Tuesday 23 July 2019

A Life In Sound by Steve Gladwin

I've never had a very good visual memory, My dad used to regularly say that I walk around with my eyes shut. I have a terrible sense of direction and my night sight is lousy. In addition, I also suffer from dyspraxia it is probably wise that the world has been spared by driving skills. There's little doubt that it would have been useful to drive, especially living in a rural area as I do, but then I'd have had an entirely different life.

We have lots of pictures in our house, many painted by my dad who is still painting as regularly as ever. When I get a book with pictures in it. I either pore over it - often with Rosie - who is after all the visual artist in the house - and then leave it on a pile for the day that never comes. At the same time I pile up books and kindles to read some day - the latter in ridiculous abundance, buy more CD's and more free amazon music, and after only six months have audible choices which are actually intimidating. I can never meditate or visualise anything for long because of my ever busy butterfly mind

But ever since childhood, music and voice have been just as important to me. I've spoken previously about my love of classical music- pretty much all we were allowed to listen to until I was about sixteen - and how instead of that backfiring into a sea of resentment for grown-up music, it instead left me with a comprehensive love of it.

But isn't all about Wagner and Bach, Tchaikovsky and Vaughan Williams, 'Your tiny hand is frozen' and 'On with the motley.' There's a complete other soundtrack that's accompanied it and this has taken an amazing variety of forms. So this month I'm going to invite you to indulge my butterfly mind and take you on a special journey in the voices of childhood.

It's Saturday morning and I'm ages seven or eight. Apart from Saturday being mum's hairdressers afternoon, when my sister Chris and I watch the wrestling, (all fixed of course, but we never cared) with Dad before he cooks what he calls his 'Saturday Souflee' - a collection of oddments and leftovers, ready in time for mum's return home. But right now it is only morning. some time after nine and we are allowed to listen to Junior Choice with Ed Stewpot Stewart, simultaneously on both Radio 1 and 2. I can remember all kinds of regular Stewpot treats, There's Burl Ives singing one of his many comedy songs, like 'On Top of Old Smoky', or 'Big Rock Candy Mountain, Terry Scott with 'My Brother.', ("who put worms in Granddad's tea etc"), or maybe the frankly bizarre Sparky's Magic Piano with that odd sonic, later to be much overused by Cher and Posh Spice - effect for the piano's voice. Best of all there was the great Bernard Cribbins, of whom you've certainly not yet heard the last, with either of his two hits, 'Fixing a Hole' and 'Right, Said, Fred' and yes the band did name themselves after the song.

A typical scene from Crackerjack with Stewpot in the fetching grass skirt and the legendary Peter Glaze second from the end.

The night before I would likely have heard Stewpot's familiar tones on the Friday night, announcing the children's TV programme, which remains one of the best treats ever, when either he or Eamon Andrews, Leslie Crowther, (who preceded Stewpot on both this and Junior Choice) or Michael Aspel would utter those immortal line, 'It's Friday, it's five to five and its ---- Crackerjack. To those who hadn't been born or were too old to appreciate it, (nobody, surely), it's impossible to describe the level of excitement as my sister and I scuttled in from what we were doing just in time.

After that prime slot there was usually an additional fifteen minutes slot before the six o' clock news, just time for a cartoon or something else for children. The very idea of us having our own channel was a mere mad glint in the mind of some mad professor of the future. The wide variety of these programmes meant of course many voices. From the time of my teens, one of these was Bernard Cribbins, (by now a Jackanory stalwart - see below!) voicing The Wombles and many more There's something about a blunt, northern, normal voice which suits an animated programme, the voice is kindly but enquiring, sometimes solemn, but always wise. Paddington Bear with the wonderful Sir Michael Hordern, carried a similar confusion and sometimes befuddlement at a world that was both exciting and at times made no sense at all.

Noggin was so famous he even got his own stamp!

