(L-R) Graeme Garden, Willie Rushton, Barry Cryer, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tim Brooke-Taylor
I had always assumed the fake BBC Radio game Mornington Crescent was called that more-or-less at random. After all, there is no logic to any of it, so why not just choose a random tube station?
Wikipedia currently explains:
The objective of Mornington Crescent is to give the appearance of a game of skill and strategy, with complex and long-winded rules and strategies, to parody games in which similarly circuitous systems have evolved. The rules are fictional and its appeal to audiences lies in the ability of players to create an entertaining illusion of competitive gameplay.
The person who first names Mornington Crescent as being on a supposed London Underground route wins.
Our starting point… Finchley Central station
I knew Mornington Crescent was a version of a game previously called Finchley Central which dates back to at least 1969 when Anatole Beck and David Fowler mentioned it in the Spring 1969 issue of the mathematical magazine Manifold, in which they discussed A Pandora’s Box of Non-games.
They describe the rules of Finchley Central as:
Two players alternate naming the stations of the London Underground. The first to say “Finchley Central” wins. It is clear that the ‘best’ time to say “Finchley Central” is exactly before your opponent does. Failing that, it is good that he should be considering it. You could, of course, say “Finchley Central” on your second turn. In that case, your opponent puffs on his cigarette and says, “Well,… Shame on you!”
On BBC Radio, Mornington Crescent first appeared in the opening episode of the sixth series of comedy panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, broadcast on 22 August 1978 – nine years after the Manifold mention of Finchley Central.
As I said, I assumed Mornington Crescent was chosen at random as the station at the centre of the new spoof game.
But, this morning, former TV & radio announcer/presenter and so much more Keith Martin told me this was not the case.
“The show used to be recorded at what was then the BBC’s Camden Palace Theatre,” he told me, “which, as you know, was directly opposite Mornington Crescent tube station. I used to go and watch it being recorded there. So it was the station everyone coming to the show arrived at.”
BBC Camden Palace Theatre could fit an entire orchestra into the studio
The Camden Palace had a life almost as varied as Keith Martin’s.
It opened as a music hall on Boxing Day 1900, became the Camden Hippodrome variety theatre in 1909, the Camden Hippodrome Picture Theatre in 1913, a Gaumont cinema in 1928, closed in 1940 and was then a key studio for the BBC Light Programme, becoming BBC Radio’s ” home of light music and comedy” between 1945 and 1972. (The BBC Light Programme was re-named BBC Radio 2 in 1967). The studios closed in 1972, but the building re-opened as a live music venue – The Music Machine – in 1977. It was re-named the Camden Palace (again) in 1982, closed in 2004 and re-opened as music venue KOKO.
“I used to watch The Goons there,” Keith told me, wistfully.
One of my front upper teeth has gone out of alignment with the others. Hopefully this is a false tooth.
Staying on things oral, I have a lifelong dry, irritating (to others) cough, which is very useful for clearing queues during the current coronavirus outbreak.
One of the many British comedic highlights of the past which I missed was The Fast Show on BBC2 (1994-1997 + 2011-2014). I never saw an entire episode though I saw occasional excerpts.
One thing I apparently missed was a running gag/character called Bob Fleming, who had a dry irritating cough. Someone drew my attention to it today.
I had zero involvement in The Fast Show, but I did (inevitably, though Malcolm Hardee) peripherally have a nodding acquaintance with a couple of the cast members. It would be nice to think one mentioned in passing about this bloke John Fleming who had a perpetual irritating cough. That would be my 15 seconds of inspirational fame.
Alas, I imagine the thought of phlegming/Fleming is a more likely source.
Today I also chatted with TV chap Simon Kennedy for an upcoming blog. Inexplicably, the subject of long-time Chinese statesman Chou En Lai came up… and his famous quote.
Ever-wise, much quoted Chinese statesman
In the early 1970s, talking to Henry Kissinger, he was asked if he thought the French Revolution had had a successful outcome. The French Revolution happened in 1789.
