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Gerry George's Memories - 9
The nostalgic memories of a television kid of the '50s

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Dear Whirligig,

Television and Time have one thing in common: they both 'burn-up' people, and material, at a remorseless pace !

And this is never more noticeable than at New Year, when we are reminded, yet again, that we are another year older, and that we have just lost something, that we will never be able to get back...no matter who we are, or where we buy our bacon !

Imagine it, just last week I reminded you of Jimmy Shand - and his, seemingly endless Hogmannay 'Shandanigans', in the White Heather Club - and, this week, I am recording his sad passing.

OK, the wee laddy had a 'guud run', as they say - over 9O he was, by all accounts - but anyone who remembers those annual television rituals, which dated back from the Fifties, will no doubt shed a tear the former pit-boy, and wartime soldier, as they recall those stirring Celtic reels, and haunting Scottish melodies, which he conjured-up, like magic, with his famous, recording-star, accordion band, in The White Heather Club.

Didn't they let the New Year in, in true Scots style ? There were the Scottish Laments, and the unforgettable Sword Dancing, featuring the deft terpsichory of dozens of sprightly Highland (and Lowland) lads and lasses, and Kenneth McKellar's wonderful tenor voice, warmed our hearts, with many a romantic and stirring Celtic ballad.

And, in that club, Mr. Shand shared good company, in the person of the lovely singing star, Moira Anderson, joined by Kenneth McKellar, and the great Scots comedian, Jimmy Logan, who - in the Fifties - also had his own very successful comedy show, on BBC TV.

Jimmy's real name is 'Jimmy Short' - he comes from a legendary Scottish showbiz family - but he was never short on humour, and his own brand of comedy was equally infectious on both sides of the North-South divide, and that, in itself, is quite an achievement, be it on television, or otherwise.

Viewers of the Fifties, may also remember, that Stanley Baxter rose to countrywide fame, through his White Heather Club, New Year, appearances, before going on to scale heights-sublime, in his own, nationwide, TV show.

Another great Scot, one who seemed to come from nowhere, and who took to our hearts, with a naive brand of Northern simplicity, that endeared him to us television viewers - if only because of the cheek he had, in daring to put it over in the first place - was Chic Murray.

Fed by his wife - the pair were billed as Chic Murray and Maidie - and they were a smash-hit overnight, when they hit our TV screens, as Television in the Fifties got under way.

The core of their humour relied solely on Chic's ability to make mundane, and obvious statements, sound funny, and this - coupled with his brilliant timing - was a winning recipe, which saw them starring in many TV shows, before the couple separated as an act, and Chic went on, with equal success, as a solo artiste.

Can you remember Chic's rare brand of patter ?

"Ah got up, this morning. Ah Got out of bed ( Well, Ah always do that: otherwise I wouldneh be able ti git mi shoes on).

"Went for a shave. I used mi razor o' course (Ah couldni do it wi anything else).

"Then, ahm walkin' doon the street (wearin' mi shoes, of course: Ah niver geh oot, withoot them)..."

Doesn't sound so funny - nowadays - does it ?

Oh, dear: now who said: "It's the way you tell 'em !"

And that reminds me of a great Scots tale, involving Roy Castle, and told me by the legendary character actor, Ronnie Fraser, who - in addition to starring in 66 feature films, and upteen winning TV series' and one-off plays - was an aspiring Scotsman, with a fanatical love of Variety, and the 'turns' who worked in it.

Roy Castle - a dynamic and versatile 'turn', who starred in numerous television shows, from the Fifties, until his untimely death, in the early Nineties - was completing a gruelling six-day run, at Glasgow's legendary Argyle Theatre.

This theatre was famed for the extraordinary degree of hostility, shown by audiences, to artistes from England; and, Ronnie explained, that, on this particular 'last night', poor Roy Castle was, clearly, not going to be treated any differently from any other English performer...despite having turned-in 'class' performances, at both houses, throughout the week.

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The special safety-net - designed to catch cabbages and other edible missiles - was hoisted, above the auditorium, as usual, as Roy went into the final part of his act.

He tap-danced, with the skill and panache of Astaire; but, no applause was forthcoming: just an ominous silence, among the capacity-packed, Saturday 'second-house', audience.

Then he played his trumpet; still, nothing.

Then he produced, and played, a litany of instruments, including clarinet, saxaphone, washboard, mouth organ, guitar...ending with a really energetic flourish on his spectacular Ludwig drum kit.

Still nothing.

Finally, one very vocal, local drunk, broke the silence, bawling his slurred critique, through a haze of smoke and alcohol, billowing up to his perch, as he draped himself over the gilded Baroque balcony, of the upper circle:

"Is thah ney end to this F***er's talent ?"

Which, once said, was followed closely, by waves of uproarious laughter, and multitudinous applause....apparently, exclusively, in favour of - no, not Roy Castle, but - the drunk, in the Gods !

Meanwhile, Mr. Castle bowed, and made a graceful - but rapid - exit 'stage-left'... into the arms of the awaiting, red-faced, and profusely apologetic, manager.

