Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Library of Oblivion #1

Your last chance to see the books that no human eye will ever encounter again; that no charity shop, jumble sale, or car boot sale will ever again deem worth the effort of getting out of the cardboard box they rode into town on.
Any book featured in The Library of Oblivion can be yours free of charge. Simply drop me a line at explaining which book you are interested in, and why you want to give it its last chance. Don't forget to include a postal address, ideally not in Australia or something.

1. Football Daft, by Michael Parkinson

I picked up Football Daft in the 10p bin of a local charity shop. Not even the fact that the world cup was in full swing was enough to deem it worthy of placement inside the shop. In a wire basket on the pavement is last chance city for paperbacks.
I hate football, but I was strangely moved by the cover, which shows the Yorkshire-born chat show host wearing a wet weather coat and a small plastic novelty hat, waving a rattle and clutching a toilet roll.
When all is said and done, I warm to Parky; he has a few annoying traits, but it's hard not to be basically well-disposed to someone who began his interviewing career chatting to the likes of Bette Davis and Orson Welles, and ended it having to pretend to crack up at Sanjeev Bhaskar, OBE.
The book itself is a series of lightly comic articles originally published in the Sunday Times; some are wry meditations on actual football personalities and topics, others are Benchleyesque flights of fancy. The book is charmingly dedicated "To anyone who is football daft", and is a semi-follow-up to an earlier book called Cricket Mad. But though it speaks primarily to the confirmed fan, it also conveys useful information to the novice, especially one with a taste for a natty simile or two: "Goalkeepers, like things that go bump in the night, defy analysis"; "wingmen, like people who thatch roofs and make clogs, are a dying breed"; "Great inside forwards, like blissful marriages, are made in heaven", and so on.

Here is a sample paragraph:

"I don't know if you've ever considered the remarkable fact that bandy legs are an asset to most sportsmen. That they help people who ride horses is a thought too obvious to need explanation. But it is not generally known that they greatly assist cricketers also. I once played in a cricket team with a man who possessed the most splendid pair of hooped legs I have yet seen."

The phrase "I have yet seen" introduces an element of optimistic speculation to the sentence, as if he hopes that he will see an even more splendid pair of hooped legs in the future. Since the book was published in 1968, it is entirely possible that he has done so in the years following.
I certainly hope so.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Some things are simply not possible in an ordered universe, and Sally Geeson turning sixty is one of them

Sally Geeson is always Sally.
She is Sally, for instance, in Cry of the Banshee, a period dress horror film with Vincent Price, animated titles by Terry Gilliam, and a dog whose growling is obviously dubbed by a man.
She's Sally in What's Good For The Goose, in which she has an affair with Norman Wisdom and takes him to a nightclub where the waiters wear ties over bare chests.

She is Sally in Carry On Abroad, in which she pulls Bernard Bresslaw, playing a monk, and wears a bikini with 'This' and 'That' written on it.

Most of all she is Sally in Bless This House, the ITV sitcom in which she plays Sid James's daughter Sally. She later married the programme's producer, William G. 'Fifteen to One' Stewart. Her brother Mike was played by Robin Stewart. According to Robin Askwith's autobiography, he was perpetually late for rehearsals, and once attempted to excuse himself by claiming that his car had hit and killed a camel on the way to the studio.
I have a friend who knew an actress who took a small role in one episode. She said that Sid was delightful, but Diana Coupland, who plays his wife Jean, was a bit snooty.
The family's next-door neighbours are married couple Betty, played by Carry On stalwart Patsy Rowlands, and Trevor, played by Anthony Jackson (Mr Mumford in the first series of Rentaghost).

Sally remembered Sid as behaving very much like a father in real life. Askwith (who auditioned for the role of Mike, plays it in the film and appears in the series as one of Mike's friends) paints an evocative picture of working at Thames at this glorious, magical time. Imagine: Askwith and Sid swagger into the Thames studio bar, to meet Richard O'Sullivan, already there. "Awlright Richard!" says Sid. "You must be earning a bloody fortune, mate! You getting them in then?"

