Monday 16 February 2009

The George MITCHELL MINSTRELS: Another Black And White Minstrel Show

(#25: 11 November 1961, 8 weeks)

Track listing: Meet The Minstrels (Ring Up The Curtain/Ring Ring Da Banjo/When The Saints Go Marching In/Chicago/You Made Me Love You/Mr Gallagher And Mr Shean/Put Your Arms Around Me Honey/Down Where The Swanee River Flows/When The Saints Go Marching In)/The Good Old Summertime (While Strolling Through The Park One Day/In The Good Old Summertime/Sweet Rosie O’Grady/I’ll Be Your Sweetheart/Little Annie Rooney/The Band Played On)/Alabamy Bound With Al Jolson (Alabamy Bound/Swanee/Is It True What They Say About Dixie?/Carolina/Toot Toot Tootsie)/The Old Ark’s A Moverin’/Western Style (Along The Navajo Trail/In Ole’ Oklahoma/Old Dan Tucker/Country Style/Skip To My Lou/Buffalo Gal)/Your Requests (Singin’ In The Rain/Together/No Two People/My Blue Heaven/Falling In Love With Love)/Ay Ay Ay! (Maria From Babia/I, Yi, Yi, Yi (I Like You Very Much)/When I Love I Love/The Bandit/Cielito Linda/Cuanta Le Gusta/I’ll Si Si Ya In Bahia)/More Stephen Foster Melodies (Hard Time Come Again No More/Gentle Annie/Way Down Upon The Swanee River)/Dry Bones/Goodbye-ee (Tell Me, Pretty Maiden/Put On Your Ta-Ta Little Girlie/Hello! Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend/I Was A Good Little Girl Until I Met You/In The Twi-Twi-Twi-Light/Two Little Girls In Blue/Goodbye-ee)
Of the thousands of viewers who blew the ITV switchboard in February 1968 after watching the final episode of The Prisoner, it is likely that few had seen or remembered Ibsen’s Brand, or McGoohan’s apparently epochal performance as the lead in that same tractacus-as-play on stage in London in 1959. If they had done, they would have sensed the Brand allusions – verging on parody – in the climactic court scene, with Kenneth Griffith’s judge (or “President” as the credits had it) pleading with McGoohan to “lead us – or go.” The original Brand fails as a preacher or a leader because he cannot compromise the one-way bridge he has erected between faith and reason (cf. Kierkegaard); he knows that, because of the original sundering between God and man, the world can never be perfect, yet is driven to make that same world perfect even if no one else is willing to follow him and the whole world, including himself, is destroyed as a result.

There was that same sense of destructive perfection in McGoohan, a man constantly bewildered by the failure of others to see the world and life as he saw and lived it. The Prisoner’s rationale (and spearhead of attack against “rationalism”) is based entirely on freedom, but in McGoohan’s case freedom might have appeared to some to mean freedom to be left alone, to stand apart, to be a pronounced, hugely magnified individual, visible and unmissable in his individuality.

I was born too late and in the wrong place to see that barnstorming Brand, just as I failed to be alive when McGoohan played Starbuck to Welles’ Ahab in Moby Dick: Rehearsed, but as with so many of these life-altering experiences the dream is perhaps more pursuant, more cherishable, than any first hand reality could have been. When we consider McGoohan’s singular role in making television an art – and it is fully arguable that he was instrumental in facilitating that conversion – we have to think of Welles; Number 6 was McGoohan’s Kane, and it didn’t just come back again and again, regardless of what McGoohan went on to do after The Prisoner – he subtly carried on the series’ internal dialogue in the many episodes of Columbo in which he acted and/or directed – but refracted back onto what he had done before; think, as one of many possible instances, of the despairing, growling beast he portrayed in the latter stages of 1958’s Hell Drivers, less a thug losing his grip, more a Lear eviscerating his kingdom, screaming: “I AM NUMBER ONE!”

Nor was Welles absent from the making of The Prisoner; in town to do his bit on Casino Royale, Welles drove over to Borehamwood to visit his old friend – upon his arrival at reception, McGoohan joyfully announced “It’s all right ladies, let him through, genius is in the house!” McGoohan was shooting the crucial “Once Upon A Time” episode at the time and Welles helped out with the direction and made other key suggestions; somewhere there still exist films of dialogue from the 1955 Moby production, long dialogues between Ahab and Starbuck, out to destroy each other but still in the most precious depths of friendship, some of which appeared in suitably altered form in McGoohan and McKern’s variation on Beckett’s Endgame. And there was no escaping – least of all in “Fall Out” – the influence of Welles’ The Trial. But few paid attention to The Third Policeman.

