Thursday, August 24, 2006

More Stuff on Grough

by Geoff Collins

Great galls of fire! New readers may wonder what this is all about, but our diehard fans - both of 'em - will recall that a while ago I wrote a piece about legendary 1950s dummy Archie Andrews and his rubbery-lipped operator Peter Brough. They were sensational on BBC radio but the inevitability of television appearances soon revealed Brough's diminishing ability to hide the lip movements. Fortunately Brough's dad died [did I just write "fortunately Brough's dad died"???] and so Brough had a convenient excuse to leave showbusiness and take over the family textile business. It must be said, in all honesty, that Brough was a terrible ventriloquist. Even as early as his 1943 pre-Archie routine on (haven't mentioned that for a while!) he was using a cigar to hide his lips, so his dad's demise couldn't have come at a more convenient time.

My original article, detailing the recent sale of Archie for £34000, can be reached on our archive; but the story requires an update. Archie, who is now sixty years old despite being permanently fourteen, was recently interviewed for the Guardian newspaper, and this fascinating article can be found here.

It's almost impossible to improve upon the daftness of this concept: a ventriloquist on the radio. America did it first, with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy; and while Bergen was undoubtedly technically superior to Brough, his film appearances - especially The Goldwyn Follies - often reveal him to be locked into an alarming clench-jawed facial spasm while Charlie is talking. Oddly enough he seems to recover a bit when Charlie stops talking. I wonder why.

Britain can claim something even more bizarre than this: a magician on the radio. In 1979 I had the good fortune to be able to have a long conversation with South African-born drummer Joe Daniels (1909-93),who in the 30s and 40s was Britain's answer to Gene Krupa ("Joe Daniels and His Hot Shots in Drumnasticks"). We spoke of many things, specifically his long tenure with Harry Roy's band and his blackface double-act with Harry's violinist Maurice Sterndale (in 1931 they toured in Variety as the Two Black Aces and made a 78 for Sterno, very much in Moran and Mack vein but with musical interludes). Joe was more interested in unloading his lifelong grudge against holiday-camp king Fred Pontin, for whom he worked in the jazz-free wilderness of 1960s England; so we never got around to discussing his elder brother Sid Daniels (1900-82),alias Sirdani. Joe's lively little band can be seen on the Pathe website - this clip is Highly Recommended - and Pathe also has two examples of Sid's act. In the earliest clip "Sirdani the Indestructible!" Sid sticks various objects into himself (the Pathe site must be running white hot already!) stamps about on broken glass, and demonstrates an ancient art, handed down through countless generations: eating gramophone records. All this is accompanied by a sickeningly crunchy soundtrack. Ugh!

By the end of the 30s Sid had developed a much less repellent presentation (this later clip is excerpted as part of a cobbled-together wartime compilation feature, What the Public Wants). Sirdani was now a more conventional magician, suave and smooth and with a Chico Marxian mock-Italian line in comedy patter, coaxing members of the audience to participate in the tricks with his catchphrase "Don't be fright". He was enough of a showman for this to work well on radio, as he charmingly described the tricks to the listeners and encouraged them to try it for themselves. There was even a book, Don't Be Fright - Radio Magic by Sirdani. Now that's adaptability - and it's also British Variety at its best. Thirty years later, curly-wigged-but-actually-bald Geoffrey Durham was doing a similar act, mock-Spanish this time, as The Great Soprendo; and he was hilarious. One act influences another, and that's what keeps show-business going. We've discussed this before and we'll do it again: Harry Weldon influenced Sandy Powell; Norman Evans influenced Les Dawson; Fred Sanborn influenced George Carl and all those silent, huge-jacketed, too-short-trousered European clowns,; Max Miller influenced Cheerful Charlie Chester; Ted Healy influenced Jack Carson, Milton Berle and any number of acerbic chat-show hosts; Sid Field influenced Howerd, Grayson, Morecambe, Hancock... and Eddie Cantor influenced Kermit the Frog. Let's argue!

We've deviated a bit from Archie Andrews; but it now remains to be seen whether Archie will entertain a whole new generation in the hands of an efficient vent who actually cares about the act, and who isn't thinking about the profits from his shirt factory. Archie's geen in his gox far too long. We'll keep you posted. Gye-gye everygoddy.

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