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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Brian Cant and Play Away

It was sad to hear yesterday of the death of Brian Cant, once polled the most-loved voice on UK children’s television. I used to love Play Away. I would never miss it unless I had to, despite being in my twenties at the time.

Brian Cant in Play Away
Brian Cant, Tony Robinson, Toni Arthur and Julie Stevens in Play Away (click to play)

Luckily, Play Away was on a Saturday afternoon when I wasn’t at work. It was full of silly jokes and sketches, some of them Pythonesque, and very musical. Its talented presenters had a vivacious energy that was simply uplifting. Children’s television is sometimes much too good for children.

And shining through it all was the childlike spirit of Brian Cant. He had a mischievous screen presence – a way every now and then of glancing into the camera as if to let you into the secret that this was every bit as daft as it looked. You never quite knew what he was going to do next. Just when he had drawn you in, he would give you a naughty nip like a playful Yorkshire terrier.

So I’ve spent a nostalgic couple of hours watching clips of Play Away on YouTube. The one above represents everything in it that was wonderful. Brian Cant hamming it up, the beautiful voice of Toni Arthur, crazy Julie Stevens, and an implausibly youthful Tony Robinson in the Court of King Caractacus.

If you want to eulogize about a man who sang a song about the fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus …

... he’s just passed on by.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Little Ships

H.M.S. Hood edged slowly for’ard towards the lock at the far side of the attic floor.

“Engines full astern” bellowed the captain. “Ding ding, ding ding!” signalled the bridge to the engine room. “Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom,” sounded the propeller, spit splashing from my dad’s lips like sea spray.

“Watch out!” he warned. “Don’t get caught in the propeller.” He pushed me to the floor. “Man overboard!” He trapped me in his arms and legs and started to spin me round and round. “That man’s got caught in the propeller. Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.”

“Stop engines. Ding ding, ding ding!” The ship blew five blasts, one long and four shorts: “Bvvvvvvvvvv, bvvv, bvvv, bvvv, bvvv,” to warn she was about to swing round. “Drop anchor. Diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle, splshhhhhh!” I’m not sure whether the coughing that followed was supposed to be part of the sound effects or not. 

Meccano Dinky Toys Ships of the British Navy

We were playing ‘Little Ships’. Most of them were waterline models of battleships. We had H.M.S. Nelson and H.M.S. Rodney (identical sister-ships), H.M.S. Hood, a couple of submarines and three or four destroyers. Finding them again now, online, I am fairly sure they were from the pre-war Dinky Toys diecast metal set number 50: Ships of the British Navy. They were modelled to a scale of 1:1800 (150 feet to the inch), which meant they varied in size from five inches (12.75cm) down to two inches (5cm). They were of course my dad’s childhood toys and he still liked to play with them. He pushed them around the attic floor making appropriate engine and captain noises. He knew all about ships because his grandfather had been a master mariner. At first I just used to watch.

Like the ones pictured, most of the battleships had already lost their guns by the time I came along, but that did not matter because, living in a seafaring town, we pretended they were merchant ships. We had a toy dock made out of box wood, with glued-on strips to represent the quays. The lock gates were made out of strips of tin plate, and the rest of the surface was crayoned blue to represent water. It had a strange fusty smell. Ships sailed upriver from abroad, swung round on their anchors, manoeuvred through the lock and moored against the quays inside. The tiny destroyers were make-believe tugs to help the larger ships move around in tight spaces. My dad glued a wooden jetty to the attic floor so ships could tie up downriver to wait for the tide – just like at Blacktoft.

Dinky Toy scale model of the Italian liner Rex

We had just one merchant ship, the Italian liner Rex, also a pre-war Dinky model, which, together with half a destroyer, are all that now survive. Of the rest, H.M.S. Hood, emulating its real-life counterpart, was accidentally smashed to smithereens by someone’s foot. The others rattled around inside a Crawford Tartan Shortbread tin until they disintegrated and were thrown out: a pity because they are now much-in-demand collectors’ items. Even the biscuit tin is a collectors’ item. We found it with the ships in my dad’s sideboard.

Also gone are the wooden models we made ourselves. The tray-shaped softwood strips that used to hold propelling pencil leads made an ideal starting point. You pointed the bow and rounded the stern with sandpaper, glued on a matching fo’c’s’le and bridge, and cut a thin piece of dowel for the funnel. You painted the deck white, the sides black and the funnel whatever colour you wanted. It made a passable scale model merchant ship.

After seeing my dad make them I tried myself. The outcome was a poorly finished, vaguely ship-shaped blotchy white lump. I should have started with something better than a knotty strip of firewood. I proudly took my ship to show Jack who sat next to me at school. I didn’t notice the funnel had come off and fallen on the floor in front of Miss Walker’s desk.