It may seem wearily predictable to retain emphasis on The Prisoner in a career which spanned a jazz-drumming Iago (in All Night Long, with Mingus, Brubeck, Attenborough, Tubby Hayes, the other Beckett – Harry – et al), Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago (the McGoohan-directed film of Jack Good’s musical Catch My Soul), Disney and Cronenberg. But the series – just seventeen episodes, ten more than McGoohan ideally desired – not only raised the bar for television but virtually created it, and Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett, the Pythons and Jim Henson were only the most prominent television innovators who followed his path, knowingly or otherwise (Alexis Kanner in “Fall Out” miming to “Dry Bones” by the Four Lads - Canada sings Canada if we’re talking about a broken social scene - eighteen years ahead of The Singing Detective; and what is Basil Fawlty at the end but an ageing Number 6 locked into a diminishing circular hell of a Village? And as for Number 6’s other unlikely alter ego, Reggie Perrin, the exhausted man who vanishes on a beach and reappears under a different title…well, it could and should go on forever).

And yet it was also a programme which seemed to eat the rest of television as it set up its shop, including itself; contrast the relatively glamorous location shoots and setpieces of the early episodes with the blank childishness of “Once Upon A Time” or the unwinding of the ITC biscuit cutter melodrama spool which occurs throughout “Fall Out,” a piece more or less improvised as it was being shot. It drew some remarkable performances from undervalued actors; Colin Gordon’s two stints as Number 2, for instance, make one regret how badly this fine actor was wasted for virtually all of his career. And there were startling turns by people such as Eric Portman, Mary Morris and Nadia Gray, actors who didn’t make a point of appearing on television. Morris’ Number 2 in “Dance Of The Dead,” with all her foretelling of Thatcher (and astonishingly a last-minute replacement for an unwell Trevor Howard), might still count as the most frightening villain ever to appear on the small screen. Cuddly Patrick Cargill rips “Hammer Into Anvil” apart with something in him that is genuinely terrifying (and which he seldom displayed elsewhere in his long and distinguished career). McKern was famously driven to a nervous breakdown and/or heart attack by the intensity of the “Once Upon A Time” shoots and took a lot of persuading (not to mention a shave and a haircut, two bits) to be resurrected for “Fall Out” a year later, and yet even in his starkest moments there is a bearable lightness which strives to preserve his being.

Number 6, that entirely logical alter ego of Eastwood’s Man With No Name – their eventual and inevitable meeting in Escape From Alcatraz merely underlined that particular hall of mirrors – wants merely to retire from a world of which he has grown tired and finds himself planted in a world which he cannot quite understand, a compulsory retirement stripped of meaningful work in which he is encouraged to settle for less, fit in, comply. He paces every world he inhabits with the fatal impatience of someone unfit to live in any world – or for whom no world is entirely, i.e. satisfactorily, fit. McKern’s bank manager looks forward to the transformation of the whole world into the Village; McGoohan dreams of being the first man to live on the moon. It is telling that one of the few moments of extended peace he finds is in the self-directed “Many Happy Returns,” the first half hour of which contains perhaps a couple of lines of dialogue, both rendered in unreachable foreign – or invented – languages, as well as some of the most sublime images of the British countryside ever portrayed on film, easily comparable with the work of Michael Reeves. The London into which he literally falls – off the back of a lorry, if you will – never quite transcends the nature of a dreamed fantasy; the curious widow who offers him a kindness he had nearly forgotten (McGoohan is very moving in this sequence, as he tries falteringly to thank her), fashion shoots in Hyde Park Corner, the reassuring tones of Donald Sinden, the slightly nightmarish glare of Patrick Cargill. And it all turns out to have been a dream; he is obligingly parachuted back into the Village, the generous widow is the black-badged Number 2, the reverie swims to its graceful end.

