Distant Laughter

The Goons in 1956: L-R: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe. From a cuttings scrapbook in the Secombe family archive.

Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column.’ Harry Secombe; Preface to The Hancock Companion, Roger Wilmut, 1979.

David Secombe writes:

Comedy is a fragile thing. It is dependent on context. Watching flickering footage of ʻturnsʼ from the nineteen-thirties, forties or even fifties can be a baffling experience. It is usually like watching Arthur AtkinsonThe Fast Showʼs brilliant parody of period stand-up, wherein Paul Whitehouseʼs Askey- like comic performs a routine of senseless catchphrases and arbitrary physical tics to rapturous houses. Anything from the past that still retains the power to make modern audiences laugh is rare indeed.

My father was Harry Secombe, who is remembered for three things: The Goons, his Dickensian turn as Mr. Bumble in the film of Oliver!, and singing hymns on Sunday night TV. (The latter is not comedy, except inadvertently.) He left a considerable archive of personal and show-business memorabilia, a voluminous assemblage which I have been trying to manage for about forty years. The material comprises letters, notebooks, posters and promotional materials, press cuttings, cartoons, paintings, scripts, 16mm home movies and broadcast material, audio and video tapes, and an avalanche of photographs, of him and by him. There used to be a whole room devoted to this stuff at the top of my parentsʼ house. Looking at the material now is a slightly disorientating experience: leaving aside the weirdness of seeing a close relative treated as public property decades before you were born, it is like seeing history through the prism of one manʼs career. He was really big in the fifties and sixties; he seemed to be everywhere. How did he fit it all in? Very often the press photos (there are thousands) show anonymous faces, beaming crowds, my father grinning manically if not desperately, or doing totally incomprehensible things in indecipherable situations. He poses for ill-conceived LP covers. He stands next to armies of unidentifiable people in unidentifiable locations; or with unlikely celebrities in unexpected contexts. (For instance, a celebrity canvas of The Last Supper alongside the likes of Stanley Baker, Bernard Bresslaw, Alfred Marks, Lionel Bart, John Gregson, etc., with Richard Harris as Judas Iscariot and ʻrugby starʼ Clem Thomas as Jesus Christ. The artist was Andrew Vicari, and I invite readers to look him up because his is such a strange story.)

Study photo for Andrew Vicari’s 1960 version of The Last Supper. Richard Harris is well into character as Judas Iscariot, while Bernard Bresslaw’s Simon the Canaanite is ripe forCarry On Calvary‘.

The photos and cuttings and home movies are mute souvenirs of occasions my father turned into anecdote. I grew up in a large house in suburban Cheam, a landmark property (it was on a main road opposite a bus stop) decked out with the trappings youʼd associate with late 1950s showbiz success. Notable features included a white baby grand piano, a panelled, Danish-style study with a built-in hi-fi and screen for showing movies (a room I still aspire to recreate), and a bar for entertaining. The bar was equipped with an implausibly extensive array of booze (including undrinkable display-only beverages like Bols Gold Liqueur) arrayed on glass shelves behind a counter dressed with miniature Doric columns. My fatherʼs favourite drink was Pernod: a perfect match for the décor. He was a fabulous raconteur and the bar was a little theatre for him to trot out his party pieces: Mike Bentine farting in polite company was a favourite story, as were the ones about his chaotic stint as a junior clerk in a colliery office when he was fifteen (touchingly, he kept a post-war letter from the same office, offering him his pre-war job back), as well as countless soldierʼs tales. When I was young my father hosted an annual charity cricket match on the sports ground opposite the house, and the bar was the focus for the evening’s socialising, with all manner of personalities barnacled around its embossed leatherette finish. The sheer glamour and excitement of those times is so remote now; that was the mid-late seventies, but it was a throwback to early sixties style. Who has a bar in their house now?

My fatherʼs career was sparked by the fact that at the warʼs end he couldnʼt believe he was still alive; and the archive reflects the intoxicating excitement as his career gathers pace and begins to shape the post-war moment. The Goon Show catered to an audience that had survived the war only to find themselves stuck in the drab fifties. ʻYouʼve no idea how grey the fifties was‘ my father said, and the decade had been conspicuously good to him. The fifties seems impossibly remote now, an impoverished era when opportunities for fun seemed to be on ration along with just about everything else. The fact that the Goons made it onto the BBC at all is a kind of miracle, and itʼs no wonder that contemporary audiences were either deliriously thrilled or utterly baffled. But young people loved it. The Beatles were awestruck when George Martin told them, during Abbey Road sessions for their first LP, that heʼd produced records for The Goons. (Jane Milligan has a nice family photo, taken in the 1970s or 80s, of George Harrison kneeling in homage at Spikeʼs feet.)

