FRANK RANDLE AND MANCUNIAN FILMS
See also on this website: Frank Randle Gallery and Frank's Blue Plaque in Blackpool
The following is a chapter written by CP Lee published in Because I Tell A Joke Or Two, ed Steve Wagg, Routledge 1996) At the end of the chapter is a songsheet with a link to the songsheet on pdf.
A darkened stage at the Opera House Blackpool. The audience hushed, eager with anticipation. The small pit orchestra strike up a jaunty melody of the time and a spotlight hits the wings stage left. The overture comes to its cacophonous crescendo and stepping out from the wings ... nobody. The orchestra strikes up again, and again nobody. The audience begin to titter nervously and the spotlight moves slightly from side to side like a bloodhound’s nose. Suddenly there’s a shout from stage right, the spotlight swings its beam towards the coarse northern voice and to the audience’s cheers illuminates a grotesque looking human being, all arms and knobbly legs dressed in full highland regalia, kilt, sporran and a tam o’shanter with a four-foot feather stuck in it waggling obscenely over the head of comedian Frank Randle. It floats backwards and forwards like a question mark as Randle’s head shoots out from his shoulders like a demented chicken. The delighted crowd are coasting along happily, short bursts of laughter carrying along over the top of a general air of amazed amusement. The laughter explodes as Randle lurches towards centre stage and stands, arms akimbo staring at the audience. They’re just beginning to settle down, preparing themselves for whatever Frank’s going to do next when his head snaps back and he glares at them through bizarre rolling eyeballs. Waves of laughter swell across the stalls and balcony like an incoming rip tide. He lets the laughter calm down again before speaking, “By ‘eck, I don’t know where this draught’s coming from - but I know where it’s going.”
And twirling his hips to get his kilt and sporran into full swing he triumphantly pushes his audience into further gales of laughter. And so a typical Frank Randle show begins ...
Born in 1902, and dying in 1957 of TB and alcohol abuse, Randle was the most popular, successful and highly-aid star of his time, yet few people south of Birmingham ever saw him perform or even ever heard of him. He was part of a genre, that of a regional comic (though, as I will argue later, something more than that). By dint of their voices alone the regional comics were uniquely of their community. Some, like Albert Modley, ‘Lancashire’s Favourite Yorkshireman’, were able to cross over to a wider national audience, but Randle, who often referred to himself as an ‘amateur’ never appeared to extend his bailiwick beyond his world of terraces and mills, chimneys and ginnels, whippets and ale houses, Golden Miles and Alhambras.
In this chapter I intend to examine the career of Frank Randle from the perspectives of class and language by analysing not just his stage output but another unique phenomenon of the North West of England, the Mancunian Film Corporation, a fully-fledged independent film production company that produced movies from 1928 to 1955. Going without West End release, or even national press coverage, Randle’s movies for Mancunian, dating from 1940 to 1953, were ‘bigger box-office attractions than contemporary Hollywood movies starring Flynn, Dietrich or Robert Taylor’ (Montgomery, 1954).
Mancunian Studios, Rusholme
So who was Frank Randle?
He started life as Arthur McEvoy, became Arthur Twist, then became Frank Randle. To his adoring fans he was King Twist, with his yacht moored off Blackpool South Pier, his Lagonda sports car, and mansion on the highly select Lytham Road. To cultural historian Jeff Nuttall he was the personification of Loki the Norse god of mischief; to John Fisher he resembled “the Trickster archetype of the American Indian” (Fisher, 1973). He was an instinctive anarchist, permanently at war with all forms of authority, be they Chief Constables or Theatre Managers, whilst he was riding high on earnings of a £1,000 a week. Three decades before rock drummer Keith Moon’s ‘wild man’ image was generated through his antics on tour with The Who, Randle would regularly destroy his dressing room with an axe whenever he took umbrage at some snub, real or imagined. Manic and uncontrollable, he occupied a realm of the senses based on earthiness, pleasure and a basic honesty about the human condition that despised hypocrisy, cant and humbug. On one memorable civic occasion he was invited as guest of honour to a Lord Mayor’s banquet. Jeff Nuttall takes up the story:
“ ... The mayor steps forward to greet him.
‘ Mr Randle, may I say how honoured I am to extend a heartfelt welcome to you, our most distinguished citizen.’ People are relaxing now. The smiles become real. He is sober and collected. There will be no scene.
‘ Thank you Mr Mayor. However, I must insist the pleasure is mine entirely. It is an honour indeed for a troupe of humble players to enjoy the full panoply of civic hospitality. Shall we move into the banqueting chamber?’
‘ One moment, Mr Randle. This is my wife.’