I love sitcom spin-off movies, and Bless This House (1973) is probably the best sitcom spin-off movie ever made. In the series Sally is your average squeaky teen with the average squeaky teen's interests. The film turns her into an ahead-of-her-time green extremist and proto-eco-Fascist climate change fanatic. There's a wonderful moment where she's in the garden in a bikini in what could well be November, reading a book with nothing on the cover except the fantastic title MANKIND IS DOOMED. She starts sniffing when their neighbour starts a garden fire and attempts to put it out with a hose, which Sid then tries to turn off in a slapstick sequence that requires the viewer to accept that he is both mentally and physically incompetent, has forgotten or never knew how to turn off a hose, and is incapable of pointing it in a different direction or getting it out from between two fence posts by lifting it up and out rather than pulling at it.
Later, she and some junior activists, chanting "No more non-disposable containers!" dump a ton of empty drinks cans outside the factory that makes them. The cans have all been specially made for the film and bear the logo of the fictitious drink they supposedly contain. It is called 'Fizzo'.
In a slapstick wallpapering sequence she steps in the paste with her big white boots on and starts screaming hysterically when Sid gets wallpaper on her head.

Anyway, if you are capable of believing it, the record claims that Sally turned sixty on the 23rd of June. She is apparently now a schoolteacher.

Vote for Sally!

Sally with a load of weird-looking old dolls and toys

The Geeson girls: Imagine growing up in the same street as them. You'd never get any homework done.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Goodbye, man about whom I know more or less nothing

Kenneth McKellar has died at the age of eighty-two.

I've always known the name, and had a vague idea that he was a Scotsman who sang traditional songs on tv wearing a kilt. But I'd never actually seen or heard his work until last year, and it's not until now that I learn from his obit in Gramophone magazine that he was a proper, well-regarded tenor who chose light ent over the operatic stage because he found the life "like living in a goldfish bowl."

He was a major cultural icon, particularly of Scottishness, in the sixties and seventies, his name coming readily to the lips whenever the subject of kilts or sporrans was raised. (All I can't say for sure is just how often the subject of kilts or sporrans was raised. If our household was typical: not all that often.)
Two references that always stick in my mind are the bit in The Burkiss Way when Chris Emmett goes to the doctor because his left leg is feeling a bit Scottish, and is eventually diagnosed with Kenneth McKellar of the knee by doctor Nigel Rees, and the line in the great Morecambe and Wise sketch where Eric, resplendent in platform boots and fake chest hair, announces he has "jumped on the pop bandwagon", but later admits that he has to get the tufts of fake hair back to the supplier by the end of the evening because "Kenneth McKellar's doing a Sunday concert and he wants them for his legs."
Bloody hell, that was a long sentence.

Anyway, when the scumbags of the BBC suffered a momentary lapse of uselessness a couple of years back and started issuing complete and unedited Morecambe and Wise shows, I finally got to see McKellar at work. He's charming, devilish handsome, has a laugh, and delivers this blistering rendition of one of my favourite howling songs If It Takes Forever, I Will Wait For You.
I have a jewellery box shaped like a little piano that plays this melody. It used to be my grandmother's. That remains the best version I know, but Kenneth is a close second. You'll notice he's got trousers on, but otherwise this is a faultless performance.

Godspeed ye on yer way, Kenneth lad.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pan's People are in noisy chainmail and all is right with the world

In my previous post, on the subject of Freddie and the Dreamers, I pointed out how in the clip of them performing Do the Freddie it was an especial treat to hear Garrity's feet banging on the wooden boards of the studio, something you rarely get to enjoy in the more professionally sound-recorded tv of today.
Well in just the few minutes that have elapsed since the piece went live I have been inundated with emails, and even one postcard - very quick work, there, Mr C. of Wolverhampton - from readers who share my love of this lost joy of the 'let's just have one big microphone and point it roughly in the direction the noise is coming from' age.
And all are agreed that the all-time classic example is the performance by Pan's People, from an early episode of The Two Ronnies, that you can enjoy at the end of this post.
As you'll see, the girls are all done up with long braids of chain-mail, and all the time, above the track, you can hear this constant swishing and rattling, almost hypnotic in its distracting intensity. And I think, although I can't swear to it, there's also the sound of their boots scraping on the floor to be enjoyed somewhere in the mix too.

Incidentally, were Pan's People supposed to dance completely out of time with both the music and each other, and not do very much anyway, as if conceding that the reason we are watching them has nothing whatever to do with what they are ostensibly doing? Because my girlfriend was wondering.

