Sez Les – Series Four, Show Four

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The lovely Aimi Macdonald is one of this week’s guests. She performs a song with the backing of both the Syd Lawrence Orchestra and the Denys Palmer dancers. It’s a big production number – at one point the dancers move away to a separate set – so it seems that most of the budget for this show was spent right here (today’s sketch by contrast is a simple affair – only utilising a small set).

David Mallet continues to pull out some unusual camera angles – during this sequence there’s a series of crane shots, for example – which helps to give the performance a little more impact. As do the few clothes which Aimi just about manages to wear ….

Given her skills as a comedy performer, it made sense to recruit her for the sketch (and probably saved a little money too). The premise is simple – Aimi is a hotel guest who has lodged her toe in the bathtap and Les is the helpful plumber who comes to assist her. She’s naturally a little reluctant to let him in, but is reassured when he tells her that he’ll be blindfolded the whole time.

There’s something a little queasy about this sketch. Not only the way that Dawson “accidentally” drops his tools into the bath so that he’s got an excuse to give Aimi a quick fondle, but also the final reveal – when we realise that Dawson was only blindfolded in one eye (he gives the camera a self-satisfied leer to hammer this point home). Not something that’s aged very well then although neither has the brief musical skit featuring Les as a Chinaman(!).

Ah well, there are better pickings elsewhere – a few brief film sketches amuse, my favourite being the one featuring two doctors operating on a car … they eventually extract a baby car. Silly, but amusing.

Today’s other guests are The Peddlers. No, me neither, but they’re good fun – a musical trio who favour the organ very highly. I’m going to have to dig into their history, this website looks to be a good place to start.

One of Les’ monologues is directed towards a familiar subject – marriage. It offers a selection of choice cuts, such as this one.

I was reading a horror story the other day, it was a terrifying account of a man who was trapped under a ton of whale blubber. And it reminded me it was me wedding anniversary. That’s ten years, which is a decade, and you’ve never seen such a decayed looking woman.

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show Three

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This week’s sketch features Les as a myopic waiter in a curiously empty restaurant. Either this was done for comic effect or it was simply because the show couldn’t afford any extras. Never mind, it’s not long before two customers (played by Hugh Walters and Joan Savage) wander in. From the moment she opens her mouth for the first time it’s clear that she’s the dominant one (no surprises there, since Walters excelled at playing hen-pecked and inconspicuous types). It’s always a joy to see Walters – but his one-off appearance as a Dawson stooge makes it clear that, as yet, Sez Les didn’t have a regular group of comic performers (Roy Barraclough would later fill one of those roles, but at present he was only one face amongst many).

Dawson – dressed in an impossibly small waistcoat – creates the expected level of comic mayhem due to his inability to see anything at all. He affects an Italian accent for a few seconds before dropping it (although there doesn’t seem to be any comic reason for this). Since Savage is so incredibly shrill and annoying it’s no surprise that the audience approves when most of the food ends up in her lap rather than on the plate.

Walters is positioned as the sympathetic one (I like his plaintive statement that he should have listened to his mother and stuck with his whippets!) with the eventual punchline reveal being that he’d paid Dawson specifically for this service. With Dawson concentrating on crafting his monologues, a small group of writers were responsible for the sketches. At present they’re workmanlike but not terribly inventive (fresh blood in later years would see the standard rise).

Dawson’s close encounters with pianos were always notable, but one of the best gags from this second half sequence comes before he sits down – he flicks the tails of his evening dress so hard they fly off!

There’s only one guest today – Miss Shirley Bassey. Possibly she was more expensive than some of the previous acts (if so, they got their money’s worth out of her as she performed two songs). She closes the first half with Till Love Touches Your Life but the main point of interest is that she opens part two with Diamonds Are Forever, just a week after the Batchelors performed the same song.

If these shows were recorded in order then this seems a little odd. True, the Bachelors had released it as a single, but with La Bassey due to appear the week after, it’s a strange duplication. No prizes for guessing who comes out on top – backed by the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, Bassey’s live vocal has all the punch and control that you’d expect. Easily the highlight of the show.

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show Two

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There’s an interesting moment early on, when during a sketch featuring Les as a clerical golfer, his comment of “balls” is muted. Given this was such a mild profanity it’s surprising to see it taken out. Especially since it was plain what the word was (especially the punchline is that he’s then pelted with golf balls from a helpful God).