‘ Well that’s your fucking fault owd pal.’” (Nuttall, 1978, p 99)
Here was a man who burned down a hotel where he’d received bad service, fired a loaded revolver at a recalcitrant extra on a film set, hired a plane to bombard Blackpool with toilet rolls after an obscenity conviction. A man who was truly mad, bad and dangerous to know and yet adored by his audience. As far as the public were concerned he couldn’t put a foot wrong. If he refused to go onstage for whatever reason (usually drunk and incapable would do) the fans would forgive him, get their tickets refunded and go and see him the next time. How could this man who, if heckled, would hurl his false teeth at the offending miscreant, command the attention and respect of those he courted as his peers (ie the audience)?
Randle in the mirror (still from Somewhere on Leave, 1942)
A simplistic answer would be that Randle was a very good comedian who drew on a variety of comic characters to amuse his audience. A more complex answer would be that Randle was, to put it basically, ‘the people’, he was his audience, or, at least, a manifestation of its mythical signifiers; his culture in microcosm; a mirror that reflected the industrial working classes’ spirit of the time. For that culture was universal and not restricted to a language ghetto, a dialect barrier of regionalism as it were. It is a misconception to imagine that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play south of Birmingham. On several occasions promoters attempted to launch Frank on the West End stage in a bid to gain him national stardom. Most notably, Sir Oswald Stoll, who had the misfortune to watch Randle crash and burn at his expense when the sophisticated West End audience found Frank’s randy old hitchhiker persona vulgar and unfunny, and in 1952 impresario Jack Hylton had the same experience with a bizarre production entitled Televariety. This must have seemed like a stroke of genius when it leapt from the former bandleader’s over-fertile imagination, television’s taking punters away from the theatres, what to do? Put the television in the theatres, or at least combine the two. So we have the hit TV show, What’s My Line, hosted by Gilbert Harding, live on stage, punctuated with sketches from Randle’s Scandals: Frank and his crew from up North. To say the critics slaughtered this ill-conceived turkey would be an understatement and the West End audiences stayed away in droves. Inevitably the show was a financial disaster and closed after two weeks. What happened next, however, is highly instructive. Taking advantage of a last-minute cancellation, Randle moved his troupe into the Metropolitan, Edgeware Road with a hastily-improvised show called The New 1952 Scandals and played to packed, enthusiastic houses. The Stage noted:
“Down at the Met, up in Manchester, almost everywhere else you like to
mention, ordinary decent people, who in their unsophisticated way keep the music
hall alive, seem to have the advantage of recognising a good thing when they
see it, and of not being afraid to let themselves go.” (Fisher, 1973)
Noted critic Hannen Swaffer caught Randle at another foray South, at the Kingston Empire:
“I have seen many fine performances in over thirty years of theatregoing and my favourite performances are as follows, Wolfitt’s Lear, Olivier’s Othello, and Frank Randle’s Buttons.” (Mellow, 1982)Rather than this being an example of Randle ‘crossing over’ as was achieved by other ‘regionalist’ or ‘ethnic’ comics like Modley, Harry Lauder, or Arthur Lucan as mad Irishwoman, Old Mother Riley, I would argue that it just goes to confirm why he never could.
What Randle achieved at the Met or the Empire was an art of consolidation through recognition. He held up a mirror to an audience who recognised a universality of truth. Disregard the physicalities of flat, shifting vowels and glottal stops, between Brigante inflected Lancastrian pronunciation and the Norman French inflections of East London cockney, dialect didn’t matter in the domain of the tribal shaman, the tribe in question consisting of what the Stage critic called ‘ordinary decent people’ with their ‘unsophisticated ways’, ie the working class. It was the middle classes that had problems relating to Randle. The freshly-minted petty bourgeoisie prim and proper in their polite, suburban semis, reacting with horrified distaste to the antics of the Trickster King Twist.
CINDERELLA Oh Buttons - Thwarted again!
RANDLE, AS BUTTONS Never mind lass, I’ll open a window.
CINDERELLA Oh, Buttons, have you ever been thwarted?
BUTTONS Nivver stop love, nivver stop. It’s this gassy ale ...
(Buttons then blows a long, low note on a bugle at the end of his passage)
For this particular exchange Randle was fined five guineas for obscenity and lewd behaviour, by those upholders of middle-class, moral probity, the local magistrates.
Randle, of course, could be ‘enjoyed’ by the middle class, only it had to be done away from home in the darkened privacy of a theatre or cinema. There develops a kind of ritualistic function to the attendance at Hulme Hippodrome or Blackpool, a kind of pilgrimage to Lourdes in reverse. You work all year then take your break in a boarding house by the sea where you can ritualistically dip your feet in the dirty waters of Frank and he blessed by his presence secretly as one of the 2000 other souls who’ve come for benediction, for that brief moment, unlaced, cut loose from the confines of your expected behaviour. Back to your roots, laughing with the rest at what Frank dares to name, for Randle is Frank by nature as well as name and Frank’s function in the ritual is to allow his audience a brief dalliance in the garden of earthy (sic) delights. Middle or working class, it didn’t matter, Frank was there to show you from where you came, to where you were going, and the bits in between.
