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Gerry George's Memories - 6
The nostalgic memories of a television kid of the '50s

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Dear Whirligig,

At the beginning of the Fifties, most of us thought of television, in the same way as we did a visit to the cinema...or, 'The Pictures', as we used to say.

So around 195O-51 - if you did get lucky, and find yourself invited to the home of someone, fortunate enough to have been able to afford a television receiver - heaven help you, if you started up a conversation, once you were admitted to the 'holy, of holies'.

I use that term to define the darkened living-room, or lounge, which, by now, had taken on the dimensions of the auditorium, in the Odeon Theatre, Leicester Square; your local Trocadero, the Gaumont-Majestic, or some other affectionately-dubbed 'bug-hut'.

The only thing that was missing, was the usherette, with the ice-cream tray, and the all-seeing, all-probing, torch.

And, anyone brave - or rude - enough, to attempt to strike-up a conversation, once that picture was 'rolling', would be castigated with an indignant resounding chorus of "Shusssh !"...and, if that didn't work, the loud offender, would be unceremoniously ushered out of the room, to continue their intrusive chatter, either in the hallway, or preferably, the kitchen, where their voice would not interfere with reception.

Indeed, it would be a long time before 'the Telly' would take a backseat, to be regarded as 'background' entertainment; and, before that era dawned, Television had yet another hurdle to surmount - one that was much closer to home - that being, to break from the generally-held notion, particularly amongst older viewers, that TV, was just 'radio, with pictures'...which, of course, it most certainly was not !

And, there is ample evidence to show, that this popularly-held misconception, was not exclusively perceived of by the punters: indeed, many production-chiefs would seem to have come to grief, through barking up the same misleading tree.

In fairness, it all started, when television first got into swing, in the early Fifties, and many of us found it difficult to break-off that long love-affair, with what was rapidly being referred to - rather disparagingly, I regret to say - as 'Steam Radio'.

We were all trying to cling-on to programmes, which had their roots in 'the Wireless': such as 'The Brains Trust', the immensely popular radio panel game: 'Twenty Questions', and even radio's 'Woman's Hour'.

Some old favourites stood-up well, to TV-adaptation, but others fell by the wayside: none more so, than radio's blockbusting milestone in avante garde humour: 'The Goons', which failed miserably, because much, or all, of their zany comedy - that was one hundred per cent reliant on the radio-listener's own imagination - did not translate, at all well, to a visual medium.

I well remember the few 'pilot' shows, put out by Messrs. Milligan, Secombe, Sellers and Bentine: it was almost like 'amateur night', when these masters of radio humour emerged as clowns, in a hotch-potch of sketches, something akin to a poor take-off of the Marx Brothers, and a visit to the local circus... complete with custard pies.

One sketch - at the height of the 'cold war' - embarked on the most unsavoury and 'heavy' theme of sending-up the KGB...the Soviet Union's even more sinister, and murderous version, of Nazi Germany's Gestapo.

In 'Television Goonreel' - dressed in quasi-military uniforms - they certainly looked a pathetic and motley foursome, as they sang a 'Jingle Bells' parody, which went:

Children Hear Today
Listen to your parents
And tell us what they say

My reaction, then, could be summed-up, in the words of Bernard Manning, when - after witnessing my own comedy 'try-out', at his Embassy Club, in Manchester, a decade later - he told me: "Ah caught yer act kid: you were nearly funny !"

Other shows, however, did successfully make the transition, such as: 'The Charlie Chester Show', which immediate post-war BBC Light Programme listeners first got to know, and love, as 'Stand Easy', with all its overtones of demob-suits, Dads' home-comings... pro-tem housing, and protracted rationing.

I wonder how many times, this little rhyme, of theirs, was repeated in a school playground, of the day:

Down In the Jungle
Livin' in a Tent
Better than a Pre-fab
No Rent !

