Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Ken Dodd - an appreciation

I have always appreciated Ken Dodd and recently I summoned up enough courage to write to him. Ken Dodd has been an entertainer as long as I have been alive. He started the year before I was born in 1954. I recall him on TV in the 60s and of course the Diddy Men. There used to be a TV puppet series in around 1965. When we were only holiday in Wales we found a rather battered copy with Mick the Marmiliser and Dicky Mint. Phoebe has the copy now. My letter to Dodd tells all, but in chatting away to others it is clear that for many he has been a central part of their lives. Someone in their early 50s was telling me that they saw him on Morecambe Pier when he was 7. Another friend of mine determined not to like him because of Dodd’s supposed Tory sympathies went to a Christmas event in Burslem determined not to like him but Ken won him over. I suppose I like him because he is last of a breed that stretches back to the Victorian times. The torch has been passed from Dan Leno to George Robey to Max Miller to Sid Field and on to Ken Dodd and from then perhaps Peter Kay.

Dear Mr Dodd,
I thought that I would drop you line because I am a great admirer of your work. Truth is I have been working up the courage to write to you and the opportunity presented itself when I was researching an article for a local newspaper on the 1950s. I saw an advert in the Leek Post and Times dated July 1956 for the summer show at the Central Pier at Blackpool. You were second on the bill below Jimmy James and above Jimmy Clitheroe. I suppose most people were, physically anyway, were above Jimmy Clitheroe.
I will always regard a show I saw you do on the "Good Old Days" that was recorded on Norwegian Television in September 1975. I was living in a remote part of the country and feeling a little home sick when you came on following the typical orotund introduction from Leonard Sachs. You stopped half way through the show to remove a coat hanger, which I still think one of the funniest things. It made me very happy and for a time forget my loneliness.

I have seen you a few times live including a performance at Ellesmere Port- "Ellesmere Port is not twinned with anywhere, but it does have a suicide pact with Grimsby". And at the Victoria Hall in Hanley as you warned we did get home to Leek as the milkman was arriving. However. I often think that the idea of a suicide pact could be extended to include my hometown Stoke on Trent but the suicide pact would also involve Hull and Burnley.

I work part time on the tills at Morrison’s in Leek so I try to work in a bit of your material especially when someone buys a cucumber. "What a wonderful day to push a cucumber through a neighbours letterbox and shout the Martians have landed".

If it is a good day I manage a bit of my own material. A man bought two bottles of wine and a tin of Brasso. I warned him of the consequences of getting them mixed up ""a terrible end, but a lovely finish". I hope you approve.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chaplin and my grandfather Hanley 1904

I did not know my grandfather Bill Sherwin. He died when I was three in 1958. He had done quite a bit in his life. A GPO man, a miner, a soldier in the North Staffordshire Regiment where he was wounded fighting with the 7th battalion in Mesopotamia ( Modern day Iraq) and an intriguing story of him being in the Merchant Navy and jumping ship in Montevideo after punching an officer. He had the reputation of being a interesting conversationalist and one of his stories that I was interested in finding out more about was the time in the early years of the last century when he saw Charlie Chaplain as a young boy entertaining the crowds in Market Square Hanley. I was interested if this was right.

What was Charlie Chaplin's early life like?

Thus by the time he was ten, he had encountered a range of experiences greater than most of us know in long lifetimes. He had known abject poverty and hunger, and the loneliness and deprivation of life in workhouses and children's homes. He had witnessed at close quarters alcoholism, madness and death. For much of the time he survived only by his own initiative and wit.

It was a life, which would simply have killed many ordinary children. But this child was not ordinary. He had a strength and resilience, which appears phenomenal.

And then at ten years old, his life changed. He went to work. And his work, like his parents', and thanks to his father's connections, was in the music hall. He was engaged to dance and sing with a juvenile act called 'The Eight Lancashire Lads.'

The music halls of those times provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time - between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. Every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo - a beginning, a middle and a great exit - to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience.
By the time he was 14 Chaplin was touring with a company in the role of the Billy in a play written by Conan Doyle based on his great character Sherlock Holmes.

"Sherlock Holmes" was remarkable for its staging. There was total darkness during which the scenes changed, an unprecedented use of blackouts; and a mass of electric equipment to provide such novel lighting effects as the glow of Holmes' cigar in the darkness. The part of Billy was a good part for him. Chaplin made a half a dozen appearances in the course of the play, and has quite funny dialogue, elaborately written in cockney dialogue. It toured the provincial theatres of the north and the Midlands and it arrived in Hanley at the Palace of Varieities, the Theatre Royal for a 6-day tour beginning on the 12th April 1904

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Churnet Valley Protestors- NIMBYs by another name

"Nimbyism" runs through the objectors to the reintroduction of the railway to the Churnet Valley like "Blackpool" through a stick of rock. It is very easy to pick a series of paradoxes out of their position. A principle one is the area that they seek to defend was formerly an industrial area and not the pristine, untouched rural wilderness they seem to want to portray. As evident by a newspaper account of the Churnet Valley written in the 1930s about the area at the end of the 19th century

" Some 50 years ago the basin was a scene of bustling activity with limestone being broken into ballast grades by large groups of men: limestone was burned into agricultural lime. On the other side of the canal brick making was practised and further into the valley coal was mined from galleries running into the valley sides"

I have been an advocate of expanding the railway for some time and think that this development has excellent potential for the area along with the tourism scheme at Whiston on the site of the quarry.

Both plans offer the possibility of jobs sorely needed in the area. It also could also cut down on car usage to Alton Towers. On the same day you carried as the Churnet Valley protestors meeting you carried a report on the latest unemployment figures of 1,100 for the Moorlands and 8,000 for the Potteries.

I am sure that many of the unemployed as well as some of the under employed locally would relish the prospect of new jobs. Or are the well-heeled protestors bothered about the lot of those without jobs?