Broadly The Prisoner is a story of three halves; he begins by repeatedly attempting to escape before realising that this will get him nowhere; then he attempts to understand and subvert the mechanisms (and mechanics) which run the Village; then his mind evacuates the Village altogether and we are thrust into the dreamed land of Westerns, Danger Man/Avengers pastiches, Number 6 portrayed by a different actor before he ends up, no longer dreaming, in the underground detention centre in which he might have been held all along (however long that may have been – years? A week? Half an hour?). And then he falls out of the bottom of the system. Nothing works out logically; no one – but no one - can be trusted (the woman who wakes up in a replica of her own house and becomes a screaming, gibbering wreck when she finds out where she is turns out to be a candidate for Number 1 – “It was a good idea and you did your best – I’ll stress it in my report”); the Moebius strip is surfed bilaterally; Sisyphus’ stone will be mounted again and again. Democracy is by definition pocket (“Free For All”), information cannot be confused with education (“The General”), the right to dream is almost worth dying for (“A, B & C”).

Or simply a portrait of a fatal purist determined to find out why everyone else is not like him – so 6 being 1 makes perfect sense; in fury, he is intent on creating a society of worshipful clones – or a far simpler portrait of a human being struggling to understand the world and relate to it. Consider how in “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” – one of the most dismissed episodes, but one of the most crucial - Nigel Stock as Number 6 suddenly, in his stout, fiftyish body, becomes everything McGoohan can’t be; he kisses his fiancée passionately (contrast with an eternally tensed up Number 6 who has an inbuilt difficulty dealing with women), his determination becomes focused, he is somehow adult in a way which 6 can never really grasp; thus the second childishness of the playroom and Number 48; the boychild running off with the little child-man, the better to begin a more colourful circle.

Or maybe McGoohan just caught The Black And White Minstrel Show on TV one evening and got irritated. Once again we have effusive (as in “effusion” in the knee) sleevenotes by Derek Johnson – it is beyond remarkable that this man was still the NME’s News Editor until well into the New Pop age – which in their somewhat forced ebullience betray the orders of the strapped down community. “…concentrating on the type of songs which are tailor-made for community or party singing,” “Always easy-on-the-ear, continually provoking memories” (of why they resigned?), “…keep feet a-tapping, to banish cares, and to create an atmosphere of bonhomie and carefree relaxation.” Questions evidently being a burden to others.

Moreover, Johnson is keen to paint a picture of the programme as the world’s greatest achievement: “Few will deny that the “Black and White Minstrel Show” is one of the most generally satisfying and consistently entertaining television presentations ever conceived in this country. Indeed, in one’s assessment of its merits, one could encompass the entire world…”

“The whole world…as the Village?”
“That is my hope. What’s yours?”
“I’d like to be the first man on the moon.”

What to say of the second Minstrels album itself? The musical focus seems to move away from placid accordion strolls towards energetic big band enemas but the concept is hardly less nullifying, if marginally more listenable. On the weakly positive side, Dai Francis seems to have done a bit more work on his Jolson impressions since last time, though by the time we reach his “Toot Toot Tootsie” Donald Duck has once again raised his beak and we get wordless elisions (“WAAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHH!!”) reminiscent of Leslie Phillips slipping off a tea tray and landing in Joan Sims’ bath. Otherwise it largely remains a mystery how such difficult listening could ever have been categorised as easy listening. The Television Toppers girls appear to have attended refresher courses in estuary English with the expected dire consequences; witnessing them plod through the over-enunciated likes of “You Made Me Love You” or “I Was A Good Little Girl Until I Met You” (on the latter they are met by a sinister rising chorus of mass Jack-the-Rippers: “UNTIL YOU MET ME!”) is akin to listening to Margaret Thatcher auditioning for the Nolan Sisters. Their periodic squeals of “Hold me Ti-IGEEEEGHT!!” are unsettling in entirely the wrong way. Meanwhile, the boys chant “MY MY MY MY” or, much, much worse (on “The Band Played On”) “Oom-PAH-PAH oom-PAH-PAH!” and I have to be reminded that “His Latest Flame/Little Sister” and “Tower Of Strength” were riding atop the singles chart at the same time and that this was not the whole story, that the yearnings and intentions of early sixties youth could not be summarised by the verb “spooning” (as heard in the otiose “No Two People”), that “a cosy room” (in the second “My Blue Heaven” to arrive in as many weeks) does not have to be answered by a corny fragment of cod/sub-Shearing Swedish furniture “sophistication.”

