Arthur Askey: He showed symptoms of being able to amuse
Arthur Askey's autobiography reproduces the following review of an early stage appearance:
Mr Arthur Askey is a very short man with red hair and a pair of very large horn-rimmed spectacles... He showed symptoms of being able to amuse in a way of his own... He did not dance, but looks as if he could.
Not the most auspicious critical hurrah ever penned perhaps, but there have certainly been worse, and it's more or less right in its essentials: he was a very short man with red hair and glasses, he could dance, after a fashion, and those symptoms of being able to amuse would soon develop into a full-blown case of delighting several generations.
Physically, Big-Hearted Arthur Askey is a quite amazing specimen: five foot two, with slicked-back hair that falls in lanky curtains when the comedy gets physical and round glasses set in slightly abnormal, undeveloped features; he looks pale and misshapen, covered in liver spots and freckles.
But when he’s in flight, your eyes never leave him; he knows how to play the imagined cinema audience as surely as he commanded a live one.
Today, I suppose, he is most famous for being the man who sings “The Bee Song”, and other less instantly hummable comic numbers. (Of all his comic songs, my favourite is “All To Specification”, an ode to jerry-built housing:
Our bathroom’s rather small but really all that we require,
The plughole’s always bunged up so I poke it with a wire,
We’ve got two taps marked HOT and COLD but one of them’s a liar
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!
The gable-end fell down today and messed things up a bit,
The builder he came round and said, I knows the cause of it,
The bricks ain’t had no mortar on, they stuck them on with spit
But it’s all to spe-ci-fi-ca-tion!)
After success in concert parties and variety, his big break came with the BBC radio series Band Waggon, the most popular and anarchic comedy show of the thirties, performed with the impeccable assistance of the great Richard “Stinker” Murdoch, a beautifully stylish performer, later co-writer and star of the impossibly perfect Much Binding In The Marsh.
Purporting to be an account of how the radio series first came to the air, Band Waggon the movie (1939) is a joy because it is basically a revue; like the Crazy Gang’s Okay For Sound it eschews plot and just threads together set pieces and turns from stacks of top, middle and lower variety acts of the time, headed by Jack Hylton and his orchestra. The great Pat Kirkwood (who died on Christmas Day last year) joins Big and Stinker in a splendid number called “The Only One Who’s Difficult Is You” and leads the chorus in a joyous rendition of “the rage of two continents – that crazy number “Boomps-a-Daisy”.”
It’s a totally successful translation of the radio show to the screen, full of the kind of energy and sarky confidence typical of performers who know damned well they’re the hottest thing around just now.
Askey’s unfamiliarity with the process of making movies – in his autobiography he recalls how he turned up for the first day’s shooting having learned only the first few pages of script on the assumption that films were shot in sequence – has no visible effect on his performance, which hums with confidence and energy. And as it is a British comedy film made in 1939, there’s also a haunted castle and Moore Marriott. And an exploding goat.
Askey inherited both Marriott and Graham Moffat from Will Hay, and makes sound use of both, but you always notice when Murdoch’s not around. All three enliven Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (1940), one of those great hybrid titles like Alf’s Button Afloat, and not a straight adaptation of the play but a kind of riff on it. (That’s Phyllis Calvert, no less, doing the high class clowning as Stinker’s girlfriend – Askey even gets to kiss her full on the lips in drag.)
It was a brave try to launch Askey as a full-fledged movie star, but it was the next, The Ghost Train (1941), that struck gold: it remains Askey’s masterpiece. Odd, because there was really nothing new about it at all: Arnold Ridley’s famous play had already been adapted twice for the screen under its real name, as well as serving as obvious inspiration for two consecutive Hay-Moffat-Marriott films, Oh, Mr Porter! and Ask a Policeman.
It’s not a faithful adaptation by any means: the villains are predictably now fifth columnists, and Ridley’s main character has been split in two to accommodate Askey and Murdoch. But it remains the best version, as well as the spookiest of all the baddies-pretending-to-be-ghosts comedies, thanks to great sets and real atmosphere. The moment when the ghost train rushes through the deserted station rivals anything in The Cat and the Canary, aided by the intense performance of that great British actress Linden Travers.
Some of the best of all British comedy has relied on the surefire formula of one irritating comic stuck in a confined space with an assortment of irritable people: think Hancock in The Railway Journey or its unacknowledged remake The Lift, or Norman Wisdom on the train in One Good Turn. But both are amateurs alongside Askey here: he mercilessly pummels his victims with crass observations, end-of-the-pier gags and groundless good cheer.
The joke is partly that Askey’s faith in his likeability never falters now matter how often his efforts are repulsed, but mainly the fun of the attack itself: Askey’s barrage of quips, impersonations and inane suggestions for passing the time versus the undentable contempt of his fellow travellers, at least one of whom teeters constantly on the brink of doing him serious physical harm. The one song in the film, Askey’s delightful performance of “The Seaside Band” ends halfway through when the gramophone he is using for accompaniment is thrown on to the line. It is one of the supreme comic performances of British films.
Let’s hope Ridley had a sense of humour because Back Room Boy (1942) remade the story yet again, this time in a lighthouse (the surprise high-class cheesecake coming courtesy of a thin-gowned and soaking wet Googie Withers: British low comedy was an invaluable opportunity for posh leading ladies to kick off their corsets).