Of course no-one can easily forget 'The Clangers', but I confess to having never really got them, even though the only voice we might have heard was the narrator, creator Oliver Postgate himself, the rest being provided by swanee whistles and the like. Much finer a treat for me was to both hear and see the adventures of Noggin the Nog, a sort of moving chess piece from the Book of Kells. Co-incidentally, Peter Firmin, the show's co- creator, was supposedly inspired by seeing the Lewis Chessmen. Noggins's Norse myth and saga inspired wanderings led to him encountering a proper ice dragon which made the soup dragon seem like single concentrate. You were more likely to find Noggin's adventures at lunchtime voiced again by one of his creator's, Oliver Postgate.

The voice you were guaranteed to hear at lunchtime was that of Brian Cant, who voiced Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley and sung the many familiar songs into the bargain. He was also one of the first presenters of Play School and later Play Away and was one of the go to voice over actors for a great many more. Among the many others there was also Mr Benn, and his endless ventures into the shop of adventure with its mysterious changing room cum time machine. This was voiced by Ray Brooks, who also did many of the stories and serials featured on Blue Peter. There was also the Mister Men with the magnificently grumpy and clipped Arthur Lowe, taking time off from portraying jumped up snob Captain George Mainwaring in the legendary Dads Army.

It's hardly surprising that Dads Army transferred so well to the radio, with it being so much about individual character flaws and group dynamics. Shut your eyes and you will hear John Le Mesurier's laconic drawl as Sergeant Wilson, an able laid-back foil foil for the bullish pomposity of the  wonderful Arthur Lowe. He, a man who himself didn't suffer fools gladly, was able to take a quality or two of his own, polish them, add a tiny twist, until it emerges as the over-promoted little bank manage of Walmington on Sea.

What's going on 'ere, Napolean?'

Clive Dunn's Jonesy is of course, constantly a beat behind everyone else. The part was written with the actor Jack Haigh in mind, who went on to enjoy success in things like 'Allo Allo' and 'Are You Being Served', but he was already the star of popular children's programme, Clive Dunn was only in his fifties when he took on the part which would make him the most famous granddad in British television, (and later in the charts) His Corporal Jones combines eager to please puppy with equal parts fussy pedant and part panicky coward with masterful timing which is all there in the voice. In contrast is James Beck as Walker the spiv, always with an eye for a dodgy bargain, with a girl like Wendy Richard's Shirley on his arms, ever on the look out for fresh silks. She's only a few years from her breakthrough role as Miss Brahms, (Shirley again) and her memorable partnership with Mollie Sugden's magnificently pompous and fruity Mrs Slocombe. Who can forget Mrs Slocombe's response to the large busted lady requesting assistance in the bra department. 'Get out the over 40's would you, Miss Brahms? The Kilimanjaro range.

But my ears are not yet ready to stray from Dads Army. With Ian Lavender's little boy peevish Frank Pike, as he struggles to cope between his mother's over-protection and the odd hours his Uncle  Arthur keeps and where he goes! Or with that brace of old soldiers Privates Godrey and Fraser, Arnold Ridley, who played Godfrey himself a war hero, who had one arm that was completely useless and was also the writer of the popular play 'The Ghost Train'. His lovely kind portrayal of the far too nice Charles Godfrey, trapped in an unhealthy menage with sisters Dolly and Cissy, and nowhere near assertive enough to ever push himself forward He's the subtle  half of the 'old fool' double act with John Lawrie's Private James Fraser, the irascible undertaker and old sailor with many a tall tale of doom set on the isle of Barra. John Laurie was a hugely respected serious Shakespearean actor, with a widely acclaimed Macbeth on his CV, veteran of many films, including Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's 'I Know Where I'm Going' And, what did he think of the show? Apparently he said something along the lines of, 'Thirty years a Shakespearean actor and I get remembered for this rubbish.'

But what glorious rubbish it is, and we still haven't mentioned the bullying ex boxer like verger Mr Yeatman as played by Edward Sinclair, (with a harridan of a wife to match). Edward Sinclair, Janet Davis who played Mrs Pike and James Beck, all died tragically young. This leaves the adenoidal and laid-back vicar, Timothy Farthing, and best of all variety great and legendary raconteur Bill Pertwee as Chief Warden Hodges with his constant belligerence towards Napolean and his fruitless cries of 'put that light out.' He and Mainwaring are the bane of each other's life, but seeing and hearing them try to outdo each other is a game we could play forever.

