WHAT THE DICKENS!

           A beginners guide to the novels of Charles Dickens

………..or a refresher for those already familiar with his books?

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Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father was a naval clerk in the pay office on average wages. This was something of problem as John Dickens spent as though he was earning a King’s ransome! By the time Charles was 12 years old the family had moved to London.  His father was sent to a debtors prison for his failure to pay money he owed. Debtors prisons were strange affairs. Privately owned those incarcerated could receive visitors more or less as and when they chose. Those with families able to afford it could bring in their own furniture and be provided with a larger room or cell in which to place it. Wives and children would usually accompany the impoverished head of the family. The problem with debtors prisons was that if you did not have a rich family or friends then the rest of your life would be spent in the prison. Those with rich friends were soon able to buy their way out. In John Dickens case he was sent to the Marshalsea the most famous of all debtors prisons. It would feature in future Dickens stories. As would his experience of working in a shoe blacking factory to help out the family income. It was in the factory that Charles met another boy whose surname was Fagin. Thus the formal education of the young Dickens came to a temporary end when he was 12; it would resume when he was 14. And yet he became the most famous novelist of Victorian England!

A few months after his imprisonment the mother of John Dickens died bequeathing him £450 which enabled him to pay his debt and leave the Marshalsea. (He owed a baker £40!) At this point there occurred an incident that would colour the view of Dickens towards his mother in particular, and women in general. She did not request his immediate removal from the blacking factory and Charles took a long time to forget and forgive. Like many a Victorian male he thought a women’s place was in the home, and such decisions about his employment should have been made by his father.

Once he became famous Dickens heard that his father was using his name as a means of underwriting his borrowing. At one time John Dickens even forged his son’s signature! He returned briefly to the Marshalsea but Charles Dickens had the money to buy him out. Undaunted John Dickens carried on behind his son’s back selling manuscript pages from his early novels! Nice man.

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The house in Portsmouth where Charles Dickens was born

I can remember the first time I came across Charles Dickens. My father had been posted to Northern Malaya in 1954. Our first year was spent on Penang Island where I had to suffer Batu Ferrenghi beach almost every day! Now people pay thousands to do the same! It was off that beach that I learnt to swim. It was tough but someone had to live there! Then off we went to the mainland and married quarters at RAF Butterworth.  We had a radio for company and every so often the Overseas Daily Mirror arrived to give you a months supply of papers to read! Other than that a visit to the cinema gave you Pathe News. For myself I discovered Classic Comics. They were a sort of graphic novel and portrayed famous books of the nineteenth century. They were published monthly I think and one particular month they featured ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ I was fascinated by the story. You need to bear in mind that I was almost two years ahead of my reading age as my parents had books in the house throughout my childhood. It helps!  David Copperfield followed a few months later. Although my favourite story was ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ The story of someone spending his life on the beach somehow chimed with my way of life!

   Back to England we came and I obtained a children’s edition of ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’  Then, in 1959 I think, the BBC produced the novel on television with Peter Wyngard in the starring role. Then in October the RAF decided to send us all back to the Far East and off to Singapore we went.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’ has always been the Dickens book I know best. However having spent the last few months researching and reading and re-reading Dickens I will run through the novels that are deemed to form the Dickens Canon.

So, to start at the very beginning…….

Dickens published numerous short- stories, plays, sketches, articles essays and of course numerous novels. Fifteen of these novels are considered his main body of work and it is those I will give you a flavour of here. I will then recommend five novels for you to read as you begin your journey to becoming a Dickensian scholar!

The Pickwick Paperswas published in 1836.

 Like all his novels it was published in episodic form. In this case monthly editions. It tells the story of the adventures of members of the Pickwick Club which has one Samuel Pickwick at its head. It is a series of vignettes told with a comic touch and introducing us to Nathaniel Winkle and Augustus Snodgrass. The unlikely names of his characters across all his novels is one outstanding feature of his writing. The episodes were slow to sell but in episode four Dickens, aware that he needed to introduce a livelier character, gives us Sam Weller. Or given Sam’s speech impediment,Veller! He brings much needed humour to the story. All is not sweetness and light though and drawing on his own experience Dickens has Samuel Pickwick find himself in the Marshalsea.

In Pickwick’s case it is refusal to pay a court order that lands him in trouble. While not a profound novel or one with a complex plot it established Charles Dickens on the literary scene. The gentle humour of the stories and the description of the English country life proved very popular. In Sam Weller Dickens had his first star character!

The story was published in book form the following year.

 And in that same year the story of Oliver Twistbegan its journey. It was published in twenty-four episodes between February 1837 and April 1839. The novel was published in book form in November 1838! Seems a strange marketing ploy but there you go! I have to confess this is my least favourite Dickens story. I know that the purpose of the author was to highlight the cruel and squalid lives of street children and the way they were driven into criminal activity. However poor old Oliver is captured not once but twice by Fagin’s gang. It seems as though Dickens has had writers block and decides to recycle the plot? It is one of those books that make you want to have a shower after you have read it? And yet the Victorians loved it! It was good versus evil with evil being conquered. What was not good was the portrayal of Fagin. In the first part of the

story Dickens is constantly referring to ‘The Jew.’ Protests from his friends and Jewish people affected him and in the second half of the story ‘Jew’ is not mentioned. But the damage had been done. Illustrations of Fagin showed him as the stereotypical Jewish villain. Over one hundred years later Alec Guinness would bring that villain to life in David Lean’s film. Much was made in 1948 of the time it took for Guinness to be made up to look like he did. I am sure that in later years Lean must have had some regret about how he depicted Fagin? Anti-semitism has never gone away.  There are many musicals out there that have great songs and daft plots but they provide enjoyment. I just wonder how Lionel Bart pitched his idea to would-be producers. ‘Well you see gov, all these kids is criminals, they are led by a Jewish criminal who sends them out to rob people. One of the main characters murders another of the main characters but not before she has sung one of my best songs, like.’ I really don’t get it. Never have. Yet for a while it made Mr Bart a very rich man. Not my favourite musical.

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George Cruikshank’s iconic illustration from ‘Oliver Twist.’  “More boy!”

Charles Dickens took various jobs before settling down to writing. At one time he was a House of Commons reporter. He had various jobs in journalism and edited a monthly magazine. All this helped him make the right contacts and quite soon he was combining his journalism with writing his first book. Following the publication of The Pickwick Papershe eased off his other work and soon became a full time author.

Moving right along….

While writing Oliver TwistDickens also started writing the Life andAdventures of Nicholas Nickelby. And what adventures they were. One of the few novels that Dickens featured people living outside London. There are a multitude of characters in this book with some glorious names. Wackford Squeers the cruel schoolmaster is my favourite. His school was Dotheboys Hall which Dickens based on a school he had once visited in Yorkshire.  Then there is Newman Noggins and Peg Sliderskew! Mind you even Dickens ran out of names and one character is simply, ‘The Man Next door!’ Like a lot of Dickens stories you do need to read the book over continuous days otherwise you literally lose all of the plots! Of which there are many. Events take place in Yorkshire and Devon but most of the action is in London and provides a wonderful commentary on Victorian life for both rich and poor. Yet it lacks a solid core and when I finished reading the book for the first time in many years I was hard put to really understand what it had all been about. Worth a read though just to tick off all the character names! Of course nearly all of Dickens books contain his favourite character…. London. When it was published Oliver Twist still had a year to run so his readers were well served during that time.

They would have a break until May 1840 when The Old Curiosity Shopwas published in weekly parts quickly followed in February 1841 when Barnaby Rudgewas published in weekly parts until November of that year. Barnaby Rudge first!  This novel is one of two historical novels written by Dickens. It is set during the anti-Catholic riots of 1780. They were known as the Gordon Riots. The dubious honour belonged to Lord George Gordon who was considered to be the leader of the Protestant Association. Over 200 people were killed during the rioting across a few days in June. The situation was not helped by the Lord Mayor refusing to read the riot act which just encouraged the rioters to inflict more damage and violence on the Catholic population. And all because a bill enacted two years earlier in favour of Catholics was now the subject of dispute.  Into this melting pot of malevolence steps Barnaby Rudge, a simple soul with a pet raven called ‘Grip.’ Poor old Barnaby is led into trouble and almost finds himself on the executioner’s step. At the other end of the social scale rich men taunt each other, true love is vanquished albeit temporarily. On the way to a happyish ending there is trouble aplenty.

Worth a read for its historical background describing one of the more shameful episodes of English history. One of the least popular of all Dickens novels. It could be because memories of the Gordon riots would still be quite vivid for older members of the then population. One person who reviewed the novel was Edgar Allen Poe who thought more use could have been made of the raven. But then, as the scholars among you will know, Mr Poe had a thing about ravens.  His famous poem ‘The Raven’ was published in 1845. Did he derive inspiration from Grip? No one knows!

Dickens readers were not short of reading material during this time as ‘ The Old Curiosity Shop’was published at the same time. Now, just off Lincolns Inn Fields in Portsmouth Street you will find a sixteenth century building called ‘The Old Curiosity Shop.’ Charles Dickens lived for a while in the nearby Holborn/Bloomsbury area and may well have passed the building on a number of occasions. At this point you need to know that the building was christened ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ thirty years after publication of the novel. The shrewd owner cashing in on Little Nell! This is probably the most depressing of the Dickens Canon but was very popular. American readers waited at the wharves in New York docks anxious for the last episode to arrive! The novel of course contains a wonderful nasty villain in Daniel Quilp. It is a fairly straight- forward story with fewer sub-plots than other Dickens novels. But, once Nell and her grandfather are evicted from the shop by Quilp, the ending is not hard to guess. Oscar Wilde was not a Dickens fan. Of this book his comment was, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ But then it is easy to be brave when the person you are criticising has been dead for over twenty years?

In December 1842 ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’appeared in its first monthly part. Its final part would be published in July 1844. Thought by many to be one of Dickens favourites as far as his own work was concerned. Not so with the public. By October 1843 sales had slowed down so much that his publishers were threatening to reduce his monthly income. Time then to write another book?

If a quiz show were to ask their usually less than bright contestants to name a Dickens novel the likelihood is that the reply would be, ‘A ChristmasCarol.’ The novel is generally recognised as being instrumental in creating the traditional British Christmas along with Prince Albert and his introduction of the Christmas tree. Written in double quick time between October and December of 1843 ‘A Christmas Carol’is usually referred to as a novella as it is much shorter in length than all his other work. Published on the 19 December it had sold out all 6000 copies by Christmas Eve. There were a further eleven editions published in 1844. In the hundred years from publication in America it had sold two million copies. Far and away his most popular novel stateside. ‘A ChristmasCarol’ is a mixture of an old- fashioned ghost story and the trials and tribulations of Bob Cratchit as he strives to provide his family with a suitable Christmas celebration. Tiny Tim is the hero of the piece and, who else, (?) Ebenezer Scrooge the villain. Scrooge is a name of course that has passed into the English language. A number of literary people over the years have rated this book as the finest example of prose in Victorian literature. Some accolade!

In the meantime ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’continued its laborious sales. The Penguin edition runs to 920 pages before it reaches the appendices! There are just too may sub-plots. John Forster is generally regarded as Dickens closest confident on literary matters. Well if he did read the draft of MC then he really should have advised cutting it by a third! Just to confuse the reader there are two Martin Chuzzlewits and various other members of the family. The plot revolves around the senior Chuzzlewit safe guarding his will and pretending to be friends with one character and the enemy of another when the reverse is actually the case! It is well written and contains one of Dickens enduring characters, Mrs Gamp. A lady partial to a drink or three, and always seemingly carrying an umbrella. Although a minor character in terms of the story her umbrella made her famous. ‘Gamp’ became a Victorian nickname for an umbrella. Unfortunately for Charles Dickens the sales of the book did not really improve but his publishers could bask in the glory of ‘A Christmas Carol.’

