IN the late 1970s my younger sister Jill, a dancer, joined the pantomime cast of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in beautiful downtown Barnsley. The star was Charlie Williams, a black former footballer with strong Yorkshire accent who regularly appeared on ITV’s The Comedians, often telling racist jokes. Quite what role he played I have been unable to discover. Definitely not Snow White.
My sister discovered that the little people in the show were a mixture of dwarfs and midgets, the latter of whom considered themselves superior to the former. One of the dwarfs, whose name was Fred, took an immediate fancy to Jill.
With the company having Christmas Day off, Jill drove home to Nelson for lunch. Feeling sorry for Fred, who said he would be spending the day alone, she invited him along.
Meeting my parents and myself, he told us that he had appeared in many films including Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which he played an oompa loompa, although panto was his main source of income. On a pre-prandial visit to the pub he insisted on paying his round, folding a five-pound note into a paper aeroplane and flying it up to the barman.
My maternal grandfather, who lived across the road alone following the death of my grandmother, came round for the meal and started visibly when he saw Fred. He couldn’t take his eyes off him, gawping open-mouthed at this minor apparition.
As the meal progressed he kept shaking his head. Eventually he felt compelled to speak.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘when I got up this morning I never imagined I’d be having Christmas dinner with a dwaaaarf.’ Fred replied: ‘And I never thought I’d be having Christmas dinner with a rude old codger.’ Thankfully, everyone laughed and the awkward moment passed.
On their return to Barnsley, Fred, despite being at least 20 years older than Jill, got down on one knee and asked her to be his bride. She rejected him as tactfully as possible. He responded by going out on a bender.
As the audience arrived for the next performance of Snow White, they were greeted by the sight of Fred, clearly refreshed as a newt. He staggered on to the stage with an armful of programmes, which he proceeded to tear up and hurl into the crowd while employing every swearword in his vocabulary. Eventually the police arrived and carried him away.
Having sobered up, Fred faced Barnsley magistrates and admitted a charge of being drunk and disorderly. He was fined and returned to the theatre to find he had been sacked and Snow White would have to make do with six dwarfs.
The following morning, there was a page lead about Fred’s escapade in the Daily Mirror, which had been supplied with the story by a local freelance reporter.
The headline: ‘Little Man, You’ve Had a Dizzy Day’.
Footnote: The only dwarf to be executed in Britain for murder was from Nelson. Max Mayer Haslem was hanged in Strangeways Prison in 1937 after battering an elderly woman to death for her money. You can read the ‘grizzly’ story here.
A toast to Keith Floyd
USUALLY I avoid best-sellers but I fell for the rave reviews of Stanley Tucci’s memoir Taste. By and large it proved a disappointment because apart from being a foodie and author, Italian-American Tucci is an act-or and therefore a luvvie. So whenever he mentions his fellow thesps, which is often, it is always in glowing terms. I’m really not interested in hearing what a nice guy Johnny Celebrity is; the hack in me wants an author to dish the dirt.
However it was worth reading the book for one reason – Tucci’s praise for the great British cook, traveller and drinker Keith Floyd. I had been unaware that all of Floyd’s series are available on YouTube and it has been a great joy revisiting them.
Keith was born in Berkshire in 1943 and grew up in the Somerset town of Wiveliscombe. His family were working-class and had a council house but they made financial sacrifices to give him a private education at Wellington School.
After a short spell as a cub reporter and three years in the Royal Tank Regiment, he joined the catering business and within a few years had opened several of his own restaurants, all of which went belly-up. He was a better cook than businessman.
After publishing a book, Floyd’s Food, he became resident chef on Radio West, an independent station in Bristol. This led to a gig on the BBC West regional magazine show RPM and then in 1984 to his first national TV show, Floyd on Fish.
From the beginning it was obvious to viewers that this was no ordinary celebrity chef-cum-travel presenter.
Until Floyd, a typical scene would begin with a family hearing a knock on the door and answering it to find, surprise surprise, the star of the show waiting there to introduce himself. Yet the fact that a camera team was already in their house, filming from the inside, would, you might have thought, have alerted them to the fact that Michael Palin or whoever else was on his way. That plus the rehearsals. This conceit is sadly still a feature of many modern documentaries.
By contrast our Keith revelled in breaking the mould. The more chaotic the scenario the better – for example frying fish on a trawler in a gale with of course a glass of something alcoholic in hand. While his contemporaries pretended the TV crew did not exist, Floyd addressed the cameraman by name, saying: ‘Come on, Vlad, get a decent shot of this.’
Floyd on Fish paved the way for countless more series without scripts in which he cemented his reputation as a TV natural, completely unfazed by the camera. There were spin-off books aplenty plus others such as Floyd on Hangovers, a subject close to his heart.
His private life was as disorderly as his programmes – four broken marriages, drink-driving bans, life-threatening illnesses and even treatment for malnutrition. He died in 2009, aged 65.
One uncharitable obituarist opined that Floyd had ‘no outstanding talent, either as a cook or as a TV presenter, no great knowledge of his subject, or any apparent passion for anything but drink. This is not to say that his first TV programmes were bad – they were, indeed, highly diverting entertainment.’
The chef Marco Pierre White was more generous, saying: ‘The thing which is very sad is a little piece of Britain today died which will never be replaced. He was a beautiful man, his ability to inspire people to cook just with his words and the way he did things was extraordinary. If you look at TV chefs today they don’t have his magic.’
Old jokes’ home
‘A cowboy asked me if I could help him round up 18 cows. I said, “Yes, of course. That’s 20 cows”.’
A PS from PG
The real objection to the great majority of cats is their insufferable air of superiority. Cats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods. This makes them too prone to set themselves up as critics and censors of the frail and erring human beings whose lot they share.
PG Wodehouse: Mulliner Nights