For the uninitiated, 'Pre-Fabs' were temporary bungalows - constructed of pre-cast concrete, and ASBESTOS-PANELS !!! - which were Labour's answer to the housing shortage, borne of Blitz damage, and the fact that returning soldiers were not all that keen to resume habitation, in the overcrowded, bug-infested, tenements that the great majority of them left behind, before going off to fight for king and country.

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Charlie Chester, an endearing, Jewish Cockney comic - one of those returned soldiers, whose comedic art was perfected, while he was serving at the war front - was forever trying to live-down the unfair accusation that he was a clone of Max Miller.

But immediate post-war radio, gave him his own successful identity, and he quickly won the hearts of radio listeners, countrywide.

Then - turning to television - he served-up a brilliant musical game show...and all out of a coffee pot !

Appropriately dubbed 'Pot Luck' - in which the pot was passed around the audience - it turned out to be everybody's 'cup of tea'.

It was a sort of sophisticated version of 'Pass-the-Parcel', in which - while Charlie sang the show's theme-song: 'Take Pot Luck' - the coffee pot was passed from hand-to-hand, in the audience, and the person who was left holding it, when the music stopped, was his next lucky contestant.

There followed the usual banter, and subsequent trivial questions, with the contestant, on-stage - which prompted even dafter answers - and then Charlie handed out the prizes, which, as I remember, were akin to those you would expect to find on a fairground stall.

Still, everyone enjoyed themselves, as they did, when they joined with Charlie, in singing the choruses of his sentimental Vaudevillian songs, at the end of the show.

Let's see if I can remember the show's theme song: It went something like this:

Take Pot Luck, Take Pot Luck,
Keep it moving or
You'll get stuck..

And, of course, Charlie's other hits: 'Mr. Moon You've Got A Million Sweethearts', and 'Wherever You Are', were always part of his grand finale walk-down. The verse went:

Wherever you are, We bring you greeting
Who-ever you are, We wish you well

And the final stanza:

And to lonesome folks
A wish of mine
I will be your Val-en-tine
To guide your luck-y star
Wher-ever you are

Not exactly Ronan Keating, kids: but, it was good fun, providing laughter and happiness for ALL the family...and that's why we liked it !

Audience participation, of the same character, came not long after, in the shape of "The Good Old Days", from Leeds City Varieties, founded and run by the Josephs Brothers, in that vibrant and thrusting Yorkshire capital.

The idea of televising this show, came out of the head of one Barney Colehan, a leading BBC production executive, and talent scout...and it turned out to be a real winner, which ran-and-ran, for years.

Leonard Sachs - no relation to Andrew (Fawlty Towers) Sachs - easily slipped into a very apt 'niche', as Musical Hall Chairman, a job he retained, for the programme's protracted duration, spanning at least 12 years, if not more !

He soon became noted for his extensive 'antique' vocabulary, which he used to introduce the artistes, whose services had been obtained - always - at 'en-or-mous expense', and, within the first few weeks, the audience were picking-up on those lavish superlatives, and helping him finish off his sentences, hardly giving him time to get the final words out himself.

But, it was all in good fun, and it soon became evident, that the audiences - who vied with each other, to arrive in the most elegant of Victorian period costumes - really came to participate, rather than to watch the activities of those on the stage.

It's now many years since Leonard Sachs laid down his chairman's gavel - and, since his passing, we, who knew him, and took him into our living rooms, and our hearts, have missed him very much - but, despite this, I feel sure that the memories of those Good Old Days, will go on forever, when, in Sachs's own words, the appreciation and applause included: "Especially, yourselves !"

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Before the dawn of Messrs. Haley, Holly, Presley, the Big Bopper, and other sons - expressing the innate and repressed basic instinctive musical interpretations of Afro-Americana - it may come as some surprise, particularly to younger viewers, that we, here in England, did get by (musically-speaking, that is), courtesy of a few instrumentalists, and performers, of our own.

One who readily fitted that description, was a charming gentleman, called Eric Robinson, the leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra, who gave us hours and hours of wonderful musical entertainment, in his own, very easy-going style.

