John Shuttleworth’s last will and tasty mint!

John Shuttleworth 1Bad news for fans of eccentric, nerdy singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth, the man responsible for such tunes as One Foot In The Gravy and I Can’t Go Back To Savoury: his upcoming tour will probably be his last.

The good news: although his creator Graham Fellows is taking a complete break from the character, he reckons Shuttleworth will still pop up occasionally.

My half-hour chat with Graham turned into quite a surreal experience: some of the time he was interviewing me about my musical tastes and occasionally he suddenly became his fictional character Shuttleworth, bursting into song to illustrate his unique lyrics.

Graham, a comedy actor and musician, was trying to be a professional songwriter back in the 1980s when he came up with the idea of John Shuttleworth. Graham was signed to Chappell Music in London and heard a number of demo tapes which he says were “awful”.

“That inspired me to create my own demo tape which was deliberately bad but had some pathos. A lot of those tapes were like that. People were pouring their heart and soul out.

“Sometimes they’d be quite good and the people could be incredibly confident. The bits linking the songs were better than the songs themselves. That inspired me to have the same kind of confident, deluded delivery because John Shuttleworth is deluded.”

Graham thinks the first “really dreadful song” he wrote was Mary, Mary, when I met you I was wary, you said my arms were hairy, now that was unnecessary.

He admits he could not do that kind of song all the time, “so then I started writing songs which had more depth and better tunes, things like I Can’t Go Back to Savoury.

Graham Fellows“I can’t believe 30 years on from when I started doing those demo tapes I’m still knocking it out in theatres. I’m very lucky. It’s great.”

Graham Fellows was a drama student at Manchester Polytechnic when he came to prominence in 1978 as Jilted John, singer of the novelty record of the same name. The punk anthem features the often chanted line “Gordon is a moron”.

His acting career involved roles as Paul McCartney in a play called Lennon at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield; an appearance in Coronation Street as Les Charlton, a biker chasing a young Gail Tilsley; and as Eric Sykes in the BBC4 drama Hattie in 2010.

He created John Shuttleworth in 1986. Shuttleworth has fronted several radio and television series and has usually been supported by other characters – also voiced by Graham – including his agent/manager Ken Worthington.

Shuttleworth’s current tour is called My Last Will And Tasty Mint. So what can anyone who goes to one of the tour venues expect to see?

“I usually say the same old rubbish – and I say it proudly because that’s what it will be,” says Graham candidly from his home at Louth, Lincolnshire.

“Those who know Shuttleworth won’t be disappointed and I’m hoping it’ll be a nice mix of the old songs that they know and some cracking new ones.

“It’ll include a song called the A1111 which is a real road in Lincolnshire.” He puts on Shuttleworth’s voice as he sings “Like the A1 but four times as good is the A1111”.

“It’s a sort of folky song which John is embarrassed about – he doesn’t like folk.

“Audiences love it when I mess up. They don’t worry when things go wrong and a keyboard falls off a stand.”

“When I do a 30- or 40-date tour, which this is, it’s great to mix it up a bit. Almost every night I try to accept a challenge – I’ll put one song in or not do one – you keep yourself on your toes.”

John Shuttleworth has a reputation for being clumsy and his gigs do not always go to plan, something which Graham cultivates.

“Audiences love it when I mess up. Even when I’m supposed to know the song I’ll forget the tune, forget the lyrics and stop the song. I get people coming up afterwards and they say ‘that was deliberate, wasn’t it, when you completely fell apart there?’ and I’ll say ‘No it wasn’t.’ They don’t worry when things go wrong and a keyboard falls off a stand.”

Talking of his keyboard, Graham says his Yamaha is an “integral” part of his act. “I’ve always used the same organ since 1993 because it’s got animal sounds. I don’t experiment very much with new organs because everyone knows the songs on that keyboard. It’s available on eBay for about 30 quid. They still pop up second hand.

“Every now and again I buy one. I’ve had about three. Occasionally they do pack up. They have small keys because they’re meant for kids.”

John Shuttleworth at Gloom AidEven Graham finds it difficult to put into words what characterises a typical John Shuttleworth song: “Hopefully a catchy tune and a lyric that’s about something fairly mundane like eating your tea or the lack of cardboard in a Bounty bar.

”Sometimes the scansion won’t be that good so John will try to cram in a few too many words, some unlikely rhymes. My favourite’s probably Mary had a little lamb, green beans and new potatoes. And the middle bit goes We had a carafe of sweet white wine and Ken had a gin and tonic. There was a giraffe for children to climb though no children were on it.”

John Shuttleworth has been in the business for a long time, so does he still think he’s going to make the big time? Yes, according to Graham.

“But making it big is a relative term. One of my stories is John thinks he’s going to get a gig with Billy Joel but his agent Ken reveals he actually meant a gig in the village hall.

