Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Two versions of Jimmy James' fantastic box sketch. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stooge for England!

We seem to be losing a lot of our iconography lately. And while it's true that we afford them their due deferences and mourn their passing I can't help but feel guilty about not singing their praises more loudly in their lifetimes.

So let us sing a song of Nicholas Parsons.

At least half of my English readership will have smiled at that sentence. In itself that is a tribute to the man's work. Starting out as one of the myriad unremarkable young actors who'd do little cameos in films or plays he has become A National Treasure. And he has managed it by more than mere longevity.

Like many of his contemporaries, Nicholas' early career involved his playing respectable, if a bit wet, characters with impeccable Stage English. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he carried on doing precisely that, acting as stooge, or straight man, to a succession of comedians and, finally, The Nation. The big turning point was his teaming up with Arthur Haynes who was one of the big TV stars in the fifties and early sixties. Haynes generally played the stroppy 'little man' who thought he was being hard done-to by authority, very often typified by Nicholas Parsons. Other times he would be a rather wet middle-class friend to Haynes' "common man."

When that partnership dissolved he became a regular on The Benny Hill Show. (BTW: one of the things I like about Benny Hill is that he continued the tradition of surrounding the comic with straight men and character actors and then letting them be funny.) Hill was lucky to have both Nicholas Parsons and Henry McGee in his troupe.

Parsons was, and is, a consummate straight man. This isn't easy. In fact, it's damned hard. It's easy to imagine that all a straight man has to do is stand there and say his lines while the funny man does the comedy. It's easy to imagine that and dead wrong. If you want to see how easy it isn't, just watch the next time a US President teams up with a comedian for one of those "let's entertain the White House Press Corps" skits. You laugh, if you do, at the novelty of the event and at the good sportsmanship of the President. If the President was Joe Bloggs from down the road you'd think this was a pretty mediocre bit of comedy. The straight man has three important jobs to do. He has to provide a counterpoint to the comic, in physique or personality, or both. He has to provide the feedlines properly - the gag lines must not appear contrived and the feed must not accidentally telegraph the gag. Sometimes a feed deliberately telegraphs the gag, in which case the straight man and the comic both must have confidence in each other not to say a word until just that right moment. A good comic working with a good stooge who he knows and trusts can ride an audience's knowing what the joke is going to be for a good many minutes. (The longest I've seen was Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough riding a very weak punchline for the best part of ten minutes, made the funnier by Dawson's mercilessly trying to corpse Barraclough by staring him out.) The straight man must never step on a laugh.

Strangely enough his big step up to fame had nothing to do with comedy at all. He was the long-time presenter of Anglia TV's Quiz Of The Week, "Sale of the Century."

These days he is more well-known for his stint as chairman of the long-running radio programme "Just A Minute," where he has acted as the foil to the likes of Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo, Peter Jones, Kenneth Williams, Graham Norton and Paul Merton (and about half a million other celebrities, with all due apologies).

I don't know for sure, but I have my suspicions, which of these turned a jobbing actor and presenter into something else. Nor do I know for sure why he was the chosen one: it's not like the seventies was short of people presenting slightly tacky games shows (Mr & Mrs had both Derek Batey and the bloke with the moncle!) Whatever. It happened. Nicholas Parsons became one of the butts of the nation's comedy. Here's an example from 'Hello Cheeky,' circa 1975.
Stranger Than Truth: A new volcano has appeared on an East Indian island. Reports say that it just sits there rumbling and spewing hot air. The natives call it Nicholas Parsons and throw rocks at it.

A picture, or even just the name of Nicholas Parsons became a short-cut for a quick laugh, whether it was the Goodies using him to scare off policemen or the 'Burkiss Way' telling us that "as The Minute Waltz fades away, here's the man who doesn't." In the eighties and nineties both he and his agent worked bloody hard. It often appeared that he would show up at the opening of a packet of crisps. You'd see him in the most unlikely places, always ineffably nice and polite and bemused and always making sure that the clever and funny people appeared to be that little bit more clever and funny. I met him once briefly in a Green Room (nothing clever on my part: I was riding on the coat tails of my brother's ligging and meeting Nicholas Parsons was a bonus). In the Green Room he appeared exactly as he had appeared on set: nice, polite, and apparently bemused to be there. (I have every confidence that he was the only one in the room who had much idea why any of us were there.)