His show - entitled 'Music For You' - was a very popular programme, and it covered the entire spectrum of music, from classical, to light musical comedy, and even popular melodies of the day.

Added to this, he was the most charming of hosts, and it was that charm, that taught me - a musically disorientated teenager - how to appreciate, and enjoy, what can only be described as 'good' music.

Oh that he were with us today !

The same goes for those delightful Fifties programmes, featuring the celebrated violinist, Max Jaffa. Here was the king of 'Palm Court' type music, and, indeed, Max was performing on our television screens - from his theatre concerts, in Scarborough - right up until his death, no more than a decade ago.

Another musical product - one which also 'travelled well', from BBC sound radio, to television - was 'The Billy Cotton Band Show', starring the mighty bandleader, himself, and supported by such stalwart singers as Alan Breeze, his right-hand man, and leading baritone.

There was, of course, the wonderful, inoffensive and innocuous, George Mitchell's 'Black & White Minstrel Show', but, of course, 'political correctness' forbids us from having them any more: well, for Heaven's sake, perhaps I'm even committing a crime, by talking, or even THINKING, about them...so I had better shut up, before I get arrested !

And let's not forget 'Henry Hall's Guest Night', another emigre, of the Danceband Days fame, from the BBC's 'other side', whose recipe for music, combined with comedy-and-song, was, as expected, an instant success with viewers, everywhere.

How can we ever forget his entrance, approaching the microphone, in immaculate evening dress - his MD's baton, proudly poised, ready to conduct his orchestra - and announcing: "This IS Henry Hall speaking" ?

Not to be outdone, other bandleaders, including Jack Payne, and Jack Jackson, took centre-stage, also; and, last, but by no means, least, Jack Hylton, whose legendary reputation, as a highly successful orchestra leader, was only transcended by his intimidating 'behind-the-scenes' profile, as a very powerful and much-feared impresario and agent.

But my all-time favourite - amongst my recollections of all those bandleaders, to appear on television, during this period - has just got to be Edmundo Ros, and His Orchestra.

He was a warm and friendly, regular visitor to 'Whirligig' , where we kids could be forgiven for identifying, closely, with his lively song: 'Boys and Girls, Love Saturday Night'.

He sang it - with his orchestra - on Children's Television; but, of course, he also sang it to our parents, at his night club, until, well, pretty late in the early hours !

I guess it was 'horses for courses', but, wherever he worked, that unique, 'Edmundo Ros charm' worked too; and, let's face it, for boys and girls, of all ages...from nine to ninety !

Even now, looking nowhere near his 9O-plus years, the maestro is just as charming, as ever. I had the privilege of meeting the Samba King, when the Grand Order of Water Rats, honoured him, at a celebratory banquet, at London's Savoy Hotel, earlier this year, when he was feted along with co-celebrities, Sir Henry Cooper, and Sir Norman Wisdom.

To my sheer delight, Edmundo Ros - who now lives in retirement, on the Continent, with the same, lovely wife - was happy to hear my story, and my memories: and he chuckled, knowingly, when I reminded him of the BBC Children's Television programme, where I had first heard him sing about 'us boys and girls', and of our love for Saturday night...and 'Whirligig'.

Now, while we are still on the subject of music. Let's consider 'flirting with terpsichory', in the shape of 'Come Dancing', hosted by that other doyon of the early 'model' announcers team, Mr. Peter Hague.

What a delight it was, to see all those sequined formation dancers, 'strutting their stuff', in ballrooms throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom.

I wonder how many people can remember when that series first started ? Are there any special programmes, that you might recall, in this long-running, and very popular series ? If you can: drop me a line, or E-mail me, and perhaps I might be able to expand your memories, even further.

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Mind you, it wasn't all music, in the Fifties, you know: remember 'Club Night', with that fabulous Lancashire comic Dave Morris, as chairman, and host ?

Here was a comedian, whose roots went right down to the Industrial North, and didn't he have all the characteristic, self-deprecating modesty, and quaintly contrived naivety, so typical of those 'Lads from Lancs' , who made it, in comedy - and particularly, Variety -during those 'chips-out-of-newspaper' days ?

