Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Mancunian Candidate

by Geoff Collins

Can you handle any more of Randle? To illustrate my previous article on the wily Lancastrian comedian Frank Randle, our own wily Texan blogmeister Aaron managed to unearth a couple of appropriate clips. Now we're pleased to announce that he has the whole of It's a Grand Life to play with. This 1953 epic is of epic length - nearly two hours - and it was Randle's last film, the one which reveals him as a man on the brink, just before he allowed his personal demons to ruin his career and his life. For as we have discussed before, Randle's comic persona of barely coherent insolence was fuelled by real-life psychosis, depression and alcoholism. On a good day, he could be generous and kind; at other times he made Lou Costello look like Little Bo Peep.

Most of Randle's pictures were made by Mancunian, a provincial unit specializing in cheap comedies for Northern audiences. They're overlong, dreary and unbelievably inept as examples of film-making, and many only survive in heavily-cut reissue versions, which, perversely, sharpens them up and improves their quality as movies. The advantage of producer/director John Blakeley's "put it in front of a camera and shoot it" method is that we're left with a lot of long, uninterrupted comedy routines. Good!

You may recall that I attempted (!) to transcribe one of Randle's routines from this film, the sequence in which he's being forced to explain why he allowed the deserter Barnes to escape. What his superior officers fail to realize is that you don't force Frank Randle to do anything, any more than you would attempt to do so with Frank Sinatra. While remaining outwardly subservient and apologetic - after all, he IS getting an almighty telling-off - Randle shows these mundane inhabitants of Planet Army that it doesn't bother him one little bit. Like Jeff Nuttall in King Twist, I didn't manage to transcribe this scene with full accuracy and missed the brief gallstones-slop stones gag, which seems to have been a favorite: Duggie Wakefield uses it in The Penny Pool. Anyway, for the benefit of America and anyone else reading and watching, this is Frank Randle at full speed.

A bit later in the movie there's another scene which I found impossible to transcribe due to all the overlapping dialogue, although I suspect every last syllable was worked out in advance. You may be familiar with the films of Will Hay (check out our archive): incompetent blowhard Hay failing to maintain any kind of order while constantly bickering with disrespectful teenage chubster Graham Moffatt and crafty codger Moore Marriott. This scene from It's a Grand Life brings the concept to a new level - and you must decide for yourself whether the level is higher or lower. It's well documented that John E. Blakeley disparagingly dismissed any kind of witty dialogue as "London comedy"; he personally preferred slapstick, or anything that involved people falling over. In this provincial variation on the Hay-Moffatt-Marriott setup, Randle, although absolutely basic as a human being, is still sharp enough to rob the gullible rookie twice.

One of the most beloved of all comedy situations on both sides of the Atlantic in the forties and fifties was the Drill Routine. Abbott and Costello performed it beautifully in Buck Privates, Jewel and Warriss copied it very badly in What a Carry On (Mancunian, 1949) and there's a peculiar early version in which soppy Jack Haley mysteriously attempts to behave like one of the Bowery Boys (Saltwater Daffy, Vitaphone 1933; don't fret, readers, we'll get to it). Any number of comedians have portrayed the hapless new recruit at the mercy of a bullying drill sergeant; Randle's variation was to make his character anarchic and disruptive while apparently attempting to be helpful. All Sergeant Michael Brennan can do is stand back and let it all happen. Technical query: after Randle belches and complains of "a touch of wind", does he fart as well? Or is that (a) a buzz on the sound track or (b) wishful thinking on my part?

And finally, Impersonating an Officer, in which Randle delivers a long lecture while managing to explain absolutely nothing at all and trying to interest the gorgeous Diana Dors in his bazooka. I don't blame him. You'll notice that the "romantic lead", for possibly the only time in a Mancunian film, isn't a complete wimp and gets quite energetically involved in the comedy. Bravo John Blythe!

We've attempted to pick the best scenes from It's a Grand Life - which is a far from perfect movie - in order to give you a flavour of what this erratic and willful comedian was all about. Love him or loathe him, Frank Randle was unique. He played his part in extending the bounds of comedy - and also, very likely, the bounds of good taste. Enjoy these glimpses of the disgraceful old rascal at his very best.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dead Old Comedians

by Geoff Collins

The dreaded IRS strikes again! Fear not - this has nothing to do with taxation. I refer to Insufficient Research Syndrome, that embarrassing condition that banishes even the most diligent writers and researchers to Outer Gaffe-Land, due to their reliance on previously-published misinformation. In an article on the deliciously perverse Houston Sisters (see our Archive) I stated that Billie died in 1955, purely because I trusted an earlier researcher. It turns out that the poor lady lingered on, in poor health, for another eighteen years, so 1973 would be a more likely date, based on page 156 of Don't Fence Me In, by Renee Houston (Pan Books, 1974). But don't quote me!

