A Book Review by Tony Williams.
The name of Jimmy Edwards (1920-1988) may not be familiar to American audiences, let alone contemporary British ones, except for those tuning in to the “Talking Pictures” cable stations and others running archive film and television series that put many contemporary examples on broadcast television to shame. I have it on good authority that the BearManor Media publishers persuaded the world’s most “provocative film scholar” to write on Edwards for this series and Dr. Slide is currently working on another about Arthur Askey called Hello Playmates! (Will it also include a complementary DVD/CD of the comedian performing his well-known “Bee Song”? We shall see.) Although Edwards today appears marginally lesser known than Askey, it is important that any type of film research incorporate information from other media, such as radio, vaudeville, theater, and painting into its parameters. Ripping England, with its focus on The Goon Show, is one example, and the rich British comedy tradition represented by George Formby, Frank Randall, Tony Hancock, and many others is significant.
Dr. Slide’s study of Edwards is another valuable contribution by BearManor Media and, as expected from such a professional scholar, it is written from a dedicated research perspective with the author relying on his memory, notes, film collection, interviews, and e-mails with relevant figures. Unfortunately, the Duke of Edinburgh had nothing to furnish over his knowledge of the comedian either because, as his indirect e-mail reply stated, that he did not “have any recollection” or, like his august past relative Queen Victoria, he actually was “not amused” (114, 128). Yet screen comedy derives from many cultural traditions, and it is important that these are not lost.
Jimmy Edwards personified a particular depiction of Englishness, one that thrived in the post-war era having similar hopes for a different type of society and world as depicted in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). As Slide points out, the BBC radio program most people associate with Edwards, Take it from Here (1948-1960) on its first appearance “suited the immediate mood perfectly. For all its cruel horror, World War II had widened the horizons of the British people…many turned, wiser and more mature, to what they hoped would be a fruitful future. They did some with some decent optimism, but with a restrained anticipation of what `Reconstruction’ could deliver.” Like Peter’s description of himself in his touching radio communication with June, they were “conservative by nature, Labour by experience.” Significantly, one of the episodes scripted by Frank Muir and Dennis Norden in a 7 episode BBC TV 1961 series, The Seven Faces of Jim (obviously a send-up of The Three Faces of Eve) was a parody of the opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death with well-known British comedian June Whitfield giving radio directions to a mini-cab driver in the fog that results in a crash (101).
Characterized by his RAF handlebar moustache (he was a Cambridge educated WWII veteran who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross), Edwards was a larger than life, rotund figure, who relished in playing different comedic versions of a blustery middle-class Englishman whether the working class Pa Glum in Take it from Here or the alcoholic, con-man headmaster of Chislebury School in the fondly remembered BBC TV series Whack-O! (1956-60; 1971-72). He would have made an ideal Ghost of Christmas Past in any version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I have fond memories of the series. Scripted by the talented duo Muir and Norden, it co-starred Arthur Howard (brother of Leslie) as the effeminate meek Deputy Headmaster Pettigrew devoted to a conniving and contemptuous Head who would often call him “Petters” in a non-affectionate manner. The teaming of both comedians in this series paralleled other expert matchings involving Tony Hancock and Sid James, Martin and Lewis, Abbot and Costello, Morecombe and Wise, French and Saunders, and Crosby and Hope. They were aided by well-known British character players in supporting roles, such as Kenneth Cope, Liz Fraser, and John Garside as aging teacher Dinwiddie in the first season (whom Edwards commented in one episode as “never having been the same since he discovered striped toothpaste”). A feature film spin-off appeared, appropriately titled Bottoms Up (1960) directed by Mario Zampi that, in contrast to Slide, I did not find as funny as the TV series. Although the film receives treatment in chapter 6, despite recognizing parallels to Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968), Slide does not mention what to me was the most humorous scene in the film. When the schoolboys revolt, they demand their crooked headmaster be turned over to them. The teachers comply carrying the headmaster clad in an appropriate RAF bomber jacket marching in line and whistling the Colonel Bogey theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Left to the tender mercies of those whose rears he had earlier made tender, the devoted Pettigrew runs to the rescue of his beloved headmaster ending with both men drenched by a fire hose in the schoolyard!