Jeff Nuttall claims with some justification that,
“So cruelly oppressed is the mind of the Northern worker, so deeply stained with the guilt and humility which is the means and the effects of subservience, that, once removed from his own hearth, his own street, his own neighbourhood, he imagines himself surrounded by hypercritical strangers.”
Nuttall (1978, p 59)
Social life for all classes during Randle’s life was rigidly bounded by ritual and order, proprieties had to be observed at all times. Yet it was a schizophrenic set of rules for living by, so much was taboo. People bathed naked in tin baths in front of the parlour fire. In order to get to the outside toilet people would have to pass through the kitchen, everybody knew your (body’s) business. Men employed down the pit, worked naked in their own piss, shit and sweat, in the workplace and the washhouse these basics of human reality manifested themselves in a healthy vulgarity, but once at home, bodily functions were put back where they belonged, unspoken, hidden, guarded and guilty, the domain of small children and geriatrics, the people burdened with a moral legacy of Methodist and Baptist chapel and Sunday school. The explosion of mirth generated by Frank Randle was a much-needed safety valve, not unlike the old tradition of the Lord of Misrule. Nuttall goes on so far as to claim -
“When a celebrity, then, a wealthy and distinguished man, makes it his mission to relieve these tensions he will be more than just funny. He will be adored gratefully by an entire class ...” (Nuttall, 1978, p 59)So what was Randle’s act like? In terms of jokes, paid for by the punch line, there were hardly enough in Frank’s act to last a modern comic like Bernard Manning five minutes. There was certainly no swearing and in comparison to the likes of ‘mainstream’ comedians like Jim Davidson or even a so-called ‘alternative’ comedian like Ben Elton, his material appears totally innocuous. But we must remember to put Frank and his ilk into an historical context and bear in mind that this was in the days when the stage was censored by the Lord Chancellor and Victorian Mrs Grundyism operated throughout the land, hard labour was still the sentence for homosexuality and sex outside marriage was considered as an anti-social act, roughly on a par with manslaughter. There is, it must be noted, one comparable present-day performer who comes close to Randle’s personification of the zeitgeist, and that would be Steve Coogan’s Paul Calf. However, we should bear in mind that Coogan is not a comedian per se and that Calf is a comic persona, the creation of an actor’s craft. Randle was the real thing.
Let us take a closer look. Dressed in outsize, baggy shorts, festooned with a rucksack, bugle and a flagon of beer, hair standing up as if in shock, clutching a hiking stick, Frank Randle would clomp on stage in vastly oversized boots worn on the wrong feet.
“Eee, ‘A’ve walked through Europe, Irop, Earop, Syrup, Wallop,
Jallop an’ me feet are red ‘ot.”The delivery is intoned in
high-rolling cadence, almost, you might dare say, almost like a High Church sermon.
It’s a style of delivery developed by necessity, Frank started performing
before the invention of public address systems.
“A’ve just had a bit of a narrer squeak. Ah were goin’ across a field, there were a bull innit.”This is storytelling, not the staccato delivery of one liners we’ve come to expect from present day comics. Randle is inviting the audience into his mind, allowing them to become privy to his view of their world. And now there is danger in it, a bull is on the loose. The bull is one of our oldest symbols of unbridled sexuality and strength. In our European culture it is both feared and admired, a potent symbol.
“Oooo! It were a fierce ‘un. It ‘ad a couple of prongs on it
as long as this stick!”
He thrusts his hiking stick out at an angle from his groin in a deliberately phallic gesture.
“But it were a damn sight sharper than this ‘un I can tell yer.”
So the shaman transforms his stick to a penis, a real magic wand.
“Aye, it come tuppin’ away at me ...”
‘Tupping’ is old English for copulation, still in use in rural communities. Thing have become even more dangerous. Randle is in danger of being buggered by a bull! The original phallic obscenity is now extended into bestiality.
“I thowt it were apologising the way it kept bowing and scraping away ...”
Randle’s giant boots paw the ground like some cartoon beast, emphasising the implication of tremendous power being forced into subservience - a hint of the working classes?
“Aah shooed it away wi’ me ‘andkerchief ...”
The delivery is drawn out on the opening syllables almost like a yawn. The old hitchhiker’s not a man to be phased by a rampaging bull. He flourishes a large, spotted handkerchief.
