TTGU, Ep. 2, Ch. 19 – Oriental Entertainments
The Army, in its wisdom, thought that we needed entertaining by folks from home. So – and I can’t remember the date – we had such a show in the NAAFI one evening. The participants voluntarily travelled the world, visiting military camps and doing what they could to remind us of home and take our minds off being abroad. We needed neither.
The evening consisted of a female accordion player, a female singer and a Welsh comedian called Wyn Calvin. Wyn became famous – well, in Wales– as a top comedian. We saw him before he’d achieved that high status. For most of his career, he had called himself “The Clown Prince of Wales” – clown, crown, get it? Then, back in the 1960s, he announced that he thought the appellation was disrespectful the Charles Windsor who had even “bought” properties in Wales to prove his entitlement to be The Prince of Wales. Therefore, Wyn told the waiting (Welsh) world, he would no longer be called “The Clown Prince . . .” He did a few gigs in The Valleys after that and ended up being a DJ/presenter on Radio Wales. That sort of fame comes only by hard work and a hopeful temperament.
The accordionist was adequate but boring. The singer was dressed for the occasion and some of her act – the physical bit – pleased the troops.
But when Wyn Calvin got up, his jokes were either old ones (in which the audience joined, almost word for word) or unfunny ones (after which the audience barracked him). He had a whole load of put-downs for hecklers, gained, I reckoned, from years of practice . . .
But we applauded them loudly when they took their bow and then we went back to our Tiger and Anchor beers.
The camp Theatre Group went into production and I found myself in an acting role. As the Group attracted one or two lads who, like Rosie Rowe, were very effeminate, I learned how to camp it up with my fellow actors. That led to a little contretemps one day.
It was customary, when off duty and needing rest, to lie on one’s pit (bed) naked except for an Army-issue towel draped over our nether regions. We would fool around by whipping off somebody’s towel and chucking cold water on those regions. Stage direction: lots of barrack-room language.
The other favourite weapon was a buzz-bomb. These were big, dragonfly-like insects. Part of their body was hollow and, if disturbed, they would move their wings at very high speed and create a loud buzzing noise which echoed from that hollow space.
They could be caught fairly easily and we would hold them so as to stop their wings moving, then thrust them under the towel of a sleeping soldier. The effect was electrifying – the sleeper awoke suddenly with a great noise emerging from his nether regions! It was also a good trick to shove a buzz-bomb, in the middle of the night, into the mosquito-net of a new arrival to the Far East. It was surprising how loud a trained warrior could scream!
Well, I was dozing on my pit one afternoon, clad in the traditional garb. I was woken by the feel of a hand on my upper thigh and a voice saying “Jazzer, I’ve always fancied you . . .” Abdul Jones was trying to put his hand under my towel in a seriously homosexual attempt.
My bed was near to the wide open door of the billet. It took but seconds for Abdul to go reeling into the concrete monsoon-ditch which surrounded the billet. He realised the mistake he had made. I left him to recover from my reaction and crawl out of the ditch. Oddly enough, there never was any animosity between us after that. But I did cut down my comical clowning which caused his error.
It was known that not only was I a jazz musician, but also I was about to launch my stage career. My pal Mac Houston had discovered, hidden away on the camp, a tiny shed filled with microphones, turntables and a small batch of gramophone records. How he found it, he never said, but he had been told that the stuff had been set up for some sort of radio-station which never went on air. It was simply an abandoned project – the Army moves in mysterious ways.
Mac and I shared a similar quick sense of humour and were a natural double-act. We didn’t do it with any professional intentions. It just happened. He and I loved The Goons and were keen Radio Luxemburg listeners back in civvie-street. So he suggested that, if it was possible, we could resurrect the radio-station idea and see if we could get it on air. I agreed.
It took a lot of cutting of red-tape to even get into the place and have a look at what equipment was in there. It turned out that the station would have been piped from the studio to various Army establishments in the area.