Just in case you're wondering why I dubbed Ronald Fraser, an 'aspiring' Scot: I think I ought to tell you, that Ronnie was really a Lancashire lad, bred and born.

He came from my hometown - Ashton-Under-Lyne - a thriving former cotton town, about nine miles from Manchester, and three, from, Oldham, another former conquest of 'King Cotton', which, like Ashton, has fielded quite a sprinkling of Television and Film star personalities, over the years.

Eric Sykes - that delightful comedy actor, and scriptwriter, who starred in numerous films, and hilarious BBC TV sitcoms, before advancing to even greater heights in the Theatre - is an Oldham lad, and proud of it !

Geoff Lancashire, one of the celebrated writer's of 'Coronation Street' comes from Oldham, as, of course, does his daughter, Sarah, who first tasted stardom in the winning soap, before moving on, to star in other major productions.

Before Ronnie Fraser's death, at aged 67, in March 1997, he confessed to me that he claimed Scots nationality, because of his Scottish parentage, saying, jokingly, that he was only born in Ashton, as an accident of birth.

Despite this, he lived, was educated, and worked there, until he joined the Seaforth Highlanders, as a National Service Lieutenant, and - on his return, before going to RADA - he was a member of the local repertory theatre, over the Co-op Stores, in the town's Hillgate district.

Television viewers will perhaps best-remember Ronnie, for his role, as the returned ex-pat colonial tea-planter, in the award winning BBC TV comedy series: 'The Misfit', which he starred in, along with the late Patrick Newell (who was also 'Mother', in 'The Avengers') ?

He told me they had great fun making this series: the script had him always complaining about his 'thunder box' - his portable loo - and this spilled over (no pun intended), into his private life, where people were always making jokes about his need for it...especially in his Hampstead local, where Ronnie spent a good deal of his leisure time !

Fraser always lamented that, apparently the BBC did not have any recordings of that wonderful series. He dearly wanted to see them again...as, I am sure, many of us would; given half a chance.

Younger viewers will remember Ronnie, in that marvellous television adaptation of 'Swallows And Amazons', and, of course, his last appearances, were made, in the person of 'The Lord of Love', who - clad in a quilted smoking jacket - recited love poems to archetypal 'Essex girls', on Chris Evans's Channel 4 Show, 'TFI Friday'.

Other Ashtonians, who have attained star-status - on television, and elsewhere - include three more 'Coronation Street' mega-stars: Amanda Barrie (Alma); John Savident (Fred Elliott), and Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth).

Amanda and John, of course, were already big film and television stars - and successful classical actors, in their own right - before they joined Britain's No 1 soap.

Roy Barraclough - a one-time Oldham Rep actor, who made his name, not only because of many years behind the bar of The Rover's Return, but also as Les Dawson's gossip-mongering, 'drag' feed, in scores of Les's TV shows - also lives in Ashton.

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Fans of BBC radio's 'Gardener's Question Time' will probably remember the name Bill Sowerbutts, who, after many years as a panellist on the programme, ended up, if I am not mistaken, by also, presiding over it, for a spell.

Bill - another well-known Ashtonian - ran a thriving horticultural business in the town, and travelled the length and breadth of Britain, to take part in these broadcasts, in addition to running his business, in Ashton's covered market.

Funnily enough, 'Gardener's Question Time' - which was broadcast 'live' from many far-flung venues, throughout the UK - did not seem to seek the cross-over, from sound radio, to TV, but that did leave the way clear, for at least one burgeoning consumer programme, which stands-out, now, as the fore-runner of later BBC TV shows, like 'The Esther Rantzen Show', and, 'WatchDog'.

I'm referring to BBC TV's the 'Braden Beat' - a successor to their 'Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly Show - a consumer-vigilant monitor, which spearheaded a new, and brave, kind of journalism, in an all-encompassing, magazine-format envelope.

Braden was superb as the challenging commercial vigilante: and there is no question that he set the pattern, for the many similar shows that followed in his wake.

Remember that imp-faced, 20-year-old foil, with the shoulder-length locks, Sean O'Reilly, who - as Braden's stone-faced, cheeky assistant - took all the flak that the Canadian-born comic could throw at him ?

Sean - an oldboy of Dumfries School, and a brilliant young journalist - later joined BBC TV's news-production teams, on the newsdesks of Nationwide, and MidWeek.

He was at the beginning of a really promising career, when he was killed, in the early 7Os, in a motor-cycling accident, in Wales. What a tragic waste, of a wonderful and talented human being.

Someone asked me the other day, why I didn't mention sport on this website: the fact is - please forgive me for saying it: and, I am not trying to be smart, or rude - I never had any interest in sport, of any kind.

That being said, I was aware - during those early television days - of the 'big names' in the business.

Football, in the early Fifties, heard TV commentators - like Mr. Coleman - talking about Stanley Matthews (I think he then played for Blackpool, before returning, in 196O, to his native Stoke: is that right ?).

Then there was Tom Finney, and of course, those lads who were to later form the ranks of Busby's, ill-fated, babes: Duncan Edwards, and Egan.