The next novel published was ‘Dombey & Son.’ Generally rated as the most Victorian of the Dickens Canon. It was published in twenty monthly parts between 1846 & 1848. It features old Dombey who had always wanted a son but was presented with a daughter whom he chose to ignore. Along comes a sickly son who lives for only six years and whose mother dies along the way! Cheerful stuff. However the world as seen through the young boy’s eyes received critical acclaim for the sensitivity of its writing. Fear not, redemption and salvation are at hand. It is a novel that provided the reader with all they would expect from a Dickens story. Not too many character names that one could call memorable. My favourite is Polly Toodle! Is it an instrument or a dance!?

And then in 1849 over the usual twenty episodes comes the favourite Dickens novel of a good many people: ‘David Copperfield.’ It was an open secret that this was Dickens camouflaged autobiography. Child cruelty, villains, benefactors and of course, Wilkens Micawber. My favourite Dickensian character whose pecuniary advice echoes down the ages, ‘ Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery!’ Micawber was loosely based on John Dickens who could never heed his own financial advice! It is a story with two villains. In the first half we have Edward Murdstone, David’s cruel step-father. The second – half bring us the ever so ‘umble Uriah Heep. Along with Great Expectations perhaps the Dickens novel most adapted to the screen both large and small.

So there you are. The literary agent of Charles Dickens, fresh from his outstanding success with David Copperfield. There he is sitting across the desk from you. ‘So Charles, what do you have in mind for your next two novels?’

CD:  ‘ Bleak House and Hard Times!’

Can you think of two more uninviting titles for a novel? Hard Timeswas a rarity in that it was set wholly outside London. Bleak Housealso broke the mould by introducing the first female narrator in a Dickens novel.

Hard Timesis as its title suggests hard going. But Bleak Housewas the first of the two to be published between March 1852 and September 1853 Esther Summerson is the heroine of the novel. She is taken into care by John Jarndyce following the death of her guardian. The novel is famous for its scathing satirical attack on the judicial system which operated in the House of Chancery. A case called Jarndyce & Jarndyce is the main feature as an argument about wills rolls on for years. Dickens would not live to see it but a law reform act in the 1870s was helped on its way by the outcry caused by the plot in Bleak House. Great character names abound; Lord and Lady Dedlock, Mr Tulkinghorn. William Guppy, Caddy Jelleby and many, many more. My favourite is the wonderful Inspector Bucket! An uninviting title but an outstanding book.

Hard Times gives us Thomas Gradgrind a name that makes you instantly dislike its owner! Set wholly outside London it is one of the shortest of the books written by Dickens. It is one of two books published originally without any illustrations. Published between April and August 1854 in Dickens own magazine, ‘ Household Words.’ Published alongside it in the same magazine was ‘North and South’by Mrs Gaskell. A novel with a similar theme. Hard Timesproved a successful book telling the tale of a school (Gradgrinds) and its pupils on the one hand and mill workers on the other. Dickens was not convinced that the industrial revolution was a total cause for good. His book is seen as a satire on that industrial society. I have always found it hard to read.

And so we come to Little Dorritt. Published in monthly parts between December 1855 and June 1857. Here Dickens calls on his childhood experience as the first half of the book takes place in the Marshalsea Prison. William Dorritt has been incarcerated for over twenty years and his daughter Amy was born there. His two other children entered the prison with their parents. Her sister chooses to live outside the prison but Amy’s brother remains with her and her father. Amy’s mother has died many years previously. William Dorritt lives what he considers a normal life and makes no attempt to resolve his situation. Then Arthur Clenham appears. His investigations and adventures cause a seismic shift in the life of the Dorritt family as the Marshalsea is left behind and they spend some time in Rome. This is another of those books with an off-putting title. Little Dorritt? Do not be deceived, it is one of his best novels.

No less a personage than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky thought highly of the book. It gives a wonderful evocation of life in a debtors prison. Not too many great names though, Minnie Meagles and Jeremiah Flintwich are about the best I can do! The book is also famous for Dickens attack on Victorian bureaucracy in the shape of the Circumlocution Office. This is a place where applications just go round and round and nothing gets done! (Sound familiar? Nothing changes!)

Published in 1859 in 31 weekly editions A Tale of Two Cities is reckoned to be the best selling Dickens book. Two hundred million is claimed in some cases but disputed by other experts. Given that book counting was not a primary concern in the nineteenth century it is doubtful if anyone has an accurate figure. What can be stated is that the book has sold a lot of copies! There are books with good opening lines, one or two with great end lines. But only this book can claim both. I would say it has the best beginning and ending of any other book ever published? And no I have not read them all! Here are the opening lines:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

All in one sentence!

And the ending spoken by Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

And in between all that you have a relatively peaceful London and the Reign of Terror in Paris as the lives of Sydney Carton and Charles Darney start to intertwine. One of my favourite books. A TV production a few years back was sadly lacking in production values. At the point where the Bastille is stormed it seemed you had about two dozen Parisians on the attack!

For his next novel Dickens returned to childhood and a first-person narrator. It is a companion novel to David Copperfieldin that both explore similar themes and both have same narration device. GreatExpectationsreceived universal acclaim when it was published between December 1860 and August 1861. It has a dramatic opening scene beloved of television producers. The meeting with Magwich in the graveyard sends young children behind the sofa! By 1860 Dickens seems to have eased off on character names. Here Mr Pumblechook is the only one to raise a smile. The book takes us from childhood to manhood as Pip (Philip Pirrip) narrates his adventures. Love and betrayal, secrets revealed, violent enemies causing problems but in the end good friends who see him through. One of the most performed Dickens stories across all types of media. It is a story made for television.

Dickens was not to know it but ‘Our Mutual Friend’ would be his final completed novel. Published in monthly parts between May 1864 and November 1865 it was not one of the more popular novels.  It has rather too many sub-plots and a convoluted main plot. Its redeeming features are as always the characters; Georgiana Podsnap, Sophronia Lammie and Bradley Headstone to name but three!

The plot hinges on a will, or maybe two wills, or is it three, and the untimely death of the would-be heir? But just who is ‘Our Mutual Friend?’ You will work it out as the book draws to its close!

Time for a note about the various illustrators of the novels. Dickens worked closely with his artists and it is accepted that the illustrations in the books match those imagined by Dickens when writing the books. He had one or two illustrators (George Cruikshank for one) before Hablot Knight Brown took up residence. More commonly known by his nom-de-plume of ‘Phiz.’

This particular artist stayed with Dickens for twenty-three years although he did not do the illustrations for ‘A Christmas Carol.’ These were done by another friend of Dickens called John Leech. The last book illustrated by Browne was a Tale of Two Cities. They were not well received and Dickens sensed that Hablot Browne was losing his touch. He employed the son of a friend to illustrate Our Mutual Friend. Marcus Stone was the son of Frank Stone who had helped out with the illustrations on the earlier books.

So there you have the fifteen books. A mixture, most certainly. Any pick of five books is subjective but here are the five I would recommend to you if you have never read Dickens before:

In order of reading I would suggest you start with Pickwick Papers. It will be a gentle introduction to the way Dickens writes and the stories themselves are enjoyable. Follow that with David Copperfield. Without reading the book you may have seen a TV version of it. However it is wise to remember that television productions cut hugh chunks out of any book they adapt for television. Here Dickens will introduce you to child cruelty, devious characters and on the other side of the coin wonderful friends who see him through his difficult start in life. And as I mentioned before this book introduces you to Wilkins Micawber not to mention the equally delightful Betsy Trotwood.

It will be no surprise to you I am sure that the next book on my list is Great Expectations. A slightly different view of childhood to the previous book, and, perhaps, a little darker in places. Both books keep your attention and give a wonderful evocation of Victorian life. Dickens always used his books to satirise the class divisions of contemporary life. In Great Expectations Pip finds himself embarrassed by his Uncle Joe. He has risen in class but forgotten where he came from. It is a book for which Dickens wrote a number of final scenes. Did Pip marry Estella? Or not? Mmmm.

Having read two novels that started with childhood time to read about revolution! ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ alternates the action between London and Paris. As the revolution approaches a Doctor Manette is released from a Paris prison. Arrangements have been made for him to meet his daughter who thinks her father is long dead. This meeting and its consequences provide the central thread of the story.  Love, betrayal, revenge, and finally, redemption. It is all here. There is a wonderful villain in Madam Defarge who carries on with her knitting as the tumbrils roll and the guillotine falls! Sydney Carton is the dissolute hero who finally makes himself fatally useful. The number one Dickens best seller by a country mile!

However as much as I like ‘A Tale of Two Cities’I have to admit that ‘Bleak House’in terms of its characters, main plot and sub-plots is the finer novel. Esther Summerson becomes the first female narrator of a Dickens novel alternating with an omniscient narrator later in the book.

Esther has a back story that is touched on in the book but never fully explored. An adopted child; her guardian has died. Her new guardian is the kindly John Jarndyce. It becomes obvious that Esther’s former guardian was not a very nice person and Esther sees her prospects improving. (Charlotte Bronte was unimpressed with Esther Summerson as a character. Well Jane Eyre was not exactly a bundle of fun Charlotte?) Various characters pass through the Jarndyce residence building the story. As the sub-plots drop in to the story we are introduced to Lord and Dedlock and their lawyer Mr Tulkinghorne. The sub-plots seem unrelated but as the novel progresses they start to become as one with the main plot. The Chancery case described in the book providing Dickens with a wonderful opportunity to attack the appalling justice system in place in Victorian England. Bleak Houseis one of those books you will read late into the night. Then look up and realise you should have been in bed an hour ago? If you only read one Dickens novel; read this one!

And there you have your novels. The Dickens stories lend themselves to television and there have been some outstanding productions over the years. Back in 2005 there was a superb production of Bleak House. It had a stellar cast. Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. Charles Dance, Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Carey Mulligan all appeared in the production as did Alan Armstrong as Inspector Bucket. The production was shown in half hour episodes which at first seemed a strange approach. However it heightened the tension and turned out to be very clever idea! Great Expectations and David Copperfield are the most produced novels across all media and in the former Gillian Anderson starred as Miss Havisham in a 2011 production. Ray Winstone could be seen enjoying himself immensely as Abel Magwitch!

But if you only watch one television programme about Charles Dickens then make it ‘Dickensian.’ A masterpiece of television. I would read the books first before you watch as that will make it more enjoyable but it is worth watching as a stand-alone programme. The set is brilliant. Snow falling as Christmas approaches in a true Dickensian setting. Here you will find Miss Havisham preparing for her marriage. Here is the back -story of Esther Summerson. Bill Sykes and Nancy before they met Oliver. The Artful Dodger and Little Nell. (Both sadly showing the political correctness of the BBC extends even to Dickens as they are played by actors from an ethnic minority.) We have Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. Fagin is there as are Mr and Mrs Bumble. Pauline Collins has the time of her life as Mrs Gamp. The stand-out performance for me was Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket. Given free rein in this production Inspector Bucket is the central character as he seeks to find the murderer of Jacob Marley. It is a wonderful, crazy, Dickens fantasy! There was expected to be a second production but the BBC in their wisdom decided we were all enjoying ourselves far too much and cancelled!

Charles Dickens started work on ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ in April 1870. Sadly he would never live to finish it. He died on 9 June. He had set himself a punishing schedule giving a speaking tour in the USA and following it with another speaking tour on his return to England. He was ordered to rest by his doctor and did so for a few weeks. However he felt he had let down his sponsors and returned to the tour which would eventually lead to his death from sheer exhaustion despite what it may say on his death certificate. He must be one of the few people in the western world to die from overwork. (Isambard Kingdom Brunel is another one!)

