Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Gottle of Geer

by Geoff Collins

Sensation! Peter Brough saved Eric Sykes' life!!! This astonishing revelation comes from Sykes' recent autobiography If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will. In November 1951, Sykes, not yet a comedian himself, was the scriptwriter for Educating Archie, the odd radio phenomenon that made huge star(s) of sloppy-lipped vent Brough and his dummy, cheeky schoolboy Archie Andrews. Sykes was suffering from persistent agonizing headaches, but doctors were unable to pin this down to a specific ailment. A chance phone call from Brough - to whom Sykes described his painful condition - prompted Brough to send his chauffeur-driven limo to whisk Sykes off to a Harley Street specialist. An acute mastoid infection was diagnosed; if left untreated, Sykes would have been dead within three days. So in spite of all we've said about Brough and his limited abilities, he saved the life of Eric Sykes, who is still around today providing glorious comedy as well as some stunning straight acting (as in The Others). Well done, Groughie! Take an apple out of the barrel, as we say over 'ere.

This may be a good place not to recommend Eric Sykes' Comedy Heroes. The title is irresistible but beware! It's one of the most inaccurate books ever written. He laments the "fact" that Buster Keaton is forgotten and that his films aren't being shown anywhere (!!!), and spectacularly misquotes Rob [sic] Wilton's Home Guard sketch; and a full-page photo of "Jimmy Edwards" is actually Paul Whitsun-Jones. There's so much wrong with this book that it depresses me to think of it still being in circulation, misleading all those potential comedy fans. Where were your researchers, Eric?

While on the subject of ventriloquy, all four of our American readers will be familiar with spasm-jawed Edgar Bergen, the man who inspired "Archie" by proving that ventriloquism works well on the radio; but let's take a few moments to reflect on some British ventriloquists who came along in the wake of Brough's success. You couldn't turn on a British television in the sixties without encountering some rictus-faced charmer with his arm stuck up a block of wood. Here's a selection of some of the best from this Golden Age of Venting:

Bobbie Kimber. A very odd act. When glamorous Bobbie appeared on Opportunity Knocks in the 1970s, returning to showbusiness after a long period of inactivity, host Hughie Green asked the audience dramatically "Is it a man - or a woman?" In fact Ronald Victor Robert Kimberley was a man who chose to do his routines, with a full-sized dummy and a more conventionally-sized "sit-on-the-knee" one, in full drag. No explanation was ever given for this, but Bobbie was a convincing "woman" and a good technician. Maybe he felt the act worked better that way; or maybe he was just a tranny who'd found a wonderful excuse for dressing up. Either way, he was years ahead of his time, one for Aaron's collection of Strange and Wonderful Acts. Good for you, Bobbie.

Saveen and Daisy May. Another strange man. I saw Albert Saveen's act in a summer show at Hastings in the sixties. Schoolgirl "Daisy May" was his main dummy; she had her own bank account and a private telephone number. Roy Hudd has often recounted that Daisy May once answered the telephone when he rang up to speak to Albert; "she" engaged Roy in some idle chit-chat and then said "Albert's not in - I'll ask Mr. Saveen to phone you back." Sure enough, later on Saveen called Roy: "Daisy May says you rang earlier."

Despite these quirks, Saveen was a skilful, wily old variety vent. Aside from Daisy May there was, as I recall, a deliberately unconvincing duck dummy (Charlie Quack-Quack) and a live dog, probably a small terrier of some sort. They don't have acts like that any more!

Neville King. Now we're talking. Neville was hilarious. His main dummy was an irascible old cloth-capped Granddad who violently resisted all attempts to put him "gack in the gox" - culminating in a shockingly realistic altercation which left Neville breathless and disheveled, holding the lid down as the muffled voice of the old sod hurled abuse at him from inside the container.

Dennis Spicer was all smiles and charm, a huge hit at the 1964 Royal Variety Performance; and he may have been the most technically accomplished of all. He had enough elan to select two members of the audience and use them as living dummies, "working" them with a tap on the shoulder. Tragically, Dennis was killed in a car crash shortly afterwards; his dummy, in the car with him, remained intact.

And finally my personal favorite: Terry Hall. Facially similar, in his toothy, smiling way, to Dennis Spicer (to such an extent that a member of the public once asked him "Aren't you that ventriloquist who was killed in the car crash?") Terry started his career with Micky Flynn, the Irish Dummy; but he found lasting fame with a later creation, Lenny the Lion. As a boy I absolutely adored Lenny. Like Snagglepuss and any number of other Lions, Lenny was obviously based on Bert Lahr, complete with American accent and camp hand-flapping mannerisms ("Well!") but he was genuinely appealing. Terry and Lenny are completely forgotten now, but not by me. I also saw them in a Hastings summer show. Happy memories!

We musn't close this little survey without a mention of northerner Arthur Worsley who "said nothing" and looked glum while the dummy subjected him to a torrent of insults; or Roger de Courcey and Nookie Bear; or Ray Alan and his immortal Lord Charles, an inebriated, monocled aristocrat with more than a touch of Fred Emney; or Archie Andrews himself. As reported earlier in our pages, Archie's been sold by the Broughs, for £34000, to a young ventriloquist, so we may yet see a revival of this unique and often derided form of entertainment.

For fans of archaic ventriloquy, the Pathe website has some fascinating clips of Arthur Prince and Jim, as well as a "pre-Archie" Brough; even as early as 1943 he was hiding his lips with a cigar...

.... all of which brings us to dear old Yorkshire comedian Sandy Powell, who in his last years devised a priceless routine as a hopelessly inept military ventriloquist. This was Sandy's revenge on a succession of crappy vents who populated his touring shows over the years. Wheezily spluttering through a huge false moustache, he allowed his hand to become visible through the dummy's neck-hole. "Oh dear - I seem to have given the game away!" God bless you, Sandy. It needed to be done.

More on this subject later!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please can you tell me where in the UK Albert Saveen was born, lived, and died? Thanks very much -
I am asking as have seen a bench in Farnham Park which refers to Daisy May... Just wondering if Albert lived in this area...

3:35 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Geoff sez: Re Albert Saveen : I don't know any more about him than I can glean from Roy Hudd's Cavalcade of Variety Acts, which states that Albert was born in Southwark (great Chaplin/music hall territory this, just south of the Thames) in 1914, and he died in 1994. Roy's "dates" in this book are generally reliable but there's a lot of misinformation about, so it's worth a double-check. As "Daisy Mae" used to answer the telephone and then go to fetch Albert, I'm not surprised she's got her own bench. (I'LL check this one out !)

I saw Albert's act in 1970 and can only reiterate that he was one of the better vents, although no doubt characteristically twisted as a person.

1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember a vent from the late 70's early 80's who had a turtle puppet who's catch phrase was "is iiiiit?"

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, the ventriloquist with a turtle is Dawson Chance (Willy). Lives in Spain but is a brit and you will usually find him on Fred Olden cruise ships and supporting Brian Conley in Pantomime at Xmas.

I am a ventriloquist and just moved house in Eastbourne and upon meeting our new neighbours i was told that they're cousin is a ventriloquist and his name is 'Dawson Chance'.

Small world!

Steve Hewlett

2:25 AM  
Blogger Pebbles said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

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