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Gerry George's Memories - 4
The nostalgic memories of a television kid of the '50s

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Dear Whirligig,

Can anyone recall, I wonder, the zany antics of that lovable, writer/director, Desmonde Walter Ellis when - in a moment of calculated madness, on Children's Television, in 1951 - he 'went ape' with an ironing board ?

The idea was for Mr. Ellis to demonstrate his dexterity, with a tool - which, at that time, was almost the exclusive preserve of the British housewife - but, in the process he put the hot iron through the piece of material, so many times, that he ended up by putting his hands through the holes, proudly exclaiming: "Look; now we can use it as a pair of child's rompers !"

This original and surrealist humour, was 'all his own', and he did a whole series of similar 'silly' diversions, during the same year.

I often wonder what became of him, and whether he did more of the same, somewhere else in the entertainment industry.

Has anybody got any ideas ?

But how can we mention 1951, and forget BBC TV's magnificent coverage of the General Election ?

Older viewers may remember, that this was the BBC's first 'serious' attempt at giving 'marathon coverage' of such an event: and, in the outcome, they pulled-off a marvellous job.

Throughout the night, political commentators kept us up to speed with developments, countrywide, illustrating the changing state of play, on a newly-introduced innovation - jovially dubbed, a 'Swingometer', by a leading political commentator, of the day, and presenter (whose name, I regret to say, escapes me) - and, before the last ballot papers had been finally pronounced upon, it was clear that Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill, the Conservative contender - was once more at the reins.

I, personally, was delighted: I felt - politics apart - that Churchill had been treated very badly, by the electorate, after winning the war for them, and, if only for this reason, it was only fair that he was back in the corridors of power...albeit, in his noticeably declining years.

In the same way, I was heartened when America put to flight, Harry Trueman, the rather 'left of centre' Democrat, who - at the onset of the Korean War - was responsible for the despicable dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, having rudely rejected the 'get tough' policy, strongly advocated by the 'I Shall Return' hero, of America's World War II Pacific Campaign.

So, when BBC TV Newsreel footage showed mass distribution of those 'I Like Ike' lapel badges, I kept my fingers crossed for Dwight D Eisenhower...and, sure enough, the former WW II, Head of Allied Operations In Europe, gained yet another victory...this time in the White House.

Korea was a costly, and bloody war - both in men and munitions - but it was drawing to a close, by Christmas 1952.

One particular piece of BBC TV newsreel coverage, at the time, did, however, incense me, and cause my hackles to rise...only on a point how war, can outrage and degrade people's human dignity.

After running a typical piece of Army PR reportage, featuring battle-rested young GIs, tucking into Christmas Dinner, just a few miles behind the lines, the cameras then closed in on nearby trashcans, where scavenging, skinny oriental locals, were doing their best to make a meal of the partially-stripped chicken bones, which the soldiers had tipped off their plates, before heading for the plate-wash with their eating irons, and tin trays.

Anyhow, the war clouds lifted the following year, when North and South Korea laid down their weapons in a lasting truce, and soon BBC newsreels were showing our lads - along with their comrades-in-arms, from the Commonwealth, and America - packing up, and heading for home.

These were 'happy', less-hurried, years - in my television book of memories - and BBC TV still had an English 'afternoon tea, and crumpets' flavour, about it.

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In the afternoons, after Listen With Mother, and Andy Pandy, that now near-extinct race of ladies - the Housewives - settled down for their 2pm slot: 'Women's Hour', which was a sort of 'Woman's Own' magazine, adapted for television.

As I recall, the elegant and cultured, personality, Jeane Heale, was presenter, and host, and the whole ambience of the programme erred on the side of good manners and gentility, in addition to being very helpful, and informative; and, not only to all Womankind, but also to younger viewers, like myself.

Everything, from crochet work, to deportment exercises - some quite outrageous, such as one novel suggestion, for introducing a piece of soap, into a most intimate region of the body, apparently to aid one's equipose - were routine topics of discussion, and demonstration.

Candidly, my heart went out to Women, in general, from that day on, when I discovered the lengths that some were prepared to go to, to make themselves attractive to men.

Of course, the programme did have massive overtones of the Women's Institute's, 'Jam and Jerusalem' persona, about it; but, that made me like it, all the more.

Very soon, I was picking up tips about preserving, and bottling jam, in addition to culling 'inside info' on sewing, ironing, and other household chores, which have stood me in good stead, in today's more equitable society, when we men, are - and quite rightly so - obliged to pull our weight, more, in contrast to our male counterparts, of former generations.

But, as we pull away from those early Fifties, we must not be too critical of ourselves; rather we should look fondly, at such fascinating characters as John Slater, whose compelling tales, as a cockney-Jewish storyteller, represented a much-loved feature of television of the day.

Similar humour - and archetypal London character - came in the persona of actor Ronald Shiner, who, in the early 195Os, was starring in 'Dry Rot', the long-running farce, from London's Whitehall Theatre, which also starred Brian Rix, Elspet Gray, Basil Lord, Robertson Hare, and Leo Franklyn.

Excerpts from this hilarious piece of theatre, were broadcast 'live', in the summer of 1954.

By the mid-Fifties, television comedy was changing, and new faces were appearing in our living rooms, and many up-and-coming stars - like Charlie Drake (fresh from 'Saturday Special', 'Whirligig', and the double-act Mick & Montmerency) - had their own shows, and occupying prime-viewing slots, into the bargain.

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Most noteworthy of these new arrivals, was a fresh-faced, 'Jack-the-Lad' comedy genius - an exclusive scoop from the BBC talent-scouting department - whose name was Dave King.