“John’s initial disappointment turns to excitement as he realises a village hall will have a tea urn which he can have all to himself and a designated parking space. He’s eternally optimistic and he’ll turn really boring events like cleaning his wheelie bin into something exciting.”

On the last date of the My Last Will And Tasty Mint tour John Shuttleworth will somehow be joined by Jilted John who is experiencing a bit of a revival. A couple of music festivals are lined up for Jilted John in the summer and then there will be a tour in 2018 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the record’s success.

“There’s a lot of things to surmount before I pop my clogs.”

“It wasn’t an amazing act,” says Graham, “but that song was very memorable and there still seems to be an appetite for it. It’s just a bit of fun really. It’s very different to John Shuttleworth. I get up and posture a bit.”

Without being prompted Graham talks about his musical influences. “When I wrote Jilted John I was into Lindisfarne and things like that. I really like John Otway. I was quite eclectic – I used to like Tavares. I can remember being in discos hopelessly falling in love with some girl dancing to Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel. That song’s on my jukebox. Like Barry White it’s got some sort of primeval schmaltzy thing going on.”

He stops to admire the phrase he has come up with: “I’m going to write primeval schmaltz down – before you do!”

So what does the future hold for Graham Fellows? He says he may not do much more acting because he is afraid that he cannot remember all the words. He wants to concentrate on various musical projects and is converting a church in Orkney, Scotland into a recording studio. He also has a boat there but in typical Shuttleworth fashion he does not know how to sail.

John Shuttleworth pingpong“There’s a lot of things to surmount before I pop my clogs,” says Graham.

That triggers a memory of one of John Shuttleworth’s songs, Mingling With Mourners. “It’s silly and funny but there’s a serious message, I think.”

It is about a man called Thomas who lived to the age of 89 and was fondly remembered, judging by the hordes who went to his wake.

Graham ends our conversation as he sings: “Mingling with mourners, some sat down in corners. Others by the table eyeing up the quiche. I’ve had days more jolly but never lived more fully than when mingling with mourners remembering the deceased.”

There is just no way you can follow that.

This article appeared in the January 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

John Goodrum and Karen Henson: couple who are passionate about theatre

img_0005aIn a modest scout hut off an unostentatious street in Chesterfield, four actors are having an afternoon rehearsal for their latest production. In this location you might expect to see amateur thespians but one of them is recognisable as a television regular and the other three have significant experience of theatre, radio and film.

This is the start of one of the many tours organised by John Goodrum, founder, writer and director of Rumpus Theatre Company whose productions can be seen regularly at the Pomegranate in Chesterfield and Buxton Opera House.

He runs Rumpus from his home in South Wingfield. Amazingly the tiny, two-up, two-down terraced cottage is also the base of his wife Karen Henson’s theatre company Tabs Productions which produces the Classic Thriller Season at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal every summer as well as taking plays all over the country.

John and Karen could hardly be described as “luvvies”. They are welcoming, personable and slightly exuberant as they explain how they met, how their careers have taken parallel paths and what they get out of running their own companies. They are passionate about theatre.

John who was brought up in Morden, south London wanted to be an actor from the time he was taken to see pantomimes starring Bruce Forsyth, Arthur Askey and Roy Castle at a theatre in Wimbledon.

He studied drama and music in Bristol for three years and then started to pick up parts at a time when many theatres were hosting rep seasons – with a group of actors performing different plays over a few weeks.

img_0044a“I looked very young in those days,” says John. “In my mid-20s up to my 30s I still looked like a teenager. I was useful to people as I could play young parts and I had music as well. So I did some really nice rep work.

“I played Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh on tour when I was about 32 – I shaved my legs for the part and some of it never grew back!”

Acting work became scarce when people realised that John was too old to play younger parts, so he decided to write his own show.

“An actor friend who’d been to Vienna sent me a postcard of Schubert saying I looked like him and ought to do a play about him. I thought I looked nothing like him, but two years down the line I wrote a one-man show about Schubert in his dying years.

“I needed a company to put it on and a name to do it under. A group of us in Chesterfield had been talking about setting up a company. I came up with the word Rumpus and we used that for the show at the old arts centre in Chesterfield. We were then asked to do two shows at the Pomegranate. We started touring in 2000 and here we are still doing it.”

As the company’s standing has increased, John has been able to attract actors who are well known from their appearances on the small screen. Rumpus’s latest production features Ian Sharrock. He had a nine-year stint as Jackie Merrick in Emmerdale Farm as well as appearing in Heartbeat, The Bill, Casualty and as Alan Partridge’s most obsessive fan Jed Maxwell in I’m Alan Partridge.

John has taken four stories by E W Horning and adapted them into a single play, Raffles: The Mystery of the Murdered Thief.

