Starburst Memories: She knows you know

arthur_and_hylda

Part of my nostalgic affection for GREASE (1978)  is related to the comedy version of You’re The One That I Want by Hylda Baker and Arthur Mullard. He was a comedy cockney who made his name on the quiz program Celebrity Squares (recently revived with Warwick Davies hosting) and the sit-coms Romany Jones and Yus My Dear. He was an idiot. Hylda Baker on the other hand, was a comedy genius.

The performance that they gave on Top of The Pops is often shown as ‘one of the worst of all time’ as the two aging comics stumble their way through the performance. The record hit number 20 in 1978 as was one of my favourites, I played it constantly, for I was an Hylda Baker fan-boy.

She was born 4th February 1905, in Farnworth, Bolton, only streets away from where I was born. From an early age she was an essential part of my formative relationship with humour, she had the tone and delivery of my Grandma, which probably explains why I enjoyed watching her so much. Her television career began with her appearances on The God Old Days where she would recreate the act that she toured around Music Halls in the 1930s and 40s. Her character was based on the community gossip, telling tales to the audience through her silent stooge ‘Cynthia’ played by a man in drag (Matthew Kelly famously worked with her). She was a great physical comic, using her height (she was just under 5 foot tall) and her energy to tell stories peppered with her catchphrases, double entendre and Malapropisms.

Many of her catchphrases still survive, even if people don’t realise their origin, such as; “what time is it, quarter to, I must get a little hand for this watch,” “she knows you know,” and “you big girl’s blouse!” The act was horned touring the country’s music halls from the age of 11. Her dad was a painter and part time performer before he had a nasty accident that affected his mental capacity. She worked hard on the variety scene for many years seeking her big break and the fame that she craved. There was a time in the 50’s when she despaired of ever getting recognition. Before hitting the big time on television she’d given up on show business and opened a chip shop in Farnworth, but she returned and success on television made her a huge star and she was in big demand for the summer specials in Blackpool and Morecambe. When she became a house-hold name, she enjoyed the trappings of fame, surrounding herself with young men, dressing in the finest fur and having a pet monkey. The monkey once ate all of her stage makeup and, as a result, decorated the dressing room while she was on stage.

I remember her from the seventies when she appeared in NEAREST AND DEAREST alongside the comic Jimmy Jewel, who she held in thinly disguised contempt. She was Nellie Pledge, a pickle factory owner, and Jewel was her feckless brother. Most of the comedy revolved around sibling conflict and her desire to find true love. The Hammer Studios made a film of NEAREST AND DEAREST (1972) that I watched aged 8, at the Scarborough Odeon, in a double bill with THE LIKELY LADS (1976), and thinking that it was the funniest film I’d ever seen. I still think that it has some real moments of grotesque comic observation that has informed the likes of The League of Gentlemen and Peter Kay’s Brian Potter.

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My signed copy of Jean Fergusson’s authoritative book. Notice Hylda’s time-saving autograph stamp.

As well as the TV spin-off, there were a couple of earlier films that were a vehicle for her act such as SHE KNOWS YOU KNOW (1962), which the BFI describes very bleakly as a ‘low-comedy’. She also small, yet significant roles in some of the major British films of the era. She played a back-street abortionist in UP THE JUNCTION (1968) and feisty Aunt Eda in SATURDAY NIGHT, SUNDAY MORNING (1960). However, my favourite is her interpretation of Mrs Sowerberry in Carol Reed’s film adaptation of the musical OLIVER! (1968) as she brings real character within the brief appearance that she makes: inspecting Oliver’s teeth before accepting him as an apprentice mourner for  funerals of children.

In 1996, I travelled to the Edinburgh Festival to see Jean Fergusson’s ‘one woman’ play She Knows You Know before it transferred to London, and a nationwide tour (including the Bolton Octagon). Better known for her performance as Marina in the long-running sit com Last of Summer Wine, she became interested in Hylda thanks to comparisons that audiences were making with her performance. The play, in the form of a soliloquy from Baker, was great at reviving the comedy routines that had made her famous, but the play is an enthralling tragedy of loneliness, exploring Hlyda’s self-made isolation from the rest of show business. By all accounts she was jealous, demanding and a perfectionist who gave her fellow performers a hard time. Fergusson’s version is one of a feisty woman in a man’s world, making sure she got was due to her. Following an accident on set during the filming of Not On Your Nellie (the sit-com follow up to Nearest and Dearest) she was never the same again. During the recording of these shows she was depending on cue-cards as she was unable to retain her lines. Later, she was diagnosed with dementia, probably brought on by Alzheimer’s disease.

Her last days were spent in The Entertainment Artists’ Benevolent Home. When she died in 1986 only 12 people attended her funeral. She was known and loved by millions, but her illness and attitude towards people closest to her had resulted in isolation and loneliness, the condition that she wished to avoid more than anything.

There’s something tragic about watching the stumbling performance on Top of The Pops. She forgets the words. Looks out of sorts. A pale shadow of her former self. At her peak is was a sparky, smart and memorable comedy genius. I like to remember her in all her glory. She was one of Britain’s greatest comedians … and I can say that without fear of contraception.

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