For most Americans, their knowledge of British comedians begins with Monty Python and ends with Benny Hill.
A pity, since the British Isles have produced a plethora of terrific music hall comedy performers such as Spike Milligan, George Formby, Morecambe and Wise, and Arthur Askey (to name just a few).
Many moved from the music hall stage into movies, radio, and television which gives us an opportunity to share in their unique brand of humor 50, 60, and even 70 years later.
Arthur Askey was one such versatile performer. Born in Liverpool in the summer of 1900, he served in WWI and occasionally performed in entertainments.
At the age of 24 he joined a concert party and began touring the music halls . . . essentially the British version of Vaudeville. There he performed silly jokes, funny songs, and even sillier dances.
But it was in 1938 that he made his big splash as co-star (along with Richard Murdoch) of BBC radio’s first regular comedy program, called Band Waggon. Unfortunately, very little of the pre-war BBC broadcasts were preserved, and so there isn’t much to direct you to.
The Internet Archive has one small collection of 1940s BBC radio programs which includes a single episode of Band Waggon HERE. This collection includes several episodes of It's That Man Again and Much Minding in the Marsh.
Band Waggon propelled Askey and Murdoch into the movies during the late 1930s and early 1940s with such offerings as:
- I Thank You (1941) .... Arthur
- The Ghost Train (1941) .... Tommy Gander
- Charley's (Big-Hearted) Aunt (1940) .... Arthur Linden-Jones
- Band Waggon (1940) Arthur Askey
We’ve several of Askey’s movies to choose from on The Internet Archive, including:
A strange mix of comedy and suspense, as travelers stranded overnight in a train station learn of a `Phantom Ghost Train’ that plies the rails at night.
In which Askey joins the Army to impress his girlfriend. His mates trick him into believing a sword he finds is Excaliber, and it prompts him to go boldly into battle.
Silly? Well, yes. But that’s Askey’s stock in trade.
Lastly we have a fast-paced and frenetic musical comedy with Askey involved in an Escort Service.
Okay, so he’ll never be mistaken for Noel Coward. Still, these movies are great fun.
Despite moderate success, Askey’s movie career dried up in the late 1940s and he returned to the music halls from whence he came. TV, however, would provide him with a whole new audience in the decade to come.
We’ve an example from his show, Before Your Very Eyes broadcast in 1956. The elements of this sketch comedy show will be familiar to many American viewers, as the format is similar to the early variety shows in the US.
This show even features a Dagmar-like sidekick (see The Original Late Night Variety Show) named Sabrina – whose real name was Norma Ann Sykes. Famous more for her figure than her acting ability, Sabrina became somewhat of a phenomenon in England in the 1950s.
Aircrews of the 1950s dubbed some versions of the Hawker Hunter fighter plane, "Sabrinas" due to two large protuberances on the underbelly of the aircraft . . . a tribute not unlike the Dagmar bumpers on American cars of the 1950s.
As with Dagmar, fame did not persist for Sabrina, although she would appear in a few low budget movies during the 1960s.
The Before Your Eyes show, however, translates quite well for American audiences. Viewers may detect a hint of Skelton, Abbott & Costello, Jerry Lester, and even Groucho Marx in the antics of Askey and company.
The show ran from 1953 to 1958. Hopefully more episodes will surface on the Archive. During the late 1950s Askey would make few more movies, but never matched his earlier TV success.
Askey would work more sparingly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, mostly doing guest shots on other people’s shows. He is fondly remembered as a pioneer in radio, film and television.
Askey died in 1982.