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The Comedy of Errors

Turned Out Nice Again

20 July 15 words: Deborah Tyler-Bennett
"I wanted to write something set in Nottinghamshire where I grew up, where Mum had told me stories about trips to Variety to see comedians like Max Miller"
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Turned Out Nice Again: Deborah Tyler-Bennert

The book tells the story, via a sequence of short fictions, of Beryl Potter and her family.  Beryl, banned from the music hall by her Mum who wants her to be ladylike, is growing up in wartime Mansfield and fantasising about the increasingly famous double-act of her Uncle, Billy Bean and his comedy partner, Courtney Cooper. A family tragedy throws Beryl into Billy’s world of touring to entertain troops, workers and the millions like us who want great hard-earned nights out and an assurance that one day life will turn out nice again.

Characters filling the book include Beryl’s Grandwem Win and her budgie, George Formby, as well as successful and less glittering variety acts such as performing birds, impressionists on the slide, and naked statuettes. Other stories include interludes by performers looking back, newspaper cuttings, and the tale of a suitcase murderer preying on war-darkened seaside towns.

The book really came about because I wanted to write something set in Nottinghamshire where I grew up, and where Mum had told me stories about trips to Variety to see comedians like Max Miller; I’m now a member of the Max Miller Appreciation Society. When I was a kid, older generations were always singing and whistling Variety songs, and I loved to hear them.  I guess the book celebrates that, and goes with the idea that no one really has an ordinary life.

Extract, from the opening story ‘Introducing George Formby’:

Introducing George Formby

Not the film star …

                              Banjulele player …

                                                          Cheeky cheery northerner …

Rather, our budgie - Grandwem’s to be precise.  Who couldn’t clean windows (for obvious reasons) but was renowned for slaughtering a few bars of Leaning on the Lamp-post.  Well, at least that’s what Shirl claimed. 

‘Georgie’s a clever boy.  Who’s the brightest budgie in the cage?’  She’d trill, making her devilled-lips a perfect bow.  ‘Georgie’s a clever boy … brightest budgie in the cage.  Go on!  Bloody say it then!’ 

To be accurate, Georgie was the only budgie in the cage, after his partner, Fat Edna, named after Old Lass Byars down the street, had done away with herself by flying into a window. 

‘She were mental day’t she were bought ‘om,’ Grandwem opined.  ‘And poor Georgie’s a widower, say it, Georgie’s a widower.’

‘Have a pint, Win,’ he seemed to trill, ‘and bogger Hitler.’

‘Shirley, have you been teaching that poor little sod obscenities again?’  Grandwem’d laugh.

‘Typical,’ Mum would snort to no one in particular, ‘now he can be as crude as the rest of us.’

Mum’s opinions on the Bean and Potter families, post Dad, post Shirl’s husband, Kenny, both killed in North Africa, wasn’t high. She wanted me to be a lady, rising above Grandwem’s accent, above Shirl’s flaming lips, definitely above having a pint and boggering Hitler.  ‘No wonder Georgie’s lady friend went spare,’ she’d hiss, pulling my hair into recalcitrant curls. ‘It’s been a madhouse since your poor Dad.’

Fat Edna went doolally shortly after she was brought home. A few struts then she began head-butting the cage. Released, she flew straight into the parlour window and that, as the bloke said, was that. ‘Not bloke,’ Mum would have it, ‘but gentleman.’ Well, as the gent said, after a few minutes, Grandwem picked up the inert budgie by one leg, declaring Edna ‘for’t compost.’ For once, Mum hadn’t disagreed. 

George Formby didn’t seem to mind, happily uttering a note sounding strangely like the bollocks that Norrie, Grandwem’s surviving brother, used to come out with whenever Mum said something disparaging about Uncle Billy’s Variety career.  Not that we saw Norrie often or, for that matter, Uncle Billy.  In fact, until I was thirteen, Uncle Billy remained as exotic to me as Casablanca. Far off as my dead Dad.

Ironic, but if you asked, I could to this day describe George Formby down to the black skin-flap that protruded over one of his talons, but Dad? Kenny?  Two slick-haired men. I know Mum resented them both dying so young, and Billy being invalided-out early with what seemed barely a scratch. Billy’s return to Variety seemed beyond the pale to her.

‘He’s just messing,’ she’d say, lips tightened to almost nowt. Even when Dad was alive, Mum saw Variety as a waste of adult time.  No matter her brother was near topping the bill.  No sweat he’d teamed up with Courtney ‘The City Gent’ Cooper, to form ‘Cooper and Bean: The Boys Most Likely To.’ Courtney Cooper, so famous he was almost Max Miller.  To Mum, especially during wartime, and despite the fact Cooper and Bean had both been invalided out early, with honours, variety was timAe wasting on a heroic scale.  Someone, she thought, ought to put a stop to it.    

Turned Out Nice Again – Stories Inspired by the Music Hall Tradition by Deborah Tyler-Bennett (Huddersfield: King’s England Press), £10.99

King's England Press website

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