All Star Comedy Carnival – 1972. Part One

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Airing for five years from the late sixties, All Star Comedy Carnival was ITV’s answer to the long-running BBC institution that was Christmas Night With The Stars.  Like its BBC counterpart, not all of All Star Comedy Carnival has survived intact, but at least the complete shows from 1972 and 1973 do exist.

“Mixed bag” is a far summation.  There’s some comedy greats and then there’s Love Thy Neighbour ….

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Love Thy Neighbour

Love Thy Neighbour is one of those programmes that seems to ebb in and out of fashion.  Incredibly popular in the early seventies, by the eighties it had deeply fallen out of favour.  But whilst you shouldn’t expect a re-run on ITV3 any time soon, over the last few decades it’s begun to attract the odd kind comment – arguing that it’s not just a series of (ahem) off-colour jokes, but that there’s also an element of satire – as with Till Death.

Eddie (Jack Smethurst) tells next-door neighbour Barbie (Nina Baden-Semper) that he wishes to give her husband, Bill (Rudolph Walker), the compliments of the season (“peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Even Sambos”).  Eddie is quite happy to extend this goodwill to the wives too, which he demonstrates when he forcibly kisses Barbie under the mistletoe.  That she’s wearing the tiniest pair of hotpants imaginable suggests that the disdain Eddie shows towards Nig Nogs doesn’t extend to the attractive female ones ….

As might be expected, Bill storms in to find his wife being pawed by Eddie and then Eddie’s wife, Joan (Kate Williams), also appears.  What happens next?  Yep, Bill and Joan have a snog under the mistletoe.

To be generous, you could argue that Eddie and Bill are always equally as combative as each other and that, deep down, they have a spark of friendship.  This can be seen when Eddie (after losing the Christmas turkey on his way home from the pub) and Joan are invited round to share Christmas dinner with Bill and Barbie.

But the joke, such as it is, to close this segment is that Bill and Barbie have invited a fair few others – all of them black – which causes Eddie to visibly flinch at the thought of spending time in a room with them.  “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas”.

At the very least Love Thy Neighbour is a fascinating time capsule of the period, but I don’t think I’m going to be shelling out for the boxset anytime soon.

Jimmy Tarbuck, resplendent in an orange jacket, is our ebullient host – on hand to link all the segments. He’s also present to receive visitors, such as Rod Hull and Emu.  Jimmy has the perfect face for some loving attention from Emu and luckily the bird doesn’t let us down.

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Nearest and Dearest

It’s Christmas time and brother and sister Eli and Nellie Pledge (Jimmy Jewell and Hylda Baker) are in a reminiscent mood.  As Nellie mentions that she gets filled with neuralgia (nostalgia) thinking about Christmases past, we’re transported back in time via the age-old trick of making the camera go in and out of focus.  Hylda Baker was a true one-off and therefore sight of her dressed as a young girl is worth the price of admission alone (the reaction of the studio audience makes it plain that they weren’t in on the gag).  Jimmy Jewell, resplendent in a sailor suit, and Madge Hindle (Lily) and Edward Main (Walter) also make for the most ridiculously unconvincing children imaginable.  Which is the point of the skit I guess.

Given that Baker and Jewel reputably loathed the sight of each other, it gives the combative relationship between Nellie and Eli something of an edge.

Once we’ve negotiated this part of the show, Jimmy Tarbuck introduces Moira Anderson singing Silver Bells.  It’s a slightly upmarket sort of song, given that the tone of most of the comedy segments are fairly low brow.  That there’s a full orchestra in the studio suggests that All Star Comedy Carnival had a more than generous budget.

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Father Dear Father

Father Dear Father may have had a fairly thin premise – Patrick Glover (Patrick Cargill) finds his life endlessly complicated thanks to his two grown-up daughters Anna and Karen (Natasha Pyne and Ann Holloway) – but it’s still very agreeable.  Partly this is because of Cargill’s affable performance, although the attractiveness of Pyne and Holloway is another obvious plus (for this viewer at least).  So whilst Cargill bumbles and pratfalls about (here he manages to trip on a roller skate and fall into a lake whilst pulling the most incredible faces throughout), the girls provide an oasis of beauty.  The plot – Patrick’s dog has gone missing – shouldn’t really detain us for too long.

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Thirty Minutes Worth

Harry is the increasingly disgruntled butler of a Lord and Lady.  Fuming because he hasn’t been given Christmas day off, he buttles between each end of their very long dining table, giving them increasingly garbled messages from the other whilst all the time helping himself to their port and brandy.  You’ve got to love a bit of Harry Worth.  His comic stumbles and general air of befuddlement isn’t subtle, but then the All Star Comedy Carnival isn’t really the place to find subtle.  It’s also a bonus to see the peerless William Mervyn playing the Lord.

