28 August 2014

A letter to the Guardian

Michael Billington, writing today for the Guardian's "A book that changed me" feature, chooses Kenneth Tynan's He That Plays the King, an early collection of pieces by the great theatre critic and essayist which includes his portrait of the comic Sid Field.

You can read the full article on the Guardian's website here, but as cowriter of Freddie Davies's recent autobiography Funny Bones it was one small detail which leapt out at me - and may well have struck those of you who've already read Freddie's book.

Billington writes that Tynan
... has a priceless gift for getting to the heart of a great performance and for capturing the timeless appeal of physical comedy. Reading his account of Sid Field and his appearance as a figure of aged decrepitude with an uncontrollably rotating right hand, you realise that this is the ancestor of the gag about the helplessly shaking, plate-carrying waiter in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors.
I doubt whether it will be deemed important enough to publish, but I immediately felt impelled to compose a letter to the Guardian as follows:
Michael Billington describes a hand movement of the comic Sid Field as the "ancestor of a gag" in One Man, Two Guvnors (A Book That Changed Me, 28 August).

In his autobiography Funny Bones, Freddie Davies asserts that Field's mannerisms were borrowed in their turn from Davies's grandfather Jack Herbert, a comedian to whom Field played straight man in the 1920s. If Field's influence does indeed live on, perhaps now is the time to give credit to the forgotten man who taught him.
The full story of Jack - or as full a version as Freddie and I have been able to piece together - can be found in Funny Bones. And early on in the book, describing his grandfather's act, Freddie takes some pains to stress the importance of Jack Herbert's stage mannerisms to Sid Field.

Why bother, some might say, when the name of Field is all but forgotten? That timely Billington article provides a couple of reasons. Whatever the limitations of the recorded evidence of Field's work, he lives on in Tynan's essay and remains an influence today, whether in the distant example cited by Billington or at one remove through the work of such admirers as Tony Hancock.

Various Sid Field routines were recreated a few years back in a stage show by David Suchet; more recently Suchet presented a TV documentary about the comedian's life and career. The latter may have been largely an exercise in making bricks without straw, but if there is credit to be bandied about, then  the wholly forgotten Jack Herbert deserves at least a share of Sid Field's glory.

This assertion is about more than the partiality of a fond grandson. Jack was in several revues produced by Clara Coverdale which featured Sid as juvenile lead and Jack's feed, and a 1969 Thames TV documentary entitled Applause! Applause! includes several people attesting to the importance of Jack to Sid's later career.

For those of you wanting to know more about Jack Herbert and Sid Field, please permit me to point you first of all to Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by Freddie Davies with Anthony Teague; details here.

That firmly plugged, there is one biography available of Field, written by a man named John Fisher. No, he is not the writer of Funny Way to be a Hero (and the man behind the Heroes of Comedy TV series) which includes a chapter on Field.

This Fisher is, or was, an historian by trade, and while What a Performance! is not the most stylish of reads it's invaluable nevertheless. Alwyn Turner has its measure:
... the joy of this book - despite the less than gripping narrative style - is in the research: John Fisher interviewed all the key survivors who'd known Field, including his straight man Jerry Desmond, before it was too late. It's thus an essential text in the history of British comedy.
Common to both Fisher books, however, is the fact that Jack Herbert is mentioned only in passing, and neither author alludes directly to the issue of Field using Jack's mannerisms. So I have been very aware, working with Freddie, of the significance of including his grandfather's story within the larger tale of Freddie's life and career. Not a trace of Jack's act survives on film, but the testimony of a surviving brother of Jack's plus Freddie's own memories and a few scraps of Jack's own writing helped flesh out my research in Colindale.

And whether or not the Guardian deems the issue of long-ago comedians' credits worthy of its letters page, I have no doubt it's a story which needed to be told, and I feel privileged and proud that Freddie entrusted me with its telling.


Freddie Davies will be talking about Jack Herbert at the British Music Hall Society's 15th Celebrity Luncheon at the Lancaster Hall Hotel, Bayswater on Sunday 31st August. The event, hosted by Roy Hudd, is already sold out but you can read a piece about Jack Herbert written for the BMHS magazine The Call Boy here.

Alwyn Turner's comments on What a Performance! by John Fisher can be found on his trashfiction website here, part of a summary of the merits of eight comedians' autobiographies and biographies. (For the five I have read, at least, he is right on the money in every case.)

Buy Freddie Davies's autobiography Funny Bones from amazon (paperback) or direct from Scratching Shed Publishing (paperback or limited edition hardback). Read an extract here.