Morecambe & Wise
Mike & Bernie Winters
Things have changed, of course. Nowadays you get 'celebrities' writing autobiographies that insist on telling you how they were abused as children which is why they became coke-heads but now they've found God and they've kicked their sex addiction, rediscovered some self-respect and learned to love themselves and each other. Or something like that. What we used to get, on the other hand, were interminable tales of seaside digs and comedy landladies and the Glasgow Empire and the Windmill and the bloody Water Rats and Lords Taverner. On balance, I think we were better off then.
The fact that the old-timers didn't get so up-close and personal is either because self-censorship was much tighter in those days, or because they actually weren't hopelessly addicted to drink, drugs, sex, gambling and other types of dissolute living. Myself, I favour the latter theory, but you probably wouldn't believe me if I said that. Not given the culture we live in, dominated as it is by sleaze, gossip and a sickly vein of sentimental cynicism that poses as journalism.
Anyway, what we've got here is a collection of some old-school autobiographies and biographies of great British comics. Let's run rapidly through them, shall we?
Arthur English - poor old love - simply can't write an interesting chapter to save his life. He hung out with the Crazy Gang (as in Flanagan & Allen, not Jones & Wise), worked with the great Monsewer Eddie Gray and starred in a wonderful string of TV shows, from The Ghosts of Motley Hall through How's Your Father? to Are You Being Served? Surely there's enough in there to put together a decent book? Sadly, there ain't. There are good paragraphs but poor pages. Occasionally, though, something works, like this description of appearing in pantomime in Darlington in 1971 at a time when he was appearing in Follyfoot:
There's a lesson in there for all of us. And the lesson is ... well, don't do pantomime in Darlington, I guess. Oh, and don't sign a copy of your book for someone who's going to give it to a charity shop:
By way of extreme contrast, the Morecambe & Wise book is a piece of sheer beauty. Where Arthur English's book has all the sad hallmarks of the vanity press, Eric & Ernie get the full benefit of a priority publication. Written at the peak of their extraordinary success, this was a guaranteed best-seller and WH Allen - the original publishers - weren't messing about: it's thoroughly edited and subbed and buffed and polished and, boy, does it shine nicely.
This is exactly how you want to remember the world's greatest ever double-act. The story is told in the first person by each of them, taking turns, with linking passages by Dennis Holman, and it is simply lovely. The paperback edition (as illustrated) comes laden with rave recommendations from everyone from the Grauniad to Woman magazine, but best of all are those from Robert Morley:
and from the Rev. Lord Soper:
You wouldn't expect any great revelations and you don't get any, but Eric & Ernie had careers that started before the Second World War, and most of the book is concerned with the early days. As such it's a nice ramble through the latter days of live variety and the early years of television in the company of two very agreeable men.
When the boys were on Parkinson once, the wrinkled-before-his-time Yorkshireman asked them what they would have been if they weren't comedians. Without missing a beat, Eric replied, 'Mike & Bernie Winters'. Which is a bit mean, but you could see his point about this knock-down budget-price version of a comic double-act.
Michael and Bernard Weinstein came from Islington, and started in showbusiness after the war, appearing on TV with increasing regularity from the mid-1950s. By the '70s they were getting pretty damn tiresome, coming on like a London Yiddish Abbott & Costello. We'd all had enough and presumably so too had they, 'cos they split up very unamicably in 1978 and never worked together again. Bernie carried on with TV with his new partner, a dog named Schnorbitz, whilst Mike relocated to America to become a novelist. (The year they split, with not a hint of coincidence, Cannon & Ball made their TV debut.)
By rights, Mike & Bernie's shared autobiography should have been bloody awful. But it's not. It's actually quite diverting. They may not have had much talent, but they did knock around the entertainment world a fair bit and there are a whole heap of decent anecdotes. There's the nice scene, for example, where Mike tries to assault Michael Winner, but is sadly restrained from so doing by Bernie. (Ironic, considering that Bernie's catchphrase was 'I'll smash yer face in.') And because their rise coincided with the British adoption of rock & roll, there are nice interventions from the hapless duo into the world of pop, none better than when they turn down the opportunity to buy a share of The Beatles' management.
