BLACK AND WHITE TELEVISION
Meanwhile, back at the Beeb, my time with the Showband came to an end, as did the 50s, as did the Goons. By the time the final "Goon Show" ("The Last Smoking Seagoon") went out in early 1960, Peter Sellers was big in films, Harry was big in musicals and round the waist, and Spike was not far off co-writing and starring in his strangest work of all, "The Bed-Sitting Room", of which I fear there'll be more later.
Apart from the massive amount of fun I'd had on that show, it had greatly helped me develop the comedic side of my nature as a performer, which was a stroke of luck because in my next job I was going to need it. Earlier, I mentioned Stan Stennett whom I'd met in his Show Band compere days. He was also involved in "The Black And White Minstrel Show" which at that time featured instrumental interludes from Norrie Paramor and the Big Ben Banjo Band. When Norrie's contract came to an end, Stan suggested to the producer George Inns that he should give me a shot. So when George rang and asked if I'd like to do one, I decided that if I went on and did the usual Dixieland spot with a small group, it'd probably be met by an overwhelming chorus of "Mmm, very nice, next please". Instead, I resolved to jolly it up and, perhaps because of this, got invited back on a regular basis. But there was no fixed length to my spot in the show. Every week, I used to go to George Inns and ask, "How long have I got?" and he'd say, "Girls, how long does it take to change from the blue into the pink? About a minute and a half? Okay George, you've got a minute and a half."
Trying to put together a worthwhile piece of nonsense proved to be hard work, especially as its duration was dictated by how long it took the Television Toppers to swap frocks. What can you do in ninety seconds? Usually, I'd try and dig up some pseudo-comic slowish piece for the middle section, but that meant whatever went either side of it had to go like the clappers otherwise I'd never fit it in. But then again, it was a solo spot in front of a massive Saturday night audience during the first wave of the television boom (by then, the kitten had just about finished playing with the fish). Working to a camera was a whole new discipline for me and, in some ways, a terrifying one. The autocue machine was not yet in service and neither was my ability to learn lines. I used to marvel at performers who could get whole sentences off pat, much less full speeches. Of course, there were idiot boards but alas, there were also idiots. More than once, the boards were held up in the wrong order, which would lead people into saying the likes of "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and.. .I hope you'll join us again next week when we'll...welcome to tonight's show...be back".
As a newcomer to the medium, I was astounded by its illusory quality. "The Minstrel Show" was transmitted from the Television Theatre (nowadays the Shepherds Bush Empire) and despite the large number of artists involved, they were always heavily outnumbered on the studio floor by technicians and technology. There was a sensation of being hemmed in on all sides by great lumps of mechanical hardware, but George Inns' camera direction would have the viewer believe we were playing in an area the size of the Grand Canyon. How did he do that?
Seeing yourself on the screen for the first time is agony. My God, do I really look like that? Can you believe those over-the- top gestures?! It taught me a lot about scaling my act down and relying on the most minimal of actions and expressions. Also, there was an aura of danger about the whole thing which enhanced it for me. Poor George would never know precisely what I'd be doing until show time - and as it was a live show, that didn't give him much power of intervention. So the responsibility for what went out in those however many half-minutes was mine and, although the comedy was a subsidiary part of the show, it did build up a following of its own which was sustained when the whole Minstrel package took up residence in the Victoria Palace Theatre.
Along with Stan Stennett and self, there was the young Leslie Crowther (with whom I appeared on the Minstrel TV show as well as on "Crackerjack") and a very fine comedienne called Margo Henderson. Our predecessors in the Victoria Palace were The Crazy Gang and severe doubts were harboured as to whether the home-grown Minstrel show could hold its own after an act like that. It was three and a half years later when I left the company and the show continued to thrive long after. Not only did everyone know The Black And White Minstrels but the principal singers were becoming household names too, although John Boulter, Dai Francis and Tony Mercer could safely walk the streets without being mobbed (unless they were in full make-up). During my time, there were a couple of mishaps, mainly to do with what would then have been called "the white heat of technology", which has an ugly tendency to go stone cold when you least expect it. Because it was often hard to hear singers when they turned upstage, some sections of the show had to be pre-recorded (it would have been too costly to mike them all individually). George Mitchell and George Inns got together and did that and every night, there'd be 25 guys on stage, all miming. After a time, you couldn't blame them for getting complacent and just going through the motions with their minds on more important things like what they're having for tea. They didn't have to do anything arduous like sing, there were two great Western Electric generators in harness and a lowly Ferrograph on standby in case the first two went down. But that was an unlikely scenario. Even more unlikely was the prospect of all three failing at once.
One night, they did.
I was waiting to go on when it happened and the scene on stage was like a petrified forest, all silent but for a fourth tenor right at the back trying to save the show by bursting into strangulated song. He sounded about as good as Spike's prima donna with the mike on her stomach. By now, I was on the floor in convulsions and beckoning Crowther to come and have a look. Then the tape started up again in a different place and, within a few bars, they were back to the old mime routine and wondering what was for tea. On another occasion, Leslie, Margo and I had just come off stage after lampooning a popular singing group of the time called The Kaye Sisters (I played the one with the moustache). We were still climbing out of our dresses and looking forward to a ten-minute breather when Battersea Power Station decided to take one too. In the darkness, I could hear cries of "George, quick! Grab your trombone and get on stage!", so with Leslie in tow, I found my way on somehow. We couldn't see a thing and no mikes were working so I shouted to the audience "Join in if you know the choruses" and began a mini-marathon of playing, bathed only in the flare of Crowther's cigarette lighter. Midway through "Alexander's Ragtime Band", the lights came back on and the crowd went wild. I'd love to think it was in appreciation of our stalwart efforts in saving the show, but I fear it had more to do with the fact that, in the commotion, we'd rushed on stage in our underpants.
Still, it could have been worse!
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