Raffles: The Mystery of the Murdered Thief in rehearsal

Raffles: The Mystery of the Murdered Thief in rehearsal

It will go on a major tour, although John says it is really hard for a small company to sell plays to regional theatres because there are fewer venues on the circuit. Some theatres have reduced the amount of drama they take in; tribute shows, concerts, comedians and one-nighters form the backbone of their programme. The risk of touring is that shows do not attract enough customers at the box office.

“We like a show to pay its way but it does get increasingly difficult,” says John whose company receives no Arts Council or local authority subsidies to put on work.

It is a situation his wife Karen has found with Tabs Productions: “You become more limited in what you produce because you have to think ‘is this going to be popular, is this going to sell seats?’ rather than ‘this is a lovely play, I’d love to do it’.”

So what does it cost to put on a production? Last autumn Rumpus toured two dramas, Father Brown – The Curse of the Invisible Man, featuring John Lyons, best known as Detective Sergeant George Toolan from the drama A Touch of Frost which starred David Jason; and Karen’s play The Haunted Dolls’ House. Between them they cost £46,000 to stage. That was before a single seat had been sold.

When John formed Rumpus his mission was to put on plays that were well written and entertaining. The company became known on the touring circuit for mystery and gothic horror stories which were ideal for Halloween.

Says John: “While that’s far from my only interest, it seems to appeal to audiences, managements and sells well. So if it ain’t broke . . .”

Often Rumpus and Tabs work alongside each other. They will soon be turning their attention to a play season in the middle of January at the Pomegranate which features two Rumpus productions, Derek Benfield’s Look Who’s Talking and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Tabs’ presentation of Anthony Shaffer’s whodunnit Sleuth.

img_0045a

John discusses a scene with actor Nicholas Gilbrook

But before that John, whose CV includes a three-month stint on the BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers, will be writing and playing the dame in a panto at Broadstairs, Kent.

Karen, who says she was precocious as a child, went to arts educational schools before studying at Bristol Old Vic theatre school.

Her first professional job was in the chorus for a panto at York Theatre Royal. Work came flooding in and she became a regular with a company run by the late Colin McIntyre, founder of the Classic Thriller Season.

Another member of the company was Adrian Lloyd-James. In 1989 he and Karen decided to produce plays themselves under the name Tabs. Since then they have staged more than 120 productions ranging from Shakespeare to Stephen King. Six years ago Tabs took over the Classic Thriller Season after Colin McIntyre’s death.

Actors who have appeared on Tabs’ tours include Toyah Wilcox, Joe McGann, Colin Baker and Sandra Dickinson.

John and Karen first got together in 1995 when they did a summer rep season in Sheringham, Norfolk at a theatre run by Freda Kelsall, formerly a writer for Heartbeat and Emmerdale.

“We did some wonderful summer seasons. We’d be rehearsing from 10am until 3pm, then we’d go to the beach and do the show in the evening,” says John.

“When we had our daughter Millie, another couple had a son and Freda always used to build the season around childcare.”

raffles-programmeHe turns to Karen and says: “We were in When We Are Married by J B Priestley and I was in the first half and you were in the second. We did the child swap-over at the interval.”

Karen takes over: “I was in the theatre with Millie under my arm in full Edwardian make-up and hat.” “And I’d dash out and put her to bed, having done my bit already,” adds John.

“Freda always made sure that one of us was free to look after the children,” says Karen with a smile.

Millie is now 18 but will not be pursuing a theatrical career; she has just started a history degree at university in Leicester.

So what is it like for the couple to act together?

“It’s fine,” says Karen. “We do have furious arguments though.”

“That makes it exciting,” John chips in.

Karen lifts the lid on their relationship: “Sometimes he’ll say ‘are you really going to play it like that?’ Especially if he’s written it. ‘Why don’t you just say the line as I wrote it?’ How do you feel about working with me darling?” she asks him.

“Great. Of course you do have little niggles but it’s a short cut really because you know exactly how the other person’s going to react, their acting style, everything that they’re going to do. That can be so creative and productive.”

Ian Sharrock who plays Bunny Manders in Raffles: The Mystery of the Murdered Thief

Ian Sharrock who plays Bunny Manders in Raffles: The Mystery of the Murdered Thief

So what’s John’s ambition? “I was asked that when I was just starting out as an actor, whether I wanted to be famous or anything. I piously said then ‘I would like to keep working and keep doing the same job’.

“I’ve fulfilled that ambition. I’d like to keep Rumpus going as it does for another five or so years. Maybe when I get too old to act or produce I can just write plays and compose symphonies.”

Karen, who has taken roles in Dr Who audio books, says theatre is her life. “I must admit I do like to do everything, even the VAT. I do get a certain joy out of bringing it all together. Maybe I’m just very bossy, a control freak. I think probably what I’m most proud of is giving so many people work.”

