Saturday, 30 December 2017

Eric, Ernie and Me by Neil Forsyth & Morecambe and Wise's Home Movies

Another Christmas, another Morecambe and Wise drama and/or documentary ...

The formative years of the duo having been covered already in Peter Bowker's 2011 offering Eric and Ernie, this year's drama Eric, Ernie and Me, by Neil Forsyth, moves on a decade or so and shifts the focus to Eddie Braben, the writer who gave Ernie the rather pompous and prissy Victorian-type character who helped boost the duo to their greatest television success.

For those who have read Braben's The Book What I Wrote - or, indeed, just about any of the biographies - there aren't too many surprises, but this hour-long drama doesn't outstay its welcome, and it's good to see a writer being placed centrestage for once. We see his struggles to come up with fresh ideas, although we're not really shown where those ideas came from in the first place, nor what turned Braben into a writer. But it's instructive, nevertheless, to see the kind of agony he went through with responsibility for the show's success being placed so firmly on his shoulders. A gift handed to Forsyth is the fact that Braben drew a TV screen on the wall and imagined watching Eric and Ernie in the next show; thankfully, most of the time, ideas came.

Stephen Tompkinson was very good as Braben, and seemed to have a look of him, though the actor playing Ernie looked rather more pugnacious - to me, anyway - than the man dubbed "Lillywhite" by his partner. True, Ernie had a reputation for being hardheaded in business, but I suspect he went about it with more surface charm than we saw here.

That said, it was good to see a drama which, while it may have simplified elements of the story, was noticeably less sentimental than Peter Bowker's piece. Morecambe's reluctance, in one scene, to cut the beseiged Braben any slack may not have shown the performer in a particularly kindly light but the fear which Eric then voiced about the need to stay on top, the recurrent dread of sinking back down, made clear that all three members of that creative partnership were under pressure.

And although this drama wasn't, strictly speaking, a sequel to Peter Bowker's Eric and Ernie, such a moment undoubtedly has more significance if you are familiar with the earlier work: Morecambe and Wise's initial venture into television was a crushing, morale-sapping humiliation which never left Eric Morecambe, who carried a famously damning (but annoyingly witty) newspaper cutting around in his wallet ever after - something significant enough to merit mention in both dramatisations. Having lost their ATV writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills, and fearing the worst, Morecambe must have been terrified of losing the minor miracle which Eddie Braben represented.

In the joint autobiography by Morecambe and Wise, when asked about their previous writers the pair say something like: "We have the greatest respect for Sid and Dick. As writers" - the implication being that they behaved rather shoddily as people, assuming Morecambe to have been written off after his first heart attack. Nevertheless, it ought be pointed out that the sketch deemed Morecambe and Wise's finest was, in effect, created by them and refined by Braben, something which this dramatisation did not have time to mention - though I noted in today's Times that a correction was issued for attributing the famous "all the right notes" payoff to Braben rather than Sid and Dick.

 The other M&W programme broadcast last night was essentially an attempt to make bricks out of straw as we watched the remaining Morecambes and a few others watching Eric's home movies, buttressed by sentimental music, just in case viewers weren't getting the same emotional charge from the scraps on offer. Stan Stennett, present at Eric's death, filmed Morecambe and Wise in Babes in the Wood, their first professional appearance on film, although this grisly coincidence was not mentioned (nor, now I come to think of it, was there any explanation given for the absence of Doreen Wise from proceedings. Had she been invited to take part?). We didn't see enough in the brief - and silent - panto clips to get any sense of their act, but the women who played the Babes all those years ago were tracked down and wheeled on to react to this unexpected sighting of their younger selves.

Alright, it's Christmas, so one ought to be indulgent, and of course it's right and fitting to be reminded of these great men at this time of year, but I'd caution that this particular foray may demand rather more indulgence than most. After the exemplary 2013 documentary series The Perfect Morecambe and Wise perhaps there simply isn't much more to say about them (and I'm not saying that just because Tony Hannan, copublisher of the book what I wrote with Freddie Davies, was a major contributor).