“Oh ...” Dawning realisation ... “It’s red ...”On stage, panic, confusion and flailing limbs. “It made it a damn sight worse. By gum did I pick ‘em up. I fairly sizzled. I catched up wi’ a rabbit. I’d a passed it only it got between me legs.”Another signifier of fertility, the rabbit, unbridled procreation, getting in the way, right there between Randle’s legs.
“Ah sed to it, ‘Eh, come on. ‘urry up or else get outta road.
Ah sed let somebody run as can.’
“Ayeee! Ahm the grandaddy of all hitchhikers, Ah’ll be 82 in a couple o’ days. Ah’m as full of vim as a butcher’s dog, Ah’m as lively as a cricket.”‘Lively’ mutates into a belch, a piece of vocal horseplay that will increase as Randle keeps swigging from his beer flagon. The belch in Northern humour is a signifier for the hard drinking man, but Randle’s personification is not the perfected observation of, say, comics Freddie Frinton or Jimmy James. They played happy go lucky drunks, more like your uncle at a wedding when he’s had one too many over the odds. Randle’s volcano like eruptions are more menacing, bordering on aggression. Randle plays his belching like an instrument, and, as so often in his real life, it acts as a precursor to potentially lethal violence.
“Ah’ll tek anybody on.”
The instantly recognisable bombast of the bar room braggart. “Ah’ll
tek anybody on at me age or height --- dead or alive --- An Ah’ll run ‘em,
jump ‘em, walk ‘em, fight ‘em ... Aaaah ...”Another
huge belch is forming.
“Ahyeee! An ‘ah’ll play em at dominoes!”The final crescendo of absurdity mingling with self deprecation. “Eeh, 82 an’ just look at these for a pair of legs. I tossed a sparrer for these an’ lost.”Hitching up his enormous hiking shorts with a great clattering of billy cans and paraphernalia what can only be described as a leer passes across Randle’s face. “Ah just passed a couple of tartz ont road yonder. Eeh! They were a couple of ‘ot ‘uns.”
Toothless gums smacking together in delight. “One of them went like this ‘ere to me ...”Hands coyly clasped in lap, head tilted, Randle flutters his eyelashes in some dreadful parody of sexual come-hitherness.
“Ah sed to ‘er, ‘No thanks love ... ah’d rather ‘ave a Kensitas!’”There are two areas of cultural resonance in his statement. One, the men who will steadfastly rebuff wily female sexual advances (the joke being that we know he’s a randy goat), and two, an open acknowledgement of sharing reality with the audience in his use of a current advertisement for Kensitas cigarettes, proving that he is just, simply, one of the people.
And then with relentless inevitability Randle marches on towards
the whole purpose of his act, in fact the whole purpose of
his life - alcohol.
To be precise, beer, the working man’s staff of life, the sure-fire way of
escaping the drudgery of everyday life. His hitchhiker routine is punctuated
with explosive belches and the rocking gait of the drunk. The cocksure bravado
and hyperbole of the saloon bar orator. It’s a characterisation the audience
instantly recognises. Perhaps through Randle there’s a vicarious or voyeuristic
pleasure to be quaffed, a contact high; Puck becomes Punch, and there’s
no harm in a little drink now and then is there?
A series of belches like a car jerkily stalling every few feet, leading to a ricocheting burp that denotes a painful passage through the gut. Relief for Randle and the audience.
“By ‘eck. Ah think ah’d better ‘ave another sup.”
He’s going to go through it all again and does.
A big laugh of recognition. There’s a brewery called Alsops.
Another enormous belch.
“ Yeh’ll ‘ave to excuse BUURP!! By gum , there’s thirty-six burps to the bottle. Ah’ll sup this stuff if it keeps me up all neet. It’s all arms and legs ... No body ... Bururp! Ah sed to the landlord of the pub where Ah got this. This ale’s a bit thin int it?’” “He sed, ‘Aye, so tha’d be if tha’d come up through them pipes.’ He sed, ‘Ah bet tha’s nivver tasted owt like that?’ Ah sed, ‘Nay, but Ah’ve paddled innit.’ Buurp!”Now, after having poked fun at landlords, brewers and himself, Randle can cut loose and drag in the inevitable end product of drinking twenty pints, urine.
“eee, that just reminds me. Ah once sent a bottle like this away to be
analysed. The must ‘ave gorrem mixed up at’other end. They sent me
a postcard sayin’, ‘Dear Sir, your horse is in perfect condition.’ Buurp!!”What
taboos have been touched on during Randle’s routine? Sex certainly, and
not only between male and female, but man and beast. Beer and bodily functions
too, but there remains one last taboo to be broken, one more subject, the granddaddy
of them all, before Randle’s hitchhiker will clomp off the stage and head
for the nearest pub. And that taboo is death.