Almost overnight, this brilliantly funny, and versatile comedian, had captured the hearts of the BBC TV viewing public: suddenly, he was 'there', with his own one-hour weekly spot: 'The Dave King Show'.

His comedy was clean, fresh, new, and invigorating: he was good....and he KNEW it !

After a scintillating two, or three years, during which time his shows were the very best in entertainment, his star suddenly waned - without warning - and he disappeared from the BBC screens, and into, apparent oblivion.

I met him, in Rep, in Exeter, in 1975, when - looking bronzed and fit, and holding down a key character role, in a major production - he appeared to acknowledge that, perhaps, fame came to him, too easily, too soon...for his own good.

That is as may be, but, there is no getting away from the fact that he was brilliant comedian, and singer - quite literally, the nearest thing to Bing Crosby - in addition to being, a very versatile, and much under-rated classical actor.

One sketch, from just one of his shows, which sticks-out in my memory - and which I reminded him of, when we met, in Exeter - was a memorable send-up of those tedious and interminable 'Back To Bataan' movies, which Hollywood never seemed to stop churning out, during the immediate post-war era.

In this hilarious sketch, the uniformed and helmeted King, is flanked by a tough GI, alias comedy-magic genius, Tommy Cooper, as they try to hold back the advancing Japanese hoards, while simultaneously, defending the honour of a female warrior, in the person of the lovely exotic singer, and showgirl, Yana.

All ends in absolute mayhem, when - in typically Hollywood style - they continuously fire their sub-machine guns, in all directions, expending an improbably-high number of rounds, and throwing hand-grenades everywhere - before they realise that the war has been over for ages...and that the Japs are only coming, to give themselves up !

The finale of that particular show, was equally memorable, when King and Cooper - clad in stag-patterned woolly pullovers, similar to those worn by Bing Crosby, and Danny Kaye, in the Hollywood movie: 'Holiday Inn' , and aided by Yana - faithfully reprised that well-loved, 'White Christmas' production number, to perfection.

The beautiful Yana Guard was a frequent visitor to television, in those days - and, indeed, she later had her own show, in which she was once seen singing her sexy, and seductive, hit-song: 'Climb Up The Wall' - but, in 1957, she also attained fame on another count, when she loaned her expensive open-top sports coupe, with it's distinctive, cherished number plate: 'YG 1', to none other than Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet Astronaut, when, he visited this country, after becoming the first man in space, when the Russian 'Sputnik' stole a march on its American adversaries, in the space-race...and hit our screens with that singular achievement.

Sadly, the lovely Yana, died - almost forgotten, at the age of 62 - in the late 198Os. What a pitiful end, to such a warm, talented, and engaging personality.

I talked to her, at Blackpool's Queen's Theatre, in the summer of 1961, one year after she had starred with the by-then deceased George Formby. She was loveliness itself, and was a truly wonderful performer.

Of course, by the mid-5Os, Tommy Cooper, himself, was already a big star, and a well-loved personality, who also had his own BBC TV weekly show.

'I'll never forget, his hilarious send-up, of a stage musical of the day, when, suitably costumed he took his place - albeit rather ostentatiously - in the chorus of a marching troupe of Ruritanian vagabonds.

Every time one particular line in the song, repeatedly recurred, he clearly took great relish in saying it, and delivering it, direct to camera: "And to HELL with Burgundy !"

No big deal, as theatrical devices go, I grant you: but, believe me, everyone in that studio - including those on the other side of the cameras - was in hysterics. Tommy was such a funny, funny man !

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And, of course, it wasn't just changes in comedy, that were setting new trends: changes in news and events, too - and recently-arrived Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan's, televised prophetic words, of a 'Wind of Change' - were in evidence, everywhere, throughout the world.

And never more so, than in China, where the land - dubbed by Napoleon, as 'The Sleeping Giant' - was beginning to awake, and Mao's subjects were being exhorted and compelled, by any means necessary, to drag themselves into the real world of the 2Oth century.

For this reason, I was not surprised, when - during my Royal Air Force days, in the NAAFI canteen, at RAF North Coates, near Grimsby - I saw a Panorama programme, devoted exclusively to China's burgeoning Iron Smelting, 'cottage' industry.

As in our own case, during the Second World War, ordinary members of the public were obliged to tear down metal railings, bronze statues, or indeed, anything that could be recycled, and turned into useful machinery...or, if you will, planes and armaments.

Of course, in those 'cold war' days, we were filled with paranoid forebodings about the evil designs of the 'Yellow Peril'; but, in the outcome, it all came to nothing, and indeed, that particular brave initiative didn't even survive the looming Red Revolution.

Now, on subject of Red Revolutions, that reminds me of yet another change that had overtaken our own, dear BBC TV, as Churchill's term of office, came to a close.

Well, we got a new Prime Minister, in Lord Holme, but we also got Commercial Television...and along with it, the ADVERTS, that from now-on would be streaming into our homes, courtesy of an addition to the traditional H-aerial on the chimney stack, and which was to become known as: 'a multi-array rig'.

And, not before too long, our own 'Red Revolution' - albeit, one confined, simply, to the wholesale and far-reaching changes, adopted by Watneys, in marketing a particular brand of their now famous beer - was well under way.

Of their efforts and successes, in this direction - along with the hundreds of other advertisers, who chose the same platinum-paved route, to marketing success - more follows in my next little crop of memories, aptly entitled: 'It Pays To Advertise'.

In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed this little backward glance, at television of the Fifties, and I look forward to gleaning some more tit-bits, from my rusty old brain-box, and down-loading them, to you - via this website - in the course of the next week or so.

Gerry George (Actor)

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