Excellent Women – Barbara Pym (1952)

 

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Barbara Pym was one of the British writers featured in Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors”. I would dispute that she is forgotten. Admittedly, there was a time in the 60s and 70s when she faded from view but she has been reinstated in latter years (she died in 1980) and her gentle, observational novels are held in high esteem and read and re-read by devoted fans. The publishing house Virago have made sure today’s readership would not have to struggle to find her work.

I’d never read her before and had sort of put her in my mind as a missing link between Jane Austen and Victoria Wood. It’s not quite as spot on as that but it’s not too wide of the mark, with the small-scale world she creates pushing her closer towards a more modern-day Austen.

She depicts a fairly drab London “very much the “wrong” side of Victoria Station” in the post-war years which still has a village mentality but with its occupants faded into accepting their shabby environment. Everyone feels slightly down on their luck. It’s a world of stewed tea, washing hung up indoors to dry, shared bathrooms combined with the less urban aspect of jumble sales, knowing everyone’s business and with the vicar as the central figure of the community.

Mildred Lathbury is one of Reverend Julian Malory’s “excellent women”, someone who everyone “respects and esteems” but who is not destined for much excitement, passion or unpredictability. She is deemed such by everyone including her more dynamic new neighbour Rockingham Napier with his military background which seems largely to have been chatting up WRENS in Italy and his wife’s friend and fellow anthropologist Everard Bone (I’m not sure if Pym is being racy with a double entendre here). Mildred seems interested in all of these men but cannot move beyond casual acquaintance or friendship.

That’s largely the plot, but let’s agree it’s unlikely that many readers would read Barbara Pym for her plotlines. It is the close observations which enrich her writing. It’s an understated world which focuses in on small absurdities. Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction states that this is not laugh out loud comic writing but is likely to result in many wry smiles. Like Victoria Wood, who I had imagined Pym to be closer to be than she actually is, the humour is in the ordinariness of everyday life. Being caught up in an emotional scene whilst holding a teapot or having two ping pong bats in one’s grasp or with a baguette and a biography of Cardinal Newman poking out of a shopping bag is as riotous as it gets for these characters.

In a world where so much is brash Barbara Pym is a perfect antidote which should ensure a continued growth in reputation and I did enjoy my first experience of her work. I do think that as a reader I respond better to bigger issues and greater depth than evidenced here. This was her second novel and is usually up there amongst readers’ favourites. She spent almost a couple of decades not being able to find her place in the publishing world but she returned with the Booker shortlisted “Quartet In Autumn” in 1977, since then she has become an inspiration for many other (especially) British writers. I think I might have been expecting a little more as a result of this, the lightness of touch was a little surprising to me. I could almost say she was frothy but it would be a pretty down-at-heel frothiness, whipped tinned evaporated milk rather than whipped double cream would be more fitting for the world Barbara Pym’s characters inhabit.

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Excellent Women was published in 1952. I read a 2013 Virago paperback edition.

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Do I Love You? -Paul McDonald (Tindal Street Press 2008)

 
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Tindal Street Press were an independent publishing house based at the delightful address of the The Custard Factory, Birmingham, with the remit initially of publishing local writers.  In the first decade of the Millennium they defied expectations by regularly getting their authors shortlisted for book awards.  Perhaps their most notable publication (especially for me who placed it in my Top 5 reads of 2014) was the 2007 “What Was Lost” by Catherine O’Flynn.

 In 2012 the company was purchased by Profile Books and sadly the three titles from Paul McDonald are no longer in print.  According to Amazon, McDonald is a course leader on Writing at Wolverhampton University who specialises in humour, and this is certainly evident in this novel.

 Minty is a 40 year old lollipop man whose life is thrown into further disarray when a television advert for Kentucky Fried Chicken rekindles his youthful interest in Northern Soul.  His  wife Hazel, a health visitor, is battling with her compulsions to weigh things and constantly look up words in the dictionary as well as coping with her liability of a husband and Kurt Cobain loving teen, Nigel, trading in drugs to boost his reputation.  A lot of humour is based on this generation clash and cultural references abound which might have dated this but actually hasn’t.  The title refers to perhaps the rarest of all the tracks which became big on the Northern Soul scene by Motown artist/producer Frank Wilson “Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do)” which is the song which provides the catalyst for the comic unravelling of the family.