“Look at me, Ah’m 82. I could jump a five-bar gate ... If it were laid on floor like. Ah were at a funeral the t’other day. Ah were comin’ away from graveside. An’ this chap comes up to me an’ ‘e says, ‘Ow old are you?’ An ‘Ah sed, ‘82’, and ‘e sed, ‘There’s not much point in you goin’ ‘ome then is there/’”If Randle was unique so was the next cultural phenomenon we are about to view. Inextricably linked to Randle it allows us a glimpse of an industrial and social by-product of the 20th Century, that as far as my research has uncovered to date, has no parallel anywhere else in the British Isles, that of a fully-fledged, independent, regional film production company.
Prior to 1900 cinema was the domain of the enthusiastic amateur, but it didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realise the commercial potential of the new medium, and the experimenter/inventor like Birt Acres and William Friese-Greene quickly gave way to travelling showmen like Walter Haggar and Randall Williams, who both took cinema ‘on the road’ as it were, away from rented shop stores, ‘penny gaffs’, as they were known, into travelling booths touring the fairs and festivals of England. Haggar and others began to produce their own short movies for exhibition in their travelling shows. Robert Paul produced his own films which had a permanent home in the Alhambra Variety Theatre, Leicester Square (the site on which the Odeon now stands). The original engagement in 1896 was for two weeks; he remained there for five years.
Manchester too had its pioneers, though no names of the
individuals involved have come down to us, we know that
in 1898 Lama
Films had offices on
Bridge Street in the city centre. Their main claim to
fame was the production of ‘newsreels’ of
the Boer War with titles like ‘The Relief of Mafeking’ and ‘The
storming of Spion Kop”. These films were made by taking the actors on
a tram to Heaton Park, where dressed in an approximation of army uniforms they
would run up and down hills whilst being filmed. Little else is known about
the company except that they filed for bankruptcy in 1915, presumable the First
World War being a little harder to recreate in a public park.
But in 1928 Manchester was to get its own film company that would feed the needs of a public that seemed to have a propitious appetite for celluloid, and it would keep them satisfied for 25 years by providing them with a diet of their own heroes and heroines, the Mancunian Film Corporation which was founded and run by the diminutive figure of Mr John E Blakeley.
John E Blakeley portrait & directing:
J B, as he like to be addressed Hollywood style, entered the business in 1908. It was then that he and his father, who ran a market stall in Warrington, opened up a ‘penny gaff’ in the city centre. By 1910 he and his father had noticed that movies could be big business and they bought the Arcade Cinema in Levenshulme Manchester. After that, picture houses in Northwich, Ardwick, Rawtenstall, and other areas in the north-west became part of the Blakeley circuit and diversification followed during the First War when the family became distributors too, buying and leasing out products to shown on their circuit. Extremely valuable lessons regarding supply and demand were learned during these formative years, lessons of how to gain maximum exposure for your product, eliminating competition, prioritising available resources and, most importantly, so J B claimed, giving an audience what it wants. These lessons would stand Mancunian films in good stead when promoting the career of Frank Randle.
It was more or less inevitable that film production would become the next logical step for J B and 1928 saw the official founding of the Mancunian Film Corporation. The first film to be turned off the production was Two Little Drummer Boys starring Wee Georgie Wood. As with all subsequent Mancunian products J B acted as director, producer as well as being managing director of the distribution company. In an interview in the Manchester Evening News from 1948 he denied that he also wrote the scripts, but admitted:
"I guide the script. I map out the scenes. I want and tell the script writer to fill in the plot.”
By feeding out The Little Drummer Boys to his circuit J
B was able to recoup his expenditure and, with judicious
Mancunian. A whole series of silent movies followed in
As yet, none of these was filmed in Manchester, most of his silent output was shot on location and where studio interiors were needed J B used one of the many available established film studios in London, most notably, the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Talkies arrived in earnest in the U K in 1930 and now J B was able to utilise one of the north’s great assets, comedians.
In 1934 the moderately well-known George Formby was coaxed down south to a studio above a garage in Southall and there for £2,700 J B made a movie called ‘Boots Boots’ in which George sang ‘Why Don’t Women Like Me’, and his wife Beryl danced to ‘Chinese Laundry Blues’. There was a vague plot about gormless George working as a boot black in a hotel, and the rest, as they say, is history. George Formby catapulted himself into the hearts and minds of the British public (but not Frank Randle’s: when told by Blackpool Opera House management that Formby was now top of the bill, a position they’d both shared up to that point, Randle came on stage and declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s perfectly clear that George Formby is the only star of importance in this show, so George Formby can entertain you now.” No doubt George Formby would have been quite willing to except for the fact that Randle had trapped him in a lift backstage. He of course repaired to the pub next door until the furore died down.) To say that Randle loathed George Formby wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it would be an understatement.
