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Gerry George's Memories - 2
More nostalgic memories of a television kid of the '50s

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Dear Whirligig,

Remember those oh-so-happy BBC TV Christmas parties, when 'Auntie' let down the curtain - and her hair - to share, with viewers, countrywide, all the festive fun, backstage...by turning the cameras on the entertainers ?

Suddenly, total professionals, like MacDonald Hobley, Mary Malcolm and Sylvia Peters, shed their dignified 'front-of-house' personas...and - without any 'side', or loss of decorum - showed us that they were 'real' people, just like us, the viewers, who delighted in good wholesome family fun...and, without the slightest sign of bad taste, or vulgarity.

That's not to say these 'shindigs' were in any way, contrivedly, stuffed-shirt, poker-faced affairs: anything but; indeed, one such party - of 1951 - sticks, forever, in my memory, if only for the light hearted way, in which everyone at the 'Beeb' came together, in the most enchanting, and disarmingly-friendly manner, possible.

Cameras were turned on cameramen, microphone-booms and cables suddenly swung into vision, presenters abandoned their postures 'de rigour', and a seemingly miraculous aura of sheer uninterrupted bliss descended upon the whole scene.

Celebrities, in turn, would do their own particular 'party-piece' - whether it be an announcer, playing a clarinet, or a washboard; or a presenter, standing on her head, and drinking a tumbler full of water - and who could ever forget the audacious barracking, that one determined intruder heaped upon poor MacDonald Hobley, when he stood up to deliver his practised, and suitably sombre, party monologue ?

Heckling him, from the audience, an energetic and cheeky youth, outraged viewers, as thrusting technicians and microphone stands aside, he burst forth, striding onto the studio floor, like a fighting-cock, and continued his harangue, while Hobley - apparently lost for words, for the first time in his life - fought bravely to salvage the situation.

Just stop for a minute, and remember - as with everything else on television, in those far-off days - this was going out 'live', and there was no going back, and 'rubbing out', and starting all over again.

"Ere, who do you think you are, anyway?", mocked the gangling gate-crasher, as -repeatedly mimicking Hobley's cut-glass rejoinders - he tripped over cables, and blocked the senior announcer's escape route, menacing him, in every direction: "Announcing: huh, that's easy", he crowed, "why, anybody could do that: let me 'ave a go ?"

Who could be blamed for thinking, that, by now, panic buttons would be flashing, in the control box, and that, already, an 'all-stations alert' had reached, as far as the local police station...if not Scotland Yard ?

How could we, the viewers, possibly know, that this uppety little vagabond, in the skimpy check suit, and upturned peaked cap, had just taken time off, from the London Casino, where he was topping the bill - and stopping audiences in their tracks - and that his name would soon become a household word, in the annals of showbusiness ?

Yes, that's how I first saw Norman Wisdom explode, like a Christmas cracker, into Television - at the 1951 BBC TV Christmas Party - the first of many more brief cameo appearances, before the lovable, diminutive star rocketed to fame, in the wake of 'Trouble In Store', the first of nearly 2O hilarious, blockbuster films.

Of course, 'Mac' Hobley knew all the time, just what was happening, but, he 'played-it-straight', for the sheer fun of it....and audiences went wild, with joy, when they finally realised it was all, just one big Christmas giggle...and, of course, Norman went on to do a fantastic show, playing a multiplicity of musical instruments; dancing, and clowning about, in the way we all know now.

We saw the legendary classical actor, A E Matthews downing-in-one, 'a pint' (probably water), with the triumphant cry: 'Bung-Ho!'. We witnessed South African pop-singer, Eve Boswell, trying her hand at traditional festive children's party games; while the gross, and be-monocled, light musical comedy star, Fred Emney, demonstrated schoolboy japes, learned - and no doubt, well-practised - at his London club.

It was all quite innocuous...but we liked it that way: this, after all, was our own BBC TV - 'at play' - and it met with our perceptions...and won our full and unqualified approval !

Oh happy, happy, days: BBC TV days !

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And, of course, a leading light at those Christmas parties, always, was dear Ronnie Waldman - a winning bi-product, and graduate, of sound radio's 'Monday Night At Seven', (and, later, 'Eight') fame - aided and abetted by the lovely Lana Morris, who was later to become his wife.

By now, Ronnie - who, in time, would become the Head of BBC Light Entertainment - was running a very popular diversion, entitled 'Puzzle Corner', which, amongst other things, had, secreted within it, every week, its own 'deliberate mistake'.

The idea was, for viewers to spot that error, and advise Waldman, in good time, before preparation of the next week's programme, just what his 'deliberate mistake' was.

Imagine what the reaction might be, to such a poser, today ? There were no prizes, you know; no 'Blankety-Blank Cheque Book & Pen' hand-outs; no hols-for-two, in the Canaries...no nothing ! "No Nowt" (as the dear-lamented, Tommy Handley, would remark).