The set-piece sketch of this show is a two-hander between Dawson and Kenneth Connor. Connor is an earnest academic lecturing about the mechanics of comedy …

What makes this sketch work is that whilst both continue to soberly discuss the nature of comedy, their actions (involving an ever increasing cycle of slapstick abuse) are in such sharp contrast to the serious tone. Dawson’s inability to keep a straight face as the pair get messier and messier is a joy as is Connors’ straight-faced control. The climax of the sketch – Connor attempts to light a bomb – seems to be scuppered after he’s unable to get the matches to work. He carries on in character (berating the props man) whilst Dawson dissolves into a fit of giggles. If this sketch teaches us anything then it’s how actors and comedians react differently to the same series of events.

A familiar part of Dawson’s act was to start a monologue with a deluge of evocative wordplay before bringing the tone right down. There’s a perfect example in this show, as he discusses how evocative memory can be. “A drift of perfume on the stairs, a snatch of laughter on a balcony or a song in the night can evoke forgotten memories. This happened to me the other week – I was watching the wife suck a hot chop with her teeth out”.

The Skylarks and The Bachelors are this week’s guests. I’m not sure why three of the four male Skylarks are wearing the same sort of jacket, but the fourth isn’t. Either dress the same or don’t! Their performance is enlivened by the Denys Palmer Dancers (the regular dance troup) who flounce about in green whilst the Skylarks are warbling.

Now this is mildly noteworthy. The Bachelors (whom I’m glad to report were clothes coordinated – all wearing nice pink shirts) perform Diamonds are Forever. Quite good it is too, even if they do have to change all the “I’s” and “me’s” to “she” or “her”. This won’t be the last time we hear this song though – stay tuned ….

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Sez Les – Series Four, Show One

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Returning in early 1972 for a run of six episodes, the format’s pretty similar to what has gone before – the Syd Lawrence Orchestra (“the only musicians I know who are mentioned in the Doomsday Book”) are still in residence, although the Skylarks are nowhere to be seen (but fret not, Skylarks fans, they’ll be back next week).

David Mallet continues to feature unusual shot selections at various points (fish-eye lenses, for example) whilst one innovation is that there’s now a selection of “quickie” sketches. These provide a change in pace between the longer items.

One of my favourite short sketches from the whole series features Les as a roadsweeper who lifts up the pavement in order to shovel the dirt underneath! It’s a lovely moment which Dawson later used (during an interview with Michael Parkinson) as an example of the difference between British and German humour (German televison executives didn’t believe this sketch would work in their country as their pavements didn’t lift up …)

As for the longer sketches (still only one each edition) today’s features Roy Barraclough as the impossibly camp owner of a crockery shop. Les, the flat-capped handyman, doesn’t tell his workmate to watch his back in so many words, but the inference is there. As a time-capsule it’s interesting, as a piece of comedy rather less so (partly because it’s obvious that everything in the shop will be destroyed somehow. It would have been more of a surprise if they hadn’t gone down this route).

Musical guests for this first show are Jeannie Lamb and Gilbert O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan I was familar with, but Jeannie Lamb didn’t really ring a bell. A quick search on the internet hasn’t left me much wiser (apart from a few scattered references to her jazz career and a collaboration with Ray Davies). But my researches continue ….

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Sez Les – Series Three

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Broadcast during August and September 1971 and running to a measly four editions, series three of Sez Les clips along at a fair rate of knots (although Dawson himself is in short supply). This is due to the fact that he has to share the stage with regular acts The Skylarks (a rather decent vocal harmony group) and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra as well as a number of guest performers. With each edition only running for twenty five minutes, there’s a fair amount to be crammed in …

The formula tends to run as follows. After the Syd Lawrence Orchestra and the Skylarks have welcomed him to the stage, Dawson kicks off proceedings with a short monologue (returning in the second half with a longer monologue). Each edition has a single sketch with the remainder of the time being taken up with the guest performers as well as spots for the Skylarks and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra (who close proceedings). The final two editions also have some brief film inserts, showing Dawson interacting with ordinary members of the public.

Luckily I have an almost unquenchable thirst for 1970’s LE, so the number of musical performers isn’t really a problem for me. But for those who are interested in seeing more of Dawson, you might be advised to skip ahead to one of the later series (plus the arrival of David Nobbs helped to sharpen the series’ comedy sensibilities quite markedly).