"Pan's People have a particular attraction for me..."
I don't know what it is, all I know is whenever I see them I have to go out and steal tape.
You and me both, Keith. One minute I'm watching them cavorting on The Two Ronnies, the next the clock has mysteriously jumped forward one hour and I'm waking up in the middle of the room clutching an Asda bag and surrounded by unopened rolls of sellotape. My girlfriend is starting to ask where they keep coming from and, let me tell you, I'm running out of excuses. There's only so many things you can tape to other things in an average-sized flat without it starting to get obvious that you're just looking for things to tape together, just so you can use up some of the damned stuff.
If Keith Jackson is still out there and reading this, please get in touch. A problem shared is a problem halved, after all.
More on Pan's People can be located here, but for now, on with the show.
You may want to put a sheet over the budgie's cage first.

Anybody want anything sellotaping?

Do the Freddie

I don't get nostalgic about pop music by and large. In fact I hate most of it.
Like the movies, pop music obviously goes into decline around the time of the Second World War, and the sound of Elvis Presley is the sound of nails being hammered into the genre's coffin. And don't get me started on the Beatles.
Actually do. When are people going to grow up and see these amateur twang merchants for what they are? They sounded bad enough at the time. Now they don't sound like anything at all; just a vaguely perceptible noise that seems to be coming through the wall from the house next door.
I left a comment on somebody's site a week or so back about the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup, explaining that though it is one of my least favourite Marx films, it's still a Marx film, and therefore I still enjoy it more than almost anything else in the universe, just not as much as most other Marx films. And the guy said, yeah, it's like Beatles songs: you have to look a long time before you find a bad one.
Oh, I don't know. There's Yesterday, for example, and that one about needing love. (There's nothing you can do that can't be done... So true.) There were a dozen or so on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band last time I heard it, including a real doozy called A Day in the Life. Still gives me a chuckle just thinking about it. Is John Lennon a genius? No. He's an ass. How profound are the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby? Answer: not at all. They're like a schoolboy wrote them.
Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. There are exceptions to every rule, and for some reason I must confess to an affection bordering on adoration for Freddie and the Dreamers. The late Freddie Garrity was one of the great oddballs of British culture, as well as one of its most refreshingly unpretentious. A friend of mine remembered his father, who worked with Freddie in the sixties, describing him as "an amiable former milkman from Manchester who couldn't quite believe the amount of sex he was suddenly getting." (One of the rules of being a pop star, I always think, is that you must never be pretentious, as you are making a great living doing one of the silliest, most trivial and least important things imaginable. Bob Dylan! Goodness me.)
Obviously, I love Freddie's stage presence, all that silly leaping around, and the man looks amazing with his big specs and curly hair: that much is obvious. But I also have a genuine affection for most of their songs. Some of the most interesting are to be found among their last, dating from that period of frantic activity when those big booby Beatles made pop even sillier by suddenly pretending to go all serious about it. Freddie and the boys obviously could never go po-facedly into the experimental age: their image forbade it. So instead, they briefly - all too briefly - took the Kinks route by way of Bonzos Avenue, and produced one of the greatest singles of all time: the fantastic Brown and Porters (Meat Exporters) Lorry, a song about which everything is perfect, from the title on.
Sadly, no film of them performing it seems to exist; it's odds-on they never got the chance to perform it again after the first recording. Their last single that had got anywhere near charting was Thou Shalt Not Steal, which reached the dizzy height of number 44 in 1965; Brown and Porters, in 1967, was their fifth in a row to not chart at all.
Freddie revived the Dreamers as a cabaret act in the nineties, though I'll bet nobody was shouting for Brown and Porters come encore time. I would have been, though. Now it's too late.
But here they all are again, with Garrity in exceptionally foolish form even by the man's own high standards, doing the Freddie in 1965. As well as great in itself, it's a lovely example of something you don't get with music acts on tv these days: the clearly audible sound of their feet banging on the stage.
Imagine no John Lennon. It's easy if you try.

Monday, May 10, 2010

No sadder sight

I’ve been finding out about pigeons.

Did you know that the feral pigeon is in fact the descendant of domesticated rock doves?
Or that they have 37 taste buds (as opposed to our 10000)?
Or that they cannot take a continuous drink from a pool of water, but must instead take small sips and tilt their heads back to swallow?