 This is dark comedy with situations that should not be at all funny but occasionally are but where McDonald hits home is his incorporation of music, both the beloved Northern Soul of Minty and his friends’ youth and his son’s grunge tunes into the narrative in a very successful way.  Anyone who was into the quirky Wigan Casino centred scene of the 1970’s would get a lot from this affectionate view of rare records and grown men trying to relive their youth.  Another great strength is the characterisation who despite some pretty awful mishaps of their own doing manage to remain likeable.

 I read this quickly and enthusiastically and would certainly seek out another of McDonald’s titles the Crossroads referencing “Kiss Me Softly Amy Turtle”.  For me the humour here did not always hit home but that did not mar my enjoyment of this title.

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Do I Love You? was published by Tindal Street Press in 2008 and no longer seems to be currently in print.  Used copies can be purchased at a very worthwhile price on Amazon.

Funny Way To Be A Hero – John Fisher (2013) – A Real Life Review

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I think we readers can always appreciate a book which has become lifeblood for its author. Although this writer and television producer has gone on to write other works, which have largely spun off from this title this will always be his special project and his feelings for this work and the individuals who provided the reason for the work are only too apparent.

It was first published in 1973 as a record of Fisher’s heroes from the world of comedy and variety, the latter still then playing a part of the entertainment industry of the day, but nowhere near as prevalent as it had been in decades past. This is the 40th anniversary edition of the book, which has been reworked and added to with lucid and involving afterthoughts at the end of most chapters. The big difference here is that 40 years on most of the artists accorded their own chapter had died and since publication of this edition six years ago they have all departed, the last survivor being Ken Dodd who left us last year. Of those mentioned in passing I think only a couple of the young pretenders Jimmy Tarbuck and Roy Hudd remain. This makes this work an even more important historical record of what are fast becoming lost days than it was on first publication.

Over 32 chapters Fisher shines the spotlight on those individuals who shone brightest from the Victorian performer Dan Leno (now best known as a title character in a Peter Ackroyd novel and its 2016 film adaptation) to the comedy stars of the 60’s and 70’s who attracted huge television audiences. This book is weighty and is a quality production through and through full of sumptuous photos, often over a whole page and many of which come from the author’s personal collection.

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The earliest performers will nowadays mean little to the reader (although it is interesting to note the source of some of the catchphrases still in modern parlance). If there is a central character than that is perhaps Max Miller, a comic I know by reputation only. The performers seem to fall naturally into a pre and post Miller division. Comedy is very much of its time. I wonder if anyone today would find Arthur Askey laugh-out-loud funny, some of the artists here remained at or near the top until their (often premature) deaths, some found themselves having to diversify somewhat (eg: Max Wall into serious acting, Max Bygraves into singing and quiz shows) and others found their stars waning (eg: Benny Hill) as tastes changed.

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Fisher is very good at including personal anecdotes of a lifetime both of admiring many of these performers on the stage and working alongside them in TV production. His first contact with a celebrity was aged 11 in 1956 when he won a competition to meet Norman Wisdom during the interval of “Aladdin” at the London Palladium. This was the encounter which set the seal on Fisher’s future interests. Wisdom was charming and relaxed. How easily it could have gone the other way with an 11 year old descending during the valuable interval minutes for a performer on what was the first night of the run! Many stars both past and present would not have been as accommodating!

fisher4Norman Wisdom

The focus is on comic performers from variety rather than comic actors so no Carry On Gang (apart from Frankie Howerd and “Carry On Teacher” star Ted Ray), no Alastair Sim  etc, although he certainly does not ignore film performers, in fact some of these took their stage characters to become some of the top domestic stars of their day, credited with keeping the British film industry afloat- so take a bow Will Hay, George Formby, Gracie Fields and Norman Wisdom.