Now we’ve reached the mid-way point it seems like the right time to take a break.  Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the remainder – Christmas With Wogan, On The Buses, Sez Lez and The Fenn Street Gang whilst various guests – including David Nixon – pop in to join Jimmy.

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Espionage – The Dragon Slayer

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The Dragon Slayer opens in late 19th Century China.  Sun Yat-Sen (Lee  Montague) is committed to the overthrow of the ruling Manchurian dynasty.  Following heavy fighting he’s forced to flee to England, where he seeks to raise both awareness and money.  But  the Chinese government, fearful of his public profile, decides to imprison him in their London consulate. If he renounces his radical views then he’ll be set free, if not …..

Like He Rises on Sunday and We on MondayThe Dragon Slayer is based on real-life events.  Although Sun Yat-Sen probably isn’t too well known in the West, he did later succeed in bringing an end to the Manchu dynasty and served as China’s first president.  But if you do know his background then it rather saps the tension of the story, as it’s obvious that no harm will have befallen him by the end of the episode.

Although Sun Yat-Sen is just as driven as Roger McBride from the previous story, The Dragon Slayer has a more layered narrative since others challenge and contradict his point of view.  Shortly after arriving in London, Sun finds himself invited to an exclusive reception.  As he fingers his tuxedo, it’s obvious that he feels like a fish out of water, but he’s driven by his mission to find benefactors who can supply money and arms.  Sir Leslie Parrott (Peter Dyneley) seems such a man – he’s a successful businessman, so he’s certainly rich enough.

But Sir Leslie isn’t going to be swayed by Sun’s picture of a free, democratic China or vague promises of trade monopolies.  The bottom line is profit – if there’s no money to be made then he won’t take the risk.  As Sun feels Sir Leslie lose interest, the camera tracks away to settle on a well-dressed woman dripping with diamonds – a visual beat which helps to suggest that his plea is doomed to failure (in such genteel society, talk of war is made to feel very out of place).

Sun puts the blame for all of China’s problems firmly at the feet of their rulers, to which Sir Leslie responds that you can’t blame governments for everything.  And the Englishman concludes by telling Sun that he might be the menace – not the Manchu – if he leads his people into a massacre.  That not all China’s ills are due to the Manchu is a point also later made by Sun’s uncle – helping to reinforce the point that no war can ever be black and white.

I’ve yet to touch upon the area of The Dragon Slayer which will probably be the most problematic for a modern audience, namely that the main Chinese roles are played by British actors.  This was very common during the 1960’s and 1970’s – the pool of ethnic actors was so small there was really no alternative.  But it’s very strange viewing nonetheless, as a selection of familiar faces try and convince us that they’re Chinese.

Lee Montague (born in Bow, London in 1927 and still going strong today, I’m delighted to say) probably comes off best – Sun might be a fanatic, ready to spill the blood of others for his cause, but Montague manages to capture the contradictory compassion of the man as well.  On the other end of the scale there’s Patrick Cargill as Colonel Tung.  Cargill didn’t attempt to modulate his normal cut-glass tones (which to be honest was probably wise – had any of the cast attempted “me velly solly” accents that would have just made things worse) so at first you do come away with the impression that his character is an Englishman dressed up. But whilst Cargill doesn’t remotely convince as Chinese, he still manages to invest Tung with a restrained menace. Tung, acting as Sun’s jailer and interrogator, doesn’t need to rant and rave – he holds such a clear position of power that he can afford to treat his captive with amused, icy contempt.

Alan Tilvern and Cyril Shaps (both first-rate actors, but not known for their Chinese looks) are also drafted into service – playing P’Eng Pat and Lao Han respectively.  Thorley Walters also appears, but fortunately he’s playing an Englishman, Dr Cantile.

Sam Kydd impesses as Crutchley, an English servant working at the Chinese consulate. Tung tells him to take Sun his meals, but also informs him that he should ignore anything he hears. Sun tries to get Crutchley on his side by telling him that he’s a Christian, but this doesn’t cut any ice with the Englishman. “I may be a butler, but I’m a scientific man myself. You see sir, I’m a Darwinist. I believe that man is descended from monkeys. Oh no offence intended sir, but how could the world ever have been made in six days?” When Sun reveals that his captors plan to kill him, Crutchley calmly replies that as a Christian he’d have assumed that’d be something he’d look forward to! As this isn’t a story with a great deal of levity, Kydd’s scenes help to lighten the mood a little.

So there’s an excellent cast at work here, even if some performances are a little compromised.  Three writers were credited for the script, Raymond Bowers, Albert Ruben and Halsted Welles (who previously contributed the first-class story The Incurable One).  Since Ruben and Welles were American and Bowers was British it suggests that some rewriting took place.  And the committee-like nature of the writing might be one of the reasons why the story never quite seems to work as well as it could.