“What’s this?” she asked the class, prodding it with the toe of her shoe, disgust in her voice. “Is it a sweet or something?” I had to go out to the front and pick it up. I would have been about seven.

Triang scale models: SS United States, RMS Aquitania, SS Varicella

Later, in the nineteen-sixties, we bought some new little ships for my brother, but at 1:1200 scale they were slightly too big. These were Triang models: M704 the S.S. United States, M705 the R.M.S. Aquitania, and M732 the Shell tanker S.S. Varicella. They had plastic masts, most now lost. These were also in the biscuit tin.

I looked up the real S.S. Varicella. She was built on Tyneside in 1959 and sailed under the Union Jack with a mainly British crew until sold in 1976 and scrapped in Taiwan in 1983. Its battered model survives it by many years. Yet it has to be said that any real ship in that condition would be towed off to the breakers yard, its place taken by a foreign-built ship, with a foreign crew, sailing under a foreign flag. Perhaps no one but oldies would want to play ‘Little Ships’ now.

“Bvvvvvvvvvv! Ding ding, ding ding! Half ahead.”

My mum gave us one of her withering looks. “How ridiculous! How could anyone have half a head?”

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong

A visit to Leeds Grand Theatre revives memories of near disaster with sound effects fifty years ago.

Last week I was at Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House for the first time in forty-four years. It was an evocative return. We sat in the same area of the upper balcony and saw almost the same kind of show. In 1973 it was Monty Python on Tour (remembered here). This time it was The Play That Goes Wrong.

Poster: The Play That Goes Wrong

The setting is an amateur production of a nineteen-twenties murder mystery, during which just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Ornaments and pictures fall off the wall; a door won’t stay shut except when needed open; a platform collapses with actors on it; members of the cast are knocked senseless and have to be replaced by stage hands reading from the script, which of course gets dropped on the floor and scrambled; a corpse has to crawl off stage unnoticed after a stretcher rips apart. The production is brilliant. It had us all giggling hysterically.

At one point the characters on stage all stop and stare towards the sound technician on the balcony who is obliviously reading a book, unaware the play has reached the point where he needs to produce twelve clock chimes. The wait is interminable. And not to disappoint, when he does become aware of the cue, he fails to count the chimes correctly.

That could have been me fifty years ago. A few friends at the youth club we went to had joined a drama group and were rehearsing George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. It would have been good to have had a part, but having missed out by getting involved too late, I attached myself to the support team.

There is a moment, early in Act I, when Professor Henry Higgins calls Eliza Doolittle a liar for claiming not to have enough money for her lodgings. “You said you could change half-a-crown” he reminded her. “You ought to be stuffed with nails, you ought,” Eliza replies as she flings her flower basket at his feet. “Take the whole blooming basket for sixpence.”

Just then, a church clock strikes the second quarter, and Higgins, hearing in it the voice of God rebuking him for his lack of charity, utters the words “a reminder”, throws a handful of cash into the basket, and leaves.

Grandfather clock
I don’t know why we didn’t just clang a length of pipe for the clock sound effect. I think we took the instruction “strikes the second quarter” too literally. I offered to tape-record my dad’s heirloom grandfather clock which did the full Big Ben chimes. Later we decided that “bing-bong-bing-bong, bing-bong-bing-bong” took too long, and that we would have just a single chime. But unthinkingly, the tape-recorder mindset remained.

I sat backstage at Snaith Secondary School, tape-recorder on pause, awaiting the cue. We were presenting Act I of Pygmalion in some kind of drama competition. The cue came.

“Take the whole blooming basket for sixpence,” said Eliza.

I set the tape going.

Now I truly wish I could tell you I had put the wrong tape in the machine and that Manfred Mann’s Five-Four-Three-Two-One blared out of the sound system, exactly as happens with Duran Duran in The Play That Goes Wrong. The truth is more ordinary. I had wound the tape back a little too far, so instead of producing an immediate clock chime, I watched the reels silently turning for what seemed like an eternity, while the actors on stage paused not knowing quite what to do. It might only have been two or three seconds, but it was far too long. A scared rigid Henry Higgins must have heard far more than the voice of God during the hiatus. When the bong finally came, he hurriedly squeaked “a reminder” and seemed rather too eager to get off the stage. 

It makes you appreciate just how slick the effects in The Play That Goes Wrong actually are.