But all things fade. The house in Cheam was pulled down in the early eighties, shortly after my father sold it, and somehow an era went with it. I am always happy to hear The Goons repeated on Radio 4 Extra, and today the BBC broadcast The Last Goon Show Of All, a 1972 reunion special which, perhaps, has a slightly rueful quality, given that the seventies werenʼt working out as well for the participants as the extravagant success of the fifties and sixties seemed to predict. Ten years later, Peter Sellers was dead and my father started doing those Sunday night religious TV shows which killed off any chance of a return to comedy. (He was teetotal by then too.) That the Goons remain funny is largely a testament to Milligan’s genius; but Spike knew he was supremely lucky to have Peter and Harry on hand to people his enchanted world. But there is something unnerving about hearing joyous studio laughter coming from beyond the veil: a kind of memento mori I suppose. Thereʼs my dad laughing on the radio: younger then than I am now. Anyway, to mark my fatherʼs centenary, the archive is being shipped to The National Library of Wales, and I am sure that they will take very good care of it. I leave you with a portfolio of unexplained images, snapshots from another era, another world, and if you have any idea what is going on in any of them, please let me know.

David Secombe is a writer and photographer.

Drunk Artist Round-Up

Francis Bacon by John Deakin, early 1950s.

There’s Francis Bacon in all his sinister pomp, as photographed by his friend John Deakin in the 1950s. Deakin was a very talented photographer, contracted to Vogue no less, but also a shabby, unpleasant drunk. He was so careless with his archive that by the time of his death his surviving prints and negatives were largely trashed. This was a pity as he was a Soho insider and his portraits of the principals of fifties Soho are very fine – although, in some cases, the fact that the prints are damaged gives the images an additional power: an authenticity borne of nihilistic carelessness on the part of the artist.

Like his some time friend and artistic rival Lucian Freud, Bacon used London lowlife as the raw material for his art and made it universal. But, naturally, the Soho scene of the forties and fifties was full of artists who failed to be anything other than local curiosities, ‘characters’ even, their art failing to transcend their immediate environment, and whose fate is to be remembered as footnotes in memoirs of the time. But some of them were talented, whilst others deserve to be remembered precisely because they were such specific products of the milieu. John Minton fits both categories. He was a teacher at the Royal College of Art and a prolific book illustrator but also a painter of real ambition. (He was also a man of means, as he was an heir to the Minton china dynasty.) A conspicuous fixture at The Gargoyle Club, to which he also contributed a mural to offset the works by Matisse, he would enter with a motley entourage of rough trade and proceed to dance extravagantly to favourite tunes like I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter. But for Minton The Gargoyle was more than just a place to dance: it was one of the few places where he could be openly gay without fear of being adversely judged.

John Minton: Self-Portrait, 1953.

The poet Ruthven Todd recalled Minton at The Gargoyle, ‘… his long sad clown’s face, lashed by breakers of dark hair, as he danced a frenetic solo on the otherwise unoccupied dance floor. His arms and legs were flying this way and that … Clapping and encouraging him was a ringside audience of the faceless nonentities whom he gathered as an entourage as a magnet does rusty filings.’ Minton felt marooned by the shift away from figurative painting and towards abstraction that happened in the later fifties – and the soaring success of his friend Francis Bacon, fleshy embodiment of the zeitgeist, probably didn’t do much for his morale either. His work was seen as decorative, illustrative, lightweight. One week of his appointment diary is blank except for one word scrawled across both pages: ‘DRUNK’. He killed himself in 1957, at the age of just 40.

Similarly, the tragic story of the demented, kilt-wearing, Scottish painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, universally known in Soho as ‘The Two Roberts’, is a cautionary tale of the fickle nature of artistic success. They were lovers, and shared a studio and an energetic social life in all the usual Soho and Fitzrovia hang- outs, as well as hosting parties at their studio in Kensington. But whereas John Minton inspired protective affection, the Two Roberts could be a social nightmare. In their cups they were fearsome, dancing the Highland Fling one minute, performing Scottish folk songs or reciting ballads, then abruptly threatening fellow punters to buy them a drink, or offering a handshake whilst concealing broken glass in an outstretched hand. As for the art itself, it didn’t really survive the period: both worked in a sort of sub-sub-Picasso idiom (that link is to a Colquhoun canvas, here’s one to a MacBryde) that was eclipsed by the passing fad of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of the fifties, and then the more durable fashion for abstract art. In addition to artistic redundancy, a succession of misfortunes overtook the pair. A retrospective exhibition was destroyed by vandals who broke into the studio on the eve of the private view; and Colquhoun expired at his easel, just 47, in 1962. MacBryde carried on as best he could, only to die a few years later in a bizarre traffic accident in Ireland, hit by a car as he was dancing a jig in the street outside a pub.

The Two Roberts: Robert MacBryde, left, and Robert Colquhoun. Picture Post, 1949.

