My grandmother was a singer in variety shows. She performed just after the war with a man who went on to become of the forgotten heroes of Northern Irish comedy; Jackie Wright. We’d meet him in the street sometimes, a small, bald-headed, gummy man with a high-pitched, throaty voice. I’d cringe with embarrassment. Because I’d have last seen him with his head between the breasts of a buxom nurse, or trying to peer up a mini-skirt. I would have been around ten years old at the time, and found it an excruciating idea that my grandmother might be talking to someone who had even come close to thinking about any of these experiences. Jackie Wright was Benny Hill’s stooge. He was the slaphead whose head got slapped.
It was never apparent from watching Benny Hill that Jackie Wright was from Belfast, because he never said anything on the Benny Hill Show that I can remember. Things just happened to him for most of the programme. Rarely has a comedy team been so utterly one sided. Along with Benny and Jackie there was Henry McGee. Henry occasionally played parts which involved some kind of authority – a policemen or a bank clerk. But he was English. In retrospect, Jackie had a curiously anarchic yet metaphysically intriguing part in the whole set-up. It’s a bit hazy now, and I’ve no intention of ever seeing another Benny Hill Show if I can help it. But in my memory, Jackie never played a role in which he neither had a job nor even much of a reason for being in a sketch at all (he might have been a zookeeper once, I think). He just followed a randomly salacious path laid out for him by Benny. Or rather, he was usually a kind randy John the Baptist preparing the way for Benny’s ‘comic genius’. And then he had to do that speeded up, saucy, seaside-postcard chase scene at the end. The curious thing for me about all this was that both my very kindly and staid grandparents watched this nonsense with the pride of knowing Jackie. Jackie was talked of as a man of talent. Talked of as if he had always been destined for great things. And there he was getting slapped to prove that thespian Belfast had something to offer London Weekend Television. I was unsure of the depth of Jackie’s talent, even at a young age, until one Sunday I was watching the Benny Hill Show in my grandparent’s house. Jackie, who I’d seen just before the ad break, up to some caper as the backend of a pantomime horse, with Benny at the front, walked past the front window and waved in cheerily to my grandparents. This extraordinary dual presence on a Belfast Sunday converted me to his talents.
My education in Belfast’s comedy history was only beginning. My grandmother had also worked with ‘Jimmy’. That is, of course, James Young. Because of James Young I was under the impression for many years that ‘Cherryvalley’ was a probably a fictional place , or that if it wasn’t it was some decent area of Belfast that we never went to. Most of the adults in my family could never say the word ‘Cherryvalley’ with a straight face. Usually they couldn’t even get to the end of saying ‘Cherryvalley’ – laughter took over as they imagined themselves transfigured into James Young’s posh lady from Cherryvalley. It was a Belfast equivalent of saying ‘dead parrot’. James Young was played repeatedly in the house. His comedy routines were my history lesson into a pre-Troubles Belfast. Recently a friend of mine doing research on transvestite and gay comics in Ireland asked to get him a set of James Young CDs. I was momentarily confused, and couldn’t immediately see why he’d be interested in James Young. I’d never really noticed that he was most usually a man in skirts. The penny dropped eventually. Listening to those CDs now is certainly funny at times, but also a little melancholy. There’s a whole theatrical tradition in James Young’s comedy which has since died – those awful, heavily rhymed, often deeply sincere poems, for example. In those he’s a man doing a turn rather than being a comedian. Yet there’s still a real pleasure to be had in hearing that sketch where Mr Thompson, the Orangeman, has to go to work in Dublin on the Twelfth of July. I only realised listening to it again that Young was using one of the great comic Northern Irish plays from the early twentieth century as his model: Gerald McNamara’s Thompson in Tir-Na-Nog. In Young’s sketch, Mr Thompson finds out, in discussion with his Dublin landlady, that the Battle of the Boyne was actually fought on 1st July 1690, but that the date was later adjusted to the Gregorian calendar by eleven days. As Mr Thompson says, more or less: ‘Do you mean to tell me that the Battle of the Boyne was the 1st of July but we march on the Twelfth because the Pope says so’. And so he’s glad to be in Dublin to miss ‘that Papish festival’. Heartwarming and more or less satiric at the same time, James Young could do no wrong in our house. Now the realisation that my grandmother had worked with the man who was right-hand slap-head to Britain’s crassest comedian, and with one of the few transvestites to get paid for it in post-war Belfast, only increases the fondness of the memories.
And the fondness is further increased because the comedy gets worse after that. There seemed to be little enough mainstream humour around in the eighties and nineties. There was the execrable ‘So You Think You’ve Got Troubles’, with the otherwise out-of-work Warren Mitchell. By that time even British TV audiences had stopped laughing at Alf Garnett. ‘So You Think You’ve Got Troubles’ was bad. The only thing that’s really funny about it and our only proudly, properly indigenous ‘Give My Head Peace’ is that they seem to be still using the interior sets from the BBC versions of the Billy Plays, with little Kenneth Branagh and Jimmy Ellis. I can never watch an episode of ‘Give My Head Peace’ without hoping for Billy to waltz in, chin thrust out, leather jacket swaying in the breeze.
But my candidate for worst and most extraordinary moment in Belfast comedy goes to a more obscure outfit – Clubsound (yes, George Jones’s old ‘band’). In the family vaults we have a 45 of their song, which I assume is meant to be amusing, entitled ‘Belfast, Belfast’. If you’re brave and bold, you can find it, I believe, on a CD called The Very Best of Clubsound (I know, the ‘very’ best). ‘Belfast, Belfast’ is sung in a fake Indian accent. A recent immigrant from the Indian sub-continent celebrates Belfast, has a run-in with Gerry Fitt, and is accused of being drunk by Ian Paisley. For a living he sells, try to contain yourselves now, ‘lucky knickers in red, white and blue’. And he loves Belfast: ‘Belfast, Belfast, a wonderful town/ It doesn’t matter if your skin is brown/ Belfast, Belfast, I love you/ If you’re out of work you can get the broo’ [that’s unemployment benefit, by the way]. Oh dear. If you listen to it, follow it up with a good dose of James Young, three times a day for a week. And then watch every Eddie Izzard DVD you can get your hands on.
[The Vacuum, May 2005]