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.

fisher2Dan Leno

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.

fisher5Tommy Cooper

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.

fisher6Hylda Baker

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.

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100 Essential Books – Tipping The Velvet – Sarah Waters (1998)

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For some reason this debut novel passed me by when it was published. I knew about it and thought I knew what the phrase “Tipping the Velvet” referred to . If you don’t then read the book as I have come over surprisingly coy today!. (Although like many of the best titles it can be interpreted in different ways). I just never got round to reading it.

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When a television series was made of the novel in 2002 the tabloids had a field day. The Daily Mail, in particular, thought all those who watched it would suffer from incurable moral decline. I would have thought that this would have put it on the top of my viewing list but I didn’t watch it. It was a faithful adaptation with screenwriting by Andrew Davies , a writer who had been accused of “sexing” things up in the past. There was no need to do so with this as it was “sexed-up” already. It starred Keely Hawes and Rachael Stirling and it is available on DVD. I know that I put off watching it because I wanted to read the book first. I have now seen it and it’s a good interpretation of the Waters novel. Stirling (who comes across like a young Diana Rigg) is excellent in the main role.

But it is the book that is an essential. I do love Sarah Waters and got into her work with her wonderfully Dickensian “Fingersmith” (2002) which is also an essential read and may very well feature in this blog in the future. I have now read all of her novels apart from her latest “The Paying Guest” (2014). Both “The Nightwatch”(2006) , set in the second world war and her tale of Victorian spiritualists “Affinity”(2009) are very strong novels. For me, “The Little Stranger” (2009), a gentle ghost story set in the 1940’s was a little too subdued and doesn’t rank amongst her best. Her best is this debut.

The novel starts in Whitstable in Victorian Kent which is excellently recreated. Main character Nan narrates. One thing I find memorable in books is descriptions of food. I know that must say something about me but Paddington’s Marmalade Sandwiches, Winnie The Pooh’s honey and (especially) Edmunds tempting Turkish Delight drink from “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe” have stayed with me since childhood. Nigel Slater’s memoir “Toast” is an essential book because of its attention to food. From “Tipping The Velvet” I have discovered that I do not even have to like the food in question to have it seared on my memory. The book opens like this;

“Have you ever tasted a Whistable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the English coastline makes Whitstable natives – as they are properly called- the largest and juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest oysters in the whole of England. “

Why does this opening paragraph have my mouth watering? I would no more eat an oyster, Whitstable or otherwise than do something else that I wouldn’t consider doing! It’s the skill of the writer who has drawn me in from her opening words. Nan is a girl who has grown up amongst the oysters in Victorian Kent, where her family runs a parlour serving the delicacy. It has been a life of chapped hands, little money and cramped conditions for Nan. Her life changes when she visits a music-hall and falls for a male impersonator. The glamour of show-business lures Nan in. A woman who is on stage pretending to be a man opens a whole can of worms (of oysters?) and Nan finds fame as Kitty’s performing partner when she gives male impersonation a try. Although male impersonators (“mashers”) were a regular site in the Victorian Music Hall, Waters creates a whole lesbian underworld which may or may not have existed, but for the duration of this novel it is totally convincing and Waters’ London is every bit as real as Charles Dickens’.

Like Dickens, and like Daniel Defoe whose “Moll Flanders” this book also slightly resembles Waters likes to keep the surprises and plot twists coming. In Dickens’ time it was to get you to purchase the next issue but here it makes for a riveting read. It is superbly written and hangs together well as a record of 1880’s-90’s London. This is some debut!

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Tipping The Velvet was published by Virago in 1999

 

My Old Man – John Major (2012) – A Real Life Review

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Although I’ve read a book by an American President before (Barack Obama’s excellent “Dreams Of My Father”) I’ve never picked up anything by a British Prime Minister. This is despite both Disraeli and Churchill being considered good at this writing lark. So what did I choose for my first Prime Minister penned book, one by John Major, a minister I certainly never admired nor ever felt any affinity with- so his achievement in producing a book I really enjoyed is considerable. I saw this book sat on the shelves of the local public library and it was the subject matter that drew me to it- the English Music Hall. I actually didn’t recall that much being made of Major’s background in any positive way during his premiership (I had a vague idea that he came from a family of trapeze artists and circus performers) so it was good to see Major redressing the balance and making his father the central character of this book.

Major’s father was 64 when the future Prime Minister was born and had lived a full life, being a reasonably well known Music Hall act with his first wife. Music Hall was a curiously British, incredibly popular form of entertainment, close to American vaudeville but not quite the same. The first wife had died as a result of a serious onstage injury after a steel girder hit her. The act was known as Drum and Major (which is where the surname came from as the family name was Ball). It was initially a baton-twirling, dance type act but as they evolved they introduced songs and sketches and became popular. John Major here combines what is he knows of his father (realising that he hadn’t asked him that much when he was alive – the same old story) with a very readable general history of Music Hall and its stars. It feels very readable and written with insight and humour (it does occasionally stray off subject but the Music Halls are generally kept centre-stage). He is not always brilliant at citing references and lacks the comprehensive knowledge of say, Roy Hudd and even I spotted a howling mistake . It was Herman’s Hermits who had a hit with “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” (extraordinarily an American Number 1 hit single) and not Manfred Mann, but that was a bit off subject, so I’ll forgive it and it’s probably been pointed out now a thousand times and may have even been corrected in editions later than my library copy. As a popular history of Music Hall, however, it would be hard to beat.

It is a lost world he explores- recording technology was there at the latter stages but unable to capture these people at their best. We may know the names of Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Harry Lauder, George Robey, Little Tich, Dan Leno and the like and we may know some of their songs but Major has done a good job at making these performers (and his own background) more accessible. If only he had been as competent at running the country. fourstars