Archive for Dan Leno

Askey, and you shall receive

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on July 27, 2009 by dcairns


Brought up short.

The first and last word on Arthur Askey, British comedy film star of the ’40s, belongs to Alexei Sayle ~

“Remember, people once laughed at Arthur Askey, and history has proved them wrong.”

I decided to give Arthur a try, having procured by nefarious means a copy of BEES IN PARADISE, which the esteemed Val Guest directed, co-scripted, and wrote the lyrics for. An air force crew bail out over an uncharted island where they find a civilization ruled by women, where men are routinely sacrificed two months after wedding one of the local beauties. Plus, everybody’s always singing. I’m not sure which of the two qualities makes the place, ironically named “Paradise,” less appealing.

The crew consist of Peter Graves — not that one. This one is an amicably hopeless actor, always smiling, whatever the scene, who was also a baronet, which must have been nice for him; Max Bacon, an overstuffed and very Jewish malaprop; Ronald Shiner, a standard-issue cocker-nee cheeky chappie; and our Arthur.

With the body of a ten-year-old and the head of a maths teacher, Askey is a strange looking fellow, but not in a way that immediately inclined me towards laughter. Such a response seemed cruel, somehow. After watching him for ten minutes or so, I did start to feel cruelly towards him, but I was no closer to laughing. There’s definitely a kind of cold-blooded comic skill to the man, but it all seemed very artificial, as did the script. Guest seemed to be under the influence of the Marx Brothers, and no doubt generations of music hall cross-talking comedy acts, and his material, like Askey’s performance, mimics the best of those traditions without ever actually generating the surprise or freshness needed to produce laughs. There’s a lot of meta-textual gags too, confirming Joe Dante’s assertion that breaking the fourth wall used to be a lot more common.

vlcsnap-343180Arthur titters.

I was expecting the sexual politics to provide the laughs, and unintentional ones at that, but in fact there wasn’t very much in the way of dated sexism to raise chuckles. A pity, really. Here’s modern comic Harry Enfield spoofing that kind of idiocy, in one of his best sketches.

There were funny acts in the music hall — Chaplin and Stan Laurel both got their start there, and what I’ve heard of Dan Leno’s material is whimsical as hell but still funny, at least in places. But for some reason, the main way the medium is recalled today is in parodies of lousy and inscrutable old comedy, by way of spoof comedians like Tommy Cockles, Arthur Atkinson and Count Arthur Strong. And this does seem to represent a definite strain of British comedy.


Carpe Liber!

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , on April 19, 2008 by dcairns

One of the wisest things I ever heard was in the Cinema Bookshop in London. I always like to go there whenever I’m down — come to think of it, haven’t been in YEARS — and on this occasion I was there with Fiona and producer Nigel Smith. I was trying to decide whether to buy a pricey coffee-table type volume about Sergio Leone. I had been amazed at finding it, having never seen a copy or even having heard of it, and this was before Sir Christopher Frayling’s mammoth biography, so there was a sparsity of Leone literature around. And yet, there was the price.

Nigel said, “If you want to buy it, buy it NOW.” He was right — I’ve never seen a copy of that book for sale since. It probably helped sway me that the Cinema Shop had been the site of one major deferred purchase I’ve always regretted.

I’d found a copy of Dan Leno: Hys Booke, written by himself, A volume of frivolities, etc. A slender volume at a high price, it was really beyond my financial limits at the time. And yet I bet it was a bargain. Leno had nothing to do with cinema, he was a Victorian music hall star — and a fascinating figure. His book seemed very funny, but I can’t remember any of what I read. I can only remember a joke I saw quoted by comedy expert Roy Hudd on TV: “I found myself washed up on a desert island. Discovering a piece of fruitcake, I noticed that all the currants had been removed, and I rejoiced at this sign of civilisation.”

Hys Booke, as the title suggests, was crazy with wordplay, like a mid-period Spike Milligan novel, which made sense given Leno’s eventual insanity — incessant punning can be a feature of mania. At any rate, I’ve always regretted not picking it up.

The other book I really really regret not buying wasn’t even expensive, I just couldn’t decide if I neededit or not. A couple of days later I returned to Till’s Bookshop in Edinburgh, and dealt with the art of Charles Altamont Doyle, father of the more famous son of Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle Snr suffered from depression, alcoholism and eventually, complete insanity, having failed to earn a living by his drawing and painting. But it’s wondrous stuff, and touched with madness from the get-go. Like his brother Richard, Charles Doyle painted scenes of Fairyland, with less skill but with more eccentricity — and eccentricity is essential in lifting Victorian fairy art out of the realms of the twee and back into the scary world of Celtic and Old English mythology where it rightfully belongs.

One ilustration, entitled Kissing the Sphinx, seemed to me gloriously perverse and erotic, though perhaps mainly for its title. Illustration-wise it’s admittedly trumped by THIS BEAUTY by Franz Von Stuck.

Stuck On You

Again, I’ve never seen the Doyle book for sale anywhere since.

HAPPY ENDING — I was forgetting, this is the Age of the Internet (how can I forget it when I’m ON it?) — the book, The Doyle Diary, is readily available secondhand on Amazon! Ordered — for 1 penny!

Dan Leno, His Booke, is likewise available, but even more expensive that it was in the Cinema Shop… I’ll have to delay that one until I’m rich.

Nevertheless, I think Nigel’s general point holds true.