated by an absolute gorgon of a mother: “Agatha Spanner", a face-biting, foul-mouthed Scottish harridan. This horrific old trout was portrayed by variety legend Renee Houston. It would be fair to say that this startling performance was not the high point of her distinguished career; but it gives us a point of reference on which to begin.
Renee was in many movies - the genuine high point was probably A Town Like Alice - and she was often on radio in the sixties and seventies as an acerbic, straight-talking panelist on Petticoat Line; but let's consider an earlier part of Renee's long career. She wasn't always an old boot. In fact she was absolutely gorgeous - and very funny. So let's take a look at the Houston Sisters.
The Houston Sisters: Renee and Billie. They sang, they danced, they did crosstalk - but they were a bit unconventional, to say the least; for Billie was dressed as a boy, with short blond Brylcreemed hair, and spoke in a gruff, rather forced "deep voice" - oddly enough, sounding much the same as Renee did in later life. A Town Like Alice may be Renee's "career best" but there's another high point to be assessed, from a lot earlier: Radio Parade.
We all know that there are many "lost films"; but there are probably a similar number of movies which are never shown anywhere because they are partly lost. With a reel missing, the narrative won't make any sense, a classic example of this being the 1931 version of The Ghost Train, which partially self-destructed while in storage. How tragic is that? In the case of Radio Parade, which is missing the first reel and apparently some of reel two, it doesn't matter that much in plot terms as it's just a succession of variety acts; but of course we might have lost some classic pieces of British Music Hall. Ah well. The good news is: what's left of this sad old movie is freely available for viewing on - wait for it, we all knew he'd mention this eventually - www.britishpathe.com.
What it's doing in the Pathe archive is anyone's guess; it wasn't even made by Pathe. But nonetheless it's a valuable record of some radio and variety stars of the time (filmed, I'd say from the musical evidence, between Nov. '32 and April '33). The acts range from downright exquisite (Elsie Carlisle) to excellent (Roy Fox and his Band, Florence Desmond) to very good (Elsie and Doris Waters as "Gert and Daisy") to "what's the point?" (Stainless Stephen, Leonard Henry) and the best way to access the whole thing is by typing in "Claude Hulbert” as he and Gus McNaughton appear throughout the movie as a sort of linking device, spying on all the acts from increasingly ludicrous hiding places in order to steal their material. Stodgy dullard Christopher Stone also turns up from time to time, and it's incredible to imagine now that this boring old fart was the BBC's first DJ. How times have changed [did someone say "Thank Goodness?"]
But as a contrast to Stone, the world's only living insomnia cure, halfway through reel 5, we come across the Houston Sisters. Boy, do I need to rephrase that. We encounter the Houston Sisters.
Renee wears a very short skirt and looks ravishing. Billie is in full male drag but it's not all that masculine, a sort of golfing outfit with pullover, cap and suspiciously satin-like plus-fours, and he/she provides the ukulele accompaniment as they sing "Just an Echo in the Valley" ("Whoo-Hooo!") before going into the patter routine. Rarely has a double-act provided such a brain-scorching brew, a toxic but irresistible cocktail with suggestions of incest, lesbianism, transvestitism and even ventriloquism. Their act includes all the usual [this is "usual"???] boyfriend/girlfriend "flirting", an old gag in which the unconvincingly "male" Billie is "a decided blonde" (Renee: "I know - I was there when you decided!") and finally another song in which Renee sits on Billie's knee and becomes a ventriloquist's dummy. Stiff-backed, swivel-necked, one eye half-closed and the other glassy, Renee does a devastating, hilarious and entirely creepy parody of all the crappy vent acts we've had to endure over the years. Did Arthur Prince get to see this? Just think of it: Peter Brough could have saved himself all the trouble of trying to hide his obvious lip movements by replacing Archie Andrews with a real.... oh, no.. We'd better not go down that road.
Renee and Billie's appearance in the Pathe newsreel short Roadhouse Nights is even more astonishing. The sisters once again play their regular roles and flirt with each other as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" but both are wearing the wide-trousered bathing costumes popular in the early thirties; so Billie is a girl, playing "a boy", but dressed as "a girl". Work that one out! Renee's costume is a bit loose; at one point she adjusts it with a very sexy wiggle, and describes Billie's hoped-for girlfriend (i.e. herself) as having "dark hair - and a bathing costume that the firm lent to her!"
This item was "filmed on the Kingston By-Pass" (not literally, but you can occasionally hear the traffic outside the building) and is in fact a "live" cabaret performance. Amongst the other acts on display, we get to see Collinson and Dean at their very best, in a section of their "Ambition" routine, much funnier than the audience-free zone of their 78rpm record.
But for me it's Renee and Billie who hold the attention. Their act is sharp and professional, yet with an engaging looseness, as at the point where they "forget" to cue the band in for their song (Billie: "How do you feel being in love? This is really the definite cue for the band - oh yeah, we forgot that!") And there's a priceless moment where Renee acknowledges the newsreel camera. Pausing for a moment to assume a coy pose, she says "I hope that Pathe guy gets me while I'm lookin' cute!" She gets an immediate, huge laugh. Seventy-three years ago - but it could have been made yesterday.
Shortly after this Billie had to leave the act due to illness. She died in 1955. Renee appears in several other Pathe items, "at home" with her husband Pat Aherne on their boat (and lookin' cute again in nautical gear; highly recommended!) and later, with another husband, Donald Stewart, with whom she toured for many years ("Variety's Sweethearts")
A solo career followed, including a few good film roles, lots of stage work and eventually Petticoat Line on the radio. By the time Renee had Carried On At Your Convenience she'd matured - take that any way you like - to the point where she could portray a ferocious ratbag with total conviction. But thanks to the Pathe website - yes, I know, I mentioned it again - we can admire the slim, beautiful Renee of younger days. Yes, Renee, that Pathe guy did get you while you were lookin' cute. And for that, we should all be grateful.
And Billie didn't look too bad either....
Renee Houston: 1902-1980
Billie Houston: 1906-1955
Goodnight, girls; and thanks.