As Karen dashes off to work on her next production, John returns to directing duties in the rehearsal room. Raffles, once described as “the second most popular fictional character of the time” behind Sherlock Holmes, is ready to cause another rumpus.

* This article appeared in the November 2016 edition of Country Images magazine

Anne Davies and Dominic Heale: the East Midlands Today presenters who enjoy their job immensely

img_0029aThey’ve been fixtures in the living rooms of thousands of homes in the East Midlands for 15 years. Anne Davies and Dominic Heale have such a rapport that some people actually think the BBC East Midlands Today presenters are married to each other.

Bosses at BBC Television in Nottingham have come and gone, yet Anne and Dom have remained in their studio seats no matter how many changes the managers have introduced.

The presenters took time out from preparing for an edition of the East Midlands’ favourite news magazine programme to tell me the secret of their success, how much involvement they have in the show and why they do so much more than reading out loud for a living.

There’s a saying that couples who’ve been married for a long time are so in sync that they finish each other’s sentences. Anne and Dom are the same, often discussing their answers to my questions and chipping in when the other occasionally starts to flounder.

Dominic was working for Central Television when the BBC came calling. “As Jane Horrocks said in Ab Fab, I was headshrunk by the BBC,” he says.

At the time Anne was working for GMTV and getting up at 3am which she describes as “weird”.

img_0021a“I did it for eight years. It’s debilitating, actually. You have to have a system. It really works for some people like Penny Smith because she manages her life – she’s always done it. But I’m possibly less self-disciplined, so I swapped three in the morning for three in the afternoon. It seemed like a good swap to me.”

Dom believes he and Anne were meant to work together: “There’s a nice synchronicity about it which was meant to happen because we were both very happy to slot in here, weren’t we?”

There is a particular skill to being able to sit in front of a camera in a brightly lit room and explain to people what is happening in your area or the wider world. Dom pays tribute to the professional job Anne did at GMTV.

“You made it look like you were buzzing, you were awake, having fun – that’s the real skill of it, isn’t it?

“I remember being a bit horrified when somebody described news presentation as a performance. But in fact it is because you don’t go on television and speak as we’re speaking now: you project, you enunciate, you inject a bit of drama, a bit of urgency, you’re a bit shouty sometimes.”

“NO, SURELY NOT!” Anne interjects loudly.

“On the whole we say things as they are. I think news often falls down in the regions when people put on a very serious news voice and people just don’t buy it,” she feels.

“With our programme what you see is what you get, and we’re not particularly different in the office or at home from the way we are on TV. You have to rein certain things in – we can’t laugh hysterically at things we would do normally.”

img_0015aDom recalls the mini-revolution at the BBC at about the time they joined. “The BBC wanted to get away from over-analysing and doing everything very straight and very serious. The BBC (in Nottingham) was obsessed with local government reorganisation and had a correspondent whose job it was to bring us the latest news on that. I’m sorry but it wasn’t good television.”

Anne adds: “And so nobody watched.”

Viewers are watching now. An estimated 200,000 people tune in each evening to see two people who enjoy their job immensely, thanks mainly to their personalities as well as their experience.

Dom who comes from Devon began his career in radio in Plymouth. He moved to ITV in 1989 as a sub-editor for Television South West, becoming a presenter within two years. When TSW lost its franchise Dom moved to Nottingham with his wife and three children.

Anne was born in Sutton, Surrey. Her first media job was working behind the scenes on Question Time, Panorama and The Money Programme. She then moved to BBC Radio Leicester and Radio Derby. After a year on the ITV news trainee scheme she became a regular newsreader for Central News East in Nottingham before moving to GMTV. She lives in Leicestershire and has two grown-up sons.

Anne is known for her choice of clothing – she says her clothes are like Marmite: you either love or hate them – and for presenting the East Midlands strand of Children in Need every autumn.

img_0005aBoth Anne and Dom are hugely involved in East Midlands Today. The days when presenters arrived shortly before a programme, did a show and left immediately afterwards disappeared many years ago.

During the first part of the day the presenters might have been on location reporting for a future programme or presenting the lunchtime bulletin. Each of them will also present the late bulletin two evenings a week.

Preparation for East Midlands Today starts in earnest with a 3pm meeting, with the producer outlining which stories will be covered and how they will be treated.

“It’s a bit of a rush through,” says Anne, although Dom points out that there is a strong structure: “I was saying to someone the other day I could write my timetable and they would know exactly to within a five-minute slot what I’d be doing between three in the afternoon and seven o’clock.”

Their responsibilities include writing headlines, checking the introductions to reporters’ stories, recording the main headlines sequence and conducting pre-recorded interviews. They also choose what clothes they will wear and apply their own make-up; there are no make-up artists in regional television these days.