Another player, Dooley, I seem to recall, hit the headlines, when - after grazing his knee in a soccer match - a serious infection set in, and he lost his leg.

This was the main topic of conversation in TV sport circles, towards the end of 1954, as I remember, and a lot of television news reportage was devoted to it.

The one thing that stands-out - when contrasted with today's multi-racial roll-call - is that all the players had archetypal Anglo-Saxon names, with the exception of a few West Indians, like Sir Leary Constantine.

You take the TV cricket celebrities of the day, for instance: there was Don Bradman, an Aussie, of course; but then came Cyril Washbrook, and Len Hutton.

Candidly, I tended to associate these gentlemen more with the Brylcreem, they advertised in my Hotspur and Rover comics - and on the hoardings at railway stations - rather than with the sport, for which they had already become icons.

When it came to cycling, TV viewers looked-out for Reg Harris, but on the centre court - at Wimbledon - by 1953, the television newsreel cameras had something even more eye-catching, and fascinating to focus-on, in the shape of a nubile young American tennis star, named 'Little Mo'.

May 1954, saw 'Mo', pictured, in action, on the front page of the Radio Times, and inside were lengthy features telling of her exhausting training schedules, under the watchful eye of 'Teach', her ever-attendant, coach.

Regrettably, Mo's reign was relatively short-lived: the plucky Yankee lass - who kept British viewers enthralled during those TV Fifties - died, only a few years after, with a rare blood disease.

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Even though I had no interest whatsoever in sport, I could not fail to be moved by the coverage given to the Munich Air Disaster, of 1958, when Busby and his Manchester United 'Babes' fell victim to that cruel stroke of fate.

By this time BBC TV had a competitor; but both channels respected the dignity of the victims, and their loved ones, and this was immediately evident in the sympathetic and genuinely caring coverage, that BBC TV, and ITV gave to this terrible event.

I will never forget the sorrow that could be seen on the faces of ordinary people, as they passed you in the street. Everyone - not only relatives, and soccer fans - was moved by the sadness, and stark horror, of this bitter episode in the history of sport...and of Manchester United.

I felt terribly sorry for those young fellas; and, in a way, I identified with them, as guys like me: after all, at that very time, I was being called-up, to 'fight for Queen and Country'.

Having seen, on the television, only two years before, a fair few young National Servicemen, going off to Suez - and not coming back - I couldn't help reflecting that my number could well be coming up next...if I was perhaps needed as canon-fodder, in some similar, far-off, acquisitive skirmish, or other.

Perhaps those of you who liked a flutter - and whose memories can stretch back to about three years before the Manchester United aircrash - will recall watching 'Highland Wedding' romp away, with First Place, in the 1955 Grand National ?

And, of course, those lumbering, unwieldly cameras, of BBC TV's Outside Broadcast Department, were there, with kind permission of the Aintree Course owner, Mrs. Topham.

As a cocky 16-year-old, I put five bob (25p) on this lovely horse's nose, and I scampered home, too...with a small fortune !

However, when I tried to repeat the process, a week later, I lost, miserably...and have never backed a horse, or bought even a raffle-ticket, since !

That was one resolution, that I didn't need a New Year, to help me put it into practise.

That same year, Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, handed over, to Anthony Eden, and the dashing, former Tory Foreign Secretary, was returned with a comfortable majority.

Newsreel cameras were out in force, in my home-town, when Mr. Eden paid a whistle-stop, electioneering visit there, accompanied by his lovely young wife.

How different he looked, just one year later, when Suez - and all its calamitous aftermath - collapsed about him, bringing about his political demise, and a marked deterioration in his health, which the cameras could not have disguised, even if they had wanted to.

What also sticks in my mind - from that sunny Wednesday morning, in 1955 - was the police escort, provided by Lancashire Constabulary, in the shape of their only squad car: a brand-new, MG TC 'rag-top' sports-roadster, lacquered in gleaming British Racing Green livery, which had clearly been especially polished for the premier-elect's big electioneering visit.

Oh yes, kids: this was well before the days of 'Panda' cars. Indeed - as with 'Panda Crossings' - such terms were still unknown to the Highway Code.

Come to think of it, BBC Television was still teaching us, how to use the newly-introduced 'Zebra' Crossings, and, as for Pelicans, well...they were still something we associated with the 'Frozen North'; and, by that, I don't mean Scotland...where, if you'll remember, we started out this little retrospective ride !

Perhaps those of us, who are old enough, can remember some of those terrible 'snowed-up' newsreels, which cameramen sometimes risked life and limb to bring to our TV screens, in those early years.

So let's leave this year behind, by raising our glasses, and drinking a toast to them - the newsreel cameramen (and women) - and all the pleasure that they have brought to our screens, not only during the Fabulous Fifties, but for every day, of every year since:

Thanks, lads and lasses: and, in the words of Bogie: "Here's Looking At You!"

May I also take this opportunity, to wish everyone: A Very Happy New Year.

Gerry George (Actor/Writer)

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