Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Oi!!

Before Monty Python, The Goon Show, Benny Hill, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe and the 1960s Satire Boom, two of the greatest names in UK comedy were Flanagan and Allen. Bud Flanagan, real name Chaim Weintrop, was the team's capital "C" comic, complete with rubbery features, Cockney accent, catchphrase ("Oi!"), and crushed straw boater while handsome, well-dressed, and highly-animated Chesney Allen played straightman. In the 30s and 40s, F&A were the UK's most popular comedy team (short of Laurel and Hardy), and their reputation was entirely justified. Flanagan and Allen's routines are lightning fast and their characterizations, in sharp contrast to most American comedy teams (again, besides Laurel and Hardy.. and Laurel is from Ulverson), are warm and personable. Also quite unlike most American comedy teams of the era, F&A were almost as much a musical act as a comedy one, releasing hit records one after the other for years. Flanagan in particular was blessed with a knack for composing catchy melodies, and while neither would have qualified for Grand Opera, as a duet their weaknesses seemed to cancel each other out. Bud Flanagan composed the team's signature tune, "Underneath the Arches", and its charming happy-go-lucky-while-down-and-out lyrics do much to cement the team's wistfully nostalgic image, an image they worked hard to project from virtually day one of their teaming in 1926. So sentimental and nostalgic were Flanagan and Allen, in fact, that by the time the team had reached their Autumn Years, the nostalgia seemed redundant. Flanagan and Allen reached new heights of popularity during WWII with songs like "Run, Rabbit, Run" and "Hang Up the Washing on the Siegfried Line", but illness brought on by overwork entertaining the troops forced Chesney Allen to split the act at the war's close. Flanagan and Allen would, however, repeatedly re-team for appearances until Bud's death in 1968.

Flanagan and Allen were also highly successful in films, not only in their own starring vehicles, but also as two-sixths of the mega-comedy team The Crazy Gang, which also featured the talents of Nervo and Knox and the Stooge-like Naughton and Gold. While frequently compared to the Marx Brothers, the Crazy Gang is more of a music hall tag team, a gaggle of proudly low-brow clowns who barge into rooms in order to unload as many stale puns as possible as quickly as possible (funny if you're in the proper mood). The original Gang appeared in four features between 1937 and 1941 before Chesney Allen retired from performing to become the Gang's business manager (shades of Zeppo Marx). After the war, the Crazy Gang, now headlined by Bud Flanagan as a solo and supported by "Monsewer" Eddie Gray, reunited for a long series of West End stage revues and a fifth and final feature, Life Is a Circus (1958), to which Chesney Allen contributed a nostalgic cameo appearance.

Often referred to on this side of the pond as the UK's answer to Abbott and Costello (an answer that preceded the question by a decade), Flanagan and Allen do bear more than a passing resemblance to the American duo, especially in regard to their team dynamic and choice of material. Bud Flanagan's impulsive, childlike character is a close relation to Lou Costello's, while Chesney Allen, like Bud Abbott, plays a reproachful father figure, albeit one far more prone to giving mild shoves rather than Abbott-style slaps. At the time, F&A's brand of high-octane verbal sparring was more common to American comedy teams than their much milder British cousins and the likely answer is that Flanagan and Allen's act was the result of some interesting cultural cross-pollination. Although born in London, Bud Flanagan started his stage career in New York where, at the age of 13, he appeared in a low-rent imitation of Gus Edwards' famous School Days act before forming a double act with straightman Dale Burgess. With Bud having received his training in American vaudeville, perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that the comedy of Flanagan and Allen has a decidedly American flavor to it (in fact, when Bud was previously teamed with straightman Jack Buckland, they were billed as "Harlem and Bronx"!). In particular, the crosstalk routines the team specialized in were common in American burlesque, and their funniest, "The Whistle Routine" (seen in A Fire Has Been Arranged (1935)), is a definite rival to A&C's famous "Who's On First?".:
Ches: I've got two whistles. (hands Bud whistle) You've got one and I've got one, too.