Guests who came to his club - a weekly TV event, if I'm not mistaken - included the legendary Yorkshire comic, Albert Modley, who I once saw do his joke about the man, who eagerly went to the bridal chamber, but couldn't blow the candle out...because he had a twisted mouth, and his breath kept going in the wrong direction.

Sorry Albert, but I don't think today's 'Political Correctness' lobby, would permit you to perform that one - anywhere - never mind the 'Beeb'.

Indeed, having been a member of an invited audience, at the recording of an Esther Rantzen Show, there, which focussed on that very protocol, last week, I rather got the impression, that, from now on, the future scope for humour, bodes to be subject to some rather limiting, and - dare I say it - Puritanically de-rigour, guidelines...apparently, courtesy of Women's Lib, and the Brown Rice and Hair Shirt Brigade !

Getting away from comedy, let's think back to drama, in 1951: For me, that brings to mind, a brilliant play commenting on the social conditions in Lancashire, during the 18th Century cotton boom.

I wonder if other viewers remember it: 'The Makepeace Story', which starred, amongst a host of brilliant actors - most of whom, I am ashamed to say, I have now forgotten - that splendid character actor, Edward Chapman, as the iron-jawed, mill-owner tyrant, who espoused all the traditional evils, associated with 'King Cotton', and the down-trodden, ill-fed, Northcountry mill-workers ?

What a pity we didn't have videotape in those early days: this really was one for the vaults. I often wonder if the BBC might just have kept a copy of the Telefilm: they did, sometimes, film plays, for repeating once again, in the same week, you may recall ?

Well, before I wrap-up, I will leave you with yet another poser: Does anyone remember the Children's Television production of 'The Secret Garden' (circa 1952), which starrred a child actress, who, I am pretty certain, went on to even bigger things ?

Perhaps somebody may remember dear old Jimmy James, as a boxing promoter, in 'Meet The Champ !' And then, of course, there was that 'Clitheroe Kid', in 'That's My Boy!', wasn't there: pint-sized Jimmy Clitheroe - 'Clutter' to his pals, in the business - who was fed by the equally funny, and affectedly 'gormless' Oldham comedy-actor, the late-lamented Danny Ross ?

Surely, somebody out there remembers their show, which, again, successfully 'cut-the-mustard', when transferred from radio to television ? Jimmy Clitheroe's show, however - which was written by James Casey (Jimmy James's son) - did, admittedly, do better, when it was returned to its former sound radio slot, where it remained until shortly before 'Clutter's' tragic, and untimely, death.

Does anyone recall 'The Petula Clarke Show', with her accompanist, Joe (Piano) Henderson, in circa 1956, and can anyone put a date to the Anne Shelton Show, when an elderly Bud Flanagan, teamed-up with Ms. Shelton, to sing and dance 'Underneath The Arches'.

One thing I'll never forget, is Bud demonstrating how to take a brand-new straw boater, and batter it into the misshapen prop he was famed for wearing in his act; and, then, when Ms Shelton asked, what key she should sing his famous number in: Bud's cryptic rejoinder: "Sing it in 'B-flat'...cos Ches Allen always was !"

What about Rupert Davies, and his vivid portrayals of the French detective, Maigret: have those great performances all gone up in time's smoke, forever...or has anyone got any fond memories of the cool, calm and collected, pipe-smoking French sleuth ?

Don't be fright: wrack your brains, and see if you can jog my time-ravaged memory.

I'll be back, next week, with memories of Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly; 'All Our Yesterdays', with Granada TV's Brian Inglis, and a host of other tit-bits, from the TV of Yesteryear.

In the meantime, every good wish, and have a wonderful Christmas. And, in the words of Tiny Tim ('A Christmas Carol', by Charles Dickens, of course !): "God Bless Us: Everyone !"

All the best ! Gerry George (Actor/Writer)

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