Chou said: “It is too early to say.”
I have always seen this as the epitome of Chinese long-sightedness.
But Simon correctly told me that Chou was actually referring to the 1968 student riots in Paris.
What a pity.
It is far more Chinese to say that 1968 was too early to say what long-term effects an action in 1789 had.
MONDAY 22nd JUNE
China – and, indeed, similar political paradises – are known for their bureaucracy.
So today I arrived at my local hospital at 0845 (with my three appointment letters) for my 0900 Nephrology appointment at Outpatients and, on presenting myself and my three letters at Main Reception, was told the department was closed and all appointments had been moved to another hospital.
I ignored this – as I had had the three letters and had had a phone call confirming the appointment. I phoned the Kidney Man’s answering machine, found Outpatients and sat in Main Outpatients Reception (open from 0830 but with no receptionist).
About 0900, the Kidney Man’s secretary phoned me back to confirm I would be seen and if no-one turned up, to phone her back. I was due to see a Kidney Woman.
I said if no-one turned up by 0920 I would phone back.
The Kidney Woman arrived at 0917, unlike the receptionist.
She (the Kidney Woman) told me that, during my 7-day hospital stay, they had not treated me – just observed. Fair enough.
During that time, my calcium level had gone back to normal without any treatment (except the saline drip for 7 days). My calcium level had been 3.2. I had been told in hospital it should be 2.6.
The Kidney Woman told me: “2.6 would be an absolute maximum.”
Apparently ‘normal’ would be 2.2 to 2.6.
My kidney function last October had been an OK-for-my-age 62 but, on entering hospital, it was down to 19. Over 7 days in the hospital I had been told it had risen to 28 which was concerning but no longer “dangerous” and the Kidney Woman today told me it had been 34 on discharge from hospital.
“Anything over 60 would be OK for a man of your age,” she told me. “Your calcium level would affect your kidney function, but your kidney function could not affect the calcium level.”
Still, there is no hint of why my calcium level/kidney function went haywire nor why I keep waking up 6 or 7 or 8 times a night with a parched, bone-dry mouth and have to drink water. Next week, I will hear the result of today’s blood test.
During the day I am mostly OK though I sometimes have to have a late afternoon nap for a couple of hours; and I go to bed, tired, around 8.00pm or 9.00pm. My normal bedtime used to be around midnight.
Whether this tiredness is a result of my calcium/kidney problems or just being old or having constantly woken up 6 or 7 or 8 times the previous night… Who knows?
TUESDAY 23rd JUNE
The pandemic has resulted in much more dental bureaucracy
The tooth cap that was out-of-alignment on Sunday has now got decidedly wobbly. It is hanging on in there, but threatening to either fall out during the day or (in my fantasies) drop out and get swallowed by me during the night.
Miraculously (because of the coronavirus lockdown) I was able to get a dental appointment next Tuesday. My dentist re-opened last Monday (eight days ago) for emergencies.
I got an appointment after answering a lot of detailed medical questions and, I think, because the dodgy upper tooth is towards the front and visible.
There will be absolutely no drilling of any kind because of the danger from airborne spray from the mouth. So anything that would normally involve drilling will, instead, be temporarily repaired.
Around lunchtime, I was sitting on a bench with someone (the regulation two metres apart) in the Green Belt area near my home when a stray football from a nearby game headed towards us. I got up, kicked the ball back and nearly overbalanced and (did not) fall over.
I am constantly lightheaded during the day and waking up hourly at night.
Who knows why?
In the afternoon, I was told of the death of Douglas Gray last Thursday. He and brother Tony were The Alberts, a surreal comedy duo which linked The Goons and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
I met the brothers years ago – in the 1980s, I think, at their home (I think they lived in the same rambling house but I could be wrong) in Norfolk. They were interestingly and gently eccentric and one – I think it was Douglas – appeared to be dressed for playing cricket for no apparent reason.
They should have been British cultural treasures but, alas, mega-fame escaped them, like so many worthy performers. I seem to remember that they used to pretend to work on a national newspaper in London, before Margaret Thatcher destroyed the ‘closed shop’ policies of the trades unions.
