The Singing Corner, Dr Who, The Fresh Prince’s butler, and a cardigan

October 26, 2013

I can’t believe I’m starting with a diversion, but writing that title has just reminded me of one of my favourite Trev and Simon jokes. It comes from a never-screened pilot we made. Me and Trev are at home (Morecambe and Wise style) when the post arrives. Trev has received a Readers Digest type winning envelope (remember, this was last century). He is overjoyed, ecstatic. The letter tells him; “Congratulations! You have won a car”. Trev celebrates, unfolds the letter, and reads the remaining print; “digan”.

Well, I like it!

But to the point. It’s not often (at my time of life) that something can come along and knock you off your feet, but last night, on Twitter, Clayton Hickman (@claytonhickman) sent me a tweet that took my breath away. (Yes! I know! Knocked off my feet! Breathless! It’s a heady combo!) Clayton had stumbled across something so mind-blowing it might, possibly, just have ripped a hole wide open in my Atkinson-Shiffrin Memory Model (don’t worry- I don’t know what I’m on about either. it’s just a bit of fun. Try and keep up, it’s early days yet).

This is the story of a cardigan. We can trace the cardigan back as far as The Crimean War if we want to, but let’s not. For this story we need only trace the history of a singular and particular cardigan. A cardigan that goes back to the 80’s.

This cardigan, to the best of our knowledge, was first worn by Joseph Marcell in the serial Remembrance of the Daleks (the first serial of the 25th season of Dr Who) in 1988.

Joseph Marcell cardigan

Joseph, Sylvester McCoy, and the cardigan

In time this cardigan would come into my hands. In the meantime Joseph Marcell would go on to become Geoffrey the butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Back to the cardigan. What happened to it? In the late 80’s, going into the 90’s, I worked on two Saturday morning live TV shows, Going Live! and Live and Kicking along with Trev Neal. We did comedy sketches and such, and we were also responsible for finding other comedy acts willing to appear on the show. One act  we discovered wasn’t a comedy act but a musical act. We, perhaps foolishly, thought they might appeal to the Saturday morning audience.

The act was called The Singing Corner. We first saw them perform at The Velvet Percush’n in Amsterdam’s Kliegersstaffhen District. We assumed they were a spoof act, there was something so quaint and naive about them; but after talking to the club’s owner, Hansstraff Munck, it became clear they were for real, and so we asked for an introduction.

We met Don and Bob in the dressing room of The Velvet Percush’n. The two of them, in their psychedelic threads, blended neatly into the narcolepsy-inducing grasswhort curtains and hanging fabrics of the Percush’n’s inner sanctum and, what with the floating fog of jazz mist swirling around our curlicues, the two of us spent the first two hours of our meeting smiling not talking.

Eventually one of us spoke. Don was the first. All he said was ‘Hello’, and yet it took him seven minutes to say it.

11 minutes later and you couldn’t get any of us to shut up.

We assumed they were called The Singing Corner because each night they would sing in a different corner of The Velvet Percush’n’s 28 corners (the club was as famous for its many corners as it was for the calibre of musical acts that performed there; 28 acts every night, a different act in every corner). But no! It was a coincidence. They were called The Singing Corner after their names; Don Singing and Bob Corner.

(A little diversion: on Saturday 17th April 1965, the opening night of The Velvet Percush’n, the line up of acts was truly amazing. Take a deep breath: Bob Coats Trio, Melaniecholy, Dave Suave and his flute, Pancho, Bob Dillon, The Troublers, Sweet Toast, Brother and his Sisters, Carparque, Leslie Cousins, Donna Van Dyke, Long Jack Hankie, Melting Pot, Dizzy Dennis Dickens, EarthenWhere?, KFJ, Leo Sayer, Mustang Alley, David Singing (Don’s father), The Clark Fife Four, The Burds, The Beatles, Turtleneck Beach, Feather Conspiracy, The Simon Sisters, Waferbaby, Mardy Wah!, Big Clint McFlintlock, and (headlining) Art Garfunkel.

What a night that must have been. And, for the eagle-eyed, amongst you, I know that’s 29 acts! Don told me that his father wasn’t supposed to sing. He was there, ostensibly, as Long John Hankie’s whisperer (Long John Hankie could never remember the words to any of his songs ever since being diagnosed as forgetful by a recently qualified doctor and so always had a whisperer on stage to help out). Unfortunately LJH was also partially deaf and so David had to whisper louder and louder until, in effect, he was singing. The story goes his voice was sweet enough to make statues weep.)

So… back to wherever we were. Ah yes! Don and Bob and me and Trev in the dressing room of The Velvet Percush’n. A friendship started that night; a friendship that would last until it finished.

We persuaded Don and Bob to come along and perform on Going Live! They were keen from the start and (once we’d found our way out of The Velvet Percush’n’s dressing room) nothing was going to stop us from introducing The Singing Corner to the UK. (The 28 corners meant that the dressing room was a very unusual shape, and it was not uncommon for it to take an hour or two to find the door: rumour has it that Sixto Rodriquez spent 17 years in there.)

However, once Don and Bob landed in the UK, they started to get edgy. It didn’t help that the first thing they saw upon entering the country was Big Fun with their Handful Of Promises.

It knocked their confidence for six. And what could we say? The competition was tough in those times and we fully understood Don and Bob’s reticence.

Annoyingly, we had already told our boss, Chris Bellinger, that we had a great new act lined up. The kind of act that would make Big Fun look like medium fun. What could we do? How could we persuade the boys to give it a go?

Chris suggested we tried snazzying their image up a little, take them down the Kings Road, do a bit of shopping. He even gave us an envelope stuffed with cash to make sure we got top notch clobber. “Maybe something with hoods”, he said.

Now! This next part! It wasn’t my idea ok? All of the following was Trev Neal’s work.

Trev said (and this is verbatim. I was there), Trev said; “ere, Simon. There’s a pretty penny or two in this John Paul*. What say you we take these two geezers down the old BBC costume store and deck ’em out in some cheap duds? They don’t know the Kings Road from The King’s knackers. We get ’em kitted out and, in the process, we make a Salamander each!”

I wasn’t in favour. I mean a Salamander (slang for £78.90) wasn’t to be sniffed at in those days. But even so, it felt low.

Hey, it’s in the past now, and I may well be testing your patience with this post. The be all and end all is that I took part in the fraud, Don and Bob were taken by us to the BBC’s wardrobe department out in Acton, and Bob, thinking the Kings Road was inside a concrete tower block, picked a certain cardigan to wear.

Bob corner cardiganIt’s an incredible story. And, despite the ups and downs, despite the fraud and almost indecent deception, something must have gone right, for Don and Bob had a no.61 hit with Jennifer Juniper.

The BBC costume collection no longer exists. Nor does its wig collection (not that Don or Bob ever needed wigs). In 2008 “the BBC management team concluded that the best option was to close the department and dispose of the stock”. Idiots.

Huge thanks to Clayton for making me aware of the cardigan connection.

two jumpers

Where is the cardigan now?

* Trev used to call envelopes ‘John Pauls’ after the current Pope. it was a short lived Cockney style he experimented with between March and April 1990.

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One Response to “The Singing Corner, Dr Who, The Fresh Prince’s butler, and a cardigan”

  1. Bruce said

    This is brilliant. What a great spot. And shame on the bbc for disposing of all these treasures, from your cardigan all the way up to tv centre.

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