Tag Archives: Max Miller

Memories of Tiswas, Frankie Howerd’s wandering hands and Norman Collier

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and associate producer David McKellar

Tiswas, 1981: Den Hegarty, Frank Carson and David McKellar

So yesterday I drove up to Birmingham for a reunion of people who worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas. It turned out there were 100 fans there too.

Everyone I knew years ago seem to have grown white hair and beards or both apart from presenter Sally James and you can never be too sure of anything nowadays.

I got chatting with David McKellar, who was Associate Producer/Script Associate on Tiswas when I was there. He was a wildly experienced gag writer. I remember being impressed when I realised he had written one of the few jokes I ever remembered, a fake news headline:

“Bad news for three-foot dwarfs… four feet snow drifts.”

I think David Frost delivered the gag in one of his TV series, probably The Frost Report.

David McKellar remembered Tiswas yesterday

David at the Tiswas gathering in Birmingham yesterday

David McKellar wrote for various David Frost shows as well as Ken Dodd, Frankie Howard, Tommy Cooper, Dave Allen, Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, The Two Ronnies, Celebrity Squares… you name it…

He told me that, taking a look at Lenny Henry’s website recently, he noticed that Lenny had credited him with changing his career path.

“I had no idea,” David told me.

“How did you change his career?” I asked.

“He used to do gags as himself and I suggested he did characters. When he went on This Is Your Life, he mentioned my name. It’s good to be remembered.”

“It is nice,” I said, “to change someone’s life when you didn’t even realise it. Who did you write your first joke for?”

Max Miller

Max Miller paid David £1 in the street

Max Miller. He lived in Brighton. I lived in Brighton. I met him in the street, told him this joke and he gave me £1.”

“What was the joke?” I asked.

“I wish I could remember,” laughed David. “The thing about him was he never used  a dirty word on stage and he was the dirtiest comedian. It was the audience who were thinking the dirt in the act. Comics nowadays will say ‘wanking’ for no reason.”

“You wrote for Frankie Howerd, didn’t you?” I asked. “That was all innuendo.”

“You never went into a room alone with him,” said David.

“Jonathan Ross,” I said, “advised me never to get in a lift alone with Frankie Howerd.”

“He’s remembered,” I said, but people like Norman Collier are not and he was a great comedian.”

Norman Collier

The great Norman Collier – gone but not forgotten by some

“I remember,” said David, “he took me into a restaurant one night in Birmingham – on the Friday night before the Tiswas show (which was on Saturday morning) and he came in with a ten-foot ventriloquist’s dummy. He put it on the chair next to me and the waiter came along and gave us three menus. The dummy ordered a whole meal, then Norman got hold of a popadom, held it under the table and there was a Woof! Woof! sound. They threw him out because they didn’t allow dogs in the restaurant. But he had no dog. He left me sitting in there with a ten foot dummy.

“I was with him in Toronto and he had two dolls and vented them singing I’ll Be Loving You.… Two people bought singing dolls off him and they weren’t singing dolls.

“I was with him in Gibraltar… Barbary apes… He goes over and feeds them so their lips start moving and he starts talking to them and venting them talking to him. An hour and a half we were there. There was this couple from Alabama and they left thinking the apes talked. Norman stayed there until they were convinced and had left. They would have been telling everyone back in Alabama about the talking apes in Gibraltar.”

There is a clip of Norman Collier’s act on YouTube.

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

Den Hegarty had shaving foam problems

At this point, Tiswas presenter and ex Darts performer Den Hegarty came over, with two paper plates covered in ‘custard pie’ (actually white shaving foam) sticking to his face.

“Just like the old days,” said David.

“It’s not the stuff we used to use,” said Den. “We always used Erasmic. But this stuff stings the eyes. Though I didn’t used to get pies. I tended to get baked beans poured over me. Then people wrote in and complained we were wasting food and all the starving people in Africa could be fed with out baked beans. So then we had to make fake baked beans and they were poured over me.”

“The glamour of television.” I said.

The ending of the final episode of Tiswas is on YouTube.

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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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A stand-up comedian is like a boxer

Bob Boyton: from punch-lines to punches

A couple of days ago, I blogged about seeing Mark Kelly’s second try-out of his show-in-the-process-of-being-written Stuart Leigh – The Stewart Lee Tribute Act, which took place at Ivor Dembina’s Hampstead Comedy Club. Comedian Martin Soan was also in the audience.