They told me, I think, that they would drive down from Norfolk to London each Friday, sign on as print workers (they had union cards), then drive straight back to Norfolk. They got paid well for working at the weekends although they were not even in London, let alone working on the production of the newspaper.
They were surrealists on and off stage.
Today was the last day of the daily government Briefings/updates about the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdown restrictions will be partially, but not by any means totally, lifted on the 4th of July – our ‘Trim-dependence Day’ as one BBC News reporter put it, because hairdressers will be allowed to open with safety restrictions.
The total of reported UK coronavirus deaths is now 42,927… up 171 in the previous 24 hours
WEDNESDAY 24th JUNE
I have received the three pages of forms I have to fill in before seeing my dentist next Tuesday.
The accompanying letter details what will happen.
The tooth will out…
– I should rinse my mouth with mouthwash before leaving home, to kill off any bacteria in my mouth.
– I should not arrive early, because the surgery’s street door will be locked and I will only be allowed in when the previous patient has left.
– On entry, my temperature will be taken with an infra-red thermometer.
– I will have to wash my hands with anti-bacterial gel before seeing the dentist.
– The dentist and nurse will be wearing protective clothing: presumably face masks and/or plastic face visors.
As if to celebrate my filling-in of the dental forms…
Fifty years ago this Sunday – 20th April 1964 – the BBC2 television channel was due to start with a special programme The Albert’s Channel Too by anarchic comedy duo The Alberts.
It was billed as coming “direct from the Alberts’ Television Centre” featuring (according to Radio Times) Ivor Cutler, David Jacobs, Adolf Hitler and Birma the elephant.
Instead, a fire broke out at Battersea Power Station and, separately, there was a fault in a 60,000 volt cable at Iver in Buckinghamshire which cut power in West London, including BBC Television Centre.
The opening of BBC2 was a shambles.
The Alberts performed the following night, so BBC2 had two consecutive opening nights, both utterly anarchic.
Last Saturday, I sent a message to Albion Gray, the son of Tony Gray, one of The Alberts:
The Alberts – Tony Gray (left) and Douglas Gray (right) – with Bruce Lacey (top) and dog (bottom)
I trekked out to Norfolk to chat to them in the 1980s when I was a researcher on, I guess, Game For a Laugh.
Possibly Malcolm Hardee mentioned them to me. They were wonderful people. I don’t suppose they’d be up for a blog chat would they?
My dad Tony is a bit too frail to be interviewed but Douglas is in better shape. Let me find out and get back to you.
Yesterday, I got another message from Albion. It started:
Unfortunately my father passed away yesterday, at the grand old age of 86.
By last night, there was an obituary on the Daily Telegraph website headlined
Tony Gray was a co-founder of a musical comedy act whose brand of anarchic slapstick inspired Monty Python
The Alberts were brothers Tony and Douglas Gray. The Daily Telegraph obituary is rather low-key in saying “their specialities included bubble-blowing automata and exploding camels”.
A Show Called Fred (from left)… Top row: Graham Stark, unknown dummy, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers… Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi
There is an entire 25-minute episode of A Show Called Fredon YouTube. The Alberts first appear 40 seconds into the pre-credit sequence carrying musical instruments. Douglas enters first.
If you want to know what The Alberts were like – both on AND off stage and screen, think The Goons on the way to Monty Python with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band stirred in.
Satirist John Wells famously described one of The Alberts’ 1960s performances thus:
“Moth-eaten men in beards and baggy Edwardian clothes strode on and off the stage; there were a great many random bangs and explosions, trumpets were blown, jokes were muttered and shouted, usually into the wings; the stuffed camel had its tail turned like a starting handle to the accompaniment of further bangs and more dirty men in ancient military uniforms strode on and off shouting at each other; someone appeared dressed as a bee; a mechanical dummy was wheeled on to deliver a monosyllabic political speech; a musician in grubby white tie and tails attempted to play the cello, and subversive figures winking at the audience and slyly tapping their noses were seen to lay a charge of dynamite under his chair, reel out the cable to a plunger and finally blow themselves up with another thunderous bang.”