“Although the stories are very different and no one programme is ever the same, the actual process of getting on air is exactly the same every day,” Dom points out.

img_0032aOutside broadcasts can be completely different, according to Anne: “You can find yourself writing headlines on a park bench and trying to stick bits of script on the back of cards. You’re very good at sticking to timetable, aren’t you, Dom? I’m rubbish – I can be deflected at a moment’s notice and can find myself in a very interesting conversation in the kitchen and then realise I have to run into the studio.”

Dom points out that there’s a large team working behind the scenes and everyone wants to broadcast an entertaining, error-free programme.

“It’s our job to oil the cogs when they’re grinding to make it look like nothing’s going wrong.”

They also have to continue reading and appear in control when the director or a broadcast assistant is telling them that the next item isn’t ready or an interview has gone on too long.

“That’s the point I try to make when people make criticisms that all you do is read out loud,” says Dom. “Yes, that is what we do but people can’t hear what we hear in our earpieces. And you’ve got a bright light shining in your face.”

Anne explains more about their role: “It’s about someone you’re quite familiar with telling you something. It’s crafted but it shouldn’t sound like that.

“So if you wouldn’t say it to your mum when you’re telling her, don’t say it like that on the television because it just sounds false. It’s that falseness that I hope we’re really doing away with because I don’t think it works.”

img_0017aDom agrees: “In the end we’re the viewer’s friend. If we don’t ask the questions the viewers want to ask, we’ve failed.”

Let’s return to the perception that some viewers believe the couple are married. Dom points out that they spend longer together working on a programme than they do with their partners. And he believes viewers look for signs to try to gauge what their relationship is really like.

He looks at Anne and says, “They think you’re huge fun to work with but quite hard to tie down. They think I’m the quiet man and you’re the louder woman! I don’t know how they possibly get that.”

Anne becomes serious again and says both are very happy at East Midlands Today. “I’ll say to Dom sometimes ‘I’m just hanging on by my fingernails today – I don’t know why; my brain has fallen somewhere out of the back of my head’ and we know that the programme will never fall off air because the other person is always there.”

So what’s Dominic like to work with? “Fabulous,” says Anne, predictably. And what’s Anne like to work with? “She’s lovely,” says Dom.

Anne jumps in: “People say ‘how do you and Dominic get on?’ and I say we get on really well – Dom just finds me mildly annoying quite a lot of the time.”

In 2012 Anne won a Royal Television Society award for best on-screen personality.

img_0041a“And, bless her, when she got up to go and collect the award she gave me a hug first and said ‘thank you, Dominic, I know you find me really annoying’,” he says before dissolving into laughter.

A typical East Midlands Today programme might feature crime, politics and tragedy. But many people look forward to the “and finally” for a bit of a laugh.

“It’s the maddest, most unscripted part of the programme. It’s where we make the most clangers and where we’re the most natural, I suppose,” says Dom.

Addressing Anne, he adds: “I have this ability to be able to raise one eyebrow independently of the other and I find myself raising an eyebrow a lot at the end. So without even saying anything I seem to have this reputation of being someone who finds you strange.” Anne gives him a knowing look.

Watching East Midlands Today may never be the same again.

* This article appeared in the October 2016 edition of Country Images magazine

Hollies’ legend Bobby Elliott keeps on drumming

hollies-bobby-bright-shirtLife is good for Bobby Elliott. He’s a member of one of the world’s most famous groups who’ve been making distinctive music for more than 50 years. He plays to huge audiences around the world – yet he can still get behind his drums for a jamming session in a small pub with musicians he’s never met before.

Bobby and guitarist Tony Hicks are the driving force of The Hollies. Since appearing on the first Top Of The Pops on New Year’s Day 1964 The Hollies’ unmistakeable sound has been a part of British culture. They haven’t had a record in the charts since 1993 but they are still hugely popular – and not only with fans who’ve been around since the Swinging Sixties.

As they prepare for a new UK tour Bobby spoke to me from his home on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border about the band’s longevity, the personnel changes that have taken place over the band’s 50-year career and why their gig at Buxton Opera House may be better than ever.

Buxton is the first date of the tour so the group will have a production day 24 hours before they play in Derbyshire.

“We’re going to fine tune the show a little bit, make a few alterations and hopefully improve it. It gives our technicians time to settle in and see what lighting they’re going to use. They always surprise us with some new effects.

“It also gives the sound guys time to try out the new mixing desk that they’re using. We haven’t had a production day for a while so this will make the show even better.”

The Hollies will also be at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham.  Bobby is disappointed they won’t be at the now closed Assembly Rooms in Derby where they have played to enthusiastic crowds in the past.

Bobby with vocalist Peter Howarth

BOBBY WITH VOCALIST PETER HOWARTH

Anyone who goes to a Hollies’ show will hear many of the hits which entered the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. As Bobby admits, that’s why the fans go to see them.