But quite apart from the calculated sentimentality of reuniting two minor players in Morecambe and Wise's story and filming their reacting to old footage in the theatre where they once performed a genuine air of melancholy hung, unremarked, over the proceedings, especially as we moved from fleeting images of the young Joan Morecambe to the frail-looking elderly widow.

Over the years there have been many documentaries about Morecambe and Wise and other comedians of their era, and for students of such things the sight of the participants' steadily ageing provides an additional, Hardyesque, narrative of its own - and no, I don't mean Oliver on this occasion. In recent years, or so it seems to me, background music has been more prevalent in such documentaries - often at odds with the rhythms of dialogue spoken in archive film or TV clips of the comics - and staged reunions, as in the ... Forever series (Rising Damp Forever etc) seem to have become the norm.

The use of background music seems to suggest the programme makers don't quite trust their product to have the requisite effect on us without such sweetening, and - to me, anyway - most of those reunions seem awkward, a cheap way of providing a phoney climactic moment, with the participants gamely trying to rise to the occasion, but perhaps these days - not only because it happens to be Christmas but also because so much time has elapsed since the heyday of stars such as Morecambe and Wise - one should simply submit to these things, treating the music as a welcome distraction from that story of time passing which might be a little too much to bear confronted head on.

And as for those engineered reunions - well, let's cheer them as evidence of survival: some stars may no longer be with us but some are, and so are we - for the moment. Happy New Year, everybody!

Other blog posts about Morecambe and Wise:

Review of Eric and Ernie by Peter Bowker

Morecambe, Wise and Nathan

Review of Little Ern!, a biography of Ernie Wise

The book what I wrote with Freddie "Parrotface" Davies

The book by William Cook (interviewed in Morecambe and Wise's Home Movies), which is mentioned in the Morecambe, Wise and Nathan post includes a chapter of reminiscences by Freddie Davies.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

All-New* 2017 Christmas Quiz

Welome to the All-New 2017 Pismotality Christmas Quiz. (*May include traces of questions from earlier years.)

Spare the Rod (1961 film with Max Bygraves)

Directed by Leslie (father of Barry) Norman, who produced The Cruel Sea, and starring Max Bygraves as an idealistic teacher, the young Richard O'Sullivan as a pupil, plus Geoffrey Keen and Donald Pleasance, this is a film to slot in with Violent Playground and other late fifties/early
sixties British films which illuminate the times.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

In praise of Rock & Roll Graffiti (1999)

If, like me, you've been tantalised by the many clips on youtube of a TV show entitled Rock & Roll Graffiti, the good news is that most of that show, hitherto available only as an expensive DVD box set, can now be obtained on two reasonably priced 3 disc sets; I'm based in the UK and bought them from America for around £14 each. These are the covers to look for:

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A.A. Milne Part 3 (Lovers in London)

Possibly anticipating renewed interest in his work with the release of the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, Bello Books have recently reissued a range of titles by A.A. Milne, available as ebooks or print on demand copies.

For those already acquainted with his writing for adults, the most intriguing among these will undoubtedly be Lovers in London. A collection of pieces originally written for the St James Gazette, one of the many evening papers hungry for material when the likes of Milne and P.G. Wodehouse were starting out in the early 1900s, it didn't have much success when originally published in 1905. Milne later took pains to ensure it wouldn't resurface, so it's no surprise to discover that it's not exactly a masterpiece, but its reappearance after over a century is still worth celebrating.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

A.A. Milne Part 2 (Goodbye Christopher Robin)

I have now seen Goodbye Christopher Robin, the new film exploring the relationship between A.A. Milne and his son. As mentioned in the previous post, the screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce has preempted criticism from those who might have read Ann Thwaite's biography of Milne:

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

A.A. Milne Part 1

There is likely to be a renewal of interest in A.A. Milne when the film Goodbye Christopher Robin is released this Friday. Neglected novels and short story collections have already been reissued by Bello and a new biography is in the pipeline, although I can't imagine how this could possibly replace Ann Thwaite's superb and comprehensive A.A. Milne: A Life. (The forthcoming book, by Nadia Cohen, was credited as the source of a rather skewed piece about Milne in the Sun a few days ago, which does not inspire confidence.)