The pair of them were born in Wigan, and were roughly similar in age, but there the similarities end. In essence they are the Yin and the Yang of Lancashire comedy, Formby awkward and gormless, Randle sharp and earthy. Formby’s appeal lay in his mawkish sentimentality and local lad charm. Essentially he was ‘safe’. Even if his ukulele tunes were slightly risqué you wouldn’t mind your daughter going out with him. Not so Randle. Randle was dangerous, he flew over a comic edge to bring home to his audiences lessons in life. He trod too near the boundaries of taste.
Continually aware of each others presence on the Northern variety circuit Randle couldn’t have failed to watch Formby’s star rise in the ascendant. Georgie made ‘Boots Boots’ for JB and it catapulted him to national stardom, except for occasional forays South, the majority of which were disastrous, Randle had to be content with a localised, regional stardom.
It would be possible to argue that Randle’s loathing of Formby stemmed from professional jealousy, but I would argue that it goes much deeper than that. Randle was operating from within the realm of a dark secret, a secret that informed and drove his manic intensity not just throughout his professional life, but his personal one too. Randle was illegitimate.
Having a bastard, being a bastard, were two of the great taboos of English society up until the liberalising effects of the late 1960’s began to have their effect on later generations. It was a social stigma with far reaching consequences for the victims. To be illegitimate was to branded as somehow ‘unworthy’, ‘dirty’, call it what you will, to be illegitimate was to be an outsider from the norms of common decency.
This is what drove Randle in his frenzied attacks on the conventions of his times, and, I would argue, it was the guilt and paranoia of his social situation that drew him into his loathing of Formby. Formby the man who had everything, but most of all what Frank could never have - legitimacy.
Randle’s association with Mancunian started during the Second War and it was an association that proved fruitful for all concerned. A string of ‘army’ movies flowed out in quick succession.: ‘Somewhere In Camp’, ‘Somewhere On Leave’, ‘Somewhere in England’, all entitled ‘Somewhere’ in order to confuse the enemy should they invade, so it is claimed. Several writers have put forward the theory that the ‘Somewhere’ series are direct antecedents of the ‘Carry On’ films and an early Granada TV comedy show, ‘The Army Game’, which is currently being rerun on Granada’s satellite channel, Granada Plus.
Both Mancunian and the ‘Carry On’ films used a regular ensemble cast. This establishes a sense of continuity and also provides the audience with a familiar set of faces, and familiarity breeds content. Also common to both movie companies is extensive use of location shooting, certainly, in the case of Mancunian, and, possibly, in the case of ‘Carry On’, a result of economic determinants. Textually, whilst there are similarities in terms of a ‘earthier’, more bawdy content in the oeuvre of each organisation, the more modern, or recent, ‘Carry On’ can be seen to have more leeway in content format than any of the Mancunian’s would have dared, but the groundwork was laid in the Dickenson Road studios never the less.
Granada Television’s ‘The Army Game’ has been cited as an English TV response to the American ‘Phil Silver’s Show’ aka ‘Sgt Bilko’. Whilst there is indeed much truth in this observation it is necessary to point out that 13 years previously the groundwork for a show of this type had been, once again, been laid down by Randle and Blakeley. Their ‘Somewhere’ series was less concerned with an England at war, but more with the effects of conscription on working class young males. Unable to control their destinies they made the most of it with all they had at their disposal, wit and solidarity. These were the elements that ‘The Army Game’ freely adapted. Northern humour was also present in the shape of Ted Lune, gormless sidekick and straightman to many local comics. (‘Are you putting it about that I’m barmy? - ‘Why? Do you need any help?)
The only claim regarding the ‘Somewhere’ films we can make with any certainty is that they taught all concerned exactly how much money there was to be made in movies with a purely regional appeal, and when the war ended and Mancunian and Randle teamed up for the not-surprisingly named ‘Demobbed’ it was to mark a watershed in his relationship with JB.
J B had sold the family cinema circuit, skilfully one could say, to John Brennan who operated a larger one. Directorships of a newly relaunched Mancunian Film Corporation were also offered to the two remaining large-scale distributors in the north of England, Henry Moorhouse and Sir Frederick Emery. A final directorship was offered to the star turn of Mancunian, Frank Randle, and so the company’s success was about as assured as it could be. Frank’s films would get preference on the screens of northern England. Three of Frank’s films were shot for below £60,000 and went on to gross nearly a quarter of a million before the rights were sold.