Obviously the reader is going to seek out their own favourites. One who certainly predated me but who could silence the near-riot atmosphere of Saturday morning pictures when I was really quite young much better than the more contemporary Children’s Film Foundation offerings was Arthur Lucan, better known as Old Mother Riley. As a young child I was equally thrilled and scared to death of Jimmy Edward’s headmaster character in the TV revival of “Whacko!” In real life he was a man whose struggles with his sexuality led his brother to say after his death in 1988 aged 68 “It all got on top of him at the end.” Later on, my comedy heroes became Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies and I defy anyone who was around at the time to read the chapters on both Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper without hearing the voices and laughing out loud throughout. (Why do I find Cooper’s “Glass, bottle! Bottle, glass!” still so funny?) I’ve actually discovered I have another book by John Fisher on my shelves, unread, his biography of Cooper, so when I get round to it I will certainly have a treat in store with this full-length expansion of the chapter here.

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It’s worth noting that the world of comedy and variety at this time was very male-centric and this is certainly represented here with only Rochdale’s Gracie Fields getting her own chapter. There is another section which groups together women who rose to as near the top as they could get in a difficult profession and here I found another real favourite, Hylda Baker, probably the Queen of the Catch phrase.

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Thank you Mr Fisher for this real blast of nostalgia I found lurking on the public library shelves. It brought back the excitement of knowing there was a new Morecambe & Wise, Benny Hill or Two Ronnies show on TV that night and it also taught me a lot about those I dimly remembered or knew just as names from previous generations of comic fun.

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This edition of “Funny Way To Be A Hero” was published in 2013 by Preface.

Count Arthur Strong (BBC1 2017) & Count Arthur Strong- The Sound Of Mucus (Nationwide Tour) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

 

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This week at my local theatre in Shanklin on the Isle Of Wight I had the great pleasure to see live for the very first time Count Arthur Strong who brought his three man show “The Sound Of Mucus” over to the island.

Despite three series of his half-hour comedy shows on BBC television there were still a number of people who were asking locally “Who is Count Arthur Strong?”  It does seem that this comic creation by Steve Delaney whose inspiration stems from some of the comedy greats of the past is still under-rated.

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For the uninitiated the Count began his broadcasting life with in 2005 with “Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!” which first brought to attention the  everyday life of this bewildered ex-Variety star.  The TV series is written by Steve Delaney with Graham Lineham and has been nominated for both Comedy Awards and for Best Sitcom at the BAFTAs.  The third series is currently on BBC1 on Friday evenings at 8.30pm.  This is an earlier transmission time which should bring in a younger audience as the Count is perfect Friday night family entertainment.  So far two episodes of Series 3 have been shown. This week’s gave way to Question Time but should be back with us when the General Election has been and gone.

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Predicting the election result?

The first episode of Series 3 saw Arthur roped into carrying out an exorcism and it was amusing but not classic Arthur.  I laughed more at the second episode where Michael (Rory Kinnear) ,whose association with Arthur began whilst researching a biography on Michael’s father (and Arthur’s ex-comedy partner) and who has been stuck with him ever since, was called for jury service and Arthur and odd-ball pals from the local cafe went along to support him.  There have been quite a few classic comedy moments in the previous two series.  Anyone wanting to dip into the world of the Count might want to seek out “The Radio Play” and “Arthur’s Big Moment” from the first series.  In “The Radio Play”, Arthur believes his acting career is due for a revival when he gets a small part in a radio play and “Arthur’s Big Moment” sees him, in a hilariously surreal sequence performing his variety act for a captive audience.  From Series 2 I won’t forget in a hurry “The Days The Clock Went Back” which builds misunderstanding upon misunderstanding and sees Arthur mistaken for a flying instructor in a sequence worthy of the best of “Some Mother’s Do Ave Em”.  Also seek out “Still Life” where Arthur attempts a new career as a living statue – all these have had me laughing until it hurts and so was delighted when he was making a stage appearance just down the road.