Speaking of quotes, this is from Tom Hickman's excellent book about BBC radio during World War Two, What Did you Do in the War, Auntie? (BBC Books, 1995), page 54:
"Wartime broadcasting revived the careers of a number of fading troopers like Marie Lloyd, Little Titch [sic] and Dan Leno."
Wow! They must have needed some reviving. By mid-WW2 Tich had been dead for about fifteen years, Marie for twenty and Dan for forty. At least he's right about the "fading". I sent an e-mail to Mr. Hickman along the above lines but received no reply. Hopefully by now he's not in need of the same kind of reviving.

Here's my guess at what happened: in the course of his research Mr. Hickman must have waded through endless copies of Radio Times. He probably found details of one of Leslie Baily's Scrapbook programmes and didn't realise that the list of historic names were on old records instead of the real thing. It's true that some of the old music hall stars did get a brief shot at a comeback, notably the ebullient Cockney singing comedian Harry Champion (1865-1942; dates double-checked!) All movie clips of Mr. Champion seem to have been lost. He's nowhere to be found on, and the portions of his act that he filmed for British Lion seem to have vanished along with most 'thirties British Lion material. (Readers, now's your chance to prove me wrong again - and while you're at it, find Sandy Powell's feature films!) At least Mr. Champion made around a hundred and sixty recordings, all of which capture his breathless energy as he rattles off songs about food and drink. One of my favourite quotes of all time comes from Kindly Leave the Stage! by Roger Wilmut (Methuen, 1985), page 139, and it gives us a flavour of what's been lost by the absence of film of Harry Champion. This is acrobat Bob Konyot describing Harry's appearance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in the early part of the war:
"Gracie Fields was supposed to get £500 a week - she was the highest paid star; our springboard act was getting around £75 a week; and some of these old-timers like Harry Champion were lucky if they could pick up £40. I went down to see his act; they played his signature tune - and no Harry Champion. They played it a second time - no Harry Champion. They played it a third time - still no Harry Champion; the boss of the show said, "All these old-timers do that, to create an atmosphere before they go on." And it was true that Harry Champion went on that stage - and Whoomph! - you know, that man couldn't sing, that man couldn't dance, he looked like a cabbie and he danced like Donald Duck... he couldn't do nothing; but he had the audience in the palm of his hand, and they loved him every minute of his act. He didn't do anything, but he was one of the greatest performers I've ever seen."
For an idea of Harry in action, his 1940 record of Any Old Iron can be heard on

Sorry, readers, no bells and whistles this time. The recently-recovered clip of Dan Leno - "An Obstinate Cork" - in the form of a Kinora flip-book, has yet to be issued to the public. (Why??? By "recently", I'm talking about seventeen years) Two of Dan's records can be enjoyed on, and there's a fascinating and thorough biography on The glorious Marie Lloyd is sadly under-represented by nineteen scratchy 78s and a short silent clip of about 1920 (from the Topical Budget newsreel?) in which she looks frankly decrepit, totally worn-out at fifty. Little Tich's thirty 78s are mostly thudders. Unlike his contemporary Dan Leno, he comes across as self-conscious and a bit smug; but his immortal Big Boots dance was filmed twice, the most easily-accessible version being on (clip number 2845.04). The 1900 version Little Tich et ses Big Boots, filmed in Paris by the photographer Clement Maurice, has been cited by Jacques Tati as "a foundation for everything that has been realised in comedy on the screen". Praise indeed!

(In case any Will Hay fans are reading this, the Big Boots dance in Those Were the Days is performed by Sammy Curtis. He's a bit too tall but at least he was still alive!)

By now you may be wondering "what's the purpose of all this?" but to elaborate on Tati's point, all styles of comedy have to start somewhere. It's all about influence: in the baggy-trousered grace of Little Tich we can see Charlie Chaplin; Harry Champion's chirpy optimism is discernible in Tommy Trinder and that spectacular peacock Max Miller; Marie Lloyd has been portrayed with consummate ease by Barbara Windsor and, most recently, Jessie Wallace; and Dan Leno's plaintive London-Irish surrealist patter, decades ahead of its time, is a direct forerunner of the grotesquerie of Max Wall and the Goonery of Spike Milligan. I'd happily trade any number of 1940s Columbias by Certain Psychopaths Who Shall Remain Brainless, for more - or indeed any - film clips of Leno, Marie Lloyd, Tich or Harry Champion, or the other early stars who departed too early or left us too little. But even if their work only exists in rare bits and pieces, let's enjoy what we have.

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