Charles Dickens novels have never been out of print. He retains his place as the greatest novelist this country has ever produced. Only Shakespeare is ranked above him on the list of the all time greatest writers in this country. On the world list Shakespeare remains top of the list but in second place some see Dickens, others see Tolstoy. In America you might think a Victorian English author would be long forgotten but Charles Dickens remains one of their favourite writers along with Twain, Hemingway, Scott-Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and the more modern day American writers. When I visited the Dickens House in Portsmouth a few weeks ago I was the only English visitor. The others were Japanese, German, Indian and American.

Despite his earlier relations with both his parents when his father died Dickens paid off all his debts of which there were many. He also set up a trust fund that enabled his mother to live the life to which she had become accustomed!

I hope this rather long blog has encouraged you to re-read or read for the first time the novels of our greatest author?

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ENJOY!

 

 

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THE HISTORY OF COMEDY

 

PART THREE …THE FINALE!

The story of music hall is best told I think through one performer. She was born in Hoxton just off the City Road in 1870. At the age of fifteen she gave her first public performance under the name of Belle Dellamere at the Eagle Public House on the City Road. She did not keep that name for long. She changed it soon after to Marie Lloyd. Then and now she is known as the Queen of the Music Hall. Before outlining her career back to the Eagle Public House.

 

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It is the only pub to feature in a nursery rhyme. Any ideas…………………..”Up and down the City road in and out of the Eagle, that’s the way the money goes pop goes the weasel!”   No nursery rhyme has been more analysed than this one. Mainly in regard to the word weasel. Well take my word for it the phrase pop goes the weasel is based on cockney rhyming slang. Which is always truncated. Thus weasel is weasel and stoat, coat. Pop was the expression used to pawn something. So you pawn your coat to be able to buy some food. And of course rhyming slang in the nineteenth century was much in use. It had originally been devised so that criminals could hold conversations if they ever found themselves together in police custody, as if there were such criminals in the East End! And of course you could go into an East End pub fifty years ago and the publican might say to you, “Ere mate take your bacon up the apples and tell the trouble she is wanted on the dog.” The translation? Could you take your bacon…and eggs, legs up the apples and pears, stairs and tell the trouble and strife, wife that she is wanted on the dog and bone, phone. Simple really! As a language it is long gone but a few of the phrases remain in use, “Lets have a butchers” is slang for butchers hook, look. Most of you will be familiar with Brahms and Liszt. Use your loaf? Of bread, head. Got any bread mate does not mean the questioner is hungry. Bread and honey, money. And unless you like hospital food never call anyone from the East End a “berk.” The full expression is Berkley Hunt and I will leave you to work out the rhyme! Quite so! That said I think we all may remember of one or two berks we have met along the way!

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Back to Miss Marie Lloyd. After her performance in the Eagle word spread and within the year she was taking more bookings than she could manage. It would not be unusual for her and other music hall stars to be booked at four theatres in one evening. So 7 30 at one, 8 20 at another, 9 15 at the next and 10 at the last one. They would usually be within walking distance of each other but stars like Marie Lloyd would be able to afford a pony and trap and would travel further afield. However once she became top of the bill she would stay contracted to one theatre for a week or maybe two. She was without doubt a hard worker. After initial success in London she would tour the provinces and maintain a punishing schedule, Lincoln one night, Plymouth the next then Birmingham, Newcastle and back to Bristol. Must have had a sadist for a manager! Although I guess in the 1890’s the trains ran on time! Once she had made enough money she looked after her family and gave regularly to children’s charities in the Hoxton area, paying the bills for clothes, lighting and heating. She was also very helpful to her fellow artistes. In one particular case she heard of a young impersonator who was including Marie Lloyd in his performance. The young lad was summoned to the presence, no doubt thinking his career was about to end! But no. Marie listened to his impersonation and then pointed out where he was going wrong! If you are going to impersonate me sonny get it right! But surely this paragon of virtue must have had some faults? Well yes. Her private life was a shambles. Her choice of husbands one and three were an unmitigated disaster. She married Percy Courtney when she was seventeen. He was a man without any visible means of support who lived always on credit and gambling. Always seen in the best restaurants and always the best seats in the theatre. He saw Marie Lloyd as his own private bank. The marriage lasted long enough to see the birth of a daughter but after seven years of never ending argument they separated. This did not please Mr Courtney who suddenly found himself in serious debt. They divorced in 1905.

In the meantime Marie was going from strength to strength on the stage and had made a reputation for her saucy songs and her repartee with the audience. There were many stars by now performing at hundreds of halls and theatres. There were Empires, Hippodromes, Alhambras, Royals all across the country. One of the biggest music halls in London was the Oxford. If you were in London around twenty years ago you may have seen the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Piccadilly? That is the site of the Oxford Music Hall. Another big theatre was the Holborn Empire. If you turn right out of Holborn Underground and walk up Kingsway there is a road off to the left. Only about two hundred yards long it looks like an Italian architect has been let loose. That is where the Empire was.

Marie Lloyd was undoubtedly the star attraction but Dan Leno and Harry Relph, better known as Little Tich ran her close. Little Tich was famous for his over size boots which extended out in front of him and he achieved an amazing balance on the tips of the boots. He was four foot six in height. Had five fingers and a thumb on each hand and six toes on each foot! Dan Leno started working in the halls on an almost daily basis from the age of eight. At the age of forty -four he suffered a nervous breakdown and died. He was hailed as the greatest comedian of the music hall in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1891 the three stars performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the pantomime “Humpty Dumpty.” Tickets were like gold dust because it was not often that all three would perform at the same theatre.

If there is one song that Marie Lloyd was famous for it was this one, “My Old Man Said Follow The Van!”

Fifty odd years ago you could go into a pub and there would likely be a piano in it and at least one person in the place who could play it. Feel free to sing it to yourself!

The song is about a moonlight flit. The rent they couldn’t pay so off they went loading all their worldly goods into a cart, the van in the song. He tells his wife not to hang about otherwise she will not find her way to the lodgings. It is generally supposed that the cock linnet is a bird in a cage being carried by the wife. However cock linnet is rhyming slang for a minute. So did she say she would follow on in a minute and get lost as a consequence? It was one song she never recorded on the old wax cylinders. Other songs from Marie Lloyd included the “The Boy I Love Is Up in Gallery.” Oh Mr Porter, A Little Bit of What You Fancy Does you good. And of course the less than subtle “She Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before!”

Marie Lloyd performed in America, South Africa and Australia. By 1907 music hall was at its zenith and there was money to be made. The managers decided that there would be extra performances but the supporting players would not be paid any extra for this. The supporting players went on strike. This did not worry the managers as they knew there were always out of work actors and performers looking for work and they reckoned they would break the strike within a matter of days if not weeks. They reckoned without Marie Lloyd. By this time Marie had married husband number two, Alec Hurley. One of life’s gentlemen, in every sense. A cockney barrow-boy made good. They offered their home as a meeting place for the strikers and contributed to the strike fund. This encouraged other major stars to boycott the theatres. The theatres were now closing at a rapid rate of knots and the management capitulated. But they would not forget Marie Lloyd’s involvement and they would have their revenge.

Sadly Marie did not realise when she was on to a good thing and her relationship with Alec deteriorated and by 1910 they had separated and Marie was living with one Bernard Dillon. Dillon’s claim to fame was that as a jockey he had won the 1910 Derby in record time on a horse called Lemburg. For those of you who like to know this sort of thing….it came in at 11 to 4!!! His racing days were short lived as he spent most of his time drunk or gambling and physically abusing Marie Lloyd.

In 1912 it was proposed that there would be the first ever Royal Command performance to celebrate the history of Music Hall. Who else would you expect to top the bill? Well not Marie Lloyd. This was the theatre managers revenge. She was not invited. The excuse was put about that she was too vulgar for the Royal ears. Which is a bit rich when you consider that the previous King Edward the seventh was a regular member of the audience at any given performance! Marie answered back by hiring a theatre for the same evening and performing to a sell-out audience. The posters at the front of house proclaimed “Every Performance from Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance.”

In 1913 Marie arrived in New York accompanied by Dillon. They were refused entry on the grounds of “moral turpitude.” Only in America! Apparently our American cousins did not take kindly to the fact that they had shared a cabin on the way over. Despite the fact that a British ship is not within American jurisdiction. Marie argued the case and after spending the night at the Immigration House on Ellis Island they were allowed to stay on the understanding that they lived apart. Amazing! Marie was very popular in America but not as popular as her sister Alice. In Britain the reverse was true,

While on this tour of the US Marie heard that Alec Hurley had died of pleurisy at the age of 42. It is an expression of the esteem in which he was held that the whole of Marie’s family turned out for the funeral. Marie lost a few friends that year as within a short time after the funeral she married Dillon in Portland, Oregon.

1914 saw the outbreak of the First World War and with many stars of the music hall Marie raised money for various charities and performed for the troops home on leave all for free. Here she put in a prodigious amount of charity work while at the same time continuing her performances around the country. Her husband Dillon did his best to avoid conscription but was eventually signed up and then did his best to desert. Nice chap!

Marie Lloyd paid the price for her hard work and the constant abuse by Dillon. Things finally came to a head when he was arrested for assaulting her father who must have been in his seventies by then. So a separation was finally granted but it was too little too late. Not surprisingly she had consoled herself with alcohol to the further detriment of her health. She still had a sense of humour though and introduced a song entitled “I’m a bit of a ruin that Cromwell Knocked About a Bit.!” Everyone knew that Cromwell had had very little to do with it! In early October 1922 she was on the stage of Edmonton Empire singing that song and as she came to the last line she started to fall and as the curtain came down she collapsed in the wings. Three days later she died at home surrounded by her family. Over fifty thousand people lined the route from Hoxton to the cemetery in Hampstead where she is buried. Her brother commented after the funeral that during her life she had earned more than a quarter of million pounds and given most of it away. Known to her close family as “Tilly” her real name was……… Matilda Alice Victoria Wood.

While Marie Lloyd was a good choice of name; for a lady singing funny songs and cracking the odd joke or two “Victoria Wood” might have worked?

Many theatre historians see the year 1922 as the point at which musical hall started to decline. It was all ready coming under pressure from the silent movies and Marconi’s invention of the wireless was about to bear fruit. Strangely enough the theatre managers did not see the movies as a major threat and indeed the films were shown at the interval or the end of a performance. The first acknowledged movie was shot by DW Griffith in 1910. For the next seventeen years the output from film studios around the world was tremendous but none more so then in the sleepy little town of Hollywood. A place more used to tending the lime groves than anything else. The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin are all names of the silent era. And you will hear various claims as to who was the best. We will concentrate on Chaplin because he was born in this country and did his apprenticeship in music hall. He appeared on the same bill as Marie Lloyd in 1900 aged eleven as a member of a Lancashire clog-dancing troupe! He then joined Fred Karno and his ensemble. Dear old Fred tends to be used as a derogatory term these days but he was instrumental in giving talented youngsters their start in show business.

Charlie

Chaplin did a number of tours in this country with Karno as did one Stanley Jefferson who was born in Ulverston in Cumbria. Fred then decided it was time to conquer America which he truly did. So popular was the troupe that Chaplin was poached by Mack Sennett for his Hollywood studio. Stanley Jefferson had been understudy to Chaplin for most of the tour and decided that he too would remain in America. At this time he changed his surname to Laurel. He then met up with a certain Oliver Hardy. Meanwhile Chaplin went from strength to strength with some of the most iconic silent movies ever made. The Marx brothers were emerging onto film at this time having evolved from the American equivalent of Music hall known as Vaudville. Chaplin was to see his old colleague Stan Laurel in competition with him as Laurel and Hardy produced a series of films that matched Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. The silent movies were mainly slapstick routines that many of them would have perfected on stage. Then someone said to the studios. I think I can put sound on your film!!!! More of that later…..

