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Chapter Seven

THIS IS THE BBC


My demob from The Squadronaires finally occurred in the early 1950s, more than half a decade after the end of the war that had brought us all together in the first place - nice to know we were that much more popular than the fighting.

With very little breathing space between, my RAF music career was succeeded by one in another of our great military institutions, the BBC. Their Show Band - the equivalent of today's Radio Big Band - had a large string section: eight brass, five saxes, and four rhythm plus the Cliff Adams Singers and a series of celebrity comperes including Rikki Fulton, later to achieve TV cult status as the lugubrious Reverend I.M. Jolly, and Stan Stennett to whom I'll return shortly.

At that time, radio was king. Well, to be strictly accurate, George VI was king - but radio came a pretty close second. TV was still in its infancy, not only resembling a goldfish bowl in size and shape but often in content as well: the fish swimming in their tank, the potter's wheel, the kitten playing with a ball of wool, the four-minute London to Brighton train journey, the kitten playing with the fish...no wonder radio was king.

This was borne out by the fact that visiting American artistes of the calibre of Frank Sinatra were more attracted to sound studios than to ones with cameras in them. Not only did Francis Albert show up to record with us but he brought with him a selection of Nelson Riddle arrangements which were more than a joy to play, especially his glorious interpretation of the old number, "Birth Of The Blues". The glee with which we embraced such an enormous musical opportunity was inevitably tinged with a nagging fear along the lines of "What if he doesn't like us?". Sinatra was not known for suffering fools (usually it was the fools who suffered) and it did emerge that he had harboured misgivings about the ability of a BBC house orchestra to cope with the Riddle repertoire. But he took to us and became very complimentary, especially towards the brass section among whom he had decided to stand. This breach of microphone protocol brought the sound engineer scurrying from his box in an attempt to persuade the great man back to his own designated area. But in the manner of the song that Paul Anka hadn't yet written for him, Sinatra did it his way. He was very reasonable about it. He simply told the engineer,

"Either I do it like this or I don't do it at all!"

Our sound man, correctly surmising that this didn't offer a great deal of leeway for negotiation, then pondered his next problem:  how the hell was he going to record it? Surrounded by trumpets and trombones, the vocalist was unlikely to be heard to his best advantage (or even at all!) but, proving the validity of an old cliché involving necessity, invention and motherhood, the engineer not only arranged matters so that Sinatra was audible but in the process he achieved what turned out to be one of the best balances on any BBC recording of that time. Maybe the singer should have stood among the brass more often.

Luckily, my Corporation days didn't confine me to the studio. Recording sessions can be tremendous fun but they don' t compare with the atmosphere on a live audience show, so I was very glad to be one of the musicians providing anarchic accompaniment to the antics of The Goons. The orchestra was conducted by a man called Wally Stott who later became a woman called Angela Morley, which goes to prove that times change but not as much as people.

Of course, the music was incidental to the spoken comedy but an affinity developed between Spike Milligan and myself. He seemed to like the way I larked about on the trombone and when he organised the recording session for "The Ying Tong Song" and "I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas", I was booked in at EMI along with a rhythm section, a small string section and an incongruous-looking operatic soprano. If it had been anyone other than Spike in charge, I'd have thought I was in the wrong room - but he had plans for the poor prima donna. When it came to her big moment with the string section, the engineer, understandably, put a microphone in front of her face. Immediately, Spike told him to adjust it so that it pointed straight at her stomach. This accounts for the bizarre three-times-removed quality she achieved when singing "Take Me Back To Vienna" amidst all the yingtongiddilipo's.

As well as exploring the comic possibilities of the trombone in the series, I was singled out for a number of speaking parts. The first, in 1956, was in a Caledonian epic entitled "The MacReekie Rising of '74" in which I played Chisholm MacChisholm the Steaming Kilt, threatening to wreak revenge on the sassenachs for abducting our clan's hairy caber. Going against the advice of Major Dennis Bloodnok, military coward and Bart., Seagoon refuses to return the item and war breaks out with the Scots firing porridge and the English retaliating with Brown Windsor soup. Even more sensibly, I cropped up later in the same run in the episode "Wings Over Dagenham" as "a dour Scots gentleman in a grease-stained body", helping Neddy build the world's first hairyplane (we were all a lot hairier in those days) and almost exactly one year on, I dusted off the Caledonian twang to assist Inspector Seagoon in investigating "The Great String Robberies", my voice emerging from under a navy red kilt. My character boasted of ventriloquial powers ("I throw ma voice: sometimes through ma knees, some-times through ma shins and sometimes up a ma nose").

The first two of these editions were co-written by Spike and the late Larry Stephens but Goon archivists may recall that "MacReekie" was not just peculiar for my presence but also for Spike's absence. The phenomenal strain of writing the shows occasionally left him too unwell to perform in them. He's on record as saying the series cost him his sanity, but those of us who didn't have the burden of hammering out a fresh script every week were more able to enjoy the inspired lunacy that made the show unique.

Not that Spike didn't derive enormous pleasure from that era when he had the chance. In fact, he was always inclined to go further than the others in carrying Goonish behaviour over into real life. Many of the shows were recorded at the Camden Theatre in North London, not far from a firm of funeral directors. One day, Spike went in there with Harry in tow, the pair of them lay flat on the floor and Spike called out "Shop!". Secombe was out the door the minute the undertaker arrived but Milligan had to see the joke through to its natural end, trying to get himself measured up for a coffin. I'm amazed he didn't go the whole hog and insist on being buried.


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