17 September 2014

Review on Chortle

Steve Bennett's review on comedy website Chortle,  here, describes the earlier part of Funny Bones as "an evocative, down-to-earth account of life for a jobbing comic at the time", going on to to praise the book's "vivid description of the scene of 50 years ago ... [it] paints an interesting picture, especially in later chapters, of a old-fashioned trouper."

Here's the full review:  
Unless you are of a certain age, the name Freddie ‘Parrotface’ Davies is unlikely to mean much to you. But the identifying nickname inserted between his given names means that, unless he’s a WWE wrestler, he could only possibly be a variety-era entertainer.

But those who do know the name will immediately conjure up an image of a wide-eyed innocent gazing our from beneath a Homburg as he spluttered, lisped and whistled his way through some preposterous nonsense. This quirky alter-ego, Samuel Tweet, made him a surprisingly big star of the the 1960s and 1970s, fronting advertising campaigns and topping the bill, selling out theatres on the strength of his psittacine fame. That’s parrot-related, a new word learned from this book.

Now 77, Davies was born into showbusiness. His grandfather was Jack Herbert, a celebrated front-cloth comic of the early 20th century, whose daft material still holds up today. As it happens, Paul Merton told one of his gags on Just A Minute this very week…

Following in those footsteps, a demobbed Davies earned his stripes in clubland as the Fifties turned into the Sixties. He served his time in Butlins alongside one Dave O’Mahony – who was to become Dave Allen – played ‘some truly awful venues’ and graduated to summer seasons at the holiday resorts.

It’s an evocative, down-to-earth account of life for a jobbing comic at the time. But things were about to change for Davies when, in 1963 at the Northern Sporting Club in Manchester, he embellished an old joke about a budgie by donning the second-hand hat he’d acquired for a different impersonation, and adopting a silly rasp.

It would become his trademark and, judging from this autobiography, something of a millstone. He performed it on Opportunity Knocks the following year, which catapulted him to headlining variety tours, pantomimes and summer seasons, plus plenty of TV appearances to boot. The next section of the book is a catalogue of encounters with now barely-remembered entertainment stars, but again a vivid description of the scene of 50 years ago. He’s got quite the memory for detail.

By the 1970s he had turned his hand to directing pantos, too, and in a less-well known chapter of his life became a producer and manager, including looking after an also-ran double act known as Cheese & Onion.

As a performer, he starred in his own kids’ TV series, which he later reflected ‘really didn’t do me any favours. I felt it branded me a children’s entertainer. which, as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t’. He also wished he'd developed beyond the lucrative caricature as he later fell out of favour. ‘There was a time when I felt that Tweet had become a bit of a monster,’ he writes. ‘I’d lumbered myself with the character and couldn’t really find a way out of it. I mean I didn’t particularly want to finish it as it was still getting big reactions and I was doing well wit it but over time it just fizzled out, fell out of favour.’

It’s not the only time the book sounds a note of, if not quite bitterness, disappointment that his latter career didn’t pan out the way he might have hoped. There’s a sadness in the later chapters, certainly, though he’s far from self-pitying. There is however, frequent flashes of a barely-disguised sentiment that in various situations he knew best but was surrounded by fools or miscreants.

It was in the mid-1970s that Davies noticed his star was on the wane – during a recording of panel show Punchlines with Lennie Bennett. He decided that the audience reaction to his name being announced ‘wasn’t as big a cheer as some of the others got’.

It made him think ‘did I really want to spend the rest of my career watching my name slipping slowly down the bill, in fear of the day it might drop off altogether?’ And he made the decision to pursue the business side more than performing.

All pootled along fine for a while; but in 1984 he made the bad decision to partner with a chancer and a charlatan on a large-scale panto in Leicester – despite reservations – which cost him dear. And, rather out of necessity, he found himself fleeing to the States where he found work as a comic, and later entertainment director, on the fledgling cruise ship business around the Caribbean. He considers it a lucky break as the British summer seasons he might otherwise have returned to were drying up – and it enabled him to re-invent an act, away from an audience who would always demand Tweet.

On returning to the UK, another career change saw him become an actor, and a number of small parts ensued in Heartbeat, Casualty, Last of the Summer Wine, Harbour Lights and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

In 1995, he was also cast in Funny Bones, the love-letter movie to Blackpool-style entertainment directed by Peter Chelsom, who had once been a stagehand on variety shows where Davies had starred. The pair shared a love of the history and tradition of stage entertainment, bt filming was not easy, jeopardising their decades-long friendship. Nor was the Disney-backed movie the blockbuster they had hoped. Davies blamed the studio’s lack of commitment to publicity, saying ‘it all felt a little downgraded… no one really wanted to know’.

He ventured into other businesses such as helping running a village pub – which went down the pan after he released only belatedly that he’d need an entertainment licence and adherence to fire regulations if he wanted to stage the shows he planned… and all the neighbours petitioned against him. He even ended up helping out in a novelty wool shop in Pitlochry, where he gets genuinely irritated by customers who just browse without buying – and even tells one potential customer to ‘piss off’ after he queries inconsistent price tags.

Like a lot of a stories here there’s an undercurrent that Davies feels been wronged by others or the by the system, although he remains a largely sympathetic figure: a battler forced to make the most of the ups and downs life post-fame threw at him.

There’s a lot of detail in the book for those interested in the details of entertainment history, though perhaps a little too much for a casual reader. Yet the book paints in interesting picture, especially in later chapters, of a old-fashioned trouper maintaining some degree of fame yet struggling to earn a living on the outer edges of entertainment. There’s a story at the end, for example, of him earning a pittance in a London fringe theatre.

Is this a tale of how the mighty have fallen, or of a man with comedy in his blood, still entertaining when he can. In truth, a little of both.
You can buy Funny Bones direct from the publishers, Scratching Shed, here - there is a limited edition hardback, only available from them, which Freddie describes as "stunning", as well as a paperback edition which is more widely available. 

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