If the Music Hall managers accepted silent movies wireless would be different. Suddenly you could have millions of people listening to one song, at home!! A month after the death of Marie Lloyd the British Broadcasting Company as they were then known was granted a licence to operate. By the following year wireless transmitting stations were opening up in all parts of the country.

A few years later the BBC would be granted its full licence and radio broadcasting would be in full swing. In the early years the theatre managers managed to broker a deal that allowed them compensation for the use of their stars but it did not last long. Music Hall had become variety and was to be found mainly at seaside resorts. There would still be shows in London but Music Hall had seen its best days. In 1958 playwright John Osborne would bemoan the passing of Music Hall but really he was talking about variety.

Through the 1930’s radio broadcasting was matched in expansion by the talkies. If the death knell for Music Hall had been sounded in 1922 then the coming of sound to movie theatres heard the funeral rites for a form of entertainment that had served the British public well. Its stars would find success on radio and film. Strangely enough Chaplin never took to sound and became more involved with production and composing. He was by this time a very rich man. For Laurel and Hardy it just helped their careers move onwards and upwards. They had been a success on stage and then the silent movies. The talkies seemed to be made for them. Unlike some of their colleagues from the silent era in all its forms who were found wanting when they had to speak. Many of them fell by the wayside. And as if that wasn’t enough serious actors started to appear in comedy roles in the movies

And yet for all that you could still see live performances. The theatre was still going strong and the arrival on the scene of playwrights such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw over the past thirty years had encouraged other writers to try their luck. There may not have been as many theatres but there were still some good performers out there. One such performer in the thirties was Max Miller. The Cheeky Chappie. He had a very successful career but I can’t help feeling he was born twenty years too late. He was made for Music Hall.

 

Max

His patter went something like this. I’m not suggesting he used this rhyme but it serves to illustrate his act:

Mary had a little lamb

She also had a bear

I’ve often seen her little lamb

But hey have you heard the one about?

Max had that habit of missing off the last line and leaving it to the audience to imagine it. Thus when challenged about his dodgy jokes he would blame the audience for imagining the worst. For Max Miller there was no such thing as bad publicity. In 1934 he went too far on the BBC and was banned for what would be the first of many times from broadcasting. Result? Mr Miller was never out of work again! And indeed that would be the case until he died in 1963. He worked on radio, the stage and television. And he made about fourteen of films. Whenever he worked in London his contract would always stipulate that the show must finish in time for him to catch the last train home to Brighton the place where he was born, lived all   his life and the place where he died.

Another star to match that of Miller in the thirties and forties was Gracie Fields. Many theatrical historians place her higher than Marie Lloyd as the greatest female star this country has ever produced. She appeared on the stage, in films and television and was most certainly a star of the radio. Both of these stars used the Holborn Empire as their “home” theatre when in London. That is until the Luftwaffe rearranged it in 1941! Radio programmes originating in this country were always through the BBC up until the mid sixties. Radio in the 1930’s was still finding its way but it gave many up and coming comedians their first chance at performing.

But it would be the Second World War that would be the making of the BBC. At first they approached it with mainly classical programmes and very sombre discussions. Someone somewhere advised them that there was enough depression around without them adding to it and that they should lighten up! ITMA! This was one of the programmes that did it, along with Much-Binding –In-The- Marsh and yes that man again Max Miller, although he did manage to get himself banned in 1944! The comedy output combined with their news reporting from far and wide served to place the BBC at the head of the world’s broadcasting organisations in the 1940’s. Workers Playtime, Music while you Work would continue to be broadcast well into the sixties. But comedians would still be appearing on the stage and in films. Television which had been invented some ten years before would not come to production until after the war had ended. This time it would be the film -makers turn to be worried as they would see television as a direct challenge to their productions. Before we leave the Second World War we must mention the Windmill Theatre. Famous for its ladies in various states of undress or no dress at all it was also the proving ground for many a would be comedian. Among those off its production line would be Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. The comedians who would be on first had a difficult job because the all male audience had not come to listen to jokes! Incidentally it is not strictly true that the Windmill never closed during the war. For the first fourteen days in September 1939 all public meeting places were closed.

Radio would continue to foster the careers of comedians after the war and in certain cases combine with the theatre to produce variety shows. This is a bill that illustrates the point. And of course shows that Peter Sellers was starting to progress his career.

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There at the bottom of the bill are two names which would become equally famous in this country. For a moment I wondered if the above gentleman could be Jose’ Dad!!!

If I had to pick the work of one comedian to take with me to the proverbial Desert Island it would probably be this man. His films and radio work alone in the 1950’s were outstanding. Along with Woody Allen, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart he produced comedy records in the late fifties and early sixties. Woody Allen started out in his working life as a stand up comedian as did all the others mentioned. I would not have wanted to be part of Peter Sellers shambolic private life but he has made an outstanding contribution to British comedy. Peter Sellers would join up with Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan to produce The Goon Show. Without doubt the most innovative radio programme in the history of comedy. Michael Bentine was along for the first two series but script arguments with Milligan saw him leave the production. A quote from Milligan to Secombe on the question of who would die first. “I hope you go first I don’t want you singing at my funeral!” Plus of course the epitaph on his gravestone; “I told you I was ill!!!” It was anarchic, bizarre but most of all funny! It ran until 1960 as by then the careers of all of them were involving more and more work.

Also around the time of The Goons a programme started on the radio called “Educating Archie.” As a child I quite enjoyed it. But years later looking back you think; “A ventriloquist………on the radio!?” You might as well have had a trapeze artist! And of course when Peter Brough took his act on to television it became apparent why the show belonged to radio!!!! However this is another programme that advanced the careers of a number of comedians, Bruce Forsyth, Tony Hancock, Alfred Marks, Beryl Reid to name but a few. By now comedy was becoming a staple of radio. The 1950’s would see Rays A Laugh, The Navy Lark and the lad himself in Hancocks Half Hour. Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne became essential listening. Not least for Kenneth Williams and his Julian and Sandy routine with Hugh Paddick!

But stage performances were still to be seen and enjoyed.

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Laurel and Hardy were still around. If you have to judge an act by its CV then Laurel and Hardy figure as the most outstanding comedy act in history. Music Hall and then variety performances. Films and television. They conquered them all. They did radio work but their approach was always a visual one and they I think realised that. Their last performance in this country was here in Plymouth at the Palace in May 1954. Sadly they only did the first night as Hardy all ready ill could not go on and the last show of the tour in Swansea was taken over by another performer as was the one in Plymouth. The duo stayed at the Grand Hotel for a few days until Hardy had recovered enough to make the journey home. Three years later he would die back home in America. They were unusual in show business in that by all accounts they were two of the nicest people you could ever meet. They never had a bad word to say about anyone. Oliver Hardy kept a guest book from his earliest days. All the acts they ever shared a stage with were asked to sign the book. Wherever the book is now it must be worth a small fortune.

Here in this country variety was proving itself to be still going strong and on radio the Billy Cotton Band Show provided a outlet for upcoming comedians. BBC television was now well established and settled into its nice cosy ways. Then in 1955 came the wake up call. Independent Television was introduced and was soon challenging the BBC for a share of the market. Tapping in to the enthusiasm of the times ITV introduced Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

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Somewhere among that lot are Morecambe and Wise! No guesses as to this chap with the long chin is!? It made him a star along with Jimmy Tarbuck who took over as compere a few years later. The show ran until 1967 and despite the odd special never featured again on the TV schedules.

The BBC looked to its laurels and transferred the lad himself from the radio to television. It was an instant hit. A couple of years ago one of the questions on Millionaire was “Who lived at 23 Railway Cuttings?” Yer man. His most famous sketch is probably the ‘Blood Donor.’ Hancock arrives expecting just a pinprick in his finger but is informed that he will be required to provide a pint. Hence the reply…”A pint? That is very nearly an armful!”

And now to the one and only. There have been many comedians who inspire laughter just by walking on the stage but none more so than Tommy Cooper. That look of terror on his face as if he had forgotten what was supposed to happen. It was of course a craft perfected over many years. He was a member of the Magic Circle and an excellent magician but he chose to make his tricks appear to go wrong. I remember seeing him in Robinson Crusoe with Arthur Askey at the London Palladium sixty years ago. He was doing his solo spot. Right; now I ‘ll do a tap dance he says. Out of his pocket he brings an ordinary domestic tap attached to a piece of string and bounces it on the table! I’m still smiling at it now. Why is it funny? I guess you had to be there. He then did the disappearing rabbit trick. Shows rabbit in the hat, abra cadabra. Turns hat upside down and shows inside of hat. No rabbit. He then accidentally pulls the cloth off the small table and there beneath is the rabbit! Groan. But of course if the rabbit was there all the time where was the rabbit from the hat? Tommy Cooper had made appearances on various TV programmes during the fifties and on the radio. By the end of the decade he had his own TV show and he never looked back from that time as his stage and TV performances became ever more popular. It was fitting that he died live on television performing on the stage of Her Majestys Theatre in 1984. There are so many Cooper jokes and stories but here are a couple. Tommy was in the line up at the Royal Command Performance when the Queen stopped in front of him and exchanged the usual pleasantries. “Excuse me ma’am,” said Tommy, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” “No,” replies a brave lady, “Well,” said Tommy,” Do you like football?” “No,” replies the Queen. “Well in that case can I have your Cup Final tickets!” Another one I like happened in Egypt. Tommy had spent his wartime there in the Army and he liked to revisit with his wife the place where they had met. They were looking round a market in downtown Cairo when they came upon a stall that among other things was selling the Fez. Tommy put one on and looked in the mirror and turned round to show his wife whereupon the stallholder said “Just like that!” Tommy was amazed. “How do you know my catchphrase?” The stallholder shrugged, “I don’t know catchphrase but English people come here put on fez turn round and say “Just like that!” Much missed but still remembered. And it comes as no surprise to learn that his favourite comedians were Laurel and Hardy.

While Tommy was finding his way in the early sixties the political scene was about to face a revolution. If you ever see a newsreel of a political interview in the fifties it is always very deferential, “And how was your trip Minister “ sort of thing…Well this programme changed all that! That Was The Week That Was! It revolutionised political interviewing. It pulled no punches and went after its targets with a vengeance. Indeed it is hard to believe that the man who lead that revolution is the same David Frost who became very much part of the establishment. It only lasted two series for reasons never fully explained until a few years ago. Apparently the oh so brave BBC caved into government pressure. Much good it did because ITV came up with a number of similar programs and since then politicians more often than not do not get an easy ride. The main thing about TW3 was that it was very funny and had a host of comedians such as Willie Rushton on the team.

Undaunted David Frost moved on to other things including the “Frost Report “ This was the show that gave John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett their break into the big time. Again it was not afraid to take the mickey out of the great and the good. The class sketch is brilliant: Cleese looks to his left and says “I look down on him because he is middle class. Barker looks to his right and says “I look up to him because he is upper class.” He then looks to his left and says “I look down on him because he is working class.” Corbett looks straight ahead and says “I know my place!” The show featured some of the best writers around and gave a start to others. It is considered along with TW3 to be one of the ground breaking programmes of television comedy.

There was still room for the single comedian to make his mark and no one did it better than this man. Dave Allen was an Irish comedian who started his career in Australia. His ideas on religion saw him banned by one Australian network. He then had the dubious honour of being banned by the Irish television station RTE. His shows always featured him sitting on a stool and going through his monologue before introducing the film clips.

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One of his jokes went like this: “Man goes to heaven and meets St Peter who agrees to show him around. They come to the first door and St Peter says the Methodists are in there.” At the second door he says, “In there are the Anglicans.” He then asks the man to be very quiet as they walk past the third door. “Why did we have to be quiet,” asks the man. “Ah well,” says St Peter, “In there are the Catholics and they think they are the only ones up here!”

