During more years than I care to count as a journalist, there was one thing I could always be sure of. I never knew what I’d be asked to do next. One minute I was interviewing a bloke seven hundred feet down a coal mine. The next I was firing questions at a courtier in Buckingham Palace. (Well, not literally the next minute, but you get the idea.)
The sheer variety of situations that journalists can find themselves in was one of the reasons I decided to make the protagonist in my Crampton of the Chronicle crime mysteries a reporter. Specifically, a crime reporter. I felt that as I’d had a few reporting years under my belt, I would be able to get into character as Colin Crampton and tell his story with a true eye.
But I didn’t bargain for something else. I’d also need to get under the skin of the other characters I wrote about. In the case of some of them, that wasn’t too difficult. Take the irascible news editor Frank Figgis, for instance. He has some of the characteristic of news editors I’ve known. One, in particular!
Other denizens of the Chronicle’s newsroom have taken on the features – delightful and not-so-delightful – of other journalists I’ve worked alongside down the years. But it’s been a tougher task creating other characters and the latest book – The Comedy Club Mystery – provided a particular challenge. Much of the plot centres around the suspicions of whether one of five stand-up comedians murdered a theatrical agent.
I puzzled long and hard on how to build the characters of five entirely different comics and then an idea hit me. The characters of most stand-up comedians come through in their acts. So I decided the book would include an excerpt from the stand-up routine of each of the comedians. Of course, it wasn’t long before I realised I’d just made another rod for my back. However, with a bit of thought, it wasn’t too difficult to create five different excerpts for stand-up comics.
Comic number one is what I call an old-fashioned schmoozer. In the book I call him Ernie Winkle. But he’s the same kind of comic as old troopers from the music halls, like Tommy Trinder or Arthur Askey, who’d entertain an audience with a friendly patter that often included a lot of catch phrases. “You lucky people,” in the case of Trinder, “I thank-you,” with a heavy emphasis on the “I”, in Askey’s case.
Then there was the female comic, in the 1960s often from the north of England, like Hylda Baker. In fact, I’ve made my version – Jessie O’Mara – younger and more overtly feminist than Baker. The feminist movement was stirring in the 1960s. I’ve made O’Mara a Liverpool lass with a strong line in scouse chat.
London’s Windmill Theatre, which featured tableaux of striptease dancers, was open until 1964. There were a lot of comedians – including Harry Secombe and Jimmy Edwards – who started their careers by telling gags between the girls’ performances. My version – Billy Dean – is not a nice man and scrapes the barrel when it comes to dirty jokes.
A special kind of comic in the days of variety theatre was the ventriloquist. The most famous was Peter Brough whose dummy was Archie Andrews. The pair featured in a long-running radio show. (I could never see the point of doing a vent act any more than a juggling act on the radio.) So I’ve created Teddy Hooper and his dummy Percival Plonker who do what used to be called a cross-talk act of quick-fire gags.
Finally, in 1962 BBC TV launched a late-night satire show called That Was The Week That Was. It spawned a growth in stand-up comics who had a contemporary edge to their acts. They were often more concerned about commenting on current affairs than delivering traditional punchlines. My guy is Peter Kitchen.
It took a lot of time to research different stand-up styles and the kind of jokes they told. But it was one of the most entertaining pieces of work I’ve done since I started writing the Crampton series. I hope you enjoy it.
Fully Booked has reviewed several of the
Crampton of The Chronicle mysteries.
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