Now, contrast today's perceived reaction, with what DID happen, in those less-hurried, non cyber-dominated, days:

Well, working models, by the mailbag, illustrative of Mr. Waldman's (and Auntie's) bloomers, descended on Broadcasting House - by the hundredweight - from every far-flung outpost of Great Britain...every week.

Constructed of everything, from paper, metal, cardboard and plastic, to poly- foam and elastic bands, they were brilliant testaments of bizarre inventive skill and viewer ingenuity. Some had clockwork mechanisms built into them - and, all went to the very limits of imaginative creativity, to demonstrate where Ronnie Waldman had purposely gone wrong.

Believe it or not: this was a real, 'cliff-hanger'; and viewers anxiously awaited the beginning of the slot, every week, when they would see, unveiled, an array of the most ingenious models, which Ronnie had selected from his bumper response.

I wonder how many viewers can remember those tense moments, before Ronnie's regular riddle, was so cleverly put to flight ? And, more importantly, can you describe - perhaps, just one - of those working models, in detail ?

And how many, I wonder, can recall that other import, from - aptly speaking - 'the other side' (then, meaning BBC Radio, of course): 'The Man In Black'; AKA, actor-sinister, Valentine Dyall ?

How his harrowing ghost stories gave me the Willies: I'm not ashamed to admit that - after being allowed to sit up, and listen to any one of them - I would not go up to my bed, unless my mother gave permission for me to leave the electric light on, all night, in my bedroom, or on the stairhead landing.

Here, again, was another character, who was prone to be met, strutting his stuff - but, in his off-stage persona - at one of those enchanting, and ofttimes, mysterious and enigmatic, BBC TV Christmas parties.

While we are still on the subject of the Sinister: I wonder how many viewers - who, like me, were mere striplings at the time - remember those caped, and mounted 'Mystery Riders' , who, every week, on the stroke of tea-time, were disgorged, from their underground Yuma desert cavern, to right wrongs, and generally keep erring cowboys, in check, way out West ?

Do you remember their song; which, to me, bore all the dubious overtones of some Gregorian, plain chant, albeit sung by American actors, with very flat, unmelodic, heavily nasal, and truncated 'Vitaphone' voices ? :

We are the Ri-ders
The Myster-y Ri-ders
From out the Des-ert Trail

Dum-diddley-um, Diddly-um, Diddley-um, Diddly-um, Dum-Dum (Cantering Horses' hooves music, into the horizon)...etc.

Amongst the cowboys, there was always the occasional Arab sheik: I could never work out, how Arab sheiks, in full regalia, found themselves written into the unfolding weekly plot; or, for that matter, why these oddly covert, quasi-Masonic equestrians, always returned to their subterranean domiciles, which they seemed to prefer to inhabit, as opposed to living, out in the California sunshine.

Still, for all that, it made compelling viewing, for an imaginative 12-year-old, with an alternative schedule of, Algebra homework, coalscuttle manipulation, or evening newspaper deliveries, to occupy his mind.

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Saturday treats - 'Saturday Special', one week; 'Whirligig' , the next - were a breath of fresh air, especially when the lovely Australian zither girl, Shirley Abicair, was 'pulling the strings'; and, do you remember that occasion, when the sightless, Billy Mayerl, sat at the piano, and introduced youngsters to some of his own Thirties hits, including a catchy little ditty, entitled 'The Twittering of The Birdies, on The Sycamore Tree' ?

Indeed, it was so catchy, that I often hum it to myself, even to this day - half a century later - and yet, I've never heard it played, ever again, since that programme.

Mandatory viewing, in MY Saturday schedule, was, very definitely, 'In Town Tonight', with John Ellison.

Here was a highly successful radio programme, that had been swept into television - well, I would, say - virtually, by natural evolution: and, it seemed, that well, just about EVERYBODY, made sure they were glued to TV screen, long before the strains of Eric Coates's stirring, 'Knightsbridge March' began to roll.

What a thrill I got, on one such Saturday evening, in 1954, when - quite by surprise - my hero-supreme, the legendary, George Formby, stepped into the studio, to chat, informally, with the charming, and easy-going Mr. Ellison.

George, then 5O - and two years on, from suffering the massive heart attack, which put paid to his record-breaking West End debut in Emile Littler's, (George Posford & Eric Maschwitch) musical, 'Zip Goes A Million', and nearly killed him, into the bargain was, by now, in fine fettle.

Bronzed, and jovial, he made light of his illness, as, flanked - and frequently, quite forcefully, prompted - by his sentinel wife, Beryl, he talked of the wonderful holiday they had just returned from, in the South African sunshine.

He even sported a tiny gold nugget, given to him by the miners there, and ended up by singing - in Africaans, would you believe - the Boers' famous folk-song, 'Sara Marais', accompanying himself, in his own inimitable style, on, of course, the ukulele banjo.