There is a 4-minute video on YouTube of The Flying Alberts – Tony & Douglas with Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce in the 1960s.
In 1962, Peter Cook booked The Alberts for a residency at his seminal London comedy club The Establishment. They performed a Dada-inspired quiz show in which Bruce Lacey asked the questions. A description of one show said Lacey asked a question, the competitor got a bucket of whitewash poured over his head and then said: “Could you repeat the question, please?”
American comic Lenny Bruce saw The Alberts perform at The Establishment and booked them for an American tour. They crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary liner, reportedly either entertaining or annoying other passengers by riding penny-farthing bicycles around the decks. By the time they arrived in New York, Lenny Bruce had been arrested on charges of obscenity but The Alberts’ show was a success in New York. Somewhat oddly, it reportedly bombed in San Francisco which, you would think, would have been more open to their eccentricities.
The Alberts – purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty
Back in London, their West End show An Evening of British Rubbish ran for almost a year in 1963 (Princess Margaret went to see it twice) and they later toured the show in Belgium and France, under the title Crazy Show de British Rubbish.
An Evening of British Rubbish was released as an LP in 1963, produced by George Martin whose work with The Alberts was rather overshadowed that year by his work with The Beatles. George Martin also produced a single for The Alberts (with Bruce Lacey) featuring The Morse Code Melody on one side and Sleepy Valley on the other.
The Alberts – always very musical – are often cited as a big influence on The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzos said: “If there was any influence at all, it would be The Alberts or the Commedia dell’arte.”
According to their oft-times collaborator Bruce Lacey, The Temperance Seven band was originally formed by the Alberts but they were later ejected for ‘musical incompatibility’. I know no more.
The fake accounts and AGM of entertainment experts Albert, Lacey & Albert Ltd, 1960-1961
Around 1971, EMI issued a musical compilation album simply titled: The Alberts/The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band/The Temperance Seven and there was a later 1999 album called By Jingo, It’s British Rubbish with tracks by The Alberts, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Temperance Seven, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
It was almost 30 years ago – in the mid 1980s – when I went up to meet Tony and Douglas Gray at home in Norfolk. I can remember very little except that it was an ex-vicarage and I liked both of the brothers immediately and immensely. I do remember Douglas played bagpipes indoors (a commendably eccentric thing to do, though never a good idea to experience) and Tony was dressed in full cricketing outfit… Neither did either of these things for any discernible reason.
Producer Danny Greenstone, who was with me on the visit, told me this morning: “I remember the bagpipe playing, but it didn’t stop at bagpipes. We were also treated to the tuba, a ukulele and other bizarre instruments. We wanted them for Game For a Laugh (of course) but I can’t remember what it was we wanted them to do. It MUST have been some kind of musical act and I think we DID get them to do it, but the details have faded. I also remember that you got a flat tyre on the way back.”
Memories fade. I only remember the bagpipes, Tony’s clothes and their personalities. I think there is a slight possibility that Douglas wore a kilt and a sporran. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.
At the time Danny and I met them, they were both working for the Sunday Telegraph and, I think other Fleet Street newspapers by driving delivery vans. This was before Rupert Murdoch fully broke the power of the newspaper unions and I have some vague memory of them telling me that they performed part of their journalistic duties by signing in (or having other people sign in for them) as M.Mouse in London while staying in Norfolk and not actually doing anything. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.
Brothers Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young
The Alberts had a varied and influential career which deserves to be remembered. They appeared in several Ken Russell films and in the 1965 Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium and, in 1966, they appeared in their own show The Three Musketeers Ride Again both at the Arts Theatre and the Royal Court theatre in London.
On YouTube, there is a song – sung by Tony Gray this century – which was written for The Alberts’ 1966 production of The Three Musketeers Ride Again. It is called When I Was Seventeen.