Monday, 25 September 2017

Radio adaptation of That'll Be The Day on BBC iplayer

A radio adaptation by Ray Connolly of his screenplay for the 70s film That'll Be the Day has just been broadcast and will be available - to US and UK listeners alike - on BBC Radio iplayer for one month. Above is the image used to illustrate it on the BBC website.

As would be expected from the original writer it's a pretty faithful adaptation, although the different medium does bring about a change in emphasis: with Jim as narrator, the reasons for his actions can be made more explicit. He talks, for example, of detecting a sense of triumph in his best mate Terry when the latter occasions Jim's humiliation at a university dance, which helps explain Jim's later decision to sleep with Terry's girlfriend on the eve of his own wedding - though he also admits he did it partly because he could.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

No No Place Like Home, no Peep Show (sort of)

Listening to the first episode of Robert Webb's memoir How Not to Be a Boy, serialised this week on Radio 4, I was surprised to hear a reference to No Place Like Home. Of all the sitcoms in all the world this was the one which inspired him to become a performer - or at least set the seal on his decision.

Not that he offers an unqualified tribute to the writing ability of Jon Watkins. Watching an episode of the show in the afterglow of his own comic triumph in a school play, the young Webb is far from uncritical:

Monday, 21 August 2017

Tommy Hunt on Spencer Leigh's On the Beat, BBC Radio Merseyside

Have just heard, and strongly recommend, a fascinating interview with Tommy Hunt, one of the two last surviving members of the Flamingos from their glory days, on  Spencer Leigh's ever-dependable On the Beat programme on BBC Radio Merseyside. It was broadcast yesterday and will be available on BBC iplayer for another 29 days; it's radio rather than television so I believe US readers can also access it; the iplayer page is here.

As ever, Spencer's wide-ranging musical knowledge helps him draw the best out of his subject, a man who is an important part of several strands of music history - and, remarkably, still performing at the age of 84. He will be appearing at London's 100 Club in October.

 He was born, we learnt, in a carnival tent in Pittsburgh - his father was a jazz drummer - but he is now living in Pontefract in Yorkshire, of all places, having fallen in love with a woman at a theatre in Wakefield. The marriage has not survived but he is still there - a perfect location for a Northern Soul legend.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Bill Putnam and Universal Recording

One significant name was left out of the recent series of posts about the Flamingos' early work: Bill Putman, who ran Universal Recording. The technical quality of the Flamingos' Chance and Parrot sides reflects the fact that both companies used Putnam's studio at 111 East Ontario Street, situated off Michigan Avenue. He would have engineered their tracks, although presumably label bosses Art Sheridan and Al Benson would have been the respective producers. Johnny Keyes' memoir Du-Wop places Putnam in the studio when the Magnificents were recording Up On the Mountain early in 1956:

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Flamingos # 17: Get With It & I Found a New Baby

The Flamingos had a larger backing band than usual for two numbers in their final session for Al Benson's Parrot Records. The website devoted to the Parrot and Blue Lake labels notes:
They had been recently performing with Paul Bascomb's group at Martin's Corner on the West Side, but Al Benson preferred to use a studio band led by Al Smith on the date. A four-horn front line (Sonny Cohn, trumpet; Booby Floyd, trombone; Eddie Chamblee, tenor saxophone; and Mac Easton, baritone sax) lent a big-band atmosphere to the two uptempo numbers: "I Found a New Baby," which was held back from release, and "Get with It."

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Flamingos # 16: I'm Yours & Ko Ko Mo

[Marv Goldberg]

The Flamingos' second (and final) session for Parrot also yielded some notable sides. The pick of the bunch is the ballad I'm Yours, even though it was only a B side for their cover of Gene and Eunice's Ko Ko Mo.

Flamingos # 15: I Really Don't Want to Know

Some time ago in this very blog I dared to suggest that Robert Pruter's assessment of the remaining song from their first Parrot session was mistaken. Mr Pruter had claimed that the arrangement on the country song I Really Don't Want to Know "drags and sounds confused" - but now I'm inclined to think he may be right.