The reason why they could be made so cheaply was the founding of what became referred to at the time as ‘Hollywood Of The North’, the Mancunian Film Studios, in a disused Methodist Chapel in Dickenson Road, Rusholme, right in the inner-city area of Manchester. And the cost of converting the Chapel into a studio production facility, quoted at £75,000 in the Daily Dispatch, was almost all met by a government film finance grant designed to help the ailing post-war British Film Industry. Their first fully ‘home-grown’ production was ‘Cup Tie Honeymoon’ starring Sandy Powell and costing £40,000. Despite the Manchester Evening New’s review of the movie after its Hollywood style premier at the Deansgate Cinema, “I cringe with shame and horror for everybody associated with this film”, it went on to gross £95,000 at the box office.
J B acted simply as a mediator for Randle’s on-screen antics. A new production assistant was puzzled during her first day on set to find whole sheets of script blank except for a note that said, ‘Frank - Bus’. She finally plucked up enough courage to ask J B which bus, what bus? “No, no”, he replied, “That’s business. Frank’ll come and do his business”. And Frank would too, charged up on Guinness and whisky. J B, a devout Catholic, would make the sign of the cross before each take (not that there were many) and Frank would zoom off into his Trickster universe, parading his ‘amateur’ status for the world, and who cared tuppence, he was King Twist and Cock O’ The Midden, it was him they’d paid to see.
And the character in the movies is very much Randle the
man. We don’t
get the vulgar boatman character, nor grandad (except in one melodrama made
for another company), nor even the old hitchhiker. It’s a younger Frank,
sometimes sporting his teeth, more often than not looking as if he’d
just stepped on the set from the Welcome pub next door, which indeed he usually
had. The ‘real’ Randle, if it is indeed he, seems relaxed and at
home in front of the camera, or indeed he should be. He’s surrounded
by friends and admirers in exactly the same situation as if he was playing
Hulme Hippodrome. The audience know what to expect from Frank and he knows
what to give them for he is their cipher, their mirror. Nobody participating
in this ritual cares a feather or a fig what London or the critics say. The
journey they’re about to embark upon may be alimentary or elementary,
what we can say for certain is that it is transactional, it empowers and emboldens
the audience to revel in their common cultural psychogeographical space and
reality. For Randle the journey is an alcohol-fuelled rollercoaster ride to
a certain early death, neither participant would have it any other way, the
magic works, neither participant gives a toss. Randle has triumphed.
What makes it so hard for us today, viewing these incredibly amateur-looking feature films, with their scenes that never go anywhere, or never end, just tail off, the stationary camera, the improvised dialogue, the appalling sets, what makes it so hard for us today to understand why they were so popular?
I think it’s because we’ve lost the key to nuance. This is not the key to subtlety. Randle was known as the master of the single entendre. We are now so overwhelmed by stimuli and imagery that we’ve lost that ability to decode the vibrations sent out by our older performers. The Trickster by dint of their gift, or daemon, inhabits a realm of consciousness or reality that is a mentally created hyperspace, we, careering on our merry way into the 21st Century, can never, ever experience what is must have been like in the audience for a Frank Randle show; we can only approximate a guesstimate based on flickering ghosts thrown by a cine projector.
Randle was punished for being our spirit of mischief. He was harried and hounded. In particular he was harried and hounded by the Chief Constable of Blackpool, Harry Barnes. A staunch Methodist, Chief Constable Barnes took over the running of Blackpool in the mid 1940s. His first act was to seek out obscure 19th Century by-laws that had been forgotten through the mists of time. Barnes dusted down these anachronisms and set too with a vengeance on a one man crusade to clean up the tide of filth he saw as engulfing Blackpool. His first victim was the band leader Vic Oliver who was arrested for speaking on stage on a Sunday! It was inevitable that Randle and Barnes would eventually have a showdown and the showdown came in the summer season of 1943.
Barnes complained to the management of the South Pier and had Randle’s Scandal’s performance of ‘This Is The Show That Jack Built’ cancelled. The Chief Constable claimed he was acting in response to claims that the show was concerned with ‘unsavoury matters’ and ‘business’. Randle stormed into the Barnme’s office and told him directly what he thought of him. Effectively, from then on, they were at war.
In 1946, again at the South Pier, Randle's show ‘Tinker Taylor’ was brought to a close by the police and local magistrates. They claimed that the show's agreed script had been ‘embellished with gestures that were disgusting, grossly vulgar, suggestive and obscene’ Nuttall, 1978. p83.
He was fined £30, and the rest of the cast were fined £5 and £1
each, depending on the amount of gestures they had made. More trouble, this
time in Manchester, was to follow. He was warned that certain lines had to
be cut from his version of Cinderella. Randle went on and did them anyway.