Sadly Dave Allen died a good few years ago at the age of 68. I was fortunate enough to see him at the Palace Theatre here in Plymouth back in 1980 just before the place changed to a disco or whatever it was! Another quote I like from him, “I’m an atheist thank God!”

We have mentioned a few comedians along the way each in their own particular way responsible for advancing the cause of comedy. There are some of course who seem to think their act should include the audience as the butt of their humour. One such was Bernard Manning. Even his worst enemies would admit that as a stand up comedian his technique was perfect. But he had this habit of picking on people in the audience. In one famous incident when he was the cabaret at a private dinner he started picking on the waiters and waitresses who of course were in no position to answer back. A cheap way of getting laughs as was his use of racist jokes. That said he did have some good jokes like the one he told about his Uncle who was having sex at 74 which was good for him as he lived at number 73! But he and others found their own little niche in the comedy market. Any stand up comedian these days derives from all those who have gone before. Those with the minimum of talent tend to resort to constant obscene language. And then of course there were the so -called Alternative Comedians who came along in the 1980’s. Never my cup of tea and I found the perfect description of them on one particular website. “The alternative comedians seemed to think they were the first ones to have discovered comedy.” Perfect!

The one staple of television comedy is the sitcom. It is estimated there have been at least 800 shown on TV since 1945. And no I have not watched them all. They started to come to prominence in the 1960’s with programmes such as “Til Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son and The Likely Lads.” Til Death was written by Johnny Speight a noted left wing writer. His declared aim in writing the series was to show up the bigoted racists for what they were. A worthy objective you would think? Unfortunately Alf Garnett the main character became something of a cult figure. There was much discussion at the BBC about the programme and there was a four year gap between the second and third series. In my view the series was based on one joke which was wearing a bit thin by the end of series one!

I was living in Malta when Monty Python was first shown and by the time I returned it was well into its second series. I had read all the fuss and looked forward to watching it. I have to say I was not impressed. Yes there are some good gags across the series. And so there should have been as the whole cast had been part of the writing team on the Frost Report. But all those proclaiming it as ground breaking and innovative had obviously never listened to the Goon Show. But of course Cleese and Palin in particular went on to fame and fortune.

Morecambe and Wise became an institution and I think probably went on a series too far on ITV. Hard to pick a best moment but the piano sketch with Andre Previn must be up there. And of course it often featured two grown men in bed together and no one batted an eyelid. I remember one scene with Eric puffing on his pipe, looking out of the window as an ambulance goes by with its siren screaming. Says Eric, “ He’ll never sell any ice creams going at that speed!”

Faulty Towers. Based apparently on a dodgy hotel in Torquay. So many good lines. Well remembered of course and there were only ever 12 episodes. If there is an example of perfect casting this series was on a par with any of the others shown here.

The “Two Ronnies” developed out of the Frost Report and had a host of writers. I remember talking to someone in Lincoln, some forty years ago now. He was a Greek Classics scholar and knew almost as much about Roman history. Turned out that in his spare time he wrote for the Two Ronnies. His name appears on the credits, Ken McLeish. He was my OU tutor during my first semester! Stick his name into Google and you will see the extent of his scholarship. Sadly he is no longer with us. And of course the fork handles joke was one of the best.

Delboy

The caped crusaders. Hard to think that the BBC considered dropping Only Fools and Horses after the first series so poor was the audience response. That was back in 1981. Fortunately they decided to do another series. And another and another!

Del Boy’s favourite saying “This time next year we will all be millionaires” came true in the 1998 series. That is really where they should have left the plot. But no, back they came Del and Rodney five years later to less than critical acclaim having lost all their money.   The strain was showing not least because two of the actors in the previous series had died! Still there are great moments to remember. My favourite is the one with the chandeliers. “OK, let it go!”

I’m not a fan of Ben Elton’s stand up routine but I have to admire his writing. The Blackadder series was surreal, satirical and superb. None more so than the last ever episode. I think the final scene was a perfect ending to the series.

lastcharge

Well we have come to the end of the trail I guess. Most of the good ideas have been and gone and just about any sitcom or stand up routine in modern times will trace its ancestry through the timeline I have described in this missive.

Everyone reading this will have different favourites to me and to each other. Comedy has many facets but in reading this part of my blog you have found out what I like. Feel free to comment and please share this blog with your friends. Thankyou for reading!

One more time!

This is more of a quote from Tommy Cooper:

“I was complimented on my driving the other day. I went up to the car and someone had stuck a note on saying “Parking Fine.” I thought that was very nice!”

 

 

 

 

 

THE HISTORY OF COMEDY

         WELCOME TO ACT TWO 

A one liner from Tommy Cooper to get us on our way:

“They always say start at the bottom if you want to learn something. But suppose you want to learn to swim?”

We ended Act One with the fall of the Roman Empire. Hardly a laugh a year at the best of times, but drama whether tragic or comic disappeared.

But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.

Nothing appears to have been written for performance. Royal households appear in various countries. We hear of the Court Jester or The Fool appearing at certain times but much of it is anecdotal evidence. There is a certain amount of evidence to suggest that in Saxon times mentally disabled people were plied with alcohol and allowed to wonder around the Banqueting Hall to the amusement of the guests. Not for nothing were they called the Dark Ages!

Over a thousand years there is nothing to show of any written word intended for entertainment. Only in religious orders does any form of “play” take place. Eventually these will become the “Mystery” plays performed at York and one or two other places. There may have been “Fools” and “Court Jesters” in the Royal courts of Europe but outside the palaces and castles the ordinary people would have to find their own amusement until around the 15th century. This would usually be in the form of a “Mummers Play.” This would be a masked performance normally based on old folk tales but usually performed around a notable date in the Christian calendar. But nothing was written down! The first notes for such plays would not appear until the early nineteenth century.

The first comedy written in English – Ralph Roister Doister.” Was written in about 1553 by one Norman Udall. A comedy about the failed attempt of the hero to woo a lady. Udall was a tutor at Westminster College and the play would be performed by the pupils some eleven years after his death in 1566. Udall has his place in theatrical history but would never have known it! It all seems very odd indeed. Shortly after another comedy appeared with the wonderful title of Gammer Gurton’s Needle. Author unknown. Again performed by schoolboys. The story revolves around a missing needle. No prizes for guessing how the needle is discovered!

This neatly places us in the year 1564. On Sunday 23 April in Stratford-Upon-Avon Mr and Mrs Shakespeare become the proud parents of a son. They decide to call him William. Within thirty years a theatre-writing renaissance would be in full swing. It would match the Athenian theatrical era but unlike Greece this particular period of writing would ensure that theatrical performances would continue until the present day. In Florence of course their Renaissance had begun some time before. Leonardo da Vinchi was born in 1452 and died in 1519. Michelangelo was born in 1475 and appropriately enough died in 1564. Culture had finally arrived in Western Europe!

Even before Shakespeare was born the green shoots of theatre were starting slowly but surely to emerge. Back in Henry the Eighth’s court there were “Fools” working in court and the first indication we have of an appointed Court Jester. The first one we can name that is. He was called Will Somers and survived the reign of one of the most temperamental kings of England. He must have been very good! Henry also had his own acting and dancing troupe attached to court. This would develop as the in thing across Tudor England. Those with money and large houses would have a minstrels gallery above the dining hall. At the time the travelling players and musicians were becoming evident. There were no theatres to perform in. Their usual stage would be the courtyards of large inns.

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The George Inn at Southwark.

An example of early Elizabethan  theatre

The players would use the courtyard and the audience such as it was would stand in the galleries around the upper floor. The stage would be a few planks of wood thrown across a couple of trestles. But what they said or sung is not known. However someone, somewhere must have upset the authorities because in 1572 the strolling players were banned. The excuse being that by constantly moving to and fro across the country they were likely to spread the plague. I think the more likely reason is that they were taking the mickey out of their elders and betters and those in authority were quick to stamp on it. However the pressure for entertainment was growing and in 1574 the Earl of Leicester was allowed to build an outdoor theatre. From that point theatres both indoor and outdoor would be built.

Shakespeare could of course fill a whole evening of discussion. His plays continue to be performed around the world. Comedy or tragedy the language and imagery used in his plays remain unmatched. Every so often over the last five hundred years some bright spark comes up with the suggestion that only a few of the lesser plays were written by Shakespeare and that the majority of them were written by Marlow or Bacon or who ever. It has provoked endless discussion over the years. The best response I have read is this: It is all about intellectual snobbery. Bacon and Marlowe were university educated. Shakespeare only went to a Grammar School. How could he possibly have the ability to write these plays. “And he was brought up in Stratford for goodness sake!” The arguments have tended to fade in recent years. But here we are concerned with the comedies. The first one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be performed was “A Comedy of Errors.” This is the direct link between the Elizabethan theatre and that of the Roman theatre. Shakespeare took his plot from a play called “Menaechmi” by Plautus. In the Roman play the plot revolves around a set of twins and mistaken identity. In A Comedy of Errors the plot revolves around two sets of twins and mistaken identity. The play was first performed in 1594. Shakespeare wrote fourteen comedies. The final one to be performed was A Winters Tale. Although I find the play more tragic than comic it does contain the classic stage direction. Exit pursued by a bear!

These plays would be performed in daylight and the theatres would be structures of wood and it would more than likely be theatre in the round until bigger theatres were built. It was not until 1574 that plays were allowed to be performed on weekdays. The expensive seats were up in the galleries down to the cheap seats for the “groundlings” who sat on the floor! They would pay a penny to get in. As they came through a doorway they would be expected to put a penny in the box on the floor alongside the doorway. It soon became apparent that the number of people sitting on the floor did not always equal the amount of pennies in the box. So a recess was made by the doorway and the box placed on a shelf with someone from the theatre keeping an eye on it. From this simple operation we derive the term “Box Office!” This is the stage of the original Globe Theatre. Its modern replica is well worth a visitthe-globe-theatre4

Shakespeare’s main rival and friend at this time was Ben Jonson. Jonson wrote the Alchemist, Volpone, and Bartholmew Fair among others. He was imprisoned for sedition for writing his first play, after that he fought a duel with an actor and was found guilty of murder. He escaped hanging by persuading the authorities that as the son of a clergyman he had what was known as “benefit of clergy.” This apparently gets you off a hanging! He did not stay in prison for too long and his first play on release numbered William Shakespeare among the cast. Volpone is the play most performed in modern times. All the characters are named after animals, Volpone being the Fox. He pretends to be about to die just so he can hear what people have to say about him. It all goes badly wrong!

Shakespeare died in 1616*, allegedly on the same day that he was born, 23 April. Jonson died in 1632. Between them they had established comedy as one of the driving forces of the London theatre.

Queen Elizabeth the First had died in 1603. She was a strong monarch and gave active support to the Tudor theatre. Not so some of her courtiers who saw the theatre as a threat to good order. During the reign of James the First theatre went on without any outstanding events. The plays of Johnson and Shakespeare tending to hold sway. Charles the First did little to encourage the theatre and although plays were still performed in public more and more tended to be performed in private houses. Then came the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell, who immediately banned all theatrical performances in public theatres. This was not, as may be thought, just out of puritan dislike for people having fun but a purely practical decision. Theatres could hold up to 2000 people. A theatre audience could easily become a mob and mob could easily cause a riot. Cromwell died and so did the puritan movement as his successors lacked his skill and resolution. Charles the Second was restored to the throne in 1660.