There is a folk memory, and I don't know if it is more true than that, of Benazir Bhutto turning to a companion in a Broadcasting House lift and asking: "why does everybody in Britain hate Nicholas Parsons?"

The truth is that we don't. He is guyed and he is mocked and he fills theatres with his one-man-shows and recordings of "Just A Minute." He is what he is: The Straight Man To The Nation. And God bless him for it.

Straight actors and actresses, once they reach a certain vintage, are accorded knighthoods and damehoods almost by default. In contrast to that, "light" actors like Ian Carmichael and Nicholas Parsons are consistently, and disgracefully, ignored despite their having put in many decades of work sustaining public morale. It is a national disgrace that it is not Sir Nicholas Parsons.

And when the time comes, as it must, what will the reason be given for the title? Why, for nothing more nor less than his services to the tomfoolery of the nation. And long may he prosper for it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The never-ending story

My dad is growing a pineapple plant for me. I've no idea where it'll go, given how congested the windowsills are even now, but it's a fun thought and a kind one. He's got one on their bedroom windowledge, taken as a cutting from the top of a pineapple I bought them one weekend. It's become a fine thing and he's keeping his fingers crossed that next year it may flower and fruit. I hope so, it'll be compensation for the frustration I caused him by buying him some seeds of the black bird of paradise plant. He successfully raised five plants, which we shared round the family. It isn't a small plant. In fact it is spectacularly large for the living room of a post-war semi. And I reckon he's still got three years before he'll be seeing flowers on it.

At some stage very soon I'll have to dismantle the hanging baskets and bring into the house all the pelargoniums and suchlike before the frosts do for them. This year I went for a pile of scented leaved species which I've hung up by the front door so that I can accidentally get wafts of perfume from their leaves. By far the most spectacular have been some large-leaved peppermint-scented varieties. There hasn't been enough sun to really suit the lemon ones. I'll have to bring the banana plant back in, too. It's been on summer leave in the front garden and has somehow managed to survive being three-quarters severed at the base by one of August's unseasonal gales. I think I'll keep it well away from the living room window this time: that's quite bothered enough already by the aphids that keep having a go at the peppers. I have learned two new tricks there: it's very easy to eliminate half the infestation by hoovering them up and the plants are small enough for me to swill a lot of the rest away under the tap. At some stage I shall have a dozen or more small, slightly spicy red peppers just the right size for stuffing with a bit of cheese and some basil.

The first tinges of autumn are on the leaves. The blackbirds have had the rowan berries I didn't pinch for hedgerow jelly. The Crocosmias and most of the clematis have flowered themselves into exhaustion and the Michaelmas daisies are just breaking bud. I've planted a load of iris and jonquils, in the hopes of replacing all the ones dug up by the squirrels last year. I'm also trying again with some rhizomes of the widow iris, something I fell in love with when I saw it in the wild. I have to do that in containers: my soil is way too heavy for it to thrive in the beds. I've also planted a load of sea hollies, again in containers, for the same reason. Seeing as how the slugs have thwarted each and every attempt to grow some autumn salads and beetroot in the box container of the patio I've decided to turn it over to ornamentals. There isn't anywhere near enough blue in this garden so the sea hollies will be useful. I'm debating whether or not to stick some camassias in with them; it's a combination I enjoyed for a couple of years when I first moved in and the garden was a lot more bare.

I've also trimmed one end of the clematis that is almost smothering the lilac bush (no mean feat: it's a bosky lilac bush!). My next-door neighbour trimmed a couple of branches (well, twigs: he doesn't allow branches at all on his side of the fence) of the lilac and this freed the clematis to swing, door-like across the pavement. I'd have preferred to have waited until the flowering had finished but I can't very well rail about drivers blocking pavements and then let my garden take over so I did the necessary. The plant is so vigorous that my taking off a wheelie binful of branches and flowers has barely figured. It's C. vitalba, awash with small, white, starry flowers smelling strongly of yeast and honey. I'm not entirely sure I enjoy the smell close up.

The robins and starling have demolished a large pile of mealworms left on the feeding table and the goldfinches have gone through a 2kg bag of niger seed in a week. Ah well. I think I'll have a plate of toasted crumpets.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I got the blues...

Plane crazy

It occurred to me on waking up this morning that it's over thirty tears since I last used a box plane. I've spent the rest of the day wondering why I'm upset about it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Once in a thingy

Gadjo's memed me and I'm asked to name 5 things that I've done once in my life which I would never want to do again.