Afterwards, I got talking to comedian-turned-writer Bob Boyton about a novel which he has spent ten years writing and which is going to be published in May. But we got sidetracked into the link between boxing and comedy.

What’s the book about?” I asked Bob.

“It’s called Bomber Jackson Does Some,” he said. “The eponymous hero is a homeless ex-boxer called Anthony ‘Bomber’ Jackson. It’s not autobiographical, but I did do some boxing training while I was writing it. I trained with Mark Reefer, an ex-Commonwealth champion who didn’t become famous despite being a champion. He was good but perhaps not big enough at his weight. A great trainer. Someone who lavished love on his training. And I’ve worked with homeless people for many years, so there’s also a link there.”

“Is it a funny novel?” I asked.

“No, not really,” he replied. “A couple of jokes in it.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t like novels with jokes in ‘em,” Bob told me. “I hate when you buy a novel by a comic and he hasn’t really developed enough plot or done enough work on the characters, so he just pads it out with bits of his routine. I think it’s disrespectful of the novel and of fiction. And it’s a bit disrespectful of your act.

“It’s a problem for comedians,” he continued, “that there’s no legacy with comedy. A little bit, maybe, if you’re one of a golden few. I heard Max Miller on record and he was obviously strong and then Jimmy Jones done a lot of his material. But generally, in 150 years time, no-one’s gonna go That’s a great gag, that!… In 150 years time, Jeremy Hardy’s act won’t make any sense.”

“So your novel isn’t autobiographical?” I asked.

“Well,” laughed Bob, “I did research some of the drinking myself.”

“Why did it take you ten years?”

“There were times I just got fed up with writing the bloody thing. I kind of knew there was a story to be told. It is a bit like being a stand-up, thinking Right, I wanna deal with that subject so I’m gonna write a gag about it. It’s just a much longer process with a novel. When I was doing stand-up, I could write a gag and probably try it out in two nights time and then I might keep it in or not. Whereas I found you can spend ten years writing a novel. That’s probably why you need an editor.

“Bomber Jackson is a bloke in his mid-40s. His last big fight was at least 20 years ago… which he fucked-up because he’d been drinking when he should’ve been training. He’s fallen into criminality and those various things that happen to boxers because, if you’re good at hurting people, then you’re worth a lot of money to unsavoury characters.

“He’s just come out of prison and he knows he’s gotta find a different life. He’s done a lot of prison, a lot of small sentences and he goes in search of redemption and I hope the book keeps the reader wondering whether or not he finds it.. right to the end.”

“Why write about a boxer?” I asked.

“Well, I have a bit of a guilty pleasure. I’m a boxing fan and I’m drawn to it because they are very much like comedians. So I started off… I don’t think it lasted very long but… It was a kind of a metaphor for when I gave up stand-up…. You do it on your own. It’s not like football, where you can blame other team members.”

“Fighting the audience?” I asked.

“Well, not so much fighting but, it’s you – if you win, it’s great. And, if you lose…”

At this point, Ivor Dembina was passing by and heard what we were talking about.

“The thing about comedians,” Ivor said, “is that we’ve all seen each other die the death on stage – everyone. However good you are, however famous, we all know you’ve been there. So there’s that kind of gut respect. And, with boxers, even though they’re competing, they all know they have put themselves in that same position of being humiliated. So there’s that kind of bottom line respect.”

“I remember,” I said, “Ricky Grover (boxer-turned comedian and actor) “told me that, when you box, all that matters is that you don’t humiliate yourself. Humiliation is the worst thing.”

At this point, Martin Soan passed by.

“I’ve based my whole fucking career on being humiliated,” he said as he passed.

“Every comedian…” Ivor continued, “All of us – We’ve all died the death. We all know what it’s like. You never forget that. And you respect other people because they go back. Even though they got booed off, they went back and had another go. You respect them. It’s the same with boxers. A boxer can take a really bad beating, but he’ll go back and fight again.”

“That’s right,” agreed Bob. “Not many boxers gave it up because they lost. The business might have given them up in the end. But either they’ve made enough money and they’ve realised they want to go out somewhere near the top. Or they just can’t get any fights.”

At this point, Bob and I gave up talking about Bomber Jackson Does Some. The conversation moved on and people talked about Malcolm Hardee, Ian Hinchliffe and pissing in wardrobes. I must have another chat with Bob Boyton about his novel at some point before it is published in May.

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The mystery of a £500 million man, the German love of Red Indians and the tough future for seven dwarfs.

I was in Brighton yesterday, visiting a friend. Her partner comes from Wolverhampton.

