20 November 2014

The blog post which started it all*

For any Freddie fans who haven't come across it yet, here is a piece I wrote about him in June 2011 for my personal blog, Pismotality, which is mostly about music. I hadn't met him at the time but sent it to him; he liked it, and it ultimately led to our working together on his autobiography, which came out on the fiftieth anniversary of his TV debut on Opportunity Knocks.

In Praise of Freddie "Parrotface" Davies or We'll Always Have Didsbury

This is to draw readers' attention to a DVD which features a selection of clips from films and TV shows in which Freddie "Parrotface" Davies has appeared over the years, including the very first TV appearance of his Samuel Tweet character on Opportunity Knocks from 1964.

He tells a single joke, really a shaggy dog story (appropriately, the setting is a pet shop), but what comes over is the performer's enjoyment in the relaying of what is a fairly simple gag and the sense of his knowing how to work the audience.

That was the moment which "started everything" for the former Redcoat - even though, acccording to an interview with Martin Kelner, it was entirely fortuitous:

I was dying on my arse in Dunoon, where I was supposed to spend the summer, so I escaped from that to the Candlelight Club, Oldham. As it happens, that was dead handy for Opportunity Knocks, which I stepped into when someone dropped out.

I remember I turned up there at the last minute with my own music and they said, 'These are tatty music-hall arrangements.' I said, "What do you want? I'm a tatty music-hall comic."
Boo-boom. I can't remember when I first saw him on TV but I don't think it was then. His familiar comic persona in that black-and-gray Opp Knocks appearance is merely a character in the joke: Davies, with much hat-doffing and donning, is also narrator and pet shop owner.

No: my first experience, lost to memory, must have been of unrelenting Tweet, the exasperated Samuel of the rasping speech impediment and pulled-down homburg (above, the image which accompanied the Buster cartoon strip). Because what I do retain from whatever date is a keen sense of surprise at the moment he suddenly came out of character to reveal a warmer, human side in conversation with Hughie Green in what must have been a later edition of the show.

Opportunity Knocks or its parent company was about to move premises and when he spoke to Green in an entirely different voice about how he'd miss the old studios in Didsbury, it seemed, to my younger self, an act of extraordinary intimacy.

And I suppose that was it, for me: commitment, for want of a better word.

That first consciously remembered experience can be bookended with idly watching a repeat of the Nick Berry vehicle Harbour Lights one Saturday night a year or two ago. Discovering Freddie Davies was the proprietor of the local cafe brought an abrupt end to channel hopping: however fleeting his appearances, and however I felt about the intervening Berrycentric scenes, I just knew I'd have to knuckle down to watch the whole thing.

Why, exactly? The nearest I can put it is that ever since that unmasking in Opportunity Knocks I was aware there was something special about him. Kent tells King Lear:
you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.

Freddie Davies (above, in Funny Bones) may not radiate authority, exactly, but there is something melancholy and profoundly moving about his face, both comic and suggestive of infinite patience: someone who has seen it all, forgiven everything, or at least shrugged at all that has passed before him. A true clown's face, in other words. Come to think of it, he would make a good Fool for Lear, if he hasn't completely retired from the acting which occupied his later career.

I was going to write small wonder that he was picked for the film Funny Bones to play an old comic given a final chance to shine. But his official website makes it clear his casting was no afterthought:
His grandfather, music hall and variety comedian Jack Herbert, toured the country playing in revue and variety until the late fifties and much of Freddie's knowledge and experience was gained by studying many of the great performers of the day from the privileged position of the stage wings. This wonderful grounding and knowledge of the business was invaluable in the development of his future performances. Years later his memory and first hand experience was very useful in forming the basic story line idea and original premise for the critically acclaimed Disney film Funnybones, in which Freddie co-starred with Jerry Lewis, Leslie Caron, Oliver Reed and newcomer Lee Evans.
 Martin Kelner's interview explains further:
[Peter] Chelsom was brought up in Blackpool, which is how Freddie Davies comes to be in his film. Freddie was living in the resort in the 1970s, working on television, in the big northern chicken-in-a-basket clubs, and occasionally directing pantos and summer shows. He was friendly with Chelsom's parents, who asked if he could give their stage-struck son a job. As a consequence, the young Chelsom spent Christmas 1974 in Ipswich, cleaning up after Cinderella's ponies and listening to Freddie's stories of tatty music-hall comics, particularly his grandfather Jack Herbert, whom he always described as a "funny bones act".