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Count Arthur with Michael (Rory Kinnear)

Something I heard somebody say as we left the theatre was “I don’t know why it’s funny, it just is” and that’s actually the joy of Count Arthur Strong.  I think it’s very British humour and seems to be in direct descendant to comedians of the past such as Harry Worth (where there are physical similarities in the hat and coat and from what I remember of Harry through misunderstandings), Hylda Baker (in malapropisms and bungled sentences), a touch of Frank Spencer (in ineptness to function), Tommy Cooper (in his ability to get laughs just standing on stage) and in his pompousness there’s even a touch of  both Captain Mainwaring and  Hyacinth Bouquets  There’s also in its joyful humour and playing with words a childishness which evokes memories of the golden age of children’s television and those people that you either dimly remember or were told about such as Mr Pastry, “Crackerjack” and Peter Glaze, Jimmy Edwards and the humour of “Rentaghost” yet it is more than a nostalgic nod to comedy pasts as it seems rooted in real people.  Like the best of comedy writing and despite its surrealness and occasional flight of fancy it seems authentic  and based upon real  (admittedly eccentric) people.

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Harry Worth most remembered for his shop window routine

Steve Delaney is 63 years old and has been playing this lovable bumbling character for over thirty years from when he was a drama student, down from Leeds and studying at The Central School of Speech and Drama.  The Count was resurrected in the late 90’s where he became part of Delaney’s club act, got the radio show and became a success at Edinburgh Festivals.   It’s been a long process, rather like the whole Mrs Brown phenomenon, another perfect case where I find myself laughing without really knowing what’s funny.

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His stage show “The Sound Of Mucus” is Arthur’s attempt to bring to life that Rogers and Hammerstein musical classic only someone has made a mistake at the printers.  Julie Andrews is suddenly not available to take the stage with Arthur so we have to wait for his friend Renee to arrive on the coach and to do her shopping from Lidl.  It co-stars Dave Plimmer (Eggy from the TV series but here playing stage-hand Uncle Alan) & Terry Kilkelly, as the Count’s PA, Malcolm.  As the show progresses Arthur has a few snifters of his special “Scottish Lucozade” which both loosens and restricts, especially when he has to come to grips with his Sulky Monkey ventriloquist puppet when he aims to re-enact “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”.  The script is both clever and funny and yet I laughed just as much at the moments away from the script, at moments of stillness, even a bench being dragged along the stage..  So did the rest of the audience.  The Count is still a bit of a cult figure and there’s always a danger of the audience not really getting it but he had them eating out of the palm of his hand from the moment he walked on stage.  The response was warm throughout especially when Arthur turned his hand at singing (his version of Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” was a treat) and when we eventually got to the songs from the “Sound Of Mucus”, “16 Going on 17” had me almost breathless with laughter.

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Steve Delaney taking time off from the Count

The show has quite a few more dates to run over the summer including Plymouth, Weston-Super-Mare, Crawley, Oxford, Derby, Weymouth, Bristol, Margate, Nottingham and finishing off at the Liverpool Empire.  For Tour Dates see http://www.countarthurstrong.com/events/.     If you are an Arthur novice I would suggest watching a few of his clips on “YouTube” to see if this quirky humour is for you.  I certainly had a highly enjoyable evening in his company.

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for both TV and stage show

 

The third series of “Count Arthur Strong” is being shown on Fridays at 8.30pm on BBC1.  Previous episodes are available on the BBC I-Player.  The DVD of Series 3 is released on 17 July.  The first two series are available on DVD.

Peter Kay’s Car Share – BBC1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The success of the first series of Peter Kay’s Car Share certainly took the  name-checked star and director by surprise.  It was a much lower-key  piece than we had come to expect from this larger-than-life stand-up.  It was subtle and character-led.  I was talking to a friend about it today who said they watched just one episode and it was like watching paint dry and in a way I know what she meant.  I think expectations were high for another series like “Phoenix Nights” which could make you laugh until your sides ache or something which reflected his live shows with not enough recovery times between jokes.  A series largely composed of two people sat in the car on the way to work needed time to work its magic.  But for those of us who stuck with it, the charm of the piece hit home.  It was almost a case of letting the jokes find you.  There were the big laugh moments but for much of the time this viewer would have little more than a wry smile.  Series 1 won the BAFTA award for Best Comedy and a viewer voted National TV Award.  This was a great surprise to Kay but not, perhaps for the majority of us who are now struggling to find TV comedy funny.  For the BAFTAs it was up against “Peep Show”, which I had given up with quite a few series back and “Chewing Gum” and “People Just Do Nothing”, two shows on smaller channels E4 and BBC3.  Kay’s uncommercial idea was the most commercial of the lot. The audience rating led National TV Award saw him a worthy winner against two comedy juggernauts, long past their prime “Benidorm” and “Birds Of A Feather” and “Not Going Out” of which I’ve seen only one episode.

