Thursday, June 05, 2008

Sid's Spivvy Skit

by Geoff Collins

The impresario Charles B. Cochran was in the First Night audience for Sid Field's West End debut in March 1943. In a letter to the Times he described Sid as "a Comedian with charm and great originality who caused the greatest laughter I have heard in a theatre for many years". Fortunately for us, some of the best sketches from Strike a New Note - and its successor Strike It Again - were rammed unimaginatively into Sid's 1946 movie musical London Town, a prize turkey so disastrous in every possible way that it sank like a concrete lifeboat and harmed the lives and careers of everyone associated with it.

London Town, full-length (don't even think about it) runs for over two hours. It seems like two years; and yet at the preview it was even longer, so the producers felt it necessary to discard the wonderful opening sketch of Sid as a Professor of Music, playing the Tubercular Bells at a provincial music hall. (This scene still exists, in a mutilated, monochrome form, in the compilation "To See Such Fun"; hopefully we'll eventually locate it.) The last time London Town emerged from its deep dungeon, on Channel Four in 1986, about a quarter of it was missing. What a relief, I hear you say, but unfortunately the cut portion included Sid as "Slasher Green", his opening sketch from Strike a New Note. A truncated version of this important routine turned up some years ago on the video Jokes That Won the War, and this appears to be the clip currently floating around on YouTube. (Whoever had the good taste to set this up, you have our sincere thanks.) On stage this sketch could run for up to eighteen minutes, so our little two-minute excerpt can only hint at the flavour of a much tastier feast. Still, it's better than nothing.

For the benefit of our younger readers, in 1940s Britain, when most things were rationed or in short supply, "spivs" or "wide boys" were those flamboyantly-dressed but shady characters, mysteriously exempt from military service, who could get you anything, at a price. Just don't ask no questions, and yer won't get told no lies, see? James Beck's rascally Private Walker in Dad's Army is a direct descendant of Slasher. Beck always acknowledged his debt to Sid Field and it was his intention to portray Sid in a stage production; sadly this never happened as Beck was the victim of an uncannily Sid-like alcohol-related early death. Postwar star Arthur English ("the Prince of the Wide Boys") was more fortunate and used his version of the spiv as his stage persona for most of the 40s and 50s, eventually maturing into a "lovable old rogue" character actor.

But let's get back to our hero. In a 1940s version of Britain's Got Talent, insecure cockney blowhard Slasher charges onto the stage and announces that he is a Discovery, somebody who's been "sorted aht o' people what want to go on, see?" His pathetic attempts to entertain us are hampered by unctuous master-of-ceremonies Jerry Desmonde, raucous heckler Alfie Dean ("thirty bob" is £1:50 in today's currency), and the spectacular length of his own overcoat. Slasher thinks - hopes - that he has it all: the hat, the coat, the natty little moustache, the sheer courage... but what he hasn't got is the talent, so ultimately he achieves nothing. It's a situation we know only too well.

This is a briefer glimpse than usual of the cherishable Sid, but at least, and at last, we can see part of the routine that made him an Overnight Success - after thirty years in the business. So let's welcome onstage our friend from the Elephant and Castle: Mr. Slasher Green!

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