The artwork for the 2017 UK tour of The Play That Goes Wrong is owned by the Mischief Theatre Company and its reproduction here is believed to be fair use, serving as a means of visual identification within this posting.
 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Trump and Tusk

Donald Trump meets Donald Tusk
When Donald Trump met Donald Tusk, what did they talk about - the elephant in the room?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bonking

Definition of bonking

I once had a book by a pair of American educationalists called Curtis Jay Bonk and Kira S. King. Students used to call it the bonking book. The surnames of the two authors were juxtaposed on the spine in such a way that made it look as if it was a book about bonking: “a bonking good read” perhaps.

The cover shows the first author’s name in full, but elsewhere in the book and in his professional life he prefers to go by the shorter Curt Bonk. Does he know how that sounds to English ears? Perhaps he does. It might be his come on line.

Bonk and King: Electronic Collaborators
I’m not sure when I first encountered the euphemism. It wasn’t at school in Yorkshire. Bonk would then have meant hitting someone on the top of the head, or perhaps the percussive knock made by a large piece of wood. Runners and cyclists also now use it to mean running out of energy. I don’t think it emerged in the sexual sense until the nineteen-seventies. I imagine I can hear it in Jo Kendall’s elegant but naughty voice in “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, but perhaps she never actually said it. It would have amused me if she had.

The alternatives would have been completely unacceptable on broadcast media in the seventies, despite the efforts of Brendan Behan and Kenneth Tynan who came out with the F word on live television, or even the music hall comedian Hector Thaxter who is said to have got away with “arse” on the radio in 1936.

Most of the time we don’t notice now. Swearing has little effect. I preferred it when it was the exception rather than the rule. The world was kinder when broadcasters went no further than “naff off” and “bonk”.

I like this well-researched article in the Scotsman in 2008: Swearing - does anyone give a f@#k anymore?

Friday, 28 April 2017

Tour de Yorkshire

Tour de Yorkshire logo
In the early nineteen-sixties, I remember going along to Boothferry Bridge to watch The Milk Race pass by – a national cycling event also known as the Tour of Britain, sponsored by the now defunct Milk Marketing Board. Some blokes on racing bikes flashed past amidst the everyday traffic and it was all over in less than a minute. It wasn’t worth the bother. Cycling must be the sport with the biggest disconnect between doing (riding a bike is fun) and watching (tedious). I’ve never been to a cycling event since.

So it’s irritating to find the Tour de Yorkshire imposed on us this weekend, with roads closed most of the day bringing maximum disruption to our activities, just to see people on bicyles for a couple of minutes. I’m keeping well away.

Alternative Tour de Yorkshire logo
And they call it the / le “Tour de Yorkshire”. What pretentious twaddle! Et le moins dit à propos de la côte de Silsden et de la côte de Wigtwizzle, mieux c'est.*

Surely, if it’s in Yorkshire, shouldn’t it be called t’baiyk race roun’ t ‘roo-ads?



* The less said about “côte de Silsden” and “côte de Wigtwizzle” the better.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Tips, Ships and Executorships

“Never, ever, appoint a bank as executor to a will.” My dad’s advice was born out of sheer frustration.

“You’ll be all right one day son,” his own father had told him in expectation of a life-changing legacy due on the death of an ailing wealthy spinster living permanently in a hotel in Harrogate. As things turned out she lived another thirty years, by which time the legacy was no longer life-changing, much of it having dwindled away in unnecessary professional fees.

Edwin Ernest Atkinson
Edwin Ernest
Atkinson (1872-1939)
It was one of those unanticipated quirks of family history that testators fail to imagine when making their wills, which result in their money going to unrelated beneficiaries they never knew or had even heard of: in this case my father, his sister and the husband of their late cousin. It originated in Edwin Ernest Atkinson, chairman of the Yorkshire Dale Steamship Co., and Atkinson and Prickett Ltd., shipowners and brokers of Hull.

On leaving school, Edwin had first worked as a clerk for the Aire and Calder Navigation Company at Goole docks, and then as a coal exporter with the shipping company J. H. Wetherall & Co. In 1906 he began in business on his own, joined in 1911 by Thomas William Prickett.

Atkinson & Prickett
Within twenty-five years both were rich men with handsome houses on the outskirts of Hull at Hessle. Edwin’s was called ‘Waylands’, at the corner of Woodfield Lane and Ferriby Road. It had eight bedrooms, an oak-panelled dining room, two other large reception rooms, a billiards room, domestic quarters, coal-fired central heating, outbuildings, cultivated gardens, a heated greenhouse and vinery, tennis courts and a croquet lawn. Thomas William Prickett had a similar property, ‘Northcote’, next-door-but-three at 85 Ferriby Road. Among their ships – their dirty British coasters with salt-caked smoke stacks – were the SS Yokefleet, SS Swandale, SS Easingwold and MV Coxwold. There were trains of railway wagons bearing the company name.

