Monday, September 10, 2007

I'll draw yer a chicken...

by Geoff Collins

"Northern comedy" - particularly the older, dustier kind as typified by John E. Blakeley's Mancunian films - can be virtually incomprehensible to those of us in the southern half of England. So I may be wasting my time in trying to explain to our readers in America the wayward genius of Frank Randle. Born in Wigan, and for many years the uncrowned king of Blackpool seaside entertainment, Randle is still revered in his native Lancashire; and indeed a Blue Plaque has recently been unveiled on Blackpool's North Pier to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death (on July 7, 2007; details and pictures are on the superb Mancunian/Randle site). He's also the subject of a new biography, Wired To the Moon, by Philip Martin Williams and David L. Williams, the title being Bob Monkhouse's apt description of Randle's apparent mental condition. In short, Randle was a genuine lunatic, a man of immense contradictions, prone to the most drastic and sudden mood swings you'll ever encounter. Ordinarily kind and generous, he could change in an instant into a full-on demento mad-arse, smashing up dressing rooms and scenery, setting fire to hotel rooms where he'd received bad service, and shooting at his co-stars with items from his huge collection of illegal firearms. A nutter.

Stories of Randle's deranged escapades abound, although the new biography adeptly separates fact from legend (his genuine wish to bombard Accrington with toilet rolls, because the locals had shunned the local Hippodrome he'd lovingly restored for their entertainment, was thwarted because the pilot wouldn't divert from his scheduled flight path). Wired To the Moon is a provincial job, full of typos, spelling mistakes and misplaced apostrophes, but it's a truly worthy effort, highly entertaining and thoroughly researched, unlike the 1978 bio King Twist by Jeff Nuttall. Distressingly un-factual - Nuttall spent much time interviewing old Northern bores with long-term memory loss - this earlier job wanders inaccurately all over the place in a would-be picaresque attempt to catch the essence of Randle's nature. His "essence" is obvious - he was mad - so we end up with the legend of Frank Randle instead of the man himself.

Randle made ten movies and a couple of short items cobbled together from out-takes and deleted scenes. Thanks to the efforts of the North-West Film Archive and various collectors, most of this material still exists, although often in scratchy, shortened reissue prints with poor sound. In some cases, shortening actually improves the films. Randle's movies are notoriously pointless, meandering things, around one hour fifty; the elimination of some gruesome musical numbers may be a blow for social history, but it leaves us with faster, sharper comedies. With a couple of exceptions, Randle's pictures were made by Northern producer/director John E. Blakeley, and the final four were actually made in Blakeley's Manchester "studio", a converted church. All were designed to appeal to Randle's canny but undiscerning working-class audiences. Blakeley was no Hitchcock: there's usually an excruciating attempt at a boy-girl sub-plot (involving far-too-well-spoken London stage juveniles), punctuated (thank God) by adaptations of Randle's stage sketches. Long unbroken takes, minimal editing.... forget Film Technique, and enjoy Randle and his stooges in action.

Two of Randle's Manchester productions have recently been released on DVD by Odeon Entertainment. Holiday's [sic] With Pay is the chopped-up reissue version (Tessie O'Shea tunes up her banjulele in the dressing room, all to no avail; both her songs are missing!) and it chronicles the adventures of working-class dad Jack Rogers (Randle) and his large family on their annual holiday to Blackpool. The scenes of Randle and co-star Dan Young mingling with holidaymakers on the pier and around the swimming pool, are quite genuine; they have a documentary quality, priceless little "newsreel" shots of a King enjoying himself with his adoring subjects.

Dan Young? Billed on the film's titles as "The Great Dude Comedian", he's a forgotten star. Short, squat, with a monocle (!) and black glossy centre-parted hair, he was a cheerful giggly silly-arse with the barest hint of a Northern accent, not that you can make out much of what he's on about anyway; he turns inarticulacy into an art form. Frequently in the supporting casts of Blakeley comedies, he deserved better. In Holiday's With Pay, he shines (and so does his hair) in the haunted-house sequence, with beautifully-timed delayed reactions to the spookiness he encounters; it's a master-class in minimalist, throwaway double-takes.

Blackpool? This once-glorious Northern resort never looked more appealing. What's it like now? Take a look at Funny Bones, that loving tribute to all aspects of Jerry Lewis, past and present.