Well you might think after all those years of puritan misery all the theatres would be opened and enjoyment would be the order of the day. Not so. Like Cromwell Charles and his followers were scared that large gatherings of people could cause problems. They did however allow theatrical performance. Letters patent were issued to two men who were allowed to operate a theatre each. This became known as legitimate theatre. Other theatres were used for musical gatherings, impromptu readings and the like. They were not allowed to charge for the performance of say Shakespeare. One of the patent theatres was at Drury Lane. The one you see now is the fourth one built on the site the other three having burnt down! The latest was built in 1822 and the last structural re-altering was in 1901. The other theatre was a converted Real tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In the mid-seventeenth century the area was a field although Portugal Street was in existence, indeed that was the address of the theatre. That is the street that runs behind the old Land Registry building. The theatre was located more or less where the College of Surgeons now stands. It was built to the latest specifications internally and contained all the up-to-date scenery and effects that money could buy. It operated for about sixty years. During the reign of Charles the Second actresses appeared on the stage for the first time. One of whom was probably famous more for her name than her acting, Nell Gwyn was her name.

What is amazing about this period is that the letters patent were not revoked until 1843! In the restoration period there were plays by Dryden, Wycherley, Goldsmith and Sheridan. Government interference continued. So much so that theatre audiences dropped off. The two high points of theatre attendance in this country set against population are during the reign of Elizabeth the First and the period of a few years before the start of World War Two. Shakespeare went out of fashion due in no small measure to someone called Colley Cibber producing his own adaptations of Shakespeares work. It would be well into the second half of the nineteenth century before Shakespeare regained his place as the most performed playwright. In 1737 Prime Minister Walpole felt offended by a play written by Henry Fielding and it is believed orchestrated the production of a play which he claimed insulted the royal family. He then enacted a bill which instructed that in future all plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval before they could be performed. Bad news all round and for the next two hundred years or so! The law was not repealed until 1968! There are playwrights living today who have had to submit their work to the Lord Chamberlain.

The 18th century saw the spread of theatre to the provinces and the establishment of repertory companies. The end of the eighteenth century saw the first versions of pantomime performed in the country. This particular form originated in Italy where the main characters were Harlequin, Columbine, Pantalone and clown. The performances were called Harliquinades. Into the nineteenth century and the theatres were bigger, by this time no notice was taken of the letters patent. Audiences were becoming more rowdy and theatre going was starting to become an unpleasant experience. Theatres were becoming grubby, shabby buildings. The actors profession was becoming one to disdain. The remedy was to improve the theatres, the lighting, the décor the onstage scenery, and the standards of performance. It worked.

However in the East End of London and in other major cities communities were setting up their own entertainment. The larger public houses would fit in a makeshift stage at one end and encourage their customers to do a turn. Thus we have the beginning of music hall. Before this comedy had been presented in a theatre and always the play would have been written by a rich middle class man. Yes people of all classes would attend depending on the play but music hall was comedy for the working class because the performers were from the same streets where they the audience lived. If we trace the birth of comedy plays back to Ancient Greece then the birth of modern comedy took place in the music halls of London and all the other major cities in the Untied Kingdom. Here for the first time someone would stand up in front of an audience and tell jokes. The audience would have paid to see them and the performer would be paid. Very quickly music hall moved out of the public houses.

And there we end Act Two … the final Act will tell the story of the Queen of Music Hall

I leave you in the tender care of Mr Tommy Cooper:

Tommy was leaving the theatre and just getting into his car when a man came running up to him, “Mr Cooper, Mr Cooper, please Mr Cooper can you give me lift please Mr Cooper can you give me lift?” Tommy took one step back looked the man up and down and said: “ You look great, the world is your oyster, go for it!”

 

* I commend the novel ‘Fools and Mortals’ by Bernard Cornwell for a wonderful description of life in Shakesperean England. The title is taken from Pucks line in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

 

 

 

 

 

A HISTORY OF COMEDY

Back in 2008 I gave a talk to the Land Registry History Society called ‘A History of Comedy.’ This is the amended script. My talk was over an hour long and so before you now is Act One.     Enjoy…                                           tragedy-comedy-icons

                          ACT ONE

To be more precise it is really my history of comedy. It will be biased, politically incorrect and probably xenophobic! As we get to modern times your favourite comedians may or may not get a mention but I cannot discuss every comedy act there has ever been otherwise I would be writing forever! What I hope to do is show you the landmarks of comedy from how it evolved in Ancient Greece to more modern times. Also I hope to show you how performed comedy has made the journey across two thousand years or more. Performed comedy as we know it is written down, the script learned and then staged. Of course visual comedy has been around since Neanderthal times. The caveman on his way back from a hunting trip falls over a rock and lands face down in a puddle. Cue laughter from his fellow cavemen! The fact that the victim then tries to club his mates to death need not concern us here!

Before we head for Ancient Greece I thought I would set the tone for this blog with an item from the Tommy Cooper joke book.

“Blind man and his dog walk into a department store. The man picks up the dog and starts to whirl it around his head. A horrified shop assistant rushes over to him and asks: “Excuse me sir, is everything all right?”   “YEP,” replies the blind man, “Just looking.”

Just like that! More from Mr Cooper in a couple of thousand years. And so to Ancient Greece, or rather Ancient Athens.

 

Parthenon1

This is the Parthenon. Or as Eric Morecombe might have said, “That won’t keep the rain out!” And it is the Parthenon, not the Acropolis. The Acropolis, the translation of which is “High City” is the large rocky area on which the Parthenon stands. It was the seat of administration for the city of Athens. Below the Acropolis would live the slaves, criminals and workers. Those with money lived well above it all!

The origins of Theatre began in Athens. Performances may well have taken place in other parts of Greece but all the historical evidence available shows that Athens was the starting point. And of course Athens was the starting point for civilisation in Western Europe. Here was born democracy, the art of political debate, trial by jury, literature, language, and the beauty of art in sculpture and design. Democracy in Athens was for a very select band of citizens. To be able to vote you had to be rich and male. Thus, Athens was controlled by those who had a vested interest in its prosperity. But they still voted and adopted principles of discussion that have survived the centuries. Athens in particular and Greece in general would come under all sorts of pressure from forces outside and inside the country. If it wasn’t the Persians, it was the Spartans, if not them it was the Macedonians and then along came the bloody Romans to nick all their ideas! There were various other petty squabbles too numerous to mention. The one thing I omitted when mentioning what the city of Athens had been responsible for was of course theatre. From out of this theatrical tradition was born comedy. Greek scholars seem to think from the various documentary sources they have consulted that there may well have been at least eighty playwrights over the period we are looking at. However we only have the works of three dramatists and two writers of comedy available to read. I thought I would show you a time line to put all of the above into context. Education, education, education! (The only good words ever issued by the idiot Blair!)

 

timeline

I thought the Romans should be allowed in as they stole all the Greek plots anyway!

Across this timeline we have the birth of Socrates (470) who had Plato (428) as a pupil. Plato in turn was the tutor to Aristotle (384) who in turn was the tutor of Alexander the Great! Got all that? And just to add to the mix there were various wars and battles raging around the Mediterranean.

Greek theatre was born out of idol worship, fertility rites and poetry readings which fused into theatre. The early plays would have consisted of a chorus of say twelve men chanting the lines. In the fifth century BC Thespis comes along. He is the playwright credited with introducing the first actor into the proceedings and the use of the masks of tragedy and comedy which now adorn most theatres in one way or another. Thespis was the first actor to actually play a character rather than someone just reading out statements. Thespis is well remembered by his followers. You will find a good few of them along Shaftesbury Avenue around 7:30 on most evenings. They are known as Thespians! So now you know!

In between the battles and wars you will see the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Say that after a glass or two! And I’ve still got Aristophanes to come! But a chorus and one actor was hard work for the one actor. Thus by the time Euripides came along it was the chorus and three actors! The actors would play all the characters, hence the masks. The mask as such is still in use today of course. Though it is now called make-up and costume. The plays of the three I mentioned were all tragedies based on Greek mythology. No playwright at that time would have had the nerve to portray contemporary issues. They would be all male casts. No violence would take place on stage. And in Greek mythology there is quite a bit of violence! Any one due to be killed as part of the play would be taken off stage. Suitable cries of anguish would be heard and the “dead” body carried back onto the stage.

A couple of play titles you may be familiar with that are still performed today, The Oresteia, Oedipus the King and Elektra. The Oresteia by Aeschylus gets an airing every ten years or so on BBC2!!! This is the one about Clytemnestra and her lover plotting to kill her husband Agememnon.   Then her son plots to kill her and someone plots to kill him and there is blood everywhere! One thing to come out of the Oresteia is that at the trial of Orestes, the son mentioned above, is found not guilty by virtue of the fact that the jury cannot agree. In the play the goddess Athena states that in any other future trial whenever the jury cannot agree the defendant must be found not guilty. The Oresteia is a trilogy and can be hard to follow.

So with all this gloom and doom around the Athenian play going public must have been in desperate need of a good laugh!So along came Aristophanes overlapping Sophocles and Euripides. He would use some of his work to take the mickey out of his predecessors but the play that tends to be performed the most today is one beloved of amateur theatre groups. Lysistrata. Why so popular? Well the plot centres around a central theme. The ladies of a particular Greek town inform their menfolk that unless they stop constantly going off to fight there will be no more sex when they return home. It sells tickets! Though I would guess that back in Ancient Athens it was seen as an anti-war play. Comedies were far more daring in that they dealt with contemporary issues and were not afraid to satirize the great and the good. Although that would come to end when Athens came under the domination of Macedonia. Then as now people from that area are sadly lacking in humour! Mind you it is not just the Macedonians. We do of course  have the laugh a minute Germans. I’m not sure but whenever I hear a German man speaking for all I know they could be giving the weather forecast; why then does it always sound as if they are declaring war on Poland? But given the choice between German and Afrikaans give me German. That South African accent can cut plated steel at fifty paces. I believe the white South Africans are descended from the Dutch whom I have always thought of as a friendly lot. I  regard white South Africans as sort of Germans with sun tans!

 

Now where were we……………………The Greek plays yes……

The plays were acted out on the stage of the classic Greek theatre.

Theatre

The terms used for various parts of the theatre have passed onto us in translation. The rear area would be known as the “Theatron.” From which we get theatre. Theatron translates as “seeing place.” Not to be confused with the Latin word Auditorium which translates as “hearing place!” The flat area in front of the audience was known as the orchestra. The large wall at the rear was known as the skene and behind that another wall which came around both sides of the raised area was known as the “Proskenion.” This word translated to “Proscenium. As in arch which is now the standard outline in all theatres at the front of the stage. Theatres were normally built into hillsides to allow the terracing to be supported and shaped to ensure the acoustics were at their best.

Aristophanes died in 380BC. After that there is another name mentioned in the Greek theatre, Menander. He is generally accepted as the link between the Greek Theatre and the start of theatre in this country some 1500 years later. He became the first Greek writer to use everyday domestic situations as the themes for his plays. Mistaken identity, father does not like the look of future son-in-law, romance going wrong, you might say it was the start of situation comedy! Menander had a rival playwright called Philemon about whom not much is known. Other than they appeared to vie for the affections of the same lady in their life!

Menander is believed to have written over 100 plays but only a couple survive plus fragments of others. In the first decade of the 20th century a hugh pile of ancient manuscripts was discovered in the ruins of an ancient settlement about 100 miles south of Cairo. Known as the Cairo Codex they found fairly mundane things among the papyrus but they also found a number of ancient Greek items which included some of Menanders work. Most of the excavated paper went to Oxford and some of it is still waiting for translation! Some of it was of course in a dire state and only recently with modern techniques have researchers been able to read the original writing which has been burnt by the sun, buried in the sand and generally mistreated! In 1957, again in Egypt one complete play of Menanders was discovered. Menander lived and worked during Macedonian rule. That would probably explain why he chose ordinary people for his characters, not wishing to offend the ruling elite. However for historians he epitomises Greek New Comedy.