Guest wise, Manitas De Plata strums a mean Spanish guitar, Dana has a very credible stab at a George Harrison song (Isn’t It A Pity), Frank Ifield warbles in an entertaining fashion, Anita O’Day jazzes things up (her obituary makes for interesting reading) whilst Georgie Fame and Alan Price are good value in the final edition, as is Kathy Kirby. For those familiar with other LE programmes of this era (such as The Two Ronnies or The Morecambe & Wise Show) many of those names will be familiar.

Brian Glover assists Dawson with the sketches seen in the first two editions – the second (Dawson as an extremely nervous dentist attempting to remove Glover’s tooth) being the better of the two. It’s not subtle, but it’s good fun. After leaving Monty Python John Cleese would become a Sez Les regular, but it’s slightly more surprising to see him pop up here in a couple of brief sketches.

It’s likely Cleese recorded his contributions in something of a hurry. The train sketch in show three should have been tailor-made for him, but it’s rather thrown away and there’s little bite to his reactions of Dawson’s improbably dressed Highlander – complete with caber! The second sketch with Cleese is rather better (it also switches from VT to film in a way that’s almost Pythonlike).

Maybe the budget for the last few episodes was a little greater. In addition to this brief film insert, Dawson also went out and about on the streets, ensnaring unsuspecting members of the public with hidden camera stunts. Presumably these gags were real and not staged (although since Dawson had been a television regular for a few years it’s surprising nobody seemed to recognise him).

Producer/Director David Mallet had worked with Dawson before on Joker’s Wild. Knowing that Mallet would later pursue a career as a top music promo director (Queen and David Bowie were amongst his clients) it’s interesting to look back at his early work to see if there’s any visual flair in evidence. For Joker’s Wild, probably not – but then it was a rather static sort of series (the main highlight being a wobbly camera zoom into Barry Cryer at the start of the show).

He had more to work with during Sez Les though and the Syd Lawrence interludes do have some fast intercutting and unusual camera angles, suggesting that Mallet was interested in shaking up the visual grammar of this type of show.

Not a rib-tickling 100 minutes then, but entertaining nonetheless. As my occasional rewatch continues, it’ll be interesting to see the point at which the series began to grow. Several changes – increasing the running time, dropping the musical acts for a while – helped to shake the format up.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 31st December 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

Design
Charlie Williams
Kristine Sparkle
Brother Lees
Matt Monro
Freddie Garrity

It’s New Years Eve at the Wheeltappers, so decorations, party hats and Auld Lang Syne are all to the fore. But this merriment has to come to an end eventually as it’s time for the turns to do their thing. First up are “one of Great Britain’s top recording groups” Design. Active between 1968 and 1976 (and across a range of record companies including Epic, Capitol and EMI) they may not have had many hits but thanks to a string of television spots (they appeared with Morecambe and Wise, Reg Varney, Vera Lynn, Tommy Cooper, Val Doonican, The Two Ronnies and many others) Design would have been a familiar sight to most the watching audience.

On a slightly melancholy note, it seems that this Wheeltappers performance of Listen to the Music was their final television jaunt. It’s an energetic canter through the song and kicks off proceedings in a decent, upbeat way. Design have a very comprehensive website for those who want to dig a little deeper into their history.

Receiving a typically mocking introduction from Bernard, Charlie Williams’ first point of business when reaching the stage is to thank his fellow comedian (whilst likening him to Humpty Dumpty at the same time). A former professional footballer, when he retired from the game in 1959 he decided to pursue a career as a singer. But when he discovered that his between song banter was going down better than his crooning, he switched to comedy full time.

In one respect he was certainly a trailblazer – black comics were thin to non-existent during the 1970’s – although there’s something slightly uncomfortable about hearing him use the same sort of racist jokes (albeit of a mild variety since this was the Wheelappers) that his fellow, white comics would also have been peddling at the time. But due to his genial, inoffensive nature (“hello flower”) he just about gets away with it.

When Kristina Sparkle’s music career failed to take off, she pursued a parallel career on the impressions show Who Do You Do. Indeed, her Wheeltappers appearance shows that impressions were already part of her act – her spot here culminates with a medley where she mimics the likes of Cilla Black and Lulu. Fairly broadly it has to be said (whilst the way that the cameraman lingers on her rather shapely bottom for several seconds is quite noteworthy).