The spirit's willing but I'm struggling. There are lots of things that I've done a few times, or rather a lot, that if I had any sense I should never do again. Ever. And there are quite a few things I've done once that I'd like to do again a few times. But most of my regrets are about sins of omission not commission. I could cheat by going along the lines of "I chose not to..." but no, let's try and go by the spirit of the thing.

#1 Wearing eye shadow. I was young. I was going to a party with a friend. She suggested it and I was too daft to stick to my guns. It wasn't a good look. We stopped off at a dead rough pub for a drink en route. She reckoned I'd pulled. I reckoned I was lucky to get out of the place.

#2 Looking after a gerbil for somebody. Not the most charismatic or intelligent of rodents the gerbil. Oh yes, they're picturesque in a big-eyed Disneyworld sort of a fashion, but they don't have the character of a rat, mouse or hamster or the avuncular charm of a guinea pig. And they are crap parents. The owner didn't even know the thing was pregnant so I didn't have to account for the aftermath of the births, thank God. Every morning began with my having to remove the evidence of the night's infanticides. Yuck.

#3 Going to a Stockhausen concert. I only went because a friend was in the orchestra and was extremely stressed about the whole business and needed some moral support. I should have left the poor fool to his own fate. I knew and loathed one of the pieces on offer already. An explanation of the graphic score for a second piece should have given me the opportunity to bail out. Finding out that one of the most inarticulate-but-posy denizens of the Junior Common Room was the conductor should have been the clincher. But no. I was a Good Friend. I went. At one point I wondered if I should eat my own spleen.

#4 Riding at speed along a mountain pass on the back of a flatbed truck, sitting on a pile of window glass. We were doing fieldwork in the mountains of Sicily. The locals were lovely and always asked if we wanted a lift when they found us walking down the road. We spoke little Italian. Well, none really. They had a similar grasp of English. But we got by. One day we were about three miles away from our usual haunt and not especially enjoying the trek back along a stereotypically windy mountain road. To our right there was a sheer wall of rock. Immediately to the left of the road was a cliff drop of about ninety feet. And lots of scary blind bends, with the knowledge that at some stage we'd be meeting one of the local friendly lunatic drivers. Luckily, the first one we met was going our way. Did we want a lift? Yes please! Jump in the back of the lorry. Jump. Shit. He was the local glazier. We sat on the glass, leaning forward to try to put all our weight in our legs and balancing precariously as the truck lurched round the mad corners at about sixty m.p.h. Scary.

#5 Buy a house seen only in daylight. = Buy a vacant house owned by a policeman. Week one in the house involved getting the electricty and gas switched back on and the lavatory undisabled. And we'll draw a veil over the central heating.

The rules say that I have to pass the meme on to another five people. So I will: any of you who fancy playing with this meme can blame me if you want.

Don't have nightmares...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Random samples

I got the train into town much later than usual today, because I could. It's been a warm, sunny day after a clear, cold night and the neighbours have had their washing out from first light. Actually, some of them have their washing on the line 24x7 regardless of the weather. I've never understood the point of that. Even less do I understand the point of somebody firing up a barbecue underneath their washing line. Your typical English barbie with a few cubic yards of damp white smoke and the smell of burning fat from the time it was used last Easter. If you're going to do that why bother with the washer and the spin drier? Just chuck the laundry in the chip pan and have done with it.

I'm lucky lately on the trains. Perhaps my film star looks are putting people off telling me their woes; or else perhaps I've trying too hard at being a national treasure and scaring the buggers off. Whatever. I get peace. Which is more than could be said for the poor wretch who sat down at the table beside mine. We can't often pick our travelling companions, you just have to hope for the best and not give them any more opportunities than you have to. Once he told the old bloke sitting next to him that he is a professional driver travelling over to pick up a car he was doomed. A twenty minute monologue on the toll road practices of Europe, the vehicle taxes of the cantons of Helvetica and the pros and cons of being an Italian lorry driver was more than flesh and blood could stand; and I had the advantage of being able to pretend to ignore him and stare out of the window. As I left them to it the conversation had turned to the topic of the petrol taxes of Belgium. I really couldn't tell you how: each component of the tirade was bolted inelegantly onto the next with no particular passing logic.