Actually, the urban pigeon has always struck me as the saddest thing in the world. Now, tragedy is presumably in the eye of the beholder. Things that seem tragic and sad to me may be hilarious to you - indeed, if you work for BBC Light Entertainment it’s virtually a dead cert.
But there is a case to be made for the proposition that, correctly understood, the pigeon shuffling its way through life is a sadder sight than almost anything: sadder even than the sight of Ronnie Corbett appearing on Little Britain. The lot of the pigeon is, I think, the ultimate symbol of the essential futility of existence, which is not a compliment I throw about lightly.

For some reason, the aesthetic joy almost everybody takes in birds stops short at the pigeon. True, they do not sing, though their cooing is far from unendearing. Neither are they beautifully marked, though their dappled grey giving way to green around the necks and piercing orange eyes are far from ugly. They waddle rather appealingly like ducks, their heads in constant absurd motion like chickens. Yet we seem to loathe them.

At least until a few years ago, and probably still, London’s Victoria Coach Station (which lines its every level surface with spikes in the hope that lost souls waiting in vain for the arrival of a coach that runs for longer than fifteen minutes without falling over might be diverted by the sight of birds impaling themselves) ran an endlessly looped tape message, warning that pigeons are “a potentially fatal health hazard”.
You could try writing to them to ask for the exact number of pigeon-related fatalities in England and Wales over the last century or so. Or you can just take my word that the answer is none and they won’t bother to reply anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of this commotion is a polystyrene tray containing three chips and half a kebab

“They’re rats with wings!” people say, a comment which isn’t true, wasn’t funny even the first few hundred times you heard it, and presupposes a shared low opinion of rats that finds no echo in my soul, I’m afraid. Rats are sensitive and charming mammals, as intelligent as dogs, and if they were kept solely as pets while dogs were allowed to breed freely in sewers and rubbish tips people would call pigeons ‘dogs with wings’ and it would be, if anything, an even stupider thing to say.
What pigeons and rats do have in common is that they more than any other animals have done the seemingly impossible: successfully carved a niche for themselves in the howling grey concrete and steel wilderness of human cities. Both profit from human wastefulness and are then blamed for their success. Their eat-anything policy pays off in all realms other than the aesthetic.
But the rat is secretive, flees from human contact and tries to avoid drawing conspicuous attention to itself. Pigeons by contrast are everywhere all the time, and their strategy for avoiding danger, according to one authoritative website I have consulted, is “keeping still and trying not to be noticed”.
Despite the manifest failure of this plan, they persist in stumbling about the streets, pecking at discarded cigarette ends, their feet often deformed, or missing, or trailing lengths of nylon wire, their lifespan a three to five-year cycle of being born, causing others to be born, eating crap off the pavement and dying – with never a second’s rest, peace or pleasure.
Yet in captivity they can live anything between fifteen and thirty-five years. So I just want to get hold of one of them and say: What are you DOING? You could live ANYWHERE! According to this website here you are excellent fliers and can reach speeds of 50 mph – so what’s with all this walking? If you can outmanoeuvre almost any bird of prey in the air, as once again the internet assures me is the case, why hang around on the ground where you can't even get out of the way when there's a truck coming? Why not fly to the woods, or the seaside, and rediscover the taste of wholesome insects and berries? You’ve got wings! USE THEM!
But do they? No they do not.

See - you can do it!

Far from inviting our derision and contempt, the lives of the pigeons should speak to us as deeply and profoundly as the lives of the poets. (More so, actually: when was the last time you saw a poet crushed under the wheels of a bus? As opposed to merely wanting to, I mean.)

I think we hate pigeons because we look at them and see ourselves.
They have freedom all around them, yet they choose enslavement. They could have beauty, and they choose ugliness. Theirs is the skies, but they choose the pavement. They have access to a world without limits, and they choose confinement. All for the sole and dubious advantage of comparatively easy pickings. And when those pickings take the form of human vomit that’s about as dubious as advantages get, I don't care how few taste buds they've got.
And yet that’s the point, isn’t it? They don’t choose. They don’t know they live lives of uniquely unnatural horror. They don’t know that if you don’t like your life you can change it. (H G Wells, to them, was just one more moving target.) They think the world they have is all there is.
That is their small tragedy: how much greater the tragedy, then, to know exactly what we are forfeiting, as we do, and still opt for the narrow, the easy, and the tenth-rate. Willingly eating vomit pales beside this insanity.