Years later, he confided to me, how very nervous he had been, when he made that particular broadcast, because - in reality - it was his first ‘live’ screening, before a British public, since being laid-low by that crippling heart attack: "That appearance, gave me the confidence to go on", he confessed, "because it made me realise that the people still wanted me."

Such was the lasting impression that Formby made upon me, in that single 'In Town Tonight' cameo, that - regretfully - I have to admit, he is the only guest I am able to bring to mind, from that winning series; that enduring object-lesson of television 'vox pop', for real, in action.

And yet, he was just one, of the many, interesting people, who wended their way, through Ellison's noted hall of fame, before the cockney flower lady's melodious words: "Laavely violets, lydy: laavely violets", were drowned-out by the Capital's traffic noise - for the last time as the cryer boomed-out his final: "Carry-On, London".

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But, how can you talk about London, and Cockneys, without thinking of that darling of the Nineties - and of the Music Hall - dear, sweet, Marie Lloyd ?

And, even in this respect, BBC TV was not found to be lacking. For, in those early 195Os, Marie Lloyd's compelling life story was re-enacted with aplomb, by an equally engaging actress, and accomplished artiste of her time: the beautiful and talented Patricia Kirkwood.

What a delight it was to see Pat Kirkwood - tripping the light fantastic, on the stage of, say, Collins’ Music Hall - as she reprised Marie Lloyd's sweet-natured, and moving ditty: 'The Boy I Love, Is Up In The Gallery', as she unfolded this touching and tragic musical melodrama, about a lady, whose only perceived character-flaw, was that of being over-generous, to a fault, in every respect...indeed, in the final outcome, this was surely Marie Lloyd's nemesis.

Perhaps, if you older viewers, who had the good fortune to see this BBC TV programme - nearly five decades ago - were to listen carefully, you might just be able to hear Miss Kirkwood's memorable, and moving rendition, once again:

Shussh: Listen.....Can't you hear the orchestra's cue music...and those lilting, nightingale notes ? Shussssh.......

The boy I love is
Up in the gall-er-y
The boy I love is
Look-ing down at me

There he is
Can't yuh see ?
Sit-ting in the gall-er-y
As mer-ry as a rob-in
That sits on a tree

Oh dear, there I go: getting all nostalgic, and - quite tearful - again ! I'll really have to put a stop to this. (giggle).

Seriously, though: and on a lighter note, there was a lovely sequel to that performance, and the many others, which the highly successful Miss Kirkwood was to make, throughout those Fifties years, and the decades that followed.

She, incidentally, had already co-starred with George Formby, as early as 1939, when, in 'Come On George' - an Ealing Studios blockbuster, based around Formby's private passion for horse-racing - characteristically, she sang, danced, and acted, to perfection.

Noteworthy - to me, however - is another BBC TV Fifties appearance, when, this time, Pat was joined in front of the cameras, by her then husband, the brilliant and talented composer/actor/entertainer, Hubert Gregg.

Gregg was noted for several successful wartime compositions, and not least of these, was the delightful and romantic love-song: 'Room Five-Hundred-And-Four', a firmly established 'standard', which, joined by Pat, he played and sang, at the piano, on that memorable broadcast.

As I say, Hubert Gregg wrote many hits, but I am a bit rusty on my research, in this direction, and I am wondering whether anyone reading this, can help me out:

The question is: did Gregg also write: ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square' ?

Now, is there anyone, clever, or brave, enough, to answer that poser for me ?

No prizes for coming up with the correct answer; but, I WILL jot down a few more memories...Er, well: if you still want me to, that is !

And oh, in the words of those stalwart, well-remembered broadcasters, from the BBC archives: "If you have been...thanks for listening !"

Or, in this case - oh Cyber brothers and sisters - I suppose I should amend that to "Watching, and Reading", eh, what ?

Cheerio, for now, dear friends, and lovers of BBC TV's proud and glorious yesteryear...And: 'happy recollecting' !

Gerry George (Actor)

TALE-PIECE.... Here's something for next week: Who remembers those highly-entertaining 'live' transmissions, direct from London's Nuffield Theatre, when, sometimes, half the audience: serving soldiers, sailors, airmen, Wrens, WRACs and WRAFs - all proudly dressed, in their service uniforms - were regularly to be seen, seated in the grand circle, or dotted around, in the orchestra stalls ? Jack Warner - later to loom out of the blue haze of a police lamp, in the immensely popular police series, 'Dixon of Dock Green' - often starred in these early 5Os variety shows, with his 'Mind My Bike' comedy routine; or, reading from the gag-filled scribbled letters, he'd received from his fictional brother, Syd. I liked the opening titles best; when the cameras panned on the front of house, and you saw a diverse range of uniformed service folk, all filing past the playbills, as they headed for the paybox. And, Whirligig fans might also like to be reminded of two other regular characters - Graham Stark, and Stan Stennett - both of whom, we'll hear more about, in future mails.

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