Speaking of seriously-damaged comedians, the other Frank Randle film on an Odeon DVD is It's a Grand Life, his last film and a return to the army comedies with which he started his film career in the early 40s. Somewhere in England was the first one, and this may be the starting-point for all those endless sketches the British public has had to endure over the years, in which a splenetic sergeant-major is insulted and frustrated by a bunch of hopeless "new recruits". I saw a stage version of this myself in Brighton in 1973, involving a gentler comedic-son-of-Randle, "Rubber Neck" Nat Jackley. He was great; the sketch stank.

It's a Grand Life returns to the same territory, and again it's an ill-assorted hodgepodge of plot, sketches and musical numbers (the film stops dead at 1:30 to allow piano star Winifred Atwell to play three tunes; she's splendid, but enough is enough). Diana Dors is the co-star and she reportedly hated every minute of it, considering Randle to be a lecherous, mad old drunk (four out of four there, Di!) but despite his industrial-strength intake of booze and cigarettes, Randle is on top form here. How the hell can I transcribe one of his routines? If Dan Young was the king of inarticulacy, Randle was the Emperor. The following typifies his disrespect for authority (which would have greatly pleased his downtrodden audiences) and his free-form mental processes, which at times stray into Milliganese - high praise indeed!

Frank Randle in Film Fun, 1955

It's worth noting that despite his long-term marriage, Randle in Charming Mode had a string of girlfriends (all hot 'uns!) one of whom, Sally Barnes, played his daughter in Holiday's With Pay. The age difference seems vast; you wonder whatever she saw in the raddled old git. Inevitably, when she left him for pastures new, he was pretty darned unpleasant about it and took part of his revenge Bill Fields style. You'll notice that in this movie the deserter is called Barnes!

In short, Randle's up before an officer 'cos he's allowed the deserter Barnes to escape (being in the pub at the time). Randle makes no attempt at any coherent excuse; instead he befuddles his superiors with a controlled stream-of-consciousness that's almost impossible to notate. In the same way that Groucho tackles the gangsters in Monkey Business, Randle knows these guys are set too solid in their mundane little army ways to deal with this sort of thing. He's supposed to be the victim, yet he plays his superior officers like a Stradivarius. Randle's lines are seemingly plucked out of the air like a jazz solo. One day they should teach this in schools, like Shakespeare.

Officer: Now then, Private Randle, what have you to say about this deserter Barnes getting away and stealing the army jeep of which you were in charge?

Randle: Oh yes sir. I, er, er.. eh?

Officer: I said, what about this deserter Barnes who got away and stole the army jeep of which you were in charge???

Randle: Oh yes, er... very, very bad, er, show sir. You see, 'cos... very very difficult 'cos the chap who [unintelligible, but it sounds like "troubled the back o'yer"] must have been daft or somethin'.

Sergeant: Quiet please! Stand to attention!

Randle: Yes, I am...

Officer: What are you talking about?

Randle: I am at attention. It's me uniform that's at ease. I beg yer pardon sir?

Officer: I said what are you talking about??

Randle: I don't know sir. He keeps interruptin' me sir. [to sergeant] Be quiet! Be'ave yerself! [to officer, as he reaches for a cigarette] Will yer 'ave a Woodbine sir ?

Officer: Is this man mad???

Sergeant: PUT THAT AWAY!!!

Randle: Er, yes... er... mind yer own business. Er... I'm talkin' to the... corporal, not you. Now, sir [salutes] er... sorry, cobber. This... er...


Randle: Ah! That's what we all want to know. Isn't it? Yes. 'E's 'opped it. I don't blame 'im. I mean to say: 'e's gone. Y'see, sir, this dog came out of number three trap, and...


Randle: [cheerful smile] Ah! Ah! [frowns] Barnes! You see, yes, well... what about it? [to sergeant] Er... d'yer know? No. Well, never mind, doesn't matter. Well, 'is wife, y'see, er, terrible. 'E 'ad four children, er, sir, four, er, all four of 'em, one, either a boy or a child, I'm not quite sure... and 'is wife... er... very very unfortunate. Er, nasty operation sir, she's 'ad, er, for rubbin' stones, stop stones, I think it's called... gall stones. 'Ave you seen a gall stone? 'Scuse me sir [grabs paper and pencil] Look 'ere. Er... now then. I'll draw yer a chicken... Yes... er... [officer knocks paper from his hand] Don't yer want a chicken, sir ?

Randle: Yes, er, well, er...

Officer: Nobody to look after the children?

Randle: Who?


Randle: Ooh yes. Barnes'. 'E 'ad some children..... none were there at all.

Officer: You told me there were four children.

Randle: Yes, four. Yes, four. Yes sir, there were three and another. And they 'ad no rooves to their mouths. No roooves.... and nothin' to eat but coal, sir.