He drowned while swimming of Piraeus in 291 BC. After that date there are no records of any other Greek playwrights. Although undoubtedly the plays of the writers we have mentioned would have been performed. The Romans conquered Greece in 146BC.

In Rome the works of the Greek playwrights would have been performed and would have been the inspiration to Roman playwrights. While the works of a number of Roman writers have come down to us only two playwrights have survived the Roman Empire. Titus Maccius Plautus was born in 254BC and started out on a career as a merchant. He was quite successful until a number of ships carrying valuable cargo belonging to him were sunk without trace. This bankrupted him and he took a job working in a grain mill. He had been involved in the embryonic Roman stage as a youth and what spare time he had from the mill he put to writing. Depends who you read but the number of plays that have come down that are accredited to him is anywhere between one hundred down to twenty-one. The majority seem to favour twenty-one. All of them derivative of Greece and all of them set in Athens. Roman rulers did not take kindly to theatrical productions and plays were performed on temporary stages. The work of Plautus would be used by Stephen Sondheim in his musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!”

The second Roman playwright was one Publius Terentius Afer. Known to history simply as Terence. He was born in Carthage in 190BC. Captured and taken as a slave to Rome. There his master made sure the boy was educated. Seeing that he undoubtedly had talent he was encouraged to write by his master. His first play was produced when he was nineteen. His master rewarded him with his freedom and allowed him to take the name by which he became famous. Sadly his life was cut short when he was drowned at sea on his way to Greece. An identical death to that of his hero and inspiration Menander. He was thirty-one. All his plays were Latin adaptations of the works of Menander. But this ensured his place in history and most theatrical histories place Menander and Terence as the main influences on early theatrical writing in Western Europe.

The first theatre in Rome was built by Pompey in about 55BC. The objections to theatre building were overcome by naming it the Temple of Venus. It just happened to have a stage and seating for thousands of people! Excavations on the site where it was built indicate that it was probably the largest theatre ever built.

 

TheatrePompey.png

However the two playwrights whose names we have were long gone by the time it was built.

For the average Roman theatre did not provide enough thrills. By the time the Republic had ended and Rome was ruled by an Emperor there was little evidence of any sort of dramatic writing, comedy or otherwise. The theatres would be used for acrobats, jugglers, mime shows but even they gave way in the end to the live show at the Coliseum. Here of course gladiatorial contests were fought to the death. With the coming of Christianity the shows in the Coliseum became even more gruesome. The Roman population never tired of the result “Lions Three Christians nil!

But all empires come to an end. That of the Roman Empire is put at around 476AD. After that the former empire was subject to fights and battles, treaties made, treaties broken. But it would be around 1400 years from Terence to the writing of the next comedy play anywhere.

END OF PART THE FIRST … PART THE SECOND COMING SOON!

 

                            STAY TUNED!

 

RICHARD THE THIRD – A study in music

web-richard-III-1-getty

With the possible exception of Henry the Eighth more has been written about Richard the Third than any other monarch. Works of scholarship and novels of dubious provenance abound. As with other aspects of culture in the fifteenth century little is known about what music may or may not have been played at court.

Ian Churchward and a friend were used to getting together in the small recording studio located in the basement of his house. They would try various songs and experiment with lyrics and melodies. One evening Ian was called up from the basement by his wife to watch a documentary about Richard the Third. This was the famous documentary about that amazing moment when the fallen hero of Bosworth became ‘The King in the Car Park.’ (A media invention of course but if nothing else it brought Richard III to the front pages!) Ian had always been interested in history but this programme awoke an interest that continues to this day. He decided the next song he wrote would be about Richard III. With his friend Mike (aka Lord Zarquon) a tune was developed, the lyrics honed into shape and the song recorded under the group name, ‘The Legendary Ten Seconds.’

The group presently consists of: Ian Churchward – Vocals and rhythm guitar

Rob Bright – Lead guitar

Lord Zaraquon – Keyboards

David Clifford – Bass guitar

Adrian Maxwell – Drums Thus was born the ‘House of York.’

Ian & Rob of The Legend 10 Secs at Torquay museum 2016

Ian and Rob of ‘The Legendary Ten Seconds’

Writing the lyrics is all very well but if you are going to write music representing the fifteenth century then it needs to have a certain mediaeval influence in its sound. The sound has that distinction and is hard to place. There are echoes of the Byrds intros and Ian’s own ideas that the Moody Blues have influenced him. It is a sixties style with a certain echo on the tracks. At times it seems as if some of the tracks were recorded in a large baronial hall with atmosphere oozing out of the stone walls! Ian has a distinctive voice and it is well suited to the material. I used to live in Newquay when I was stationed at RAF St Mawgan back in the late sixties and every so often we would join our friends at a folk club in Wadebridge (We knew how to live!) There the singers were rarely accompanied. Tending to have the head back, stare at the ceiling and sing with the occasional clapping of hands. Sounds odd but it was very effective. At times Ian’s voice takes me back to that folk club. With his band Ian has created a kind of medieval folk-rock sound that is perfectly bound to the lyrics. Apple Music describes it as ‘Alternative Folk.’ I am not a musician and certainly not a music expert but I know what I like! (Is anyone counting the clichés?) I think the one instrument that provides the background of the unique sound is the keyboard. I suspect the man on the keyboards has it set to its highest pitch so that it sounds like an ancient harpsichord or clavichord. I like it!

For the passing public Richard the Third means the Princes in the Tower, Bosworth Field and a car-park in Leicester; not necessarily in that order! And it was not helped by having the outstanding actor of his generation play the King in that brilliantly executed film, but total work of fiction by Mr Shakespeare’s son. The ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech is a brilliant piece of propaganda concentrating on the supposed deformity of Richard. It should be remembered that the Tudors had been in power for over one hundred years when Bill wrote his play. Ian’s song‘Shakespeare’s Richard’ by ‘The Legendary Ten Seconds’has some great lyrics about the play.

Court of King R 3

There was more to this monarch than all of the above. Through various tracks on a number of albums Ian paints a large canvas of the life and times of Richard Third. Subjects as diverse as ‘Lady Ann Neville’, ‘Middleham Castle on Christmas Eve,’ ’Lord Anthony Woodville,’ and ‘Ambion Hill’ fill in the background to the whole period of the life of Richard the Third.

I have only had time to sample a few of the songs but I do like ‘York City Fayre,’ and its companion piece, ‘Tewkesbury Medieval Fair.’ My favourite of those I have heard and the lyrics of others I have read is ‘White Surrey.’ The song features the final, fatal charge of Richard upon his White Surrey. The song builds nicely and I found it very evocative. There are four albums to choose from; ‘Loyaulty Me Lie’ (a motto used by Richard which translates as ‘Loyalty Binds Me.’) ‘Richard III,’ Tant le Desiree (Which translates as ‘I have longed for it so much.’ A line found written in one of the books owned by Richard.) Tant le Desiree also has narrative introductions to the tracks which provides the listener with the setting for that particular song. The most recent and fourth album is called ‘Sunnes and Roses.’ The latter about the period rather than the main character. All are available on Amazon and iTunes.

SUNNES & ROSES front cover

 

Here are three links to whet your appetite:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bdp5-XAmSrc – Shakespeare’s Richard https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0D-h3CFeq4I – White Surrey https://www.amazon.co.uk/Loyaulté-Lie-Legendary-Ten-Seconds/dp/B00H7SF3UU Loyalty me lie

Ian Churchward donates a percentage of his sales to a scoliosis charity called S.A.U.K. Scoliosis being the curvature of the spine from which Richard suffered. Well done to Ian!

To undertake a project in music with such a specialist subject was a brave decision. While the Richard III Society continues to challenge and discuss the many ‘fake news’ stories about Richard there are other historians who take a different view. The story has been running for over five hundred years and it is no doubt good for another five hundred! The Legendary Ten Seconds have set these stories to music and have presented a brilliant evocation of the last years of Plantagenet England in a unique and delightful way. Have a listen?

Rod Pickles

P.S Perhaps I should reveal I was born in Yorkshire where the White Rose blooms!

P.P.S I would like to have given readers the chance to listen to some of the music but this edition of WordPress does not allow me to embed music links. Now if I get another one hundred thousand readers and carry adverts I can upgrade then who knows. We could show videos!

 

 SATURDAY NIGHT

AT THE MOVIES

          (and the occasional Friday?)

Movies, films, pictures, flicks; what is in a name? The first film I can remember anything about is the ‘Red Shoes.’ My parents took me along when I was only three! The one scene that I can remember is the one where Moira Shearer (as I found out later) falls in front of an oncoming train. Not good viewing for a three year old! Thinking about it that is probably my earliest memory of anything. Other films from my early days staying with my grandma in Bradford include ‘Quo Vadis’ (1951) and ‘The Robe.’(1953) Both epics of the Roman Empire during the rise of Christianity. The Robe was the first film to be shown in glorious Cinemascope and starred Richard Burton in one of his first Hollywood roles. Both films seen at the Odeon.

The red shoes HD 001

My next movie memory is Saturday Morning Pictures at the Regal Cinema in Salisbury. For about six old pennies you could spend the Saturday morning watching a couple of ‘Shorts’ as they were known. A shortened Pathe newsreel, the B picture and then the A movie, usually a Western. Sometimes the western was a running serial so if you had missed the previous week then you had no idea what was going on!

The amazing thing about all this was our behaviour. Yes it was a bit noisy but there was never any trouble, As the lights came up at the end we all trooped out without any bother. Not sure who I went with but I remember using my season ticket on the bus from Old Sarum where we lived. Happy days!

So what was your first film?

We go back to the mid 1890s to find out where it all began. Thomas Edison invented the first movie camera in the hope that it would boost sales of his phonograph. He had hoped to match sound to the pictures but could not find the solution. Although the French would claim otherwise and say that in 1888 Loius le Prince recorded the first true film.

Early films were around a minute long. Still the process had begun. Celluloid film had been invented a few years earlier and the technology waited for the next inventor to come along.

D W Griffiths was one of those. By 1910 the films were longer, credits for actors started appearing, panning shots, close ups but still no sound. Movie theatres started to appear under the name ‘Nickleodeon.’ In time they of course dropped the Nickle? The movie industry had begun.

From Old Sarum my Mum and I departed Southampton on the SS Empire Orwell bound for Singapore. No films on board ship as we sailed for 31 days out to the Far East. My Dad was waiting for us to disembark and then it was an RAF coach to the railway station. The journey to Prai in northern Malaya would take 24 hours. My Dad had a sten-gun packed in his case as we would be travelling through terrorist occupied areas and they had been known to block the line while they attacked the trains. Exciting or what!? We were heading for Penang. I think we arrived in our accommodation some 35 days after we left our prefab at RAF Old Sarum. We spent about a year on the island. The Rex cinema was our favourite place, next to Batu Ferringhi beach! The Man from Laramie with James Stewart is a film I remember from that time. Saw it again recently and to be honest it was dire! Another of those westerns where all the characters look as though they have just stepped out of the shower, had their hair done while they wore their freshly laundered clothes! Davy Crockett was another one we saw. Best remembered for the song I guess. Two war films pass through my memory: ‘Strategic Air Command’another Jimmy Stewart film, but an improvement on the earlier one. The other is a film that my Dad would describe as having ‘bags of action’ a phrase my family know well! To Hell and Back’ starred Audie Murphy as himself and related the story of his war. Murphy despite his diminutive size was an exceptional soldier. In 1945 when the rest of his comrades had retreated he single-handedly held off a whole company of German soldiers until reinforcements arrived. He was wounded but survived and was awarded the Medal of Honour. Murphy won just about every medal going and was one of the most decorated soldiers of WWII.

