The Ghost Train (1941)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Meticulously researched, accessible to all readers, and full of Anthony Slide’s usual discerning comments, it is an important study of one of Britain’s most misunderstood popular entertainers.

For American and U.K. counterparts interested in the British past and watching Talking Pictures Television (that has a very good Facebook site), the name of Arthur Askey (1900-1982), may not ring a bell. But in his heyday, “Big Hearted Arthur” was a well-known figure in film, radio, theater, and television. He even then divided audiences. You either loved or hated him, but there was no denying his bubbling vivacity, a continuing desire to cheer up his audiences, especially in the dark days of World War Two. For many, his humor was equivalent to hearing fingernails scrape across the blackboard. But many loved him, especially those belonging to a different generation who recognized his music-hall roots and understood how humor can take many forms in certain historical era.

Anthony Slide’s 170-page monograph from BearManor Media (2020) is a labor of love. Meticulously researched, accessible to all readers, and full of his usual discerning comments, it is an important study of one of Britain’s most misunderstood popular entertainers. Though Askey’s humor appears archaic today, he was very popular with a key segment of the British audience of his time, and it is this significance that Slide outlines in this very welcome study.

An important study of a comedian who just wanted to make people happy and cast a better light on the darkness of the 1930s and 40s.

Fully illustrated with archive and personal photos from the author and Askey family collections, the study comprises introduction, eight chapters, bibliography, filmography and index. The twenty-two page introduction places Askey within the historical context of “mini-comedians such as Wee Georgie Wood (1894-1979), Jimmy Clitheroe (1921-1973), and Ronnie Corbett (1930-2016) as well as bespectacled comedians Harry Worth (1917-1989), Sandy Powell (1900-1982), Eric Morecombe (1926-1984), and Will Hay (1888-1949). But, like the others, this diminutive comedian had his own distinctive character and I don’t mean his performance of the Bee Song popularly associated with him. As Slide mentions, big-heartedness, as in the title of his 1940 film Charley’s (Big-Hearted Aunt) was his special quality.

“Here was a diminutive comedian, almost pixie-like, who proved that good things can come in small packages. There was a natural exuberance to Askey’s performances in all media. He always gave the impression of being a fun guy to be around, with no chip on his shoulder and no bitterness to his height as might be suggested and often confirmed by Wee Georgie Wood and Jimmy Clitheroe” (p. 10) Belonging to an age of comedy in which “style was more innuendo and naughty rather than blatant” (p. 13), the later comedian belonged to a lost tradition of the golden age of British comedy that came to an end with the death of Ken Dodd in 2018 where a little generation’s claims for inheritance were dubious to say the least.

“The likes of John Cleese might believe themselves superior to the Ken Dodd and his ilk, but they have lost all touch with humor and with laughter, if they, particularly with John Cleese, ever were funny.”(pp. 145-146).

This is certainly a biased perspective but one that is honest where the author puts his cards on the table and challenges the opposition. As a revered film historian, Slide again knows his subject and it is one he treats with objectivity, respect, and reverence throughout this well-documented study.

As he states, this popular British comedian who saw no interest in conquering America, but he exuded several qualities that went into all his performances.

“Askey was larger than life on stage because he had to be. He was irresponsible and lovable, with the audience perhaps feeling a warm-hearted glow towards him because of his size. He could never be threatening and never have an audience in fear of him. Never a suggestion that he might single out a member of the audience for ridicule. His manner was welcoming and the public responded accordingly. There was no pretense here. No suggestion that he was superior to any of his peers.” (p.11)

Chapter one covers the early years documenting his birth in Liverpool, the same place as Ken Dodd, while the following chapter describes the beginning of his show business career even containing a still of young Arthur in pierrot clown costume. This was a traditional, now-lost form of concert party, seaside entertainment and I remember the older comedian re-staging this form of entertainment on BBC TV decades later. In the 1950 and early 60ss, BBC TV provided a stage venue for old music hall comedians such as Clarkson Rose (1890-1968), Sandy Powell (1900-1982) , Nat Jackley (1909-1988), Glen Melvyn, (1918-1992), Norman Evans (1901-1962) Dave Morris (1896- 1960) whose one victory over “The Wacker” in the 1957 BBC TV Club Night series was as unthinkable as Hamilton Burger winning a case against Perry Mason in the TV series,  and the “Chocolate Colored Coon” himself, G. H. Eliot (1882-1962,) whose genteel, black-face form of entertainment , inoffensive though it was at the time, would be unthinkable today.

Chapter three covers his long-running BBC radio Comedy Show Band Waggon (1937-1939) in which he co-starred with fellow comedian Richard “Stinker” Murdoch (1907-1990 as well as in the films Band Waggon (1940), Charley’s (Big-Hearted)  Aunt (12940), The Ghost Train (1941), and I Thank You (1941), the title based on one of Askey’s well-known lines. He also appeared frequently on stage as well as radio quiz shows Does the Team Think? (1957-1976), and holds the record for the most appearances on Desert Island Discs. Chapter four covers his film appearances including the British Western Ramsbottom Rides Again (1955), co-starring with future Carry On regular Sidney James (1913-1976) (who also did a dry run of his Rumpo Kid role in the 1965 Carry On Cowboy) in Make Mine a Million (1959) but unfortunately ending his film career with Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse (1975). Yet, as Slide points out, his significance lies well beyond the only two worthy films he ever made, Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt and Miss London Ltd (1943). 

His radio, stage, Royal Command Performances, pantomime, and television appearances revealed the comedian at his best as chapters five and six document. The final two chapters reveal his last years as a performer before his death and the legacy he has left. As Slide points out Askey’s audience was getting older as he was and the comedian never found that younger replacement as Max Wall (1908-1990) did after performing at the Edinburgh Festival in the early 70s following a long period of decline. He did not have the extended talent that would allow him to appear in challenging stage productions such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape as Wall did or the title role in Pinter’s The Caretaker that Charlie Drake (1925-2006) appeared in towards the latter part of his career as well as performing Touchstone in As You Like it during the 1980s. Askey became disenchanted with the new breed of comedians as he got older but praised fellow Liverpudlian Ken Dodd. Curmudgeon attitudes developed as he got older along with his support for the Conservatives and his grandchildren saw these as being “almost to the point of being reactionary.” (p. 142). However, granddaughter Jane explains his “becoming crotchety in old age” as follows.

“I … happen to think that when many people reach their 60/7os or 80s and are still working, things have changed so much it becomes quite difficult as you start to feel like a fish out of water, even when you love what you’re doing and is something you’ve devoted your whole life to….” (pp. 142-143).

Perhaps so? But when one looks at the current crop of comedians, the very different comedic role of Catherine Tate (1968-   ) and the present popularity of Quentin Tarantino among the undiscerning, one has cause to question this assumption. As Slide notes towards the end of his concluding chapter, times have changed, the world of the Blitz long gone “and cynical humor is more in need to deal with the current dark times the world is facing…Tomorrow belongs to the vulgar and crude, to those comics recognizing that their audience has a chip on its collective shoulder, and basically to a world accepting that anything goes. It might be argued that with the 2018 death of Ken Dodd, the `golden age of British comedy’ died with him.” [WTJ1]  (p. 145) Askey’s talent and legacy may be questionable but he was still an important comedian for his era and this should be recognized. Slide has contributed an important study of a comedian who just wanted to make people happy and cast a better light on the darkness of the 1930s and 40s, an element he still thought important for later times, despite the fact that these times had indelibly changed.

Tony Williams is an independent film critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.

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