Also coming out of Islington and big in the 1970s (very big) was Arthur Mullard. Born Arthur Mullord, he used to be a boxer, then became a bit-part actor specializing as a heavy, before moving into comedy. He worked with the likes of Tony Hancock and Arthur Askey, before ITV decided that all sitcoms should be set amongst the working-class and gave him his own series, the truly appalling Yus, M'Dear. In fact that was a spin-off from the marginally better, but still atrocious, Romany Jones, which has been almost completely forgotten. So intensely horrendous was Yus, M'Dear, however, that it lives on in an undead kind of way: many of those who saw it still has the occasional flashback, waking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat amidst fears that UK Gold is about to repeat the bloody thing.
The book's no good either. Recommended only for horror fans.
A more unusual story is that of Charlie Williams. His father was a Barbadian who served with the Royal Engineers in the First World War and settled in Yorkshire, where Charlie was born in Royston, near Barnsley, in 1929. He left school at 14 to go down the mines, and became a semi-pro footballer at 19, going on to spend 12 years playing for Doncaster Rovers, before eventually becoming a comedian. He was one of those who broke through on Granada TV's show The Comedians and dug out a reasonably successful career, including a stint hosting The Golden Shot.
I always felt that Williams deserves more respect than he's received. There weren't many black teenagers down the pits in the 1940s, nor black professional footballers in the '50s nor black comedians in the '60s. The man was a pioneer, and his account of his life is worth anyone's attention. Mind you, he seems uncertain whether it's going to be enough and he sprinkles a fairly substantial chunk of his joke book through the narrative.
The jokes too have their interest - if you're a student of British club comics in the 1970s, it's an invaluable record - but it's the social story that's more interesting. I could have read more of it. (And that's not true of every book on this site.)
Also desperately worth preserving is the story of Sid Field, one of the most celebrated but least known of all British comedians. He did little radio work, and died tragically early, before TV really got going, which means that as far as I know, the only record that survives of Field in action is in his movies London Town and Cardboard Cavalier. Several of his most famous sketches are thus on film (including his golf routine), but the absence of an audience robs the man of his power.
This, you've got to understand, is a comedian who spent three decades on the music hall circuit in the North of England before arriving in London in the early-1940s and storming the capital literally overnight. He specialised in character sketches, drawing on his immense facility for voices and accents (he was originally from Birmingham, but adapted to wherever he was playing), and by all accounts was a unique performer. Certainly the likes of Tony Hancock always cited him as a major influence (both had beautiful faces for comedy) while Bob Hope rated him as the best comic he ever saw.
On the evidence of the film appearances, and attempting to make the necessary allowances for the period and for a live performer adapting to a dead medium, he was stunning. And the joy of this book - despite the less than gripping narrative style - is in the research: John Fisher interviewed all the key survivors who'd known Field, including his straight man John Desmond, before it was too late. It's thus an essential text in the history of British comedy.
Less significant, but better written, is Michael Billington's piece on Ken Dodd. Billington is best known as a theatre critic and clearly loves his subject. Rightly so, of course: Dodd is a national treasure, the last of the music hall giants. Despite the brevity of the book, it's a lovely analysis of the man's craft, and indeed of comedy itself. Worth the price of admission, but could comfortably have been four times as long.
As could Philip Oakes' book on Tony Hancock. There are a handful of books on the Lad Himself, but this is far and away the best: a diamond-sharp insight into the life and work of Britain's most talented interpretative comedian. Oakes co-wrote The Punch and Judy Man with Hancock (not as well known as the earlier Rebel, but a better film nonetheless), and is therefore particularly well qualified to discuss his attempt to move from interpretation to creation. Essential.