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Mr Lonely

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Methuen, London, 1982
(first published by Eyre Methuen 1981)
price: 1.50; 192 pages

dedication: This book is dedicated to my first grandchild, Amelia Faye Jarvis

The blurb on the back:

Mr Lonely is Eric Morecambe's tribute to Sid Lewis, that great comedian from the south. From his early music-hall days, the boarding-house suppers, to the meteoric rise to TV fame and the champagne, the girls, the life 'behind the scenes' - it's all there and more.
As you would only expect from Eric Morecambe, this is a highly readable and enjoyable, laugh a minute novel, the heart-warming story of the trials and tribulations of Sid - lovable genius.

opening lines:
Sid Lewis came into this world exactly the same way as any other child. He weighed eight and a half pounds and had a shock of black hair. The trouble was, as he used to say, 'It wasn't on my head, it was all under my left arm.'

Nowadays it seems that every comedian who's ever been on a pisspoor TV panel show feels obliged to write a novel; presumably those years 'studying' English at minor East Anglian universities have to be put to use somehow. Old school British comedians, however - the ones that came out of the Music Halls and the Northern club circuit - were less noted for their literary aspirations. The likes of Sid Field and Tommy Cooper managed to get through their careers without leaving a trail of lad-lit football-and-fucking novels behind them.

All of which is obviously just another whinge about how things were better in the old days, but it also suggests a bit of a wasted opportunity: the precision of language displayed by, say, Tommy Handley suggested a voice so articulate that it deserved preservation on the page.

Anyway, amongst the few who did get around to writing a full-length novel - somewhat surprisingly since he didn't even write his scripts - was Eric Morecambe. And the result, Mr Lonely, is really quite a fair book. Written from the perspective of Eric himself, it tells the story of a showbiz friend, Sid Lewis, a cabaret-circuit comedian who gets a big chance at TV stardom.

Not exactly a startling storyline for such a book (see Les Dawson's A Card For The Clubs, for example), but there's no harm in that, and it starts very promisingly. The scenes of the working life of a comic are excellent - Morecambe & Wise were regular live performers even at the height of their fame, so you're very happy to have Eric writing about backstage conditions and about the stresses and satisfactions of working a mostly pissed audience. And the vehicle that makes a star of Lewis, his Mr Lonely character, is sketched with a simplicity that conveys everything and nothing:

He had the gentle approach of the late Arthur Haynes, yet, at times, the coarseness and strength of Jimmy Wheeler. He would walk on to the screen alone, talk to you for a couple of minutes about life in general and soon have you laughing... And always at the end of his show he would sing his famous Mr Lonely song, with the same sad appeal as the wonderful Bud Flanagan. The camera would slowly zoom out, leaving this tiny, incongruous figure standing there, while you at home would wait for him to fade from your screens. (pp.108-9)

You see what I mean? Great writing, that.

Unfortunately, most of the book isn't about the business of comedy. It's about the sex-life of a comedian. Which, frankly, isn't very interesting. Sid Lewis gets to have affairs with third-rate light entertainers when he's working the chicken-in-a-basket circuit and then with posher birds when he gets on to TV. And you're left feeling: So what? Do I need to know this? Do I care?

You should also be warned that the 'laugh a minute' promised on the back never quite materialises. What you get are one-liners that are fine but not exactly side-splitting (a soprano who looked 'old enough to remember Madame Butterfly as a caterpillar', that kind of thing). And they don't compensate for the principal failing: that what starts off as an exploration of the unique situation of a stand-up comedian degenerates into nothing much of anything.

It could and should have been so much more.


Like this? Try this...

Les Dawson
A Card For The Clubs