“We’re not fools – we know what they want. We’ll surprise them with a few newer things. There’s a song that our singer Peter and I wrote called Priceless and he just does that by himself. We put it in two or three years ago and the regulars want it in all the time. If we drop it there’s a commotion.”

So what is the typical audience for a Hollies’ gig?

“We’ve obviously got the survivors who’ve grown up alongside us. You get a few younger ones, budding musicians who want to know where the early stuff came from and how we started.

“You get questions at the stage door sometimes and I’m always happy to answer those because I like to encourage young talent. I find it quite uplifting to see youngsters coming up with the talent to play and master an instrument and move on hopefully to being professional musicians.”

Robert Hartley Elliott was born 8 December 1941 in Burnley, Lancashire. In his mother’s grocery shop he would drum on an assortment of empty containers until he paid £2 for his first snare drum.

He was mainly into jazz and was influenced by drummers such as Earl Palmer who played on recordings by Little Richard, Gene Krupa, Ronnie Verrell and Kenny Clare.

Bobby got to know Verrell and Clare well. He even has one of Clare’s drum kits that he played on many hit records including Chris Farlowe’s Out of Time. Bobby has no fewer than seven kits in his barn.

The Hollies' first line-up

THE HOLLIES’ FIRST LINE-UP

Bobby played in a couple of bands before joining The Dolphins which featured Tony Hicks. When The Hollies needed a guitarist they approached Hicks who insisted that Elliott should be the group’s drummer.

The pair have worked together ever since. They became related when Bobby married Tony’s sister Maureen.

The Hollies were spotted at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and their recording career began at Abbey Road Studios in London.

They scored their first British top ten hit in 1964 with Stay and followed that with Just One Look, Here I Go Again, We’re Through, Yes I Will and I’m Alive which became their first UK number one.

Vocalist Allan Clarke and singer-guitarist Graham Nash had formed The Hollies and the line-up was completed by bass player Eric Haydock, Hicks and Elliott.

The band pioneered three-way vocal harmonies and were recognised as innovators.

Nash later left to form the supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash. Clarke left a couple of times before returning until he had to stop singing because of poor health towards the end of the ‘90s.

Bobby pays tribute to him: “He was a joy to work with, great songwriter, great harmonica player. He wrote a song called Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress that was number one in the States. He wrote that with Roger Cook. I owe him a great debt of gratitude for that.”

“Fortunately we didn’t get involved in any scandals.”

After Clarke’s retirement the group brought in former singer of The Move Carl Wayne. He died from cancer in 2004.

In the early days The Hollies always gave the impression of being a clean-cut group who didn’t resort to excesses normally associated with pop stars.

“That might be something to do with our first manager who was a tailor!” says Bobby. “Fortunately we didn’t get involved in any scandals. I don’t recall throwing any televisions out of hotel bedroom windows although I do recall somewhere in the mid-west of the States going to bed one night after quite a few drinks and seeing an upright piano balancing on the end of a diving board. We did have our moments.”

Since the early days The Hollies have taken on a sixth member, keyboard player Ian Parker who joined the band in 1991.

The Hollies now

THE HOLLIES NOW

In the 1970s they used orchestral arrangements on some of their songs. He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother which featured a young Elton John on piano included strings and when they performed the song live they toured with musicians from the Manchester-based Halle Orchestra.

“It was quite successful I suppose but it was expensive and technically it was difficult to get a good sound from the stage through to the audience with all those violins, cellos and whatever else,” says Bobby.

“It was costing us a fortune. Fortunately the synthesiser and string machines arrived. Our first keyboard player was a guy called Pete Wingfield. Over the years we’ve had various keyboard players and hence we’re not five but six.”

It’s difficult to believe that the current line-up has been the same for the past 12 years. Hicks, Elliott and Parker line up alongside former Mud bass player Ray Stiles, guitarist Steve Lauri and vocalist Peter Howarth.

Bobby outlines Howarth’s contribution to the group: “He’s a guy who doesn’t know how to sing out of tune. That guy has perfect pitch. Although we don’t see much during the show he’s a fantastic guitar player as well. He’s a lovely lad and a joy to work with.”

Bobby is keen to point out that The Hollies’ team is like a family: “There’s always a great atmosphere backstage. The crew and technicians are part of the family. There’s always that buzz, there’s always chuckling and stories. That radiates through to the audience when it comes to show time.

Bobby in his trademark hat

BOBBY IN HIS TRADEMARK HAT

“The great thing about our show is that it’s just us – there’s nobody else in that theatre, only people connected with the Hollies. It’s our home for the day. It’s something you don’t want to give up. It’s very special and it’s a great privilege to be still doing it.”

Drummers are generally considered to be eccentric but not Bobby, although he admits he is a bit different because he writes poetry and is into ornithology, drawing and painting. He has kept a diary since he was a schoolboy and is currently writing his memoirs.

He can usually be seen wearing a hat, a habit he took to in his teenage years.