Flamingos # 14: If I Could Love You

"Swoonsome" is the term which springs to mind for the opening of If I Could Love You, though not in the teen idol sense. Right from the start the combination of guitar (Lefty Bates) and sax make this little number too darned sensual ever to cross over: if there wasn't an "exotic dancer" present in the studio, those boys must have had awfully good imaginations.

Flamingos # 13: On My Merry Way

On My Merry Way was also recorded at the Flamingos' first session for Parrot. Robert Pruter describes it as  "a routine jump written by the ubiquitous Chicago nightclub entertainer Walter Spriggs." There is certainly no crossover potential here: it is as far removed, in subject matter and feel, from Dream of a Lifetime as you could get. After a token attempt at reasoned argument -
I want you by my side
Hey-ey, can't we compromise?
- the song lurches into another area entirely. Imagine Pat Boone trying to wrap his tonsils around lines such as these:

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Flamingos # 12: Dream of a Lifetime

There was no dramatic change to the Flamingos' sound when they switched their allegiance from Chance to nearby Parrot Records. Nate Nelson had not yet joined the group; that awkward jobshare which would ultimately force McElroy out was some months in the future.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Flamingos # 11: Listen to My Plea

Listen to My Plea was one of the last sides the Flamingos recorded for Chance. An earlier attempt at the song during their Christmas Eve session in 1953 must have been deemed unsatisfactory as they remade it the following year. The website devoted to the label states:

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Flamingos # 10: September Song

September Song was well on the way to becoming a standard by the time the Flamingos recorded it in 1953. Written for the 1938 Broadway  musical Knickerbocker Holiday, its fame had recently been boosted by inclusion in the film September Affair (above) although many singers including Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine had already tackled the number in the forties.

It's hard to single out a version which might have served as a particular inspiration for the group. The Ravens' 1948 attempt might seem a likely suspect, given that Robert Pruter has accused them of imitating the Ravens on another occasion, but Sollie McElroy brings more passion to the lyrics than Maithe Marshall's rather dreamy caressing of them, beautiful as that is.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Flamingos # 9: Blues in a Letter & Jump Children

The Flamingos' penultimate session for Chance took place on Christmas Eve 1953 and consisted of four sides: Blues in a Letter, September Song, Jump Children (aka Vooit Vooit) and Listen to My Plea.

The first, "a stone solid blues", is primarily a vehicle for Johnny Carter, as the rest of the group don't have much to do beyond the requisite early 50s R&B vocal group moaning; unlike the similar Plan For Love there is no attempt by Sollie McElroy - or, indeed, Carter himself - to embellish the song with falsetto.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Flamingos # 8: Hurry Home Baby

Hurry Home Baby is the only song from the Flamingos' first session yet to be discussed in this series, although Robert Pruter's succinct dismissal has already been quoted:
... an imitation Ravens number that made nobody forget about the Ravens.

Flamingos # 7: You Ain't Ready

Guitarist Lefty Bates can be heard to good effect on You Ain't Ready, another side from the same August 1953 session as Plan For Love. He may not get a solo, but after the whole band have set up the song he can be heard momentarily on his own before Sollie McElroy's vocal, and later his playing under Red Holloway's exuberant saxophone solo gives it even more bounce and interest; small wonder, according to his own testimony, that everyone wanted him on their sessions.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Flamingos # 6: Plan For Love

Plan For Love is an interesting performance in the context of the Flamingos' other work at this time, although it's not hard to see why this bluesy number wasn't a success when released.

Recorded around August 1953 it is, unusually, a Johnny Carter lead. It's also distinctive because two falsettos are heard during much of the song. Sollie McElroy's is the main one, I believe, with Carter joining him as other duties permit. It's an interesting and unusual effect, although the combination of the two voices is less pleasing,  to my ears, than Carter's solo decoration on so many other sides.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Flamingos # 5: Someday, Someway

As pulpit denunciations of faithless lovers go, Someday, Someway is rather lighthearted, which suggests that Sollie McElroy is buoyed up by the thought that retribution must surely follow:

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Flamingos # 4: If I Can't Have You

If I Can't Have You was recorded by the Flamingos in 1953 and reworked three years later, during their stint at Chess Records. The arrangements on the two versions provide compelling evidence of that musical sea change mentioned earlier: