Tag Archives: Arthur Haynes

Advice to people who think they are – or want to be – famous. Who was Skirrow?

Me and Eric Morecambe on the seafront in happier days (Photo by M-E-U-F)

Me and Eric Who on Morecambe seafront.(Photograph by M-E-U-F)

This is a blog about someone who is long dead and about whom I know almost nothing.

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, performer/promoter Bob Slayer was speaking to a young comedy reviewer. The reviewer had never seen a Morecambe & Wise TV show… and had never even heard of Morecambe & Wise. This is true.

In the early 1960s, Arthur Haynes was the most famous and most successful comedy performer in Britain.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Morecambe & Wise TV shows were the biggest ongoing successes on British TV.

If you are British, NOT in the comedy industry and under a certain age,  you have probably never heard of Arthur Haynes. Or Arthur Askey. Or Tommy Handley. Or Dan Leno.

If you are not from Britain and living outside Britain, you have almost certainly heard of none of them.

Unless you are famous in China and in India, you are statistically an unknown. And people famous in China and India are usually unknown in the rest of the world.

So…

I stumbled on two separate synopses of the same 1967 novel titled I Was Following This Girl by someone called Desmond Skirrow.

Desmond Skirrow’s book

One cover selling Skirrow’s book

SYNOPSIS ONE
John Brock spends one sunny September day following the richest and most beautiful girl in the world. This simple job becomes less simple as the days go by and he meets such unsavoury characters as a hairy-headed mystic, a sinister yokel with a ferret up his jumper, and a whispering super from the Special Branch.

SYNOPSIS TWO
Tough British adman Brook, who does occasional jobs for our Intelligence, is assigned to protect exquisite young American billionairess from rich variety of enemies including phoney psychedelic prophet, mad lesbian karate expert and giant one-legged Cotswold rustic who prefers a ferret to a pistol.

Apparently Desmond Skirrow was a painter, book jacket illustrator, journalist, and a creative director for ad agencies including McCann Erickson and Masius Wynne-Williams. He was born in either 1923 or 1924 and died in 1976.

He wrote five novels in three years.

Desmond Skirrow - maybe

A photo of Desmond Skirrow – maybe. Or not

I Was Following This Girl is the second of three tongue-in-cheek spy novels he wrote in the late 1960s about a fictional British agent named John Brock.

The other Brock novels were It Won’t Get You Anywhere (1966) and I’m Trying to Give It Up (1968)

Before the Brock novels, he wrote a children’s book The Case of the Silver Egg (which was televised in 1966 as The Queen Street Gang). He wrote another novel, Poor Quail (1969), about an advertising executive’s move to the countryside,

In I Was Following This Girl, the girl John Brock is following is called Kiki Kondor. The blurbs failed to point out that the giant one-legged Cotswold rustic walks with a crutch and is called Satan Smith.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

Another cover for the Desmond Skirrow book

Differing book cover view of Skirrow’s I Was Following This Girl

“Desmond Skirrow has such a lively way with words that nobody is apt to complain that I Was Following This Girl is in essence a fairly ordinary conventional thriller about exposing a sinister politico-financial cult. There’s plenty of action and the plotting is ingenious and inventive; but the real delight of the book is the quirky narrative.”

Desmond Skirrow wrote of advertising agencies: “They are great carpeted palaces of little problems and big solutions, filled with loose minds in tight dresses.”

He was, as I said, “a painter, book jacket illustrator, journalist, and a creative director for ad agencies”. He sounds like an interesting man.

Some people are remembered. Some are forgotten. He is forgotten.

Arthur Haynes, Tommy Handley, Morecambe & Wise, the biggest entertainment names of their time are not just forgotten but were never known in China.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

So it goes.

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Filed under Books, Fame, Television

Crowd funding the man who wrote for Tony Hancock ten years after he died

(Versions of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post and Indian site We Speak News)

Robert Ross yesterday – cheers to donations

Robert Ross has written books on the Carry On films, Fawlty Towers, Marty Feldman, The Goodies, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Sid James, Monty Python – the list goes on and on and on.

But his latest book Forgotten Heroes of Comedy is not being handled by a ‘traditional’ publisher. It is being ‘crowd-funded’ by Unbound.

“The way the pledging works,” Robert told me yesterday, “is that, for donating £10, you get an eBook version and your name in the back of the book. For £30, you get a hardback copy, an eBook and your name in the back. For £50, you get all that plus I sign the hardback. For £150, you also get invited to the launch party. For £250, we throw in a pub lunch with Barry Cryer and me, which some people have paid for already. And, if you pay £1,000, you can have the forgotten comedy hero of your choice added into the book.”

“Has anyone forked out the £1,000 yet?” I asked.

“Well,” Robert told me, “I have had offers of £1,000 not to write about some people – like Jimmy Clitheroe and Peter Glaze. Someone was very anti-Peter Glaze. But he’s still going to be in the book because I liked him on Crackerjack as a kid.”

“So what is the criteria for getting in?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Robert, “You have to be a professional comic and not had a book written about you nor had the whole TV docu-drama thing or the Unforgettable-type documentary made about you. And you have to be dead. I’m not going to say that a person is alive but hasn’t worked for ten years, so they’re forgotten. You’ve definitely gotta be dead.”

Mario Fabrizi,” I suggested.

“Absolutely,” said Robert Ross. “He’ll be in the book.”

Arthur Haynes,” I said. “The biggest name in TV comedy in the early 1960s.”

“Arthur Haynes is going to be in the book,” said Robert, “although he is going through a little bit of a resurgence now because Network DVD have just released two or three volumes of his shows and Paul Merton did a BBC4 show on him. Ironically, ITV were a lot better at keeping stuff than the BBC who tended to junk things quite willy-nilly. With Arthur Haynes, almost a complete collection of his shows exist. They just haven’t been re-screened. So he’s been forgotten.

Max Miller: not forgotten

“People like Tony Hancock are not forgotten because his shows have been broadcast ever since. There are some music hall comedians who are still remembered – like Max Miller who made a lot of films and he has a statue in Brighton and a fan club. So he won’t be in the book because he’s not a forgotten comedian, even though you could ask the guys in this pub who he was and they wouldn’t know.

“It’s almost like a tightrope. The comedians have to be interesting and justifiable to be remembered but not too famous to have been ‘done’ before. It’s ones I think should have been celebrated more than they have been.”

“Traditional publishers,” I suggested, “must have been wary of a book about forgotten comedians?”

“Well, that’s why Unbound are great as publishers,” said Robert, “because they will take a chance on proven writers and help them do their dream projects. They give writers a chance to take something out of the bottom drawer that no-one’s wanted to do so far. They have authors like Julie Burchill, Terry Jones, Katy Brand, Robert Llewellyn, Jonathan Meades and Hardeep Singh Kohli with books that are very personal to the writer.

“The major selling point of Forgotten Heroes of Comedy – though they are forgotten comedians – is that, if you love comedy, all these people intertwine with Frankie Howerd, Morecambe & Wise and all the greats and each one will be championed by a contemporary comic or comedy writer… so Danny Baker’s going to do an introductory piece on Peter Glaze, Terry Jones will do Ronald Frankau. I’ll write the major article about the comedian, but they’ll do a couple of paragraphs about why they love them so much – Why the fans of, say, Mark Gatiss or Stephen Fry should find out about these people because they made them what they are today.

“The original idea was that the book would include around 120 or 125 comedians and have about 1,000 words per person. That’s gone a bit mad now because, since I started doing it, I’ve written at least 2,000 on some people. I’ll try and preserve the fun thing on the page. And, as I write it, I’m dropping in autobiographical bits about how I remembered them as a kid, things my dad told me about them and stuff like that.”

“How did you first get interested in comedians?” I asked.

“When I was small, my dad – bless him – illegally taped Hancock’s Half Hour shows and Goon Shows off the radio and he would play those to me. They were almost like my lullabies. Then my mum and dad worked out at an early age that I would stop crying if they put me in front of a TV and I fell in love with uncles and aunts like The Two Ronnies and Hattie Jacques and Frankie Howerd. I developed an obsession with comedy. When I was about ten or twelve, I wrote scripts for Tony Hancock who, at that point, had been dead about ten years – just writing silly half minutes.”

“So you wanted to be a comic?” I asked.

“No,” said Robert firmly. “I was just fascinated by comedy. I wanted to write about it. I wanted to be a writer. Around the age of fourteen, I was writing film quiz books on old films – comedies, westerns, old horror films. I loved old films. I was trying to get published at fourteen – very precocious. but I didn’t get published. I started writing my Carry On book when I was sixteen – it wasn’t published for another ten years. In between, I worked for a bit and went to university.”

“Worked for a bit doing dull things?”

“Worked for British Rail, the Ministry of Defence, all very hush-hush.”

“You can tell me,” I said.

“No I can’t,” he said. “But I only worked in ‘proper’ jobs for about three years before university. I graduated in English and Film Studies and got the Carry On Companion published within about six months of leaving university. Ever since, I’ve written about one or two books a year, supplemented with CDs and DVDs and sleeve notes and commentaries for DVDs and radio shows.”

“And the idea for Forgotten Heroes of Comedy first came to you when?” I asked.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones does not live in Muswell Hill

“In 1999,” explained Robert. “I was having dinner with Terry Jones – so it was the 30th anniversary of Monty Python. I was having some take-away curry at his house in Muswell Hill – he’s moved now, so you can’t find him there – and he had this 78 record player and he was going through his records.

“He had all sorts of weird and wonderful things like Laurence Olivier reading poetry – and he had this one of Ronald Frankau – a song called Winnie The Worm – a quite double-entendre laden song – and he played this and I said I like Ronald Frankau and he said No-one’s ever heard of Ronald Frankau. He’s one of those forgotten heroes of comedy and then he said, That’s a great idea for a book. I’ll do the foreword and you write it. So I said OK, fine. And that was 13 years ago because, as you suggested, publishers don’t want to do a book about people who are forgotten.

“After that, every time I saw Terry, he said Have you got a publisher yet? and I said No. Not got a publisher yet. But now Unbound have picked it up.

“If people sponsor it by pledging money up-front to get it going,” I said.

“Yes,” said Robert.

“You are only including forgotten recent comedians?” I asked. “Would you do an 1862 music hall act? You presumably wouldn’t do Greek comedy.”

“I’m gonna go back to maybe the turn of the last century, when people were making gramophone records. Maybe back to 1890.”

“So not the first Punch & Judy man in London?”

“No, that’s more a historian job than a comedy historian job.”

“Only British comics?” I asked.

“I’m doing Americans too. British and American at the moment.”

“Americans such as?”

Shemp Howard.”

“Who he?” I asked.

“Exactly,” said Robert. “The forgotten third of The Three Stooges. He was the one who came in to replace Curly, the bald one, when he got very ill and died and he was there for a good seven or eight years making lots of films, but no-one knows who he is.”

“So,” I suggested, “you wouldn’t have an entry on Zeppo Marx, but you might do one on Gummo Marx?”

“At the moment,” said Robert, “Zeppo is in, because Zeppo left early. And maybe Gummo will be in as a footnote to Zeppo.”

“You’ve got a great life,” I suggested, “writing about your heroes.”

“And, by virtue of doing that,” said Robert. “you meet some of your heroes and some of them become really good mates, which is quite bizarre.”

“I never want to meet my heroes,” I said. “People who seem great on screen tend to turn out to be shits and people you assume are going to be shits turn out to be great.”

“You can meet a few people who are not nice,” said Robert.

“Charlie Drake?” I suggested.

“Well, I never met him and he was never a hero of mine.”

“So tell me some awful story about some person without naming them.”

“No,” said Robert. “I might want to use the stories for the book! And, if I tell you a story about some anonymous person, I’ll be hounded with Who was this person? – You’ve got to pay for the book to find out who people are. I’ll slag them off in the book, I promise – if you pay me.”

Which brings us to the point of writing this blog.

Can anyone lend me £1,000?

It will go to a good cause.

(As an aside to illustrate how interesting this proposed book might be, Ronald Frankau, whose Winnie The Worm Robert heard at Terry Jones’ home… is the father of Rosemary Frankau, who co-starred in the long-running 1980s BBC TV sitcom Terry and June and grandfather of Sam Bain, who co-writes Channel 4’s sitcom Peep Show.)

Here are Robert Ross, Terry Jones and Barry Cryer talking about the book…

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Filed under Books, Comedy, Humor, Humour, Nostalgia

Even if you get famous you are probably going to end up an unknown nonentity

At the Edinburgh Fringe last week, I was talking to someone about the fame of Tony Bennett, the great crooner from the golden era of crooners. He even played Glastonbury because he is so famous as the great crooner from the golden era of crooners.

More of him later.

I got home from the bubble of the Edinburgh Fringe yesterday, where reviews and the number of stars each show gets is all-important.

Hold on. Was it yesterday I got home? No, it was Monday. My mind is fogged.

I got home from the Edinburgh Fringe two days ago to find The X Factor has re-started on ITV1 or, at least, programmes in which vast auditoria are filled by excited punters watching the auditions for The X Factor… and Celebrity Big Brother is doing rather well in ratings terms on Channel 5, though I do not recognise anyone on it except the paparazzo with pink hair, Jedward and (because she seemed drugged out of her head) someone I realised was Kerry Katona (and because people keep calling her “Kerry”).

This demonstrates two things.

Edinburgh really is a self-absorbed bubble.

I am out-of-touch with Heat magazine.

And celebrity is fleeting.

That’s  three things.

My mind is fogged.

But I do know there are two clichés of showbiz success.

One is the overnight success and the other is the scenario of plodding-away-for-years, ‘paying your dues’ and then becoming famous.

Of these, the overnight success cliché is easier to comprehend. Talent shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are like job interviews and non-showbiz viewers can understand that. Showbiz talent shows are like The Apprentice – which has the format of a glorified job interview – with added glitter and stardust.

To the ordinary punter, Michael McIntyre is an overnight success much like an X Factor contestant. It seemed like he was a total unknown one week and, within a month or so, he seemed to just come from nowhere to achieve what punters regard as superstardom.

But last year sometime (my mind is fogged) he said he did not want to crack America because “it’s taken me long enough to sort things out here and I don’t want to start again somewhere else.”

Whether that is actually 100% true and he doesn’t actually want to crack America, I don’t know. But he has certainly paid his dues. He was toiling away for years, mostly unseen, and has eventually succeeded through solid, dogged hard work and talent.

Many others with exactly the same degree of talent or more, also working doggedly for their big break are, of course, still toiling away and will never get even a tenth of one percent of the public recognition Michael McIntyre has received.

Michael McIntyre deserves to be successful.

So do many other equally talented performers.

So, perhaps, do some of the X Factor hopefuls.

But they won’t be.

Because talent is not enough.

Dogged determination and hard work is not enough.

Paying your dues is not enough.

The three ingredients for potential success are talent (not always 100% necessary), dogged determination and pure luck.

The joker in the pack is that many vastly talented people have a self-destructive streak. They have the seeds of their own failure within them.

One of the oddest problems is that many performers, confident on stage, are painfully shy off stage. This means they are terrified of self-publicity when off-stage. Being themselves is a terrifying thought, so they ironically do not want and/or do not understand self-publicity.

But without self-publicity, it is unlikely they will succeed.

And, as several years of Big Brother show, even with rampant self-publicity, celebrity is fleeting.

When I was very young, the biggest comedy and entertainment name on British television was Arthur Haynes. His scripts were written by Johnny Speight.

Ask most struggling professional British comics today who Johnny Speight was and they may know because of Till Death Us Do Part.

Ask them who Arthur Haynes was and they will look at you blankly.

Who was his long-time TV straight man?

Nicholas Parsons.

The also-ran has become a star; the megastar is forgotten.

Because the other way to achieve fame is to out-live the competition.

Tony Bennett – the great crooner from the golden era of crooners?

Bollocks.

There was Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, endless others.

At the time, Tony Bennett was way down the list of crooners. But he outlived them all, so his place in the running-order of fame has risen.

Perry Como was a megastar.

I hear muffled cries of “Who?”

Exactly.

Fame is like a TV weather forecast.

Everyone thinks it’s important to pay attention at the time but, ten minutes later, you can’t remember it.

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A reassurance to all artists and performers who appear to have failed to become successful.

R.I.P. Captain Beefheart – proof, if proof were needed, that you can still get a three-quarter page obituary in the Guardian and a mega obituary in the Daily Telegraph despite being “always cult rather than commercial” and being broke for most of your career…

Much like Vincent Van Gogh who only sold one painting in his life…

On the other hand I’ve always thought Van Gogh was a shit painter and I didn’t much admire Captain Beefheart’s music either.

But who knows?

It would be interesting to come back in 50 and then in 100 years time to see who are remembered as the great artists, bands and comedians of the 20th century. My bet is that they would be a big surprise to us.

Tommy Handley, Arthur Haynes – the great comedy successes of their time – now almost entirely forgotten.

In February 1968, Andy Warhol exhibited his first international retrospective exhibition at the Moderna Museet gallery in Stockholm. The exhibition catalogue contained the now long-remembered sentence: “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”

The 4th century Vulgate version of the Bible translates Ecclesiastes 1:2 as “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas”.

A loose translation today might be: “Everything means fuck all”

Very loose but true to the spirit.

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