“I never really had hair. I started to lose it when I was about 17 or 18. Then by the time the band got going it was cool to wear a hat. It’s a trademark now.”

After the UK tour ends The Hollies will go to Australia and New Zealand in the new year for a month. Smaller tours of Germany and Norway follow.

Two of the group’s albums, Evolution and Butterfly, are being re-released on vinyl as the popularity of the band, inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, continues.

The reason they’re still playing, according to Bobby, is because they enjoy it and don’t want to Stop Stop Stop: “If these Hollies gigs weren’t fun we probably wouldn’t be doing them because we’re not skint.

“It’s still a joy to do and as long as the old body and mind hold up and, more importantly, people want to come and see us, we’ll do it.”

* This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of Country Images magazine

Ken Dodd: a master class in comedy

ken-dodd-newFor more than 60 years Ken Dodd has been spreading happiness – “the greatest gift that I possess”, as he sings in his theme song. Now, at the age of 88, the man named as a living legend who once sold out the London Palladium for nearly 11 months is preparing to return to Nottingham where he made his professional debut in 1954.

Speak to anyone who has met Doddy, with his characteristic unruly hair and protruding teeth, and they will tell you he is genuinely funny and a lovely man. After speaking to him for three-quarters of an hour I can confirm that.

My conversation with Ken Dodd was not just an interview – it was a history lesson, a reflection on how good life is and a master class in comedy.

You’re convinced when he says he loves every second of his work. You never doubt him when he says audiences come first and that British audiences are the best in the world.

The only complaint I have ever heard about Doddy is that his shows go on so long that people miss their last bus home. But in typical fashion Ken announces: “I don’t do long shows – I give good value.”

Our chat was punctuated with laughter as he peppered off anecdotes about his career in the same way that he fires off gag after gag during one of his stage performances.

Ken is quick to reminisce about playing in the East Midlands and recalls being on the bill of the Grand Theatre on Babington Lane, Derby. It closed in 1950 and is now the May Sum restaurant.

“My mother used to say to me ‘Kenny, I don’t care where you go as long as you wear a clean shirt’.”

On the bill were the Egyptian dancers Wilson, Keppel and Betty. “I think everybody’s dad and uncle does an impersonation of Wilson, Keppel and Betty when they’ve had a few glasses of beer. They were probably the most famous variety act of all time.

“I played the Assembly Rooms in Derby regularly – there was a wonderful stage door keeper who always looked after us. He was a lovely man.

“I reopened the Theatre Royal in Nottingham after it had been refurbished (in 1978). I started next door at the (now demolished) Empire in 1954. That was my first professional job. Up until then I learned my trade going round the clubs. My mother used to say to me ‘Kenny, I don’t care where you go as long as you wear a clean shirt.’

“Anywhere there was an audience I wanted to do a show for them. I started telling jokes when I was about 14 or 15 and I learned my trade as a comedian, playing all the little halls.

“I’ve got the best job in the world – I only see happy faces. I only see happy people.”

Portrait of Ken Dodd by David Cobley, capturing him in a theatre dressing room, which was hung as a permanent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Ken Dodd by David Cobley, capturing him in a theatre dressing room, which was hung as a permanent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Ken praises the audiences who go to see his shows. He never resorts to telling blue jokes.

“Audiences want to be entertained. You learn how to love an audience, you learn how to respect an audience and you learn how to play an audience.

“You learn what an audience wants. Remember – they’re paying you a great compliment by being there and therefore you must respect them. You don’t insult them or make them squirm by telling blue jokes. My job is to make them happy. I like to see happy people so I sing happy songs and I tell happy jokes.”

Kenneth Arthur Dodd OBE was born on November 8, 1927 in Knotty Ash, Liverpool. His father Arthur was a coal merchant and a musician.

“We sang a lot in our house because there was no lock on the bathroom door!” says Ken.

Just across the road was St John’s Church: “I was in the church choir for years – until they found out where the noise was coming from!”

When he was seven, school friends dared him to ride his bike with his eyes shut. He crashed and received facial injuries which resulted in his distinctive buck teeth.

He left school at 14 to work for his father. “Every week my dad, a wonderful man, would take us to a little theatre – probably not quite as big as the Derby Hippodrome – called the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties. There I saw all the great comedians.

“I saw this advert. It said ‘fool your teachers, amaze your friends, send sixpence in stamps, become a ventriloquist’. So I did.”

“I was also a very intellectual child – I used to read the Wizard, the Hotspur and the Rover, boys’ magazines with stories about great heroes and adventurers.

“On the back page there was a huge, full-page advert from a firm in London called Ellisdon’s that sold itching powder, magic tricks, stink bombs and seebackroscopes. One day I saw this advert. It said ‘fool your teachers, amaze your friends, send sixpence in stamps, become a ventriloquist’. So I did.”