Programme stalwarts Clement, Derek and Kenny with creator Ian Messiter and chair Nicholas Parsons

But we'll have to leave our brave boys because another quartet are lining up in their place. Shepherded by that ever well dickied out and  now ancient monument Nicolas Parsons, we're ready to take another turn at the 'marvellous game which we all love so much' as our four regular greats line up once more to attempt to speak on a subject without hesitating, repetition, or deviating from the subject on the card.

On one side we have Clement Freud, bearded and lugubrious, every bit of his drollery, wit or criticism delivered at the same pace, but the man could sure fill a minute. Next to him is Peter Jones, a radio stalwart with a bite of a delivery and a studied irascibility that often. sneaks him into winner status His role as The Voice of The Book in the original version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would soon give him legendary status. Peter Jones sounds genuinely curious about the oddities of the universe, in contrast to Stephen Fry, who often seems to be striving for every effect.

On the opposite side we have Derek Nimmo, specialist in silly asses, a mouth full of educated plums and with the rare credit of playing two comedy clerics in different series, (well one monk and a curate)on his comedy CV. I can't remember whether it was 'Oh, Brother', (silly monk) or  'All Gas and Gaiters.', (silly curate) which spawned the catchphrase 'Oh, Moses!', but I loved both shows equally and so was always delighted with my weekly doses of Derek, and his deliberately slow slow approach to the matter in hand.

But blitzing everyone was that sheer force of nature and comic anarchy, the naughty, tortured and ultimately tragic Kenneth Williams. Kenny's used two unique skills to divine effect in ;Just a Minute.'. The first was to snap away any criticism waspishly, and in 'the sheer cheek of it' way, winding up fellow players and chairman and especially hapless newbies so that in the end they didn't know which end of hesitation was up. His second was to make words and sentences last so long, sometimes going on for as long as 45 seconds to win the point. Its a true art of a technique which you have to listen to to understand, but it brought our Kenny regular wins - and his ability to snap up someone else's subject and carry it to the end was also legendary.

One of his 114 appearances.

Apart from the Carry On films, Kenneth Williams chief claim to fame was as a storytelling stalwart on the much missed Jackanory. And yes, that means its back to Bernard Cribbins again. Jackanory is certainly deserving of its own blog, but the basic idea relied far more on the voice and the actor's personality and engagement with the tale. Great actresses of the time like Dames Wendy Hiller and Margaret Rutherford gave their considerable all to the programme in the early years, as did the actor Lee Montague, who told the first ever story, 'Cap o' Rushes' from the English version of Cinderella, (for which there are over a thousand existing tale types), But in case you're wondering why I keep banging on about Messrs Williams and Cribbins, here's a chance to look at their individual Jackanory credits. If Bernard was more the affable uncle with a twinkle in his eye, or everyone's favourite granddad, Kenny was the naughty nephew, always with an outrageous prank hidden ready up his sleeve. Believe it or not that naughty nephew appeared on the programme 59 times. Impressive, until you hear Mr Cribbins record of an astonishing 114 outings. I'd love to know what he read.

It was however another of those great northern voices, Sir Alan Bennett, provided the last story in the series, The House at Pooh Corner's. And if your own enthusiasms for our fat, honey-loving bear start and end with well known enthusiast of everything Stephen Fry, listen to the great Alan and believe that voices truly are made for certain roles. A.A. Milne my have been part of the establishment, but the voices of the Hundred Acre would are surely made for the blunted vowels and hearty friendliness of the north.

I could find many other wonderful voices to evoke from the golden years of the sixties and seventies, but we haven't time for any more. But if you're interested in The Pythons. The Goodies, Face the Music and above all the legendary antidote to panel games, I'm Sorry, I haven't a Clue.' then tune in next time.

Oh, and I forgot poor old Basil Brush.

 'Boom. Boom.'

.Steve Gladwin - Story Magic
Concept, Creation, Editing and Enhancement
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'

1 comment:

Ness Harbour said...

So many memories! Thank you