The Brother Lees mix comedy and impressions. Good to see that they do both Frank Spencer and Tommy Cooper (a seventies impressionist just isn’t a seventies impressionist otherwise). They take it in turns to do various celebs individually – including Roy Orbison and Harold Wilson – whilst also tackling others such as Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth and Max Bygraves in triplicate. None of their impressions are stunning, but since their act is so quickfire you don’t really notice – by the time you’ve registered their current impression, they’ve already moved onto the next. An above average turn.

Matt Monro adds a touch of class to proceedings with a trio a well-performed songs – Around The World, Let Me Sing (And I’m Happy) and Born Free. For once, the band all seem to be on the same page and this part of the show slips down very easily.

Normally you’d have expected Matt Monro to have been the headliner, but today there’s one more treat. And what a treat it is. Billed as Freddie and the Nightmares, Freddie Garrity, Frank Carson and Duggie Brown (all dressed as chickens) squawk their way around the stage. Mere words alone can’t do this justice, you simply have to see it (at least once). Colin succinctly sums them up. “We’ve had some bloody rubbish here, but that beats the lot”.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 7th September 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang
Mike Reid
David Whitfield
Marion Ryan
Max Wall
Stuart Damon

Through the decades, the basic premise of the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang never changed – one member of the group (Royston Smith) was somewhat diminutive in size, meaning that he was unable to get his fair share of the limelight (or indeed the microphone). Equal parts slapstick and music, they’re a decent opening act. This Pathe newsreel from 1947 shows them in earlier days.

Given a typically ironic introduction from Bernard, Mike Reid’s opening comment to him is delivered with a singular lack of warmth (“ever thought of lacing your mouth up and using it as a football?”). A genuine spot of needle or were they the best of showbiz mates? Hmm, not sure. Unlike some of the other comedians who appeared at the Wheeltappers, Mike Reid never gave the impression that he wanted the audience to love him. The jokes may be average, but it’s all about the delivery and Reid’s extraordinary vocal gymnastics makes this a memorable spot (and he does a spot of singing too).

David Whitfield, born in North Yorkshire, was a tenor who had a string of hits in Britain during the 1950’s and also cracked the American market at the same time. Straddling the advert break, he’s another good addition to the line up – clearly entertaining the audience not only with his singing but also with his convivial attitude. Drink, Drink, Drink, a whistle of the Colonel Bogey March and The Soldier’s Dream comprise his act today.

Dubbed “the Marilyn Monroe of popular song”, Marion Ryan (like Whitfield and a number of other Wheeltappers acts) had been a big star back in the fifties. She had her own television show and also notched up appearances in The Army Game and Six-Five Special, amongst many others. Multiple Royal Command Performances and guest appearances in specials featuring the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby followed.

Her Wheeltappers appearance proved that she still had a decent singing voice, although having to contend with the house band (who sometimes appear to be pulling in different directions) couldn’t have been that easy. But her performances of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and The More I See You manage to overcome any musical backing deficiencies.

Bernard. as ever, is charm personified when introducing Max Wall. “Can we have a nice welcome … probably one of his last”. Although Bernard’s genuine look of delight and hearty clapping when Wall takes to the stage suggests that he was only joshing.

Wall’s career encompassed both music hall and the legitimate theatre (appearing in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape, for example). His dead-pan delivery is spot on (although it’s slightly strange that his stream of one-liners has a musical accompaniment – this isn’t really needed). Although one of his gags (“yesterday in the city of Manchester, I saved a lovely girl from being sexually assaulted. I controlled myself”) hasn’t aged well, the rest of his act is a joy.

Best known from The Champions (indeed, Bernard introduces him as such and his walk-on music is Tony Hatch’s familiar theme tune) Stuart Damon bounds onto the stage to entertain the audience with a handful of familiar songs. With a number of Broadway musical appearances under his belt from the 1960s, he obviously knew how to belt out a song. He kicks off with Bad Bad Leroy Brown before finishing up with The Yellow Rose of Texas and a snatch of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (where once again the band, led by Derek Hilton, goes somewhat off-key).

Damon’s performance style is best described as “full-on”. He certainly gives his all (and then some) and also can’t resist moving into the audience from time to time. A curious turn that’s for sure, but whatever else it is, it’s certainly not dull.