From Penang we moved to the mainland and a very nice bungalow at RAF Butterworth. Like all large RAF stations around the world there was an Astra Cinema just a short walk from our bungalow. The beach at Butterworth was not that good but the swimming pool made up for it! To think my parents put me through this terrible childhood! The Astra held Saturday Morning pictures only this time the Pathe News was watched a little more closely as it let us know what was happening back home in the UK. Film over it was a stroll to the swimming pool, lunch, and then in the pool until the sun went down! Which was usually around 6:30. The Ten Commandments, High Society, The Dambusters, and The Searchers I can remember seeing at the Astra with my parents.

Time to head home on a three day flight! (Night stops in Karachi and Baghdad!)          Such, such were the joys!

My Dad was posted to RAF Watton in Norfolk but Mum and I stayed behind in Bradford waiting for accommodation to become available. He came home for weekends. I remember one film he took me to at the Victoria Cinema, Pork Chop Hill starring Gregory Peck. A film about the war in Korea and of course ‘bags of action!’ I went with my Mum to see Anastasia at the Essoldo cinema. They don’t name them like that anymore!?

So to Norfolk, where the news that I had lived in Malaya and survived the experience was met with amazement from my new classmates. Their idea of adventure was a bus ride to Norwich!

Watton yielded another Regal cinema. Like the Essoldo mentioned earlier sadly demolished some years go.Films I remember include Bernadine starring Pat Boone. Mum and Dad were big fans and surprise, surprise Pat sang a song called Bernadine! A Night to Remember and The Vikings are two that come to mind. On a trip back to Bradford I returned to the Essoldo with my Aunty May to see Ice Cold in Alex. Certainly a better class of war film.

Autumn 1958 saw us heading back to Yorkshire and an umpteenth change of school! We lived in Acomb and my Dad was stationed at Rufforth just up the road. To digress slightly. Rufforth was where I saw my first motor race. The British Racing and Sports Car Club used the perimeter track of the old airfield as a racing circuit. My first view of a D- Type Jag and an Aston Martin neck and neck approaching a bend. Magic! Meanwhile back at the Regent in Acomb. My Dad was on detachment in Aden so Mum and I went along to the Regent Cinema to see Frankie Vaughan in The Heart of a Man. Mum was a fan!

Time to head to the Far East once more! This time it only took twenty-four hours, stopping for fuel at Istanbul and Bombay. My Dad had been posted to Seletar in Singapore so it was just a coach ride to a hostel and then to our bungalow the next day. RAF Seletar was the largest RAF station in the world. It had a nine hole golf course, a floodlit football pitch, an Olympic size swimming pool and best of all, TWO yes TWO Astra cinemas! Sink the Bismarck, Reach for the Sky, Some Like it Hot, Rio Bravo were all seen at either the East Camp Astra or the West Camp Astra. Downtown at the brand new all-happening Lux cinema there was, Ben Hur, North to Alaska, Psycho, Elmer Gantry, The Apartment, Spartacus and many, many more!

So those are my early memories. Going to the cinema was something of a habit in the fifties and sixties. Not so much now as the prices of admission seem to go up every other week! Gone are the days of the one and nines and a fish and four on the way home! And of course films are not just shown at a cinema anymore. Still the collective experience of watching a good film in the company of a hundred or more people is one to be enjoyed?

Time to head for the lists and put my films on the table!

So let us take a peek through each genre and see what I think and you can then shout at the screen or nod in agreement? Do we have a deal?

Comedy may seem a funny place to start but at least we begin with a groan!

In ascending order then here are my top five comedy films:

5.Good Morning Vietnam – Robin Williams (Sometimes classified as a war film but I put in the comedy section!)
4.The Italian Job – Michael Caine
3.The Producers       – Zero Mostel
2.Some Like It Hot – Marilyn Monroe
1.My Favourite Year – Peter O’Toole

There are so many funny films out there but I think ‘My Favourite Year’ has to be top of my list. ‘Some Like it Hot’ runs it close but My Favourite Year features a tour-de-force performance by Peter O’Toole. The film is set in the year 1954 and O’Toole plays the part of Alan Swann. Television is still in its infancy and Alan Swann a famous actor is in town to be interviewed. He is a notorious drunk and the shows producer does not want him interviewed. He is persuaded to go ahead by a young up and coming comedy writer on the understanding that he will babysit Swann. Cue chaos! Mel Brooks was executive producer and of course was also responsible for ‘The Producers.’

The film contains one of my favourite lines: Swann enters the Ladies Toilet by mistake:

Attendant: ‘This is for ladies!’

Swann: (Sound of zip being undone) ‘ So is this ma’am but every now and then I have to run a little water through it!’

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And of course ‘Some Like it Hot ‘ contains one of the best last lines in film history. Jack Lemmon still dressed as a woman informs his enamoured would-be lover that he is a man.

Would-be lover replies: ‘Nobody’s Perfect!’

In ascending order my top five war films:

5. Das Boot   – Jurgen Prochnow
4. Paths of Glory – Kirk Douglas
3. The Bridge at Remagen – George Segal
2. Catch -22 – Alan Arkin
1.Saving Private Ryan – Tom Hanks

‘Saving Private Ryan’ contains an outstanding performance by Tom Hanks. For its first twenty minutes alone it would be the best war film. In content it is beaten only by the TV series ‘Band of Brothers.’ In both productions Steven Spielberg cannot resist an anti-British dig but I will forgive him given the outstanding nature of both productions. Catch-22 could easily be in the list of best comedies but it is an anti-war film. To adapt such a complex novel took some doing and I have to say it is one of the best adaptations of any novel in the history of cinema. It is not better than the book but it certainly matches it. The portrayal of utter lunacy and total disintegration of human relations is brilliantly portrayed. In Alan Arkin they found the right actor to portray John Yossarian. My favourite line of all time comes from Yossarian in Catch-22:

‘I am going to live forever or die in the attempt!’

In ascending order my top five western films:

5.The Magnificent Seven – Yul Brinner
4.The Unforgiven   –           Clint Eastwood
3.Rio Bravo       –               John Wayne
2.High Noon   –                 Gary Cooper
1.The Searchers   –             John Wayne

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‘The Searchers’ has been my favourite western for some time. This, despite it being another ‘clean’ western. For once the plot overrides such concerns. The tale of a young girl captured by Indians was not fanciful and occurred more often than you would think out there in the Wild West! John Wayne leads the search party across a good few years to find his niece and bring her home. The final shot of the film through the doorway of the ranch house out into a sunlit Monument Valley is one of the most evocative in cinema history.

During the film Ethan (John Wayne) is asked if he wants to quit. He replies, ‘That’ll be the day.’ Deep in the heart of Texas one Charles Hardin Holley watched the film. On hearing the above quote he says to himself, ‘ I can do something with that.’ And the rest as they say is in the charts!

In ascending order my top five drama films:

 5.Shawshank Redemption
4.Godfather Part II
3.The Third Man
2.Casablanca
1.Citizen Kane

Difficult to classify some films. Citizen Kane is a dramatic film and so is The Shawshank Redemption but is the latter a crime film? Likewise the Godfather. Still and all it seems a reasonable place to park them.

Orson Welles did just about everything on Citizen Kane. He wrote, directed, produced, edited, acted and probably did everything else bar make the coffee! It is a tale of overweening ambition, Shakespearean in its concept. Welles is brilliant in the production ably assisted by Joseph Cotton. And of course there is the famous ending as we finally discover the meaning of why the character Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, utters the word, ‘Rosebud.’

Welles gives another tour-de-force performance in ‘The Third Man.’ For once all Welles did was act. Carol Reed directed a screenplay written by Graham Greene. The camera work was so good it won a Oscar for cinematography. The film music played by Anton Karas on the zither was infectious and is instantly recognisable.

Undoubtedly one of the great figures of movie history I find it sad that Orson Welles ended his career advertising alcohol. I guess he spent his film life chasing money so having it come easy was a no brainer?

And a word for ‘Casablanca.’ A very thin plot, dodgy scenery, but brilliant over the top performances by all concerned. And so many quotes:

‘What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

My health, I came to Casablanca for the waters.

The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

...I was misinformed.’

‘Round up the usual suspects!’

.and of course the most famous mis-quote, ‘Play it again Sam!’

..and one quote that has a special place in my heart, ‘We will always have Paris.’

In ascending order my top five musical films:

5.The King and I
4.My Fair Lady
3.Cabaret
2.Camelot
1.South Pacific

South Pacific contains the best playlist of any musical. The songs are some of the best ever written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This Nearly Was Mine is as close to perfection as any writer of a musical could get. You have probably gathered that I don’t rate any musical post 1970! I have seen ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’ three times and think it is brilliant. Likewise ‘Mamma Mia’ which I have seen twice. But they are Rock and Roll shows not musicals in the true sense of the word. Ditto ‘The Jersey Boys.’ Camelot has a special place in my memory. Nina and I saw the stage show when we were in London for our honeymoon. Cabaret contains a brilliant performance by Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. Musicals are best seen on the stage and with Cabaret the stage intensifies the claustrophobia of the Kit Kat club and underwrites the serious aspect of the musical. And it is great to see ‘Money’ performed live.

In ascending order my top five Adventure/Epic films

5.Master and Commander
4.The Name of the Rose
3.The African Queen
2.Dr Zhivago
1.Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia introduced Peter O’Toole to the greater viewing public. Much debate as to whether it is David Lean’s best film. I think so. It is filmed on an epic scale and Omar Sharif was another new face who gave a masterful performance. The film had a stellar cast that included Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins and Jose Ferrer.

The opening scene, which starts with a shimmering dot on the far horizon is one of the best in movie history. Maurice Jarre, always Lean’s go-to composer ,provided a stirring sound track. The recent Directors Cut restores missing scenes and gives credit to one of the original screenwriters Michael Wilson. Omar Sharif would take the starring role in another Lean epic, Doctor Zhivago, some years later. The snow-laden Russian steppes provide a shimmering background for certain scenes in this film. Once again Maurice Jarre was the composer of the film score. Lara’s Theme being its most memorable tune. The film gave international stardom to Tom Courtney in the role of Pasha Antipov.

The African Queen is the best film two-hander you will ever see. Bogart and Hepburn light up the screen and it is a film I can watch time and again. Master and Commander stars Russell Crowe and I think it is his best film. The Name of the Rose stars a very different Sean Connery and young Christian Bale. The producer and the author of the book did not want Connery originally. Umberto Eco left the project in dismay and Columbia Pictures withdrew their funding. Jean-Jaques Annaud eventually invited Connery for a reading. He stopped him at the third page when he realised he was perfect for the role. And indeed he was. Far and away his best film.

There are other genres but horror films have never taken my money. I have seen the occasional Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones films in the company of family and friends but they are just passing entertainment. The latest fad for Iron Man, Spider Man, Superman, Batman and every other man leave me unmoved.

And so shuffling the cans of film and assessing my options here is a list of my ten favourite films.

In ascending order:

10.Some Like it Hot
9.Paths of Glory
8.Catch 22
7.The Third Man
6.Saving Private Ryan
5.My Favourite Year
4.Casablanca
3.The Searchers
2.Lawrence of Arabia

Favourite – Citizen Kane

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                                   Orson Welles as the young Charles Foster Kane

 Your list may bear no resemblance whatsoever to mine! Feel free to add your favourite films in the comments section?

I have mentioned most of the films above bar a couple. Paths of Glory is a WWI story of the French Army. Kirk Douglas at his dimpled best plays an officer tasked with defending four soldiers who have been charged with cowardice having refused to be part of a suicidal attack on a German position. It was based on a true story and needless to say was not welcomed in France. Released in 1957 French citizens finally saw the film in 1975.

And there you have it. Feel free to comment it would be good to hear your views. Thanks for reading.                    

                    THE END

Rod Pickles
August 2017

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