Officer: Had they no friends to look after them?

Randle: Ah, well, they were away sir. Abroad. Widnes, I think, sir. Er, awful place I believe. I 'aven't been there...

Officer: Had his wife no parents ?

Randle: She never 'ad any as far as I know , sir. I think she must...she could 'ave 'ad a mother, but... er, you see, er, she was bereft, y'see.

Officer: What?

Randle: [to sergeant] Did I say that??

Officer: Yes.

Randle: ...on 'er mother's side, er... from the father's side... er... Aunt Emily... er... [sniff]... er, something... [sniff]... she was, er... [sniff !]...

Sergeant: WIPE YER NOSE!

Randle: You wipe it. You're nearer to it than I am.

Sergeant: QUIET!

Officer: So she was an orphan?

Randle: So I'm led to believe, sir. Oh, by the way, er... Private Barnes gave this to me, sir. [fumbles in his pocket]

Officer: What's this?

Randle: A piece of wood.

Officer: What's it for? [and Randle has his mouth open, ready to reply, but...]

Sergeant: Not a word!

Randle: Thank you. Quite. Yes. And, er... also gave me this photograph, sir. [hands photo to officer] Horrible, isn't it? Hmm, er... it looks better... the other way up. [turns it around] That's right.

Officer: ....certainly lovely children. It's a tragedy. That's the penalty of getting married too young.

Randle: ...but evidently it 'ad its moments, sir.

With the arrival of the old soldier Prendergast, the scene descends [ascends!] into indecipherable chaos. There's a similar scene a bit later in the picture with Randle, Prendergast, a goat, and a young daft recruit, as they argue about why the young man should go down the mines instead of into the army. It's an absolute gem, a ragged-arsed version of the Hay-Moffatt-Marriott routines from the 'thirties. Jeff Nuttall bravely attempts a transcription of it in his book, but there's just too much overlapping dialogue. How was this ever scripted? Was there a script?

It's a Grand Life, for all its faults, is pure, classic Frank Randle. Such comedy. Readers: obtain this movie! And it's also his swan-song, for at this point his life began to unravel. Frequently in trouble with local Watch Committees for his use of "questionable material", Randle was not a man to submit to any kind of authority ("Ladies and gentlemen, I would just like to say that at this moment I am supposed to say to Cinderella: "I've come to cut your water off"; but the buggers won't let me!"). His shows were closed down and he was often too ill - or too drunk - to appear. (I'd love to know what the people of my home town, stodgy old Bedford, thought of the old rascal when he did a week at the Royal County Theatre in March, 1954, but neither of the local papers reviewed him; I've checked!) The official cause of his death was gastroenteritis; there was no room on the death certificate for clinical depression, tuberculosis, chronic alcoholism and insanity. Yes, Frank Randle died of everything. It's a miracle he got to be fifty-six.

So what was the Stormy Petrel of Variety really like? A devious maniac who sometimes used charm to mask his evil intentions? A genuinely kind man plagued by multiple layers of alcohol-fueled psychosis? Or a crafty showman who - like Bill Fields - used the full picture to create his own legend? We'll probably never know. What we do know is that he always intended to be very, very funny, turning controlled insanity into inspired comedy. He made millions laugh, and thanks to his ramshackle, tatty old movies, he still does. Frank Randle was a one-man Marx Brothers. Aye, he's a hot 'un...

STOP PRESS: Within the last few days, Somewhere On Leave has been shown on BBC television. Absolute garbage, mostly, but redeemed by some wonderful physical comedy from our hero, specifically a having-a-bath-while-drunk routine that's easily the equal of Chaplin's One A.M.. And yes, he does get to say the following, as a prelude to a strenuous (and virtuoso) comedy dance routine:
Randle: I'm very fond of dancing. I've danced in America you know.

Girl: Oh well then, you'll know the next dance, the jitterbug.

Randle: Oooh yes, jitterbugs. Huh... I'm a great jitter bugger.

Girl: You're telling me ?
Long live Frank Randle!

Frank Randle, Ernie Dale, and Dan Young in Somewhere in England (1940)

Frank Randle and Jimmy Clitheroe in School for Randle (1949)

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Blogger Lost Causes said...

Excellent work Geoff! I had not heard about Frank, and now I rather think I might look him up. Love elaine

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful in-depth article! Especially enjoyed the film clips. Brought back memories of sitting in a crowded North of England cinema, during the war, laughing at Randle's antics. Pity that DVD's of his movies, compatible to North America, are not available here in Canada
Thanks again for a great site!
Jim Renshaw

1:58 PM  

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