Waylands Hessle
'Waylands', 93 Ferriby Road, Hessle (now 'Woodlands Lodge')
SS Yokefleet SS Swandale SS Easingwold MV Coxwold
Atkinson and Prickett ships: SS Yokefleet, SS Swandale, SS Easingwold, MV Coxwold

When Edwin died in 1939 at the age of 66, he left a life interest in most of his £27,000 estate to his wife and only surviving daughter. Adjusted for retail price inflation, this would be today’s equivalent of £1.3 million; probably five times that in terms of earnings inflation, and far more in terms of property prices. It was a considerable sum of money. His wife died less than two years later, thus his daughter, Constance Ruby, still in her thirties, assumed a life interest in the whole sum, to live in comfort and luxury for the rest of her life. She was the lady in the hotel at Harrogate.

Note that Edwin only left a life interest to his wife and daughter, rather than the capital sum outright. They therefore received income from investments, and the capital remained intact. It was perhaps a throwback to those earlier chauvinistic times when women were not expected to manage their own financial affairs. It also kept the money out of the hands of any unscrupulous husbands they might later marry.

Beverley North Bar Without
Numbers 8 to 2 North Bar Without, Beverley, with the fifteenth century gate to the right

Constance Ruby never did marry, although she did have a brief engagement at the age of twenty. She later became Clerk to the Archdeacon of York, living in the Precentor’s Court at York Minster. After her father died she moved to Harrogate with her widowed mother. Later in the nineteen-fifties, she moved to Beverley, into a half-timbered eighteenth century house immediately without the North Bar (the fifteenth century gate). She died there in 1983. As she was the last surviving descendant of Edwin Ernest Atkinson, the capital passed in equal shares to the families of his three siblings. One of them was my great-grandfather’s second wife.

Five years after his first wife had died, my great-grandfather had married Edwin’s sister, a forty-eight year old spinster. There were no further children, but a deeply shared interest in Methodism saw them happily through the next twenty-four years. Of course, they and Edwin’s other siblings had all died long before Constance Ruby in 1983, so the money passed to their families. Thus, one third of the capital passed by marriage, through my great-grandfather, through his children who had also died, to my father, his sister and their late cousin’s husband – people Edwin probably never heard of.

It was not so simple. An unfortunate legal charade had gobbled up much of the inheritance. The solicitor who managed the capital trust had sensibly taken steps to establish the names of the beneficiaries in readiness for when the trust was eventually wound up. He had collected the documentation to show that my father, his sister and their cousin were the rightful beneficiaries to a one-third share. But then, at some point during the nineteen-seventies, the National Westminster Bank trustees department persuaded Constance Ruby that her affairs would be better handled by them, and took over the management of the trust. They began the lengthy process of establishing the beneficiaries all over again, but after several years were still not convinced they had identified them all. Everything came to a standstill after Constance Ruby’s death. It was only through our persistent intervention that the case was transferred back to the original solicitors and at last sorted out.

Around this time, bank Executor and Trustee departments were becoming known for their outrageous fees. An article in The Times in 1985 explained how one executor saved nearly £7,000 by handling a simple £100,000 estate himself. Solicitors charged less, but were still expensive. We have no way of knowing what fees were taken out of the Atkinson trust, how well the investments performed, or how much income was paid out over the years, but when my father and his sister at last received their legacies, what would once have been life-changing sums had shrunk away to just over £3,000 each. Their cousin’s husband (i.e. Edwin’s sister’s husband’s granddaughter’s widowed husband) got £6,000. Welcome amounts for sure, but nothing like what my grandfather had predicted. £3,000 might have bought a small car. The total value distributed to all beneficiaries would have been around £37,000. Had the capital kept pace with retail price inflation it would have been at least ten times that amount. 

In later years, when my father made his will, true to his principle he appointed me as executor. After he died I handled everything myself. It was fairly straightforward. In another case I was able to manage sums in trust for children until they reached the age of eighteen. More recently, I handled all the paperwork for the estate of another family member. Despite being complicated by inheritance tax (by then inevitable for owners of houses in the Home Counties) it was still trouble free. Estate administration can be a long-drawn-out and time-consuming process which tests your patience and endurance, but if you have the time to cut out the banks and solicitors and do things yourself you can save an awful lot in professional fees; often several tens of thousands of pounds. You can bring things to completion much more quickly too.  

References:
Maggie Drummond (1985). Finding a will and a way to cut costs. The Times (London, England), Feb 16, 1985; pg 16.
Patrick Collinson (2013). Probate: avoid a final rip-off when sorting out your loved one’s estate. The Guardian, Sep 21, 2013.