Tuesday, March 03, 2009

My word, has it really been three weeks since I last wrote anything here? Seems that way. Maybe I'm a right old grumpydrawers, but I take a very dim view of bloggers and, worse, paid journalists who write about having nothing to say. It might have been funny and novel once upon a long ago (when children searched for treasure, but found only puppy dogs' tails in the House of Lords, donchaknow), but no more. I've always been of the 'if in doubt, say nowt' school. (UPDATE: I've just been to Matthew Rudd's blog and seen that he's said almost exactly the same thing. Great minds, etc...).

That doesn't, however, account for my recent slackness. Instead, too much has been going on. Work on my third book has been gathering momentum after a very slow start. No, not the biography of Jon 'Gaunty' Gaunt, to be published by a "small left-wing press". There never was going to be such a book, at least not written by me. The mention of it here was an elephant trap that I laid after hearing from various sources that Mr 'Gaunty' was notoriously touchy and litigious. Indeed, one acquaintance of mine had received various cease and desist notices after posting on his blog some mild criticisms of TalkSPORT's erstwhile idiot magnet. So, I thought that it might be fun to test the water. If Mr 'Gaunty' or his lawyers responded heavy-handedly, I was going to string them along for a bit before pulling faces and running away. If an answer came there none, it would be evidence that Mr 'Gaunty' wasn't quite as much of a humourless blowhard as he sometimes seemed. The latter would appear to be the case, so well done to the Coventry massive for not taking the bait. There's almost certainly material there for a nicely critical book, but I doubt I could research something or someone I didn't care about or respect.

Which brings me, neatly enough, to the real subject of book three. When, as a stroppy little leftie teenager, I declared all mainstream entertainers to be agents of Thatcherite evil, there was one old-school comedian for whom I retained a vast amount of affection and admiration. I remember the day that Les Dawson died very clearly indeed. It was 10 June 1993, three days before my 20th birthday, so I was still a teenager and still quite stroppy. However, extended exposure to truly right-on people during my first academic (ha) year at Lancaster University had taught me how boring they were and how entertaining and amusing it was to wind them up. It didn't take much. Just "That Andrea Dworkin - you wouldn't, would you?" was enough.

As was my wont, on that particular Thursday afternoon, I was hanging around at the studios of University Radio Bailrigg. In walked James Masterton (for it was he), who yelled across what we laughingly called the office, "Hey, Lou, have you heard the sad news? Les Dawson's dead" (I should add that Masterton is, for reasons that aren't quite clear even to me, the only person on Earth who can get away with calling me 'Lou'. If anyone else tries it, a gentle but firm correction is forthcoming. I'm Louis or, having attended a single-sex school - albeit a comprehensive, Barfe). I was gutted. Dawson was an overweight northern comedian who'd made it on television after an apprenticeship in the clubs. Bernard Manning ticked all of the same boxes, but after that the similarity ended. Manning was a gag machine - many of them in deeply dubious taste; Dawson was an artist and a wordsmith, and, what's more, every last word he uttered was fit for the ears of families of all races and creeds. Manning sometimes left audiences wondering about his motivation. Dawson never did. His was the comedy of humanity, and a basic kindness underpinned everything he said in pursuit of a laugh. Even his famous mother-in-law jokes can't be taken seriously as examples of misogyny. They're cartoonish, absurd and glorious, and the one who loved them best was his own mother-in-law. For me, Les Dawson has always been in a class of his own.

Fast forward 15 years or so. Having realised what a posturing little tit I'd been to dismiss all old-school entertainers as hideous old farts (some were, obviously), I had made up for my apostasy by writing a celebration of the greats of light entertainment. On handing in Turned Out Nice Again for marking, my publisher, Toby Mundy at Atlantic Books, told me that my next book should be a serious, weighty biography. Obviously, given my enthusiasm for the genre, an entertainer would make sense. Who did I want to do? I suggested Dawson, and, to my delight, he agreed. So, for the last couple of months since the contract was signed, I've been inhaling editions of Sez Les, Jokers Wild, The Loner, Dawson's Weekly, The Dawson Watch, The Les Dawson Show and Listen to Les, in preparation for the serious business of interviewing the people who knew and worked with the great man.

Finally, last week, I hauled myself out of my east Anglian retreat to begin the process, firstly in London, then in Manchester. The Manchester jaunt also enabled me to catch up with old friends and to help save the life of a dog impaled on a spiked gate, which made the travel and effort all the more worthwhile. I won't go into details here, because there'll be no point writing the book if I do and I would be guilty of the most dreadful name-dropping, but all of my interviewees were wonderfully illuminating and have convinced me that this is going to be a wonderful experience. Best of all, they remembered Dawson with great affection and warmth, which is good from my point of view, as I'd get thoroughly depressed spending a year of my life with a wrong'un. By all accounts, he was a lovable, delightful, funny man. What of his supposed dark side? Well, it might just turn out that there wasn't one. We shall see. He had his serious-minded moments, certainly, but does that equate to darkness? I have a very low tolerance of the 'sad clown' cliché and its frequent misapplication.

Before heading to Manchester, I'd had the good fortune to attend the Oldie of the Year once again (I think this was my 11th time). At the risk of sounding like a terrible crawler, The Oldie is a wonderful, idiosyncratic magazine that lets good people (and Wilfred De'Ath) get on with writing. If you've never read it and assume it's a sequence of moans and groans, try and pick a copy up. It's actually a very enthusiastic magazine, in which contributors are encouraged to write about the things they actually really like. The Oldie paid me to write about test cards, and didn't poke fun at me for doing so. The Oldie of the Year ceremony is always a namedropper's paradise, so I shall just give thanks that I was allowed to sit in the corner and gawp once again, and report that toastmaster/TOGmeister Sir Terry Wogan referred to Barry Cryer as Barry Took. This places him in excellent company. Princess Anne once did it, prompting Cryer to reply "No ma'am, I'm the other one".

There was also the far-from-solemn business of Sir Bill Cotton's memorial service at St Martin in the Fields on Thursday. I met Sir Bill a few times - the first being at the launch of his own memoirs in 2000, the second being when I interviewed him at length for Turned Out Nice Again in 2004, the rest being at Oldie functions - and held him in very high regard, as just about everyone who knew him did. Apart from Michael Grade breaking down in very understandable tears, the mood was light-hearted. Sir David Attenborough told the Albanian Eurovision delegation story, while Ronnie Corbett (still, unaccountably, just an OBE) spoke admiringly of Sir Bill's membership of several of the country's most exclusive golf clubs. "Not cheap. Like lunch with Ken Dodd", he observed, memorably. 'Sir' Ron had the awkward job of following the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, who had played the Billy Cotton Band's version of 'The Dambusters March' and a Russian folk song-style rendition of 'Leaning on a Lamp Post'. Almost all of the speakers, including Sir Bill's protege Jim Moir and his friend, the Rev Dr Colin Morris, referred to Sir Bill's love of Chinese food and HP sauce (separately, thank the Lord). I'll be smearing my dinner in sauce brune tonight in his honour. RIP Sir Bill.