Bud: What?

Ches: I said, I've got one, too.

Bud: You've only got one!

Ches: I know I've only got one.. and you've got one, too!

Bud: (examines hands) Well, where's the other one?

Ches: What other one?

Bud: The other one I've got?

Ches: You've only got one, and I've got one, too!

etc..
Music "sharity" seems to be all the rage (RAGE!!) at the moment so I suppose this is as good an opportunity as any for me to throw my two cent hat into the ring. I've uploaded Underneath the Arches: Flanagan and Allen to the link you'll find in the comments. This is one of the better of the various Flanagan and Allen compilations floating around, concentrating more on their music than their (frequently dodgy) comedy recordings, although it does include Splitting Up, which I consider to be their best. This backstage meta-skit by Bud about Flanagan and Allen splitting up their act vividly illustrates that F&A were, more than any other team I can think of, a comedy team obsessed with the idea of being a comedy team.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

http://www.filefactory.com/file/552b84/

Enjoy!

8:04 PM  
Anonymous East Side said...

When Bob & Ray had a daily show on WOR-AM in New York during the early '70s, they frequently played "Run Rabbit Run." Thanks to them, I was the only one who laughed at the reference to it in "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." Recently, I downloaded it from another site and now my wife & kid know and enjoy it, too.

The one Crazy Gang movie I've seen, "The Frozen North," was interesting if only because it finally gave me a look at what the British music hall comedy was all about. I enjoyed it, but understood why their movies never got a wide release, if any, in the US. They're so darned British!

3:44 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I've never quite made up my mind about the Gang. The three films I've seen are very, very uneven, but each contains some truly wonderful scenes; the Gang singing "Little Yellow Bird" in Alf's Button Afloat.. the visual-puns-on-movie-titles marathon in O-Kay for Sound.. the "Whistle While you Work" sequence in The Frozen North.. but the films never, ever come together. As for their "Britishness", the music hall aesthetic tends to place more importance on the telling of the joke than the substance of the joke, which means that most of Naughton, Gold, Nervo, and Knox's verbal stuff tends to fall flat.. making F&A's sharp patter stick out like a sore thumb.

9:01 PM  
Anonymous Music Man said...

I remember us having a wind-up gramaphone when I was a child and amongst the records were several Flanagan and Allen songs, including two of my favourites, The Umbrella Man and Home Town. My mother always associated their songs with family sing-alongs during the war (she was a teenager in the war years).
Later I seem to recall seeing them on shows such as the Royal Variety Performance, when they must have been reprising their act.
Only recently found your web site and am thoroughly enjoying exploring the archives. Thanks for an enjoyable read.

11:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always liked them. They remind me of Ted Lewis, or the other way around...

12:42 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

Your post gave me the urge to dig out my copy of "Frozen Limits" (which I mis-titled in my previous comment). My memory had been playing tricks on me, for I remembered each set of teams having their own little scene. In reality, Flanagan & Allen are the only ones who get a little spot to themselves. It's a good bit, well-delivered with excellent timing. Indeed, they completely overshadow the rest of them, and not just physically, either. Nervo & Knox and Naughton & Gold, to me, are utterly interchangeable (except for the guy with the lisp -- which one is he?) F & A definitely have a warmth -- call it "personality," I guess -- that the others lack. Their one, brief musical moment made me wish for a full-length number.

By the way, this has got to be the only movie where the "American" bad guy uses the word "fortnight." Oi!

10:17 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Your memory has been playing tricks on me, too! DO'H!!

The guy with the lisp who wipes his nose and then rubs his hand all over the nearest surface is Teddy Knox. I personally think he's the funniest of the Gang outside F&A ("Oh, thtop it, Thethil!") and I find it amazing that he was considered Jimmy Nervo's straightman. Nervo is amazingly bland for a acrobatic female impersonator. In a bizarre coincidence, Nervo got his stage name from the same comic strip that the Marx Brothers got theirs: Gus Mager's "Sherlocko the Monk".

1:48 PM  

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