Following acknowledgements and introduction, the book is divided into ten main chapters (the last appropriately titled “The Perfect English Gentleman”) covering Edwards’s career in music hall, radio, television, stage and screen as well as mentioning his early years, his wartime experiences, and his personal life in the penultimate chapter “Sex and the Comedian.” Though Edwards did marry, it appears the relationship may have been never consummated and he had several gay relationships although he (and Arthur Howard) were not predators attracted to young boys. Future Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell and Melvyn Hayes always praised Edwards’ professional abilities as a comedian. Until he was “outed,” he kept that part of his personal life private. But it was known to the press as I discovered in Bury when working with a former journalist in 1980.
Like the characters Edwards played, he did indulge in alcohol but could also control it and was never prey to the manic-depressive behavior that eventually killed Tony Hancock. Like Eric Sykes with whom he appeared on stage in Big Bad Mouse (1966), he was a conservative eccentric now missing from the British landscape, an avoid fox-hunter whose short-lived 1966 BBC TV series Mr. John Jorrocks (for which he shaved off his characteristic handlebar moustache) (58) and at one time stood for Parliament. He appears to have been a post-war, right-of-center Macmillan type of Tory and not the horrendous species generated by Thatcher and her quasi-Lovecraftian Old Ones desiring to return Britain to the dark era of Victorian values characterized by homelessness (even for the disabled), sanctioned benefits leading to a massive suicide epidemic, and a ruthlessness unthinkable decades ago.
As always with this author, this is a pleasurable book to read by an expert not only in his focused subject but also its cultural and entertainment background. It raises many memories. Apparently, neither the author nor myself ever found Richard Hearne’s Mr. Pastry all that funny (61, 132), and we both believe the 1995 Blackpool-set Funny Bones (featuring Jerry Lewis) “brilliant and much-underrated” (45, n.3). Slide’s comedic talents emerge again in sentences such as “Jack Adams…arranged for an audition at the Windmill Theatre in front of Vivian Van Damm (1889-1960), who perhaps unfortunately went by the initials, `VD.’” (49) Who can resist hearing again Noel Coward’s well known anecdote concerning two stars of The Sea Shall not have them (1954) once again? (130) On p.18, n.6 Slide has a great description of the Fletching Bonfire Society celebration that he attended on October 2017. I’m sure Slide expects American readers to not understand what the “long-forgotten British tabloid, Tit Bits” (57) was about.
Do I see in the following quote a pun on the well-known British term for “restroom” also referred to in the title Carry On at your Convenience (1971)?
The 1960 film version of Whack-O! was simply titled Bottoms Up! and conveniently or perhaps inconveniently its release coincided with Arthur Howard’s arrest for importuning or `cottaging’, as it is known in the gay community, in a public toilet. (83)
It was an ironic event for someone whose character in Whack-O! constantly engaged in what in America is known as “brown nosing.”
The author’s reference to often unjustifiably forgotten British entertainers evokes my version of “Yes, I remember them well” but not in Maurice Chevalier’s way. Among the forgotten names is Freddie Frinton (1909-1968) whom I remember often played a drunk in evening dress slurring that song then associated with Alma Cogan (1932-1966) “Sugar in the Morning” on The Arthur Haynes Show (1959). I did not know that he was also well known for his Dinner at One (1963) sketch shown on Scandinavian and German TV every New Year (130).
A few errors and omissions do occur. On p. 73 Slide states that Dick Bentley was “actually younger in real life than Jimmy Edwards” (73) when he certainly means older (See p. 64). No closed indentations occur after the quote on p. 139, para. 2. Should not “Irene Handle” be corrected to Irene Handl? (85) And The Sea shall not have them is not listed in the index. However, this is another remarkable book and I look forward to the appearance of Arthur Askey and his work with Richard “Stinker” Murdoch. Much Binding in the Marsh!
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also Contributing Editor to Film International.