We contacted REME and the REs and asked them to find out if the thing would still work. But they couldn’t tell us. However, we encountered a gentleman of the Royal Artillery who seemed to know about these things and he said he could get the whole thing working.
And we went on air early in 1960, sending about three hours each evening out to any unit who could receive it. We performed short comic sketches, written by me (my first attempt at “going public” as a writer). We introduced the records with silly patter. We invited listeners to send in their requests and dedications (though, with the limited record collection we had, our catch-phrase was “We ain’t got it!”). We interviewed anyone who happened to be in grabbing distance. Indeed, we became proper little Jean Metcalf’s (look up her and “Family Favourites”).
Often, when our military duties intervened, we’d manage to wangle it so that one of us was off duty every evening. We broadcast seven nights a week, though the camp padre tried to get us to put out uplifting things on a Sunday to be in keeping with the Sabbath. I can’t remember anything particularly spiritual in our schedule.
We attracted a regular fan-club, and some of the fans turned up at the studio door to chat, on live radio, with us. One of our regular visitors were Corporal Drazutus, RA – “Draz the Ginger Scouse” – and his mate Bob. We became good pals with these two.
One evening, there was a quiet knock on the door. Most lads just walked in unannounced. I was chattering away into the mike, so Mac opened the door. Outside stood a tall, nervous-looking chap in the uniform of the RASC. Mac invited him in, of course.
“Is that alright?” asked the soldier.
“’Course – why shouldn’t it be?” asked Mac. I had stopped talking and a record was playing.
“Well,” said our visitor, “It’s . . . y’know . . .” He pointed up and down his frame.
“Where you from?” we asked.
“London,” he said, “but you might have thought . . .”
“Is it because you’re black?” Mac asked.
“You’re wearing British uniform, so I guess you’re British,” I added.
We asked his name, and told Claude Francis that we operated no colour-bar here. We gave him a cup of tea and chatted a while, introducing and playing records at the same time. Claude soon understood our attitude towards colour-prejudice and visibly relaxed.
Claude became one of the lads who visited our studio regularly.
We managed, somehow, with the scant supply of records we’d found when we first saw the inside of the studio. Then Mac asked the folks back home to send him another LP. It was FrankSinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” album – from that moment I became a Sinatra fan.
All the tracks on the album are brilliant – I have it as a CD now – but one of them became our most popular and most requested record: “London By Night”
What nostalgia that seemed to engender in lads from all over Great Britain! They remembered, I suppose, the streets of their own town and the people they knew back home. I had the same memories, plus the fact that I’d walked the bright streets of London with Pat late at night. Nostalgia has always been part of my makeup. It’s been a bit of a nuisance at times!
The comic sketches and fake news items which I wrote filled in a lot of the time. Once I’d started writing them – longhand on scrap-paper – creating them became easier and easier. I’d scribbled a bit in the days before the Army sent for me and enjoyed what I wrote. But now, the seeds of being a writer had been sown.
Then it was time to perform with the camp’s Theatre Group. We were to do a play called “Without The Prince” by Phillip King, a comedy wherein the central character had lost his memory and thought he really was Hamlet. I played the not-very-clever policeman. And I got a lot of unexpected laughs by improvising by saluting every character who spoke to me. More seeds had been sown . . .
Playing the central character was Sergeant Johnny Warren, a natural entertainer if ever there was one, and a man with no axe to grind. I learned a lot from him, both theatrical stuff and lessons in life.
For that play, Rosie Rowe, who directed, had recruited a few military ladies: girls of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANCs = “QAs”), and who were stationed locally, a couple of them being officers. It was odd to be with British ladies after seeing only local lasses since arriving in Malaya. Indeed, one of them – a QA officer no less – played the policeman’s girl-friend and we had to snuggle up on an armchair for a brief moment in the play. It was ever so peculiar to be really close to someone who was not only British but also a British Army officer!
The play was a resounding success, the audience yelled for more, and we received plaudits from many local units for several weeks after the performance. So we started thinking about our next production . . .
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