I’d hate for you to think that all I’ve been doing is finding out about pigeons. Here’s some of the other great stuff I’ve discovered this morning:

The copyright on the song “Happy Birthday To You” expired last year.

A man called Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby in 1939 that does not feature a single use of the letter e, and he died on the day it was published.

Pot Noodles have been around since 1977 and are made in the Welsh town of Crumlin to the tune of 155 million pots a year.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Kenny Everett Collectors' Guide #1

Kenny Everett's Ultimate Loo Book (1988)

The golden age of Everett-related collectibles was undoubtedly the Thames years: this highly desirable item dates from the other end of his tv career, appearing in the shops after his almost completely ignored fifth and final BBC series. (The cover shows him climbing out of a lavatory bowl with the severe, short hairdo he had sported since series 3.)

The book claims to have been written, like his 1982 autobiography The Custard Stops at Hatfield, by Everett and Simon Booker, which presumably again means that it was ghosted by Booker. Still, he gets Everett's tone of voice well enough, and makes a commendable stab at replicating the absurd wordplay that (I would guess) Barry Cryer had been responsible for on tv.

Billed as "the world's first paperback laxative", it hangs on a piece of red string so it can be attached to the toilet roll dispenser. (See photograph, taken in my own bathroom. My soon-to-be-wife allowed this on the strict instructions that it be removed again once the photo had been taken. For some reason, she questioned the merits of a Kenny Everett Ultimate Loo Book as a permanent bathroom fixture, particularly one that had been purchased second hand and thus had hung in close proximity to lavatories unknown for time periods uncertain.)

Taking the form of an almanac, the book is a mixture of 'on this day' type items ("Happy birthday to Margaret Thatcher; whatever your politics, she's a remarkable woman"), 'Bathroom Brain-Teasers' ('Q: Whose turn is it to pay for lunch? A: Nicholas Parsons'), Everett's Astro-loogical forecasts ("It's not often that you get invited to appear naked on prime-time television, and this week is no exception"), 'Loo Laffs' (very old jokes), and helpful hints, such as this one for ensuring the success of a dinner party: "In the middle of the boeuf en croute a la Marseillaise, reveal your hidden store of knowledge about flatworms - a rare breed of animal which reproduce by pulling themselves to pieces; each part then develops into a worm."
The back cover boasts, "All that remains now is to lock the door, assume the customary position and turn to the entry for today's date. Minutes later you will emerge wittier, wiser... and about two pounds lighter."

Collectors note: Before purchasing, check that the book still has its original red string attached. I have seen several for sale without any string at all, and even one that had been slyly renovated using new, white string. Buyers beware!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tremate, tremate, i Roper son tornati!

We all know that British sitcom travels with surprising success to some surprising places, but this has to be the winner.
If the bewildering range and quantity of them to be seen at those little newsstands you find on virtually every street there is anything to go by, Italy must be the world's biggest consumer of DVD partworks. But even allowing for this, to what force or process more local than chaos theory can we possibly attribute the fact that a partwork that builds into a complete collection of all five series of George and Mildred (or George e Mildred as they seem doggedly intent on calling it over there) is a viable Italian commercial proposition?
Curse fate for having birthed you anywhere but Italia!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chicks with hammers

To kick off my new blog, here's a picture of the lovely Glynis Johns, about to put a hammer through the skull of Terry-Thomas in that fine English film Vault of Horror (1973).
I re-encountered this picture, which comes trailing so many memories of hours of primary school playground time spent staring at the book Horror Films by Alan Frank, when researching a magazine article on Glynis recently.
It reminded me of one of my favourite artistic subjects: women who have hurt their thumbs with a hammer trying to put up a picture.
Here are three great examples. The first two are professional injured thumb models. The third is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The latter picture is one of a series in which Buffy re-enacts various of the calamities that are the average female's daily lot.
Here she points out the dangers of playing tennis in high heels:

Lastly for now, here's a picture of Norman Wisdom spooning ice cream out of a woman's top.