Peter Kay speechless at the BAFTAs

For those who had stuck with Series 1 and its more leisurely pace Series 2 was an essential.  The relationship between characters John Redmond (Kay) and Kayleigh, his car share partner from the supermarket where they work (Sian Gibson) was simmering nicely.  The warmth generated by these long-time off screen friends was palpable and it was this rather than laugh out loud jokes which made it special.  Series 2 consists of four episodes and once again followed the now more common but radical idea of having all four episodes available on BBC I-Player as soon as episode 1 has been transmitted.  Last time round I watched each episode as they were shown on a weekly basis, not really understanding why anyone would do anything different.  At time of writing two episodes of Series 2 have been transmitted, but for the purpose of this review I have found myself downloading and watching the other two.

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Checking reviewsrevues for a good review?

This series seems to be bookmarked at each end by two quieter episodes.  The first re-establishes the characters, carries on from Kayleigh giving John a copy of her all-time favourite album (Now 48) with a note to listen to a specific track (“Pure And Simple” by Hearsay).  According to news reports the reintroduction of Now 48 to Series 2 caused a huge demand for the 16 year old double compilation CD which led to appearing it on Amazon.co.uk’s Charts on the basis of its second-hand sales alone.  That demand is still continuing.  Now 47 and 49 are in plentiful supply for a penny, yet Now 49 will currently set you back £24.75.  I absolutely love that this has happened on the strength of its mention in a comedy show.

I bet that has got you going off to the CD shelves to see if you own this potential money-spinner.  (I’ve just checked Now 46 is the closest I’ve got).  I enjoyed this first episode with Kayleigh attempting to find her own way to work “I’m in court shoes, I’m not Zola Budd.”  Much of the humour came from the soundtrack of Forever FM and the character’s reactions to the ads and playlist (Eurovision runner-ups Bardo’s “One Step Further” being a little gem here).  The fourth episode has to deal further with the relationship between John and Kayleigh with some knockabout comedy when Kayleigh finds herself locked indoors and a nod towards “La La Land” for the resolution.  Once again there’s musical highspots in Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”.  However, in both of these episodes I found myself wishing that there was just a little more to laugh at.

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Get it on E-Bay quick!

What lifted this series were Episodes 2 and 3 for different reasons.  Episode 2 (shown on BBC 1 last Tuesday) set the comedy up with John and Kayleigh on the way to a staff do fancy dress Chinese banquet but then handed the whole thing over to a new character, Elsie, who they give a lift home to dressed as a Smurf.  (“There’s no taxis, it’s the Ramadan”). Costume and make-up were so convincing that I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t Peter doing one of his double roles, which had fooled many people in “Phoenix Nights” days when he played Brian Potter and the bouncer Max.  It turns out that this comedy-tour-de-force was Conleth Hill, best known for his role as Varys in “Game Of Thrones”.  Peter played second fiddle and the result was comedy gold.  But for bigger belly laughs Episode 3, which will be shown on BBC1 this week is a gem.  When John and Kayleigh decide to skive off work for a day it leads to a section which had me laughing like I haven’t done for a TV comedy in ages- a sequence where laugh is piled upon laugh which was certainly nothing like paint drying!

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Not Peter Kay but it could have been!

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Elsie – 2017’s great new comic character

This second series of four episodes has felt familiar and yet surprising.  I love Peter Kay when he is unsubtle (presenting Royal Variety Performance and in the magnificent TV talent show spoof “Britain’s Got The Pop Factor….”), I love his stand-up (made Guinness Book of Records for most successful of all time playing to 1.2 million people) I loved the whole set-up of “Phoenix Nights”, have enjoyed his three number 1 UK hit singles, but admittedly was not wild about his “Max and Paddy’s Road To Nowhere” series.  This revitalised attempt at a very British road trip, a car share journey to work, has seen him once again getting close to comedy gold.

fivestars(On the strength of Episodes 2 and 3)

The third episode of “Peter Kay’s Car Share” will be shown on Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm.  The whole series (4 episodes) is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.