"The title of the film and the element that deals with the nature of comedy comes directly from Freddie," says Chelsom. "I've carried it around for 20 years, and wrote the part specifically for Freddie. 
My first glimpse of him when originally seeing Funny Bones in the cinema - I'm not even sure whether I knew he was appearing in it - was like bumping into an old friend.

And maybe that's the easiest way of understanding it - and it certainly is a useful shorthand for explaining the appeal of that select band which includes Laurel and Hardy and Peter Glaze: as children these people are our friends, provide diversion and happiness, and we are forever after in their debt.

The DVD, entitled Freddie (Parrotface) Davies: A Life in Laughter, contains a substantial chunk of Davies' moments in Funny Bones. In one sense you could say it's unnecessary, as the full film is cheaply available elsewhere, but the clips seem to convey the essence of the story.

The disc also contains clips of appearances on The David Nixon Show (1972), where Davies is billed (according to imdb) as "assistant", clowning around Ronnie Hilton (possibly A Windmill ... had been sung as a live mouse features) and holding his own against Jimmy Logan. And then there is a later appearance as Tweet in a park, possibly slightly slanted towards an adult audience, which would make sense of Davies' remark in voiceover that his act seemed to be regarded as old fashioned by the eighties.

But unlike some other comics who fall from favour there is a happy conclusion. Clips follow from acting gigs, including one in naval garb as Joanna Lumley's frustration in Hugo Blick's Sensitive Skin. There is also  a West End appearance in the RSC's musical production of The Secret Garden. Fittingly, however, Davies chooses to end the DVD programme with Samuel Tweet, innocent and joyful, in his panto-prime.

The DVD can be bought on Freddie Davies' official site (link below). It has to be pointed out that it's rather roughly assembled: no crossfading from clip to clip or any nonsense like that. Starwipes? Fuggedaboutit. But where else are you going to get the opportunity to see highlights of this clown's career darting merrily in front of your eyes? And for those (like me) wanting more information than the broad outline provided by his linking narrative, I note the happy information on his website that
Freddie is currently writing his memoirs which he hopes to get published soon, so watch out for its (escape) release in the near future.
I'll buy it, for one, Mr Davies ... I have measured out my life not in coffee spoons but comedians' autobiographies. (A remaindered paperback of Bud Flanagan's My Crazy Life sighted in Motherwell Woolworths in the mid sixties was the first, since you ask.) But for readers who can't wait, click here for the full version of that piece by Martin Kelner, which makes reference to the ups and downs of his career. Kelner admits he was expecting to write
one of those where-are-they-now tales that ends with the tragic former star straightening his toupee and shedding a tear for the death of variety. 
but in fact it catches Freddie on the brink of a new acting career in the mid-nineties, just as Funny Bones is about to be released in the UK.

Which seems a happy moment to end this post. And just as the DVD closes with a panto performance in Tweet mode, here is Samuel on song with his singular sibilants. (Sorry, I'm not sure how to render them phonetically.)

Samuel / Freddie, I salute you. And whatever objects malign Fate may hurl in the future, we'll always have Didsbury.

You can buy Freddie's DVD here; the book which I went on to cowrite is available from amazon here or direct from the publishers (who also offer a limited edition hardback) here.

More details about my collaboration with Freddie can be found in a piece I wrote for Bookbrunch, which can be read here

* Freddie had already been working on his memoirs for some twenty years before I came on the scene. But "The blog post which proved an inadvertent calling card and provided a boot up the jacksie for its subject" did not, I felt, have quite the same ring.