Pardon my Sarong

September 7, 2009


My comedy partner, Trev, very kindly bought me a boxed set of Abbot and Costello movies for my birthday. There’s 24 of them. As it says on the box, “over 32 hours of viewing”. I say kindly…

When we first attempted to be a double-act, back in the early 80’s, we were keen observers, almost students, of other double-acts. And for some reason we were drawn to the nastier ones. There were double-acts out there who seemed to take pleasure in not liking each other, in being downright abusive to each other; modern ones like 20th Century Coyote (Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson), then the more old school acts like Cannon and Ball, and further back, Abbot and Costello.

There were better double-acts; Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise, where the love for each other conveyed so convincingly through their acts was reciprocated in their real life long-term friendships. But when we were young and angry and foolish we just wanted to see double acts rip each other apart. Or we’d enjoy the dichotomy of an act that seemed to present some sort of a friendship, but when touring chose to stay in separate hotels, or refused to share a 50/50 split of the takings. Double-acts where behind the scenes there was bullying and mutual hatred.

Abbot and Costello were the kings of the dysfunctional double-act. Indeed, when Costello died, Abbot was in the process of suing him for $220,000. To be fair to the two, they’d always had ups and downs with money. In the early years the split was 60/40 in favour of straight-man Bud Abbott; a practice not as outrageous as it might sound. Straight-men were highly regarded and valued within double-acts. And in later years Costello insisted that this split should be reversed; and so it was for their film years. Fair, sort of, but still, the silly old fools.  50/50 is fine. Heck, yes, it’s business, but it’s also comedy; two idiots getting through life, hard enough as it is, should give each other a break. It wasn’t just money they’d argue over. Who’s on first was a big issue, with Costello demanding a name change, Abbot and Costello to Costello and Abbott.

And so, with all that mad aggression seething beneath our sarongs (I wore one for the viewing) I settled down for a good laugh.

The film’s nonsense. As was often the case when double-acts and comedians ventured into movies, someone came up with some daft old story which serves as a way of holding together a number of theatre-tested routines. In this film the boys (trademarked name to be used whenever referring to double-acts) are bus drivers taking a yachtsman to a race in Hawaii. They get chased by the police, end up with the bus floating on a raft, they befriend a seal, they kidnap a woman trying to sabotage the boat race, they end up in a storm, they get washed up on some remote island, the natives mistake Costello for a hero, send him off into a volcano to appease the gods, wearing a sacred special powers jewel, some robbers await to steal the jewel blah blah blah. And everything works out fine. But forget the plot, here’s the best bits, paraphrased and partially remembered (apologies to the screenwriters, True Boardman, Nat Perrin and John Grant):

Costello: Look, a sea-lion.

Abbott: That’s a seal. They use them to make fur coats.

Costello: How do they teach them?

Well, it made me laugh.

My favourite moments, and indeed my favourite aspect of Abbot and Costello’s comedy, comes when the two bicker for what seems like an eternity over some small misunderstanding. The obvious example is their most famous routine, Who’s on First? There are many versions of this, ranging from just a few minutes to almost ten minutes. If you don’t know it, or if you do but would like to see it presented in a new way, have a look at this typographical version.

In Pardon My Sarong they argue over driving the bus, with Abbot constantly saying to Costello “Will ya go ahead and back up.” You can guess how this goes. It’s a funny line, some may say. Once. Well try it again and again with Costello not getting it. And then again. And again. Funny, funny, funny, not so funny, not funny. Then back to funny. I like that.

Another scene sees Costello take on one of the chiefs of the tribe. The film is maybe as dodgy as hell, but I’ll let you decide by seeing a picture of the said chief.

pardonsarong b+w

This may well be racist, but I wouldn’t have a clue who against. Has anyone heard of Claire’s Accessories Island?

So, Costello and this guy get into a bit of an argument and Costello calls him a “stinker”. He, understandably, takes offence, but Abbott steps in to calm things down. He points out that where they are from “stinker” is a form of praise; all the most impressive men are “stinkers”.A set-up for an onslaught of “I’m a bigger stinker than you/ I’m the biggest stinker” etc. Lines that yet again go on and on. A film with a good few minutes of people calling each other “stinker” is ok with me.

As for true nastiness; when Costello has to go through the volcano Abbot doesn’t offer to help. He instead offers Costello a gun. Not to defend himself with, but to kill himself with. Double-act assisted suicide.

It’s possibly wrong to say, knowing that Trev may well read this, but my favourite part of the film didn’t even feature the stars. It’s a musical scene with the Ink Spots and Tip, Tap and Toe. A fantastic routine with moonwalking decades before Wacko Jacko thought of doing it. See it here.

Little and Large

August 7, 2009


When I was a kid my mum and dad would get free tickets to go to the The Talk of the North in Eccles. Free because my mum worked for Salford City Council and a friend of hers new someone who knew Joe Pullen, the owner of the club. And off they’d go, with the rector and his wife and they’d see Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, Matt Monro, Bob Monkhouse. Bob Monkhouse was apparently “a bit blue” but that wouldn’t stop the rector from laughing. Once my dad went with my Uncle Jack, and there was a belly dancer on. My Uncle Jack tells me my dad was quite intrigued by such exotica. He whispered to Jack “what will you do if she comes over here?” Uncle Jack said, “she’s coming”. And with that my dad ran off to the toilets. It’s an inherited trait that to this day, with regret, I follow.

As a result of these trips I ended up with a fine collection of signed photos. I have one that was signed to my mum by Matt Monro. It says “To Pat, thanks, Matt Monro.” Thanks? I’ve never dared ask.

Yesterday we had a casting for something we won’t get, but that’s that. Also there, was Syd Little. We’d met Syd and Eddie years ago on a comedy panel show on ITV2 (it was in the early days, 1998-ish and I can’t remember its title). The rough idea was that it pitched older style comedians against the upstart young ones. We met a fair few, including Syd and Eddie, Stan Boardman, Tim Brooke-Taylor. I loved it. Standing at the bar afterwards, listening to their tales; sometimes tolerating their rants and their bitterness; other times openly disagreeing (oh, we were such upstarts of the alternative circuit!); and I got to meet one of The Goodies!

But here’s the thing. A lot of the old school comedians were despised by the young upstarts. And whilst some of them were openly spewing forth bile and hatred (yes, you Manning) most were just trying to make a living by making people laugh. There are worse things you can do.

It’s easy to forget now, but Little and Large were on BBC1 for 13 years in a row. I can’t remember much of their comedy, and I was at an age where I was starting to develop my own ideas about what was funny and what wasn’t, so I most likely didn’t watch them that much. But when I met them, they were lovely. They weren’t bitter and twisted, they weren’t ranting and raving about not being on TV anymore. They’d had a good run and I think they could understand that the comedy times they were a-changing.

They’re both in their sixties now and speaking to Syd yesterday we heard that Eddie had a heart transplant a few years ago. All the best, Eddie. I imagine he is quite looking forward to Manchester City’s forthcoming season, being a celebrity fan of the club from a time before Liam and Noel were even eyebrow-less babies.

Syd’s still working. Mainly on his own. He’s done a few years on cruise ships. I was moved by how he talked of going solo. He clearly had been nervous about such a venture; and then relieved and possibly surprised when he found he could do it.

I like meeting comedians. I like meeting the older comedians. I like realising that people who have been defined by their act, for good or bad, aren’t actually their act.

Cyril Mead is 67 years old and lives in Fleetwood.

(Come on! You didn’t really think he was called Syd Little?)