Sunday, February 05, 2006

We Wuz Robbed

by Geoff Collins

Fire Chief Robb Wilton, a balding, dumpy little man in his mid-fifties, has finally managed to persuade his indolent assistant Arnold - by means of an archaic "speaking tube" - to go to the scene of a fire. "Oh aye, it's a pretty big fire....should be, by now". Muttering to himself about the inadequacy of his workforce, he approaches his desk which is completely submerged in pieces of paper.

"I never knew such a lot of messes in all me life... never 'ave. [During this brief monologue he listlessly shuffles this mountain of paper about; some of it falls onto the floor] I'll 'ave to get the telephone in 'ere, you know. There...must be a lot of...must be a lot of fires we never 'ear about through not being on the 'phone. [shuffles more paperwork about in an effete attempt to "tidy up"] Still, you can't get everything all at once.... [yes, he's still shuffling the paperwork about] This place was in a mess when I first took it over..."

This, then, is Robb Wilton, 1881-1957, another one of those fine Liverpool comedians (and I'm still not going to mention Ken Dodd). Robb was most characteristically seen in sketches in which he portrayed someone with some authority - policeman, magistrate, prison governor - who'd be in charge of something that he should have never been put in charge of, ever. You can imagine that with Robb running the fire station, not much of the town would be left standing.

Robb was never a star of feature films, unlike his contemporary the immortal Will Hay, who also played hopelessly inept authority figures. But fortunately for us, during the 1930s, Robb must have lived in a spare room at the Pathe studios; as a consequence many of his best routines are preserved on film and are freely available from www.britishpathe.com. They are 100% pure, undiluted Robb, unencumbered by inane subplots, romantic interludes or musical numbers, and they are some of the funniest film clips you'll ever see. Trust me.

Of course, all Robb's Pathe material was shot in a cold studio without an audience, a situation which caused many excellent comedians - Max Wall, Vic Oliver - to appear forced and self-conscious. Robb got around this problem because his sketch characterizations were always totally real, and the dialogue was conversational; but occasionally he'd have to perform a monologue. Robb's audience-free delivery of his classic monologue "Back Answers" (written for him by Charlie Coverdale) for the Pathe cameras in 1930 is very funny; the 1956 BBC radio recording is in a different league altogether. Robb plays the audience like a Stradivarius, and at times they are so helpless with mirth that they seem to be in need of medical attention. But let's not be too hard on Pathe. They put Robb's classic routines on film for all time; and that'll do.

Will Hay was always aware of his incompetence and spent much of his time devising crafty ways to blind others to his many flaws. Robb felt no need to do this; he felt that he was just the man for the job and carried on, completely unaware of the frustration and chaos he was causing. (British TV viewers may recall Harry Worth, at a later date, adopting exactly the same approach) Occasionally he could be flustered, or worried, at which point he'd rest his right elbow in his left hand, and let his right hand wander all over his face, rubbing his eyelid and giving his little finger a brief suck before considering what to do next.

"What to do next" wasn't usually much of an improvement. In his sketches Robb often encountered a woman on the verge of hysteria or madness; this part was beautifully played by his wife Florence Palmer. They filmed the Police Station sketch twice, for Pathe in 1934 and about a year later in the feature film Stars On Parade. Flo is distraught about the fact that she's poisoned her most recent husband, as well as all the previous ones, and she arrives at Robb's police station to give herself up. But that's not as straightforward as it seems. Robb's vaguely irritated; he hasn't tackled the paperwork for this sort of thing before, and, predictably, his desk is awash with sheets of paper which flutter around as he searches for the necessary form and prepares to take down the details. During the ensuing dialogue Robb rubs his hand across his face and treats the audience to a priceless collection of baleful "camera looks" as his face registers disgust and disbelief at each horrific revelation. Readers: download this clip. Do it now! You'll never see more perfect timing.

A couple of years later, and another Pathe sketch. Flo hasn't learned her lesson; she's on trial for shooting Sir Basil. Robb is the King's Counsel, and gradually some more facts emerge...

Robb: In the course of your evidence, you've also stated that you shot some more, some...er...oh, what were they again? Some butlers, and gardeners, I think...

Flo (defiantly): And the housekeeper.

Robb: Oh, and the housekeeper...

Flo: And the chauffeur!

Robb (can't believe it!): Oh, you shot the chauffeur as well?!! There you go, there's nothing down here about him at all...[shuffles through a mass of paperwork] We haven't got him at all. All right, we'll take your word for it.

(Robb sums up): Well, there's no need for me to tell the jury how hard it is to get household servants these days, and yet... here's a woman going about shooting four at a time!

Robb doesn't exactly inspire our confidence as a Prison Governor either:

"Of course two or three of them have escaped - but they always come back again. One fellow's escaped twice. If he does it again he's not coming back...we can always fill 'is place."

And how about Robb, in pith helmet and baggy shorts, in the jungle, reading from the Lion Hunters' Manual:

"Should you see several lions rushing towards you, don't get nervous - 'cos it won't make any difference." [to camera] Oh, when I first came out 'ere you couldn't move without pushing lions out of your way. It was sickening, it was..."

... and did I mention another sketch on Pathe (officially known as "His Journey's End") in which First World War soldier Robb is still in the trenches in 1932, unaware that the war has been over for fourteen years? Stan Laurel's brilliant idea for the opening sequence of Block-Heads has always been attributed to Harry Langdon's silent comedy Soldier Man; but did Stan see Robb's Pathe clip when he visited England in 1932? Or did he know of Robb's sketch anyway? As Eddie Cantor says: let's argue!

Robb's association with Pathe more or less ended with the outbreak of World War Two. By then he had become a legend. It's a bit ironic that out of a career lasting fifty years, he's mostly remembered today for a six-minute monologue in which he relates his experiences in the Home Guard. In England this is still much quoted, misquoted and certainly over-quoted, and it served as the inspiration for Dad's Army; it's a classic routine, no question about that, but it does give the impression that Robb never did anything else. He was sixty-two when he made the commercial recording of this, for Columbia on September 6, 1943, and he'd already been a star for thirty years. Still, we can't complain; it's made him immortal.

(This may be the point to mention that all Robb's commercial 78 recordings [there's not much; only ten sides], plus a few "live" broadcasts including a very tasty extended version of the Home Guard monologue, are available on a CD (Past CD 7854) from www.pavilionrecords.com. Enjoy!)

There's a lovely coda to Robb's career: in 1955 he did a guest appearance, just one scene, in Arthur Askey's movie The Love Match, in his old radio role as the magistrate Mister Muddlecombe. Arthur's supposed to be "up before the bench" but his love for Robb is apparent in every frame. It brings to mind Ted Ray's comment about Robb, that he "had warmth in greater measure than any living comedian."

Robb was a true "Third Banana" - because on this website we use the term to apply only to great funnymen who've been unjustly neglected or forgotten. "Third Banana" is the highest accolade we can bestow on a departed comedian - and Robb's right at the top of the list.

Watch his clips on Pathe. Enjoy his beautiful, beautiful timing, and you'll see exactly what we mean.

Robb Wilton: 1881-1957.
"The day war broke out, my missus looked at me and she said, er, "What good are yer?" I said "'Ow do yer mean, what good am I?".....

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