Sunday, April 09, 2006

Stainless, Aimless and Brainless

by Geoff Collins

Am I describing the Three Stooges? No - because it would be impossible to improve on David Quinlan's flawless summing-up, which I'll quote (without permission!)

"Short, aggrieved, aggressive and moronic, they are the blind led by the blind."

Perfect. But I'll bet Aaron cuts it out - because any mention of the Stooges tends to unleash a deluge of affronted hero-worship by semi-literate Stooge fans who, by some strange symmetry, also fit Quinlan's description. So in order to stem the flow of abuse, I'll say this: the Three Stooges are very funny. We love 'em. We just don't mention them all that frequently because our aim is to bring attention to the forgotten heroes*, those craftsmen of comedy who seem to have escaped the frenzied, pointless adulation heaped upon other, lesser talents.

Which brings us, by a fantastically tortuous route, to the subject of today's article. Stainless Stephen was a small, diffident Yorkshire comedian whose showbusiness career began on local radio. His real name was Arthur Clifford Baynes, and the cigarette card biography claims that "he started life as a schoolmaster." He must have been very precocious; most people start life as an embryo. His home town, Sheffield, is where they make stainless steel, so in order to achieve a distinctive costume for his music-hall appearances, he put a strip of stainless steel around his too-small bowler hat and voila! Stainless Stephen.

As if this wasn't enough to allow him free entry to One-Trick-Pony Land, he also pronounced his punctuation - not in the form of amusing squiggly sound effects, the way Victor Borge occasionally did it - but as follows:

"This is Stainless aimless brainless Stephen, semi-colon, broadcasting semi-conscious at the microphone semi-frantic."

And so on. It should be pointed out that Stainless didn't do this all the way through his act - the audience would have lost the will to live - just occasionally, to make a point, and at the end. Here he is closing a broadcast on March 22, 1941:

"And so, countrymen, semi-colon, all shoulders to the wheel, semi-quaver, we'll carry on till we get the Axis semi-circle, and Hitler asks us for a full stop!"

Yes, it's all very cute, but it's also a dangerous game. Arthur Askey undermined his material by openly pointing out how bad it was. Stainless took this approach a stage further, breaking comedy "rules" by reminding the audience that it was all just a load of words on a page. How can you sustain an entire career on such a narrow approach? Well, he didn't. He kept audiences amused during the war years when a lower standard may have become acceptable in the cause of morale-boosting, but thereafter he more or less disappeared. He didn't make films or appear on television; he didn't become a character actor like Jimmy Jewel or Billy Russell. He just stopped. Full stop.

So where's the evidence? I'm trying to convince you that Stainless is a Third Banana, and you're saying - quite rightly - "Prove it!" Well, let's take another look at that cigarette card picture. You have to admit it's a stunning portrait; Stainless had a great "comedian's face", wistful, friendly and endearing. There's a touch of Robb Wilton in there - and he also looks a lot like Hugh Herbert peering from behind the tree in Hellzapoppin, each time with a different hat on. I can't recall Hugh wearing a steel-rimmed bowler, though, but it is a long time since I've seen Hellzapoppin. It's a long time since anyone's seen Hellzapoppin.... because the bastards who own the rights won't release it to DVD!! Have we mentioned this before???

Thank you. Now back to our subject. There's not much of Stainless on record, two sides for Broadcast and twelve for Decca in 1929-30 including The Punctuating Punchinello, a title which beautifully sums up his act and his looks. But English Decca records from this period are fantastically rare; in forty years of collecting I've never seen one - so there's not much hope there. How about films? Well, readers - and you know what's coming next, don't you? - we must turn our attention to the Pathe Website.

Pathe filmed part of an ENSA concert (Entertainments National Service Organization - but Tommy Trinder called it "Every Night Something Awful") at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in September 1939; and this includes a brief chopped-up clip of Stainless doing his stand-up routine. The first thing he says is completely incomprehensible, which is probably why it was edited out of Roy Hudd's video Jokes That Won the War. God knows what he actually says - and I've played this clip over and over again - but it sounds like: "Shit-can anybody who's listening from the Outer Hebrides, an aspy hyphen de lardee-doh hiccups ouch! It will take me all my time to keep stainless this evening!"

After this surreal and saucy intro, the rest of his act is unadventurous but well-timed front-cloth topical patter: "You know, I can't understand it - I mean, look at this fellow Adolf Hitler. He was only a lance-corporal when I was a sergeant-major; now he's the president of Germany and I'm not even on the London County Council!"

Reel 3 of Radio Parade, that odd compendium of variety acts which is mysteriously preserved in Pathe's archive (they didn't make it!) has a longer and more characteristic Stainless sequence, although he's dressed as a railway guard with a cap on instead of his usual bowler. He attempts a monologue : "Oh dear me. Ooh... [sits down wearily] What a life, comma, said Stainless Stephen, semi-colon, soliloquising to himself, semi-quaver, as is his custom, semi-final..." but is often interrupted because he's loading up the guard's van and has to catch parcels thrown at him by another guard, until the final one catches him in the face and renders him "semi-conscious". It's not bad, and you can see the influence of Robb Wilton: half-closed eyes, a quiet sense of calm, and that cracked, gentle Northern voice. Without his costume and the pronounced punctuation, he would have been a very ordinary stand-up comedian. His training as a schoolmaster (from birth!) clearly gave him a love of language, and brackets him (in brackets) with the other English "scholastic" eccentrics such as Gillie Potter and Cyril Fletcher. Personally I can't have enough of these oddities on the periphery of English comedy; and if you think Stainless is slightly surreal, wait till we get to Nosmo King!

Stainless retired from showbusiness in the early 'fifties, comma, and became a Gentleman Farmer in Kent, semi-colon; he subsequently enjoyed a very happy retirement. Full stop. It's probably just as well that he did, exclamation mark! How could someone like Stainless compete with the Goons, question mark? Oh, I'm getting fed up with this now so I think I'll just fade out, series of little dots.....

I've just discovered, thanks to Google, that there's a Scottish rock band called the Trash Can Sinatras, and one of their songs is "Stainless Stephen". No relation of course - not even to Hugh Herbert.

Stainless Stephen: 1892-1971.

Shit-can aspy hyphen de lardee-doh hiccups ouch!

*like Chaplin... -A

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