Without wishing to sound callous, it is doubtful that posterity would remember MacBryde or Colquhoun at all if it weren’t for the ghastly vividness of their social lives and their impact on others within their circle. By contrast, Minton, has become more appreciated in recent years due to the numerous book jackets and illustrations that he executed with such fluency and skill. He might have been a ‘minor’ painter but his attractive and atmospheric book designs have helped to define our image of cultural life in fifties Britain. As for John Deakin, the surviving photographs are testament to a powerful, forensic talent for portraiture: a sort of guttersnipe Bill Brandt. His work seems to anticipate some of the bolder experiments of Richard Avedon, and its rediscovery offers a valuable record of the period. But Deakin the man is perhaps best remembered not at all: remembrances of him by acquaintances indicate a thoroughly repellent personality, a cadging drunk who turned out to be a wealthy miser. He was commissioned by Bacon to do a session of nude photographs of Soho scenester Henrietta Moraes, photos intended for use as the basis of a painting, and Henrietta discovered that Deakin had been selling additional prints to sailors in pubs. After Deakin’s sudden death, Francis Bacon found himself tasked with making formal identification of Deakin’s body and noted that in death Deakin was able to do one thing that he was never able to do in life: keep his mouth shut. And there are other artists who outstayed their welcome. Gerald Wilde was another ‘mad artist’ of the period, another fixture at the Wheatsheaf, the Caves De France, etc., a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism in the forties whose work was highly rated but whose drunken persona would try anyone’s patience. According to Daniel Farson, Bacon once held him in high regard but later on regarded him as ‘a dreadful bore’ who had once turned up at his studio at four a.m. demanding money for drink. As for himself, Bacon knew that he was lucky, hitting a raw nerve of the century and surviving to occupy Greatest Living Artist status. But his patience and good manners had limits. There’s a nice story about him at the Colony Room, politely refusing a rather insistent young artist’s repeated invitations to visit him at his studio, until Bacon finally had enough and said ‘I don’t need to see your paintings, I’ve seen your tie.’

See also:
Francis Bacon In The Colony Room
Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club
Rathbone Street Pubs

An Encounter In A Park

St. James’s Park, 1972. © Estate of Dave Hendley

As an addendum to last week’s entry on Antonioni’s Blow Up and the perils of photographing strangers in parks, it feels appropriate to revisit a mysterious photo taken by a much-missed friend of mine.

Dave Hendley, who died in 2016, took this photograph in St. James’s Park nearly fifty years ago. Dave didn’t talk about his pictures much, and he offered no particular insight here: he just said that shot it quickly with his Leica as he walked past the men, then moved on before they had time to register that he had taken their photo (‘I was more ruthless back then.’) But the lack of context just makes the photo more interesting. Photography is concerned with appearance rather than truth and Dave’s photo invites speculation as much as it resists it. There are few clues in Dave’s photo as to the exact period but somehow we know it belongs to the past; and although Dave took it in the early 1970s, it evokes a time slightly earlier than that. It evokes that curdled 1960s moment memorialised in works like Victim, The Servant, and Orton’s Entertaining Mister Sloane: a world of furtive encounters afforded a desperately genteel gloss (‘the air round Twickenham was like wine’). Of course, I don’t know whether my interpretation is correct and it probably isn’t. More than one photographer has got into trouble because a photo suggested something about its subjects that was misleading or even libellous. Whatever the reality, the picture is simultaneously comic, poignant and slightly disturbing. The sharply assessing gaze of the man on the left is unnerving enough, but I find myself worried by the man on the right, his too-tight tie and his inscrutable smile somehow just wrong. We don’t know what the actual relationship between the two men in the photo really was; but Dave gives us a novel’s worth of characterisation.

Rather incredibly, this photograph is a precious survivor of a cull of Dave’s early work which the photographer carried out with youthful brutality. Needless to say, the older Dave came to regret this; fortunately, the image survived as a print which Dave discovered in his mum’s attic. I’m very grateful he found it as it is one of my favourite photographs of anything by anyone. A picture of two men on a bench in a London park: an image that is utterly revealing, even if it reveals something that isn’t true. Just occasionally, one comes across a photograph that subverts rational explanation and plugs straight into the unconscious. One thinks of the Andre Kertesz photo of a shadow behind glass on a balcony in Martinique; of Robert Frank’s picture of a girl running past a hearse on a drab London street; or Elliott Erwitt’s shot of tourists in a Mexican charnel house, all masterpieces. I think Dave’s picture belongs in their company, but he was far too modest to acknowledge his brilliance. Although I loved his photos of reggae stars taken in Jamaica in the mid-70’s, it wasn’t until after he died that I realised what an important figure he was in the dissemination of the music in the UK. By contrast, he was incredibly kind to his students or to those who sought his counsel. In the year following his death there were several occasions when I found myself thinking ‘I must ask Dave how to …’ He would materialise in The Horseshoe or The Princess Louise or – if you got to know him on his own turf – The Continental Hotel, Tankerton, impeccably turned out, Leica around his neck, elegantly sipping his lager whilst checking your outfit for solecisms (I was mortified when he pointed out, with a wolfish grin, that my ‘Barracuta’ Harrington jacket was made in Taiwan). Such a class act. The photo below – taken by another very fine photographer, Tim Hadrian Marshall – shows Dave and our great friend John Driscoll outside The Horseshoe, circa 2010. Both gone now. I’ve been very lucky with my friends but I wish they wouldn’t keep dying on me. You’ll have to excuse me now, I have something in my eye …

John Driscoll (left) and Dave Hendley, outside The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, 2010. © Tim Hadrian Marshall.