When I arrived, she asked me: “Have you heard about Snow White?”

“Erm, no” I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Apparently,” she told me, “Radio 4 says the local panto in Wolverhampton this year is Snow White, but they have sacked the seven dwarfs… Sacked them! Suddenly!”

I looked at my friend.

“What on earth did they do?” I asked.

I had visions of the legendary mayhem and Bacchanalia which reportedly happened among the Munchkins during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.

“They didn’t do anything wrong,” my friend explained. “It was the economic recession and the soaring cost of dwarfs… The theatre is going to replace the dwarfs with children wearing masks.”

“It won’t be the same,” I replied. “Don’t Look Now would’t have been the same. Didn’t they think about the soaring cost of vertically-challenged people before they employed the seven dwarfs in the first place?”

“Radio 4 didn’t say.”

“That seems a bit remiss of them. Standards are falling at the BBC.”

“Yes,” my friend replied.

“We live in a strange and mysterious world,” I said.

“Yes,” my friend replied.

We had a cup of tea.

Later in the afternoon, in The Lanes, we picked up a leaflet for the Brighton Festival Fringe. At the top, it said: The third largest Fringe in the world.

“Brighton has always been billed as the second biggest,” my friend said.

“You’ve been shamed,” I ventured. “Edinburgh is by far the biggest arts festival in the world and the biggest Fringe. What on earth is the second biggest?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

So we went to Brighton’s always surreal-sounding Vegetarian Shoes shop and stared in the window. Nearby, was a man sitting on the ground outside a Native American shop; he was dressed as a Tibetan lama and was apparently talking on his mobile phone to his girlfriend; he had an English accent.

“They’re very popular in Germany,” my friend told me.

“Tibetan monks?” I asked.

“Native American artifacts.”

“I seem to remember reading,” I said, “that German movie-goers are very fond of Westerns, too. What’s that all about?”

“It’s a mystery to me,” said my friend.

“I can’t help feeling that, if Hitler had dressed in a Red Indian head-dress, it would have undermined his credibility,” I suggested.

My friend looked at me.

She said nothing.

Any news of Nicholas van Hoogstraten?” I asked, as we walked on. I’m always interested in people with unusual lives and my friend had once given me a biography of van Hoogstraten as a Christmas present.

By 1968 (aged 23), he simultaneously became Britain’s youngest millionaire and started a 4-year prison sentence for paying a gang to throw a grenade into the house of Rev Braunstein, a Jewish leader whose eldest son owed him £3,000. He later said of the people who threw the grenade: “These weren’t anarchists: they were businessmen, respectable people.”

In 2002, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for the manslaughter by two other men of business rival Mohammed Raja; a jury decided that “although he wanted Mr Raja harmed, he had not wanted him murdered”. He was released in 2004 after successfully appealing against his conviction on the grounds that “there was no foundation for a manslaughter case.” In 2005, Mohammed Raja’s family won £6 million in a civil action against van Hoogstraten after the court found that the balance of probabilities was “that the recruitment of the two thugs was for the purpose of murdering Mr Raja and not merely frightening or hurting him”. Van Hoogstraten reportedly told the BBC that the family would “never get a penny”.

“Is he still in Brighton?” I asked my friend.

“It’s a mystery to me,” my friend said. “Every now and then you hear stories. Some people say he’s in Zimbabwe.”

“Among friends, then,” I said.

“Not any more,” my friend said. “One story is he sold all his assets in this country and put all his money into Zimbabwe because he was so chummy with the regime but they fell out and he lost all his land there.”

The last time I heard van Hoogstraten, he was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme defending Robert Mugabe’s ‘land reform’ policies.

“How’s van Hoogstraten mausoleum?” I asked.

“Crumbling,” my friend said.

By this point, we were passing a bronze statue of the British music hall star Max Miller.

“An interesting place, Brighton,” I said. “Max Miller and Nicholas van Hoogstraten were both equally at home here.”

“Yes,” said my friend.

“Bronze is very colourless for Max Miller,” I said.

“Yes,” said my friend.

Apparently Adelaide is the second biggest Fringe in the world.

And, according to Wikipedia, which is surprisingly accurate on such things, Nicholas van Hoogstraten has been reported to be worth £500 million, “though he has stated that his assets in the UK have all been placed in the names of his children”. His assets in property and farming in Zimbabwe were estimated to be worth over £200 million.

I don’t know what he is worth now or where he is. Nor does my friend.

All I know for certain is that life is tough for dwarfs in Wolverhampton.

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