Leaving the station I walked past one of the building sites that litter Manchester these days. This one's still being worked and the crew are much in evidence, moving blocks of concrete from one pile to the next and shifting the safety railings as far as they can get away with without the public having to invade the site to use the footpath. I overheard an exchange between two of them, one very obviously a senior (he had his hat on and his boots were brown, not orange). Nodding at a departing body the junior said:

"By gum, he looks rough!"
"You should have seen him when I picked him up for work this morning. He looked like a pissed-up puffin."

Crossing the pavement on Peter Street I was nearly knocked down by a middle-aged bloke riding a five-gear tricycle. I almost stopped him to see if it still had the "Triang" label stuck on it.

Getting the bus home we were delayed a little in the city's business and hotel quarter. We had to wait while a couple of businessmen got out of the way. The pavement at that part is eight foot wide but these two guys just had to stand in the middle of the bus lane to have their conversation and nothing was going to stop them. I suppose we should count our blessings that they didn't have their mobile 'phones to their ears or that would have been the whole weekend gone for a Burton.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Film star looks

I looked at a stray mirror in passing and Cecil Parker stared back at me.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Winter drawers on

The swifts disappeared a few weeks ago and every so often half a dozen or so swallows will hurtle southwards towards the river. Last night I heard the first lot of migrating oystercatchers overhead (when they come they usually pass by about three o'clock in the morning). Me and the squirrel have had all the hazel nuts and the damsons that have gone over are being feasted upon by speckled woods and sundry hover flies.

I've just planted the first bulbs of the autumn - a dozen jonquils and a few yellow iris - and a couple of dozen violas for to flower in the early spring.

Hey ho.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Snow job

Back in the dark ages, in days when I did advice work, I shared a workspace with the council's Trading Standards department. This was useful as part of my working brief was to provide consumer advice so I could always ask for ideas/advice (which very often amounted to: "oh shit is he back in again?" For any of you not in the know, the worst thing that can happen to you when you do advice work is for an elderly gentleman in a club blazer to walk through the door with a bag full of paperwork in his hands.)

Their regular chores involved breaches of the Trades Descriptions Act ("is this product/service as described?") and the laws on pornography. Every so often they'd do raids of the usual suspect and then have to watch the tapes to garner evidence. You could always tell when they were doing the latter because they'd be much more depressed than usual ("I'll tell you something, that's put me off boiled ham for a while!") Once in a while a few councils would band together against the forces of evil. The best one they did while I was there was an investigation of telephone sex services. After about three months' work they had to give up on most of the providers: the services they were providing were very far from being pornographic but they were, hilariously, still within the letter - if not the spirit - of the Trades Descriptions Act.

"Donna's Hard Ride" - charged then at 75p a minute - turned out to be a girl describing a pony trekking holiday on Dartmoor.

Further back in the mists of time, when we were students, a friend bought an audio sex tape. I can't remember what it was called, or even what it was about. All I can remember was its being of such a lousy quality that all we could make out was a bloke with a West Country accent saying: "Ooh... oh yes... oh... lovely!" We weren't sure he wasn't on his own at time of recording.

We couldn't find anything even remotely erotic about the whole thing. Which is remarkable given that we were all teenage males without a lot of luck engaging with the ladies.

Like many people of my age my first real porn movie was "Deep Throat." The Junior Common Room borrowed a copy from somewhere or other and a mass of us paid 50p each for the viewing performance. The video was an umpteenth-generation pirate copy with so much noise on it that it was a good twenty minutes before a restive audience could be convinced we weren't watching "Scott of the Antarctic."

Some of my contemporaries still can't listen to "Sinphonia antarctica" without getting an erection.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


I really shouldn't have shaved my chest.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


I am irritated to bits by the news that a bank is offering Mockney rhyming slang as one of the languages on its cash machines.

"Enter your Gunga"
"Do you want to top up your dog and bone?"


I don't know why they don't go the whole hog and include all the operation in this charade.

"That'll be Oliver, sir."
Oliver Reed = "we'll accidentally deduct a standing order payment from your account and then hit you for unauthorised overdraft charges until your eyes bleed."

"Oh no, sir, plumber's."
Plumber's mate = "we don't see anything remotely unethical in hitting you for mortgage charges 8% above the Base Lending Rate."

And of course...

"Donald is the watch word of our small business service."
Donald Duck = "We know and understand that cash flow is the single biggest problem facing the start-up business and that this necessarily causes unpredictable ebbs and flows in the liquidity of the account but, quite frankly, we couldn't give a flying fuck."