Variety is the Spice of Life

From the Grumbleweeds' slapstick to Jimmy Krankie's menopause gags and Paul Daniels outdated tricks and even a cheeky flash of Dana's underwear. Variety shows might be hit and miss but who doesn't mind a trip down memory lane?
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I’m a difficult man to please – even when I’m wrong. My watchword of ‘Go on then, if I must’ resulted in me being a latecomer to ‘The Sopranos’, ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ lay unread for years and those borrowed Nick Drake cd’s gathered dust for longer than they deserved. However, there are limits. You just know when something’s going to be shit before consuming it and no amount of persuasion will convince you otherwise. And so, on a rainy Thursday night in Bradford I trudge into the theatre to view with apprehension ‘The Best of British Variety 2010’. These ‘best’ are a roll call of 70’s/80’s TV regulars: The Grumbleweeds, The Krankies, Dana, Syd Little, Christopher Biggins and Paul Daniels. I take my seat – unconvinced.

A two-thirds full St.George’s Hall houses a curious mix. The majority could still recite their ration book number with relative ease but there’s also a smattering of single males with side-partings and sensible shoes. As I’m to observe later these are the Dana groupies. Many of the more senior amongst us seem reluctant to part with their coats, others their hats and it would appear that one has incorporated an Aldi ‘big shop’ into their schedule as he sits protecting his purchases between his feet. Cut price fig rolls and Wee Jimmy Krankie on the same night, a rare treat.

7.30 approaches and the air hangs heavy with the pungent whiff of Deep Heat. A gentle crackle of Werther’s Originals’ wrappers mixes with the chatter. To my left a couple shuffle uneasily in their seats knowing that they’re missing Coronation Street in the name of entertainment. The National Anthem is piped through the p.a. Those that can, stand, others are oblivious and some just continue to doze.

Biggins, the show’s compere, suited and booted by Showaddywaddy’s tailor with added sparkly bits to match his demeanour introduces Syd Little. He bounds onstage looking, as my mother would say, ‘a bit gormless’. His trademark glasses appear to have lenses made from the sort of thing Ted Moult used to advertise. It feels wrong to be watching a Large-free Little. He was always the straight man. The fall guy. And in a duo that, let’s be fair, raised few laughs – unless of course Deputy Dawg impressions flick your switch – Supersonic Syd raised the fewest. But tonight he’s just Little without ‘n’ and I’m already thinking this could be painful.

As wooden as the Cuprinol man, Syd’s jokes are unashamedly well rehearsed - chuckles by numbers. Through his bottle bottom rose tinted spectacles he laments for the Saturday night TV of his heyday. A time when given the chance I would have quite happily sustained myself on a diet of Sherbet Dib-Dabs and Curly Wurleys but unlike Syd I’ve moved on.

Things look up when I find myself guffawing at The Grumbleweeds’ rapid-fire gags and slapstick and although I’d pencilled in having a pint during the next turn, Dana, one song in and I’m transfixed. What’s going on? This isn’t right. I’m here to scoff and be smug. I listen to The Clash and The Jam but tonight I feel possessed by a middle aged Eurovision winning chanteuse. I’m under the Dana spell. I’m into her emerald groove. My foot’s tapping and head swaying to her treacly middle of the road schmaltz. Like a favourite aunt who still scrubs up all right she oozes stage presence and charm.

A gentle crackle of Werther’s Originals’ wrappers mixes with the chatter.

We’re halfway through ‘It’s Gonna Be A Cold Cold Christmas’ when the magic stops. Dana’s up where she belongs enchanting her disciples, hair beautifully coiffured, jewellery and eyes sparkling under the spotlights and moving gently to the rhythm in her black tailored trousers. But it’s what lies beneath her strides that’s caught my attention. She’s opted for, and I’ve had to ask around for the correct terminology – magic knickers. These are best described as a flattering pant for the heavier lady. Most of the audience struggle to see much beyond the person in front but I can clearly make out that she’s clad underneath in something akin to the cycling shorts much favoured by former Aston Villa winger Tony Daley. Nothing wrong with that. She’s a lass who wants to look on top form when she’s having a croon but it’s shaken me from my Dana dream and back to reality.

Wee Jimmy Krankie comes out as you would expect; schoolboy cap, one sock up, one down and both thumbs aloft. The act consists of a self-mocking routine which seems to touch more on Janette’s menopause (she’s not really a little lad y’know), her tits and the couple’s sleeping arrangements. Gone are the Crackerjack years’ cheeky playground comebacks to an exasperated Ian. No longer is this for the fan-dabi-dozi kids. This is AOK (Adult Oriented Krankies). If this is seaside humour then it’s more Southend than Southwold. What may have been funny at five to five every Friday is now all very lame.

We’re in the home straight now and many in the crowd can almost taste the Horlicks. Just Paul Daniels stands in the way. Even at ten years old I disliked Daniels and always knew he wore a syrup. I spot these cosmetic enhancements you see, toupees, slimming pants and the like. Interviews and the Louis Theroux documentary have him coming across as arrogant and a tad bitter but in front of an audience he opens up and his rapport and ad-libbing is spot on it must be said. Tonight, the ‘magician’ produces a grand total of three tricks. I’m astounded to discover that he still performs one that I’ve witnessed before at an end of pier show in Blackpool thirty years ago. A participant provides Daniels with a tenner who rips the corner off and hand its back to the shocked recipient. When I last saw this at the act’s climax the stooge gets handed a nut which he cracks and hey presto reveals the missing part of the cash. Three decades later and the nut has been replaced – the note miraculously re-appears in a tube of Polos. A touch of genius Paul, what will it be next time? A jammie dodger? A pork pie? I want to heckle through the rapturous applause he’s receiving for his sleight of hand and conjuring expertise, ‘It’s a different fucking tenner you buffoons!!!’ but I don’t for that would be cruel and I let everyone remain agog at this stupendous illusion.

The act consists of a self-mocking routine which seems to touch more on Janette’s menopause (she’s not really a little lad y’know), her tits and the couple’s sleeping arrangements.

When so called alternative comedy came along I think we all got a little smug. These old-school entertainers in velvet jackets and dickie bows had had their time, dig the new breed. But variety is the spice of life. Les Dawson v Ben Elton? No contest. Ken Dodd v Lenny Henry? Where’s my tickling stick? Tom O’Connor v Alexei Sayle?...well ok, but you see my point.

I thought I’d be witnessing a watered down ‘Seaside Special’ from 1978 and I hated ‘Seaside Special’ but what I’ve seen has actually made me a touch nostalgic, sad even. A taste of my childhood plonked into my forty plus married life and before I go off on a Spangle tangent I pause for thought. It’s all very well knocking Syd and the rest but they’re still doing what they love – bringing easy on the eye light entertainment to a generation that appreciate it. I mean what else could they do for a living - man the checkout at Asda? Imagine Wee Jimmy Krankie asking if you need any help with your packing or Paul Daniels ripping bits off your cash when you try to pay.

As I re-emerge into the drizzle I hold the door open for an elderly couple.

‘Thanks lad, goodnight’.

He thinks I’m one of the staff. Easy mistake to make. I’m half his age, why would I be here to see the things that entertain him? Maybe years from now some curious younger type will hold the door open for me after seeing Reeves and Mortimer’s act involving random objects pinned to the end of a stick and ask ‘What’s so funny about that?’

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