When straining to expand their panorama, the Minstrels usually come a cropper; the Latin medley is intruded upon by incongruous Dixieland horns and if there were lovable, cheeky Southern black sharecroppers born within the sound of Bow Bells then the Cockney voicings of “Hello! Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend” seem determined to prove that this is not merely careless thinking. Still more nauseating are the occasional uprisings of patently false bonhomie with whoops and cheers reminiscent of an office party where one is clearly being forced to have “fun.” Their “Singin’ In The Rain” is steadily drained of all life, aspiration and water with nauseating dots of “pitter patter” harmonies. As for the concluding “girlie” medley with such items as “Put On Your Ta-Ta Little Girlie” and “Two Little Girls In Blue” – the bluest of veils is best drawn over such affairs.

And yet two songs from this interminable medley of medleys – “I, Yi. Yi, Yi” and “Dry Bones,” the latter of which gets a whole track to itself – play crucial roles in the final episode of The Prisoner (well, the latter does, anyway; the former serves as a nice audiovisual pun to accompany the meltdown of Rover) and I wonder whether McGoohan had the Minstrels at least partially in mind when trying to set so many things right (“Toot Toot Tootsie,” along with Seeger’s “Little Boxes,” was also on the shortlist for songs to be played while 6 walks down the corridor of jukeboxes before McGoohan plumped for “All You Need Is Love”). “Dry Bones,” of course, being about rebirth, not to mention resurrection, not to mention clean slate, the right to embark upon a fresh start without the past tagging you like a can tied to the hind leg of a frightened dog (and all due acknowledgement to Simon Barnes for that metaphor); and so 6/1, 2 and 48 jive around in their truck on the A2 (but weren’t they in North Wales? Forget The Man Who Was Thursday at your peril – “I never knew that we were so close to London ”), absolutely liberated even though they are still, strictly speaking, in a cage.

Then there are the times when the Minstrels break away from possum-eating knees-ups, stop pretending to be someone else and begin to sing music they actually feel. Once again the Stephen Foster medley works well because it is clearly heartfelt and no showbiz is involved; just simple but effective choral work and at least the possibility of there being a lump in the throat – the closing “Swanee River” is done slowly and patiently, with a sadness which may or may not mask defiance. Also surprisingly successful is the “Western Style” cowboy sequence of songs wherein the Minstrels, singing authentically white music, suddenly sound entirely at home and at ease. The opening “Along The Navajo Trail” is a fine ballad reading and even the typical wake-up jumpcut to hoedown is manageable; here there seems genuine gusto (even if still relatively clichéd; “hear that banjo” being duly answered by a banjo, etc., and quite what a Bunny Berigan-esque muted trumpet has to do with barn dances is beyond my ken) and at least a semblance of life. And buried deep in the busy scratch mix towards the end is “Buffalo Gal” and it is impossible not to see a fifteen-year-old Malcolm McLaren taking notes.

This is not the only unexpected trail laid by the record; the album concludes with the old World War I song “Goodbye-ee,” and I note that a not dissimilar version of the same song made the Top 40 towards the end of 1975 under the name 14-18, a pseudonym for the young Pete Waterman (in conjunction with the other Peter Shelley). Curiouser, however, is the album’s colourful inner sleeve, listing other HMV albums the listener might wish to buy; one side is devoted to classical music, whereas the “popular” side advertises, as well as songs from The White Heather Club and Joe Loss’ Come Dancing, records by Ella Fitzgerald, Lloyd Price, Ray Charles and, dominating the list at top left, An Evening With Paul Robeson. Did the success of the Minstrels – over Christmas 1961 they held down both first and second places in the album chart – subsidise the production of the real thing? When one considers that HMV at the time also had the UK rights to the Impulse! Catalogue – so that other 1961 releases would have included Coltrane's Africa/Brass – the mind starts spinning as busily as the inner workings of Number 1’s rocket (to destroy or recreate the world?). Still, the second Minstrels album plays like Village music to which not contributing to “community singing” would doubtless be deemed “unmutual.” When McGoohan becomes himself again, the Beatles start playing. We have, of course, several more steps to take before we reach that door marked “WELL COME,” and they do not all trace as you might expect.