But in between came I Thank You (1941), easily the most graceful and satisfying of the Askey vehicles created expressly for him.
It’s a pot-pourri again; basically a sitcom but with several breaks for revue turns from the supporting bill. (Lily Morris, who plays a stuffy aristocrat all through the film steps out of character at the end for a lap of honour rendition of “Waiting At the Church”.) It fudges the decision of what Arthur the film character actually does by making him a theatrical; many of the later films falter in their efforts to account for this essentially impossible personality in reasonable narrative terms. No such trouble here, though: this is – for the last time, really – Askey at the height of his powers.
The first scene, with Askey waking up in Bond Street tube station and singing “Hello To The Sun” must have had an incredible impact at the time – and not even Formby could have pulled it off quite so infectiously. (A fascinating weird joke, too, as Arthur spots a dead ringer for Hitler among those sleeping, and is visibly relieved to discover he has a copy of the Jewish Chronicle.)
It’s also the best-proportioned use of Askey, Murdoch, Moffat and Marriott as a four-man team. There are some good lines for all of them, but more importantly, this is the film in which they really spark visually. They look like a team, not least in a large-scale slapstick scene, strong in both idea and execution, involving tins of brown paint and several dogs.
All this and the sheer joy of Askey and Murdoch singing together at the piano:
I’d share my last penny with you,
I’d split my last farthing in two.
We’ll go fifty-fifty on all I’ve got,
Half of everything is yours.
Then just when you think it can’t get more enchanting, they both tap dance. (Stinker’s really good.)
The film ends with a tube station full of air raid shelterers vigorously joining in with a vicious, incongruously jaunty singalong that goes:
Let’s get hold of Hitler,
String him up on high.
Anyone in favour?
Aye, Aye, Aye!
Part of Askey's appeal through the war years is attributable to the fact that his distinctive comic persona – the inveterate perfomer, irrepressible and irreverent even when circumstances demand sobriety – seemed to symbolise the preferred British attitude to adversity.
As already noted, it was back on the ghost train for Back Room Boy, with Moffat and Marriott but no Stinker, and you do miss him, especially when Askey inadvertently draws attention to the loss by conversing with himself. At last the writers have taken the plunge and made Askey a real man in a real world, with things to strive for and a girl to get: the only way from here is pathos, as nervously tried in King Arthur Was a Gentleman (1942).
It's not too bad, but it's not vintage either, with Arthur as a weakling soldier who finds heroic reserves of bravery when he wields a sword he believes to be Exclibur. He eventually discovers what we knew all along - that the sword was a prank engineered by his fellow soldiers and his courage was all his own - but in an ending so funny and so right that nobody bothered to point out it totally undermines the entire film, he flings it into a lake, whereupon it is caught elegantly by a woman's arm.
Askey's film decline was inevitable in a sense: he was a revue comic with no business in movies, and we should be grateful that such was the professional excellence of British comedy cinema at this time we have even as much imperishable Askey celluloid as we do. From here, however, there was only one way to go, exacerbated by a foolish desire to launch him internationally, resulting in a pair of garish, pseudo-American odities: Miss London Ltd (1943) and Bees in Paradise (1944), with musical guests aping Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters, and poor Arthur forced to crack wise in painfully obvious imimtation of Hope and Crosby.
Wisely, he hurried back to the stage, and then to television, where he triumphed in several series of Before Your Very Eyes in the early to mid fifties. The shows were deliberately under-rehearsed so as to conveny an infectious sense of fun, and Askey later claimed they pioneered the now standard television techniques of addressing the home audience, acknowleding the presence of cameras, walking on and off the set, and retaining fluffed lines and corpsing.
The programme's other great innovation was Sabrina (real name: Norma Sykes), a protegee of Askey's with platinum blonde hair, a cute, giggly personality and a pair of breasts that even today retain the capacity to startle and transfix audiences encountering them unawares or for the first time.
Endearingly unprofessional, Askey claimed she was deliberately chosen because "she had a lovely face and figure but could not act, sing, dance or even walk properly."
Stage success in a farce called The Love Match led to the chance to appear in a film version in 1954: though relentlessly frenetic it was a big hit, and led to another round of movies, alongside uninterrupted popularity in stage and tv.
His last film appearance (in the British sex comedy Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse) came in 1978, and he was still doing the Royal Variety Show in 1980 (at the age of 80). He published his autobiography Before Your Very Eyes in 1975. Entirely unghosted, it mixes the expected fascinating theatrical detail with some surprising revelations and deviations. There's an anecdote about Enoch Powell sending Askey a letter apologising for not knowing who he was when they met at a function, a rant about hooliganism at sporting events, a moving chapter about his late wife’s losing battle with senile dementia, and this about his hatred of horse racing:
I loathe owners, trainers, jockeys, bookies, commentators, punters, betting shops – anything at all to do with racing, except the horses themselves. Having seen the Grand National, it was always my ambition to throw a saddle over Mrs Mirabelle Topham and ride her over the appalling Aintree fences. I think that racing attracts the layabouts from every strata of society and if I were a dictator, I would stop racing of every kind. There is only one motive for the racegoer, and that is how to make money without working for it.
But fate at its cruellest eventually levelled him, and Askey died in 1982.
Since then, his popularity has fallen away, and his reputation is now sport for the ignorant. You may remember the Arthur Atkinson sketches in The Fast Show. Your grandchildren won't: a key difference between it and he.