Today his ventriloquist’s dummy Dickie Mint, who became one of his famous Diddy Men after working in the jam butty mines of Knotty Ash, is a popular part of his shows.

After making his professional debut he secured a job at the Central Pier, Blackpool. He has taken his trademark tickling stick back to the Lancashire town every year since.

“The wonderful thing about Blackpool is that people used to come for their holidays. In the Midlands when they had the wakes weeks the entire town used to close down, all the factories, and they came to Blackpool for their holidays. So consequently you played to millions of people in that long season.”

Ken receiving the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend award

Ken receiving the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend award

Many people from the East Midlands still travel to Blackpool to see Ken and this year he will be at the Grand Theatre every Sunday in October.

Over the years people have enjoyed Ken’s singing as well as his comedy. He became a major recording star in the 1960s and his song “Tears” was at the top of the charts for six weeks. It occupies the number ten spot in the Top 20 best-selling records of all time.

His  list of accolades and successes is unmatched: his first season at the London Palladium in 1965 lasted for an unprecedented 42 weeks; in 1993 he picked up the British Comedy Award for a lifetime achievement in comedy; in 2003 the people of Merseyside voted him the greatest Merseysider of all time, ahead of John Lennon and Paul McCartney; in the same year he was the first to receive the living legend award from the British Comedy Society; two years later his portrait by David Cobley, capturing him in a theatre dressing room, was hung as a permanent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London; and in January of this year he picked up the prestigious Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend award.

So how does Ken remember all the jokes he tells in his value-for-money shows?

He says: “An old joke is like an old friend – you never forget them and they’ll always help you out of trouble.”

So what makes a joke funny? “Humour is 50% the words and 50% how you deliver it. As Frank Carson used to say, it’s the way I tell ‘em. If you look at any comedian, it’s 50% his personality and 50% the joke itself.”

Ken firmly dismissed my suggestion that humour has changed considerably since he first started playing pubs and clubs.

“People laugh at things that you would have been put in the stocks for a few hundred years ago.”

“We still laugh at the same things. Thousands of years ago Aristotle and Aristophanes wrote plays about men, women, love, sweethearts, money and power. Right down the centuries, all through the Middle Ages, through Shakespeare, we still laugh at men, women, love, sweethearts, money and power.

“Audiences have changed. Their expectations and wishes have changed. We have a very relaxed psychology these days and people laugh at things that you would have been put in the stocks for a few hundred years ago.”

Although Ken feels humour has hardly changed, he is always refreshing his act and tries to include six new jokes in every show.

“I try to do seven TPM – that’s titters per minute. In the 60 years that I’ve been a comedian I’ve never done the same show twice because every audience is a different permutation of people. You get a different mixture of people in an audience so therefore your act, your timing, your jokes and the way you do it is different every show.”

There are no secrets where Ken is concerned – he has no qualms about describing how he puts his act together.

ken-dodd-hair“A comedian’s act is like a kaleidoscope of comedy. The first 30 seconds are vitally important because you have to make friends with the audience, let them make friends with you and let them know that you’re going to try to make them happy.

“So your first few jokes are always ‘hello’ jokes.  Such as ‘By Jove, what a beautiful day for jumping off the top of Blackpool Tower, holding your granny’s corsets over your head and saying how’s this for hang gliding!’

“You do a lot of jokes about the audience themselves. I remember playing the Opera House at Buxton a couple of years ago and when I went on the stage I was amazed: the entire audience were blondes. In the interval the lights went up – they were all sheep!”

Ken takes great care when he tells jokes about two subjects: religion and politics. “If you start saying anything controversial you’re going to lose half your audience. You have to tread very carefully.

“With religion you can tell any joke you like about vicars and priests but you must not criticise the dogma, the actual belief.

“But you can make them see the funny side of politics. I get a big laugh when I say I looked up in the dictionary ‘politician’ and it says ‘a politician is like a baby’s nappy – it should be changed regularly and for the same reason’!”

In 1989 Ken, who has had two long-term fiancées but has never married, was charged with tax evasion. He was acquitted. He has turned it to his advantage and refers to it in his shows.

“You have to dust yourself off and say ‘this is it, by Jove, how tickled I am’ and get on there and do it.”

“Over the years I’ve had to share my earnings with the Inland Revenue. I’ve paid more tax in one year than most people pay in their lifetime. If you succeed in show business it’s very lucrative. I’m a modern Robin Hood: I rob the rich and I keep it!”

Ken has never even thought of retiring although he admits that travelling four or five hours to a show can be exhausting.

“When you get there you don’t feel very frisky but you have to dust yourself off and say ‘this is it, by Jove, how tickled I am’ and get on there and do it.

“I’m what they call in show business stage struck – you love slaving over a hot audience! It’s a wonderful experience.”

* This article appeared in the August 2016 edition of Country Images magazine