That night he was able to bribe himself free.
Back in Blackpool in 1952, Chief Constable Barnes had not forgotten his implacable foe and Randle’s Summer Scandals at the Central Pier were the object of much police attention. Randle was in free fall and with hindsight we could argue that he was pushing his performance capabilities to the limit. The Summer Scandals featured Randle as a randy, beer swilling vicar, Gus Aubrey as a thinly disguised homosexual scoutmaster as well as the old standbys, such as the old hitch hiker and the vulgar boatman. Randle was summonsed on four charges of obscenity. Here is what the police objected to.
A silent Chinaman shuffled across the stage. Randle asked
the audience, ‘Is
that King Farouk?’
Cinderella, too Buttons (Randle) - ‘I’d like to do you a favour’.
Buttons - ‘A’d rather have a boiled egg’.
And Cinderella again - ‘ I’d like to talk to you’.
Buttons - ‘It’s nowt to do with me. It’ll be me father agin’.
And finally, ‘There’s a flea loose in the harem and the favourite will have to be scratched’.
Randle was found guilty on all counts and fined £10 on each summons. The rest of the participating cast were also fined as was the theatre manager. As the 1950s moved on, Randle grew wilder and the arrests and summonses more common. It would be too easy to draw a parallel between Lenny Bruce and Frank Randle, they occupy different spheres, different timezones. Bruce, in a sense, was concerned with hypocrisy within American society, Randle was concerned with the common people and his place within their mythology as a healer through laughter. What is common to the two of them is the relentless grinding down of their creative potential by the never ending onslaught of legal action and the negative contribution this made to their states of health and well being. Both of them were outsiders consumed by society. In essence they functioned as ritualistic scapegoats.
Here is Frank Randle’s weary response after being busted once too often, addressed to his audience, as he sat on the edge of the stage:
“Ladies and gentlemen, you have seen that the little show we have presented
for you this season has been under a great deal of criticism. You have seen that
certain citizens, some of them quite eminent have seen fit to call our performance, ‘filthy’, ‘obscene’, ‘offensive’,
and that may well be their opinion, but I come to you ladies and gentlemen and
ask you to be my final judges. I am, like you, a simple man, born of simple folk,
a man of the industrial north of England. My pleasures are simply - My packet
of Woodbines, my glass of Guinness. The simple joys of the seasons. Simple people
of our kind understand the facts of life in a way that many of our critics don’t.
You will know that my little bits of fun are founded upon the facts of life and
because you understand life and the realities of life - I ask you to be my judges.”
(Nuttall, p 84)
Here, in Randle’s own words are the credo of non-conformity inherent within the Trickster/Shaman performer, whether they be of the North or South, East or West. Randle’s enduring appeal lies nowadays, very much in our recognition of him as a regional comic. No matter which of his contemporaries we juxtapose him with, he remains essentially Northern. The veracity of this statement lies in the very success of ‘crossover’ artists like George Formby, or Max Miller, who is quintessentially ‘Cockney’, or Southern. Randle’s perversity lies in his stubborn refusal to make regional concessions, undoubtedly he would have been unaware of such concessions, the bailiwick in which he operated was very small indeed, and governed, I dare say, by his awareness of his own uniqueness in terms of the social standing of an illegitimate child in the first two thirds of the 20th Century.
Randle’s triumph lies in the fact that as a participating director in the Mancunian Film Company he was able to steer his particular view of a specifically localised frame of life into financial success. Possibly it was his distrust of all things not directly concerned with him and the needs of those closest to him that brought about his enforced regionalism. Whatever the circumstances, it was the stigma of his early years and his subsequent championing of the causes of the working class in his own area that created his fame and, more importantly, lead to his harassment and possibly even, his untimely death.
The uncredited material in direct quotes is taken from a collection of press clippings, undated and unannotated, lent to me by John E Blakeley’s grandson, Michael. I have credited them where possible.
The transcript of Randle’s stage act is taken from a Regal Zonophone 78 rpm recording issued in 1955, recorded live at Blackpool Opera House.
For more information on the Trickster and Shaman the reader is recommended to look at -
Levi-Strauss, Claude (1968) Structural Anthropology,
Fisher, John (1973) Funny Way To Be A Hero, Frederick Muller Ltd, p 155
Mellor, Geoff (1982) They Made Us Laugh, George Kelsall, Littleborough, p 85
Montgomery, John (1954) Comedy Films, George Allen Unwin
Nuttall (1978) King Twist, A Portrait Of Frank Randle, Routledge
PS Here is a Frank Randle Singalong songsheet which was featured on the Homepage of itsahotun.com in April 2012. It is available on pdf (CLICK HERE)
This page updated: 23.08.2013