Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bud Flanagan: In Memoriam



This piece of mine on the late, great, music hall comedian and singer Bud Flanagan, who also sang the signature to Dad's Army, and who died exactly forty years ago this week, appears in the Daily Express.

Our darling bud who kept wartime Britain smiling

He was one half of arguably the most popular double act Britain has ever seen-a partnership whose upbeat songs and gentle humour played an important part in maintaining morale during Britain’s darkest hour in World War Two.

He is also remembered for singing the signature tune to the nation’s best loved - and most enduring comedy series, Dad's Army. And together with his partner Chesney Allen, he was part of the great comedy ensemble, The Crazy Gang, who delighted British audiences for over thirty years.

When the entertainer Bud Flanagan died exactly forty years ago this week, on 20th October 1968, he was mourned by the whole of Britain.

“He had an individual charisma that was beyond pinning down. He just had something you can't bottle, as anyone who saw him live will confirm” says one committed fan.

Bud Flanagan’s life story is a remarkable one.

Flanagan- whose real name was Chaim Reuben Weintrop (he later changed it to Robert Winthrop), was born in 1896 in the East End of London to Polish Jewish immigrant parents- who had fled the anti-Jewish pogroms of Tsarist Russia. He began his lifelong association with the world of entertainment at the tender age of ten, when he became a call-boy at the Cambridge Music Hall. Two years later, he made his theatrical debut in a talent contest, performing conjuring tricks as Fargo, The Boy Wizard.

Flanagan was born with a sense of adventure and was keen to see the world. At the age of thirteen he gained free passage on a ship sailing for America by claiming he could cook- it soon became clear that he had no culinary talent whatsoever. In America his grand plan was to box as ‘Luke McGlook of England’. But his boxing proved no more successful than his cooking- he was K.O’d in his only fight. In America, Flanagan worked as a Western Union messenger, a worker in a feather duster factory and a newspaper seller- and appeared on stage in New York.

In 1915 however he returned to Britain to fight for King and country in the First World War. The war was to prove a turning point in his life. His Sergeant-Major in the Royal Field Artillery in Flanders was called Flanagan- providing Winthrop with the name he would use for his stage performances. And it was in a café in Flanders that he first met the man with whom he was to forge a lifelong friendship and who was to become his professional comedy partner- Chesney Allen.

It was still a while though before the men were to form the double act which made them both world famous. Flanagan, having failed to achieve much success in the theatre after being demobbed, was working as a taxi driver when he got the call to appear in the show of the legendary music hall singer Florrie Ford. The ‘straight man‘ in the show was Chesney Allen, who was also Forde‘s manager. Flanagan and Allen were not an overnight success- they even considered quitting the theatre altogether to become bookmakers.

Their big break came when the leading impresario Val Parnell saw them perform and booked them to play at London’s Holborn Empire. After that Flanagan and Allen never looked back. Their routine, which included jokes, mixed with quick-fire repartee and tuneful, sentimental songs, proved a huge hit with audiences. While Ches played the straight man, serious, sober and reproaching, Bud was the irrepressible child-like clown, with the wide cheeky grin.

Their jokes stand the test of time. In one classic sketch, Bud and Ches are walking past a grand hotel. As Bud lights up yet another cigar, Ches says to him 'Do you know Bud, I've calculated that if you had never smoked you'd have saved enough money to buy this hotel". Bud replies "Do you smoke, Ches". "I've never smoked, Bud" "Do you own this hotel?". "No"."Well, shut up then".

Dressed in battered top hats and ragged clothes, Flanagan and Allen’s stage persona as two likeable down and outs struck a chord with audiences during the harsh Depression years of the 1930s. The pair’s famous signature tune ’Underneath the Arches’ told of enduring friendship in harsh times and was written by Flanagan himself. Flanagan and Allen also performed as members of the hugely popular comedy troupe The Crazy Gang, along with high-wire act Nervo and Knox, comedians Naughton and Gold, and comedy juggler, ‘Monsewer’ Eddie Grey. Among the Crazy Gang’s biggest fans was the Royal Family- and in particular King George VI, the Queen’s father, who invited the troupe to play at Buckingham Palace.

The outbreak of World War Two saw Flanagan and Allen’s popularity rise still further. Their cheerful, upbeat songs such as 'Run, Rabbit, Run' and ‘Hang Up the Washing on the Siegfried Line‘ became huge hits and did much to boost morale. In fact, ‘Run, Rabbit Run‘ was the favourite song of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1941, along with other members of The Crazy Gang, they appeared in the film ’Gasbags’ in which they cheerfully defied the Nazis.

Sadly, Flanagan’s partnership with Allen ended in 1945 due to the latter’s poor health, although they did appear together in several reunions, including at Royal Variety Performances. Flanagan continued to keep busy; appearing on stage with The Crazy Gang, and in films, radio and later on television. In 1960, he was awarded the OBE. Two years later, after 15 years playing two shows a day, The Crazy Gang gave their last performance at the Victoria Palace. There was hardly a dry eye in the house. In an interview he gave at the time, Flanagan expressed his fear that tastes in humour were changing. “Tastes have changed so much in entertainment that I’ve begun to feel old-fashioned. The funny thing is that we are still doing the same stuff we started with and the public who come to see us still love it. Yet outside the Crazy Gang that material doesn’t mean much anymore”.

Times certainly were changing. The 1960s saw the rise of a new generation of middle-class university educated performers whose comedy was more satirical- and some would say nastier- than the gentle humour of Bud Flanagan.

Flanagan had a long and happy marriage to Anne, but his life was not without tragedy. The death of his beloved son Buddy, of leukaemia affected him deeply, and in his will he endowed The Bud Flanagan Leukaemia Fund- in an attempt to find a cure for the disease.

In 1968, a swansong. Jimmy Perry, creator of a new BBC comedy series called Dad’s Army had co-written a signature tune for the series entitled ‘Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler‘? To his great joy Bud Flanagan agreed to record it. Shortly afterwards, Flanagan suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 72.

At his memorial service, fellow comedian Charlie Chester paid Flanagan a generous tribute. “No artist born was more loved by his brothers. No man gave more in human happiness”.

Bud Flanagan may have been a rotten ship’s cook and a poor boxer- but he possessed the greatest talent of all- of being able to make people smile.

4 comments:

Isa said...

Thanks, that was a nice lookback at his life. I bought "Who do you think you're kidding, Mr Hitler?" off iTunes recently. Remembered it as the soundtrack to Dad's Army from when i was a kid and wondered who Bud Flanagan was.

Anonymous said...

I wish he was around today as I never saw him live - what a talent.

Frank said...

Just a lovely man. I found a batterd copy of his autobiograhy in a second hand book shop. He went around the whole world as a merchant seaman long before tourism and fought at the bloody Pachendale in the trenches and hardly made much mention of it. He enlisted in Birmingham so he could show up at home in uniform. He once walked from London to Glasgow to appear in a show - no cars in those days and no money for the train. It took him six weeks so he really knew what it was like to sleep "underneath the arches". He should have been knighted. I have played Flanagan and Allen songs over and over to my kids who know most of the words and also have seen the photgraphs. My Mum and Dad loved them.God Bless Flanagan and Allen. Frank

John Gibson said...

God Bless you uncle Bud and aunt Curly.